ETHNONYMS: Embu, Mbere
Identification. The Mbeere live in Embu District in the Eastern Province of Kenya, East Africa. The name "Mbeere" means "first," referring to their belief that they were the initial occupants of their territory. The earlier literature sometimes referred to them as "Embu," who are distinct but culturally close neighbors. Other accounts have described both the Mbeere and Embu as "subgroups" of the Kikuyu.
Location. Mbeere territory, comprising more than 1,500 square kilometers in the southeastern part of Embu District, is an area of variable rainfall, soil types, and vegetation. It is divided into three ecological zones that fall away from Mount Kenya along a northwest-to-southeast gradient. The zone above 1,000 meters supports banana and maize cultivation. The middle zone, between 750 and 1,000 meters, sustains millet, sorghum, beans, and drought-resistant maize. The zone below 750 meters, suitable for herding, is a desiccated area of cactus and acacia.
Demography. According to the 1989 national census, the Mbeere inhabitants of Embu District numbered 88,092. Population densities reflect sharp differences in the economic potential of the three ecological zones and range from 10 to over 200 people per square kilometer. The ratio of males to females is 100 to 111, indicating the tendency of men to seek employment outside the territory.
Linguistic Affiliation. The language is known as Kimbeere. It belongs to the Bantu Subfamily, which in turn is a subdivision of the Banue-Congo Group of Niger-Congo languages. Kimbeere is closely related to the other Bantu languages of the Mount Kenya periphery.
History and Cultural Relations
Numerous legends recount how various clans migrated to the present territory. Much remains unclear about when and how the migrations occurred. By the mid-nineteenth century, the current ethnographic map of east-central Kenya had taken shape. The Mbeere maintained a variety of shifting relationships with neighboring groups, particularly the Embu, Kamba, Kikuyu, and Chuka. Periodic raids for livestock or grain occurred in times of economic distress. Peaceful trading sometimes took place. The European penetration of East Africa reached Mbeere in 1851, when the German missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf crossed the Tana River. The British established a protectorate in Kenya in 1895 and secured control over Embu District in 1906. Catholic and Anglican missionaries soon followed and established the first schools. Travel and social connections to towns and cities have been facilitated by great improvements in roads. Increasing rates of literacy and the availability of telecommunications further enhance awareness of national and international events affecting local communities.
The Mbeere customarily live in small, circular, thatched houses made of wooden poles and mud. A group of houses comprises a homestead, which includes families related to each other, usually through patrilineal kinship ties. In physical terms, a homestead may include a cattle kraal, goat and sheep shelters built like thatched houses, and granaries. Homesteads range in size from newly formed units composed of a married pair and their young children to long-established settlements of more than forty people. A homestead is bounded by its gardens, fallow lands, and bush areas.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Horticulture is central to the economy. The most important crops are maize, millet, sorghum, beans, cassava, sugarcane, bananas, and mangoes. Tobacco and cotton are the most important cash crops. The distribution and relative importance of these cultigens vary according to soil type, elevation, and amount of rainfall. The Mbeere value livestock, particularly cattle, sheep, and goats, as markers of wealth and prestige. Their distribution varies by ecological zone. Herd sizes tend to increase in the low-lying areas. Chickens and ducks are ubiquitous, but owning them carries no prestige. The Mbeere also exploit a number of wild-food resources such as fruits. The most important and valued wild food is honey. It is eaten raw and used in the preparation of beer.
Industrial Arts. Among Mbeere crafts are pottery and woven basketry, both practiced by women. Leather is worked by men. Blacksmiths, always men, manufacture decorative rings, spear and adze blades, knives, arrow points, razors, and the like. Decorative gourds are fashioned by women, and various carved wooden items, including bows, arrows, and spear handles, by men. Production of these items had steadily diminished given the growing cash economy; substitute consumer goods are available in rural shops. Manufacture of metal weaponry has also diminished with the cessation of warfare, reduction of wild game, and the official hunting ban on large animals.
Trade. Trading relationships were an essential feature of traditional society and helped even out the effects of shortages or famines. The Mbeere traded various goods, livestock, and foodstuffs with their neighbors. In the colonial era, formal markets were established throughout Embu District, including the largest one, begun in 1927, at Ishiara in lower Mbeere. The markets included shops and a weekly open-air bazaar for the sale of livestock, produce, processed foods, locally manufactured crafts, and inexpensive imported consumer items.
Division of Labor. A sexual division of labor sharply defines many activities. Men control livestock and gather honey. They hunt and clear fields. Both men and women cultivate, harvest, and gather other wild foods without restriction. Likewise, marketing activities are unrestricted. Craft production is clearly delineated by sex: only men forge metal, and only women produce pottery and basketry. Women perform most domestic tasks such as grinding grains, gathering firewood, drawing water, and cooking.
Land Tenure. Land was traditionally a plentiful resource. Individuals or family groups could claim pieces of uncultivated bush and begin clearing it for cultivation. Pasturage was also freely available. Once land was claimed, it remained inalienable within the founding patrilineal segment, although an individual could pledge his piece of lineage land in exchange for livestock or some other value. The pledge was redeemable because an individual could regain his land on repayment of what he had received in exchange. Lineage land was heritable by male descendants. A woman did not inherit lineage land but was allocated gardens by her husband from his own lineage property. This pattern has been altered dramatically since the end of World War II as land has become a commodity, convertible into cash and controlled increasingly by individuals rather than groups. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing with the independent government, this pattern has gained legal sanction, as individual ownership has become the centerpiece of a land-reform program. Contemporary land tenure thus emphasizes individual ownership of registered plots of land. The constraints previously exercised by one's lineage on the use or disposition of land are now greatly diminished.
Kin Groups and Descent. Patrilineal descent organized lineage of varying depth. The m cii, or home, constitutes a shallow lineage, which sometimes embraces four generations. It holds land collectively. Lineages in turn are embedded in dispersed noncorporate exogamous clans. These form nonexogamous moieties. In the 1960s, when land became scarce, larger lineages grew more important. They mobilize to press claims for very large parcels of land. These parcels could then be divided among the membership, according to government directive. Descent coalitions consisting of several lineages of the same clan also emerged to establish their interests in sizable blocks of land.
Kinship Terminology. Terms of address and reference are distinguished for several categories of kin. Bifurcate-merging terminology marks Ego's parental generation. In Ego's generation, a variant of the Iroquois system occurs. Parallel cousins and siblings are equated, but both are collectively differentiated from cross cousins. Patrilateral and matrilateral cross cousins may be categorized together or separated by descriptive terms. Grandparents and grandchildren use reciprocal designations. Various classificatory usages and other extensions of primary kin terms are utilized. All men of father's generation and clan are classed as fathers. Members of father's age set or generation set are similarly classified.
Marriage. Bride-wealth paid out over a number of years legitimates marriage. Clan mates and second-degree cross cousins are ineligible to marry. Polygyny is valued but occurs infrequently. The number of wives is not limited by any cultural rule, although sororal polygyny is prohibited. At marriage, a woman takes up residence in her own dwelling at the homestead of her husband. He maintains his own sleeping quarters, where he can also entertain his age mates. If he marries a second wife, she will have her own residence, where she will cook and support her children separately from her co-wife. Traditionally, divorce was infrequent. Secondary patterns of marriage include the true levirate and the fictive marriage of women. These forms of marriage can occur when a union has failed to produce male heirs. Numerous changes in marriage patterns include increasing numbers of Christian unions and growing resistance to bride-wealth payment.
Domestic Unit. Each homestead is comprised of several types of domestic units, including elementary, polygynous, and extended families. Each married woman in the homestead normally has her own house, where she cooks, maintains her children, and is visited by her husband. Following initiation, a son moves out of his mother's house. The coresident patrilineal kinsmen of the homestead founder constitute the core of a shallow lineage. The founder exercises considerable, but not exclusive, authority in economic matters concerning the group.
Inheritance. Inheritance follows patrilineal principles. In polygynous marriages, the rules of the house-property complex operate. A man's allocation of land and livestock to his wife will pass to her sons. Daughters inherit only minor property such as household implements because they will receive allocations of land and livestock from their husbands at marriage. An elder son often inherits more than his brothers and is entrusted with the responsibility of managing the corporate property.
Socialization. Prolonged nursing and indulgent child rearing are the norm. Large homesteads and nearby female kin, both matrilateral and patrilateral, provide an extensive number of care givers besides the biological mother. Older women of the homestead, either grandmothers or classificatory equivalents, take an active role in nurturing children. Older siblings frequently act as nurses for the very young.
Traditional society lacked chiefs. The political system was diffuse and unorganized beyond the local level of the homestead or neighborhood, where principles of kinship and age organized social and political relations. The imposition of colonial rule led to the appointment of chiefs, the centralization of authority, and the creation of political hierarchy.
Social Organization. Shallow patrilineages and complementary affinal and uterine relationships lay at the center of kinship organization. Classificatory extensions of lineage relations encompassed people of the patrician. Male age sets and generation classes also organized social relations. Exclusively male groups, determined by age and generation, formalized the influence of male elderhood, both in political and ritual matters. The age and generational systems proved very fragile under colonial influence and have not been viable institutions since the early 1950s. Lineage affiliation remains important, but its value has been turned toward protecting one's interest in land under the government program of land reform.
Political Organization. Male elders were invested with considerable influence, exercised formally in councils. The councils were not standing bodies. They were situationally activated by each dispute within the neighborhood. Elderhood, marked by membership in one or another senior age set, defined eligibility for participation in a council. Especially able elders, eloquent in speech and skilled at mediation, regularly were called by disputants to help settle their cases. Resolution emphasized arbitration and compromise rather than adjudication. Elder men enjoyed special powers of cursing, which insured that the effected compromise would be honored. A disputant violating the terms of settlement might fall ill through the effects of a curse. Councils continue to meet, but their functions and range of action have greatly diminished owing to imposed court systems and chiefs.
Social Control. informal mechanisms of social control, including ridicule and songs of mockery, are effective in limiting deviant behavior. Curses and the threat of sorcery also function to insure conformity by threatening illness, infertility, or death against people who might otherwise ignore the force of collective opinion.
Conflict. Cattle raids ended at the close of the nineteenth century, when Kamba and Mbeere warriors fought skirmishes on either side of the Tana River. Until that time, the Mbeere engaged in intermittent warfare against their Bantu neighbors and, occasionally, against the Maasai. Internal raids among Mbeere also ended at the same time. Food shortages usually prompted the warrior forays.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Mbeere believe in a High God, Ngai, said to live atop Mount Kenya. Ngai created humanity and all else in the world. Little mythological elaboration about the activities or manifestations of Ngai has developed. He stays at a distance from the lives of people, although they periodically offer sacrifices to secure his blessing for rain and abundant livestock. More intrusive and less welcome in human affairs are ancestral spirits bringing illness and death. They may act for an understandable reason, or they may punish capriciously. The spirits inhabit hilltops, the bush, or other areas beyond human habitation. People try to keep them at bay by right conduct and by not disturbing areas where they are believed to dwell. Christian churches, particularly Catholic and Anglican, have won numerous converts. The churches have shown little tolerance for traditional beliefs and actions regarding ancestral spirits.
Religious Practitioners. Diviners, medicinal specialists, and healers who treat illness induced by magical means are collectively known as medicine men (and , ago; sing. mund m go). Women may also practice these specialities, but they do so infrequently. Each specialty is learned through apprenticeship or instruction. Sorcerers (arogi; sing. m rogi ) cause mayhem and illness through their curses or magical actions and are generally feared. Occasionally, a prophet (m rathi ) emerges with the power to foretell events.
Ceremonies. The major ceremonies celebrate seasonal and life-cycle transitions. Rites of sacrifice were the province of two generation classes; these rites sought to insure adequate rain for good crops and the health of livestock. Sacrifices occurred at the onset of the rainy season and the dry season. The life-cycle transition most elaborated ritually is initiation of young men and women into adulthood. At about age 15, young men are circumcised. Young women, prior to the onset of first menstruation, traditionally would undergo circumcision, or clitoridectomy. They were then eligible to marry. Missionaries unsparingly attacked female circumcision on religious and medical grounds. There have also been official government efforts to ban it. Many Christian women reject the custom. The practice continues amid strong feelings on both sides of the issue. Its frequency is certainly much less under these various pressures. Male circumcision remains universal. It is increasingly performed in hospitals without traditional ritual accoutrements. Missionaries have also criticized the beer consumption and the erotic songs and dances accompanying both the male and female rite.
Arts. Mbeere aesthetics center on the verbal arts, song, and dance. Riddles, folktales, and proverbs are popular forms of creative expression that also contain strongly didactic messages. The rite of circumcision was an important occasion for song and dance performance, which emphasized collective participation rather than solo virtuosity.
Medicine. The Kimbeere term for medicine, m thege, is broader than its English rendering. It includes ingested substances prepared from plants. These derivatives combat malaria, coughing, stomach distress, and the like. Additionally, muthege comprises various objects such as gourds, animal horns, or other organs manipulated by a medicine man or woman seeking to cure. The theory of disease accounts for illness in terms of naturalistic and mystical, or supernatural, causation. The latter includes sorcery, cursing, or affliction by ancestors.
Death and Afterlife. A concept of the afterlife is little developed, and death ritual is traditionally very austere. Corpses were set out in the bush for hyenas to carry off. Burial became the norm under colonial rule. If a person dies within the home, it should be destroyed by fire to remove the taint of death. The dead person joins other spirits in the wilderness, where they may make their presence known by nocturnal singing. A spirit, by itself, or with other ancestors, can afflict the living, who remain very fearful of ghostly actions. People claim that the spirits sing much less frequently than in the past and that they have been driven off by Christians. Accordingly, attribution of illness or suffering to the ancestors has declined.
Glazier, Jack (1976). "Generation Classes among the Mbeere of Central Kenya." Africa 46(4): 313-326.
Glazier, Jack (1984). "Mbeere Ancestors and the Domestication of Death." Man 19(1): 133-147.
Glazier, Jack (1985). Land and the Uses of Tradition among the Mbeere of Kenya. Lanham, Md., New York, and London: University Press of America.
Middleton, John, and Greet Kershaw (1965). The Kikuyu and Kamba of Kenya. London: International African Institute.
Riley, Bernard W., and David Brokensha (1988). The Mbeere in Kenya. Vol. 1, Changing Rural Ecology. Lanham, Md., New York, and London: Unversity Press of America.