Meru - The Stages of Life

In this page:
Birth and early childhood
The Age-set system
Njuri-Ncheke (elderhood)
Njuri-Ncheke - Judgement and Punishment
Njuri-Ncheke - Ethno-conservation
Traditional Politics


In the past, Meru society was characterised by an extremely rigid sense of place and purpose, which lasted from early childhood to old age. This was twofold. The first distinction, the one which still survives and which is to many outside eyes extremely unfair, is the role that gender plays.
   As with so many other Bantu-speaking peoples, gender roles are strictly defined and exceedingly male-oriented, the woman's place being squarely in the home and in the shambas (fields). She is the caretaker of her family - she weeds, cultivates, harvests, transports the harvest on her back, cooks and feeds the family, and of course fetches the water, sometimes from great distances.
   Her husband, on the other hand, has the somewhat lighter task of being what one source calls the 'supreme ruler' of the homestead, and is the custodian of the family property. The responsibility of upholding the family's social status depends on the kind of homestead he keeps. But what the man actually does in terms of work is not always evident, at least not from the many trips I took through Meru land: whereas the sight of women hauling heavy and unwieldy loads on their heads was commonplace, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of men I saw engaged in similarly demanding labour.

The other major system which determined social life relied on distinctions made between groups of people of similar ages: age-sets. This system has largely disintegrated in recent decades under the joint assaults of the lingering effects of colonialism, westernization, the cash economy and Christianity.
   The warrior system has long been defunct, meaning that entire generations of young men who would formerly have been 'employed' to defend the people or raid neighbouring peoples of livestock, now sit around in the towns and villages without work, and without much purpose in life either, it seems. The few elders who still remember the 'old days' lament the loss of moral values that have come with the changes, and even the new churches that try to fill the void have not been immune to this change: one evangelical website complains: "One frustrating hindrance to training and church development has been a political power attitude by church leaders."
   Nonetheless, a crucial part of the old structure has survived, and indeed seems to be reviving in importance. This is the traditional form of government by selected elders, called Njuri-Ncheke - there's a whole section about them further down the page.

Birth and early Childhood

See also the Song for a mother and newborn child in the section on Music & Dance

Traditionally, a newly born child was immediately offered to God, in a marvellous ceremony performed by the mother, even before taking care of herself. Holding the baby that had just come out of her womb, she faced either of the sacred mountains of Mount Kenya or Mount Njombeni (Nyambene), offering the child to God by spitting on it (spitting saliva - gwikia mata - is a sign of good wish and blessing).

By the age of between five and seven, children underwent an educational rite (Kiama kia ncibi) in which they were instructed in basic social values, their meaning punched home by a string of maledictions and curses should they ever misbehave. Called gotumerua ota (for boys) and gotumerua ncia (for girls), it contained advice like: "Do not steal. If you will ever steal, may your throat be cut like that of this goat", referring to the goat that would be sacrificed at the end of the ceremony.


See the section on Initiation for more about this and circumcision/clitoridectomy

The rite of passage that circumcision marks, both physically and mentally, is paramount in defining a person's status in Meru society. Through circumcision, both boys and girls attain adulthood, and all the respect and responsibilities that go along with it. It marks their initiation not just into adulthood, but also into society and thus full membership of the tribe.
   Without circumcision, both men and women - no matter how old they are - would still be considered 'mere' children, and can neither reproduce, not partake of functions that affect the entirety of the society.
   Circumcision also had impact on society in general, for a man would stop having sexual relations with the mother of his first circumcised child, whether male or female. The mother would then be bound by oath not to have any more children. The reason for this was that it was believed that there would have occurred misfortunes if a mother continued bearing children while the son or daughter was doing the same.

According to tradition, circumcision was only adopted after the arrival of the Meru in their present location, which in practical terms means only over the last few hundred years or so. Nonetheless, its importance has become deeply engrained in Meru culture.
   Boys' as well as girls' circumcision was preceded by two preparatory rituals, referred to as igiita ria kugerua matu (the time for marking the spots where ear-hole perforation would be done), and igiita ria guturwa matu (the time for actual perforation of the ears). These rituals were held as precursors to the great event of circumcision itself, and are similar to customs formerly followed by the Kikuyu.

The Age-set System

Unity across the various Meru clans (mwerega) and sub-groups was achieved through a sophisticated system of age-sets, run along the same lines as the other central highlands Bantu societies. Following circumcision, each and every adult, both male and female, automatically became a member of a particular age-set, this being decided according to when they were circumcised. Each age-set comprised several years, meaning that for example a man circumcised seven years after another might still belong to the same age-set.
   The system was cyclical, so that as one generation (age-set) moved on to the next age grade, the following age-set moved up to assume older age-set's functions. It is believed that the system was adopted from both Cushitic-speaking and Nilotic-speaking people.

Nowadays, most vestiges of the age-set system have disappeared. Warriorhood, which was the stage immediately following the circumcision of males, has been defunct ever since the British arrived, with the result - some elders believe - that more and more young men have become immoral and anti-social in their behaviour. Obviously, with a growing population and only limited fertile land to convert to farms, the problem of unemployment is now acute, especially among those who would formerly have been employed as warriors.


Marriage took place soon after the young woman had healed from her circumcision. The reason for the haste was that so long as the girl remained unmarried but circumcised, no man of the village was allowed to have sexual relations with his wife until the girl was married. Do have done so, it was believed, would have spoiled the life and marriage of the new couple.

During the wedding, the bridegroom delivered four gourds of beer and some snuff to the clan of the bride so that her parents might bless their daughter before she left the seclusion hut and before she left them.

In the case where a boy fell in love with a girl who was not the choice of his parents, or where the girl's parents' were opposed to their daughter marrying the boy (if his family was poor, for example), the boy could arrange to "steal" her, but without the knowledge of the warriors from the other side to avoid a fight.
   After stealing the girl, arrangements for marriage followed immediately. The parents of the girl were left with no option but to accept the dowry. This brought the two families together and they started being friendly to one another. The parents of the jilted boy accepted one bull as compensation for what they had paid as bride wealth to the parents of the stolen girl.
   This kind of marriage was treated by both in-laws and everybody as a true marriage. After the girl had arrived home, the first requisites for dowry, a ewe and a container of honey, were immediately taken to her father.

Elderhood: the Njuri-Ncheke

The elders of the tribe were divided into three ranks: the first was made up of the Areki (sing Mwareki), which comprised both men and women. It was an honour for both husband and wife to be admitted to this. The second rank was formed by the Njuri-Ncheke (also spelled Njuuri Nceke), and the third by the Njuri-Mpingiri.
   The ruling of the people was essentially a gerontocratic system based on councils of elders, and in particular rested with the Njuri-Ncheke and Njuri-Mpingiri. To become a member of the Njuri-Ncheke in particular was the highest social rank to which a man could aspire. These were comprised of selected elders who were more influential and respected than the normal membership of the general council of elders, the kiama, and their work necessitated great wisdom, personal discipline, and knowledge of the traditions.
   The functions of the Njuri-Ncheke were to make and execute tribal laws, to listen to and settle disputes, and to pass on tribal knowledge and rites across the generations in their role as the custodians of traditional culture. It must be said that the Njuri-Ncheke still hold a good deal of these prerogatives: local disputes will invariably first be dealt with by the Njuri-Ncheke, and only when cases cannot be solved or concern matters involving non-Meru people, are they passed on to the modern Kenyan judicial system.

The Njuri-Ncheke - Judgement and Punishment

The following is from the Consolata Fathers' excellent booklet about the Meru; see the Bibliography

The elders forming the Njuri-Ncheke were carefully selected; one could say segregated from the rest of the tribe. In order to be elected Njuri, a candidate had to pay a heavy fee, consisting usually of a number of animals, which had to be sacrificed and eaten during a great feast. Each Njuri - and this practice persists even nowadays in the Igembe region [this was in 1974] - was to have a particular mask painted on his face while performing rites or gathering for solemn circumstances.
   The distinctive ornaments of the Njuri were the morai or knotty stick cut out of a branch of black wood (usually African blackwood or ebony); the ncea or ring of pearls on the head; the meu or fly whisk made from the tail of an animal (usually cow or giraffe) and the three-leg stool cut out of a single piece of wood. Some Njuri add a kind of headgear made from the skin of the guereza monkey (for instance when these Njuri were heads of the villages, or the agwe, or witch doctors...) and a large mantle made from the skin of a ram or of a monkey.
   The Kagita (indigenous tribunal) had authority over all the Njuri and the tribe; it consisted of the most renowned Njuri, the Mogwe [religious leader/prophet], the witch doctor, and the headman. They use to assemble in a particular large hut called nyumba ya kagita. This was the most feared hut in the countryside.
   Only very serious crimes against community were judged in the nyumba ya kagita. And usually the accused man, criminal or not criminal, once sentenced by kagita, had to pay with his life. Justice was administered as follows: members of the kagita together with the accused person would enter by the main entrance of the hut. Wearing all paraphernalia and sitting on the three-leg stools, snuffing abundantly, everybody had to speak and repeat and make comments on the trial. In the middle of the centre of the elders, near the accused person, a large gourd stands, filled with sugar cane wine. But not all is wine; a good quantity of poison is mixed with the beverage; since the poison is heavier than wine, it sinks to the bottom of the gourd. The sentence against the supposed criminal once entered the kagita hut - was always a capital one. But had to be proved. With the poison test. The first of the Njuri elders using a little gourd as a spoon, would take some of the wine, being careful not to touch the bottom of the container, and drink of it saying: "I drink this wine so that it may bring joy to my belly, because I am innocent..."
   The second judge would follow and then the third, the fourth and so on up to the last. Only then would the condemned come up: to him the last judge would offer wine taking it deeply from the bottom of the gourd: "Drink of this wine, and let us see whether you also are innocent!"
   The poison would act in less than a quarter of an hour. Then the poor fellow, already rigid in the spasm of the last minutes of his life, had to be pushed away from the hut by means of sticks, and thrown out through a small hole cut out in the wall of the hut, opposite to the main entrance. The hole had to be closed immediately so that the spirit would miss the way and never find the "traitor" of the tribe.
   There were other tests, too: the fire-test, the mushroom-test...

The Njuri-Ncheke and ethno-conservation

For more information about this, contact Anthony Kithinji Mwongo, PO Box 723 Maua, Meru, Kenya

A lesser known function of the Njuri-Ncheke, which survives to the present day, is its role in the overseeing and enforcing the rules and regulations controlling the cultivation and use of open grasslands. Good and sensitive management of these areas is essential to prevent the desertification of the more arid parts of Meru-land.
   Their decisions regarding these areas rest on three main tenets: that cultivators do not eliminate indigenous trees; that cultivators interplant trees with crops; and that they respect the already conserved indigenous sanctuaries.
   Offenders are punished with a variety of means: trespassing in conserved areas may lead to a fine of a bull or a decree by the elders. Those who desecrate such sites may be punished with impotence, barrenness or some other form of curse.
   Their work as conservators extends to control of the Meru's sacred sites (also called sanctuaries), which are used traditional rituals such as the passage of an age-set from one age-grade to another, transferral of political power, oathing, and for arbitration on cases such as murder, land-grabbing, theft, immorality, etc.
   Legally, the Njuri-Ncheke, using the myth of conservation sites, is able to solve cases that cannot be solved by conventional law courts. Moreover, criminals are discouraged from hiding in such sanctuaries since they are protected by taboos - sometimes the devil is believed to be their "watchman".

Traditional politics

Until the arrival of the British, the Meru judicial system was two-fold. On a local level, judgements were made by councils of elders (kiama). On a national level, the Njuri-Ncheke exercised this power. But the daily running of community affairs, decisions about war and other matters were decided by two alternating political parties (very similar to the alternations or moieties in Turkana, Maasai, Kikuyu and Embu culture, for example), called Kiruka and Ntiba. These were not elected, but consisted each of one half of the elders in the society, who would exchange power at periodic intervals (during which the next age-set of elders would be created).
   The idea was important both to ensure that everyone had their period in power (assuming that they lived old enough and had had children to enable them to become elders), and in rituals connected with death. In these, only the deaths of 'completed' people (akiri) were considered to be normal and part of the natural order of things.
   But to be 'complete', one needed to have lived long enough to have both exercised political power as an elder, and to have handed over power to the next age-set. This occurred roughly at the age of 65-70, and was accompanied by a great ritual and celebration, through which the men of that age-set became akiri (which comes from the verb kwarika, meaning to close or complete).

As an akiri, a man was thus accomplished, and retired from both public life and domestic worries. He would also have become a grandfather, not just physically but spiritually in that there would be at least one grandson who had taken his name, thus assuring something of his continuity after death. At this stage, an akiri had thus a quasi-sacred role, and would officiate over ceremonies dedicated to the well-being of society as a whole as well as for families (for example, in sacrifices to bring an end to droughts and epidemics).


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

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