Meru - Introduction
|I'm indebted to two truly encyclopaedic books for much of my information about the Meru: Daniel Nyaga's superlative Customs and Traditions of the Meru (East African Educational Publishers, Nairobi, 1997); and Alfred M. M'Imanyara's The Restatement of Bantu Origin and Meru History (Longman Kenya, Nairobi, 1992).
|In this page:
Facts & Figures
Numbering just under one and a half million, the Bantu-speaking Meru comprise several tribes or sub-groups, including the Igembe, Igoji, Imenti, Miutini and Tigania (who comprise the five pre-colonial sections), and the Muthambi and Mwimbi. To each other, their identity is determined by these sections, and within each section by clan affiliations, but to outsiders, they will state their identity as Meru.
The Chuka and Tharaka are sometimes also included under Meru, but their oral histories and religions are markedly different, and are culturally much closer to the Embu. The Chuka have been covered separately in this website.
Taken as a whole, the Meru have one of the most detailed and potentially confusing oral histories of any people in Kenya. It is also one of the most deeply intriguing, at least from a Western point of view, as it contains extremely strong Biblical similarities that suggest to some that they may once have been one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, and to others that they were once Jewish, in the same way that the Falashim of Ethiopia remain Jewish to the present day. This history includes a good part of both Old and New Testament stories: a baby in a basket of reeds who becomes a leader and a prophet, the massacre of newly born babies by an evil king, an exodus, the parting and crossing of the waters by an entire nation, Aaron's Rod in the form of a magic spear or staff, the leadership of a figure comparable to Moses, references to ancient Egypt (Misiri), and so on.
Although society has changed enormously since colonisation, a number of important social and cultural traditions remain, either in their original form, or in a shape adapted to modern-day realities.
Notable among these is their system of government by a council of elders (Njuri-Ncheke), which, as far as I know, is the only traditional judicial body to be legally recognised in modern Kenya. Also remarkable is the modern version of their female circumcision ceremony, which appears to be gradually gaining ground throughout the population. Called 'Circumcision through Words', the new ceremony almost exactly mirrors the traditional rituals, with the exception that the physical action of cutting has been replaced with symbols and certificates. The initiative is supported not only by various women's groups and NGOs, but by the ultra-conservative Njuri-Ncheke themselves.
All this points to a people hopeful that their traditions may yet survive, although it must be said that a large part of their customs - and almost all of their religion - have already vanished.
Geographically, the Meru occupy three districts (Meru, Nyambene and Tharaka-Nithi), located to the north and northeast of Mount Kenya, including its slopes. Their territory ranges northwards to the volcanic Nyambene (Njombeni) Hills, which are the historical heartland of all the central highlands Bantu (ie. the Kikuyu, Kamba, Embu, Mbeere and Chuka). To the south, their area is bounded by the Thuchi River, beyond which live the Embu and Kamba terrain.
Meru District is generally fertile, making agriculture the primary means of sustenance, although large parts of the other two districts are either semi-arid (especially in the north), or covered with jungly forest, much of which is protected as national park or forest reserve. As a result, population pressure has become a major problem in recent years, leading to encroachments on gazetted land, and helping to explain - in part, at least - the explosion of elephant and rhino poaching which devastated Meru National Park in the 1970s and 1980s, and indirectly led to the murder of renowned international ecologist and film-maker, George Adamson, in 1989.
Also known as: Ameru, Mumeru, Kimeru, Mero, Ameroe, Meroe (probable). Various subgroups/sections include the Igembe, Igoji, Imenti, Miutini, Muthambi, Mwimbi (Kimwimbi, Muthambi) and Tigania. The Chuka and Tharaka are sometimes also included, but they are quite distinct, and culturally least related.
The Kenyan Meru are separate from the Tanzanian Meru (or Rwo), although they may be linked historically.
Ethnic group: Generally considered to be Bantu, some studies show that some were originally Cushitic or Cushitic-speaking in origin. For those who insist on classifications, here's the usual list: Central Bantu, Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Bantoid, Southern, Narrow Bantu, Central, Kikuyu-Kamba.
Neighbouring tribes: Samburu, Somali, Kikuyu, Chuka, Embu, Kamba, Borana (?), Pokomo(?).
Language: Meru (or Kimeru), which bears close resemblance to both Kikuyu and Kamba. Dialects include Imenti, Igembe, Tigania, Miutini, Igoji, and Mwimbi-Muthambi (two related dialects). The Imenti dialect appears to be dominant.
85% lexical similarity between Imenti and Tigania, 67% similarity with Chuka, 63% with Embu and Kikuyu, 57% with Kamba. 25% to 50% literate.
Population: The last two estimates are similar, giving 1,305,000 (1994) and 1,300,000 (1996), up from 1,087,778 in 1989. 5.6% of Kenya's population.
Location: Meru, Nyambene and Tharaka-Nithi Districts, Eastern Province, to the north and northeast of Mount Kenya, including its slopes and the volcanic Nyambene Hills to the north.
Way of life: Mixed agriculture economy of cultivation and animal husbandry. Many are now urban dwellers.
Religion: Only figures available state 54% traditional religion, 45% Christian, 1% Muslim. Christianity is in the ascendant, and is most likely now professed by the majority of the Meru.
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.