views updated May 14 2018


ETHNONYMS: Ameroe, Ameru, Mumeru, Kimeru, Mero, Meroe


Identification and Location. The Meru are a Northeastern Bantu group composed of nine different subtribes: the Igembe, Tigania, Imenti, Miutini, Igoji, Tharaka, Chuka, Muthambi, and Mwimbi. Since 1956 these subtribes have been separated from the Kikuyu and Embu to form the Meru Land Unit. At the end of the twentieth century the Meru subtribes occupied four adjoining districts in Eastern Province: Meru South, Meru Central, Meru North, and Tharaka.

The Meru territory lies to the north and northeast of the slopes of Mount Kenya (elevation 17, 053 feet [5,199 meters]) and constitutes a large area stretching northward to the volcanic Nyambene Hills and southward to the Thuchi River. The wide range of altitude in the area (984 to 17,053 feet [300 to 5,199 meters]) creates a variety of ecological zones ranging from extremely fertile, well-watered agricultural areas to low-lying semiarid lands. The rainfall pattern is bimodal with long periods of rain occurring from mid-March to May and short periods occurring from October to December. The mean annual rainfall is about 52 inches (1,300 millimeters), ranging from 15 inches (380 millimeters) in lowland areas to 98 inches (2,500 millimeters) on the slopes of Mount Kenya.

Demography. During the colonial period European estimates of the Meru population ranged from 80,000 to 200,000. The first official census in 1948 recorded 258,000 Meru. The population of the area has increased steadily, rising from 637,709 in 1979 to 1,409,373 in 1999. By the 1990s the Meru accounted for nearly 6 percent of the Kenyan population. Population density in the region is highly variable, ranging from 100 persons per square kilometer in lowland areas to over 400 persons per square kilometer in highland areas.

Linguistic Affiliation. All nine subtribes speak Kimeru, a Bantu language in the Niger-Congo family. Dialects include Imenti, Igembe, Tigania, Igoji, Igembe, Mwimbi, Chuka, Muthambi, and Tharaka. Meru exhibits much older Bantu characteristics in grammar and phonetic forms than do the neighboring languages. A Meru speaker, however, has little difficulty understanding the speech of the Kikuyu and Kamba people.

History and Cultural Relations

Meru history spans approximately three centuries, although the first two hundred years are documented solely through oral testimony. Although there are conflicting views on the origin of the Meru, the Mbwa tradition is the most popular. This tradition claims that the Meru migrated to the Mount Kenya region from the island of the Mbwa, which is considered by many historians to be off the coast of the Indian Ocean. Around the year 1700 Mbwa was attacked by the red people (Nguuntune). The Meru were held in captivity until a great leader organized their escape across receding waters. The Meru then migrated along the Tana River, reaching the base of Mount Kenya, Tigania, and Nyambene in the 1730s.

Europeans first arrived in Meru at the end of the nineteenth century as part of Arab trading caravans, and the region was designated an administrative district of the British colonial government in 1910. The residents of the area were converted to Christianity shortly afterward through the mission outreaches of the Church of Scotland, the England Methodist Church, and the Roman Catholic Church. During the 1950s Meru was a stronghold of resistance against British forces in the Mau Mau rebellion and has maintained close political ties with the Kikuyu and Embu through the Gikuyu-Embu-Meru Association (GEMA).


Traditionally, settlement patterns in highland areas were characterized by patrilineally related households in larger dispersed homesteads. Each homestead consisted of small cylindrical thatched houses, granaries, and a circular animal compound. Every married woman had a separate hut and garden. Land consolidation during the 1950s altered these settlement patterns. Rectangular houses constructed of timber with corrugated iron roofs replaced cylindrical-conical homes, and animals were pastured in enclosed paddocks. Shifting cultivation on fragmented land holdings was abandoned, and regional crop specialization emerged. By the 1970s most homesteads had an outdoor water tap and pit latrine, with water tanks used by wealthier families in highland areas. Electricity is not available in many rural areas.


Subsistence. Highland areas traditionally were characterized by three distinct ecological zones, each hosting a specific mixture of food crops (banana, yam, cassava, pumpkin, millet, sorghum, sugarcane) and domestic animals (cattle, sheep, and goats). Tobacco, gourds, and miraa, a mild stimulant, were also grown. The semiarid environment of lowland Meru was primarily reliant on hunting, bee keeping, and plant gathering. During the 1940s the colonial government promoted new food varieties, leading to the widespread adoption of maize as a staple crop. The majority of the Meru remain dependent on animal husbandry and crop cultivation, with hoes and machetes used for most cultivation tasks. Those without land now depend largely on wage labor for subsistence.

Commercial Activities. European settlers initially prohibited the development of export crops (coffee, tea, pyrethrum, sisal, wheat, and sugar) among the Meru. The ban on coffee cultivation was lifted during the 1930s, bringing markets, factories, and roads to the area. Tea was introduced in 1960 and thrives in the high altitudes of the district. The production of export crops for European markets became widespread in the 1980s. Other cash crops include cotton, maize, beans, sorghum, and millet. A profitable dairy industry has existed since the 1960s.

Industrial Arts. Pottery, ironwork, and leatherwork were common industrial products among the precolonial Meru. Existing handicrafts include weaving, basketry, clay work, knitting, and crocheting. Palm baskets and mats are prevalent in Tharaka, where palms grow in riverine areas.

Trade. In the precolonial period markets were formed by women trading agricultural and handicraft items. During the colonial period commercial markets operated by Indian and Swahili traders sold foodstuffs as well as bags, mats, knives, implements, skins, and hides. In the 1930s drought and pestilence led to widespread crop failure and the collapse of the market system, and significant trade in food crops did not return until the 1950s. Miraa remains a major cash crop in low-land areas and is widely traded with coastal regions and Somalia.

Division of Labor. The Meru traditionally had a relatively strict gender division of labor. Men were responsible for building, herding, slaughtering, land clearing, leatherwork, hunting, and family protection; women were responsible for maintenance of the homestead; food cultivation and preparation; the collection of wood for fuel, fodder, and water; milking; basket weaving; and childcare. This pattern is still prevalent. Everyone participates in farming, but women have the overall responsibility for food crops and contribute a significant amount of labor to cash crops such as coffee and tea. Tharaka men tend to participate in cultivation to a greater degree than highland men do and they hunt. Throughout the region there is increasing cooperation between husbands and wives in economic undertakings.

Land Tenure. Historically, relations of descent and affinity determined land tenure, with clan elders disposing of land inherited from God to individuals and families. This system of property rights was altered by the Swynnerton Plan of 1954, which initiated a process of resettlement, land consolidation, and titling. By the late 1960s titled property had largely replaced land held in usufruct by the clan, with women obtaining use rights from their husbands and fathers. The demarcation process, coupled with a high population and local inheritance practices, has led to significant land fragmentation, particularly in highland areas. By the 1980s land disputes had become a major source of conflict.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship is based on exogamous clans and patrilineal descent groups, with agnatic relatives linked through a series of male ancestors and descendants. In the past, incorporation in kin groups occurred after the postpubertal rite of circumcision and the nature of kinship interactions reflected passage through age grades. Today kinship is expressed predominantly through extended family relations.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms share elements with the Sudanese system. Clear distinctions are made between relatives on the mother's and father's sides of the family. There are eight different cousin terms, all of which are distinguished from ego's brother and sister.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Courtship, bride-wealth, and marriage are central to Meru life. Traditionally, marriages were regulated along clan and lineage lines but were typically undertaken with the mutual consent of the bride and groom. Postmarital residence remains patrilocal. Women's rights and obligations become embodied within the husband's patrilineage after marriage, and close bonds between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law are common. In the past divorce was difficult to obtain, often requiring the intervention of the clan; however, it became common by the 1970s. Polygyny has become less prevalent because of the influence of Christianity and Western education as well as diminishing resources to support multiple wives.

Domestic Unit. Patrilineally related households are situated within a larger homestead that consists of an agnatic core of male kinsmen and their in-marrying wives and families. Household size has decreased dramatically in recent decades as a result of the introduction of family planning services, a decline in polygyny, and the limited availability of land for expansion. By the 1990s land scarcity and population pressure had led to migration to other areas. In some cases grandparents care for children whose parents emigrate.

Inheritance. Customary inheritance practices are patrilineal. Property, including land, livestock, and buildings, is divided equally among the deceased's sons. Traditionally, responsibility for the widow of the deceased was left to the appointed head of the family, who would act as the guardian for her and her children. In most cases the younger brother of the deceased inherited the widow and could sire children with her. This practice had ended by the time of independence, with women obtaining use rights to the deceased husband's property through their sons.

Socialization. Traditionally, boys went through several stages of formalized instruction by the council (kiama) or governing body. This was particularly significant in regard to circumcision, when boys underwent a period of seclusion and education on communal obligations, military responsibilities, and sexual relations. Similarly, women's councils (ukiama) provided teaching on acceptable behavior and martial duties to young girls. This ended during the colonial period. In the early twenty-first century the majority of socialization occurs through the extended family, schools, and churches.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditionally, social organization was based on clans and a system of age and generation classes. Clans were exogamous social and political units governed by a council of ruling elders. The system of age sets was similar to the systems used in other central highland Bantu societies, with men included in a generation class at the time of circumcision. Each age set included several years of age, and as one generation moved to the next age grade, the following age set moved up to assume the older age set's functions. There was a ritual transfer of administrative authority between age sets (novice to warrior) in the Ntwiko ceremony. Each subtribe also possessed a Mugwe, the protector of the people, who was a central feature of Meru social structure. Colonization diminished the significance of the Mugwe, the age-set system, and the clans. Churches and community development organizations have assumed many of the social functions of age sets and play an important role in people's lives.

Political Organization. Before the colonial period the Meru were governed by two political institutions: the system of alternating age sets (Kiruka and Ntiba) the governing bodies of councils. The age sets were responsible for the daily running of community affairs and adopted administrative responsibilities alternately. When one party was in power, all the boys who were circumcised during that period belonged to the party that was out of office. This age-set system formed the basis for the council system, in which each age grade formed its own council to regulate conflicts. The most important were the elders' councils, which were divided into three ranks: Areici, Njuuri Ncheke, and Mpingiri. The Njuri Ncheke, the highest council, was the institution responsible for executing laws, arbitrating disputes, and administering the tribe's affairs in general. After colonization the Meru were drawn into the fold of the colonial government through the Local Native Tribunals (1913) and the Local Native Councils (1925). In the postindependence period, central government administrators and courts replaced male elder's councils.

Social Control. Before the colonial period dispute resolution occurred at three different levels (family, clan, and council of elders), depending on the nature of the offense. The elder's councils were responsible for the most serious conflicts, such as murder, adultery, theft, and land disputes. In questions involving the entire tribe, spokesmen representing each clan formed a council of councils and all decisions were taken collectively. Violations of communal norms were punished severely, with the execution of justice placed in the hands of the Stoning Council. During the colonial period civil and criminal cases were arbitrated by Local Native Councils. In parts of Meru social control is still maintained by Njuri Ncheke as well as village chiefs, who adjudicate land and theft cases.

Conflict. Before European conquest warfare was endemic. Twice a year warrior bands would raid the livestock of adjacent areas, enabling warriors to accumulate bride-wealth and acquire status. The colonial government prohibited cattle raids, and interethnic hostilities subsided to some extent. In the 1950s the Meru joined the neighboring Kikuyu and Embu in fighting the British in the Mau Mau uprising. Although there generally is peace between neighboring tribes, border disputes between eastern and northern districts in the Meru region have intensified since the redivision of 1993.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Before the colonial period religious beliefs were based on God (Ngai or Murungu), ancestral spirits (nkoma), and a system of supernatural rituals. Although God was considered the more important, the presence of ancestral spirits, who were both bad and good, was also an important feature of daily life. The bad fortune of individuals was caused by an offended spirit. The system of supernatural rituals included prophecy, cursing, curse detection, curse removal, and divination. Witchcraft, used to cause illness or death, was practiced and remains prevalent in parts of the region. By the end of the colonial period the majority of the Meru had converted to Christianity.

Religious Practitioners. Diviners (kiruria), curse detectors (aringia), and medicine men (mugad) were integral to the social structure, but the Mugwe, the prophet and spiritual leader of each subtribe, fulfilled the most important role. The Mugwe functioned as an intermediary between God and the people, invoking God's blessing for the protection of warriors, generation classes, and the subtribe. After colonization the Mugwe and most supernatural practitioners disappeared. Today Meru more commonly serve as ministers and preachers in the numerous Christian churches.

Ceremonies. Ceremonial events have always been important in social and political life. The main elements of every ceremony include the cooking and sharing of food, dancing, and drum music. The most common ceremonial occasions are associated with puberty (circumcision), marriage, the birth of children, and death. Before the colonial period the shaving ritual, marking the resumption of sexual relations between husband and wife after the birth of a child, was also significant.

Arts. Before colonization the main forms of artistic expression included tattooing; personal ornaments such as necklaces, bracelets, and earrings; and the manufacture of crafts. Dancing and music were also well developed. Singing, dancing, and music (drums and string instruments) remain popular art forms. Basketry and crocheting are still practiced by women, with crocheted products marketed in Nairobi.

Medicine. Most people have used Western medicine since the colonial period. However, the medicine man or traditional healer (mugaa) remains a common figure. The mugaa is trained in the medicinal properties of herbs and powders and is widely consulted, particularly for inexplicable illnesses.

Death and Afterlife. The Meru traditionally viewed death as God's will, but their approach to an individual's death depended on that person's status during life. The death of an "accomplished" person marked the successful completion of a life cycle. However, the death of an "unfinished" person, such as a person who had not yet attained elderhood, was regarded fearfully, necessitating specific rites to avoid the curse of malevolent spirits. Life after death was universally recognized. The majority of the Meru did not bury the dead but abandoned their bodies in the bush, believing that a corpse was contaminated. Whoever disposed of a corpse had to undergo a cleansing and sexual ritual. During the colonial period, these practices ended and burial became a legal requirement.

For other cultures in Kenya, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Bernard, Frank (1972). East of Mt. Kenya: Meru Agriculture in Transition. Munich: Weltforum Verlag.

Bernardi, B. (1959). The Mugwe: A Falling Prophet. London: Oxford Press.

Fadiman, Jeffrey (1993). When We Began, There were Witchmen: An Oral History from Mt. Kenya. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Laughton, William (1938). "An Introductory Study of the Meru People." Master's dissertation, Wesley House, Cambridge University.

Middleton, John, and Greet Kershaw (1965). The Central Tribes of the North-Eastern Bantu. London: International African Institute.

M'Imanyara, Alfred (1992). The Restatement of Bantu Origin and Meru History. Nairobi: Longman.

Nyaga, Daniel (1997). Customs and Traditions of the Meru. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.

Rimita, David Maitai (1988). The Njuri-NcheL· of Meru. Meru, Kenya: Self-published.



views updated May 29 2018

Meru, also Sumeru. Mythological golden mountain, axis or centre of the world, recognized in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hinduism, it appears in many myths in the purāṇas, where it is placed in the Himālayas. Gaṅgā (Ganges) springs from it. In Buddhism, Meru is important in a diagrammatic visualization of the process toward (or away from) enlightenment.