Meru - History

In this page:
Oral myth: Mbwaa and the Red People
The Red People and the Exodus
Mbwaa and the great sacrifice
The crossing of the great water
Ancient Meroe
Migrations - 'Bantu'
Migrations - 'Cushitic'
Migrations - later migrations


I'm not sticking my neck out too much to say that the Meru are certainly of mixed origin. Some claim roots from the north or west, others from the coast, and some even from the Arabian Peninsula, ancient Egypt or Israel.

The Meru have long been considered by Western 'experts' to be Bantu, although there is much to show that this is an exceedingly simplistic view which bears little resemblance to reality. Some studies have recently shown that at least some of the Meru are Cushitic in origin, although the only thing that is really taught from these studies is a lesson warning against attempting to apply simple sets of criteria to everyone. Both the notions 'Bantu' and 'Cushitic' are essentially linguistic, and although these classifications can often be of help in determining the origins of different peoples, in the case of the Meru, they really do become irrelevant, as you're about to discover...

Oral Myth: Mbwaa and the Red People

The predominant oral tradition concerning the Meru's early history is a fantastic fable that seems to combine elements of both truth and fiction.

In brief, it recounts that the Meru were once enslaved by the "Red People". They eventually escaped, and in their exodus came across a large body of water called Mbwaa or Mbwa, which they crossed by magical means. The details of the tradition are replete with parallels to the Old Testament, and also contain references to events described in the New Testament. This has led many to speculate that the Meru are perhaps the descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, or that they were once Jewish, or had been in profound cultural contact with a people that certainly were (such as the Falashim of Ethiopia).

I've based the following version of the tradition on that recounted in Daniel Nyaga's book, Customs and Traditions of the Meru (1997: East African Educational Publishers, PO Box 45314 Nairobi). Although there are many variants, the basic outline is pretty much the same for all.

The Red People and the Exodus

According to tradition, the Meru once lived in a state of slavery far away from their present homeland, under a people called antu ba nguu ntuune (or nhuuntune or nguo ntuni, meaning "Red People" or "Red Clothes"). The king of the Red People was powerful and often harsh upon his subjects, but no one knows for sure who the Red people actually were.
   If we take 'red' to refer to skin colour, then these people were most likely Arabs, for the Europeans had not yet arrived in East Africa. If 'red' refers to dress, however, then their identity if anyone's guess, especially as the Maasai, Samburu and other Nilotic tribes - who are nowadays known for wearing red - only adopted that tradition a century or so ago.
   The place where the Meru were enslaved has also not yet been convincingly located. Some say that it was called Mbwa or Mbwaa (the same name given by other versions of the myth for the body of water the Meru later crossed); others suggest that it may have been Mbwara Matanga on the western peninsula of Manda Island in the Lamu archipelago, off the northeast coast of Kenya; others still posit that it may have been in Yemen or in some other place on the other side of the Red Sea.

Whatever the exact location, this state of bondage lasted until the leader of the Red People started killing all the Meru's male children immediately after birth. But one child, apparently very handsome, escaped this fate, having been kept hidden in the riverside in a basket his mother had made. As a result, the prodigal child became known as Mwithe, the Hidden One.
   Mwithe, who also became known as Koomenjwe (Koomenjoe) and Muthurui, grew up to become a very great prophet, and was known as one who had spoken to God. Assisted by another elder called Kauro-Beechau, Mwithe organized a council of wise elders to lead the Meru out of bondage. They went to the leader of the Red People and asked to be set free. The leader agreed, but on condition that an impossible task be successfully performed by the Meru.
   This task required them to produce a shoe that had hair on both sides. As shoes were normally made from leather, this took some thinking, until Koomenjwe told the people to cut the dewlap of a bull. Before it was completely severed, it was stitched on the side that had been cut. By the time the bull recovered, the lap had made the shoe that was required. But when they took it to their masters, it was rejected and the Meru were given a second task.
   This was to provide a steer (or an ox) that produced diatomite (a very fine chalk). Koomenjwe advised them to feed a calf on milk, and eventually it started passing out white dung. Some versions of the myth have it the other way around: the steer was to produce white dung, and so they fed it on chalk; yet another version replaces the ox with an elephant. Nonetheless, the successful completion of the task was also rejected by the Red People, and they were given a third task to do.
   This required them to remove a fruit from a very deep pit, without piercing it or having anyone descend into the pit to pick it up. Koomenjwe advised them to fill the pit with water until it overflowed, and the fruit floated out. Though it succeeded, this test was also rejected.
   The next test required them to kill all the elders until their blood flowed like run-off during rains. Koomenjwe advised that the elders be hidden and all old livestock - cows, goats, sheep and donkeys - be killed instead. When that was done their blood was enough to flow as the enemies wanted. But the success of this test was not accepted either.
   The fifth test was truly impossible. It required the Meru to forge a spear that could touch both the earth and the sky. The Meru started making it straight away, but it kept breaking. Koomenjwe and the elders, failing to come up with a solution, simply abandoned the whole task of making it, and instead conceived the idea of organizing the people to escape on foot. For this reason, the Meru later on called this spear itumo ria mwito (the spear made for the trek), for it was the impossibility of making it that had given them the idea of the exodus.

In order to have an opportunity to make good their escape, Koomenjwe went to ask the Red People to give them eight days to complete the task. He said the Meru were making charcoal from people's hair because it was the type of charcoal that was required to make the spear. The enemies granted the request.
   Koomenjwe organized the first group of old people, because they could not walk fast, and they were grouped together with the older livestock that had remained. The second group was made up of mothers and children, and the third group consisted of young people and young livestock. Keeping the rear were the warriors, well armed and ready for battle. The three groups were, according to some versions, the ancestors of the three main Meru clans from which all other clans descend.
   The exodus took place at night. The warriors collected a very big heap of dry dung and animal droppings and set it on fire with all the houses. Meanwhile, Koomenjwe had gone to explain to the masters that the fire they were seeing was being used for making the spear which would be ready by noon the following day. After that, he returned. The following day the enemies waited for the spear, but it was never brought. The Meru had gone.

Mbwaa and the great sacrifice

During their exodus, the Meru reached a very large body of water which they called Mbwaa (or Mbwa). Here, they suffered a lot (presumably from their pursuers, or possibly from malnourishment), so much so that a sacrifice had to be made to seek answers, as these could be read from entrails. There are two main versions of this sacrifice.

The first has it that the Meru elders went to a prophet called Mugwe for help (whose name later became the word to describe all prophets and leaders). Mugwe asked for three young men to sacrifice themselves. The three who volunteered were named Gaita, Kiuma and Muthetu, after whom the three main Meru clans are named (all other clans stem from these). When the sacrifice had been concluded, Mugwe instructed the people on how to escape successfully. He placed them under the leadership of Koomenjwe to whom he gave a magic stick or spear (gitumo) about three feet long, with which he was to strike the water to make it part.

The second main version of the sacrifice story says that by then, Koomenjwe was called Muthurui, and it was he who came up with a solution. He had carried out his divination by examining the entrails of cows, goats and other animals, but all without success. As he wondered what to do, it dawned on him that the situation could only be saved by examining the entrails of a human being. He said: "Let someone be examined."
   The elders asked: "Who is going to be examined?"
   Muthurui begged to be given one person from each family so that if a person from one family failed to give an answer, the next one could be examined. Muthurui's brother offered himself and said: "I am ready to be sacrificed."
   Muthurui asked: "Who is going to be his mathinjiro?" (slaughtering leaves or an altar).
   Another person volunteered and said: "I will be the one."
   Again, Muthurui asked: "In case the first person is not accepted by God, who else will be offered?"
   Another said: "I am ready."
   Then another person volunteered to provide milk for washing the entrails, and another person provided a string with which the volunteer had to be stitched, and yet another person - having conceived the idea that the first person might fear the operation - went to cut sticks to flog him if he did so. When everything was ready, Muthurui operated on his brother, and got the answer he was looking for. Surprisingly enough, Muthurui's brother did not die. He had only his intestines mounted and stitched, and thereafter was called Murorua.

The crossing of the great water

Following the answer, Koomenjwe/Muthurui struck the water with his magic spear, and it parted. Some flowed to one side and the rest to the other side, forming a wide corridor of dry land in the middle, along which the people went across.
   The crossing of the water lasted all night, and took place in the form of several groups or nchienu. Some versions say there were three groups, who were either identified with those men who had been sacrificed, or were identified with the time of the crossing: the first to cross when it was still dark were the Njiru (black); the second crossed just after dawn and were called Ntune (pale or red); and the last to cross at sunrise were the Njaru (white). Other versions say that there were more groups, either five or seven, who were to become the ancestors of the various Meru clans that exist today; still other versions say that these groups had nothing to do with the clans, but that all the Meru were members of one of these groups.
   When the last group had crossed, Koomenjwe/Muthurui struck the water again and it came again into one mass, drowning the army of the Red People who had followed them. So it is that the Meru now say that they came from Mbwaa.

The problem for anthropologists and historians alike is put places and dates to these events, which is no easy task given the many variations, fictional elements and elaborations of the myth.
   In one version, one of the groups which crossed was the Antu-banthanju. They got to the other side of the water early in the morning, just before sunrise, when the sky was reddish. When this group saw the water they had crossed looking red, they called it Iria Itune: the Red Sea.
   Despite the initial excitement of European scholars keen to find confirmation of the literal truth of the Biblical Exodus, it is now generally accepted that the Meru never actually crossed the Red Sea we know now, but that the "Red Sea" mentioned in the myth was most likely Lake Victoria (Nyanza), in the southwest of Kenya. This hasn't been proved beyond doubt, though, and the Manda Island theory remains attractive: according to this, the "Red People" were probably East African coastal Arabs, who had invaded Manda Island around 1700. As this was a time of great expansion for the principalities of the Lamu Archipelago, slaves were needed for cultivation to feed the increasing commercial population, as well as to assist in the menial aspects of the ivory trade. The subsequent flight from enslavement could possibly have been accomplished at low tide across the narrow channel which separates Manda Island from the mainland, whilst a rising tide could have disorganised pursuit.
   A third possibility is that the 'Red Sea' was the Tana River in spate. As I've seen with my own eyes, this is for most of the year a relatively small river, but when it floods - as it did in the winter of 1997-98 - the effect is astonishing. Instead of a narrow river, the Tana delta floods huge areas of land to either side of it. As I saw in early 1999, the last floods had left watermarks sometimes five metres up the trunks of trees, below which all leaves and vegetation had died. The colour of the river, too, is red, through carrying so much eroded topsoil, ironically much of it from the present land of the Meru.

Ancient Meroe

In yet another version of ancient Meru history, this one more academically-inspired than the myth, it has been convincingly argued by Alfred M. M'Imanyara, if not beyond doubt, that the Meru came originally from the ancient Nilotic empire of Meroe (circa 300BC - AD100), which is sometimes referred to as an island, as it was bounded by both the White and Blue Niles, and swamps in the south. The linguistic similarity between the words 'Meru' and 'Meroe' is certainly tempting, as is other linguistic evidence, which - although far from conclusive - does suggest at least that the Meru were at some point in contact with civilisations from further north. Indeed, some Meru elders refer to their early origins as being a place called Misiri, which is identical to the Arab and Berber name for Egypt still used today. The idea that the Meru came from the north is in any case common enough among Meru elders. Whether or not this ties in with Meroe is mere speculation, but it does neatly lead on to the next section, which describes the not-so-neat migrations which followed the crossing of the "Red Sea".


Alas, things do not become any easier for historians following the crossing of the "Red Sea", as it seems that the Meru migrated far and wide in Kenya (and possibly also in Ethiopia, Somalia and maybe Tanzania) before settling in their present location northeast of Mount Kenya, the sacred mountain which the Meru call Keremara (meaning, Mountain of the Splendour).
   There are two main versions of their migratory history, each depending on whether one considers the Meru to be originally Bantu or Cushitic (in other words, it's likely the reality was a combination of both these ideas).

'Bantu' migrations

If one follows the Bantu idea, it is generally assumed that the first Bantu entered Kenya from the southwest, from where they began fanning east and north across Kenya. Their northward expansion was considerable, possibly bringing them as far north as Ethiopia and Somalia. There, the Oromo-speaking peoples' military expansion from around 1300-1500 onwards (there's no consensus on exact dates or even centuries) pushed the Meru back into Kenya, where they eventually settled near Mount Kenya (they are still the northernmost of Kenya's Bantu-speaking groups). The route they followed back down into Kenya may well have brought them to the Indian Ocean coast, where their enslavement by the "Red People" may have taken place. From there, they moved west and inland to their present location.
   Alternatively, the "Red People" myth may have taken place much earlier in their history, shortly after the first Bantu immigrants arrived in Kenya, next to Lake Victoria.

'Cushitic' migrations

This theory is inherently more complex, as no one knows for sure where the Meru actually came from. In any case, 'Cushitic' is a misnomer, as most of these theories have the Meru coming from the region of the Nile, making them Nilotes like the Maasai and Turkana.
   Most of these theories posit that the Meru have - for the most part of their history - been moving south, most recently from Ethiopia or Somalia, and before then from the Nile (Sudan) or elsewhere, whether as a remnant of the ancient Meroe civilisation, or from much further north - Egypt, North Africa, or even ancient Israel.
   An ex-chief quoted by M'Imanyara says that they came from a place called ruteere rwa Urio, which he equated with Misiri (the Arab and Berber term for Egypt).

Later migrations

Whichever of these two theories you subscribe to, it's generally accepted that a substantial proportion of the Meru were certainly on the coast at some time in their migrations, and that they were pushed south by the Oromo-speaking peoples' expansion. Here's where things differ yet again. Some say the Meru just veered inland, ending up at their present location. Others, however, say that they continued down the entire Kenyan coastline as far as Tanzania, where they turned inland. There, they split with the Tanzanian Meru west of Mount Kilimanjaro, and slowly made their way back up into Kenya from the south, eventually ending up near Mount Kenya.
   Yet another theory more reasonably takes both possibilities into account, and refers to the Oromo having invaded the coast of Kenya in the form of a wedge, thereby splitting the Meru in two.


Sounds simple? The last thing I'll confuse you with is a short digression about timing: the Oromo expansion occurred from around 1300-1500 onwards, at the same time during which the first movements of the central highlands Bantu southwards from the Nyambene Hills began (including the ancestors of the Kikuyu, Embu, Mbeere, Chuka and Kamba). The Arab/Swahili coastal slave and ivory trade began peaking around the 1700s, and sometime between those two dates, the Mijikenda and Pokomo, whose histories and cultures are not dissimilar to Meru, also began moving south and west out of Somalia.
   In conclusion, I'd hazard the guess that the Meru are an amalgam of several different groups, who after many centuries of being hounded all over the place, and once even enslaved, at some point between 1500 and 1800 found themselves together in the same place, and became one people - the Meru.
   Some came from the east, others from the north, and some may already have been there when the other groups arrived. As the "Red People" story sounds so similar to the Old Testament, I'd say that the dominant group of the Meru were at some time in close contact with a Jewish people, such as the Falashim of Ethiopia, where the legend was adapted to fit actual Meru history of enslavement and exodus.

Not satisfied? Answers on a postcard, but don't expect an answer!


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