This is a response and dedicated to aiding/enhancing Sister Elikem's post on the Meru people. Oral Myth: Mbwaa and the Red People "The predominant oral tradition concerning the Meru's early history is a fantastic fable that seems to combine elements of both truth and fiction. In brief, it recounts that the Meru were once enslaved by the "Red People". They eventually escaped, and in their exodus came across a large body of water called Mbwaa or Mbwa, which they crossed by magical means. The details of the tradition are replete with parallels to the Old Testament, and also contain references to events described in the New Testament. This has led many to speculate that the Meru are perhaps the descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, or that they were once Jewish, or had been in profound cultural contact with a people that certainly were (such as the Falashim of Ethiopia). I've based the following version of the tradition on that recounted in Daniel Nyaga's book, Customs and Traditions of the Meru (1997: East African Educational Publishers, PO Box 45314 Nairobi). Although there are many variants, the basic outline is pretty much the same for all." The Red People and the Exodus "According to tradition, the Meru once lived in a state of slavery far away from their present homeland, under a people called antu ba nguu ntuune (or nhuuntune or nguo ntuni, meaning "Red People" or "Red Clothes"). The king of the Red People was powerful and often harsh upon his subjects, but no one knows for sure who the Red people actually were. If we take 'red' to refer to skin colour, then these people were most likely Arabs, for the Europeans had not yet arrived in East Africa. If 'red' refers to dress, however, then their identity if anyone's guess, especially as the Maasai, Samburu and other Nilotic tribes - who are nowadays known for wearing red - only adopted that tradition a century or so ago. The place where the Meru were enslaved has also not yet been convincingly located. Some say that it was called Mbwa or Mbwaa (the same name given by other versions of the myth for the body of water the Meru later crossed); others suggest that it may have been Mbwara Matanga on the western peninsula of Manda Island in the Lamu archipelago, off the northeast coast of Kenya; others still posit that it may have been in Yemen or in some other place on the other side of the Red Sea. Whatever the exact location, this state of bondage lasted until the leader of the Red People started killing all the Meru's male children immediately after birth. But one child, apparently very handsome, escaped this fate, having been kept hidden in the riverside in a basket his mother had made. As a result, the prodigal child became known as Mwithe, the Hidden One. Mwithe, who also became known as Koomenjwe (Koomenjoe) and Muthurui, grew up to become a very great prophet, and was known as one who had spoken to God. Assisted by another elder called Kauro-Beechau, Mwithe organized a council of wise elders to lead the Meru out of bondage. They went to the leader of the Red People and asked to be set free. The leader agreed, but on condition that an impossible task be successfully performed by the Meru. This task required them to produce a shoe that had hair on both sides. As shoes were normally made from leather, this took some thinking, until Koomenjwe told the people to cut the dewlap of a bull. Before it was completely severed, it was stitched on the side that had been cut. By the time the bull recovered, the lap had made the shoe that was required. But when they took it to their masters, it was rejected and the Meru were given a second task. This was to provide a steer (or an ox) that produced diatomite (a very fine chalk). Koomenjwe advised them to feed a calf on milk, and eventually it started passing out white dung. Some versions of the myth have it the other way around: the steer was to produce white dung, and so they fed it on chalk; yet another version replaces the ox with an elephant. Nonetheless, the successful completion of the task was also rejected by the Red People, and they were given a third task to do. This required them to remove a fruit from a very deep pit, without piercing it or having anyone descend into the pit to pick it up. Koomenjwe advised them to fill the pit with water until it overflowed, and the fruit floated out. Though it succeeded, this test was also rejected. The next test required them to kill all the elders until their blood flowed like run-off during rains. Koomenjwe advised that the elders be hidden and all old livestock - cows, goats, sheep and donkeys - be killed instead. When that was done their blood was enough to flow as the enemies wanted. But the success of this test was not accepted either. The fifth test was truly impossible. It required the Meru to forge a spear that could touch both the earth and the sky. The Meru started making it straight away, but it kept breaking. Koomenjwe and the elders, failing to come up with a solution, simply abandoned the whole task of making it, and instead conceived the idea of organizing the people to escape on foot. For this reason, the Meru later on called this spear itumo ria mwito (the spear made for the trek), for it was the impossibility of making it that had given them the idea of the exodus. In order to have an opportunity to make good their escape, Koomenjwe went to ask the Red People to give them eight days to complete the task. He said the Meru were making charcoal from people's hair because it was the type of charcoal that was required to make the spear. The enemies granted the request. Koomenjwe organized the first group of old people, because they could not walk fast, and they were grouped together with the older livestock that had remained. The second group was made up of mothers and children, and the third group consisted of young people and young livestock. Keeping the rear were the warriors, well armed and ready for battle. The three groups were, according to some versions, the ancestors of the three main Meru clans from which all other clans descend. The exodus took place at night. The warriors collected a very big heap of dry dung and animal droppings and set it on fire with all the houses. Meanwhile, Koomenjwe had gone to explain to the masters that the fire they were seeing was being used for making the spear which would be ready by noon the following day. After that, he returned. The following day the enemies waited for the spear, but it was never brought. The Meru had gone." Mbwaa and the great sacrifice "During their exodus, the Meru reached a very large body of water which they called Mbwaa (or Mbwa). Here, they suffered a lot (presumably from their pursuers, or possibly from malnourishment), so much so that a sacrifice had to be made to seek answers, as these could be read from entrails. There are two main versions of this sacrifice. The first has it that the Meru elders went to a prophet called Mugwe for help (whose name later became the word to describe all prophets and leaders). Mugwe asked for three young men to sacrifice themselves. The three who volunteered were named Gaita, Kiuma and Muthetu, after whom the three main Meru clans are named (all other clans stem from these). When the sacrifice had been concluded, Mugwe instructed the people on how to escape successfully. He placed them under the leadership of Koomenjwe to whom he gave a magic stick or spear (gitumo) about three feet long, with which he was to strike the water to make it part. The second main version of the sacrifice story says that by then, Koomenjwe was called Muthurui, and it was he who came up with a solution. He had carried out his divination by examining the entrails of cows, goats and other animals, but all without success. As he wondered what to do, it dawned on him that the situation could only be saved by examining the entrails of a human being. He said: "Let someone be examined." The elders asked: "Who is going to be examined?" Muthurui begged to be given one person from each family so that if a person from one family failed to give an answer, the next one could be examined. Muthurui's brother offered himself and said: "I am ready to be sacrificed." Muthurui asked: "Who is going to be his mathinjiro?" (slaughtering leaves or an altar). Another person volunteered and said: "I will be the one." Again, Muthurui asked: "In case the first person is not accepted by God, who else will be offered?" Another said: "I am ready." Then another person volunteered to provide milk for washing the entrails, and another person provided a string with which the volunteer had to be stitched, and yet another person - having conceived the idea that the first person might fear the operation - went to cut sticks to flog him if he did so. When everything was ready, Muthurui operated on his brother, and got the answer he was looking for. Surprisingly enough, Muthurui's brother did not die. He had only his intestines mounted and stitched, and thereafter was called Murorua."