The history of the Meru people of Kenya is shrouded in great mystery. Several theories on their origin have been advanced yet none is conclusive. The account given on this site is based on excerpts from Fr. Daniel Nyagah’s book, ‘Customs and Traditions of the Meru’. This book, published in 1997, is, perhaps, the first attempt at a logical explanation of the origin of the Meru.
According to tradition, the Meru once lived in a state of slavery under a people called ‘antu ba nguu ntuune’ – meaning Red People. The Red People were powerful and often harsh. No one knows for sure though who they actually were.
The place where the Meru were enslaved has also not yet been convincingly located. Some say that it was called Mbwaa. This is the the same name given by other versions of the myth for the body of water the Meru later crossed.
Others suggest that it may have been Mbwara Matanga on the western peninsula of Manda Island in the Lamu archipelago, off the North East Coast of Kenya. Others still posit that it may have been in Yemen or in some other place on the other side of the Red Sea.
Whatever the exact location, this state of bondage lasted until the leader of the Red People started killing all of Meru’s male children immediately after birth.
But one child, apparently very handsome, escaped this fate, having been kept hidden in the riverside in a basket his mother had made. As a result, the prodigal child became known as ‘Mwithe’, the Hidden One. Mwithe, who later became known as Koomenjwe or Muthurui, grew up to become a very great prophet and a spiritual leader of the Meru.
Assisted by another elder called Kauro-Beechau, Mwithe organised a council of wise elders to lead the Meru out of bondage. They went to the leader of the Red People and asked to be set free. The leader agreed, but on condition that 5 nearly impossible tasks be successfully performed by the Meru before their freedom was guaranteed. These tasks are listed below:
- The first task required them to produce a shoe that had hair on both sides. As shoes were normally made from leather, this took some thinking, until Koomenjwe told the people to cut the dewlap of a bull. Before it was completely severed, it was stitched on the side that had been cut. By the time the bull recovered, the lap had made the shoe that was required. But when they took it to their masters, it was rejected and the Meru were given a second task.
- The second task was to provide a steer (or an ox) that produced diatomite (a very fine chalk). Koomenjwe advised them to feed a calf on milk and eventually it started passing out white dung. According to Jens Finke, 2 different versions are given: the steer was to produce white dung, and so they fed it on chalk; in the second version the ox is replaced with an elephant. Nonetheless, the successful completion of this task was also rejected by the Red People, and the Meru were given a third task to do.
- The third task required them to remove a fruit from a very deep pit, without piercing it or having anyone descend into the pit to pick it up. Koomenjwe advised the people to fill the pit with water until it overflowed and the fruit floated out. This was a success although it too was rejected.
- The next test required them to kill all the elders until their blood flowed like run-off during the rains. Koomenjwe advised that the elders be hidden and all old livestock – cows, goats, sheep and donkeys – be killed instead. When that was done their blood was enough to flow as the enemies wanted. But the success of this test was not accepted either.
- The fifth test was truly impossible. It required the Meru to forge a spear that could touch both the earth and the sky. The Meru started making it straight away, but it kept breaking. Koomenjwe and the elders, failing to come up with a solution, simply abandoned the whole task of making it and instead conceived the idea of organising the people to escape on foot. For this reason, the Meru later on called this spear ‘itumo ria mwito’ – the spear made for the trek, for it was the impossibility of making it that had given them the idea of the exodus.
In order to have an opportunity to make good their escape, Koomenjwe went to ask the Red People to give them 8 days to complete the task. He said the Meru were making charcoal from people’s hair because it was the type of charcoal that was required to make the spear.
The enemies granted the request. Koomenjwe organised the first group of old people, because they could not walk fast and they were grouped together with the older livestock that had remained.
The second group was made up of mothers and children and the third group consisted of young people and young livestock. Keeping the rear were the warriors, well armed and ready for battle. The three groups were, according to some versions, the ancestors of the three main Meru clans from which all other clans descend.
The exodus took place at night. The warriors collected a very big heap of dry dung and animal droppings and set it on fire with all the houses.
Meanwhile, Koomenjwe had gone to explain to the masters that the fire they were seeing was being used for making the spear which would be ready by noon the following day. After that, he returned.
The following day the enemies waited for the spear, but it was never brought. The Meru had gone. During their exodus, the Meru reached a very large body of water which they called Mbwaa.
Here, they suffered a lot (presumably from their pursuers, or possibly from malnourishment), so much so that a sacrifice had to be made to seek answers which could only be obtained from reading human entrails.
There are 2 main versions of this sacrifice. The first has it that the Meru elders went to a prophet called Mugwe for help. The name Mugwe later became the word to describe all prophets and leaders.
Mugwe asked for 3 young men to sacrifice themselves. The 3 volunteers were named Gaita, Kiuma and Muthetu, after whom the 3 main Meru clans are named (all other clans stem from these). When the sacrifice had been concluded, Mugwe instructed the people on how to escape successfully.
He placed them under the leadership of Koomenjwe to whom he gave a magic stick or spear (gitumo) about 3 feet long, with which he was to strike the water to make it part.
The second main version of the sacrifice story says that by then, Koomenjwe was called Muthurui, and it was he who came up with a solution. He had carried out his divination by examining the entrails of cows, goats and other animals, but all without success. As he wondered what to do, it dawned on him that the situation could only be saved by examining the entrails of a human being.
Fr. Ngagah talks of a conversation between Muthurui and the Meru elders that goes like this:
Muthurui: “Let someone be examined.”
The elders: “Who is going to be examined?”
Muthurui begged to be given one person from each family so that if a person from one family failed to give an answer, the next one could be examined. Muthurui’s brother offered himself and said: “I am ready to be sacrificed.”
Muthurui: “Who is going to be my mathinjiro?” (slaughtering leaves or an altar). Another person volunteered and said: “I will be the one.” Again, Muthurui asked: “In case the first person is not accepted by god, who else will be offered?” Another said: “I am ready.”
Then another person volunteered to provide milk for washing the entrails, and another person provided a string with which the volunteer had to be stitched, and yet another person – having conceived the idea that the first person might fear the operation – went to cut sticks to flog him if he did so.
When everything was ready, Muthurui operated on his brother, and got the answer he was looking for. Surprisingly enough, Muthurui’s brother did not die. He had only his intestines mounted and stitched, and thereafter was called Murorua.
Following the answer, Muthurui struck the water with his magic spear, and it parted forming a wide corridor of dry land in the middle, along which the people went across. The crossing of the water lasted all night, and took place in the form of several groups. Fr. Nyagah’s version notes that the first group comprised of Muthurui and a small boy and girl.
The second group was that of Murorua. In all, Fr. Nyagah cites 4 groups that crossed Mbwaa. Other versions (Finke) say that there were more groups, either 5 or 7, who were to become the ancestors of the various Meru clans that exist today; still other versions say that these groups had nothing to do with the clans, but that all the Meru were members of one of these groups.
When the last group had crossed, Muthurui struck the water again and it came again into one mass, drowning the army of the Red People who had followed them. Only one man called Iri and his wife, Nkuna managed to cross the water from the Red people to team up with the Meru.
Iri was however later killed by the elders on sabotage grounds. That is why the Meru say that they came from Mbwaa.
The problem for anthropologists and historians alike is put places and dates to these events, which is no easy task given the many variations, fictional elements and elaborations of the myth. In Fr. Nyagah’s book, one of the groups which crossed was the ‘Antu-banthanju’. They got to the other side of the water early in the morning, just before sunrise, when the sky was reddish.
When this group saw the water they had crossed looking red, they called it ‘Iria Itune’ – the Red Sea. Despite the initial excitement of European scholars keen to find confirmation of the literal truth of the Biblical Exodus, it is now generally accepted that the Meru never actually crossed the Red Sea.
It is now known that the ‘Red Sea’ mentioned in the myth was most likely Lake Victoria in Nyanza, in the South West of Kenya.
This has not been proved beyond doubt though and the Manda Island theory remains attractive. According to this, the Red People were probably East African coastal Arabs, who had invaded Manda Island around 1700.
As this was a time of great expansion for the principalities of the Lamu Archipelago, slaves were needed for cultivation to feed the increasing commercial population, as well as to assist in the menial aspects of the ivory trade.
The subsequent flight from enslavement could possibly have been accomplished at low tide across the narrow channel which separates Manda Island from the mainland, whilst a rising tide could have disorganised pursuit.
Another more academic version of ancient Meru history, argued by Alfred M. M’Imanyara, insists that the Meru came originally from the ancient Nilotic empire of Meroe (circa 300 BC – AD 100). Meroe is sometimes referred to as an island, as it was bounded by both the White and Blue Niles, and swamps in the south.
The linguistic similarity between the words “Meru” and “Meroe”, Finke says, is certainly tempting, as is other linguistic evidence, which – although not conclusive – suggests that the Meru were at some point in contact with civilisations from further north.
Indeed, some Meru elders refer to their early origins as being a place called ‘Misiri’, which is identical to the Arab and Berber name for Egypt still used today. The idea that the Meru came from the north is in any case common enough among Meru elders.