Embu & Mbeere - History
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Origins of the Embu
Origins of the Mbeere
Why the Mbeere split from the Embu
Embu oral history stretches back to around the sixteenth century, when their ancestors - together with those of the Chuka, Kikuyu, Ndia, and possibly those of the Mbeere and Meru people - began moving south from Igembe and Tigania in the Nyambene Hills in the northeast of Mount Kenya. Other sources speculate that the area from which they came was much further north, in present-day Ethiopia, and is referred to as Tuku or Uru in oral history.
They subsequently intermarried with the Thagicu people and settled around Ithanga Hill to the south of Mount Kenya. Famine pushed them off, and so from Ithanga they moved to their present locations.
It seems likely that other groups of people coming later from different directions also joined the Embu; oral tradition is somewhat muddled on this aspect, and holds that one group came from Weru direction near Mwea in the south, and that another - if not all the tribe - came from the "Indian Ocean where originally every tribe lived. Some day, all the tribes moved across the ocean and came to settle in their present area - the Kamba, Giriama, Nyika, Digo and Mbeere, and Kikuyu." (Mwaniki). There's also a connection with a place called Uvariri which is in present-day Mbeere territory in the foothills of the Kiangombe Hills, a place where witchcraft came from, and where a famous witchcraft family still lives today.
The confusion might be explained by one elder quoted by Mwaniki, who said "of course when the Europeans asked where we came from we came from we lied because they would have displaced us and told them that we came from Irimba (the reeds) and Kembu."
What is certainly accepted by all is that Ndega is the ancestral name of the Embu community, after the first Embu ancestor who was called Mwene-Ndega. He lived in a grove (wood) known by his name, which is now near Runyenjes town, but no one knows where he came from, or when he settled in his grove. He took a wife whom he named Nthara. (Click here for a story concerning the Origins of Ndega's Grove).
Their first two children were a boy named Kembu and a girl named Werimba, although there's confusion about whether she was Kembu's sister or daughter. Whatever, the two committed incest and were expelled from their forest home, so they settled near Karungu where they lived as man and wife. Other daughters of Mwene-Ndega and Nthara, and those of Kembu and Werimba, married and established homes throughout Embu country. Their descendants became known as the children of Kembu, or Embu for short. The importance of daughters would suggest that society was originally matriarchal.
Most written sources say that the origins of the Mbeere were the same as for the Bantu-speaking Kikuyu, Embu, Chuka and Meru peoples, namely that their ancestors moved eastwards from central Africa some time before the sixteenth century, and had settled in the Nyambene Hills. From there, say the same sources, the people moved slowly southwards into the foothills of Mount Kenya, where they settled and gradually acquired their present-day tribal identities.
Well, that's the anthropological theory, for what it's worth. In fact, some Mbeere elders believe quite the contrary, stating that some if not all of the Mbeere's ancestors came from the east, from the direction of Mombasa on the coast, which ties-in with some of the traditions relating to the Embu mentioned above. All four Mbeere elders interviewed by H.S. Kabeca Mwaniki were unanimous that the Mbeere and Embu were once one people. This is strongly indicated by Mbeere oral history, which also includes the Embu ancestor Kembu (they call him Muembu). The twist, though, is that his mother - whom the Embu call Nthara - was called Cianthiga, and was herself the daughter of someone called Mumbeere, or Mbeere. This would indicate that the two tribes are not only related, but that the Mbeere could in fact be considered ancestors of the Embu. This would certainly explain their close and amicable ties, which have persisted to the present-day.
Oral history has it that the Mbeere were forced to split from the Embu following a dispute which came about during a mock battle in which the two peoples honed their skills. Instead of swords, they used fighting sticks, but one fateful day, some Mbeere decided to use real swords, and ended up killing and injuring several Embu warriors. As a result, they were expelled, and were forced to settle in the less fertile Kiangombe Hills. Another version of the same story, recounted by elder quoted by Ciarunji Chesaina, says: "Now the Embu used to beat the Mbeere very often. A Mbeere person could not utter a word when an Embu person was talking. There were even times when an Embu person could eat food while a Mbeere was just watching and only gave him some when he himself was full. Mbeere people had nicknamed Embu people, "The Clan of Rebels" because of their stubbornness, while the Embu had nicknamed the Mbeere, "The Clan of Famine" because of their being denied food. Now, one time, Embu and Mbeere made a date to fight and finish all their conflicts. Now on the day of the fight Mbeere brought sticks as their weapons while Embu brought swords disguised as sticks. The war which was fought! The Mbeere were beaten! The Embu pushed the Mbeere until Kiethiga, while the Embu went to live in Muthiru. That is when the Mbeere started to live in the sandy land where crops cannot grow, while the Embu built their homes near the forest on productive land."
Yet another story says the reason for the split was that an Embu man eloped with the daughter of an Mbeere man called Cianthiga, and had to flee from the wrath of the girl's father. The man and Cianthiga eventually settled at Ndega's Grove, for the man was none other than Mwene-Ndega, the father of all Embu people.
Despite being related to the other peoples around Mount Kenya, relations with their neighbours have been far from peaceful, and the Embu have fought the Chuka, Kikuyu, Maasai and Kamba. The interaction with the Maasai nonetheless brought new influences to bear on Embu/Mbeere culture, and is believed to be the reason for the latter adopting the tradition of circumcision.
The story of the fight against the Kamba at Kararari is a popular one. The Kamba were at that time suffering a famine in their homeland of the Ukambani Hills, and came to sack the smaller and weaker Mbeere. Women and livestock were taken, huts were burned, and as the Mbeere could not even approach the Kamba for their arrows, they abandoned their land and fled to the Embu.
Encouraged by the rout, the Kamba began pushing into Embu territory, but at a place called Kathunguri, their camp was besieged by the Embu. The Kamba shot furiously, but the Embu placed their shields on the ground to form a 'wall of shields'.
To break the stand-off, the Embu called for rain: chewing sodom apples, they shouted 'it's water, it's water!' to the Kamba. To their aid came a heavy downpour, so heavy that it made the Kamba's bow-strings so slippery that they could not shoot any longer. The Embu advanced towards the defenceless Kamba and cut them down with swords, spears and clubs. Then came cries of 'nie nii kibeti' from some of the warriors, which meant 'we are women!'. This was the Kamba way of surrendering, and those who cried out were captured instead of killed. Those who managed to escape were chased by the Embu until they crossed the Thagana River. The defeat was so great that this was the first and only time that the Kamba ever considered attacking the Embu.
The battle would appear to have taken place relatively recently: An elder in 1969 said that there might still be one or two survivors of the battle left alive.