Meru history: Escape from the 'Red People'

Historical narrative has it that the Ameru were enslaved in Manda Island

In Summary

• The Ameru believe they were once held in bondage and pushed into impossible tasks

Meru governor Kiraitu Murungi and other leaders unveil a plaque for construction of museum at Nchiru
Meru governor Kiraitu Murungi and other leaders unveil a plaque for construction of museum at Nchiru
Image: Dibondo

The Council of Elders, popularly known as Njuri Ncheke, has been governing the Meru people since the 17th Century.

To become a member of the Njuri Ncheke is the highest social rank to which a Meru man can aspire. Members are carefully selected and comprise mature, composed, respected and incorruptible members of the community.

This is necessary as their work requires great wisdom, personal discipline and knowledge of the traditions. The Njuri Ncheke is also the apex of the Meru traditional judicial system, and their edicts apply across the entire community 

In their migration from Congo just like other Bantus, the Meru people are said to been held captive in an island known Merus call 'Mbwaa', said to be the current Manda Island in Lamu.

In January, the Meru and Tharaka Nithi governments announced plans to purchase land on the island, where they intend to build a monument.

Meru history of origin indicates the community was once enslaved in Mbwaa before they migrated to their present location. Meru Governor Kiraitu Murungi said the Ameru will hold a pilgrimage after the monument is built.

Their origin tales talk of their battle to be released from captivity by ‘Nguo Ntune’ (red-clothed people), referring to Arabs. The king of the Red People was powerful and often harsh upon his subjects, but no one knows for sure who the Red People actually were.

In fact, the story of Meru is a bit similar to the story of the biblical Moses. The leader of the Red People started killing all the 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 also became known as Koomenjwe (Koomenjoe) and Muthurui, grew up to become a great prophet and was known as one who had spoken to God. 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 an impossible task be successfully performed by the Meru.

This 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.

This 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. Some versions of the myth have it the other way around: the steer was to produce white dung, and so they fed it on chalk; yet another version replaces the ox with an elephant. Nonetheless, the successful completion of the task was also rejected by the Red People, and they were given a third task to do.

This 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 them to fill the pit with water until it overflowed, and the fruit floated out. Though it succeeded, this test was also rejected.

The next test required them to kill all the elders until their blood flowed like run-off during 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. Koome Njue 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 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.


To have an opportunity to make good their escape, Koomenjwe went to ask the Red People to give them eight 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.

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.

A Njuri Ncheke elder burns sodom apples in a curse known as kithiri, where they were cursing thieves
A Njuri Ncheke elder burns sodom apples in a curse known as kithiri, where they were cursing thieves
Image: Dennis Dibondo