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A Complex Polity

Anne-Marie Peatrik

Part four. Confronting modernity. Ritual rivalries and demographic issues

Chapter ten

The colonial intrusion and the crisis of authority

Texte intégral

1During the collection and analysis of initial data, an exercise in regressive history necessitated going back in time to understand the state of the sets and the methods by which they functioned before the arrival of the white man. We must now move in the opposite direction, leaving the structure and internal temporality of that system in order to return to the temporality of history and the unprecedented event of colonial conquest. It is not the case that the conquest marked some transition from the fixed temporality of a ‘cold’ society to the more disordered temporality seen to characterize ‘hot’ societies: the diversity of set-based systems and population shifts that it has been possible to trace, at least for the last four centuries, demonstrate that, far from remaining static and unaltered, these societies were instead characterized by movement and change. And yet colonial conquest did represent a break in its history and immediately imposed various new elements. These were introduced, inadvertently or deliberately, into the heart of a population that, unlike its Kamba or Kikuyu neighbors, hardly possessed a social structure that would help soften to its advantage the shock of such an external input. Part of ‘useful’ Kenya, the Meru District contained the Igembe and the Ngaa People who had hitherto lived in a state of hostility with their Mount Kenya neighbors. It was governed relatively strictly and became the setting for a forced march towards modernity while, a few kilometers further north in the Northern Frontier zone, the population continued, though not without resistance (Lamphear 1992), a way of life that only really began to change after independence.

2Written sources are the other new element, and grew increasingly numerous over the years. These documents modify the conditions for historiographic and ethnographic work and, as illustrated by the way the Mbwaa tradition was exploited, in turn significantly influence the communal imagination and future prospects of this society. Generally, the colonial written sources and the informants’ memories match and complement one other, making it possible to reconstruct events that were the common lot of the people and the administrators, caught up in the same historical narrative, and that marked subsequent generations—understood this time in both senses of the term: the Meru meaning of nthukî and successive initiations, and the common Western meaning of people born at a similar time and influenced by identical events. Such a chronology, which includes elements of causality and hints at certain explanations, allows us to get closer to the roots of the movements and conflicts that are the substance of event-driven history. By placing an unprecedented load on the political and social organization of the Tigania-Igembe, colonial conquest generated a lasting crisis of authority and put certain principles of the generation-set system into play in an quasi-experimental way. The conflicts and changes that ensued are as much a result of this as they are original attempts to adapt to modernity, the effects and challenges of which are perceptible to this day.

1. Event and structures: the course of the colonial era (1908-1963)

  • 1  In 1908, Captain Bois (dc/mbt. 1. 1908-1932) undertook a tour of the region in order to draw up an (...)
  • 2  The administrator here confuses initiation into a set with promotion within a set to the grade of (...)

3From 1907-1908, the date of the military conquest, until 1917, the Meru District was the responsibility of E. B. Horne, who had established the British presence in this area. The local population, convinced by the defeat of the Embu that resistance would be futile, did not resist the takeover by Horne and his King African Rifles or their establishment of a base camp on the Mwiriga Mwerû site. After enforcing the disarmament of the warriors, who remained uneasy about the passive attitude of their Fathers, Horne managed his District by combining displays of force with observation of the indigenous people, content to mingle with them and even occasionally imitating their way of life. Horne gathered material for a first description of the population of his District and what might be made of them1. The recurrence of their institutions, the relatedness of their dialects, and the existence of the Mbwaa tradition strengthened the image of a tribe divided by internal fighting whose original unity would be restored by the District. The boma or Meru camp soon resembled a huge indigenous settlement; the commissioner kept a guard of Meru warriors who supervised the camp and accompanied him on his endless rounds of inspection and, sometimes, in his peacekeeping operations: Tigania warriors were, for instance, used to subdue the Thaichû opposition. Memories of Kang’ange—the “Little one always going”, from gweta “to go” preceded by the diminutive ka–, a nickname given to the first commissioner because of his small stature and habit of being always on the move, did not vanish entirely, and his name is associated with contradictory images connected both to the brutality of conquest and to the curiosity aroused by the conqueror. In the District, demarcated in 1913, Horne established indirect administration by means of the kiama of Fathers, who were simultaneously maintained and modified, insofar as it became practice to convene the council of representatives in order to dispense justice to the Meru boma and to act as an intermediary between the people and the administration: “The Kiamas meeting in the boma itself has a very good effect and all the “Ntavis” [for ntaane, neophytes] i.e. the recently uncircumcised young men have been initiated into the Kiama2, this will enable them to have one Kiama over the whole of Meru as in the old days whereas lately (during the last 15 years) the different divisions lost touch with one another owing to the intertribal fighting among their Elmoran” (dc/mru. 1/1. 1912). The fiction of restored unity worked remarkably. Horne did not consider the issue raised by selecting delegates to come to the boma, and saw no point in focusing on the differences he detected among the people of his District, for example those regarding the names for sets and the intervals at which initiations took place.

4As elsewhere in the world, the years following the Great War were full of drama. In the Meru region, the consecutive droughts of 1918-1919, though not exceptional in themselves, had unprecedented consequences through the chain reactions they began and the extensive losses that ensued. Conquest, and then the war, had profoundly destabilized the indigenous economy. Exchange and production were thrown into disarray by restrictions imposed on the movement of people, by the requisition of grain and cattle, and by the obligation for men to work as porters in the Carriers Corps and in auxiliary troops fighting on the front line on the borders of Kenya and Tanganyika, where the Germans and the English were fighting. On their return the men spread new diseases, the effects of which were all the more pronounced on a people weakened by food shortages and famine. Epidemics of Spanish influenza, dysentery and malaria decimated the population, with the administrators estimating the losses at between a quarter and a third of the total. Livestock did not escape the effects of the drought and was affected by outbreaks of rinderpest and East Coast fever (or theileriosis, a disease spread by ticks). Exchange networks no longer functioned and the kiama had to suspend their role of settling conflicts:

The “kiamas” in my opinion are useless and are not doing any work: their sole preoccupation is to obtain a bullock or a goat from plaintiffs or both parties to eat. They make no attempt to enforce their decisions or to report disobedience of their decisions to Government; and their decisions are generally arrived at by the easy way of ordering one party “Kuringa Nthenge” [trial by ordeal on a goat] or “Kuskika Kikama” [trial by ordeal on a hot iron]. Their working was, I suppose, much upset by the famine and sickness; it will require a lot of hard work on the part of the District officers to get them working again.
pc/cp. 1/9/1. 1919-1920, section entitled Headmen and Councils.

  • 3  A. Legesse (1979) has noted comparable explanations among the Borana in connection with the 1973 e (...)

5Kearamû is the name given to this mwaka ya mpaara ( “year of fatigue” or “of famine”) that many elderly still remember. It came at a time when the recruitment of the Ithalie ndinguri marked the coming of the gîtiba of the sun, and for some the solar eclipse of 1917 was a sign heralding this return and the various ills linked to it3.

6Two principal factors led the British in Kenya to give up on the policy of indirect administration recommended by Lord Lugard, which Horne had applied in the Meru District. With the majority of the colony’s population linked to political regimes with either diffuse or collective power, it was impossible to find and designate intermediaries who represented anything but themselves (Middleton 1965). Kenya’s then-certain future as a settlement colony prevented any simultaneous push for the promotion of indigenous authorities or the protection of the colonists installed at their expense. Horne left to pursue his career elsewhere; his camp was destroyed and replaced by solid buildings more appropriate to a new style of administration:

[...] The Meru are now realizing that it is no longer possible for them to continue their former happy if lazy life in the Reserve and that they must march with the times and join in the competition for money with their more sophisticated neighbors. To a certain extent their home life and the continuance of all established customs of her but their advance in the scale of civilization has presumably a compensating value.
dc/mru. 1/1. 1920-1921.

7Situated away from the White Highlands and long isolated by a lack of effective communications—a clear problem until the 1980s—the Meru highlands were never regarded as a land reserve by the white settlers, though they could easily have been drawn by the area’s potential. In the 1930s, settlement projects for the Kikuyu, who had been confined to the small parcel of land granted them by the colonial State, were outlined and had significant consequences. But the principal role assigned to this District lay in providing a share of laborers ready to leave for employment as porters or manual workers on European plantations, as well as its quota of taxes in the form of the Hut and Poll Taxes, which had been collected since 1910 but had increased conspicuously in the years following the war. The “march of civilization” recommended by the new administrators was supposed to result in an increase in agricultural production so as to generate profitable surpluses and, in what was something of a contradiction given the low productivity of farming techniques, in the freeing up of individuals ready to find work elsewhere. And yet the 1920-1921 census, which the administrators claimed was as accurate as possible, revealed a total of 112,000 inhabitants in the Meru District, whereas previous estimates, even allowing for the effects of epidemics and famines, had indicated between 140,000 and 160,000 inhabitants (dc/mru. 1/1. 1920-1921). This demometric (thus fiscal and economic) disappointment was compounded by increasing opposition from the Meru, who settled into passive resistance and flatly refused to comply with the administrators’ injunctions. Not only could the administration no longer rely on the kiama, now considered corrupt and ineffective, but they were themselves being replaced at frequent intervals, a change that may have reflected a crisis within the British administration. The administrators during this difficult period that continued until the 1930s, received the collective nickname of Kîîbun’ja, from the verb kûbun’ja, “to destroy, break”. The introduction in 1925 of a Meru Local Native Council composed of representatives from the population and chaired by the District Commissioner changed nothing, nor did the reorganization of the Natives Tribunals, presided by elders appointed by the administration. In 1927, the reduction in number of territorial sections and therefore in that of headmen and subheadmen (ninety-one reduced to fifteen ‘locations’), carried out for economic reasons, and thought feasible considering preceding reforms, further distanced the people from the administration.

8Conditions were met for a joint crisis of colonial administration and Meru society, and within this context appeared the first signs of resistance to change as well as other obvious indicators of rivalries and conflicts that divided the Meru internally—all recorded in the administration’s reports.

The necessity of the assistance of the Elders in the suppression of abortion was urged and the coming inoculation of cattle explained.
Meru District Record Book,
pc/cp. 1/9. 1. March 1920.

[...] In November steps were taken to suppress the Kaita society in Igembe where it is particularly strong. The Kaita is a kind of secret society the members of which are mostly the elderly men of the tribe. It includes medicine men as its most powerful members and among others objectionnable customs is responsible for the seduction of many unmarried girls with the consequent abortion of children conceived by such girl.
dc/mru. 1/1. 1920-1921.

I have had very little experience of the Natives of this part of the country but after six months residence I have come to the conclusion that the Natives of the District are absolutely sank in superstition, hardly a single headman can be relied on to assist government in the detection of crime or the arrest of criminal or in putting down abominable practice such as abortion which is almost universal. Several organization exist such as Njuri Ncheke, Kiama which being credited with supernatural powers make the works of Administration very difficult.
dc/mru. 1/1. 1923.

9With time, the administrators began to view the problems separately and realize that the practice of abortion was not only a consequence of licentious customs or the expression of a form of opposition. The effects of delayed excisions and initiation ceremonies were better understood: the abortions related to women who had not been circumcised, and postponing circumcision until well after puberty retained an important source of labor in families. Thus the performance of rituals in 1924 drew the following comments:

Circumcision of the youths and girls in Igembe and Tigania divisions was begun at the latter end of the year [referring to Ithalie kobia]. The last circumcision was in 1920 [Ithalie ndinguri] and a large number of youths and girls had past the marrying age without being circumcised and it was necessary that the festivals be held in order to stop the very frequent causing of miscarriage that were taking place and also to allay the discontent of uncircumcised youths and young women.
Political Record Book, 1924, Lam 1/5/6.

[...] The circumcision of the youths and the clitoridectomy of the girls which has been for many years postponed with the result that there were many unmarried men and women of 20 years of age and older has during this year been undertaken. The Tigania division and 5 locations of the Igembe division have completed the ceremonies. The remaining locations throughout the District will undertake the circumcision ceremonies after the bean harvest during June and July 1925 [In thaano of 1925]. There are therefore hopes in the near future that the practice of causing abortion will appreciatly decrease and that labour supply from the District will be augmented by the addition of the youth who have been circumcised.
dc/mru. 1/1. 1924.

10Abortion techniques were also subject to scrutiny:

[...] The operation [clitoridectomy] does not appear to be performed until the age of 18-20 [...] Criminal abortion is not uncommon and is generally performed on uncircumcised woman as the children of such woman are not desired; abortion is induced by means of kneading of the abdomen and the force used is so considerable that death sometimes ensued.
dc/mru. 1/2. 1926.

11When the administration started to crack down on abortionists—female elderly explain that those who were caught had their hands cut off—and encouraged the initiation and marriage of pregnant girls, infanticide increased:

Some three years ago a girl became pregnant and was circumcised during her pregnancy. She gave birth to the child which was bought up by its father, a warrior. Having been conceived before initiation it was regarded with horror by the local people; other children would have nothing to do with it and the women would not assist in its uprising. Finally the father, who himself regarded the child with loathing, destroyed it when it was about two years old by dashing it to the ground and apparently dislocating its neck.
dc/mru. 1/2. 1934.

12The practice continued, and the 1929 report is an admission of powerlessness in the face of the phenomenon:

[...] The question of how to abolish the custom of abortion among the Meru is ones on which opinions differ considerably. My own view is that the practice can never be stopped merely by the imposition of severe sentences on those few who happened to be caught and that the only sound method of tackling the problem is to educate public opinion with the view to inducing the Meru to change or modify those customs and believes which gave rise to the practise [...] The matter has been discussed very fully at barazas [in Kiswahili, meetings convened by the administration] throughout the District and all have been asked to think the matter over and with the view of finding a solution. Most elders now appeared to agree that abortion should be discontinued but no one has yet offered a solution to how custom and superstition can be altered.
dc/mru. 1/2. 1929.

  • 4  This famine is known as Kîgwata mûtu: “I was given corn flour”, because of the aid which was distr (...)

13The tone of the 1933 report is unchanged; indeed, the crisis seems to have worsened, in part due to the reemergence in 1929 of food shortages caused by locust invasions and persistent drought4, as well as the simultaneous revival of unrest linked to the approaching transfer of power from the Gîchungî to the Kiramunya and the initiation of the Michubu. The administrators were starting to understand this element while still confusing it with the resistance of the njuri ncheke, identified as the most influential indigenous council.

Abortion has occured on a tremendous scale throughout the year [...] The much more disturbing circumstance is the fact that many girls following the letter of the law formulated by the elders are now circumcised during pregnancy and do not abort; but when their babies are born they arrange for their death by exposure or strangulation. Child murder has in fact been sustituted for abortion, cases of this practise have come to light in all the three divisions of Meru proper, Imenti, Tigania and Igembe [...] It is to be remembered that a child conceived before the circumcision of its parents is regarded with absolute horror by the mass of the people [...] It is abusely useless to tell them to be “pure” until they are circumcised, since at present circumcision frequently does not take place until the girl have been nubile for more than ten years.
dc/mru. 1/2. 1933.

  • 5  In an article published after this work was completed, a historian (Thomas 1998) sheds interesting (...)

14The appointment of H. E. Lambert as commissioner for the Meru District between 1933 and 1935, and then again between 1939 and 1941, was motivated by the long-term crisis engulfing the colonial administration. He was known to be a competent ethnologist and had already proven useful in the neighboring Embu District (Ambler 1989), and was sent to appease the now-hostile population and put an end to practices that went against the policy of economic modernization as much as they clashed with Western sensibility and morals. The notion of “barbaric” indigenous habits was particularly risky territory because of the precedent created by the conflict over excision in the Kikuyu region, repercussions of which reached as far as the neighboring Embu District: in spite of calls for moderation from the colonial administration, missionaries waged a war against the custom of excision and eventually prompted the first large demonstration of hostility towards the British presence in a rural zone (Buijtenhuijs 1971: 84-86, 125-127; Ambler 1989: 147-150). Lambert therefore had to tread prudently in the Meru region and act as intermediary between a population now more determined than ever not to pay taxes, missionaries whose inopportune interference had ended up encouraging the founding of independent Churches in the south of the District, and a centralizing colonial State that had begun to endorse the principle of direct administration5.

15Lambert continued the research begun by his predecessor, J.G. Hopkins, and accumulated ethnographic materials that were the basis, years later, for publications (1947, 1950, 1952, 1956) that it seems never explicitly tackled the issues of abortion and infanticide. An article in which the author outlines the content of his administrative policy (1947: 18) provides an allusion that would be incomprehensible to an uninformed reader. These matters remained confidential and the information recorded in administrative reports was not intended for widespread circulation. However, a duty of confidentiality and the desire to protect the people cannot entirely explain Lambert’s reticence on certain subjects. Also at risk was the judgment that might be made of his administrative policy, the effects of which were still being felt when he began to publish his ethnological work; his research in fact revealed contradictions between the accumulated data and the decisions that were ultimately implemented. Lambert forced the colonial authorities to admit the need for a partial return to indirect administration in the Meru District. He claimed that it was once again necessary to collaborate with the kiama and to rely particularly on the njuri ncheke, an internal council of the kiama that supposedly brought together the most influential mûgambi (public speakers). In judicial and territorial matters the councils were to be given a certain degree of freedom, and the administration, by means of this officially recognized body, could work towards changing the customs that were the basis for abortions and infanticide. To this end, Lambert suggested lowering the initiation age for boys and girls, an alteration that he was obliged to defend since he was proposing to lower the age for excision rather than eradicate the practice entirely. A ban on the practice, he explained, would not only have been impossible to apply; it would also have exacerbated the very crisis in need of a remedy. The policy of lowering the age for excision and circumcision would have the advantage of putting an end to the practice of abortion and infanticide that affected only non-initiated girls, and would also make it possible to lower the age at which people married. Boys would be promoted sooner from the ranks of non-initiate and then unproductive Bushman-warrior, and economic as well as demographic growth would benefit as a result. The features of this new policy are laid out in the annual reports written by Lambert (dc/mru. 1/2. 1933, 1934; dc/mru. 3/1. 1935) each of whose “X” sections is a gold mine of ethnographic data—though it must be scrutinized since Lambert, while demonstrating undeniable ethnographic concerns, was nonetheless an administrator practicing applied anthropology before such a label even existed. He lists the reasons for the customs and the barriers to their transformation but evidently did not realize (or pretended not to) how fundamental a structure he was attacking by recommending a lowering of the initiation age for boys and girls and the alignment, as he puts it, of Meru practice with that of the neighboring Embu and Kikuyu tribes.

16The shift in colonial administrative policy had immediate and varied results. Collaboration with “tribal” councils clearly improved relations between the administration and the population. Lambert earned the nickname of Mutethia, “He who helps”, the “Benefactor”, from the verb gûtethia “to help”, identical to one of the words used with reference to the mûgwe, but the reform of the initiation age was not passed. In his situation report on the District written in May 1939 for submission to Lambert, who was resuming his duties after a break, the commissioner explains:

[...] It is nearly seven years since the resolution came into effect and chief M’Angaine [an Imenti], a loud protagonist of the measure, admits that they are hundreds of uncircumcised adult girls in every location, yet he was unable to produce one single living child age one year or more, born of one uncircumcised mother.
dc/mru. 3/3 1939.

17In the 1939 annual report (dc/mru. 1/4. 1939: 76-79), Lambert briefly evokes the attitude of women, who opposed early initiation of their daughters since when the latter left to marry they would stop contributing to domestic work. He also notes the undeniable existence of women’s institutions, and how it was difficult to know much about them. Yet he adds that it would be difficult to conserve them now that the men’s institutions had changed, a statement that, incidentally, speaks volumes about the return to supposedly traditional organizations that the administrator was recommending:

So far the women’s institutions appear to have themselves in domestic affairs only, such as the food supply, the adequacy of rain, and so on, and they certainly are, so far, obedient to the decrees of the men’s institutions. But if the latter lose their power while the former remain organised and functional the administration will be subjected to a most unpleasant strain if ever the women are stirred by the mechanism of the “masculine protest” to take matters into their own hands. [After downplaying the opposition, he then concludes: ] There is [...] no serious customary bar to the complete adoption of the desired system, but there is of course the usual inertia of the African which has to be overcome in this, as in all matters of progress, by constant propaganda and education.
dc/mru. 1/4. 1939: 76-79.

18From 1940, these issues were raised less and less often. War recommenced and the Meru District, in turn, found itself drawn once again into the international upheavals that the elderly recall as two distinct wars, one waged against the Italians and the other against Hitlari and the Girimani. A front was established in the north of Kenya, with the British coming up against the Italians in Ethiopia and Somalia, and the Meru region was again used as a rear base for expeditions into the semi-arid areas of the Northern Frontier. The focus was on the union of the Meru District and its smooth operation. Hitlari was designated as the enemy of the Meru; the njuri ncheke helped with requisitions of material. The celibate Bushmen did not need to be coerced into enlisting: the words of a refrain heard at the time of the Imenti’s ntuiko that the commissioner recorded in his 1942 report were “Be off with you, Italians, Hitler been pushed off the sea, King George will fly over Rome and Berlin. Fear not ye French, Mr. Churchill will redeemed you for slavery”. The Michubu, kobia mainly, departed willingly as auxiliary soldiers for the troops fighting the Italians. Many later found themselves on the Burmese front and then that of Europe, and were involved in the liberation of Germany. For the time being the customary generational system worked seamlessly with the requirements of modern warfare, but those who returned from combat would view their society, and the power held by the whites, in a new light.

19To his annual report of 1941 (dc/mru. 1/4. 1941), the last he would write before leaving, Lambert attaches a copy of a text that he addressed to the Meru as a kind of farewell and that would be published in Kimeru much later, in 1956. While it appears that this text (thirty-six typed pages) entitled ‘The Meru Yet to Come’ was never widely circulated, its contents, written in a style blending sermon and parable, are a remarkable testament to the rather peculiar relationship that had developed between the administrator and these people. Lambert predicts independence in the form of autonomy, and urges, even begs the Meru to change their habits; he makes a whole litany of recommendations ranging from advice on domestic thrift to issues of hygiene and the prevention of soil erosion, and addresses them to the parents of a younger generation that was to be far more numerous as a result of the drop in the age for marriage. It should therefore be emphasized that in 1941, behavior in this last area had not significantly changed, and Lambert was clearly worried by a vision of the future that, viewed in retrospect, is undeniably impressive in the accuracy of its predictions.

20The style, content, and volume of post-war administrative reports all changed considerably. New problems emerged, chief among them the concept of “landconsciousness”, a polysemous term that appears again and again in the commissioners’ writings, and can variously indicate disputes over land, territorial claims, the clamor for independence, and often all three at once. In 1947, the administrator again reported, in the section devoted to the activity of the Local Native Council (the indigenous administrative body that had just been reorganized), that there had been persistent difficulties in the application of the anti-abortion measures recommended by the same council (dc/mru 1/4. 1947 and 3/8. 1947). In subsequent reports, freely available for consultation until 1960, these issues were no longer raised, with the exception of the remarkable ban on the excision of girls proclaimed in 1956 by the njuri ncheke, which may be interpreted as evidence of a real change in behavior and/or an indication of other fundamental issues. ‘Landconsciousness’ became so much an established concept that it bolstered the demands for independence taking shape as the years went by. The Mau Mau movement, during which Bernardi conducted his investigation into the mûgwe, gained ground and, in the Nyambene Hills, transformed into a civil war of sorts that was to continue after the independence of Kenya in 1963, and for a time occurred parallel to the secessionist movement of the Somali spread throughout the northeastern lowlands. The existence of the Mau Mau, on which subject the defenders of the njuri ncheke clashed with other Meru refusing its jurisdiction and authority, demonstrated that the reforms launched by Lambert to accelerate the recognition of indigenous authorities, and that were strengthened within by the anti-Mau Mau campaign, had fed certain illusions and masked the same divisions that his ethnography had deliberately or involuntarily underestimated, and that relate primarily to certain elements of the generational system.

  • 6  In their reports, the commissioners note the changes of generation seen in Imenti and extrapolate (...)

21The history of the West, marked in the twentieth century by two world wars, left its own mark on that of the Tigania-Igembe and, on several occasions, began to match the opening and closing rhythm of the generational sets6: the period from colonial conquest until the end of the Great War corresponded approximately to the recruitment of the Kiramunya (fig. 33); during this period, the Gwantai and Gichungî gave birth to the future Ithalie. From the early 1920s until the mid-1930s, the latter were initiated and constituted the first set of warriors never to go to war, be it their own or that of the whites; meanwhile the Gichungî, and the Kiramunya, now young fathers, raised the future Michubu. From the mid-1930s until the end of the Second World War, the Michubu were recruited and many enlisted in the Allied armies. During this period the Kiramunya, married earlier, and the Ithalie newly married in turn had children; these were the future Ratanya whose initiation was contemporaneous with the Mau Mau movement. The Lubeeta, sons of the Michubu but also of the Ithalie, were initiated around the beginning of independence and in the years following decolonization.

22This constant interference certainly marked the popular memory, that of the elderly at least, so much so that it is often viewed as part of the gîtiba and the antagonistic cycles of war and rain. But this should not obscure the fact that with each opening of the subsequent generation a new history was being played out. Successive generations no longer resembled one another; gone were the days when the ntuiko rituals meant the reestablishment of order in both country and society, and a return to the previous state of affairs. A new kind of periodization revealed itself, marked by the linear and unpredictable flow of time. Colonial conquest, and ten years later the introduction of direct administration with the aim of adapting the indigenous society to the requirements of the colonial economy: both these events disrupted the traditional economy and triggered an acute crisis that lasted broadly from 1918 to 1940. From 1940, a kind of stable plateau was reached, linked to several factors: the spread of cash crops like coffee and tea, the production of which had hitherto been restricted to the white colonists; the growing popularity of the consumption of mirra (Catha edulis) which was beginning to be exported; and the establishment of new models where the value placed on schooling was inseparable from the appeal of the expected benefits for the monetary economy. The recognition of tribal authorities, which had enabled a brief period of calm, eventually created a sociopolitical imbroglio that mutated into a kind of civil war, the Mau Mau uprising, that came to a provisional conclusion after independence. In effect, despite the schisms and transformations caused by the huge variety of events that accumulated with the passing of generations, the fifty-five years of colonial rule were essentially defined by a continuum of problems and power conflicts, at the core of which lay the issue of initiations and the related matter of the population and its size.

Fig. 33 — Calendar of events since the 1908 colonial conquest

Fig. 33 — Calendar of events since the 1908 colonial conquest

* or Kobai, or Murungî.
Remind that, from Ratanya onwards, generation
nthukî have become initiatory categories, meaning the end of the nthukî as a generational system!

2. Dismembered polity, ailing bodies

  • 7  It is not possible to cite all the references that support these explanations. Much of the data is (...)

23The rapid nature of the military conquest and the ease with which the administration was established early on make it difficult to imagine the degree to which Tigania-Igembe polity, like that of the other groups included in the District, was fundamentally affected. Two components of the political and social structure became immediately obsolete. The main political function of the generational system, which comprised the establishment of sovereignty and the defense of territory, was eliminated: without their forfeiture needing to be announced, the Fathers of the country were, in their role as collective sovereign, de facto and de jure deposed. The kiama, however, did not disappear; they continued meeting to settle disputes submitted by the people, and were used as intermediaries by the administration which saw them as a simple and effective means of monitoring the population. In such matters, the territorial system of the old Tigania-Igembe regime, organized into sections and subsections centered on the warriors gaaru, offered a useful framework for the colonial government which found a ready-made structure for its own administrative ends (see Appendix B). On the other hand, the administration’s method of selecting representatives went against custom since, while the delegations were provisional and formed according to the case being judged and the generation sets in power, they were made up of permanent representatives, the agambi ba nguû njiru or “black coat speakers”, whose name arose from Horne’s practice of handing out black covers to distinguish the men he had chosen. This process initially seems to have aided the administration’s grip on the region but, as the years went by, began to jar with the methods for resolving conflicts. In essence, since it was no longer up to the kiama to defend the territory and ensure collective security, a role that had formerly helped focus rivalries and contain disputes, the councils lost their main subject of debate and were transformed into an arena where the antagonism of generational divisions was brought out in the open while individuals pursued personal interests and new goals. Shortly after the Great War, the administrator noted with clear exasperation that the kiama no longer served any purpose. The terrible famine of the time may explain this dysfunction, but over the previous ten years the disappearance of this sovereign function had begun to have tangible effects. It is also true that the long war and aforementioned famine had disrupted the recruitment of a new set of warriors, the Ithalie, and the promotion of new Fathers, the Gichungî. However, once the handover had taken place, these Gichungî Fathers were not able to reclaim their former role; one that W. A. Chanler, for example, made clear when he explained that the mere presence of elders meant that the warriors pursuing them would halt their attack7.

24The British conquest had even more serious consequences for the position of warriors. The Meru Bushmen were, unlike the warriors of other tribes, unable to contribute directly to the pastoral economy, and lost their social usefulness overnight. One of Horne’s first measures was to bring about their disarmament, with the exception of his personal guard who continued to parade around fully armed. The ban on carrying weapons, and thus on executing raids, relied on an assumption that other groups would cease their attacks, which was not immediately the case—there are records of Maasai raids in 1912 and 1913, and Somali raids in 1915. However, with the exception of cattle theft which evolved but was never eradicated, the pax Britannica did become a reality. The obligation to defend one’s territory vanished, as did the now-obsolete requirement of having to go and kill an enemy in order to earn one’s nthukî name. This was, for a time, replaced by the killing of big wild animals (lions, rhinoceros…) or the nickname earned by leaving to find work outside the region, but such a substitution was clearly not adequate. The ban on authi (or kibata) dancing sessions also altered the position and personal traits of the warriors. This custom did not disappear overnight either, but the ruling deeply affected the status of the Bushmen and, eventually, that of the whole population. These dancing sessions were a special moment when each age division would distinguish itself by the symbolic manner of its own choreographed songs and dances. The prohibition of the authi dances may well have been initially triggered by the fact that the warriors used them to demonstrate their Bushman virility, but in reality these dancing sessions had united the whole population and it became difficult, if not impossible, to control the exuberant, irrepressible energy typified by the state of waangi. As elsewhere in strictly-administered regions of Kenya, and unless a rare authorization was obtained, dancing sessions were banned in the Meru District for the maintenance of law and order. These disarmed warriors, banned from raiding or dancing, also had to change their appearance, in particular their hairstyle: those who left to become porters shaved their hair, since the traditional elaborate style was inconvenient when carrying loads on one’s head. This new work constituted another difficult transition, since it had hitherto been the domain of women. Even the Bushmen’s physical condition degraded; it was no longer judged necessary to kill large numbers of animals to nourish them and keep them in shape, and their diet ceased to be meat-based. In 1939, in a report on the over-accumulation of livestock by family heads ( “The Place of Stock in the Native Social System”, dc/mru. 1/4), an administrator stationed in the District from 1925 explained that meat, blood, and milk were being consumed less, particularly by warriors: “Change in the physique and appearance of the young men in particular which has taken place in that half generation can only be described as striking. Then the Moran were remarkable for their physical development. Now they are no better than their neighbours”. These remarks give an indication of the changes that had occurred since Captain Bois’s comments on the exceptional physical ability of Meru porters in 1908. Stripped of all their distinctions and diversions, these redundant warriors now idled away their time in gaaru and residential areas. Another effect concerned the uninitiated boys whom the warriors were bound to watch over. Once the warriors lost their prestige, the monitoring of the boys became an increasingly delicate task: the initiation ritual was now the sole reason why non-initiates kept on being involved in the domestic economy, while the warriors, by default, were entitled to do nothing.

25In short, the bonds that had united the territory and the sets were undone, and both the politico-territorial axis that had been the basis of the Meru polity and the chain of male subordination ceased to exist. Dispossessed of their country, the Fathers had lost their raison d’être and, therefore, any authority over the warrior sets. Meanwhile, the warriors had fallen into a situation where only the circumcision ritual distinguished them from non-initiates. The disappearance of territorial sovereignty also raised the issue of land ownership as never before. No element of custom legitimated a clear response to this growing problem, and the polysemous nature of the term mwiriga allowed for various interpretations and an accompanying level of ambiguity. The conditions were in place for a twin crisis of authority and society; the colonial administrators felt the effects and discerned certain contributing factors, but were a long way from comprehending the underlying forces at work.

  • 8  Which is not to say non-existent, contrary to a prudish rumor Fadiman (1993: 147-149) clearly chos (...)

26The 1920s and those years of the 1930s that corresponded to the mandate of the Gichungî as Fathers and of the Ithalie as Bushmen—titles henceforth stripped of their political grounding but which maintained real social and symbolic influence—were dominated by internal tension and strife, of which there were several indications. With the avoidance rules of Tigania-Igembe society being applied less and less rigorously, individuals who had previously mixed rarely, if at all, now found themselves in frequent contact. The chances of encountering uninitiated girls increased dramatically and such events were even involuntarily encouraged by the administration when it urged warriors and uninitiated boys to become more involved in agricultural work and cultivate more land. The number of nkenye pregnancies increased as did, inevitably, the rate of abortion and infanticide. Without going into further detail here about the demographic and female aspects of these issues, which are considered in the next chapter, we may note that the spread of formerly marginal practices8 represented the most explicit symptom of the generational system’s breakdown and the accompanying crisis of social roles and authority, and testifies to the state of deadlock, and later disarray, that befell the population following colonial conquest.

27With public discussion of the conflicts outlawed and their resolution made impossible, the growing resentment caused by these frustrations found an outlet in age-old institutions that gained a new role and unprecedented importance. Two authoritative bodies, which the administration consistently confused, were considered to be responsible for every social ill (the seduction of uninitiated girls, increasingly frequent allegations of witchcraft, and a growing sense of unrest): healing communities under the influence of diviner-healers, and a special council within the kiama, the njuri ncheke, whose representatives inspired real fear in the population, apparently due to their widely-acknowledged ability to combat witchcraft. These institutions, which soon became rivals, had a common approach of not operating openly and frequently recruiting candidates through forced initiation. They are referred to using two terms, rwaato and njuri. The first indicates the idea of obligation and compulsory recruitment but, unlike the traditional initiation which also fulfils these criteria, rwaato (pl. ndwaato) suggests a selective group formed from a small number of secretly incorporated members, a meaning also covered by the second term, njuri. Unlike the roles prescribed by the generation-set system and by publicly conducted initiations, they relied on a system of selective recruitment and operated in secret, meaning they were largely unaffected by the turmoil resulting from colonial conquest.

28In the Nyambene Hills, at least three categories of healing association existed: the kaita, waathi, and makûikû formed a continuum, containing a degree of rivalry, where each group would treat particular illnesses, the diagnosis of which was the responsibility of the mugaa, the diviner-healer. Their effectiveness can be understood with reference to the more general context of Meru aetiology where two major causes of illness exist, though they do not preclude the existence of secondary causes. The first main explanation, the origin and effects of which have been mentioned on several occasions, is the presence of mûgiro. This concept, used to explain both the onset of misfortune and the re-establishment of order, was gradually threatened by colonial conquest which provided a demonstration of sorts: the country was clearly rotten, mûgiro was everywhere and there was nothing more to do or hope for in that regard. Even if the presence of mûgiro maintained an explanatory power within the family context as long as the latter remained unchanged, eventually this aetiology, while not disappearing completely, became illusory as far as the country was concerned: the Fathers had lost the country, and so mûgiro and the remedies devised for it had become ineffective. Given such conditions, it is hardly surprising that the other main cause of illness and misfortune, rather hastily labeled witchcraft, filled the gap and eventually became the dominant explanation; the healing communities that dealt with this type of misfortune became a unique place for the expression of discontent and for a form of political protest. It would begin with a wound that refused to close or a swelling that would not subside, such as those caused by elephantiasis (matende), and especially a generalized weakness, accompanied by a soreness of the joints that made sleeping difficult. These last symptoms suggest influenza or malaria: a wholly new occurrence for this population, one whose effects in terms of mortality were clear following the Great War, and which resembled an individual version of the illness afflicting society. This lends weight to the hypothesis that healing associations, through the treatment they applied to new diseases, mediated the change by which the term “malaria” ended up indicating several diseases that had formerly been distinguished. The mugaa, diviner-healer of this new aetiology, was the handler who would make a diagnosis and advise invalids to visit one of the three healing associations, which were represented within every territorial section and formed a kind of network in the Nyambene Hills. Generally, the kaita association was prescribed as a first resort, but a patient who did not recover could later visit the other two.

29The healing association’s help was enlisted through an initiation where the invalid, sponsored by a close relation who might or might not be a family member, made the required payments to members of the association, and underwent rituals that varied with location but followed certain patterns. The kaita group operated in a house known as nyumba ya kaita, built not far from a preserved thicket named kithoki ka athi or “small forest of the hunters”, with a clearing made in the center. Two elements of ritualistic grammar are clear: the forest as ceremonial site, and the reference to the hunter (muthoi, athoi). Each house had its own drum, known as mbogo ya kaita, mbogo designating buffalo, although the skin was actually that of a bovid; special songs allowed group members to recognize one another. The kaita house was rebuilt with every generation, and it is clear that the Kiramunya and then the Ithalie were the last to build theirs. The relationship between initiator and initiate followed the model linking grandparents to grandchildren, and the initiators transferred their power from the jûûjû of one nthukî to the jûûjû of another, i.e. from “generation of grandparents” to “generation of grandchildren”. This last feature, combined with the preceding information, suggests that the kaita group worked within the paradigm of the gîtiba (or generational division) not in power, made up of the grandparents, the parents, and their children—that is to say, the three generations that we have already seen to be solemnly linked at the level of the generation-set system through the rituals of ear piercing and of the Accomplished.

  • 9  This is reminiscent of the Evu studied by Louis Mallart (1981).

30In the example given, the candidate, a girl whose abdomen wound would not close up, was prepared like a novice—entirely shaven except for the kîthumbi or crown of hair left at the top of the head, and her body coated with castor oil. Her mother prepared a large gourd of gruel as well as other food that had to be brought into the kaita house; all these offerings were to be sourced from harvests and not from the herd. When entering the house, the candidate passed through a narrow door above which the honeycomb of a melliferous species known as îgûû9 would be positioned; then, the “grandmother” welcomed the “grand-daughter” with an offering of gruel and blessed her by spraying her with saliva. The initiators would always be in pairs—a man and a woman, or two men and two women—and, whatever the age of those involved, were regarded as grandparents relative to the initiates, who were seen as grandchildren. In the middle of the house would stand a large pot of millet beer surrounded by various kinds of food—yams, lumps of cane sugar, bananas—as well as an elephant tusk. The candidate stepped on the tusk, and afterwards, uncertain as to where to go, went and sat down on some concealed object; in doing so, she was making a choice that would determine the rest of the ritual. Instructions were then received in the clearing of the small forest before completion of the ritual within the house. Once initiated, the novice was considered “reborn” (ûchiaro) according to a procedure that combined the staged rebirth of adoption rites with that played out between alternate generations. The invalids recruited in this way lived for a certain time within the house, where dances would take place with the participants completely undressed—a practice that fueled rumors of debauched behavior, prompting the colonial authorities to suppress the groups. Once again nudity, as contrasted with the dress habits of whites, became proof of scandalous and licentious behavior. It is true however that contrary to the external world where age groups and the sexes are clearly divided and live separately, healing associations have the particularity of mixing men, women, and ages, on the basis of the equality of alternate generations. In rituals intended to restore a norm, for example at the end of a period of mourning or the treatment by bankiro of problems relating to a child’s development, ritual coitus was common practice, and probably also took place within healing associations. The oppressive boredom of the population following the disappearance of dancing sessions in public spaces may also explain the flurry of activity within the groups and their new appeal. The festivities would take place in huts or clearings, away from prying eyes, and did not require authorization from the colonial authorities. The administrators were clearly aware of this to some extent when they noted that these groups gave the population, for whom life seemed increasingly austere, the opportunity to relax and vent frustration.

31Some invalids would stay in the groups’ houses for a long time; those stricken with madness (nthû) found themselves welcome. If, after being initiated into the other groups, invalids did not recover, then an explanation would be given in ambivalent terms referring to the creator principle, which would be evoked in the form of a phrase such as: “It is the work of Ngaï-Murungu,” unless signs of witchcraft (murogi, arogi) were detected—in which case the expected outcome was death. A muuma oath forbade initiates under pain of death from talking of such things, which “are in the stomach” and had to remain secret, except when it came to recruiting a new candidate. The contraction of the disease was explained in the following way: a land owner who notices theft from his field asks a jûûjû kaita to protect it by planting the field’s edges with special sticks, designated by the generic term ndîîndî that also designates the sticks used to light fires. If he is himself a member of a group, the owner can plant them in his own field or that of another. The sticks are of two types which come in pairs: rûrîîndî (pl. ndîîndî) are lengths of wood with sharpened ends, one of which is decorated with the red feathers of the nkîkwa bird; ngucwa is a horn said to be the mother or female counterpart to the rûrîîndî stick and is buried at the edge of the field in question. It is explained that those who are kaita recognize the signs and avoid the field, while others are exposed to the disease. This effect—buried objects that combine like sexual organs causing illness to anyone who merely walks on the ground in question—is explained by the fact that the soil has been somehow contaminated by the mingling of the two vital cycles. The diviner then identifies the cause and sends his patient for initiation into the group considered capable of treatment—a group that is therefore made up of former invalids.

32The two other healing associations follow a similar pattern; initiation takes place in the secrecy of a specially constructed house, within which men and women, initiators and novices all mix. However, they differ in the nature of the required offerings. In order to join the waathi group or grade, a term containing the root of the word for hunter, it was necessary to offer a goat known as nkurûngû na waathi: nkurûngû indicates the small ‘bushbuck’ antelope. Similarly, the emblem of these groups was the hunters’ rallying cry, kalai ka aathi, a kind of whistle emitted using a length of wood as an amplifier to tell others that an animal that had fallen into a pit needed finishing off and cutting up. For the makûikû it was necessary to offer either a goat, as substitute for a bushbuck, or a cow, or a bull known as a magara, from the name of a wild animal that resembles this bovid, probably the large antelope known as the Cape eland.

33A number of symbols and objects feature in these rituals that evoke hunting more or less directly. Their presence caused the administrators to believe that the malevolent activity of these groups was the result of an attempt on the part of the hunters to defend their territory and way of life, which were threatened by the ongoing land clearance and the hunting ban imposed by the colonial State (see, in particular, the reports for 1927 and 1940). This explanation fit well with the Mbwaa tradition, a historicizing version of which was being developed and gradually replaced the Mbugi tradition. It also resonated with a popular rumor that the hunters were the first to have “held the country”, an idea that called into question the legitimacy of anyone who arrived after that. Taken literally, these explanations are contradicted by actual practice, but on the other hand they indicate a conflict over territory worth examining. Hunting is not a particularly idiosyncratic activity, and nor do those who practice it—known as muthoi, pl. athoi or aathi—form a separate group. They are Tigania-Igembe like the others: they own a herd, and their wives keep gardens. Every Tigania-Igembe owns bows and arrows—the latter are sometimes coated with poison—and uses them against the monkeys that regularly help themselves to the harvest. Evidently pit hunting is no longer practiced, but the rules for the division of elephant tusks, for example, are (were) the same for any Meru who has killed the animal. Mbugi the hunter became a farmer and herdsman, and nothing in the myth indicates hunting to be an activity that would require particular comment. It is therefore in vain to assert that hunters resorted to witchcraft to protect their hunting grounds, and the activities considered malevolent cannot be explained as the defense of an economic practice threatened by colonial conquest. It is more probable that the symbolism used by the associations and the treatments that they implement—of which very little, alas, is known—form part of an established procedure whereby the wild and its associated emblems function as a medium, the content of which lies in the contrasting offerings required of invalids: either food sourced from the harvest or animals whose names indicate wild species. After all, hyenas take care of the bodies of those who die inauspiciously; initiates remain Bushmen a long time before becoming fathers; the horn of the warrior sets and that of kaaria wives, as well as the ngee headdress, are symbols drawn from the wild; the human placenta is referred to as njogu (elephant). There is no need to look to hunting to elucidate the symbolism of the wild, which has ambivalent connotations anyway since nature also provides men with mîthega, protective charms and healing plants. It is also striking to note how, while also reconfiguring it, recruitment by healing associations borrows from the generation-set paradigm, another feature supporting a metaphorical use of the untamed world and for an abiding pervasiveness of the activity of hunting. The Mukogodo hunters, based in the isolated hills above the Nyambene and who informed Tigania-Igembe of possible attacks until the administration transferred them to a District further west, are an exception but, precisely, associated hunting with the forge or with herding and were not regarded as Tigania-Igembe. Only the activities of the blacksmith have been subject to special treatment, as we have seen, and by this means hunting may become associated with forces that are malevolent because uncontrollable: an activity that takes place outside the gardens, at the edges of pastureland, on the fringes of the world, where the organizing effect of the cycles of rain and sun breaks down, and where the hazy enigma of ore reduction and forging begins.

34Through this intermediary, hunting becomes linked to witchcraft, an uncontrollable force that is deployed in secret, unlike the act of cursing where the person responsible can be identified and influenced. Urogi, which indicates a malevolent attack, is a substantive from the verb kûrûgwa (passive form) or kûrogana (active form); murogi (pl. arogi), or muroi (pl. aroi) when the g is elided, indicates the person making the attack. The confusion grew when healing associations were labeled as witchcraft, particularly by the colonial administration that, in spite of its reservations, gave in to this interpretation for reasons relating to the conflict with the other authoritative body, the njuri ncheke. The truth is that the distinction between healing associations and witchcraft in the strict sense, without being absolute, is clear enough: the associations are supposedly there to treat and help people whereas urogi ciaû witchcraft, or “witchcraft of the words of the gourd”, is intended to cause their death. Poisoning is the most common method, and every Tigania-Igembe familiar with plants knows which species are dangerous and how to use them, or else will make use of those traded by the Kamba. Women are believed to cause rapid deaths by putting poison in food they prepare, whereas men mix it with the tobacco they offer others and are responsible for slower deaths. One can also use poison to coat a stone buried at the edge of a disputed field; anyone who happens to touch it will feel its effects. Or, more simply, the mere presence—on a path, in one’s field or close to one’s family kraal—of ndîîndî sticks or ngucwa horns, among other examples, is enough to make it clear to the individual that he or she is the target of witchcraft. Hence there is a connection with the illnesses treated by the healing associations since, in order to remove the incurred threat, the individual in question must join the group and make offerings that are essentially a way of stockpiling goods, sometimes expressly so.

  • 10  The Morris Carter Commission on land settlement and rights in Kenya also had consequences particul (...)

35And it is indeed striking that the illnesses treated by healing associations are contracted in such a way—by walking in gardens and wild areas—and center on problems of delimitation and ownership of land, the theft of the harvest or the abduction of herd animals; the rumor was even that aathi witchcraft was responsible for the so-called nthiita epidemic (probably “foot and mouth disease”) that affected herds from 1920 to 1930. Given the vagueness of customary law on gardens and areas of wilderness, and the endless complaints resulting from the gwato contract and ndûgû offerings and, in this respect, the usefulness of being able to negotiate within the kiama, it is natural that the suspension or weakening of the legal function of that institution precipitated the crisis and encouraged recourse to witchcraft, and other such explanations. This was all the more so since, beginning in the twenties, the pressure exerted by the administration to raise taxes and the gradual spread of currency usage gave new value to cultivable plots of land. The vulnerability and anxiety of the population were aggravated by the administration’s constant attempts to reconfigure territorial limits, merging distinct territorial sections in order to save on the wages paid to the chiefs they selected. The archives are punctuated by inter-mwiriga conflicts caused by these constant but ever-varying amalgamations, and by the population’s concern that the headman or chief would favor people from his own section and “swallow up” the others, in the particularly delicate issue of tax collection that was the task of the administration’s designated representative10. By turning the Mbwaa narrative into the tale of a migration that would have actually taken place, the administration provided a way of thinking and a story according to which, before the arrival of the wave of herders with their three colors and their kiama, the country belonged to hunters— and to blacksmiths. These latter played an active role in the healing associations, which they were free to join and of which they still have ample knowledge, whereas they were forbidden to join the other association, the njuri. It is the blacksmiths who most embrace the theory that hunters were the first occupants and that they habitually resorted to witchcraft in order to protect their territory. The economic activity that has suffered the most from colonial conquest is not hunting, but rather ore reduction and forging. With the arrival of the whites, blacksmiths continued to be forbidden from cultivating or owning land, but ceased to be able to make a living from their trade: the warriors’ weapons became useless; soon, imported products replaced the bloom produced through reduction and, little by little, the many tools that they manufactured. It was only a short step from forced bartering to extortion using the threat of witchcraft. As in an authentic “cow tale” we have again returned to the blacksmith, but this time in a matter where his very survival hung in the balance.

3. The empowerment and decline of the njuri ncheke

36The body that the colonial authorities confused with the healing communities and the practice of witchcraft, and not without reason, was the njuri ncheke: njuri conveys the idea of selective recruitment carried out under a veil of secrecy, and the adjective ncheke, which means “narrow”, emphasizes the idea of a small number of members. Acting with comparable methods in identical or contiguous areas, these institutions came into conflict, and their opposition, which helped maintain an atmosphere of crisis and hostility, explains why they were often seen as one body, in particular once the njuri banned the reporting of witchcraft to the administration. The origin of the njuri has been the subject of highly conflicting accounts, especially as the colonial administration, through the actions of Lambert, eventually designated it as the people’s authorized representative in dealings with the authorities. Everything relating to the njuri ncheke is shrouded in mystery and must not be spoken of on account of the oath made by initiates to divulge nothing. While the mistrust felt towards the institution to this day is real, if waning, views on the subject are far from unanimous and certain elders, of the Ithalie and Michubu sets, do not hesitate in private to claim that the njuri ncheke has not always existed and that, like the kaita, it arrived with the whites—a convenient accusation worth examining.

Ill. 16 — Old man with njuri ncheke markings, 1970s

Ill. 16 — Old man with njuri ncheke markings, 1970s

Photo by Gordon Boy.

Ill. 36a — Monuments in honor of the njuri ncheke, Meru town, 1988

Ill. 36a — Monuments in honor of the njuri ncheke, Meru town, 1988

Photos by Anne-Marie Peatrik.

  • 11  The information gathered during my research and in the colonial archives is supplemented by the fo (...)

37The njuri is an example of an “invented tradition” or more precisely the revaluation of a tradition, and it would be incorrect to believe that it was created ex nihilo11. In Tigania-Igembe, the legend goes that a man of small stature, named Kaura wa Becheu, or sometimes Komenjwe, who was intelligent and spent his time tending to his herd while contemplating matters, had wondered how to end the conflict ravaging the country. People had stopped obeying orders, and the warriors in particular did as they pleased. Kaura had the idea of creating the kiama othaa, which he began by initiating his brother; others soon joined him. After the kiama othaa he formed the njuri ncheke, also called njuri mpingere, which was followed by a top grade, the njuri imbere. A popular etymology, reflected in the njuri traditions researched by J. Kinyua (1970) in Imenti, derives njuri from njûûrî, the latter term indicating a war, a raid, or the dancing session held in honor of warriors who have killed an enemy; to some extent the njuri is created to put an end to the njûûrî, or rather replaces the njûûri that can no longer exist. In conversation, some people confuse the two words, either deliberately or accidentally, so that it is eventually clear that the initial transcription was njûûri ncheke. Ncheke means “narrow” and refers to the fact that the association is made up of a small number of initiates; mpingere is a synonymous adjective derived from the verb koinga, “to close”, and indicates a meeting held “behind closed doors” in some way; njûûri ncheke or njûûri mpingere thus means a “violent raid [reserved] for a small number” or “violent raid [carried out] by a small number”. The name of the final grade, njuri imbere, derived from a verb that means “to winnow”, indicates that only a very very small number of initiates are able to reach this level. Kaura put a curse on any initiate who should betray the secrecy of the njuri-njûûri, under penalty of losing power and influence. Another version gives a different and complementary explanation. Kaura contemplated a way of uniting the elders in order to control the young; he built a house, killed a bull, and invited any elder to share the meat, as long as they agreed to bring a goat or sheep. When many elders had agreed to come to Kaura’s kiama, the offering required to join this club of meat eaters was increased to a bull. Kaura then created additional grades, the njuri ncheke and the njuri imbere. Kaura lived in Rurea, to the south of Mikinduri, in Tigania near the Woods of Ûkiama. Igembe people came to be initiated in Kiiya in Athwana, though they also sometimes claim that, on the contrary, they were the ones who initiated the Tigania. In Imenti, the kiama othaa is known as kiama kia nkomango or “council of the stone”, and Kaura wa Bechau, it is said, had the idea of the njuri after the failure of a raid on the Mbeere; again, its creation is seen as the product of a crisis. The legend does not specify this, but the njuri is (was) well established in Igembe and Tigania, a little less so in Imenti, and almost non-existent in the other Mount Kenya divisions.

38This story, the details of which vary from one place to another, centers on the solving of a typical crisis in societies with age sets: the youth no longer under control, warriors running amok. Such disobedience is a constant worry for the Fathers, and recalls past crises which led to the establishment of the gaaru for warriors, or the threat posed by non-initiates planning to leave the Nyambene hills; the acute crisis that Kaura tries to remedy in the legend has much in common with that of the post-conquest colonial era. Kaura who, as luck would have it, lives near the place where the procession gathers when deciding to begin initiations in Tigania, provides a solution by creating an association with those who agree to offer a contribution of livestock.

39It is important to understand how this association, formed from only a portion of the men—in particular those with sufficient resources to participate in this meat-eating club—can inspire a level of fear among the people such that its flat refusal to collaborate left the colonial authorities powerless. While one had to be rich to join the njuri ncheke—a mark of distinction that caused many rivalries and resentments to surface as the required offerings increased in value—in reality the richness of its members alone cannot explain their ascendancy over the people, whereas desperation and fear of witchcraft or disease provide a clear explanation for the growing success of healing associations. Kaura wa Bechau— if he ever existed and corresponded to one or more individuals, the Meru, let us not forget, being fond of pseudonyms and double names—probably did have the idea of using the institution, which various factors suggest existed before the arrival of the whites; but it concerned only a minority of specially initiated men, whose role was to stop fugitive criminals and individuals convicted of parricide or witchcraft, judge them and put them to death. In this way, they carried out a duty of public safety that would have been dangerous for anyone else to attempt, and that nobody would have risked attempting anyway because of the fear, panic even, inspired by an individual connected in some way with an inauspicious death.

40Two features—there would be more if more complete descriptions were available—reveal the age-old nature of the institution: certain elements of the initiation into the initial grade, and a connection with the mûgwe or mûkiama. After ceasing to be warriors and entering the role of young fathers, certain people might decide to be initiated into the kiama othaa or were forced to do so because the njuri had, for some reason, decided to recruit them. Forced recruitment is indeed a characteristic feature of the institution and is carried out by, for instance, placing a ngee headdress on the wife of the man concerned, or directly on the latter. Nowadays (1986-1993) when, because of persistent land disputes, a revival of the institution is evident, this is still a very real fear, albeit a slightly rehearsed one: having come across a njuri procession escorting a frightened and rather unsteady novice, I watched as everyone—in particular the young students with whom I was conversing as we walked—disappeared suddenly alongside paths; when they reappeared a little further along, they explained that they avoid the procession so as not to be forcefully recruited and obliged to offer a bull.

  • 12  The somewhat surprising confession of their faults could lead one to hypothesize that, at some poi (...)

41The first phase of the initiation, described in Rimita (1988: 48-49), consists of a gathering in a purpose-built house far from other dwellings and prying eyes, where candidates are welcomed by their caretakers and lectured on the policing role that they will be required to undertake. A second stage takes place in the bush a short distance away; like the initiates arriving at the circumcision ground in the mûgwe’s territorial division, the candidates must pass over a ram that lies on the ground with its legs tied down. Next, the animal is bled to death, as for a divination. The blood is collected and then the entire carcass burned and the ashes gathered in a calabash. A bull is then sacrificed by suffocation. The blood of the bull is mingled with that of the ram, then with that of the initiates who receive a cut at the end of one finger. In a large pot filled with a mixture of honey and water, the different bloods are combined with the ram’s ashes. Each candidate, invited to swear an oath over the pot, repeats the proclaimed phrases one by one or pauses to swallow some of the mixture: the novice confirms his adherence to the tribe, the need to respect the rules of fairness, and the promise to never steal or resort to witchcraft. He swears to obey the members of the njuri who have become like fathers and mothers to him, and promises that, if he goes against what has been said, the “food of the njuri”—i.e. the mixture of bloods and ashes—will kill him. This taking of oath turns him into a ntaane-cia-njuri, novice of the njuri, an expression derived from the term used for the novice leaving the circumcision ground. Circumcision is also recalled through the cutting of the finger and the mixing of bloods. The candidate is now on the fringe of the group, waiting to be integrated. The novices are stripped, coated with a mixture of ochre and grease, and covered with certain signs. Those gathered to watch, while remaining clothed, also cover themselves with njuri symbols: a red marking is made from the bridge of the nose up to the hairline and then crossed with lines—drawn on the forehead, above the eyebrows and on the cheeks—that serve to accentuate the eyes. Next begins a stage of divination by ordeal reminiscent of the kioro ordeal undergone by circumcised novices in their house of reclusion: under the threat of various maltreatments, the candidate must acknowledge if he has committed crimes such as incest—of the two Meru kinds—or if he has stolen, killed, and so on. For each transgression he admits, the candidate is sentenced to pay a well-fattened bull12. The issue in this stage is that, unlike the ordinary initiation, the ordeal is not limited to mere threats. Particularly degrading experiences are inflicted on the candidate: he is beaten with thorny branches, or obliged to descend into a pit filled with human feces; it is not inconceivable that he may even be required to ingest the excrement. In this way the novice is forced to make the kind of transgressions most abhorred by the population, and which many elements of everyday life and the accomplishment process seek to avoid. It is precisely this obligation to commit the most unthinkable of acts that lies at the heart of initiation into the kiama othaa and guarantees its secrecy. No initiate is able to tell a non-initiate that he has committed such an act without losing face or passing for a lunatic. Contact with such matters marks the individual irreversibly; as with circumcision, there is no way to undo what has been done and return to one’s former state. We have already seen the use of animal excrements in funerary rituals, and such use of human feces during initiations does not constitute an isolated case in these regions. To the north, Borana warriors, while supposed to bring back the severed sex organ of an enemy from a raid, were in certain circumstances required to kill a horse and ingest its dung as a substitute for the excrement of the murdered enemy; to the south, among the Chagga of Kilimanjaro, male initiation involved all candidates immersing themselves in a pit filled with the fecal matter of companions from the age group whose turn it was to be promoted, a transgression that reenacted the moment of childbirth and distanced them from the female world forever, according to the explanation proposed by S. F. Moore (1976). Such an obligation can also be seen in a minor or comic mode among the Bushong in western ex-Zaire (Vansina 1955). Tigania-Igembe customs are similar, yet different: only the small number of initiates into the kiama othaa are marked by contact with human fecal matter. The Accomplished are all placed into a kiara filled with the feces of livestock, which must under no circumstances be mixed with human excrement.

42The grade of njuri ncheke itself is reached later on by those of the kiama othaa grade whose promotion has been accepted by their elders and who have provided the necessary heads of bull, in particular those corresponding to misdeeds perpetrated and/or admitted. The festivities lasted for days during which the wives of the candidate provided food and beer for members of the njuri of the related section. This “food of the kiama(mathiro ya kiama), added to the bull meat, was received by the men who would initially pout their lips, thereby insinuating that the food was of insufficient quantity or badly prepared and that, if the women wanted their husband back, they would have to bring more. A sort of contest—the female elders describe it in such terms—would break out between the njuri members who would make increasing demands and the wives of the candidate (s) who had to decide how much should be offered. The contest allowed public scrutiny of the quality of the bond between wives and their man, who was seen to have been taken from his family by the njuri. When, after several days of extortion, the njuri deemed themselves adequately fed, the candidate was escorted home by a procession that sang the praises of the wives for loving their husband, a chorus of admiration that can still be heard on certain weekend evenings. Before returning, the candidate was given a njuri father, and at the end of the rituals that, it seems, are no longer marked by the usual practices of inversion, he received his njuri ncheke name. Forced recruitment, extortion of food, severance from the world and rebirth within a new family: these are all traits that borrow from a familiar grammar of rituals and explain the confusion between the njuri and healing associations, both being rwato that recycle elements of the initiation ceremony.

43Members of the njuri grade, which had a certain number of representatives within any territorial division, met as a deliberative body whenever a death sentence was conceivable. The majority of initiates remained at the level of njuri ncheke, but a very small minority whose conduct had been deemed impeccable, and who were guilty of no wrongdoing or excess of any kind, could reach the level of “the Winnowed”, a metaphor that recalls the symbolism of the threshing area on the circumcision ground. According to Lambert (1945, microfilm, chap. viii: 287-288), at the end of his unpublished chapter on the Igembe mûgwe, the grade of the Winnowed meant interaction with this distinguished figure. At the time of the rituals bringing the ntuiko period to a close, the four representatives of the new set, who sit together in the ûgwe’s house with four representatives of the outgoing set, form a special committee known as njuri imbere or mbere that represents the Igembe as a whole. These individuals, who originate from the njuri ncheke councils (although that rule is perhaps a neo-tradition that Lambert played an active role in inventing), are representatives for as long as their health permits and can be replaced by any other individual of their kind. The njuri imbere was consulted to make sure that the execution of a death sentence decided by the njuri ncheke was not going to disrupt the socio-cosmic order of the polity; if the advisers and the mûgwe judged this to be the case, then the judgment was not applied. Any other troublesome issue could be submitted to their judgment; however, their principal function lay in this ability to postpone the execution of a person sentenced to death because of the state of mûgiro that their death might provoke.

  • 13  The members of the njuri are in some ways reminiscent of the Vaya elders studied by D. Parkin (199 (...)

44The presence alongside the mûgwe of individuals who, having been specially initiated as young fathers, had been selected for their impeccable conduct regarding alcohol consumption, theft, and sexual activity—they were not allowed relationships with anyone but their wives and would not, for instance, have developed a bankiro relationship—adds to the importance we can accord the symbolic position of these double initiates, who worked in conjunction with the mûgwe, the blesser of the left hand. Just as the mûgwe counteracts mûgiro, of which he is the main alleviator, and neutralizes the power of the blacksmith, these super-initiates at his side thwart the malevolent forces of witchcraft, for which the blacksmith is also held accountable, as manifested by a strict double interdiction: the blacksmith cannot join the njuri, and njuri initiates cannot consume any products of hunting. In conjunction with the mûgwe, they enable the Fathers of the country to represent the people and maintain sovereignty during their mandate. Elements of this kind do seem to exist among the Tigania where the “pure ones” from the highest njuri grade are apparently associated with the ûkiama procession (Rimita 1988: 50-52), but these are either fanciful or too tenuous to be properly exploited13.

45The fate of the mwenjî, the wretched individual bound to die of dealing with the corpses from ill-omened deaths caused by mûgiro, also illustrates by contrast the power that the novices acquired through the ritual of the kiama othaa. These super-initiates, as if repeatedly “toughened up” through the hazing involved in initiation, become extraordinary individuals, able to challenge a criminal’s mûgiro or the powers of witchcraft, and to manipulate the forces of death when deciding and executing a sentence. It is this ability to deal with the polluted corpse of one’s fellow-man that inspires fear in ordinary people, and explains why the people of the njuri represent an authoritative body that contributes to the maintenance of law and order—a role that the vox populi both supports and denounces, claiming for example that the njuri is able kill people without having to make reparative offerings to the kiama. The executions were undertaken in such a way that, after having inflicted an exemplary amount of suffering on the guilty party, the procedure would also dispose of the unwanted refuse constituted by the offender’s remains. The wrongdoer was covered with dried banana leaves that the kiama set on fire; transformed into a human torch, the offender would run in various directions, and after a relative had thrown the first stone at him and thus demonstrated that no close family regretted this judgment, he would be stoned by kiama kia nkomango, a form of execution that is probably the source of the institution’s name in Imenti since nkomango means “stone”.

46In Tigania-Igembe there are (were) two other forms of execution and body disposal; one consisted in placing the culprit in a hive taken from a tree trunk and therefore cylindrical, and dumping it into a steep river or waterfall; the other amounted to nailing the culprit to the ground beside a path, leaving him at the mercy of various predators or to die of hunger and thirst. In addition to the suffering caused, these techniques—fire, the hive thrown into a river and the predators along the path—make it possible to eliminate the offender’s mûgiro. Tracing the nature of the njuri ncheke before colonial conquest also makes it possible to understand why this organization, well established in Igembe and Tigania and in part of the Imenti, was non-existent in other Meru divisions where only the outlines of such an organization can be found. In such a geographical breakdown we see the distinction between, on the one hand, territorial sections following ntuiko where the handover is accompanied by violence and transgressions and corresponds to mûgwe figures who change with each generation, and, on the other hand, territorial sections following rukunyî where the handover takes the form of peaceful promotion. It is as if these societies, which every fifteen years were subject to the disorder resulting from their generation-set system, were also equipped with organizations that, when the time came, were able to restore authority and social control. This procedure further emphasizes the somewhat schizophrenic contrast between periods of crisis and agitation and those in which order is established.

47The agents of colonial authority who came into conflict with the njuri were wide of the mark when they understood it to be a central hub of indigenous power. The njuri, a special body that recruited selectively and was equipped with a certain autonomy within the generational system, had been less affected by the conquest than other political institutions. When, shortly after the Great War, the colonial administration ceased to rely on the now-defunct kiama of fathers, and rumors of witchcraft abounded, the njuri naturally found itself in the midst of the conflict. It became rival to the healing associations that were soon accused of engaging in witchcraft and practicing extortion. Both operated in the shadows by initiating recruits sworn to secrecy, and manipulated the forces of life and death. The colonial powers played a decisive role three times in this conflict from which the njuri emerged victorious. Initially unintentionally and later deliberately, the authorities backed this institution which they, unlike the people they governed, eventually viewed as the manifestation of tradition par excellence—a policy that completed the construction of ethnic identity for which the story of Mbwaa had laid the foundations.

48The colonial administration, reviving in the 1920s a policy implemented by Horne in his day, began to vigorously suppress the healing associations. Kaita meeting houses were identified and systematically burnt down; the diviner-healers were arrested and died in prison or hospital. In doing so, the colonial administration was unwittingly strengthening the njuri’s grip on the population, who now had nobody to turn to and no means of showing the slightest resistance. When the njuri forbade any collaboration with the authorities under penalty of being cursed, the administration found itself backed into a corner and the situation became one of stalemate. In this affair, Lambert’s research and the recognition, after much work on his part, of the njuri ncheke as a tribal authority are interesting because they are based on a contradiction that the administrator-ethnologist fully recognized but chose not to address. He needed to pass off as traditional, and hence representative, an organization that recruited selectively when the basis of this society’s political system lay in investing authority in any individual of the appropriate grade. The contradiction is evident in the 1956 text concerning the social organization of the people of the Central Province, which reincorporates elements already published in 1947 and includes the parts of the manuscript that seemed most reliable to editors. Lambert gives a partial but accurate description of the Meru generation-set system and the universal promotion through the grades at the time of ntuiko every fifteen years. He provides clear indications of the generational relationships between the Meru sets but persists in referring to them in terms of ‘age’, whereas he acknowledges the existence of generation sets among the Embu, Mbeere and Chuka (1956: 42-50). Lambert’s denials are revealing both of the embarrassing situation he found himself in and of his choices as an administrator: if the Meru sets were generational, and if authority were conferred on all members of a generation set from the moment they reached the required grade, then it became impossible for him to declare the njuri to be a representative traditional body, a contradiction that Bernardi (1959: 24-28) fully recognized and which originates in the fundamental difference between a prescribed rank and an achieved one.

49Once one is aware of the juggling act Lambert was engaged in, the colonial archives, as well as the conflicts they reflect, begin to speak volumes. In his 1939 Handing Over Report written for the attention of Lambert, the administrator catalogs the difficulties and opposition generated by recognition of the njuri. He raises the question of the role given to the mwiriga elders, i.e. the regular Fathers of the “country” who, according to him, should regain control over the introduction of newcomers to territorial sections; he also focuses on inter-grade rivalries since they may render the decisions after each ntuiko inapplicable; further, the issue of the Meru sections where the njuri institution was not known also required a solution. Moreover, he emphasizes the risk of creating a rift between the njuri and modernizers, in particular the Christians whom it is difficult to imagine submitting to the kiama othaa ordeal. An oath on the Bible was proposed as a substitute but the Christians who took it were considered to be nuthu-njuri, “half-njuri”. Another source of discontent came from the youths who worked outside the District and some of whom sought to form a Meru Association, in imitation of the Kikuyu Central Association. There was also the case of women whose uncooperative attitude, illustrated by the protests they organized against the requirement to bury every deceased body, caused a clear amount of concern. Dismissing these objections, Lambert put all of his weight behind the application of his reforms, the fundamental objective of which, we must not forget, was to restore order, bring in taxes, and change the customs delaying the initiation of girls and boys.

50Collaboration with the njuri had undeniable results. With the resumption of war, the njuri elders became involved in all decision-making, and a practice was established whereby their representatives would convene twice a year at Ncherû, a vast clearing located at the edges of the Tigania and Imenti divisions where formerly, it is said, the representatives of the various Meru groups had met to combine forces against Maasai raids. The legend was apt. A system of delegations was organized that duplicated the administrative structure starting from the local level: njuri for the mwiriga, njuri for the Location, njuri for the Division, and finally the delegates to the District-level Ncherû assembly. The representatives traveled there by foot until the administration began sending trucks to transport them; now no delegate could fail to attend without good reason. Problems of all sorts were submitted to these new Fathers: how to do away with the perennial disputes caused by gwato contracts and ndûgû payments; the rate of exchange between cows and goats that they fixed (unsuccessfully) at four or five goats a cow, whereas actual transactions might reach sixteen to twenty goats a cow; the need to keep bridewealths down so that every man might be able to marry; a childbirth policy devised by zealous njuri elders. They also focused their attention on issues of land ownership and soil protection; the njuri elders organized earthwork and erosion prevention, raised taxes, encouraged the diffusion of modern veterinary methods and the construction of schools, and protected reserves of land while reminding people that any non-Meru who sought the right to cultivate land had only to undergo the customary “rebirth” that allowed one to become Meru. The njuri became involved with the circumcision rituals, entrusting their organization to the lamalle warriors under its control. To prevent non-initiates from fomenting unrest, a practice developed whereby some of them (the nkariati) would be integrated among the lamalle (Kangoi 1972: 8, 14); the age of sons initiated by the Ithalie (i.e. the Ratanya) dropped noticeably.

51Recruitment into the njuri ncheke was encouraged and many Ithalie and Michubu joined. The institution had a certain increase in popularity and allowed people to distinguish themselves, flaunting lavish accessories, gaining prestigious new surnames that replaced the obsolete trophy names (nthukî names) earned in battle, and joining a club of meat eaters who regularly met for feasts, where they would indulge in the privileged bouts of eating that had previously been the prerogative of warriors. It was as if the njuri enabled the revival, among married men, of the brilliance and prestige attached to the Bushmen—a substitution that Bernardi (1959: 185) also notes and which shows through in the two portraits of njuri elders painted by Adamson (1967: 96-97). The Ithalie, who were the first set to be formed after raiding had become almost impossible—though this also applies to the Michubu –, joined the association in great numbers, finding in it compensation for an irretrievably lost era, one that lived on in the memory of their predecessors who were never hesitant to recount their glorious battle feats. The sons, bereft of achievements, could show their Fathers that they too were able to deal with the worst in life or with the forces of death. While it enabled the revival of a recent but vanished past, the njûûri-njuri association also incorporated the values and dynamics of colonial conquest, forming a combination that explains both its success and some of the criticism it received. The endlessly rising value of the required offerings deterred many candidates; they were the sign of a new emerging social hierarchy and of the championing of individual success, both of which were founded on economic inequality that henceforth would only intensify. The njuri elders were able to become polygynous and father large families, and swelled the size of their herds as a means of hoarding their riches.

  • 14  In addition to the archives and the sources already cited, mention must be made of the research of (...)
  • 15  The decision to construct the Meru ethnographic museum dates from this period.

52The first advances of the Mau Mau in 1950 helped strengthen the role of the njuri elders14. The taking of the Mau Mau oath, which took a form not dissimilar to the ordeals involved in recruitment into the secret associations, was formally condemned in the strongest possible terms at the annual Ncherû meeting of 1950: “Any Meru who took an illegal oath would be dispossessed of all tribal rights and lands” (annual report for 1950), a particularly explicit threat that was addressed repeatedly over the following years to other associations like those for independent schools and those for traders until eventually, rediscovering old reflexes, the njuri labelled the Mau Mau as a form of witchcraft (1952). The rapprochement between the administration and the njuri took a new turn; the njuri began to take responsibility for the rehabilitation of Mau Mau suspects, and a tendency developed for the njuri to substitute for the administration. To hold a post one had to belong to the njuri ncheke, which had begun to accept the validity of oaths sworn on the Bible. The njuri ncheke worked for the establishment, achieved in 1956, of a Meru Land Unit distinct from the Kikuyu Land Unit, which enabled it to have a direct influence on issues regarding land control and ownership. Within this context, the njuri decided to outlaw clitoridectomy. Seeing these results, the administrators, as if seized by a wave of ethnological enthusiasm15, conceived of projects that would restore old customs, even imagining a partial return to the life of warriors in the gaaru. Only Mary Holding, who was observing events from the perspective of women, expressed reservations, making comments that jarred with this resounding unanimity (dc/mru. 7/2. 1955, Reconstruction Committee).

53Collaboration with the njuri, which was thereby sanctioned and promoted, amounted to developing a unifying neo-tradition within a society that gave increasing signs of change and dissent. An additional contradiction of this policy, which the people did not fail to notice, lay between the aim of restoring the order disrupted by the Mau Mau, and that of designating indigenous institutions that could take over from the colonial authority which was now beginning to disengage. Notwithstanding the policies practiced in the Meru District, independence talks were making progress, demonstrating the strong foundations of the campaign against the colonial State. The promotion of the njuri to the fore eventually had the reverse effect intended and helped generate hostility within the organization that led to the rebirth of the Mau Mau in the Nyambene Hills. Far from constituting a homogeneous institution, the njuri was riddled with conflict. Alongside the mugambi, whose concern to combine tradition with modernity and strive for the reform of customs was quite genuine, others dreamed only of personal enrichment, evident from the increase in offerings require to join the association and the pressure they exerted on the Land Consolidation policy. The regrouping of arable plots and the allocation of individual property titles had been the latest of colonial policy moves regarding reform, developed by the Swynnerton commission in order to establish a class of smallholders who would be the social base for a future independent State. In this area, the attitude of the njuri, who were proponents of the principle of collective control of land operated on the level of the mwiriga—a term whose polysemous nature allowed various interpretations—ran flatly counter to that of the modernizers, who were eager to spread commercial farming and supported individual ownership of plots, and also to that of ordinary people who opposed such hegemony and the control it claimed over their means of subsistence.

Ill. 18 — Surrender of Mwariama (left), leader of the Nyambene Hills’ Mau Mau, to Mbio Koinange (middle) a representative of Jomo Kenyatta, Ciokaraine is on the right, Meru town, probably December 1963

Ill. 18 — Surrender of Mwariama (left), leader of the Nyambene Hills’ Mau Mau, to Mbio Koinange (middle) a representative of Jomo Kenyatta, Ciokaraine is on the right, Meru town, probably December 1963

Republic of Kenya, Ministry of Information.

Ill. 19 — Mwariama at a public meeting, Tigania, between 1965 and 1969

Ill. 19 — Mwariama at a public meeting, Tigania, between 1965 and 1969

Photo by Andrew Botta.

54The most vehement opposition to the njuri came from Christians and especially young people, who were impoverished but eager to escape paternal supervision, travel and earn money, all while cultivating the heroic warrior values of “nthaka-ism” and honing their skills via the theft of cattle. For an impoverished Bushman, it was not an inconceivable step to join the kiama kia mbiti or “kiama of the hyenas”, an ambiguous expression but one particularly well suited to the rebels who were so named and had reopened a Mau Mau front in the Nyambene Hills; they were soon joined by the diviner-healers, eager to predict independence, and by the blacksmiths who took on the task of making rifles. Under a modern veneer lay the same conflict that, thirty years earlier, had set healing associations and the njuri ncheke against one another, compounded by the antagonism felt by rebellious sons towards a njuri set to enjoy the position of Fathers of the new country—a handover of power, at their expense, which they challenged.

55When elderly people claim that the njuri did not always exist, one should interpret that to mean the njuri did not always exist in the form that it took after colonial conquest and in the thirties and fifties. With independence in 1963, administration ceased to be indirect and the njuri, seen as part of the collaborationist forces, was repudiated. Modernization continued on a reformist basis within the framework of the republican State, accompanied by a party system that struggled to have more than one party. Judges, however, continued to assign to the njuri the settling of inconsequential and time-consuming cases; a dual legal structure continued to function de facto. Forty years have passed since these events. Land consolidation and the allocation of titles deeds, far from being completed, has only concerned a minority of the Nyambene Hills population, which meanwhile has tripled. For some, the managing of land disputes has become a source of income and, for many, a pastime. The examination of land cases chaired by the District Commissioner is a much-appreciated occasion for a gathering, one attended by hundreds of men dressed in trousers and black jackets. For their claim on a plot of land to be lawful, plaintiffs who want to take the nthenge oath must belong to the njuri, an obligation that has been forgotten by all to be a neo-tradition inherited from the colonial era. The ntuiko and the transfer of power have disappeared, but the opening and closing of the nthukî still mark the passing of the years. One’s generational name, now a sort of category, is known to all, and a son will always seeks to be incorporated into the right position relative to his father. The politicians who have discovered the multi-party system, reestablished at the beginning of the 1990s, and related electoral issues, are all Lubeeta, “Fathers of the country”, who are now ready to initiate their Gwantai sons. Even if the modernizers seek to distance themselves from the institution, initiation on the public ground is a quasi-obligation because it is the only way of unambiguously conferring the Tigania-Igembe identity used to confront other Kenyans seeking to obtain land through underhand means. Only the threat of AIDS may precipitate change.

4. Male initiation: between affirmation and nostalgia

56In these decades when the Tigania-Igembe, like the other peoples of colonial empires, found themselves drawn into a narrative that was to determine the future course of Western society and of modernity, the overseeing and development of the initiatory process was a way for men to rediscover their bearings. Even if it were not perceived as such, the rise of the njuri ncheke is the most tangible manifestation of these changes, which were accompanied by the redefinition of thresholds and the changing or disappearance of rituals, along with other more familiar agents of modernization such as Christianization, the spread of the market economy and schooling. There is no longer a hierarchy based on age-grades, and people can no longer look forward to becoming ‘accomplished’, but the idea of a graded process continues to influence proceedings. In spite of active Christianization, which nowadays is so accelerated that it has moved beyond established Churches, the absence of an afterlife is still the dominant conception, lending a certain weight to the idea that an individual should become ‘accomplished’ while still alive. Confronted every time by unprecedented conditions, each generation of Meru have made innovative changes relative to their predecessors, who themselves continue to progress according to the expectations they had in their own day, regardless of each other’s successes and failures. Presenting the features of the initiatory process means taking stock of the variations that have occurred and the contradictory ways in which the grades have been reshuffled over time.

57Held first annually and then several times a year, initiation sessions for boys have become more frequent, the rituals shorter and simpler, the ages lower, but circumcision remains the obligatory rite that delineates a ‘before’ and ‘after’ and establishes a clear separation between the uncircumcised and initiates—one that is all the more valued, and sometimes excessively so, now that it is the only remaining such distinction. Before disappearing when schooling became more widespread (although periods of falling attendance are not uncommon), the stages that boys passed through before initiation were particularly open to reinterpretation; some even believe that Kaura wa Bechau, the “discoverer” of the njuri, is also the inventor of these pre-initiation grades. Each of the gangs of young people where boys gathered according to age became a kind of grade; at the level of the ijîîjî bikûrû (the oldest of the non-initiates), the number of stages to be reached increased as did the sum of required offerings and the level of violence inflicted by the eldest on the youngest in the form of beatings and tests of pain endurance. The nchibi, which hosted and still hosts singing contests, became a kind of musician’s club. Its members, skilled singers and guardians (or transformers) of a tradition, provide entertainment for the night before the circumcision, and the most talented may even be invited to perform on Voice of Kenya, the national radio station. The gichumû, a wooden object that explicitly represents the human sex organs, has become the focus of a tradition whereby notches made on the object are signs subject to interpretation. This process enables a rise in the number of required stages and gradual access to mysteries of increasing complexity. With circumcision being carried out at an increasingly early age, the nchibi activities and gichumû esotericism specific to non-initiates have become the pastime and distinctive trait of ex-warrior-Bushmen up until marriage. For those seeking responsibility, the organization of circumcision sessions constitutes a new initiatory grade: before being controlled, with varying degrees of success, by the administration, the lamalle ya mutaani (warriors who escort the circumciser) came under the direction of the njuri, which turned this role into a grade where preselection for its own councils took place.

58Once married, and unless they were forced to do so by circumstance, men could decide whether or not to follow the njuri trajectory. While promotion to the rank of Fathers of the country had lost its significance, ritual ear piercing remained a precondition for the right to initiate one’s children and constituted a prestigious ceremony until the practice was renounced by the modernizers and a ban on marking one’s children in this way was introduced. Those who were interested, and had the means, would undergo the kiama othaa ordeal, or its Christian version, and then join the club of the njuri ncheke. The fusion of the new grades for boys and “warriors” with those of the njuri eventually created a multi-layered scale, beginning with the non-initiate grades and ending with that of the “Winnowed” that, with its rigorous entry conditions, was reached by only a very small minority or even—it is rumored today—by nobody at all. Because of this quasi-inaccessibility, there were attempts to take advantage of the generational rite of the mwariki-the Accomplished. Some tried to make membership of the njuri a precondition to the performance of these rites by calling mwariki the highest grade of the njuri. These attempts were never successful, but mwariki evolved, and became dissociated from the piercing of the ears of grandchildren before that ritual disappeared. In Tigania the Igembe mwariki, which was more costly and thus more prestigious, replaced the ithûngi. At the same time, the offerings required to become mwariki gradually increased, making the ritual prohibitively expensive and creating two grades within the mwariki: the ariki ba matû, “ariki of the ears” who carried out the gûtura matû of grandchildren, and the ariki ba naichû or “ariki of honey wine”, the higher grade. This division of grades was not unrelated to the increase in polygyny among the Ithalie and Michubu. Whereas formerly it had been necessary to have initiated all one’s children in order to become mwariki, this condition was renegotiated by polygynous fathers at the cost of an increase in the required offerings and the appearance of new grades. This expansion has now had a reverse effect and is contributing to the disappearance of the grade and its ritual: children, under the influence of Christians who see the mwariki as a vestige of enduring paganism, prevent their parents from arranging the ritual, reasoning that it would be better to convert and pay school fees or to save money for buying medication and getting through difficult periods. This economical assessment reflects a change in the way wealth and prestige are outwardly displayed, and was eventually also applied to initiation into the njuri and the extravagant expenditure of bulls and food required.

59Such endless adjustments to the grades --or better the “steps” in kimeru parlance-- testify to changes in fashion and to a penchant for initiatory activities; these are festive moments that constitute a break with tedious daily routine and allow people to take stock of their position and relations within the community, a role that is now usually assumed by marriage celebrations and that has also filtered into the independent Churches movement. This ludic element and the desire to distinguish and develop oneself coexist with more hidden or suppressed aspects, relating to conflicts revealed or generated by the rituals. The neo-initiation of boys and men has stirred up rivalries between supporters of the njuri, who have sought to appropriate and control the entire initiatory hierarchy, and ordinary people who remained attached to the methods and rituals of preceding generations. Behind this war of rituals where men have disputed the underlying nature of male identity, there has been a concurrent set of movements regarding the future of girls and women, their own initiatory hierarchy, and their place within the new power system and economic dynamics that emerged following colonial conquest.

Ill. 17a & b — First heritagisation of African dances, above: Imenti big girls/young women, below: Imenti “warriors”, Meru town, 1961

Ill. 17a & b — First heritagisation of African dances, above: Imenti big girls/young women, below: Imenti “warriors”, Meru town, 1961

Photos by Alastair Mateson.


1  In 1908, Captain Bois (dc/mbt. 1. 1908-1932) undertook a tour of the region in order to draw up an inventory of resources and population, and made a rough description of the tribes located between Mount Kenya and the Nyambene Hills. He describes the power of the kiama, records the names of the main territorial sections and estimates the likely number of warriors in each. He perceived the warriors as particularly physically able. Under the heading ‘Meru as porters’, Bois explains: “The Meru themselves now that they have seen the strength of the government are not inclined to give trouble. The Elmoran [the warriors] are sent in by their chiefs to act as porters, when called upon to do so, or to work in the station [the Meru outpost]. As porters, in a few years time, I consider they will be amongst the best porters to be obtained in British East Africa as even now, with loads varying from 40 to 50 lbs, which they carry on their heads or shoulders, they are able to march 16-20 miles at an average rate of 3 miles an hour.” In the same period, J. Roscoe (1911: 30), judging the Baganda to be good porters, estimated that they were able to carry thirty pounds per day a distance of thirty miles. A sound econometric evaluation of human energy!

2  The administrator here confuses initiation into a set with promotion within a set to the grade of member of the kiama or Father of the country.

3  A. Legesse (1979) has noted comparable explanations among the Borana in connection with the 1973 eclipse.

4  This famine is known as Kîgwata mûtu: “I was given corn flour”, because of the aid which was distributed in the form of a kind of flour widely consumed from that point on.

5  In an article published after this work was completed, a historian (Thomas 1998) sheds interesting light on the motives and uncertainty behind colonial policy regarding clitoridectomy and abortion in Kenya and the Meru District.

6  In their reports, the commissioners note the changes of generation seen in Imenti and extrapolate for the remainder of the District, a procedure which is the source of some error and confusion because, in addition to the differences in names for sets, the ntuiko occur more frequently in Mount Kenya divisions than in Nyambene ones. Here we have restored the appropriate chronology for the Tigania-Igembe.

7  It is not possible to cite all the references that support these explanations. Much of the data is disseminated in the colonial archives, which have already been discussed, and as explained in the introduction, only a cross-checking between the informants and the archives made it possible to benefit from the latter. The same applies to other works which will be cited in due course. In any case, ethnographic data is our primary source, and oral accounts our starting point for further investigation into written records— contrary to historiography, which favors written sources first and relies on a bounded number of interviews.

8  Which is not to say non-existent, contrary to a prudish rumor Fadiman (1993: 147-149) clearly chose to echo. Confusing sexuality with procreation, the rumor claimed that the warriors and their nkenye were formerly chaste, and ceased to be so when they took on Kikuyu practices that had spread following colonial conquest. Refer to the ritual of ntigiri (Ch. 6).

9  This is reminiscent of the Evu studied by Louis Mallart (1981).

10  The Morris Carter Commission on land settlement and rights in Kenya also had consequences particularly noticeable in Imenti, a division that was closer than others to the decision-making centers.

11  The information gathered during my research and in the colonial archives is supplemented by the fourteen interviews carried out on this subject by J. Kinyua (1970) in Imenti, a division where the designation and organization of grades are notably different, as well as the data spread throughout Kangoi (1972: 1, 7, 14, 16) and in the short account of the lawyer Rimita (1988). If one scours for it, information is also available in the work of Fadiman (1993); however, the author, who mainly conducted research within the Mount Kenya divisions, reproduced the erroneous method applied to Mbwaa when dealing with the njuri ncheke.

12  The somewhat surprising confession of their faults could lead one to hypothesize that, at some point in the past, former criminals may have been recruited to the njuri —similar to the healing associations, to which new initiates are recruited by former invalids.

13  The members of the njuri are in some ways reminiscent of the Vaya elders studied by D. Parkin (1991: 151-156) among the Giriama.

14  In addition to the archives and the sources already cited, mention must be made of the research of J. T. Kamunchulu on the Meru Mau Mau which led to a B.A. dissertation (1973) and an article (1975).

15  The decision to construct the Meru ethnographic museum dates from this period.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 33 — Calendar of events since the 1908 colonial conquest
Légende * or Kobai, or Murungî.Remind that, from Ratanya onwards, generation nthukî have become initiatory categories, meaning the end of the nthukî as a generational system!
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
Titre Ill. 16 — Old man with njuri ncheke markings, 1970s
Crédits Photo by Gordon Boy.
Fichier image/jpeg, 196k
Titre Ill. 36a — Monuments in honor of the njuri ncheke, Meru town, 1988
Crédits Photos by Anne-Marie Peatrik.
Fichier image/jpeg, 342k
Titre Ill. 18 — Surrender of Mwariama (left), leader of the Nyambene Hills’ Mau Mau, to Mbio Koinange (middle) a representative of Jomo Kenyatta, Ciokaraine is on the right, Meru town, probably December 1963
Crédits Republic of Kenya, Ministry of Information.
Fichier image/jpeg, 173k
Titre Ill. 19 — Mwariama at a public meeting, Tigania, between 1965 and 1969
Crédits Photo by Andrew Botta.
Fichier image/jpeg, 193k
Titre Ill. 17a & b — First heritagisation of African dances, above: Imenti big girls/young women, below: Imenti “warriors”, Meru town, 1961
Crédits Photos by Alastair Mateson.
Fichier image/jpeg, 275k

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