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People of Kenya: Meru


The tribe are Bantu ethnic group who reside on the rich agricultural north eastern slopes of Mount Kenya in the Eastern province of Kenya since the 17 century. They are approximately 1.5 million in population.

They are a fairly homogeneous tribe composed of nine sub-tribal groups each speaking its own dialect of the Kimeru languagenamely: Tigania, Igemebe, Imenti, Miutuni, Igoji, Mwimbiand Muthambi. The Chuka and Tharaka are now considered part of Meru but have different oral histories and mythology. The differences in the dialects reflect the varied Bantu origins and influences from Cushites and Nilotes, as well as different Bantu neighbors of Kikuyu and Kamba.

Like other Bantu tribes, the Meru are an agricultural tribe with people still living in rural areas as well as in the cities. The majority of Meru people are subsistence farmers who live on small family farms where they raise food and cash crops. The fertile land produces a large variety of food crops, the staples being corn, beans, potatoes, and millet. Coffee is the most important cash crop followed by tea leaves and cotton.

Male circumcision is still one of the most significant rituals in meru culture. This rite of passage turns a young man into an adult giving him rights to marry, acquire wealth, property and make independent decisions. Meru have a strong educational foundation provided by Christian mission schools and are among the most influential ethnic groups in Kenya.

The main education institutions were started by the Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian churches who settled in the district in the early years. The ruling of the people was essentially a gerontocratic system based on councils of elders, and in particular rested with the Njuri-Ncheke. To become a member of the Njuri-Ncheke in particular was the highest social rank to which a man could aspire.

These were comprised of selected elders who were more influential and respected than the normal membership of the general council of elders, the kiama, and their work necessitated great wisdom, personal discipline, and knowledge of the traditions.

The functions of the Njuri-Ncheke were to make and execute tribal laws, to listen to and settle disputes, and to pass on tribal knowledge and rites across the generations in their role as the custodians of traditional culture.

It must be said that the Njuri-Ncheke still hold a good deal of these prerogatives: local disputes will invariably first be dealt with by the Njuri-Ncheke, and only when cases cannot be solved or concern matters involving non-Meru people, are they passed on to the modern Kenyan judicial system.