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A Complex Polity

Anne-Marie Peatrik

Part three. Ritual as means of government

Chapter nine

Mbwaa, or the drama of suspended time

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1The Mbwaa story recounts the singular adventure of the Ngaa, “ancestors” of the Meru, who flee Mbwaa to escape the bullying of the Nguontuune. The story can be broken down into three episodes: the bullying, the escape across an expanse of water that parts, and the arrival in a new land. The story has been recorded since the beginning of the colonial conquest, generating interpretations quickly insofar as they were considered obvious. In the flight episode, the missionaries did not fail to recognize a biblical heritage suitable for facilitating conversions, and the administrators, who were more concerned about positive knowledge of their indigenous population, understood it as the story of a migration two centuries before the arrival of the white man, a chronological detail they believed could be deduced from age sets, which they were in the process of listing. These enhancive interpretations had an undeniable influence. One of them linked the Meru to the same family category as the descendants of Ham, and the other presented them as a group emerging from a state of historical limbo at a specific time. No one wanted to acknowledge the disparity between Biblical ascendency—even relayed by the Arabs—and a migratory event that was supposed to have taken place in the 18th century, just as no one was eager to explain how a story could mix supernatural events with facts regarded as proofs of a story that should be taken literally. It transformed under the influence of these interpretations, some of which were reinforced by a restructuring process designed to retrospectively validate the initial interpretations. As a result, some episodes that had been disregarded fell into oblivion, particularly those that were inconsistent with the rhetoric of biblical acculturation or historical compilation. Local scholars have recently been adding to the chain of interpretations. Reflecting the trends and needs of the day, the latest fashionable exegesis (M’Imanyara 1992) has the Meru descending from Meroe (sic).

2Reconstructing the story and its variations is indispensable, if only to rediscover its original essence and help safeguard the oral literature of these populations. But there is another reason: presented as a mystery suitable for exercising a listener’s wisdom, the Mbwaa story contains a few truths that are worth discovering. As long as preconceived ideas are kept in check, it is also possible to decipher historiographic elements that can inform analysis of the past of these populations.

1. The sources of the story

3The story was reconstructed using as many sources as possible. These are presented and identified according to the following code:

4M1 — The oldest version is found in an appendix on the Mweru (this spelling is an initial transcription that later became “Meru”) at the end of a book on the Kamba by colonial administrator C.W. Hobley (1910: 156-159). In it he presented a story that explained the origins of the Meru’s dominant Ntowaita (Antûbaita) clan. The story includes the different episodes of what was not yet called the Mbwaa story.

5M2 — In 1910, two years after the military conquest and the establishment of the so-called Meru post, District Commissioner E.B. Horne introduced the customary summary title “The Meru” through the Mbwaa story. It was the first time that the term “Mbwaa” was used. From the moment this one-page version appeared, some interpretations treated the Mbwaa adventure as an account of events that had actually taken place (National Archives, Meru District Record Book 1908-1921, pc/cp 1/9/1).

6M3 —Horne offered a second version, dated 25 April 1918, entitled “How the Meru Came to Their Present Country”. The story was fleshed out more than in the previous version (six typewritten pages). Subsequent data collection by other researchers did not change the story, nor did it add any clarifications or variations. Some interpretations tried to portray the flight episode as an “exodus” to escape tyrants threatening to kill the Meru (National Archives, Meru District Record Book 1908-1921, pc/cp 1/9/1). It is worth noting that Catholic and Protestant missions were first set up in the district in 1910.

7M4 — The three volumes of Kenya Land Commission Evidence were the fruit of a very large study of Kenya’s population and land structure. It was ordered by the British government in the early1930s and undertaken by colonial administrators with the help of African informants (the royal Morris Carter Commission). Commissioner J. G. Hopkins (vol. I, 1933: 559) wrote the section on the Meru, beginning with a summary of version M3, which is significant in that it shows what the administrators considered essential. This interpretation, by being thus recorded by the administrative authority, was in a sense given official status.

8M5 — In 1949 at the University of Cape Town, administrator H. E. Lambert delivered a speech (published the following year) in which he reconstructed the population settlement of the Kenyan Highlands, particularly in the region that became the Central Province after the conquest. This was a sensitive, highly topical subject, and one can understand why Lambert (probably retired) would have chosen to speak far from Kenya. In the pages dedicated to the Meru (Lambert 1950: 7-18, 38-43, 71-72), the plausibility of the Mbwaa migration was backed up by numerous studies. To his own investigations, Lambert added those of Philip M’Inoti, a Meru who had become a Methodist pastor, and W. Laughton, a protestant missionary who had written a masters thesis on the Meru-Imenti. He also offered new proofs that seemed to be firmly substantiated: linguistic analyses that enabled Mbwaa to be situated on the coast of the Indian Ocean; he assigned a date to the event, whose historical depth was estimated according to how many age sets had elapsed. With the sense of prudence that surrounds Lambert’s proofs—as he establishes the chronology of events by comparing the various lists of age sets and their varying recruitment durations—readers were not inclined to see this reconstruction as nothing but a set of hypotheses. It rather reinforced the feeling of being in the presence of rigorous analyses and methodically obtained results. Mbugi, the other narrative of origin that Lambert would have known quite well since he had recorded it, was passed over in silence.

  • 1  Volpini (1978: 275-278) could also be mentioned. He provided an additional version of the Mbwaa st (...)

9M6 — In the process of studying the mûgwe figure, B. Bernardi recorded various versions of the Mbwaa story1. The author repeatedly stressed the idiosyncratic and mythopoeic nature of the stories (1959: 51-52, 55, 59); he warned against amalgamating them with biblical traditions, and regretted the habit of considering east-African populations in reference to Shem and Ham. His methodically collected materials opened the possibility of a new interpretation of the story, but his recommendations did not change the orientation of the exegeses.

10M7 — Interviews conducted in 1972 by Kangoi in Tigania contain some information on Mbwaa, which I have independently confirmed in the course of my own research. Two elders (Kangoi 1972: 2, 11), who say they received their information from white people, place Mbwaa in Misiri (Egypt). Others—greater in number (ibid.: 7, 11, 12, 14, 20)—present Mbwaa as the place from which African populations became differentiated. Kenyan independence and the mixing of populations it engendered proceeded through Mbwaa.

11M8 — Historian J. A. Fadiman (1973) studied the art of war among the Meru of the past. This research, conducted in 1969 through interviews with some sixty elders throughout the district, did not significantly enrich the Mbwaa story. Fadiman is known for being the author, straight out of university, who set out to make the Mbwaa story into that of a migration that actually took place. Dismantling the artefact this researcher produced seems all the more necessary in that his demonstration reinforces an erroneous vision of the history and dynamics of these populations.

  • 2  J. Adamson (1967: 92) recorded the following anecdote, noted in the early 1950s: “I heard that a M (...)

12M9 — My own research on Mbwaa in 1986-1989 and 1993 was not very fruitful or rewarding. It was not fruitful because only debased and significantly altered versions were found; however, they are in Kimeru and contain a few enlightening clarifications. Whatever the effects of coding by colonial administrators and Christians, there is no official guardian of the story, which is still not among the tribe’s “secrets”. It is true that the importance of the story is sometimes played down insofar as it suggests that the Meru were not the region’s first occupants2. Otherwise, everyone can tell it, and everyone concerned (they are not all that numerous) tells his own version. Generally, the Mbwaa story is well known by the Tigania and the Igembe, but the former seem to have more to say about this adventure than the latter, and it is in Tigania that I found the most interesting new details. Finally the women, who tell lots of stories, do not tell the Mbwaa story. They say is for the men, but this does not stop them from having a mbwa of their own.

2. Mbwaa in its variations

13M1 — “The Ntowaita [Antûbaita] is the dominant Miria [mwiriga] or clan; they have an interesting piece of folk-lore to explain the origin of the name of the clan; the story runs as follows. A long time ago this clan lived in a country far away from their present habitat, on the banks of a big river and they were called Njiru [black] in those days. Suddenly an invading army swept down and occupied their country, they could not escape being penned in between the enemy and the river, and so the tribesmen approached the leader of the raiders and begged for peace. This chief promised peace upon the fulfilment of three things. The first was a demand for countless fleas, the people did not know how to fulfil this so went to consult their laibon or medicine man. The laibon said, “Go and cut off tails of cattle, camels, horses and donkeys and bring them to me,” they did so, and he then said, “Chop up the hair into very fine pieces”, they did so; and then the laibon made medicine and the fragments of hair jumped about like fleas and the enemy was satisfied and imposed the second test, which was to procure a pair of hide sandals with hair on both sides; to solve this problem the laibon ordered them to cut off the ears of a donkey and make them into sandals, the enemy accepted this. The third test was to make a stick of iron reaching from earth to the skies; this seemed impossible so they again consulted the laibon and he said, “Bring a man to me whom I can do whatever I wish and I will make medicine,” they did so, and the laibon cut open his body from the chest to the abdomen and examined his internal organs; and he then told them to bring a small ewe lamb, some ass’s milk, and some human milk, and they took all this things to the river which was cutting off their only route to flight; the milk was poured into the river, the lamb was tied up on the bank and the laibon prayed to God to give his people a way of escape from the enemy, and God heard the petition, divided the waters of the river and the tribe crossed over on dry land. The laibon then prayed that the flow of the river might be restored behind his people and it was so, he then sewed up the body of the man whom he had cut open and he quickly recovered and went along with the tribe. They then journeyed on unmolested, and came to Mweru and settled there. This is the origin of their family name Ntowaita, ku-ita in Mweru tongue means “to cut”. The Ntowaita are mostly located among the Atwana sub-tribe. This legend cannot fail to remind one of the flight of the Israelites from Egypt and one wonders if it may not have filtered down from the Semitic races of Bworana.” (M1 Hobley 1910: 157-159).

14M4 — “Short Outline of Meru Traditional History, showing how and when the Meru came to their present country. A Meru circumcision group covers a period of about ten years. Traditional history goes back some twenty circumcision ages only. At that time the tribe lived in a place called Mbwa, near a large water. (Mbwa or Mbwani is undoubtedly the same word as the Swahili Pwani (the Coast), and the Meru language still has very close affinities to that of Nyika tribes [name of the populations of the coastal inland regions that would later be called Mijikenda]). As they were being persecuted there by a people whom they called “Nguntuni’ (who appear to have been Arab slave-traders), they decided to emigrate, and the move started twenty circumcision ages ago (say, 200 years); their wanderings in the dry country between Mbwa and Meru district lasted about twenty years and they reached the present district via Tharaka about 180 years ago” (M4 Hopkins 1933).

15The juxtaposition of these brief versions, published twenty-three years apart by Hobley (M1 in 1910) and Hopkins (M4 in 1933), makes it possible to gauge how administrative-political coding affected the story, and illustrates the need to reconstruct it if one wants a reading to reveal more than just the ethnic construction process that had been in operation since the beginning of the conquest. The following presentation blends most of the identified variants, purged as much as possible of the bias injected by the conquerors. The division into successive episodes makes it easier to follow the story, while still respecting its spirit. I have added clarifications in brackets where these can be useful or easily added.

The challenges

  • 3  Nthukî means “generation” and in this context designates the group of people who crossed the river (...)

16The group that lived in Mbwaa is characterized as Mwiko jwa Ngaa, or Kirindi kia Ngaa, “The Ngaa Crowd”, “The Ngaa Group”, or even as nthukî from Mwerenge or from Ngaa3. Mbwaa sits near a large expanse of water characterized as a rukanka, or even îria, a term whose most common meaning is “lake”. Mbwaa, sometimes presented as a flat, sandy, infertile region, is also placed near a river called Mbweene that some say encircles the world and others say “had the habit of eating grass” (rûûjî rugeta kurîa nyaki). Informants who mention Mbwaa’s positioning use the expression rûtîrî rwa ûrîo: the ancestors of the Meru came, word-for-word, from the “right (-hand) side”. The Ngaa were not alone in Mbwaa. The Nguontuune, or “Red Clothes”—sometimes changed to Nguruntuune, “Red Legs” (a more rarely used expression, M5, Lambert 1950: 8)—never stopped setting them challenges. As soon as one was met, the Nguontuune would come up with another one.

17In most versions of the story, the series of challenges begins with the one that requires the Ngaa to retrieve a piece of fruit ntongu from a deep hole or well, without descending it and without using a stick or hook. The men hold a council (kiama) and, after lengthy discussions, end up deciding to fill the hole with water so the fruit will rise and they can snatch it from the surface.

18In the middle of Mbwaa there was a tall tree with ripe fruit. The Nguontuune required the Ngaa to bring them the fruit without climbing the branches. The kiama suggested killing two bulls and placing their carcasses at the foot of the tree. The beating wings of the vultures attracted in large numbers eventually caused the fruit to fall (M7, Kangoi 1972: 2).

19Next the Ngaa had to bring an “eight-sided garment”; the Ngaa supplied the husk of an ear of corn, which had eight sides (Fadiman 1973: 16).

20For the next challenge, they had to bring back a bull (ndegwa) whose excrement was white. The kiama reflected and decided to starve a bull for ten days and then, for four days, feed it milk and iraa, a white mineral substance used during blessings.

21Next, the Nguontuune demanded that the Ngaa bring them a leather sandal (kirato) with fur on both sides. The council suggested killing a bull and cutting off its dewlap (mûkoro)—the skin hanging between its jaw and chest. This was carefully dried and assembled to make a sandal with fur on both sides.

22Then they had to bring a dog with horns. After much discussion, the decision was taken to attach the horns of a “dik-dik” antelope to a dog.

23The Ngaa then had to make a metal spear, or rod, long enough to reach the sky. This time the kiama had no solution and decided to consult a diviner (Murori), whose origins are often specified; he is said to be either Ngaa or Nguontuune, or from another group. The diviner advised them to ask for three seasons, or a year and a half, to make the spear. The Nguontuune refused and said they had to produce the spear as quickly as possible. Consulted a second time, the diviner advised them to prepare for escape. In the meantime, he said they should weaken the Nguontuune’s vigilance by going to them with a string every day, making it two feet longer each time as proof of their progress in making the spear. The Ngaa prepared to leave, but since a wide expanse of water stood in their way, they turned to the diviner once again.

24Thus concludes the first phase of the story. Horne (M3) and Lambert (M5: 9) point out that the number of challenges imposed increases at the whim of the storyteller and according to local variations, but they say nothing more about it; the administrators must have seen these improvisations as nothing but nonsense or caprices designed to keep listeners on the edge of their seats, and saw no reason to record them. The tree episode is only reported by Kangoi, and only Fadiman makes brief mention of the episode of the eight-sided garment. To the flea test mentioned by Hobley (M1) and Lambert (M5: 15) is added an interesting detail provided—like M1—by the Tharaka: the Njuwe, a population that the proto-Tharaka meet during their displacement or upon arrival, required that they pour a plateful of fleas every time they wanted to draw water from a well. However, the other episodes appear in all versions and although their number and order can vary, the story of the challenges usually begins with the episode at the well and always ends with the spear episode. These days, if informants do not sidestep the challenges completely or fail to mention them, the few parts of the story they remember are those that square most poorly with biblical or historicizing interpretations.

25The authority that usually finds solutions to the tests set by the Nguontuune is the council of Fathers (kiama). An individual named Komenjue (“Wise Man”) appears in Lambert’s version. He brings solutions to a kiama that is often unable to find them. However, like the kiama, Komenjue fails to make the spear or foretell the escape. Komenjue also appears in some versions recorded by Bernardi (1959: 57-59) but the author informs us that this role is sometimes occupied by other characters, including the mûgwe. Komenjue also appears in Kangoi (under the name “Kooma wa Njwe”), and in Fadiman (1973: 16) where “Koome Njoe” is given as the name of the mugaa (pl. agaa), a diviner-healer able to read internal organs. Komenijue is one of the figures associated with a neo-council, the njuri-ncheke, which arose after the First World War in the context of a particularly acute crisis that saw kiamas unable to resolve anything. The Mbwaa story was updated again, particularly the part in which the people smuggler appears.

The escape: divination and the opening of the passage

26The variations are numerous, and this abundance is itself significant. At the risk of repeating certain details, it would be better to set out all of them rather than present a summary in which it would be difficult to find a place for some details that reveal the spirit of story. The escape is organized around three moments that have received varying amounts of commentary: the divination, the opening of the passage, and the crossing order.

Ill. 24a, b & c — Enteromancy of he-goat entrails carried out by a mugaa (diviner-healer), North Tigania, 1988

Ill. 24a, b & c — Enteromancy of he-goat entrails carried out by a mugaa (diviner-healer), North Tigania, 1988

Photos by Anne-Marie Peatrik.

27M3 —To consult the diviner Murori [from the verb and the expression kurorwa rorawa, “to read enteromancy”], the Ngaa bring half of their cattle in exchange for his assistance. The diviner refuses and says that two nthaka [warriors] must be sacrificed. A warrior named Aita from Ayuana [Athwana], offers himself as a sacrifice; another warrior from the same division offers himself as “grass” on which to sacrifice Aita [the sacrificial victim cannot lie directly on the ground]. The diviner takes his knife, cuts Aita in two from head to stomach, examines his internal organs, says he has gotten what he needs, applies medicine to the wound and sews the two halves back together. Aita recovers. The diviner gives him a stick and explains that when all of the Ngaa are ready to leave, Aita should strike the surface of the water, which will open, leaving a free pathway. While final preparations are underway, they keep sending a string to the Nguontuune as proof that their work is advancing. Aita stays at the edge of the parted waters until everyone has passed. The last of them set fire to the villages before leaving. Aita joins the end of the line, and the water closes behind him (Horne 1918).

28M5 — The diviner, named Murorua or even Mpatha, rejects the cattle brought to him and explains that under such dire circumstance, the internal organs of a man should be used. Lambert presents several variations. No volunteers come forward; so the diviner opens his own belly, sees that the omens are favorable, and sews himself back up. Or three warriors (nthaka) offer themselves. Aita (or Gaita) from the Athwana clan offers himself as a sacrifice. A second warrior steps forward: Amuthetu (“Ground”) will serve as the altar on which Aita will be sacrificed. A third, Akiuna, remains on standby in case the diviner wants to do a second reading. The examination of Aita’s internal organs proves favorable. The water crossing must be organized: the diviner bisects both warriors from top to bottom, and attaches half of one to half of the other. The bodies of the two new individuals are thrown in the water, which splits, forming a dry pathway that the fugitives rush into (Lambert 1950).

29M6 — Bernardi (1959: 58-59): the three volunteer warriors are Gaita (“He Who Destroys Himself”), Muthetu (“Ground”… who would be the ithenjeru [pl. mathenjeru] that is to say all leaves on which sacrifices are performed) and Akiuna (“His Whole Belly Trembled from Fear”). “Gaita was killed and his entrails revealed that the only man who could help the people out of their predicament was Gaita himself. So he was sewn together, and also his staff that had been cut was glued together, and Gaita rose again. With his staff he struck the water which divided into two to let the people pass, etc.” According to Bernardi, this version comes mainly from Tigania where the three heroes are reputed to be the founders of three related clans endowed with special powers. In Tharaka, in an area close to Tigania, Aita is replaced by Mutethia (“He Who Helps”): Mutethia is sacrificed and his body thrown into the water; the water opens, the people pass, then Mutethia recovers. Along with Mutethia, Mukanyaki and Mukithiriini (two brothers of the same mother), become the heads of three clans.

30M7 — Kangoi: the diviner-healer (mugaa, pl. agaa) arranges the divination and the crossing. He performs enteromancy on a billy goat, but since no solution appears, he resorts to a man. The three nthaka volunteer warriors are Aita, A-muthetu (“Ground”) and A-kiuna (“Waist”, because he wrapped his clothes around his waist, as a sign of waiting). The divination proves favorable: the halves of Aita, left exposed overnight, are spared by the ants and crocodiles. In the morning, the mugaa applies medicines to the cuts and places a horn in his head. Aita is reborn, another sign that the omen is positive. Antûbaita is also called Murorwa [ “the Read”, “He Whose Internal Organs Are Read by the Diviner”]. To open a pathway in the water, the diviner throws a sheep, sometimes honey, or strikes the water with a stick. Or Gaita is given a spear forged by the blacksmiths; Wamuthetu receives a flask full of honey and Muakiuna gets a sheep. Everyone gathers at the river’s edge. The sheep is thrown into the water, then the honey, and then Murorwa strikes the river with the spear. While the people are crossing, piles of household refuse (kiara) are burned to give the Nguontuune the impression that the Ngaa are still forging.

  • 4  Strictly speaking, these etymologies probably say more about the clan’s identity than about the Mb (...)

31M9 — The number of clans present during the sacrifice increases: to the three names already mentioned, some informants add other names that reflect attitudes towards the sacrifice. The Thingamburi people “The People of the Goat”, cannot be sacrificed under these exceptional circumstances, even though at a normal time, it is precisely on a goat that enteromancy is performed. The Antûbeiga or “Rock People”, as their name suggests, cannot be subjected to divination since a rock cannot be cut. The Amatû or “Ear People” (matû) are those who stick out their ear because they cannot understand what is being said to them. Les Antûa-makia, derived from kumakia, “to wonder”, are always in a state of uncertainty. The Mwiganda, derived from kwaganda, “to be numb”, remain passive. The Antû-bathanjû, whose bodies are like baskets (kithatiû), cannot be sacrificed4.

32Other means of crossing the river appear. The body of Aita “the Cut-Up One” is coated with iraa and the two halves are spared by the ants. The ntongu fruit, retrieved from the well at the end of the first challenge, is thrown into the river, which splits to let the people cross. Also, the spear that was not long enough to reach the sky is long enough to reach the opposite bank; it is covered with protective charms and laid over the water. The people hang onto it and cross the river one after another [a variation obviously supplied by a blacksmith, but it also echoes M7 above].

33M6 — Bernardi presents versions in which the diviner is replaced, sometimes by Komenjue but usually by the mûgwe. It is specified that he is from a non-Meru clan; this dignitary’s power resides in his staff called kiragu (1959: 54). Bernardi (pp. 60-61) mentions a version in which the mûgwe is the quintessential operator and smuggler: he finds solutions to the tests, gives advice and arranges the escape (but without resorting to divination), recommends that old people unable to walk be left behind, and with his staff divides the river blocking their escape.

34M7-Kangoi presents a version on “the origins of the ukiama [who] date back as far as the time when a person from the Antubaita clan offered himself as a sacrifice to save the tribe; three tribes supply the akiama to the Tigania: The Antubaita, the Amuthetu, the Akinua”.

The escape: the crossing order

35The most famous episode of the Mbwaa story, mentioned in many versions, explains that the runaways crossed one behind the other: those who crossed during the night became the Blacks, miiriga miiru; at dawn, the Reds, miiriga mitune; in the morning, the Whites, miiriga mieru.

M6 — Take the old cattle and the old sheep and the old goats and the old men that cannot walk. Take the small goats and the small sheep and the small calves that cannot walk, put them together with the old ones. [...] First select all the old cattle, and then all the old people, men and women, those who are ntindiri (i.e. very old, past all generating capacity), because they cannot walk. Now, in order that they may not suffer, collect as much dried cattle dung as possible so that they can use it for fire.’ Now we did so and select the old cattle and the ntindiri men and women, but we also selected the lambs, and the small goats, which we left for them there.
ernardi 1959: 54, 60.

36The theme of leaving the oldest and youngest people behind appears also in M7-Kangoi.

37M6 — Bernardi (1959: 191-192) provides an other version tinged with Christian ecumenism, in which the order of ages is elaborated more, and women make an exceptional appearance; Mbwaa also becomes the place from which all of Kenya’s tribes stem.

The ancestors had settled at the shore of the river they could not cross; they started to suffer and told themselves that if they were going to die either way, it would be better to attempt to cross the river. Then their leader says: ‘Those who have their children on their back [young mothers] let them put themselves in order; those who wear shoes [fathers], let them take them off; and those who are pregnant let them be careful.’ When he finished those words, he said with a loud voice: ‘Water divide yourself, so that my children may cross.’ He said this four times. And women were shrieking at a high pitch. At the fourth time, they saw the water swelling, and they were very much afraid. And again they saw the water swelling and raising itself, and they saw, but they could not understand how, dry soils between the waters. Their leader said: ‘Let a small girl and a small boy come here. First the small girl and then the small boy.’ And then he said: ‘Now enter into the water and cross.’ And the chief now said: ‘Let a young woman (ngutu) and a young man (ntani) cross the water.’ And they crossed. After that he said: ‘Now all must cross, but I shall go first.’ He entered the water and he crossed and all his people followed him and they all cross. When they had finished crossing, the two large walls that had been formed by the water, merged slowly together until the water was as before. Having arrived in the desert, they said: ‘Now there is nothing that we can do because we are all the clans together. So let the clan divide themselves according to their will.’ This was the place where people separated from each other. We came this side and we arrived at Lake Baringo; we divided from the Turkana, the Jaluo [Luo] and the Lumbwa [Kipsigis] and from the others who went by themselves.
ernardi 1959: 191-192.

38M7 — Kangoi. In Mbwaa, a leader named Nkibioburi has not crossed the river; he stayed behind to set fire to the kiara and fool the Nguontuune. Two others named Bungi and Mwirira were left behind as well.

After the escape

  • 5  Remember that this is where the Athwana’s ûkiama procession ends, and also the destination of the (...)

39M3 — Horne 1918. A Nguontuune and his wife managed to cross before the water closed; they follow the fugitives. The man was named Iri. All of the misfortune that visited them during the journey was blamed on Iri and his wife. Once they arrived in what was to become the Meru country, Iri was killed in Antûamburi by a man from the Antuannthama clan. The men held council to decide what should be done with the corpse; the murder could be discovered by Nguontuunes chasing after them. They asked the wife what to do, and she advised them to wrap the corpse in two hides (a donkey hide and a goatskin), bury him, and cover the grave with stones. Then she asked them who was going to marry her; the council replied that it would be her dead husband’s murderer. But they had really decided to kill her since she was no longer of any use to them. She was buried with her husband. An oath permanently forbade anyone to cross this clearing (named Kirononi) with a donkey, since the spell that was hiding the Nguontuune must never be broken. M5-Lambert mentions the incident of Iri and his wife in identical terms, simply specifying that some thought Iri had killed his own wife, placed her in a large hole and killed himself at her side. M7-Kangoi specifies that the Iri episode took place in Kiroone, not far from Thuuri; Iri was killed with the help of a girl from the Antûbailao clan, and was buried with his donkey5.

40In this final phase of the Mbwaa story, we also find traditions that echo the Mbugi myth and the final episode of the separation and establishment of the gaaru (see Ch. 5). According to M5-Lambert, before Iri’s death, the proto-Meru stayed in a place called Kirorero for four seasons. Scouts reported that they had found good cattle country. The Meru crossed the Tana [sic] and stopped for a while in a place called Kigairo or Ugairo. Here some skirmishes broke out with thamagi [from the verb kuthama, “to migrate, to travel”; thamagi is not an ethnonym but designates “itinerant persons or people”]. Kigairo [from the verb kugaa, “to be divided, to be separated”] is generally considered synonymous with Urimba [from erimba, “swamp”]; it is a flat, swampy area to which only goats can adapt. The proto-Meru stayed for a while and then decided to separate. They were too numerous or were searching for better grazing for the cattle. The one who encouraged the proto-Meru to separate was named Mugaigutiria, and his wife Chiobaibaya is widely considered the “mother of the Urimba people”.

41M9 — It is said that Chiobaibaya took it upon herself to initiate her sons, an unacceptable sign of power that brought about a split. According to M5-Lambert, the separation of the sections proceeded as follows: the Tharaka stayed in Muthithini, below Ntugi; the Igembe and Tigania [whose original name Mwiko jwa Ngaa Lambert seemed not to know], made their way towards the Nyambene in search of suitable land for the heard; the Imenti crossed Kiganka (Lower Abothuguchi) and Maitei towards Ithanguni and the North Kenya Forest; the Mwimbî crossed Kakere and the Rukirwe plain towards the foot of Mount Kenya. These are all of the populations that know the Mbwaa story with varying levels of precision. Excluded are the Chuka—and the Muthambi, a recent subdivision—who say they do not know the myth; however, they have a mûgwe, and this introduces an interesting discrepancy since the Chuka say they have always been in the region. This contradiction did not weaken the administrators’ confidence in the migration scenario and the unicity of origins. In their view, the distribution of Mbwaa knowledge and the shared past to which the story attests, combined with their common dialects and customs, proved the validity of defining a “Meru” group and corresponding District, designated by a term whose origins we have already examined.

3. Between earth and sky, the renewal of the world

  • 6  Similar processes were studied among the Mbeere by J. Glazier and P. G. Glazier (1976), P. Gorfain(...)

42Like the Mbugi myth, the Mbwaa story falls into one of the three literary genres cultivated by the Meru. The first is poetry (rwimbo, pl. ndwimbo), in a psalmodic or chanted form, or even danced since there is no break in continuity in this form, which brings the body and its resonances into play; one single verb kwina, from which rwimbo is derived, means “to chant” and “to dance”. Then there are proverbs (njuno), which offer an edifying lesson, as they do everywhere. Proverbs also provide men with a means of conversing when they want to avoid being understood by young people or women. Finally, there is the vast category of stories (rugono, pl. ngono), including the subset “cow stories” (ngono cia ngombe). Sometimes brief, sometimes elaborate, these “cow stories” are built around a riddle or mystery to be solved, an exercise that is particularly appreciated by the uninitiated, who find a pretext to assert themselves and confront each other through peaceful sparring. When one of them speaks the phrase gûkia roono “catch the story”, the one who accepts the challenge answers ndajûkia, “I catch”, and must find a solution to the rebus the other person has presented to him6. Mbwaa begins like a “cow story”, with the Red Mantles forcing the Ngaa to meet absurd challenges. However, in this case the position of the student being instructed by his elders is occupied by individuals who are nothing less than the holders of authority. The Fathers of the kiama, lowered to the level of the uninitiated, are subjected to this bullying as part of a substitution that turns all of the foundations of Meru polity upside-down.

  • 7  Mûtongu (pl. ntongu), designates two species that look alike but are actually quite different. The (...)

43The pledge of the fruit in the well is usually the first of the series of challenges. Ntongu, a small, yellow fruit that children often play with, connotes abundance7. Places where ntongu thrive are considered promising and this small fruit, which symbolizes the proliferation of men and cattle, is often used in accomplishment rituals. It marks the threshold of the family enclosure, which sons cross on the morning of their initiation, and warriors preparing for raids jump (jumped) seven times over a line of ntongu covered with protective charms before going to kill the enemy. For the same reason, anyone who wishes to cast a curse tears up the roots of a ntongu, promising that the targeted individual’s descendants will die just like the uprooted plant. The presence of a ntongu at the bottom of the well is a kind of bad omen, since throwing this fruit to the bottom of a hole amounts to promising death or preventing accomplishment, a reason why the Ngaa had no choice but to remove the provocation. The way the fruit is removed from the hole reverses the usual gestures: whereas normally a well is dug in order to collect water, in this case a dry hole is filled with water to raise the fruit.

44A similar backward-world principle structures the next episodes. After being forced to turn their attention to the bottom of a hole and bring something up, the Ngaa must now turn to a tree and make something else fall out of it. It is absurd to have to take down fruit without being able to climb or shake the tree, and the means employed are even more absurd. Whereas usually vultures have to be driven away from the meat of bulls sacrificed for propitiatory purposes, in this case the bulls are sacrificed to attract vultures that are supposed to make the fruit fall. Seen in light of the metaphor of impossible initiation, the vultures are somewhat reminiscent of the maternal uncle. The corn husk episode, briefly mentioned, is more difficult to explain. We could view the eight-sided garment as an allusion to the mantle of dried foliage that covers novices when they leave the circumcision ground. The fact of carrying an ear of corn enveloped in its leaves could denote the previous uninitiated state, before being husked on the threshing ground so to speak, indicating an additional temporal regression, another of which appears in the next challenge. The reversal of the arrow of time and the regression it entails receive explicit expression in the episode in which a bull is expected to produce a whitish excrement like that of an unweaned calf, an analogy that is reinforced when the animal is made to drink milk after being starved. In the same way, the use of iraa as bull food represents a doubly reversed utilization of this cosmetic normally applied to the middle the head and associated with human achievement. In this case it is swallowed as part of the bull’s reversion to the state of a calf.

45The loss of other logical reference points can be found in the episode of the sandal with fur on both sides. Made in this way, two of the sandal’s functions are brought into question: its symmetry jeopardizes its reason for being, since it is no longer clear how it should be worn or which side should be walked on; and without a top and bottom, it can no longer be used for divination because when thrown in the air (a common technique in these regions), it indicates nothing when it falls. The preposterous creature that results from grafting the horns of a “dik-dik” (small antelope) to the head of a dog brings more confusion, since it thereby unites two broods that man had separated, bush animals and farm animals. The confusion peaks when the Red Mantles expect the Ngaa to forge a spear long enough to link earth and sky. It is an outrageous requirement that defeats the great surveyor that is the blacksmith, and meddles with a separation that it is senseless for any human to try to overcome. The Ngaa have to resort to cunning, lighting fires that make it look like the blacksmiths are busy, and showing strings, their length fooling the Nguontuune into believing that the work is progressing.

46Before becoming impossible to complete, the tasks that the Nguontuune set the Ngaa are initially absurd. A provocation with a fruit that children often throw back and forth to amuse themselves draws the Ngaa and their kiama into a game that gradually turns to drama. Each new challenge blurs more reference points, and slowly dismantles the world’s constitutive limits: the bottom and top, the before and after, prediction and reproduction are the territories that are considered one by one until the primordial division is reached. And here we find the harmful effects of indistinction, presented as the consequence of the Ngaa being unable to advance, blocked as they are by the Red Mantles. The enteromancy episode continues and accentuates this movement, but it also represents a rupture since the Ngaa, ceasing their regression, become active and start organizing their escape.

47The diviner-healer mugaa (pl. agaa) is a familiar figure who is consulted in cases of illness or misfortune, and is the one the warriors turn to when they wish to know the outcome of planned raids. He gets his knowledge from his father, who judged him fit to understand and exercise the trade. The most elementary divination technique, a binary one, consists of a process of elimination that involves throwing a sandal in the air and seeing which side it lands on. Gourd divination requires more skill, since the diviner has to throw the small objects it contains (often seeds) on the ground and interpret their position, beginning with an examination of those that have fallen on the left. The divinatory art reaches its apex with enteromancy on a he-goat brought by the party seeking consultation. Following a precise procedure, the mugaa detects possible traces of mûgiro, pollution that results from a curse or the transgression of a prohibition, whether deliberate or involuntary; if no mûgiro is detected, then the mugaa declares the internal organs “clean” (kuthera), and then he might repeat the operation on another animal if he deems it necessary. At the end of the session, the diviner and his client share the goat carcass. Each of them keeps one of the halves resulting from a lengthwise cut. This gesture is reflected in the Mbwaa story when the Ngaa present half their herd to the diviner in exchange for his assistance. The diviner rejects it, saying that under such grave circumstances, what needs to be examined is not a goat, but a man. The divination thus takes on a different character and the Mbwaa drama takes another turn. However, the shift from goat to man is consistent with the nature of things, since both belong to the sun cycle and during normal times, a goat is sacrificed to reactivate a faltering sun cycle or compensate for the effects of an overly powerful rain cycle. When killed for divinatory purposes, the goat is put to death in an unusual way since it is not smothered as during a sacrifice, or stabbed as it is when an oath is taken. Its jugular is cut instead. It bleeds slowly until the emptied animal collapses, in a gesture that inversely imitates female fertility: a goat whose internal organs contain human destiny loses its life through blood that runs from the jugular vein cut below the head, and provides a reading of a person’s future. In the story, the shift from animal to man includes some changes since the victim, bisected lengthwise, is subsequently re-formed and comes back to life, whereas in divination, the goat carcass is shared between the Reader and the Read.

48The diviner’s request triggers the entrance of the warriors, who had until then stayed out of the picture. Antûbaita is the first of three warriors who offer themselves for sacrifice. Amuthetu the Ground serves as an intermediary since, due to incompatibility between human and earth cycles, a sacrificial victim is never placed directly on the ground, but rather on an altar made of banana tree leaves. A third volunteer remains on standby, his garment tied to his belt, in case Gaita faints or the divination has to be repeated. The trinity formed by these warriors is another way of saying that two is not enough and must be exceeded. Ita is a term that refers to cutting, and by extension to war. Ita or Aita the Cut is also called Murorwa, the “Divined”. The treatment received by the body of the “Divined”, which the mugaa cuts, examines and—unlike with the divination goat—reassembles, even sews back together, repeatedly brings into play the division between the left, matrilateral half and the right, patrilateral half. The division acquired at birth is as if reprocessed after it has been determined that nothing abnormal, no mûgiro—for which maternal parents are mainly responsible—is detected. The version in which the diviner reconstructs two individuals by mixing the four halves is even more explicit because it presents an exchange and a new birth in which the union of opposite sexes does not enter into the equation. This sequence is somewhat reminiscent of the longitudinal incision of the foreskin, the modalities of “circumcision”, the ordeal suffered by novices and the self-gestation experienced by men during initiation—gestures that change filiation relationships, the relative weight of maternal relations, and the links with the sister. And since the initiation takes place in two phases, the ordeal also reflects the need to kill an enemy, an obligation that entails the danger of being killed oneself. Aita the Cut emerged victorious from the challenge.

49The shift of prominence in the two halves of the body made possible by initiation also sheds light on some of the appellations and expressions that appear in the story. Before the crossing, the proto-Meru are Mwiko jwa Ngaa, “the Women’s Shield Crowd”, or even “the Women’s Shield Generation”, expressions that emphasize initial gestation and matrilaterality. After their crossing, which spawns three patrilineal clan divisions named after the succession of colors at daybreak, they are said to be from “the righthand side”, rûtîrî rwa urîo, an expression that has led to some unfortunate geographical interpretations, but actually reflect a conception of the body and the assertion of patrilinearity that follows the initiation. An identical pattern is found in the figures of the warriors, who become the founding heroes of the patrilineal clan categories. The “Ngaa Crowd”, that undifferentiated mass stemming from women, gives way to the Aita people (Antûbaita), the Muthetu People (Amuthetu) and the Kiuna People (Akiuna). In short, the ordeal from which Aita emerges victorious, and the manipulation to which his body is subjected, explicitly use ingredients that relates everything to filiation and men’s initiation. The initiation of a new set in Tigania begins specifically with the mûkiama commemorating the sacrifice of Aita.

50In the same way, the opening of the passageway across the “wide water” or “lake” echoes themes encountered several times. The overabundance of water, to which the expression “water that eats grass” again makes reference, is like a sign of the rain cycle surplus, which needs to be counterbalanced by its opposite or regulated by the symbol that controls it, as illustrated by the methods used to provisionally suspend the water flow, making the crossing possible. The most immediate way, within everyone’s reach (and a retort to the first challenge), is that of the ntongu fruit that was lifted from the bottom of the well and then thrown into the river: yellow like a sun, this symbol of human and herd proliferation dries up the water flow. The body of the Bushman, the Cut sewn back together, is similarly effective. Having become the quintessential human, whose right half was been reinforced by the ordeal and the initiation, his body has what it takes to counterbalance the rain cycle and interrupt the flow of the river. In other versions appear symbols that influence the cycle of the water: the sheep, the honey, the stick and the mûgwe who, as we have seen, is the quintessential regulator of this cycle, to the point that in some versions the mûgwe controls the chain of symbolic efficiency and determines the framework of the story, with the exception of Aita’s sacrifice. The blacksmith’s version, in which the spear is never able to reach the sky but is long enough to reach the opposite bank, stealthily repairs the failure he was supposed to shoulder and stems from the already mentioned concomitance of these two figures in the sociopolitical organization of the Tigania-Igembe. In this phase, the evocation of the blacksmiths at work and of kiara being set on fire appear several times and encourage the existing assimilation between reduction pits and garbage pits.

51The crossing order, finally, is easier to understand because it explicitly presents the divisions of the society. After being caught between the Red Mantles and the “wider water”, the society unfolds, spreads out. The three clan colors are differentiated, just as the ages are distinguished and distributed according to systems already mentioned: sometimes emphasis is placed on a process of division that leaves the oldest and youngest behind, reproducing the composition of the gîtiba (the generational division) that transmits power. Other times the focus is on the youngest crossing the river first, reflecting the chronological line of the age grades. The final episode, the burial of Iri the Red Mantle, echoes the first sequence and conjures the threat he presents: the fate promised to the ntongu fruit is reserved for him. Iri is buried in a way that deliberately transgresses convention, accompanied by his wife, wrapped in a donkey hide, placed at the bottom of a stone-filled hole that no hyena could get into. His lineage is buried in the ground and thus annihilated forever, and the presence of the hide also has the effect of making the clearing in which he is buried dangerous; crossing it is prohibited but his name is still associated with the celebration of the mûkiama rite. Lambert (M5: 11) quotes the refrain of a chant that he admits he cannot understand, one that is sung by the men of the kiama when they have issued a death sentence, as required for two crimes: parricide and witchcraft.

O Iri tî ûwe mûrumi wa kiama.
O Iri you are not the one who cursed the

52Mûrumi is likely a verbal noun derived from kûruma, “to curse”, designating the person who utters the curse. In this refrain, the Fathers recall and celebrate the final defeat of Iri the Red Mantle, whose curse did not get the better of the kiama’s authority. It is an evocation that only makes sense when related to the beginning of the Mbwaa story and the situation in which the Fathers are treated as if they were uninitiated. The Fathers are sovereigns who have the right to end the life of anyone who attacks the foundations of the social order and the polity.

53Mbwaa’s final manifestation is also the only time a woman explicitly enters the scene, in the form of a wife that must be eliminated, an apparition that is all the more striking in that Ngaa is the name of the women’s shield, an emblem of their joint power with the kaaria, and of the crew foiled in Mbwaa. This absence of women, which is too deliberate not to indicate their implicit presence, has been clarified by the comments of a Michubu wife (subsequently confirmed by men) who explained that, although it does not fall to women to tell the Mbwaa story, they at least have their own mbwa:

After a bull has been sacrificed, [the animal] is left there and the women are called, since they’re the ones who know how to remove the “stomach pieces” (ntheo cia kîu). The men don’t know how to remove these pieces; they are the pieces that fall to the women, and the men don’t know them. [In a bull], there are pieces for men, women, the initiated and the uninitiated. When a bull was sacrificed, the women couldn’t be around. Then the bull stayed there [slaughtered] as long as the women hadn’t come to get the internal organs. Only the women knew how to remove them. We say that women are the ones who know mbwa, how to remove the internal organs from cattle (Tûgaa ekûrû nibo bamenyaa mbwa bura ikarutwa kîune kia ngombe).

54For the women, mbwa is not a place, but the removal of a sacrificed bull’s internal organs, and their recognized privilege of removing the internal organs before the animal can be cut up by the men. Mbwa designates more precisely the “reticulum”, the compartment in the ruminant’s stomach whose alveolar wall is like the honeycomb of a beehive. In Kimeru, one single term designates both the “honeycomb of the beehive” and the “reticulum”, ibwa (pl. mabwa), and this part was more particularly intended for uninitiated girls. Far from being a digression, this explanation goes to the heart of the Mbwaa story, to the sacrifice episode and the divination on Aita the Cut, to the broad sharing of filiation and to re-engendering through initiation. Also at play in Mbwaa is women’s loss of reproductive power, as well as the distancing of the influences they convey. Chiobaibaya is a reminder of the necessity of this loss. She is the woman who generates scandal and triggers a secession since she arrogated the power to initiate her sons. She is the mother of the Swamp People, swamps being poorly defined places where water and earth mix. This final aspect of mbwaa sheds light on a linguistic problem: this word is sometimes spoken with emphasis, mbwaa, and sometimes without it, mbwa. The plural of ibwa, which is mabwa, provides the solution: by shortening it—a classic elocution method—the emphasis moves to the end of the word, which is then pronounced mbwaa.

  • 8  It is amusing to observe that in this myth, water is not associated with flowing time, but rather (...)

55Mbwaa forms a whole whose parts order and clarify each other. The opening phase—in which the Ngaa are subjected to absurd challenges—is based on a logic of regression in a world that is crumbling little by little until the moment when the Cut’s divination-by-ordeal signals the gradual return to normality. This narrative structure, with two phases separated by an event, is not unique in the oral literature of these populations. A traditional story recorded by Laughton (1964), included at the end of this chapter (see Annex: The story of Kamankura), offers another example of a “cow story” that teaches a lesson through absurdity, beginning with an incongruity and telling of a kiama held in check until the moment when, after visiting the blacksmith, the Fathers find a solution that brings them closer and closer to reestablishing the world and its social rules, particularly (and this is not mere chance) the rules of marriage and filiation. The dual movement of regression and progression is the same one that structures the age and generation system, with prolonged periods of latency and waiting after which time leaps forward by bounds, in step with initiation and the opening of the sets. The Mbwaa story illustrates the damaging effects of leaving time in suspension for too long, as symbolized by the Red Mantles, named after the intermediate color between the Black of night and the White of day. The immobility and acceleration are also those of the Omaha kinship and obliquity, where the restrained time of matrilateral kinship is opposed by the accelerated time of patrilateral kinship, through initiation and the transformation of a sister into a daughter. The undue preeminence of the intermediate color, which is also that of menstrual blood, is a sign that stopped time or prolonged gestation—in short, an over-gestation— are slowly leading to widespread disorder: the kiama is relegated to the rank of non-initiates, the world is slowly being dismantled and the men are threatened by the water8 blocking their escape. Stuck in the Red, the men are also stuck in space, in accordance with a combination of time and territory characteristic of Tigania-Igembe life measures. The warrior’s sacrifice-by-ordeal, which sees him cut up and then reassembled, re-orders the cycle of men and the cycle of rain, and the stagnation lifts, life gets moving again, colors unfurl and ages distinguish themselves, until the next confusion, when it will once again be necessary to effect a separation and find a passageway.

56The rites that mark the arrival of a new set conjure up the drama of suspended time and the blocked passage that, each generation, find illustration in the disorder of the ntuiko induced by the overaged and the inversion of rank, and the questioning of primordial fathering. Myths and rites respond to each other. The consecrated places in which propitiatory and prophylactic rituals are conducted replay the Mbwaa story: one celebrates the sacrifice of the Cut in the Small Woods of Ûkiama, one waits for the leaves strewn over the Small Lake in the Nyambene Hills to spread out, indicating a passage on the water’s surface; other mûgwe are introduced who wear the mantle of reunification; through the agency of a new set, the undefeated Fathers remain the sovereigns and masters of the promotion of sons. The Mbwaa story illustrates the paradox of an authority that draws its legitimacy from the passing of time and the succession of generations. The set of Fathers holds authority, but generations are called upon to follow one another, and transmissions are expected to occur; men can very well re-father themselves, but everything starts and restarts with women, since only they can bring children into the world. Gestation offers the model for accomplishment and incompletion. He who does not pass regresses. Life is a series of measured steps (mataalia), all of them obligatory. Time indicates the walk to be taken and disrupts the pace. Illustrating the need for initiatory re-fathering, the Mbwaa story is a myth of sovereignty that expresses the obligation, generation after generation, to find the passageway and reestablish the social order.

4. Mbwaa outside of Mbwaa

  • 9  In presenting them the aim is not to undermine the originality of the Mbwaa story, but to recall t (...)

57Comparable elements seen among other populations make it possible to situate this story within the regional and subcontinental context, and they also shed unexpected light on some of its components9. A first comparison can be made with the Kipsigis, agro-herders situated west of Mount Kenya beyond the Rift Valley. The parallel with these Nilotic speakers of the Kalenjin group, briefly examined earlier in relation to kinship, becomes clear in light of similarities in how they organize ages and generations: both populations link sets with grades based on circumcision sets, and divide men into seven or eight generational sets with recurring onomastics that are alternatively split into two divisions (Peristiany [1939] 1964). Their circumcision rites are similar in many respects, and the history of the Kipsigis written by H. A. Mwanzi (1977) and T. Toweett (1979) contains information that recalls certain aspects of the Mbwaa story (Huntingford 1953: 52).

58Cheptalel, one the names that designates—like the Meru’s Ngaï-Murungu— the Supreme Principle of the old Kipsigis, literally means “white girl”. It was chosen in memory of a young girl who was coated with white before being sacrificed for the sake of ending an extended drought. Worship of Cheptalel, in both families and communities, took place on altars called mabwaita, which were made of a savannah plant alternatively called korosiot, kerundut or kapkorosit. An annual fertility rite assembled the Kipsigis around a mabwaita edified for this purpose. The ceremony always began with the sacrifice of an animal whose internal organs were subjected to divination on the altar. The same went for rites carried out on family altars, always placed on the east side of the domestic enclosure. These rites began with enteromancy on the sacrificed animal (Mwanzi 1977: 17, 115-122). “Abaita” or “going to fetch milk at a warrior’s house” designates the Kipsigis custom where mothers approach courageous warriors and ask permission to name their newborns after them (Toweett 1979: 2).

59These elements certainly echo the Mbwaa story and some of the Meru’s practices. The name Mbwaa itself could be a contraction of the term mabwaita, a comparison that is supported by other common ingredients. Kerundut, one of the terms used to designate the plant used to build altars, can be compared to the ntongu, another plant from the Mbwaa story whose ritual use has been explained. In Kimeru, ibwa (pl. mabwa) designates the cells in beehives, the reticulum of the cow’s stomach, and the women’s mbwa; the kerundut, a component of the Kipsigis mabwaita, is a plant whose blossoms are associated with honey production. Kipsigis enteromancy can obviously be compared to the sacrifice of Aita and his commemoration whenever power is handed down, and it is also comparable to Meru women’s mbwa, which refers to the internal organs of sacrificed bulls. The commemoration of Cheptalel’s death and of the circumstances surrounding her sacrifice are reminiscent of the Ngaa’s shields and the women’s kaaria, the deregulation of the sun and rain cycles, and the remedies these required. The Kipsigis’ Abaita rite shares characteristics with the transmission of the name nthukî, gained by Meru warriors during their long-distance trek. Finally Mwanzi relates a story in which a young man opens a river to escape enemies:

There was once a man named Kipsoroi. He had two great powers, including the power to influence water. One day his enemies, who were cannibals, wanted to kill him. They chased [Kipsoroi] all the way to a certain river, which Kipsoroi ordered to split so that he could pass. The river complied and he crossed. But when his enemies were in the middle of the crossing, Kipsoroi said: “Let my maternal uncle’s water be full, and I will give you a black pearl and a white pearl”, and the river closed over his pursuers.
wanzi 1977: 100, Toweett 1979: 3.

60This time, with regard to the opening of the river, in addition to the theme of colors, we find the theme of filiation, which is designated explicitly in this case, whereas in the Mbwaa story it is metaphorized in the cutting of Aita.

61In a story known for being one of the Maasai’s origin narratives (Ole Sankan 1971: 67-73), we find other features reminiscent of the Mbwaa story. The Maasai once lived in a region that was dry and hollow like a crater. An extraordinary drought forced them to leave and search for another land. They had to climb the escarpment, and proceeded to do so by means of a large “bridge”, but this collapsed, and only half of them made it to the summit. They prospered in their new land: animals and people proliferated, and the time came when it once again became necessary to find new pastures. The Maasai were then confronted by a tribe, the Ilarinko, whose powerful chief required them to perform incredible tasks if they wanted to earn the right to pass. The Maasai successively had to bring fresh milk (even though their herds were far away), a calabash full of live fleas, and a sandal with fur on both sides. It was always a young boy who came up with the solution to these challenges, helping the elders out of a tight spot, since they had failed to find one. However, the final request stumped the little boy since they were told to bring a metal toothbrush, an object that no one knew how to make. So the little boy decided to use cunning and prepared an ambush in which the powerful chief—a giant—was killed. A battle ensued and the defeated Ilarinko became Massai. In another story (ibid.: 73-76), a little boy who succeeds in completing astounding tasks becomes a laibon, that is to say a diviner-blesser of warriors.

62Once again there is a striking similarity to the Mbwaa story, especially if one adds the M1 version, which explains how the Njuwe prevent the proto-Tharaka from accessing a well by setting them absurd challenges, beginning with the obligation to bring them a plateful of fleas. The story begins in an inauspicious location, a dry hole they need to get out of, and uses the same narrative device: continual harassment that is more idiotic than tragic reduces Fathers to powerlessness, and they get the help of a young boy. Then follows the establishment of order, ending with the integration of the defeated. In Maasai, mbwa is a pejorative term, the referent of which is “farmers”, and it is the root of Lumbwa, a derisive Maasai ethnonym sometimes applied to Kipsigis, or even used to characterize proto-Massai who mix farming and herding (Galaty 1991: 176-177), or even the so-called Ilumbwa predecessors who dug wells (Jacobs 1979: 39). According to a related denotation, mbwa also designates farmers who dig wells for the Maasai, a task that a prohibition prevents the Maasai from carrying out (Jacobs 1965: 31, 133). Is it necessary to recall that the story of the challenges inflicted upon the Meru’s ancestors almost always begins with the episode at the well?

63The etymological link between all of these mbwaa is difficult to reconstruct, and a linguist might be amazed by this apparently heterogeneous collection, but it is nonetheless true that a substantial bundle of ethnographic clues indicate a common semantic field, at the center of which lie challenge, initiation and the various age and generation set systems; it attests to proximity and a common past among the proto-Meru, the proto-Kalenjin and the proto-Maasai, which all have grades and sets. It is impossible to determine who borrowed from who or analyze it in terms of distribution. Gone is the time when it was taken for granted that the Meru were sedentarized Maasai, and that their age sets imitated those of the Maasai. Shrewder hypotheses need to be considered, without omitting to incorporate the fact that the Tigania-Igembe also share traits with the Borana and other Oromo populations, that they are Bantu speakers, and that even setting their cognate languages, there is good reason to believe that the proto-Meru and the proto-Kikuyu shared a common history before becoming differentiated (Peatrik 1994).

64Other traits establishing links with more geographically remote populations illustrate that the claims of biblical influence in the Mbwaa story lead to implausible interpretations. These illusions are so deeply rooted that we cannot avoid returning to this point. The water-crossing theme has already been mentioned in relation to the Kipsigis, and it is found among the Turkana (Lamphear 1992: 31-32). The Pare of Tanzania, who have already been mentioned in relation to the overthrow of a belligerent blacksmith dynasty, have a story that explains the crossing of Lake Jipe by a founding hero born of the Taita people (Gray 1946, Kimambo 1969: 33-34). The story begins with an episode in which a certain Yamdai wrongfully extends the day so that his assembled helpers have time to finish making sugar cane alcohol; but when Yamdai lifts the spell, everyone is suddenly plunged into darkness and some of them lose their herds. Amid this confusion, Yamdai (or his brothers) steal chickens; he is then ordered to hand over one bull for every feather on the stolen chickens. Unable to meet this demand, he decides to run away. He crosses a river by striking it with his magic stick. Thinking he is being chased, he closes the water behind him to drown his assailants. But it turns out he has only drowned his father, who had gone looking for him. The Wamare clan makes a lakeside sacrifice in memory of this man, and the site has become a place of worship. We find both identical and opposite details between the Lake Jipe and Mbwaa stories, which have parallel narrative structures. Yamdai, a son, does not rescue his father (or elders) but only commits blunders and ends up killing him. He is responsible for deregulating time, in this case at the end of the day, with the White enduring and then the Black of night arriving without any transition. Next, he runs away to escape a disproportionate fine and, after crossing the river he had opened, ends up drowning not his enemies, but his own father. This is not the falling of a warrior who deliberately exposed himself to death, but the father of the hero, killed by mistake. This death is commemorated by people whose name “Wamare” is similar to that which designates the Meru council of warriors: ramare or lamale.

65In south Sudan this time, G. Lienhardt (1961: 186-189, 194-197), in his analysis of collected Dinka stories, notes that the river-crossing theme is recurrent to the point that, in many contexts, “crossing the river” means “finding new pastures”, and “not crossing” means “dying” (ibid.: 195). In a story that has many variations, a hero kills one of his sisters in a river to open a passageway allowing a herd to cross without drowning. An episode in the myths of the masters of the fishing spear, who are important dignitaries in the sociopolitical organization of the Dinka people, presents a hero that the divinity pierces from top to bottom with a spear whose two ends touch the sky and the earth. L. Mallart Guimera’s study on the Evuzok people of Cameroon (1981: 14-15) provides an example—this time taken not from among the Nilotic people, but from other Bantus—of a similarly widespread myth that recounts how these populations took part in a major migration and were at one point halted by an apparently uncrossable river, which is sometimes said to encircle the world. The crossing was achieved by walking on the back of an enormous snake reminiscent of the Kikuyu’s ndamathia, which is at the heart of the final ritual in the transmission of generational powers; the proto-Evuzok are thus able to escape their pursuers. Two other examples taken from the Bantu cultural area conclude this survey. In the story about the origins of Luba royalty in southeast Zaire, one finds, alongside original motifs, themes relating to color and the domination of red associated with maternal relations, the theme of a game that turns into bullying, escape and the crossing of a river that is blocking the way (De Heusch 1972: 19-30). Moving a little more to the south, in V. Turner’s study on color classification among the Ndembu people (1967b: 62-65) he mentions the combination of red, black and white to three rivers and to kinship, which is the object of secret transmissions and initiation rituals.

5. A historian in Utopia

  • 10  The 1973 installment was republished in 1976, but this second publication had a supplementary impa (...)

66J. A. Fadiman is the researcher who believed he could interpret the Mbwaa story as the description of an actual migration from a place duly pinpointed on the coast of the Indian Ocean, and also thought he could make established facts out of the interpretations that administrators and missionaries had developed in the course of their duties. But Fadiman worked in the language of science, and managed to give his argument enough of a semblance of coherence for it to appear in The Journal of African History (1973)10. In their descriptions of his work, historians and ethnologists (Spear 1978: 131-134, 1981: 58-60; Glazier 1985b; Ambler 1995; Green 1995) have expressed reservations and criticized his investigation methods and conclusions. But for lack of sufficient data, no one has attempted to refute the mechanisms behind his proofs. There are several incentives to do so. As we have just seen, Mbwaa is a foundation narrative and a tale of political philosophy, but Fadiman’s enterprise stems from a feeling that was widely shared at the time— though not unanimously (M’Imanyara 1992)—that the Meru’s origins lie in this migration. His work proceeds according to an outdated 19th-century conception of the history of population settlement that focuses on the mass displacement of populations that leave one place to settle in another (Völkerwanderungen). The ideological effects of this notion can still be felt today, sometimes horribly. My critical interpretation of Fadiman’s work is more modestly inspired by the works of historians of the interlacustrine kingdoms (Chrétien 1985) who decrypted the famous Bacwezi myth before proceeding with their analysis. Fadiman’s migration presuppositions also have the consequence of drowning out historiographic clues, which can be enlightening if used correctly.

67Based on his investigations, conducted in 1969, Fadiman concludes that the Meru’s ancestors migrated around the year 1700, and that Mbwaa was located on Manda Island, part of the Lamu archipelago on the coast of the Indian Ocean. The Nguo Ntuni, probably Arabs, devoted themselves to maritime trade. Still according to Fadiman: the discernible biblical influence—in the persecution of the Ngaa while they were held prisoner or reduced to slavery, and in their flight across the Red Sea Iris Itune [îria becomes Iris, and the red of the mantles has rubbed off on the sea]—probably came through the intermediary of Islamized coastal populations. Fadiman then believes that on the basis of maps, he is able to reconstruct the itinerary followed by the fugitives over desert and swamp land, more or less following the Tana River until they arrived north-east of Mount Kenya. All of this is punctuated by dates deduced from the age sets that would have formed successively during this journey.

68The information collection method on which Fadiman thought he could base his investigation is perplexing. He did not evade any of the pitfalls of ethnographic investigation and analysis, even though his inventory of written sources attests to his penchant for compilation and his skill as an archivist (1982: 175-178, 1993: 371-375). Fadiman (1973: 9, n. 1) states that he questioned sixty informants specifically about the Mbwaa story, choosing the oldest informants possible, distributed throughout the Meru District, in order to construct a complete version of the story by assembling information obtained independently. The exclusive use of extensive investigation, a practice he also applied to other research themes, is the first bias Fadiman introduces. Not for a single moment does he discuss the effects of his investigation method, something that also comes out in his appendix entitled “Meru Methodology: Collecting Oral History” (1982: 145-152) in which he explains all of the precautions he believed he needed to take in order to achieve compelling results. He says he selected his assistants based not on their academic qualifications, but rather on the extent of their interest in their tribe’s past, which could guarantee conscientiousness, as long as a few things were kept in mind. Nowhere does Fadiman address the question of how the story had been used and transformed since the colonial conquest, even though this is apparent in the archives he dissected. His assistants, especially if they were curious about their past, would certainly have been influenced by the various transcriptions of the Mbwaa story, which even gave rise to theatrical representations, and were particularly good catalysts for reflection because, defining the group as it did by their origins, they conferred a positive identity that conformed to the codes of modernity. During the same period, S. Feierman (1974: 14-15), facing problems of this kind in his investigation on the history of the Shambaa Kingdom (Tanzania), similarly met with elders, who tended to consider the traditions collected by German missionaries to be more accurate than their own: “I encountered two men who retracted the account of their traditions after learning that a published history disagreed [...] Many Shambaa insist that oral tradition is obsolete, that writing is much more complete” (p. 15). Out of enthusiasm for the investigation, Fadiman’s assistants could have, without ill intent, elicited answers through the wording of their questions. Every ethnographer has on occasion been confronted with a good-willed informant who gives the answer he thinks his questioner would like to hear or, rather than remain silent, makes an erroneous suggestion. And since Fadiman possessed not even the most basic knowledge of Kimeru, he could not verify his intermediaries’ intentions. Moreover, the choice of informants—in a once egalitarian society in which no one in particular was the guardian of traditions, and in which memory operates according to the quite particular temporality of age and generation sets—must obey certain rules. Enlisting the help of individuals whom public rumors and the local administration single out as knowledgeable on traditions (the method Fadiman used) is often deceptive. These individuals fashioned themselves a reputation as specialists in a society shattered first by the conquest, then by the practices of a colonial administration that was long confronted by the absence of officially recognized contacts or representatives in an “acephalous”, power-sharing society. Researchers inevitably encounter these people at the beginning of their investigations; their contributions are obviously of interest, but it is imperative that their claims be confirmed. It is wiser to use anonymous, regular people as informants. However, it takes time to find men and women who are versed in matters of the past or sensitive to questions of society, who agree to collaborate and are willing to admit when they do not know.

69The question of time is the second problem presented by the method Fadiman used. Over a period of nine months, he crisscrossed the Meru District conducting more and more interviews, until he had completed three hundred. Only someone with a poor understanding of oral investigation and ethnography could believe that in only one session, even repeated, undertaken with the help of interpreters who ask the questions, and moreover in public, and translating the interview right after it has been recorded, one can obtain solid data. The trust Fadiman places in his assistants betrays his ignorance of the problems inherent in every translation, as well as the difficulty of evoking or designating realities that do not exist in the language of an interviewee. The forcibly educated Meru who served as his interpreters must have had some difficulty understanding the content of the explanations of elders. In addition to the disappearance of customs and practices to which informants’ memories referred, the language had changed considerably, some vocabulary having fallen into disuse, and people had less and less mastery of the complex manipulation of conjugations. The deterioration has accelerated in recent decades, but it was well underway in the late 1960s. If the interpreter was not aware of these difficulties, he could in good faith have failed to grasp some of the meaning in the answers of informants, or even have mistranslated them. Fadiman’s inappropriate use of two terms (1982: 147), which he presents as characteristic of relations with elders, illustrates this point. He says he established an uthoni relationship with informants to whom he gave presents. Yet this term designates a spousal relationship, which is only established after most of the matrimonial compensation has been paid. Either Fadiman’s assistants were unaware of the actual meaning of this relationship, or they failed to make themselves understood, or they settled for approximate explanations, or it was a somewhat suggestive tall tale since it implied that Fadiman had, or was going to, take a wife from each of his informants! The gichiario relationship, which Fadiman also mentions, represents a more awkward misunderstanding from the point of view of the investigation. His assistants had a gichiario relationship with the informants they visited, and according to him, this was a way of receiving a good welcome. Certainly, but this is not where the problem lies. Being in a “blood brother” relationship, gichiarios cannot fight, or marry, or refuse requests for assistance, this final obligation causing any gichiario to become a potential beggar to be avoided, although since the relationship is reciprocal, one gives in to his requests without too much resistance, especially if he comes accompanied by a white man. On this basis, the informant provides relevant, perhaps dissonant information in a context that operates like a forced exchange! And it is ultimately impossible to avoid generating some confusion when making use of both the uthoni and the gichiario relationships, since the latter prohibits the former.

70These difficulties, which are part of every oral investigation, do not seem to have phased Fadiman, and the sound data he believed he had collected were analyzed just as ingenuously. The sense of certainty emanating from his proofs is such that uninformed readers would be under the impression that they are in the presence of conclusions established with all necessary rigor. But in fact, at every stage of his explanation, the proofs are influenced by a previous error, adding a new, equally baseless argument.

71Similarly, the localization of Mbwaa within the Lamu archipelago on the coast of the Indian Ocean is the result of successive approximations originating in two indications that, over the years, turned first into clues and then into evidence: the direction given for the localization of the place of origin (which Fadiman treats as obvious and at no point questions), and the etymological analysis of the word “Mbwaa”, which he bases on the opinion of linguists. The Meru say word-for-word that they came from “the right side” (rûtîrî rwa ûrîo), a concise expression that has fed many assumptions, with the obvious exception of assumptions relating to the right side of the body and to matters of kinship, which would have required ethnographic knowledge that did not exist at that time. Some were inclined to view it as a direction in terms of cardinal points. The Meru call the sunrise kuuma—which is also an adverb indicating the place one has come from, or the origins from which one proceeds—and call the sunset kûthoa, but they have no word for “north” or “south”. Applying an interpretation that was presented as judicious, the following directions were established: depending on whether right was indicated with one’s back to the sunrise or to the sunset, Mbwaa was localized either in the north or in the south. In the north, the expanse of water could have been Lake Rudolph (now Lake Turkana), but it was speculation about the coast that won out, since it was assumed that informants must have been talking about the right in relation to their current location on slopes that faced east, and by adding a bit of east to the south this led to the coast. This interpretation went as far as declaring that the term “left” (umwothû) must designate “north” in Kimeru, while others still opted for the right ûriô because large territorial sections of the Right were localized in the north. These are the successive operations that led the Meru to be given four cardinal points, when in reality the Meru do not designate north or south, something that is unsurprising in populations settled on the equator.

  • 11  Fadiman (1973: 11, 19) several times backs his claims with commentary from linguist J. Sharman, wh (...)

72Furthermore, an etymological analysis undertaken at a time when no one had yet established the differences and distance between Kiswahili and the Bantu languages (including Kimeru) of the Highlands that have seven vowel phonemes, supported other arguments in favor of this localization. It was once thought that Kimeru was related to Kiswahili and the dialects of the coastal back-country populations of the so-called Nyika, later called Mijikenda. This comparison was also encouraged by the existence among the Mijikenda of a narrative of origin based on a mythical place called Sungwaya, said to be on the Somali coast (Spear 1976, Willis 1993). Both Lambert and Fadiman11 derived Mbwaa from the root pwa, which in Kiswahili designates an area between land and water, a shore. The plausibility of this etymology was reinforced by descriptions collected by Fadiman. Convinced that it was necessary to search along the coast, Fadiman collected multiple details that supported the theory that Mbwaa was located on Manda, an island of the Lamu archipelago at the mouth of the Tana. Its topographical particularities corresponded to his informants’ descriptions. It would be tedious to review each of these descriptions, but they can be grouped with a view to illustrating how the author proceeded (1973: 10-12). The Mbweene River was described as a stretch of water surrounding Mbwaa, apparently indicating that Mbwaa was an island. “The water that was going to eat the grass” (rûûjî rugeta kurîa nyaki) designated the tide, an interpretation that seemed to corroborate the fact that the Meru’s ancestors had, during low-tide, collected shells serving as jewels or charms for diviner-healers. Let us not forget that, in other versions of the story, the expanse of water, or the Mbweene River, circled the world. Without even mentioning its metaphorical meanings, “the water that was going to eat the grass” could simply designate the variations in the level of any lake or water current. The Meru obtained shells through the intermediary of the Kamba, who brought cowries to ornament women’s clothing, and various charms in which they specialized. Their relations were such (ûciarwa relations) that through the Kamba, the Meru were able to learn many things about these regions. Fadiman (1973: 11) also thought he had found a new clue north-west of Manda Island: a toponym, Mbwara Matanga, whose two terms designated iron-bearing sand and therefore appeared to be related to the final challenge—the forging of a spear. Yet surface iron deposits are not rare. The Mbeere traded objects they forged from iron extracted from their soil, and Meru blacksmiths used deposits north of Nyambene and south of the Tigania section. The precision Fadiman thought he had achieved is staggering when one understands that Mbwaa’s localization on the coast originates in a linguistic error combined with a Kimeru expression that encompasses all possible geographical directions, since it refers to the right-hand side of the human body.

73After believing he had succeeded in localizing Mbwaa, it was no longer difficult for Fadiman to make the Nguontuune into Arabs and attribute the story’s biblical tone to the influence of the Islamized populations of the coast. His informants explained that the Nguontuune spoke a language that was different from, but similar to, Kiswahili (1973: 15)—a surprising detail since it implies that the Meru were familiar enough with Kiswahili to distinguish it from another language. Yet the Meru region is located north of the area in which this bridge language is traditionally used. Even today (1993), the Meru are not quick to use it. The biblical tone claim stems from another incongruity. Leaving aside the fact that the missionaries fought for this interpretation and that the crossing of a stretch of water is a classic episode in the stories of this region, if Mbwaa is the product of a biblical influence from the coast, then we are confronted with two impossibilities. Either the influence operated after the event had taken place, that is to say after the Ngaa’s arrival in their new land north-east of Mount Kenya, and it is hard to see how this story could be influenced by a biblico-Muslim tone from the coast. Or the Ngaa had in their memory a biblical tradition acquired on the coast that made them retrospectively interpret their flight in terms of the exodus, which assumes a level of biblical permeation that one would expect to leave a mark on other rites or beliefs, but this is not the case.

  • 12  Once again, Mbwaa’s localization on the coast is reinforced in a circular way. The back-country th (...)

74Then it is time for Fadiman to substantiate the episode of the “crossing of the desert” that separates the coast from Mount Kenya12. To this end, Fadiman (ibid.: 19) offers the only Kimeru quote in his publication, which he specifies is in the Kiigembe dialect—a clarification that, in passing, reassures the reader about the author’s linguistic skills. The quote is supposed to be a diviner’s prophecy of a promised land. However, the text he presents says something markedly different. A diviner-healer mugaa, the apparent author of the prophesy—as attested to by the opening words, which mention a gourd of charms (gikiri kia mithega, a divination instrument)—hardly risked being mistaken by predicting that they would no longer live in the “semidesert” (rwanda designates the semidesert, not the desert), but would arrive in a new land where they would fight enemies and seize their cattle. It is a very trivial prophesy since the destiny it predicts is the fate of any group of herders in search of better pastures. Fadiman (ibid.: 19, note) also believes he can draw further support for his argument from the meaning of the name Ngaa, which, according to Sharman, contains the notion of drought. This is not untrue, but it relates to women’s shields and the dual opposition of the social structure. Next (pp. 19-23), the author embarks on a reconstruction of the itinerary the refugees followed by combining information from his informants, information available on topographical maps, and details supplied by people who knew the region well. With the help of a sketch, we are led through deserts and marshes; at one point, the sight of four summits is even taken as evidence of the itinerary followed. These arguments stem from an inadequate perception of the geography of these regions. The coastal plain is extended by a plateau that gradually rises westward, and is dotted with volcanic cones or hillocks. At any moment, no matter what route is taken, one cannot help noticing four knolls jutting out of the horizon, just as one will inevitably encounter a marshy area near a stretch of water.

  • 13  Conscious of this omission, Fadiman explained his method in 1993 (pp. 11-14), but added a comment (...)

75After topographical exactness, chronological precision: the migration event seen as having marked the advent of the Meru supposedly dates back about three hundred years (1973: 9), a figure that is later changed to two hundred and seventy (1976a: 139). Once again, Fadiman considered the calculation so obvious that nowhere does he explain the first result, nor does he make any comment about the subsequent reduction13. This calculation was actually based on lists of age sets, the longest and most complete of which is that of the Imenti (1982: 153). By assigning x years to each class (in the Meru’s case, an average of fifteen years), it is possible to approximately date some events. The claim merits examination. The chronological use that could be made of “age” sets was recognized early; the colonial administrators thought these provided them with a few settlement reference points in these regions (Lambert 1950: 27-43, Fosbrooke 1956), an opinion shared by ethnologists and historians (Jacobs 1968, Legesse 1973, Lamphear 1976). This reasoning is justified as long as the historical analysis includes a sociological component. Without this, there is a risk of confusion that could compromise the significance of the dating method, the final criticism that cannot be made solely against Fadiman since it only appeared recently (Peatrik 1989, 1995a). Depending on the type of set, their age ranges can go from eight years (among the Borana) to fifty years, and even more in the Karimojong circle, a diversity that reveals quite different dynamics. Furthermore, a system of sets takes in individuals, but this says nothing about their origins, since this kind of organization easily incorporates newcomers, who lose their status as foreigner or visitor and dissolve into the new group. It is to confuse the history of the institution with the history of the population’s settlement to believe that the age of a population can be inferred from a list of age sets. At best, lists of age or generation sets can provide information on the age of a system of sets. I say “at best” because it assumes that the duration assigned to the sets, based on observations made at the time of the investigation, did not vary in the past. Yet these systems are highly unstable, and the inclusion rules are sometimes changed as a means of resolving conflicts. The popular memory can certainly retain a list of sets, but their names do not necessarily stand for homogeneous classification principles and identical inclusion durations. Moreover, some characteristics of the Meru system make Fadiman’s conclusions even more improbable. The system, as it still existed a few decades ago, was typical of a population stationary in the demographical sense and also rooted to one area organized around imposing buildings built to house warriors. Populations that are undertaking, or have undertaken, proven displacements stem from two models of sets, the Maasai type and the Karimojong type. The Meru organization does not fit either of these configurations even though some traits make it similar to that of the Maasai. Even if the Mbwaa story attested to a departure and an arrival in a new land, it is impossible to attribute a historical depth to the migratory event based on an inference from the list of age sets. Further proof is provided by the case of the Borana (Legesse 1973, Hallpike 1978, Baxter and Almagor 1978), who we know were engaged in a conquering expansion in the late 16th century. The groups that conquered Ethiopia’s southern regions saw their set systems altered to the point of sometimes disappearing completely, whereas the so-called gada system has stayed the same in populations that kept away from this movement.

  • 14  Fadiman (1982: 178) points out that his transcribed and translated interviews were deposited at th (...)

76Thus concludes the disentangling of the Mbwaa story interpreted as a tale of migration. One can see just how many presuppositions and approximations underpin this interpretation, which (do we need to be reminded?) contravenes another elementary rule of story analysis by only taking account of a few of the story’s episodes. Fadiman’s once-convincing venture, and the conviction that filled this researcher are perhaps just as much attributes of an individual as those of an era. We know nothing of the confluence of circumstances that led him to research the Meru, but Fadiman came with the intention of redeeming the past of populations unfairly characterized as anarchic or primitive, by more particularly studying their art of war, a motivation that no one could dismiss since it was that of anthropology. During the same period, The Mountain People ([1972] 1984) appeared, a book on the Iks that created a sensation because its author, C. Turnbull, realizing that humanity did not always satisfy the “good savage” criterion, immediately adopted the opposite, complementary view of the primitive person as an archetype of the barbarian. One of Fadiman’s pre-publications was called “Mountain Warriors” (1976b), and it would not be taking interpretation too far to see this text as an implicit response to Turnbull’s. The two texts complement each other like two sides of the same illusion: Fadiman’s confidence in his outdated methods is a curious precipitate of certain positivist certainties of the 19th century, and of post-colonial enthusiasm for repairing the damage inflicted by the white man14.

77Now that the Mbwaa story has been relieved of the Völkerwanderungen obstacle, some historiographic elements can return to the fore. The story contains elements of which equivalents can be found among other populations. The presence of “Kipsigis”, “Maasai”, “Nilote” and “Bantu” influences is consistent with what we know about the mixing of populations in these eastern African highlands, and makes it very difficult to reconstruct the past of these regions. The Mbwaa story presents a migratory movement that must have been reproduced hundreds of times and could therefore have involved (why not?) a few groups from the coast. There is another myth among the Meru, about which Fadiman makes no comment. This omission provides a good illustration of the selection effect that, from the 1930s, was brought about by the success of the Mbwaa story, of which Lambert (1945, tapus.: 238) incidentally informs us when he presents the Mbugi story (see Ch. 5). This story is another example of the displacement and establishment of a society, evincing a diversity that contradicts the single-origins argument that the Mbwaa story is supposed to prove. No one knows how far back the oldest population settlements go, and subsequent developments are just as little understood. The dating of the appearance and development of breeding and forging techniques, of cultivation and distribution of new cultigens, and of climatic variations is very fragmentary and difficult to harmonize with the reconstitutions of linguists. Three broad linguistic families coexist in these regions, but some correlations that were in use and were believed to be firmly established have turned out to be inadequate; thus the linking of Bantu settlement with the distribution of metalworking is not applicable to eastern Africa.

  • 15  The results of P. Rosa’s (1987) study of dermatoglyphics point in the same direction.

78At least it can be safely asserted that these raised regions, where precipitation increases in inverse proportion to temperature, have always served as refuges for populations whose living conditions on the dry land down below sometimes became challenging, and that this scenario is all the more likely to have repeated itself over the course of centuries and millennia given that the divided topography lends itself to it. This basic geographical data precludes conceiving settlement as anything other than a melting pot15 process, with populations interlocking, overlapping, combining, dispersing and reforming depending on circumstances that were not altogether fortuitous. Intersections between topo-ecological variations and identifiable forms of sociopolitical organization bring certain correlations to light. Age and generation divisions, which come in a variety of forms, from the most highly developed to the most rudimentary, constituted the foundation of other institutions, before these combined and gave way to lineage-based forms and chieftainships that solidified in the periphery of the area under consideration. Two broad forms of population settlement and development can be identified, according to whether the population was stationary or mobile, and relating to different generational configurations. The Kikuyu’s secular mode of expansion between Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Range, which conforms to their style of generation-set system, is very different from how the Maasai, the Kamba or the Turkana related to the world, all of these groups having scattered through spaces with declining potentialities by implementing forms of social organization in which age and generation criteria worked differently. Elsewhere, populations did not disperse; on the contrary they concentrated in areas that presented various advantages. This was the case for the small Kamba communities in Migwani and Mumoni, which were built around important men who had managed to take advantage of an intermediary position and group together dependents, relatives and protégés, in contrast to the Embu (highlighted by C. Ambler, 1988), who seemed very well organized by their system of generations, and withdrew to their forest ecosystem at higher elevations. Another example is the Dassanetch, who were an aggregate of different populations attracted by the Omo delta’s haven of humidity and arable land. They gradually combined within a composite generation-set system whose heterogeneous principles testified to their ongoing fusion (Almagor 1978a, 1978b; Peatrik 1985).

79Because of their location on resource-rich high hills rising above the surrounding dry lowlands, the Nyambene Hills have for centuries, probably millennia, played the role of settlement and refuge lands for populations that came either of their own will or compelled by events. The Tigania-Igembe’s age and generation sets—within which the dual division is both a principle of the system and a way of distinguishing between insiders, outsiders and aliens—are typical of a stationary population that integrated newcomers, without whom the group would have gradually disappeared. The abundance of elements in common with other groups is another sign that the melting pot of populations from highly diverse backgrounds has been in operation for a very long time. The cyclical nature of the generational onomastics, which the elderly say did not always exist, stands in the way of deducing chronological depth from them in the way that one can from the Imenti’s names. This is a supplementary device that comes down to erasing events in the name of permanence, and encouraging repetition to the detriment of innovation. Unlike the Kikuyu myth that tells of the dissemination of Gîkûyû and Mûumbi descendants from the duly localized Mûkûrwe wa Gathanga, the Mbwaa story, based on a very common narrative framework, belongs to a federative utopia in which, generation after generation, rites replay the story of those who once had to leave another land to come to these regions. It is a centripetal myth that gives a society that is inward-turning—as Mbugi once instructed his sons—an image of the world where the external and the singular only become intelligible after being naturalized through the initiation process, and where the constant threat of indistinction is remedied by reestablishing difference through categories based on gender and the stages of life.

Annex. The Story of Kamankura (W.H. Laughton 1964)

Ill. 10a & b — Warriors and uninitiated big girls (nkenye) dancing together (Igembe)

Ill. 10a & b — Warriors and uninitiated big girls (nkenye) dancing together (Igembe)

1892-1893 Rokeby Archives.


There was a famous warrior called Kamankura and a girl [mwari] called Ciari, and she was very beautiful. She had never danced with anyone but Kamankura.

Once Kamankura went away with the warriors and, on returning, found that in his country the cattle had been rustled by enemies. Then he was told how those enemies came and stole the cattle, and he was told to follow them up.

He said that first a dance should be held to display the stock which he had rustled, and when it was in progress, Ciari refused to go to the dance because she had been prevented from pummeling the dog.

It was then that Kamankura was again told by the elders, ‘The dance is now over; follow up the cattle.’ He said to them, ‘Not I, I shall not follow up the cattle since you have prevented me from dancing with Ciari.’

Ciari was sent for and told, ‘Dance with Kamankura, so that Kamankura may follow up the cattle.’ She said, ‘Not I, you prevented me from pummeling the dog.’

The dog was told, ‘Dog, be pummeled by Ciari, that Ciari may dance with Kamenkura, and Kamenkura follow up the cattle.’ The dog said, ‘Not I, you refused me your afterbirth.’

Then they went to the cow and said to her, ‘Cow, give birth, that the dog may eat the placenta, be pummelled by Ciari, that Ciari may dance with Kamankura and Kamenkura follow up the cattle.’ The cow said, ‘Not I, you refuse me your pasture.’

When they had thought for a while, they went to the hawk and said to it, ‘Hawk, cut the sky so that rain may fall, that the cow may graze, that she may give birth, that the dog may eat the placenta and be pummelled by Ciari, that Ciari may dance with Kamankura, and Kamenkura follow up the cattle.’ The hawk said, ‘Not I, you refused me your baby rat.’

They went to the rat and said, ‘Rat, give us a child that it may be eaten by the hawk, that the hawk may cut the sky, that rain may fall, the grass grow, the cow graze and give birth, that the dog may eat the placenta, and be pummelled by Ciari, that Ciari may dance with Kamankura, and Kamenkura follow up the cattle.’ The rat said, Not I, you refused me your ear of millet.’

They went to the harvester and said to her, ‘Give us one ear of millet that we may take it to the rat, that the rat may give us a child to be eaten by the hawk, that it may cut the sky, that rain may fall, the grass grow, the cow graze and give birth, that the dog may eat the placenta and be pummelled by Ciari, that Ciari may dance with Kamankura, and Kamenkura follow up the cattle.’ The harvester said to them, ‘Not I, you refused me your little knife.’

They went to the smith and said, ‘Smith, give us a little knife, that we may take it to the harvester, that she may give us an ear of millet, that we may take it to the rat, that the baby rat may be eaten by the hawk, that it may cut the sky, so that rain may fall and the grass grow, the cow graze and give birth, that the dog may eat the placenta and be pummelled by Ciari, that Ciari may dance with Kamankura, and Kamankura follow up the cattle.’ The smith said to them, ‘Not I, you refused to give me your charcoal.’

Then they went and burned charcoal and brought it to the smith, and the smith gave them a little knife, and they took it to the harvester, and she gave them an ear of millet which they took to the rat, and the rat gave them a baby which they took to the hawk, and the hawk cut the sky so that the rain fell and the grass grew so that the cow grazed and give birth, so the dog ate the placenta and was pummeled by Ciari who then danced with Kamankura, and so Kamankura followed up the cattle.

When he did go, he finished off all the people who had them [the cattle] and came back with much cattle which was shared out amongst the people of his country. With those remaining he paid the bridewealth to Ciari’s people.

In this story, which Laughton presented in both English and Kiimenti (Kimeru of Mount Kenya), we find a scenario with two phases separated by a situation reversal. The elders, led into a regressive movement and a chain reaction, are held in check until the moment when, having gone to the blacksmith who is positioned as the last resort, they find a solution that, episode by episode, resolves the imbroglio caused by the beautiful Ciari. She had refused to dance with the warrior because she had been prevented from beating a dog, and in the absence of this dance Kamankura was refusing to participate in the raid. There is actually an element of incongruity from the outset since Ciari’s name, which literally means “Wife by Ri”, is that of a married woman. It is impossible that a woman with this status—which the text also designates by the term mwari (“sister”- “daughter”)— would dance with a warrior in that way. The fact that an uninitiated girl has a wife’s name reflects the incongruity at the root of the causal regression. The need to initiate the girl is also implicitly evoked through the small knife that the elders had denied to a harvester, and which the smith agreed to make after the elders decided to make some wood coal, a gesture that borders on sacrifice since they are placed in the position of being the artisan’s servants. The ending of the story, which concludes with the payment of the bridewealth (rûracio) that is normally given after the girl has been initiated, reflects the initial anomaly and marks the reestablishment of a situation that conforms to the rules. The parallel with the Mbwaa story is striking: in addition to the narrative thrust being based on a mystery to be solved (why such an upheaval for a dog who refuses to let itself be beaten?) this story more subtly expresses what the Mbwaa story states in a more theatrical tone, relating to the effects of wasting too much time on filiation and initiation problems, seen this time from the female perspective. Because she was made to wait too long, and her warrior-fiancé is late paying the rûracio, a girl—designated by a name that anticipates a situation that will begin when, married in line with the rules, she will carry the wife-name declined from her father’s name—throws a tantrum that paralyses all of the links of exchange and of life in society, and threatens the balance with their enemies.


1  Volpini (1978: 275-278) could also be mentioned. He provided an additional version of the Mbwaa story recorded from the Tharaka’s last mûgwe. Without quoting them, Ambler (1988: 38) mentions the existence of stories similar to the Mbwaa story among the Mumoni, a small community of Kamba speakers located south of the Tharaka, also mentioned in the work of C. W. Hobley (1910: 2).

2  J. Adamson (1967: 92) recorded the following anecdote, noted in the early 1950s: “I heard that a Meru chief had recently tried to interest his people in their history; together with the Church Missionary Society he had arranged for the performance of a Christmas play, which described the history of their migrations. The rehearsals at first went well. Then suddenly they came to a stop. Apparently the Africans got worried that if the fact that they had immigrated to this well-watered, fertile country became known in high quarters, they might be repatriated to Shungwaya [one of the presumed localizations of Mbwaa] which, by comparison, is a barren, semi-desert country. Finally the play had to be dropped.”

3  Nthukî means “generation” and in this context designates the group of people who crossed the river; remember that ngaa designates the women’s shield and that Mukunga, one of Mbugi’s two wife-sisters, is probably a condensed form of Mwiko jwa Ngaa, an expression that designated the Tigania before the colonial conquest. (see Ch. 7)

4  Strictly speaking, these etymologies probably say more about the clan’s identity than about the Mbwaa story, but they also illustrate the variations that the story’s framework permits; the evocation of the three warrior’s names opens to those of the names of other clans and their attitudes toward the sacrifice.

5  Remember that this is where the Athwana’s ûkiama procession ends, and also the destination of the Ikogi’s procession of the bull disguised as a donkey, that is to say the major Left and Right territorial sections of the Ngaa-Tigania (see Ch. 8).

6  Similar processes were studied among the Mbeere by J. Glazier and P. G. Glazier (1976), P. Gorfain and J. Glazier (1978). More broadly, the method I am using to describe the Mbwaa story is inspired by the principles set out by P. Smith (1975) in the analysis of popular stories in Rwanda.

7  Mûtongu (pl. ntongu), designates two species that look alike but are actually quite different. The ntongu in the story, also called kithirîti, is sometimes used in decoction. On the other hand, the other ntongu is poisonous: solanum, which grows in overused pastures and alongside paths.

8  It is amusing to observe that in this myth, water is not associated with flowing time, but rather with suspended time.

9  In presenting them the aim is not to undermine the originality of the Mbwaa story, but to recall that this story is not unique within its genre, and that it is pointless to try to find a biblical influence in it.

10  The 1973 installment was republished in 1976, but this second publication had a supplementary impact: the data concerning populations encountered after the migration (Fadiman 1976a: 154-173) were added to the migration study proper. Moreover, the text was included in a collection of studies published in Kenya entitled Kenya Before 1900, Eight Regional Studies (B. A. Ogot, ed.), which legitimately enjoyed some success. Thus the Mbwaa analysis left the narrow circles of the readers of the Journal of African History and reached readers in the Kenyan school system: students at teacher training schools, students of history who were to go on to teach at various levels of the educational system. These establishments offered courses on the traditions and history of Kenyan populations. Teachers with many years of training know how to separate the wheat from the chaff, but newly graduated recruits had received training that left them less prepared to think critically, insofar as the political game in the post-Kenyatta era went a few steps further in manipulating the “ethnic order”. In the recent publication of a text that, though written very long ago, most likely ended up finding a taker because of the emotion and questions generated by the Saint Kizito drama, Fadiman (1993: 1-65) proves to be more eager than ever to believe that his proofs concerning Mysterious Mbwaa are sound.

11  Fadiman (1973: 11, 19) several times backs his claims with commentary from linguist J. Sharman, who was very familiar with the Bemba of Zambia, something that did not automatically place him in a position to answer questions about Kenya’s Bantu languages, especially if he was only given a few fragments of speech (Gerard Philippson, personal correspondence).

12  Once again, Mbwaa’s localization on the coast is reinforced in a circular way. The back-country that spans from the coast to Mount Kenya and is supposed to have been crossed by the Ngaa is first dry and then gradually becomes damp while approaching the promised land that is Mount Kenya.

13  Conscious of this omission, Fadiman explained his method in 1993 (pp. 11-14), but added a comment that revealed his ignorance of the elementary rules of the Meru system of sets: “The actual times of entry into adulthood depended solely on the birth and maturation rates of any given group of Meru males, factors entirely beyond the reach of Western measurements” (p. 11).

14  Fadiman (1982: 178) points out that his transcribed and translated interviews were deposited at the department of history at the University of Nairobi. In the university library I only found the Meru Historical Text file. Any related documents had disappeared. Fadiman worked in a time when people born in the 1880s and witnessed society before the conquest and its aftermath were still alive. Some of these informants were visited several times; it appears that others kept going for hours. It would be a valuable service to publish, in one form or another, the interviews that came out of repeated meetings, which one can imagine contain richly informative evocations.

15  The results of P. Rosa’s (1987) study of dermatoglyphics point in the same direction.

Table des illustrations

Titre Ill. 24a, b & c — Enteromancy of he-goat entrails carried out by a mugaa (diviner-healer), North Tigania, 1988
Crédits Photos by Anne-Marie Peatrik.
Fichier image/jpeg, 324k
Titre Ill. 10a & b — Warriors and uninitiated big girls (nkenye) dancing together (Igembe)
Crédits 1892-1893 Rokeby Archives.
Fichier image/jpeg, 478k

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