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The Meru of Kenya

Population:     1,305,000 (1994 Larsen Bible Ttranslation and Literacy, Kenya)
Religion:        Traditional Religion, Christianity
Registry of Peoples code:  Meru:  106562
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue):  Meru:  mer


The Meru people live primarily on and adjoining the northeastern slope of Mount 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.  This changed in 1992 when the district was divided into three: Meru, Nyambene, and Tharaka-Nithi.  These people are unrelated to the Meru people in north Tanzania, other than that they are both Bantu-speaking.

Depending upon who one asks, Meru history spans about 270 years.  There are no written records for the first 200 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 (or Nhuuntune, meaning "Red People") and taken into captivity on the island of Mbwa.  Some analysts interpret this "Red People" tradition as referring to Arabs.

Because conditions were intolerable, secret preparations were made to leave Mbwa. Some analysts interpret Mbwa as re;ated to present day Yemen.  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 threat from Arabs, they traveled farther south until they came to the River Tana basin.  The Chuka separated from them there, and inland toward Mt Kenya.  Most traditions say the rest went as far south as Tanzania until finally reaching the Mount Kenya area.

There is a confusion here, since you cannot get to Mt Kenya by going south form the mouth of the Tana River, as the mountain is northwest up the Tana from there.  They could have gone south, even as far as what is now known as Tanzania, and then swung inland and back northwest.

This confusion or combination of geographical features and directions seems to combine two separate myths of origin from different segments of Meru ancestral history, one from the north and another from the east.  In trying to make sense of the confusing geography of the oral tradition, some identify Mbwa with Manda Island near Lamu and the water as the ocean channel.  The eastern origin tradition indicates westward migration from the coast.  This correlates with traditions of other Bantu peoples like the Giriama and the Pokomo.

Since the language of the Meru people is a Bantu language, they have traditionally been classified as Bantu.  Some studies on Meru history shows some of the Meru are Cushitic in origin.  Language history can be more easily reconstructed, but ethnic merging is more subtle.  Insights are provided by the complex oral traditons of multiple origins.  The Meru groups themselves have multiple myths or legends of origin, indicating they are actually of mixed origin.

Some claim an origin from the north or west, while others claim coastal origins.  Cushites referred to as Mwoko in Meru traditions were already living there when the Bantu groups arrived in the Mt Kenya area in various stages of migration.  Other Bantu-speaking peoples in central Kenya have a multiple origin.

This is, in fact, the case with most peoples of the Eastern Africa region, which has experienced a swirl of movement and settlement, displacement and resettlement, through all the oral and recorded history we know.  All the Bantu languages of the Mt Kenya region are very similar, as well as cultural patterns.  The Meru are most closely related to the Chuka, but share many similarities with the Embu and Kikuyu as well.

The languages of Meru, Chuka, Embu and Kikuyu are somewhat understandable to one another with some substantial differences.  The Meru speak at least seven different dialects, 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.

Political Situation:
In the past the Meru were in a coalition with the Embu and Kikuyu which yielded some political power. The coalition, called Gikuyu-Embu-Meru Association (GEMA), is not as strong as it once was, but the Meru typically voted with the opposition.  This does vary from location to location, but would generally hold true.  Developments under the multi-party experiment since 1992 renewed an informal political alliance between GEMA peoples and much of the Luo "community."  It is not clear how the political situation of position of the Meru has been affected by the political-ethnic violence that scoured Kenya in the first half of 2008.

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 and girls no longer have contact with their father.  A separate house is built for the sons and the mother leaves their food outside the door.  This does vary to some degree depending on the level of urban influence, but is still practiced in Meru town.  This is one of the major reasons that all secondary schools in Meru are boarding schools.

The Meru are primarily agrarian, with some animals.  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 have had a strong educational foundation has been provided by Christian mission schools

Religion/Christianity: Traditionally, the Meru followed persons called "Mugwe" who served as a prophet and spiritual leader.  Mugwes still exist today but are said to have only an ornamental purpose.  In the days of mission comity agreements, Meru was given to the Methodists.  Methodism has therefore become the primary religion of the region.  In many cases, church membership is a cultural rather than spiritual matter.

Even within the Methodist Church, three groups are recognized:
Christians -- all church members,
Followers -- those members who are "saved", and
the Team -- those saved members who are into the "deeper life."
Most see this division as resulting from the East African Revival movement which started in the early 1930's.  Researchers report the Meru to be 45% Christian.

Baptist and Pentecostals have experienced fairly active response in recent years.  Much effort is being given to leadership training.  Training workers report that one frustrating hindrance to training and church development has been a political power attitude by church leaders.

For more on the Meru People

Meru — Ethnologue
Meru History and Oral Traditions — BlueGecko

Bottignole, Silvana.  Kikuyu Traditional Culture and Christianity.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Heinemann Educational Books, 1984.

Meru., Nairobi, Kenya:  Consolata Fathers, No date, No authors given.

Ogot, B. A. (ed).  Kenya Before 1900: Eight Regional Studies.  Nairobi, Kenya:  East African Publishing House, 1978.

Orville Boyd Jenkins and Dane Fowlkes
August 1996
Revised and posted May 2003
Rewritten 22 September 2008
Last edited 13 October 2008

Copyright © 1996, 2003, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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