Meru - Religion and Beliefs

In this page:
Nkoma - Spirits
The Agwe - Prophets and Diviners
Disposal of the Dead


The Meru have always been monotheistic, and traditionally believed that God (variously called Arega kuthera, Baaba weetu (Our Father), and Murungu) was essentially good, and could do them no harm. God was not a supreme spirit "out there" but a great and good Father who, though invisible, provided for and watched over his people while living among them.
   It was God who, through his intermediary Mugwe, led the Meru people out of their slavery under the "Red People" to freedom. God equipped this man with the courage and strength for the task, and the people were delivered and brought to their present land.
   Nonetheless, God is also associated with death, albeit indirectly in the form of natural disasters such as drought. At such times, prayers and sacrifices are offered.

Nkoma - Spirits

Notwithstanding the omnipotence of God, the Meru also believed in the existence of spirits (nkoma or ngoma). There seem to have been three main types of spirits: the spirit-ancestors, evil spirits, and the spirit-protectors.

The first were those of physical ancestors - nkoma-chia-bajuuju-beetu - who kept the same characteristics as when they were alive, whether good or bad. Their survival was believed to be either of happiness or tears, according to the way one had conducted his life here on earth.
   Interaction was possible with them, and entailed making libations and dropping them bits of food to quench their thirst and relieve their hunger. Thus, during their feasts and rituals and even in their private life, the Meru made libations of beer, saying Nkoma-chia-bajuuju-beetu, kundeni (Spirits of our ancestors, drink). While eating they dropped bits of food for them, saying Nkoma-chia-bajuuju-beetu, rumeni (Spirits of our ancestors, eat). And if anything poured accidentally there was no grieving. It was said that it was the ancestors who had anticipated their share.
   Libations were also made to appease these spirits if misfortunes such as sickness and minor accidents occurred in the family. They were believed to live within the family homestead and any libations had to be made within its precincts, usually around its hearth. When the event involved the whole community, the libations were made in the courtyard where the public was served.

The evil spirits, whom the Meru referred to simply as nkoma, were more akin to supernatural forces. They were not human, and were therefore much more dangerous as they were both unknown and unpredictable. It was they who brought evil to the world (God, of course, was essentially good), and so they were enemies of the living.
   The evil power was called Seitani, a word which stemmed, via Kiswahili or Somali/Borana, from the Arabic word for devil, Shaitan (which is also the root of the English word Satan).
   The evil spirits were believed to live in woods and groves like the rest of the living community. For example, any plant that grew in the bush and looked like one that was eaten by human beings - such as yams and bananas - but was not, was referred to as rukwa rwa nkoma na ndigu chia nkoma (yams and bananas of the spirits).
   The living avoided all possible contact with these spirits, in the first place by physically avoiding places where they were believed to live. Deceit was also be used to fool them: for example, if a baby died soon after being born, the next child who was born by the same mother was given a name of a fierce wild animal - such as a lion or hyena - so that the nkoma be deterred from also taking it. If, by some misfortune, the second child also died, the third born would be given a name which meant "I have no name". By doing so, the spirit would be cheated and it would never know the person.

The third and least common form of spirit was that of the spirit-protector, especially for women. In the Igembe section of the Meru, this protector was called Ntato, the python. The animal was (is?) also considered the spirit-protector of rain, and so it was taboo to kill one (as it is among many societies, notably the Luo).


Aside from normal animal sacrifices, which were either for God, or intended to please or appease spirit-ancestors, I've come across the following intriguing piece in the Consolata Fathers' booklet about the Meru, written sometime around 1974, which seems to mirror the human sacrifices which feature in the myth of the Red People:

There is proven evidence that in Meru region, not far from Muthara (Tigania) up to a few years ago, a peculiar practice continued, called "the seventh year sacrifice". Which could be said, in few words, to be a human sacrifice. During the circumcision ceremony of the seventh year (a most solemn one), the first boy to be circumcised was eliminated by pouring poison on the blade of the knife used for the circumcision.
   They said that this had to be done to appease the spirit. Actually it was sometimes an occasion of fight between certain influential persons (like chiefs, witch doctors...) who would seize that opportunity to eliminate the sons of their competitors. In fact, it was because of the rivalry between the chief and the witch doctor of Muthara, who both wanted their respective son to become number one in the tribe, that the news came to the knowledge of the colonial authority. With a cunning compromise worthy of a thriller story, and with the help of the local missionary, the authority brought this peculiar ceremony to an end for ever. And on that very last performance of the "seventh year sacrifice" it was the witch doctor who lost his life.

The Agwe - Prophets and Diviners

The tradition of the Mugwe (Mogwe, Mugawe or Muga; plural Agwe) - or religious leader - has now sadly disappeared. In 1974, there was only one remaining Mugwe - that of Tharaka -and I have no idea whether his position was passed on when he died, or whether the lineage simply extinguished itself as it did for the other Agwe.

Traditionally, the Mugwe served as both prophets and spiritual leaders, either for their own clan (although only four clans had Agwe by the time the British left), or for the entire Meru nation. Their power stemmed from the Meru myth of the escape from the "Red People" (see the myth of the Red People in the History section), in some versions of which a prophet named Mugwe led the human sacrifice which brought the answer to their plight: that to escape over the 'Red Sea', the waters had to be struck with a magic spear.

The role and power of the Mugwe was hereditary, passing from father to son, but not necessarily to the first born. Training for this role started at an early age, and was carefully and closely supervised by the reigning Mugwe. The candidate had to be sober, kind to all people, and have a happily married life. The position also necessitated great moral virtues, as well an element of innate skill. Ideally, he would also be free from all blemishes, whether physical or moral, and was to follow correctly the ancient customs of the Meru. As such, he was the custodian of traditional values, a function which he exercised in tandem with the Njuri-Ncheke councils of elders, acting as a judge, and cursing those who deserved it.

The Mugwe's primary role, though, was to lead his people in dealings with God, either by offering propitiatory sacrifices (such as praying for rains and consequent good harvests and grazing) or expiatory sacrifices, whenever a serious fault was committed by a group or an individual of the tribe and needed the appeasement of God or the spirits. It was believed that the Mugwe was in direct contact with God.

The Mugwe was also what is popularly known as a witch doctor. His ability in this domain was called urogi (witchcraft), and combined knowledge of medicine, incantations and rituals with his ability to divine. As diviner, the Mugwe's primary concern was to predict natural events, such as the coming of the rains. But some divinations were more mysterious and less explicable. One case in point is a famous prediction made by the Mugwe of the Igembe section of the Meru ten years before the arrival of the first Europeans, who foretold the arrival in the region of "men dressed in white long robes" (presumably missionaries in white cassocks).
   There are similar stories in Kikuyu, Embu and Mbeere cultures, and probably in many others also.


The Meru have two opposing attitudes to death, depending on both how the person had behaved while alive, and his or her status in society.

If it were a good or 'accomplished' person (akiri), they said Aromaama kuuraga (May he sleep in the region where rains are timely), or Naitirie-a-tutiga (He ascended and left us). At other times they would say, astonished: Ati ka baete (kana ng'ania) amaamire mma! Kumaama ng'ania amaamire gutirekaga muntu anyua ruuji ruthira kaau (It is unbelievable that so and so passed away! When we remember him we are unable to even drink).
   On the other hand, if the deceased had been a wicked person the Meru would say Naaria eetire, ka ereeraga na miti yawe iri ituro (Where he went he never got a place to build a house. He always wanders with his building sticks on his shoulders). Or they would say Naaria eetire ka aakanaga mwaniki (Where he went he always burns in fire).

To explain a little more, if an 'accomplished' person dies, no matter the grief and sense of loss that might be felt by his or her close relatives, the event is not seen seen as a rupture of daily life, but is instead accompanied by a discreet if austere period of mourning and funerary rites. For the death of an akiri marks the successful end to one particular cycle of life, and is within the natural order of things.
   On the other hand, the death of a wicked person - indeed, according to one scholarly paper, the death of any 'unfinished' person - is a tragic and dangerous event. By this theory, 'unfinished' includes all those individuals who have not yet attained the status of elderhood, as well as those elders who died too early to witness the ceremonial transferal of power to the succeeding age-set. These situations necessitate special rites which aim to avoid the danger (of malevolent spirits?), and reinstall the established order of things.

Disposal of the dead

The Meru had a great taboo about death, and believed that a corpse was defiled. They called this rukuu, meaning 'severed from the living'.
   If people realised that a neighbour of theirs was going to die, they would take him into the forest and shelter him in a hut they put up there, which was unsurprisingly called the "hut of death". The about-to-be-deceased's name was not to be mentioned anymore.
   If someone died in their home, on the other hand, the house had to be destroyed, and the body dragged out by a rope to the bush where it was abandoned.
   As they feared to touch a corpse for danger of contamination, whoever disposed of the body was required to undergo a cleansing ritual, known as kwenja rukuu. This involved shaving the family members (which was done by the one who disposed the corpse: he too was shaved by one of the family members). This was then followed by a sexual ritual, which symbolised having found a replacement for the deceased.

The sexual ritual concerned the parents and their children. If a child was not married, then after the death of one's parent, the council immediately proposed a girl or a boy for marriage, after consulting the father of the proposed candidate, who would concede to the request without any hesitation, leaving the arrangement for dowry and the marriage to a later time.
   There were, however, some complications regarding the disposal of a barren woman or a man who never had a child. These were the people called mburatuu by the Meru, meaning useless people. When a barren woman died in her original home (otherwise her husband would have cared for her disposal if she had died when she was at his home), or when a childless man died, there would be a problem as no member of the family would want to touch the corpse of such a person because such corpses were viewed as a curse. However, since the corpse had to be disposed of, a public undertaker who was referred to as mwenji or mutheria (a ritual cleanser) was called in. This public undertaker was given a goat by a close relative of the deceased, with whose wife he had to carry out the sexual act. If the deceased was a widower, the public undertaker had to go somewhere else to look for a woman whose husband had passed away, or to look for a public woman undertaker (mwenji-o-muntu muka).


In spite of the 54% "traditional beliefs" quoted in my Facts & Figures on Meru religious beliefs, it seems to me extremely likely that the majority of Meru are now Christian. As mentioned above, by 1974, there was only one Mugwe left in the whole of Meru land. The second had converted that same year to Catholicism without passing the prerogative of his title to his son, and two more lineages of Agwe had disappeared in the early part of the century.

With the absence of traditional religious leadership, and the coincidental rise of unemployment, poverty and other urban woes, it would be no surprise to find that many more people have turned to Christianity to fill the spiritual void. Nonetheless, an evangelical website writes: "Due to the large number of church members among the Meru, most have concluded them to be an evangelized people. Upon closer examination one finds church membership to be primarily a cultural matter and the majority of Meru to be lost." It finishes, touching on probably the biggest problem facing modern Kenya today, that of corruption: "One frustrating hindrance to training and church development has been a political power attitude by church leaders."

One can only hope that Meru society refinds a sense of balance between the modern and the traditional before it is too late.


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

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