History of Meru people of Kenya || Ameru Tribe Kenya

Who are the aMiiru/aMeru? (aMiiru ni bau?)

Meru people (aMeru or aMiiru) are a bantu speaking tribe found in the highlands and slopes of Mt Kenya in Meru and Tharaka Nithi Counties. They Meru people are over 1 million speakers and are further grouped into 9 susbtribes namely;

  • Imenti – They mainly live in Meru town and adjacent areas of North Imenti, Central Imenti and South Imenti Constituencies, Meru County
  • Tigania – They mainly live in Maua town, Tigania East and Tigania West constituencies, Meru County
  • Igembe – They mainly live in Maua town, Igembe North and Igembe South constituencies, Meru County
  • Chuka – They mainly live in Chuka town, Tharaka Nithi County
  • Tharaka – They mainly live in Tharaka constituency, Tharaka Nithi County
  • Igoji – They mainly live in South Imenti constituency, Meru County
  • Mwimbi – They mainly live in Tharaka Nithi County
  • Muthambi – They mainly live in Tharaka Nithi County
  • Mitine

Ameru girls 1930,

Photo taken by D. Evaristo Coutinho

The Meru people used to refer to themselves as the Ng’aa, people which means a Bantu word meaning “Dazzling Shine” in both Kimîîrú and Kiswahili languages. The Maasai may have given the Meru-speaking peoples their contemporary name Meru. Imenti traditions suggest that the forests of their region were called Miru (or Meiru) by Maa-speaking peoples of the plains, a term that was also given to those who lived within them.

Before the colonial conquest in 1906 the name “Meru” was used by only five of the present nine subgroups that now make up the tribe, the Igoji, Miutini, Imenti, Tigania, and Igembe. Soon after the conquest British administrators decided to include the peoples of Tharaka, who live east of the Meru speakers on the adjacent and plains. In the 1920s still other British officials added the peoples of Cuka (then spelled “Chuka”), Muthambi, and Mwimbi, whose regions border the five original Meru speakers to the south. Collectively, these nine subtribes now make up both the contemporary Meru administrative unit (Meru Province) and the historical Meru “tribe.”

When we began there were witchmen 1994

The aMeru are predominantly agriculturalists who ocuppy the fertile slopes of Mount Kenya. The Imenti, Igoji, Mwimbi, Muthambi subtribes live closely to the mountain and cultivate tea, coffee, bananas, Maize and other perennial crops. The Igembe and Tigania follow suit living around the Nyambene hills, cultivating the famous Miraa or Khat that is a commercial cash crop exported to Somalia and Midde East countries. The Tharaka subtribe occupy the drier parts bordering the Ukambani region and are mainly Herders and bee keepers. The Meru also keep animals like cows, goats, sheep, chicken etc

Ameru people trading at unknown market around 1910s

This photo was taken when Former President Theodore Roosevelt, his son Kermit and crew toured east Africa for a hunting expedition 1909-1911

Origin and Migration

The aMeru are a bantu speaking tribe closely related to the neigboruing tribes like aKikuyu, aEmbu, aMbeere and aKamba. They can also understands a few words of othr bantu groups from the coastal, western regions of Kenya and also other parts of Africa like the Swati and Zulu of Southern Africa.

Like all Bantu, they are said to originate from the Congo basin migrating all the way until Kenya. However they have oral legends of their migration including one of their migration from Mbwaa (Considered a island in the coast probably Mande Island) and their interaction with Nguo Ntune (Arabs). Read it below as researched by Jeffrey A. Fadiman who interviewd old Meru elders in the 1960s. Uniquely this explains why most Meru words are similarly like Swahili

Mbwaa: The Meru Beginnings

“We began on Mbwaa,” the chronicles declare, then go on to describe an orderly, prosperous island community, set on the edge of a large body of water, the name of which is no longer recalled. “It was the time when the men of Ntangi [age-set] were warriors [ca. 1700]; a time when we lived near the mouth of a large river that ran red into a great sea. It was a time when we lived on an island we recall as Mbwaa.”[2]
Traditions describe the island as having been encircled by bitter (salt) water that no one could drink. It lay sufficiently near a “mainland,” however, for both people and animals to have been visible from a northwestern shore. The island was irregularly shaped (“like a crooked gourd”), set in a circular coral reef, and small enough to cross on foot within a single day. The earth consisted of coral and sand, although freshwater springs near its center allowed small-scale herding and agriculture.
The islanders’ economy, however, was based largely on fish. Men carved small wooden hooks to catch tiny fish along the reefs. Larger fish would either crush or break the hooks, thereby sharply limiting what could be taken. Men of Mbwaa also kept goats, sheep, and short-horned cattle. Through trade they acquired donkeys from a people re-called as Cucu (Somali). The donkeys drew water from shallow wells dug near the island’s center. The wells also supported crops of millet and yams, supplemented by sugar cane, bananas, and sap from a palm that was brewed into beer.
The only “wild” animal on Mbwaa was a long-haired goat. Its skin was sought, periodically, to make simple bellows for forging iron. The chronicles declare that iron was found “everywhere” on Mbwaa. In consequence each clan contained ironsmiths who gathered the ore to forge into spear points and knives.
The island’s most unusual feature was the behavior of its tides. Informants from every Meru community described these with the phrase “ruuji rugwita kuria nyaki” (the water has gone to eat grass). The reference is to times, once in daylight and once at night, when the tide would flow swiftly toward the mainland (“to eat grass”), leaving an area recalled as “dry,” but which in fact was actually mud, sprinkled with tidal pools.
This dry period was very important to the economy. Women used it to gather cowry shells, which were worn on strings around their waists for use in trade. Little boys gathered larger shells for the community elders, who used them as containers for everything from snuff to magic herbs.
The tides served the islanders in other ways. After a certain time “it would return from eating grass” (from the mainland) with great force, flowing back into its channel with such speed that people caught out in the tide pools had to race for shore. Traditions dwell upon the water’s swiftness (“watchmen would shout”), as well as the fear that women, in particular, felt at being caught in its flow. This return tide would even sometimes catch and drown wild animals, most often elephants, which moved between Mbwaa and the mainland. The islanders seized such occasions with great joy, stripping each corpse of ivory and meat, then saving the tusks for subsequent trade with the mainlanders.

The economic portrait that emerges from these narrations is surprisingly consistent. Mbwaa is remembered as sheltering a relatively well-ordered community, which worked steadily to survive but never knew hunger. The availability of iron for tools permitted construction of a diverse economic base, in which fishing, shellfish gathering, herding, and grain production all had roles. Beyond that the island’s location, evidently adjacent to other communities on the mainland clearly provided both the desire and opportunity for trade. The occasional acquisition of ivory must have provided further stimulus for trade, although in subsequent traditions it appears to have contributed directly to the community’s eventual demise.

Where Was Mbwaa?
No living elder recalled the location of Mbwaa. Nor, informants declare, did their grandfathers remember it. Nothing in the entire body of tradition speaks directly of the island’s location. Yet the narratives are rich in clues. Much of the existing oral evidence suggests that the Meru ancestral homeland lay off the northern Kenya coast, on the northwestern edge of the contemporary island of Manda.
Linguistic evidence supports this contention. H. E. Lambert, a notable linguist and former commissioner of Meru district (in 1933–1935 and 1940–1941), suggests, for example, that the Meru word Mbwaa (or Mbwa ) is derived from the Swahili term pwani (beach, shore). Linguistically, the only difference is that the Swahili word “has [added] the locative ending (-ni) while . . . discarding the nasalization (“b”) in favor of aspiration (“p”), whereas the Meru word . . . having retained the “m” has kept the “b”; “n” becomes “m” before a labial.[3] Lambert also believed that the fundamental meaning of the Swahili stem pwa denoted not only “shore” but also “place where the tide ebbs.” As an example he gives the term pwayi , which in the dialect of neighboring Pate Island suggests a creek that dries up at low tide.
Lambert, writing in the 1940s, was unable to locate Mbwaa. Yet his linguistic suggestions are supported by examination of historical variants of the word. The most recent recordings of this specific tradition, those collected between 1930 and 1970, spell the island of origin as “Mbwa.” The very earliest, however, collected between 1917 and 1925, use the longer variant “Mbwaa.”[4] In many Bantu languages, including those of the contemporary Meru region, the ground, or r or l (the intervocalic *d ), has tended over time to disappear when surrounded by vowels within a syllable; the three letters run together, gradually evolving into a single short vowel.[5]
Before this century, for example, the Tharaka, the tribe adjacent to contemporary Meru, were known as the Thaaka , both by neighboring African societies and the earlier European explorers. Logically, they should be known as the Thaka today, but the r was restored by conscientious twentieth-century British administrators who inquired into their past. Similarly, if Mbwa (1930s–1960s) was once Mbwaa (1920s), it may have been expressed still earlier as Mbwara , having gradually contracted in the same manner as Tharaka . The linkage is made stronger by the existence of a specific region—on the western side of Manda Island—known as Mbwara Matanga.
Similarity in names, of course, is inconclusive. Yet the word matanga is also worth examining. In the Manda dialect it means “sands” but refers to a type of sand containing iron ore. This type of sand has also been discovered on the adjacent island of Pate, particularly within an area similar to one on Manda. An iron-based technology could have developed with ease.[6] This seems to mesh quite clearly with the Mbwaa traditions, in which frequent references to ironworking (e.g., spear points, smelting, ironsmiths) suggest that easy access to the ore had made its use routine.
Geographic evidence also suggests Manda as the Meru point of origin. The most striking argument lies in the behavior of the island’s tides. Two-thirds of Manda is surrounded by coral reefs, corresponding to the pattern described in the Mbwaa tradition. Northwest of Mbwara Matanga, however, lies a narrow channel known as the Mkanda. The term Mkanda does appear within the Mbwaa chronicles, to describe a people living separate from the ancestral Meru, on the mainland.
The modern Mkanda Channel, however, fills and empties twice daily from the action of a tidal bore. When empty, it leaves a landscape of steaming mud and tide pools, which hinders rapid movement. One investigator, surveying the phenomenon in 1913, remarked, “An enemy must come at high tide through this (Mkanda) channel . . . and in the event of defeat has no opportunity to retreat until next tide, lest he be caught in a sea of mud.”[7] This surging tidal flow is central to the Mbwaa narrations and is constantly referred to. As examination of subsequent traditions reveals, knowledge of the ebb and flow of tides proved instrumental in allowing Meru supernatural specialists to rescue their entire community from what tradition records as enslavement.
Tidal patterns of this type are found elsewhere in Kenya, but nowhere are they so closely associated with a specific oral history.
Historical evidence also points to Manda, in this instance within the oral traditions of a neighboring people. The Pokomo-speaking peoples currently inhabit both banks of Kenya’s Tana River, which reaches the Indian Ocean just south of the Lamu-Manda region. Meru traditions say nothing of contact with the Pokomo. They do, however, speak of the peoples of “Buu,” “Nderi,” and “Dzunda,” who lived on an island near Mbwaa, remembered as “Bua.”
Buu, Nderi, and Dzunda are names for contemporary sections of Pokomo. Oral traditions recorded among all three groups confirm that several of their clans did live on islands in the distant past. One group recalls that its home island was once called Bua; it is known today as Lamu Island and is located only a mile or so from Manda’s western shore.[8]
No traditions predate existence on Mbwaa, and informants did not recognize place names or tribal names associated with the region or even the name itself. The pre-Meru home island lies within the Lamu Archipelago, however, less than one hundred miles south of Bur Kao.[9] It is thus theoretically possible that the pre-Meru peoples may have trekked southward prior to the 1700s, perhaps as part of an entirely different group of whom all oral record has been lost. Until proof of this appears, however, it seems wise to restrict the Meru point of origin to Manda Island.

Meru people (aMeru or aMiiru) are a bantu speaking tribe found in the highlands and slopes of Mt Kenya in Meru and Tharaka Nithi Counties. They Meru people are over 1 million speakers and are further grouped into 9 susbtribes


Historical gallery of Meru / Bica cia Amiiru

Young man from Meru, Kenya photographed in the early 20th Century.  He is described as having “carefully braided” hair that has been “plastered with red earth”. In both Kikuyu and Maasai culture it is common for male warriors to wear their hair in this fashion. The hair forms thin locks rather than braids, woven together using cotton or wool. The hair is coloured a deep red using ochre and clay combined with ashes and animal fat. In Maasai culture long hair represents both the strength of the lion as well as masculine beauty. During various rites of passage men undergo head shaving ceremonies to represent their entry into a new part of their life.

Ameru people trading at unknown market around 1910s

This photo was taken when Former President Theodore Roosevelt, his son Kermit and crew toured east Africa for a hunting expedition 1909-1911

Meru land in 1909
Former president Theodore Roosevelt of USA was intrigued to find the Ameru had tamed the Eland

Photo was taken by his son Kermit Roosevelt

An Eland is the world’s second largest antelope and was probably domesticated by the aMeru for its leather, meat, milk. Its milk has less butter thus can be kept longer

Photo : History Kenya

Ameru warriors (nthanka cia Amiiru)

Military aspects of the Ameru was the responsibility of the young men under the guidance of the elders (Akuru ba kiama)

In the 1700s and 1800s, the Ameru, like their neighbouring tribes were involved in livestock raids.

Ameru girls 1930,

Photo taken by D. Evaristo Coutinho

Ameru girls 1913,

Photo taken by Felix Coutinho

Ameru girls 1913,

Photo taken by Felix Coutinho

Early 1900 image of Chief Namaan of the Meru Tribe. From the Kenya National Archives.

Tigania boys

Photo G. Kolb, 1893–1894 (in Neumann, 1898: 65)

Embed from Getty Images

Best Historical record of aMeru

When We Began There Were Witchmen

An Oral History from Mount Kenya

Jeffrey A. Fadiman

Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford
© 1994 The Regents of the University of Californi




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