Embu & Mbeere - agriculture... and famine

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The high, fertile slopes of Mount Kenya are ill-suited to animal herding, so agriculture is the primary means of sustenance for the Embu, with both food crops and cash crops such as pyrethrum (for pesticides), rice, coffee and tea being grown. Fermented porridges of maize, millet or sorghum are occasionally eaten, particularly by young children. As throughout Kenya, maize has replaced the traditional use of millet and sorghum as the staple food, which gives higher yields at the risk of totally failed crops in times of drought... Cow peas and other vegetables, banana and papaya are also grown.
   The Mbeere depend more on cattle and goats, and bee-keeping - which is characteristic of the indigenous hunter-gatherer groups - is also important. Cultivation in areas which permit it consists of cash crops such as tobacco and cotton, and food crops such as maize, some millet, cassava, beans, peas and bananas.

Embu woman harvesting rice
Embu couple picking coffee
Embu woman digging yams


Despite the relatively high rainfalls and fertile soil, the Embu area is nonetheless subject to drought every 5-8 years, which may be linked to the recurring El Niño effect. The more marginal lands of the Mbeere are even more prone to drought and famine, during which time they traditionally traded goats and skins with the Embu in return for food.
   Needless to say, until the white man came first with flour and more recently with international aid (which in part explains the ease with which the Embu have been able to embrace the white man's religion, for example), the famines were often real catastrophes, leading to sudden and massive depopulation. The effect of this was more subtle than you'd imagine, for it led to the Embu especially becoming very open to change and influences from outside. They were also open to 'adopting' people from other tribes who for whatever reason wanted to break with their former identities. This explains why the Kiembu language has so many elements of Kimeru and Kikamba
   Particularly bad famines were given names based on some aspect of their cause or effect, and have passed into oral tradition. Among the memorable ones were:

NVARAGANU, which was the first famine in Embu. It was caused by drought and locusts, and the name means 'the annihilator'.

KIBATAU was another due to drought and locusts. It began in Meru and came to Embu where the Meru had taken nearly all the food. This famine caused many Meru to come to Embu, and they became Embu. After Kibatau, people started eating sweet potatoes and very small roots (mirikothe) to survive.

KAVOVO was one of the earliest that people can remember, and was so called because people hated each other terribly because of the scarcity of food. It was caused by lack of rain.

KITHIORO ('twist' or 'twisted') occurred around 1917-18, at the time when the British were building the road from Meru to Embu. Some people say that the name came about because people had lied and 'twisted' each other for food. Others say that the name came from the corners of the road which the people built for the British in return for maize flour. Despite the flour, famine corpses lined the road, and many people fled elsewhere, some ending-up being sold as slaves to the Kikuyu. The famine started in Meru, and was caused by drought, locusts, and a lack of cultivators due to the First World War, as many Embu men had been conscripted to fight the Germans along the present-day border with Tanzania.

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