THE MERU COMMUNITY - HISTORY AND CULTURE
The Meru or Amîîrú (including the Ngaa) are a Bantu ethnic group that inhabit the Meru region of Kenya on the fertile lands of north and eastern slopes of Mount Kenya, in the former Eastern Province of Kenya. The word Meru means Shining Light in Kimîîrú language. In Kiswahili, it is Ng’aa, a Bantu word meaning “Dazzling Shine” in both Kimîîrú and Kiswahili languages. Ameru in Kimîîrú language therefore means The Shining Ones or The Children Of The Shining One. The Ameru people comprise nine sections: the Igoji, Imenti, Tigania, Mitine, Igembe, Mwimbi, Muthambi, Chuka and Tharaka. The Tharaka live in the semi-arid part of the greater Meru and they, together with the Mwimbi, Muthambi and Chuka, form the Tharaka-Nithi County. The Ameru are however unrelated to the Wameru of northern Tanzania, other than both being avid farming Bantu communities.
The Ngaa people known as Meru speak the Kimîîrú language. Kimîîrú, Kikamba, Kiembu, Kimbeere and Kikuyu share critical language characteristics. The Kimîîrú language is however not uniform across the Greater Meru but comprises several mutually intelligible dialects depending on the area from which the speaker originates. More importantly, each of the dialect is a reflection of previous migratory patterns, the level of intra-community interactions, and the influences of other adjacent Bantu, Nilotic and Cushitic communities. As a whole language scholars have demonstrated that the Kimîîru language exhibits much older Bantu characteristics in grammar and phonetic forms than the other neighbouring Bantu languages.
The Ngaa people are of Bantu origin. Like the closely related Kikuyu, Embu and Mbeere they are concentrated in the vicinity of Mount Kenya. The exact place that the Ameru ancestors migrated from after the initial Bantu expansion from West Africa is uncertain. Some authorities suggest that they arrived in their present Mount Kenya area of in habitation from earlier settlements further to the north and east, while others argue that the Meru, along with their closely related Eastern Bantu neighbors moved into what is now Kenya from points further south. The name “Meru” refers to both the people and the region, which for many years was the only administrative unit. In 1992, the Greater Meru was divided into three administrative units: Meru Central, Nyambene, and Tharaka-Nithi (Tharaka and Meru South). After the promulgation of a new constitution in Kenya on 27 August 2010, the Greater Meru was further re-defined and now consists of the twin counties of Tharaka-Nithi and Meru. The Greater Meru covered approximately 13,000 km2 (5,000 sq mi), stretching from the Thuci river, on the border with Embu County in the south, to the border with Isiolo County in the north.
Njuri Ncheke – The Council of Elders
The Ameru have since the 17th Century been governed by elected and hierarchical councils of elders from the clan level right up to the supreme Njuri Ncheke Council. To become a member of the Njuri-Ncheke is the highest social rank to which a Meru man can aspire. The elders forming the Njuri-Ncheke are carefully selected and comprise mature, composed, respected and incorruptible members of the community. This is necessary as their work requires great wisdom, personal discipline, and knowledge of the traditions. The Njuri Ncheke is also the apex of the Meru traditional judicial system and their edicts apply across the entire community.
The functions of the Njuri-Ncheke are to make and execute community laws, to listen to and settle disputes, and to pass on community knowledge and norms across the generations in their role as the custodians of traditional culture. Local disputes will invariably first be dealt with by lower ranks of the elders (Kiama), then the middle rank (Njuri) and finally the Njuri-Ncheke. However, Njuri Ncheke does not handle matters involving non-Meru people, or those that are expressly under the Kenya’s common law. The determination of cases by the Njuri Ncheke, just like is for common law, relies a lot on case law and precedence. A lesser known, yet important function of the Njuri-Ncheke, is the overseeing and enforcing the rules and regulations controlling the use and conservation of open grasslands, salt-licks and forests. Their work as conservators extends to the preservation of the Sacred Sites.
The Njuri Ncheke is also influential in the socio-economic and political decision making amongst the Meru. The Council of Elders spearheaded the establishment of the Meru College of Science and Technology and donated 641 acres of community land in 1983 for its siting and development. The college was in 2008 upgraded to a University College of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and in early 2013 awarded a charter by H.E Mwai Kibaki – the then President of Kenya and renamed Meru University of Science and Technology (MUST). Njuri Ncheke is represented in the University Council.
Culture and family traditions
The Meru are primarily agrarian, and their home life and culture is similar to other Highland Bantus. The Meru have maintained adherence to a fairly strict customary code amongst the various cohorts of the population. For instance circumcision is a mandatory rite of passage for boys during which time cultural education including community norms and expectations, such as respect for elders and protection of children are taught in a seclusion period that may last up to a month. As a matter of principle, young men must ensure minimal contact with their “Mothers” after initiation. Nowadays however the depth of instruction varies depending on the extent of urban influence. Previously, girls would also undergo circumcision, but the practice was outlawed by Njuri Ncheke in April 1956. The practice has been progressively abandoned and is being replaced by instruction based alternative rites of passage.
Typical Meru cuisine includes nyani (mashed green peas or beans; traditional vegetables; and arrowroot, yams or potatoes), gîtwero (mashed banana), kîthere or mûthere (unfettered corn seeds cooked with beans or peas), nyama cia gwokia (roasted meat), ūkie (fermented porridge made from flour of corn, millet or sorghum), and rugicu (a mixture of honey meat and vegetables)
The Meru have had a strong modern educational heritage provided by the Christian missionaries. The main education institutions were started or sponsored by the Catholic, the Methodist and the Presbyterian Churches. The Greater Meru has numerous institutions of learning including primary schools, secondary schools, teacher training colleges, nursing schools, technical institutes and Universities. One of the most prestigious chartered private university in Kenya, KEMU was the first to be established in the area in 2006. Two chartered public universities, Chuka University in Tharaka-Nithi County and Meru University of Science and Technology (MUST) at Nchiru- Meru County have since been established. Several other institutions of higher learning including the University of Nairobi, Egerton University, Kenyatta University, Co-operative University College, Nazarene University and Mt. Kenya University have established their satellite campuses in the area, making the Greater Meru a key education hub in Kenya
The Ameru are primarily agrarian, growing a variety of crops and keeping livestock. The Greater Meru is endowed with soils and climatic conditions that allow for the production of a variety of commodities including wheat, barley, potatoes, millet, sorghum and maize. High grade tea, coffee, bananas and miraa (Khat) are the key cash crops. The Meru were indeed the first Africans to grow coffee in Kenya in early 1930s upon the implementation of the Devonshire White Paper of 1923. Other crops include groundnuts and a wide range of legumes, vegetables and fruits. The Meru are also keepers of livestock both for subsistence and commercial purposes. These include dairy and beef cattle, goats, sheep, poultry and honey bees. Besides, the area has huge potential for tourism by virtue of hosting the Meru and Mount Kenya National Parks and the Lewa Conservancy. Mining activity is also expected to pick up once the ongoing exploratory works on the iron-ore deposits in Tharaka are completed.
Politics and alliances
The Ameru wield a lot of political influence in Kenya mainly due to their astute and strategic political organization. The community has not produced a President for the Republic of Kenya so far. However, members of the community have always held some key and strategic positions in the governments of the day. In the early years of Kenya’s independence, the Meru were in the Gikuyu-Embu-Meru Association GEMA, a political mobilization outfit formed during the reign of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. GEMA was however formally banned in 1980 during a national consultative conference at the Kenya Institute of Administration, Kabete under the chairmanship of President Daniel Arap Moi, but since the advent of plural politics in Kenya in 1992, the Meru have largely voted with the Embu in all subsequent presidential elections.
In the non-presidential election, most constituencies in the Greater Meru vote in candidates based more on their individual merit than on the basis of the sponsoring political party. This particularly manifested itself in the general elections of 4 March 2013 where the Orange Democratic Party (ODM) captured two seats (Hon. Cyprian Kubai Iringo MP for Igembe Central and Hon. Mpuru Aburi MP for Tigania East) in Meru County despite the predominance of the Jubilee Coalition in the upper Eastern and Central Kenya region. The elections also saw the historic election of Hon. Rahim Dawood, a politician of Asian origin to represent Imenti North Constituency and Hon. Kinoti Gatobu, a 26-year-old independent candidate elected to represent Buuri constituency. Subsequent to the same elections, Prof. Kithure Kindiki, an International Constitutional Lawyer and a first time Senator (Tharaka-Nithi County) became the Majority Leader in the Senate.
The historical and cultural artifacts of the Meru are preserved at the Meru Museum, formerly the colonial DC’s office located in Meru Town. The Njuri Ncheke Shrine at Nchiru is also gazetted as a heritage site and placed under the care of the National Museums of Kenya. The Shrine is accessible and open to the public most time of the year unless there are Njuri Ncheke activities at the site. Members of the Njuri Ncheke, though bound by a strict oath of secrecy, can also provide valuable and authoritative information and insights into the Meru traditions and culture dating back to the yore and transmitted through generations.