Embu & Mbeere - Introduction
|I am particularly indebted to H.S. Kabeca Mwaniki's excellent and encyclopaedic book "Embu Historical Texts" (1974: East African Literature Bureau, Nairobi) for much of the information presented about both the Embu and Mbeere. The book consists of edited transcripts of interviews conducted between 1969 and 1971 with about thirty Embu, Mbeere, Chuka and Ndia/Gigucu elders.
Also outstanding is Ciarunji Chesaina's "Oral Literature of the Embu and Mbeere" (1997: East African Educational Publishers, Nairobi), which contains a veritable treasure of stories, fables, riddles, songs and proverbs.
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Facts & Figures
I have decided to cover both the Embu and related Mbeere in the same section, on the simple grounds that they have so much in common. They have peacefully co-existed for centuries, they cooperate and mutually assist each other, have common ancestors and share many traditions, rituals and oral histories. As the proverb goes, Mwana ti wa muciari umwe - a child does not belong to one parent!
Despite speaking a Bantu language (Bantu came from central Africa), the agricultural Embu and Mbeere are one of the few Kenyan peoples whose oral traditions seem to locate their origins within Kenya, in fact very close to their present location to the southeast of Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya). Tradition also speaks of a time when they were hunter-gatherers and used to live in "caves", meaning rock shelters or hollow trees in forests, much as the indigenous Kenyan groups of hunter-gathers such as the Okiek ("Ndorobo") did until the twentieth century. Tradition further states that the Ndorobo visited the Embu a long time ago but did not stay, though it's more likely that the Ndorobo were there before the Embu arrived, and were either displaced or left when the forests began to be converted to farmland.
The numerically smaller Mbeere (around 100,000, as against an Embu population of around 450,000) live to the south of the Embu in the lower Kiangombe Hills. Despite their proximity to the British during the colonial period (Embu town was a major colonial centre), the Mbeere have always kept themselves apart (and have been kept apart) from the Kenyan mainstream. The Kiangombe Hills are only barely fertile and poorly watered, dominated by thorn scrub and dust, which meant that the British had little interest in the area or the tribe, who were consequently left to themselves. As a result, some aspects of traditional culture lingered longer in Mbeere than they did in Embu, although nowadays they're both pretty much part of modern Kenya. See the lament of an old man, mourning the immorality he sees around him in Embu, in the section on Music & Dance.
The Mbeere are closely allied to the Embu, to whom they are related. In times of famine - which strikes the Mbeere more frequently than the Embu - the Embu would supply staple food like maize and beans in return for goats, skins, sorghum and pigeon peas. Historically, the Embu also fought for the Mbeere, on a famous occasion in which the Kamba tried to oust the Mbeere from their land. The Embu and Mbeere jointly own sacred groves (matiiri) in Mwea, which is one of their traditional places of origin.
Also known as: Kiembu (Embo is an incorrect spelling). The Mbeere are also called Mbere or Kimbeere.
Ethnic group: Central Bantu (Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Bantoid, Southern, Narrow Bantu, Central, Kikuyu-Kamba).
Neighbouring tribes: Chuka, Kamba, Kikuyu, Meru.
Language: Kiembu or Kimbeere are dialects of the same language, with 85% lexical similarity between them. Also closely related are the languages of their geographical neighbours, the Kikuyu and Chuka (73% similarity), Kamba (66%) and Meru (63-65%). Up to 70% also speak Swahili. 25% to 50% literate.
Population: Latest figure for the Embu is 429,000 (1994), up from 256,623 in 1987. The corresponding figures for the Mbeere is 101,007, up from 61,725 in 1980. The rate of population increase is one of the highest in Africa.
Location: The Embu populate the southeastern slopes of Mount Kenya around Embu town in Embu District, Eastern Province. The Mbeere live in the Kiamgombe Hills to the east and southeast of Embu town. In contrast to Embu territory, the Kiamgombe Hills are relatively low, with only two hills over 1600 metres. The land is mostly thorn scrub and generally infertile plain. As rainfall is capricious, famine is a recurrent feature of life.
Way of Life: The Embu traditionally rely on agriculture, though a large number have become traders. The Mbeere, whose land is generally unsuitable for widespread agriculture, lean more on pastoralism, although herds are small and prone to decimation by drought. The Mbeere are known for their skill in pottery (see Lazarus Ngari's article on Mbeere pottery in the National Museums of Kenya's online Mvita journal), and were in the past also renowned as medicine men and witch doctors.
Religion: No accurate figures available: last estimate was two thirds traditional religion, one third Christian, though it seems much more likely that the reverse is true, and that Christians are in the majority. The same applies for the Mbeere, where most of the famine relief is distributed by Christian organizations.
References: This information has been gathered from a number of sources. The best general sources about Kenyan culture are Andrew Fedders & Cynthia Salvadori's excellent "Peoples and Cultures of Kenya" (1979: Transafrica, Nairobi), and the equally good series of booklets produced by the Consolata Fathers in Nairobi, sadly now out of print. Specific sources that have been of help in writing this site are credited where appropriate.