The Meru Tribe

The Meru tribe lives in eastern Kenya, more specifically on the north-eastern slopes of Mount Kenya. The tribe has 7 sub-groups within it.

They speak the Meru language, but each group has its own dialect. The languages of the Embu and the Kikuyu are very similar and can usually be understood across the tribes. There are approximately 1.5 million Meru in Kenya today.

Meru History

Very little factual history exists for the Meru, and their oral history is a mix of fable and fiction. The Meru Tribe is quite unique in this regard, as many of their traditional tales parallel the stories of the Old Testament Bible.

According to folklore, the Meru were once held captive by the Red People (thought to refer to an Arab tribe), and held on the island of Mbwa. In order to escape, the people crossed the Red Sea when the waters parted for them. They escaped and eventually travelled to the Mount Kenya region that they currently occupy. Different traditions describe migrating from the north, but also from the east. Its likely that the Meru are really a mixed tribe of different origins. Other Meru stories describe a prophet who was left in a basket of reeds, and a king who ordered the deaths of first born children. These people may have come from one of the lost tribes of Israel, or simply had a great deal of contact with a Jewish tribe at some point in time.

Another unique aspect of Meru history is that their people have long been governed by a council of elected elders, making this tribe the only one who practiced a democratic system before the colonisation by Britain.

Meru Culture and Lifestyle

Like other Bantu tribes, the Meru are an agricultural tribe with people still living in rural areas as well as in the cities.

Initiation into adulthood takes place with circumcision rituals, which are very important to the Meru tribe. Society is broken up into age-sets, created every few years when these rituals would take place. Most young people get married immediately after their circumcisions are healed. A boy's family have to pay a bride price of cattle (or modern cash) to secure the marriage.

All societal roles are strictly organized, both by gender and age-set. Men control their households, whereas women do most of the domestic work. The elders make the decisions for the village and are considered the local leaders.

The dead are considered to be very unclean, and if someone dies in their own home, the house is burned to the ground. It is preferred that someone who is close to death leave the village entirely, to die in the forest. There are special huts built for this.

Religion of the Meru Tribe

Their traditional beliefs are monotheistic, with a single creator god called Arega kuthera or Murungu. There are 2 kinds of spirits, as well. Those of dead ancestors who were frequently given offerings of food and drink, and other evil spirits that were avoided and feared.

The spiritual leaders of the Meru tribe were called the Mugwe or Agwe, though with the spread of Christianity, these roles have all but disappeared. The Mugwe was also a healer and a diviner. A well-known story is told about a Meru who predicted the coming of the white Europeans about a decade before they arrived in Kenya.

Related pages:

Tribes in Kenya - Main page
List of Kenya tribes with short descriptions

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