Meru - Agriculture


Despite the patchy rainfall, the Meru are primarily an agricultural people, concentrating more on farming than herding (although this exists). Their way of life defines the settled nature of their society, and as a result of this, as well as of cultural exchanges with neighbouring and possibly related peoples, Meru family life and society is similar in many respects to that of the other central highlands Bantu, notably the Kikuyu.

Although a large number of Meru now live in burgeoning villages and towns where unemployment is a chronic problem, settlement was traditionally in the form of scattered family homesteads built on cleared forest land. Yet overpopulation has meant that for the vast majority, whether rural or urban, life is pretty much one of survival.

The scattered rainfall, caused by the rain shadow of Mount Kenya, doesn't help, especially in the west around Timau, and in the dry seasons women have to walk long distances - sometimes over 15km - in search of water. Northern Nyambene has similar water shortages, although it receives plenty of rainfall - the volcanic soils drain too easily.

Major cash crops include coffee, cotton, maize (corn), beans, sorghum and millet, and latterly wheat. Tobacco, potatoes, maize, beans, sorghum and millet are staple food crops. Of prime importance among the cash crops, though, is miraa (also called qat), a mild stimulant grown in the Nyambene Hills that is much favoured by Somalis, Arabs (also Yemeni), coastal people, and by some of the urban populations of Mombasa and Nairobi. It is a lucrative trade, and those who control it are rich by any standards. Rivalry between rival Meru and Somali businessmen is bitter, and on my last visit to the Nyambene Hills in early 1999, I got caught in a week of rioting following the mysterious death of a prominent Meru miraa businessman in London.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography