Meru district is named after the Meru- a collective tribe united by a common heritage. The Meru group incorporates the Igembe, Igoji, Imenti, Muitini, Tigania, Muthambi, Mwimbi and Chuka people. The uniting term Meru comes from the Maasai, who called the forests of Tigania and Imenti Mieru, meaning basically "a quiet place". This term can also be used to describe a people who cannot understand Maa.
Meru territory covers a wide geographical range, and together these tribes form a cultural bridge between the Coast and Mt Kenya. Their roots are drawn back to the Northern coast of Kenya, and with the exception of the Chuka all of these tribes share a common oral legend about their origins. This belief has a number of suprising parallels to Hebrew and Biblical mythology. There are slight variations among its various retellings, but the core of this fascinating myth holds strong.
According to the legend, the Meru were a coastal people who lived in a place called Mbwa until they were enslaved by a people known as the Nguo Ntuni (red clothes). They were harsh taskmasters, and they asked the Meru to perform impossible duties, including the creation of a spear that would touch both the earth and the sky. Desperate to escape, the Meru turned to a prophet called Mugwe for help. He required three human sacrifices, and three brave young men Gaita, Kiuma and Muthetu volunteered. They were sacrificed, and in their honor, the three main clans of the Meru now bear their names.
Mugwe gave the Meru a special stick called the gitumo, imbued with divine powers. The Meru escaped, pursued by the Nguo Ntuni, until they reached a broad body of water. They struck the waters with the stick and the waters parted, letting them pass through unscathed. The waves then closed around the Nguo Ntuni and drowned them all, with the exception of one man, who was rescued by some Meru and later executed and buried in secret place.
This legend is retold in several different forms by each Meru tribe. The legend is also the basis for a grouping system (seperate from clans) based on the order in which the Meru passed through the waters, resulting in three groups- the Njiru, Ntune and Njaru. Interestingly, Meru tradition dictates that the name of your particular group should be spoken after sneezing.
This legend, with its references to slavery, sacrifice and escape through the sea, bears a remarkable resemblance to the Hebrew Exodus legend. The reasons why this came about is certainly food for thought. One possibility is influence by early Christian Missionaries, or more likely Arab influence from the coast. There are many areas of common early mythology in the Islamic and Hebrew faiths, possibly originating from the same sources.
Another interesting possibility is that this tale is actually rooted in fact. The Nguo Ntuni could well have been slave traders who captured the Meru's ancestors, and held them in Lamu. In such a case, escape would have been possible across the Manda Channel, which is regularly exposed and covered by the tides. If this did occur, could the account of these events have entered Arab folklore, giving the tale of the Exodus African roots?
Regardless of these origins, the Meru followed the Tana river Inland and spread widely across the North East, reaching the forests of Mt Kenya. While the original clan system remained, the Meru began to progressively adopt cultural practices from inland nomadic cultures, including the Maasai system of warriorhood, design of spears akin to the Boran style and even the exclusion of fish from diet, a suprising change for a people of coastal origin.
The Chuka are the furthest removed from these coastal roots. The folklore of these forest dwellers makes no mention of the central Meru mythology. The Chuka history is one of a hunter gatherer existence progressively turning to agriculture. Many now suspect that the Chuka may in fact be totally unrelated to the Meru, and are more closely related to the Embu, (see Related Links above) also from the Mt Kenya region and closely related to the Kikuyu (see Related Links above) . The Chuka and Embu share many customs, most obviously in regard to music and dance, both having evolved a unique style of drumming using the drums of the Wakamba.
A seperate tribe living in the area around the modern Meru National Park is the Tharaka. The origins of the Tharaka are also uncertain, but they lived within the confines of the isolated Tana Valley, leading to a culture not widely influenced by other tribes. The Tharaka were known for their ornate clothing, including distinctive leather skirts and long cowrie shell decorated aprons for women, and animal skin cloaks and feathered headdresses for men. Traditionally the Tharaka were widely regarded weapon makers and practitioners of traditional medicine.
There is a good museum with displays on local culture and history in Meru town.
Meru was also the backdrop for one of the world's best known Nature stories. This was the place where, in the 1950's George and Joy Adamson released a captive lioness into the wild. This story became a bestselling book Born Free and then an Academy Award winning film. The story is considered a remarkable testament to man's ability to live with wild animals, and a powerful call for conservation of wildlife and its habitat.
As a result of her portrayal in the film, many people assume that Joy was British. She was in fact from Austria Silesia (part of the modern day Czech Republic). A passionate and enigmatic woman, Joy was a gifted artist and scholar. She was sent to Kenya by her first husband, but met her second on board the ship. He was a Botanist, and together with Joy spent years studying Kenyan flowers and plants. Her illustrations became the definitive guide to Kenyan fauna.
While on safari she met George Adamson, a young game warden who was patrolling the Northern Kenyan wilderness by camel. She soon joined him on safari and on her third marriage. Joy developed an interest in the peoples of Kenya and set out to paint members of each of Kenya's many tribes. After many years work she had produced an excellent collection of tribal portraits that are both a major work of art and an extremely valuable anthropological record.
One day George shot a man-eating lioness and rescued her three cubs. They raised the cubs together at their home at Isiolo. Two of the cubs were eventually sent to a zoo in Frankfurt, while they kept the third, named Elsa.
Elsa grew into a full sized lioness and the Adamson's began to consider releasing her to the wild. They set up camp on the banks of the Tana River in Meru and began a unique experiment. They needed to teach her hunt and to act on her natural instincts. Incredibly the experiment worked, and Elsa was able to successfully live in the wild. Even more incredibly, she would regularly return to visit the Adamson's camp spend time among her human family and then return to the bush. After she mated with a wild lion, Elsa brought her young cubs into the camp to introduce them to George and Joy. She had learnt to move back and forth between the two worlds, and formed an unbreakable bond with her human 'pride'.
Joy's written account of this rehabilitation, Born Free an international bestseller, and was followed by two sequels. In 1961, at the height of Joy's success, Elsa contracted tick fever, and returned to the camp where she lay with George until she died. She was buried in Meru, and her grave can still be visited today.
Joy went on to work tirelessly for conservation of African wildlife, rasing funds all over the world. Based at her home, Elsamere in Naivasha (see Related Links above) , she went on to return both Cheetahs and Leopards to the wild.
She eventually set up camp in Shaba (see Related Links above) to rehabilitate a leopard called Penny. She was now 70 years old, and age had done little to calm her passionate and often mercurial temperament. On 1st January 1980, Joy was murdered by one of her employees following a heated argument. Her ashes were poured into Elsa's grave in Meru.
George had moved to Kora, where he continued to work with lions. He lived among his pride of lions in a ramshackle camp, spending his days working to protect this fragile habitat. In 1989, at the age of 84 he was killed in a gunfight with Poachers, and was buried alongside one of his favourite lions in a dry river bed at Kora.
The Adamson's remain much loved icons of African Conservation, and their lives an enduring symbol of man and nature co-existing in harmony.