Tuesday, February 1, 2011

HISTORY OF MERU PEOPLE

The Meru are a community living primarily on the fertile agricultural northeastern slope of Mount Kenya, in the Eastern Province of Kenya. The name "Meru" refers to both the people and the location, as for many years there was only one geo-political district for the Meru people which originated from the colonial land unit. This changed in 1992, when the district was divided into three: Meru, Nyambene, and Tharaka-Nithi.More districts have been created since then as of May 2009 the Meru region consisted of twelve (12) districts. In all the Meru region consists of approximately 13000km2 stretching from River Thuci in the South which is the traditional boundary between the Meru and Embu people to Isiolo district in the north. However the northern border is not as clearly defined as the southern border . The Kenyan Ameru are unrelated to the Meru people in north Tanzania, other than that they are both Bantu-speaking. The Meru are primarily agrarian, with some animals kept mainly in the northern part of the region. Their home life and culture is similar to other Highland Bantus. The Tharaka live in the dry desert area, a much harsher life than most Meru.
Meru people are divided into seven sections namely Igoji, Imenti, Tigania, Miutuni, Igembe, Mwimbi and Muthambi. The Chuka and Tharaka are now considered Meru but have different oral histories and mythology, however linguistically they are Meru.
The Meru were traditionally governed by elected and hierarchical councils of elders from the clan level right up to the supreme "njuri ncheke" council that governed all the seven sections, making Meru perhaps the only pre-colonial democratic nation in sub-Saharan Africa. The Njuri is the only traditional judicial system recognized by the Kenyan state and is still powerful when it comes to political decision making amongst the Meru.
Tanzania Wameru settled in the forest on the south eastern slopes of Mount Meru, Tanzania

History

Meru of Kenya say that, before they settled in their present land, they had came from the far North, ruteere rwa urio. According to a spokesman of Njuri Ncheke, ex-chief M'Muraa M'Kairanyi, they believe that they migrated from Misiri (Egypt). [2]
Another oral tradition 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.
Considerable if inconclusive anthropological research has been conducted and documented with respect to this startling aspect of Meru Mythology. The book by Jeffrey Fadiman "When We Began There Were Witchmen" deals with this subject.
Other interpretations of Meru history incorporates aspects of Meru mythology and spans about three centuries. There are no written records for the first two centuries and what may be learned must come from memories of the community's elders. The predominant tradition has to do with a place called Mbwa. This tradition tells how the Meruan ancestors were captured by the Nguuntune (the "red people", literally the "red clothes", generally taken to mean the Arabs) and taken into captivity on the island of Mbwa. Because conditions were intolerable, secret preparations were made to leave Mbwa.
According to some oral tradition sources Mbwa was located in present day Yemen. Others identify Mbwa with Manda Island near Lamu and the water as the ocean channel. When the day came to leave Mbwa, a corridor of dry land is said to have been created for the people to pass through the Red Sea. They later followed a route that took them to the hills of Marsabit, eventually reaching the Indian Ocean coast. There they stayed for some time; however, due to climatic conditions and threats from the Arabs, they traveled farther south until they came to the Tana River basin. Most traditions say most went as far south as Tanzania until finally reaching the Mount Kenya area.
Meru of Tanzania, or Wameru people, have shared the slopes of Mount Meru, Tanzania with the Waarusha people for about 300 years. Wameru came first. They were established on the slopes of Mount Meru before Waarusha arrived in the 1830s. Waarusha and Wameru cleared and settled most of the south eastern slopes of Mount Meru. In the 1880s, a series of disasters swept across northern Tanzania, driving the Maasai into the slopes of Mount Meru.

WHAT OTHER OBSERVERS AND WRITERS SAY

 

Background

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.

Facts & Figures

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.cationMeru have had a strong educational foundation provided by Christian mission schools and are among the most influential ethnic groups in Kenya. The main education institutions were started or sponsored by churches notably Catholic, Methodist (the dominant church in the region) and Presbyterian.One of Kenya's new gems in the education sector, Kenya Methodist University (KEMU) was awarded its Charter on June 28, 2006 by His Excellency President Mwai Kibaki. The coming of KEMU in Meru was a long process in educational planning and development. The Kenya Methodist University came as a logical step toward educational excellence as the focus of the Church in pursuance of its holistic Gospel. However, the University was not established as an isolated project.At least two institutions namely; Kaaga Rural Training Centre and Methodist Training Institute consecutively formed the basic foundation, in form of physical and other infrastructure in the establishment of Kenya Methodist University. in addition, this area has numerous centres of learning that include primary and secondary schools, some of which are among the best in the country. The Kenyan Government have come in to complement the areas education endeavours with the establishment of Chuka University.The generous Presbyterian Church donated the 45 acres (180,000 m2) of land where the University seats which initially hosted Ndagani primary, Secondary and a Rural polytechnic. Since the new development many private institutions are coming up and the Ndagani area is set to be the Educational centre of the Meru people.

Languages

The Meru language, Embu and Kikuyu are understandable to one another with some differences; nevertheless they are mutually intelligible and can be used across the groups. The Meru speak at least seven different dialects with the southern dialects being very close to Kikuyu and the Northern dialects showing some Cushitic tendencies, but the Bible translation being used is in the Imenti dialect. The differences in the dialects reflect the varied Bantu origins and influences from Cushite and Nilotic, as well as different Bantu, neighbors. As a whole Meru exhibits much older Bantu characteristics in grammar and phonetic forms than the neighboring languages. Even so, it still bears a close resemblance to Kikuyu and Kamba.

Family Traditions

In traditional rural areas the Meru have fairly strict circumcision customs that affect all of life. From the time of circumcision, boys no longer have contact with their mother. A separate house is built for the sons. This does vary to some degree depending on the level of urban influence, but is still practiced in some parts of Meru region. Traditionally, girls would also undergo circumcision, but this practice has been abandoned.

 Politics and tribal alliances

In the past the Meru were in a coalition with the Embu and Kikuyu which yielded some political power. The coalition, called G.e.m.a. (Gikuyu-Embu-Meru Association), is not as strong as it once was, but the Meru typically voted with the opposition after the advent of multipartism. This has since changed with the defeat of KANU in the 2002 general elections that saw a number of Meru leaders in the government of NARC. This does vary from location to location, but would generally hold true. Developments under the multi-party experiment since 1992 have renewed an informal political alliance between GEMA peoples and much of the Kikuyu community.

Prominent Merus

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