The origin of the Meru people of Kenya remains shrouded in deep mystery. Several theories have attempted to provide an explanation but with very limited success. Fr. Daniel Nyagah’s account, so far, seems to make a fair attempt at solving the mystery for now. In his book, “Customs and Traditions of the Meru” published in 1997, he offers, perhaps, the first logical explanation of where the Meru people came from.
According to tradition, the Meru once lived in a state of slavery under ‘antu ba nguu ntuune’ – the Red People. The Red People were powerful and often harsh. No one knows exactly who they were.
The location of the Ameru enslaving remains a mystery as well. Some speak of a place called Mbwaa. At least the other versions also agree on the existence of a body of water the Meru later crossed.
Others nevertheless suggest Mbwara Matanga on the western peninsula of Manda Island in the Lamu archipelago, off the North East Coast of Kenya. Others suggest Yemen or 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 by 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 prominent 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 turned to the leader of the Red People and asked to be set free. The leader agreed, but only if they completed five tasks. These tasks seemed next to impossible:
- 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 completely severing it, they stitched the cut side. Once the bull had recovered, the shoe had been made. Yet the slaver’s master rejected it and gave the Meru a second task.
- The second task was to provide a steer (or an ox) that produced diatomite (very fine chalk). Koomenjwe advised them to feed a calf on milk and eventually it started passing out white dung. Jens Finke gives two different versions. In the first version, the steer needed to produce white dung, so they fed it chalk. In the second version, an elephant replaced the ox. Nonetheless, the Red People also rejected the results. They instead gave a third almost impossible task.
- The third task required them to remove fruit placed in a very deep pit, without piercing it. It meant someone needed to 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. They succeeded! Regardless, the Red people did not concede.
- The next test required them to kill all the elders until their blood flowed like run-off during the rains. Kooomenjwe recommended hiding the elders and killing all old livestock (cows, goats, sheep, and donkeys). After that, their blood could flow as the enemies desired. However, the success of this test did not lead to a Red approval.
- The fifth test was truly impossible. It required the Meru to forge a spear that could touch both the earth and the sky! They started making it immediately, but it kept breaking. Koomenjwe and the elders, failing to come up with a plan, abandoned the whole task of building it. Instead, they devised a plan on how to organize 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. They came up with the idea of the Exodus when they found it impossible to make the spear.
To ensure their escape, Koomenjwe asked the Red People to give them eight days to finish the job. 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. He grouped them together with the older livestock that had remained.
Mothers and children made up the second group. The third group consisted of young people and young livestock. In 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 gathered a very large pile of dry dung and animal droppings and set them all ablaze along with all the houses.
Meanwhile, Koomenjwe had returned to explain to the masters that the fire they were seeing was being used for making the spear. He assured them he would deliver the spear by noon the following day. After that, he returned.
The enemies waited for the spear the next day, but it never appeared. The Meru had vanished. 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). As a result, they needed a sacrifice to seek answers. It turned out they could only get the answers by reading human entrails.
Two main versions of this sacrifice exist. The first says that the Meru elders turned to a prophet called Mugwe for help. The name Mugwe later became the word to describe all prophets and leaders.
Mugwe asked three young men named Gaita, Kiuma, and Muthetu to sacrifice themselves. From them the three main Meru clans came into existense (all other clans stem from these). When Mugwe concluded the sacrifice, he 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 three 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, called Muthurui, came up with a solution. He had carried out 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 needed examining the entrails of a human being.
Fr. Ngagah talks of a conversation between Muthurui and the Meru elders that began like this:
Muthurui: “Let someone be examined.”
The elders: “Who is going to be examined?”
Muthurui begged for a volunteer from each family so that if a person from one family failed to give an answer, he would examine the next. Muthurui’s brother offered himself and said: “I am ready to be sacrificed.”
Muthurui: “Who is willing to be my mathinjiro?” (slaughtering leaves or an altar). Another person volunteered and said: “I will be the one.” Again, Muthurui asked: “In case god rejects the first person, who else will we offer?” Another said: “I am ready.”
Then another person volunteered to provide milk for washing the entrails. Another person provided a string to stich the volunteer with. Yet another person – having conceived the idea that the first person might fear the operation – went to cut sticks to flog him if he refused.
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 he became Murorua.
Following the answer, Muthurui struck the water with his magic spear. The water parted forming a wide corridor of dry land in the middle. The people walked 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 Muthurui and a small boy and girl. Murorua made up the second group.
In all, Fr. Nyagah cites four groups that crossed Mbwaa. Other versions (Finke) cite more groups – either five or seven. The groups became the ancestors of the various Meru clans that exist today. Conversely, other versions say that these groups had nothing to do with the clans. They argue 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. The elders, however, later killed Iri on sabotage grounds. That is why the Meru say that they came from Mbwaa.
The problem for anthropologists and historians alike is to pinpoint the locations and dates of these events. Given the many variations, fictional elements, and elaborations of the myth, it could get quite difficult. According to Fr. Nyagah, one of the groups that crossed was 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, now most generally accept that the Meru never actually crossed the Red Sea.
Now historians know that the ‘Red Sea’ mentioned in the myth was most likely Lake Victoria in Nyanza, in the South West of Kenya.
Since no proof exists, the Manda Island theory remains attractive. According to the theory, the Red People were probably East African coastal Arabs, who invaded Manda Island around 1700.
As this was a time of extensive expansion for the principalities of the Lamu Archipelago, slaves were needed for cultivation to feed the increasing commercial population. They also were needed to assist with the menial aspects of the ivory trade.
The Meru escape from enslavement may have taken place at low tide across the narrow channel that separates Manda Island from the mainland. However, a rising tide could have disorganised the 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). Academitians somemetimes regard Meroe as an island. Because both the White and Blue Niles, and swamps in the south surround Meroe.
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 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 widely held by Meru elders.