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Chapter III Mount Kenya Traditions: Fragmentation and War
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Maa Speakers: Il Tikirri, Il Maasai

Contact with the third non-Bantu language group, the Maa-speaking peoples, occurred during the warrior years of Githarie, Michubu, and Ratanya age-sets (1750s—1780s), after the pre-Meru clans had seized control of both Mount Kenya's lower forests and Tigania Plain. Contemporary Meru refer both to the Maa language and those who speak


it as Uru, a term including the pastoral Maasai proper, those among them who have adopted agriculture, and specific Ogiek groups that have adopted their linguistic, cattle-keeping, and military orientation. The Maasai themselves refer to those who share their language—currently six tribes—as Ol Maa (the Maa speakers). Within that community they classify all members as either pastoral (11 Maasai) or agricultural (Il Oikop).[25]

Detailed examination of Meru relations with both pastoral and agricultural Maasai communities is beyond this chapter's scope. Suffice to say that every Meru region came under intermittent attack from both types, as well as their Ogiek imitators, from the time the Ngaa reached Mount Kenya until the era of colonial control. Warriors of every age-set fought often with "fierce Uru," and descriptions of these battles make up the bulk of every oral history in the Meru region.

Notwithstanding, more detailed analysis suggests that these Uru raiders were not always Maasai proper, but Maa-speaking Ogiek. Traditions from Tigania, for instance, report first contacts with Maa-speaking raiders as early as the 1730s, when the men of the Mukuruma age-set fought the Muoko to possess the plain. In this instance their foes were the Il Tikirri and Mumunyot, who raided Muoko from the north at the same time Tiganians pressed them from the south.

The subsequent dissolution of the Muoko placed the three remaining peoples into contact, at a time when the Tiganians had absorbed the greater portion of the former Muoko herds. Because both sides valued cattle, conflict soon began. The first attacks by both Maa raiders were successful, causing great loss in the Tiganian herds. The Mumunyot, however, were unable to hold their ground, as a series of fierce Tigania raids drove them from the plain.

The Il Tikirri reacted differently, forming an alliance with several Tigania clans that prohibited mutual raiding. This brought a time of peace, broken by Tiganian warriors of the following age-set, who sought their own glory at the expense of 11 Tikirri herds. This pattern of alliance and attack may have recurred, for the 11 Tikirri also found themselves forced northward off the plain, and they retreated finally beyond the Oasu-Nyiro River to Tigania's north. Here they remained, however, a seasonal threat to Tiganian herds, thereby setting the pattern for Meru-Maa relations for decades to come.

Contact with the Maasai proper occurred some time in the mid-1700s, when "Ratanya and Githangaria [in Imenti] were warriors," (1760s—1780s?), when Meru moving uphill into the Katheri region of


contemporary North Imenti became aware of Uru on the other side of the forest that lay to their west. The evidence suggests that Maa-speaking groups of cultivators (11 Oikop) had occupied the grasslands of Northeast Imenti and were moving around a forest barrier that separated them from the advancing Meru.

The two sides fought with results comparable to those in Tigania. A period of raiding began, in which each side strove to seize the other's flocks and herds. Outnumbered, the Maasai were pushed off the grasslands and moved northeast onto the arid plain. There, however, they remained, regarding the Imenti as seasonal prey, in the same way the 11 Tikirri had viewed the Tigania. Each dry season they would appear to harry the herds, and every age-set fought them in its turn.

The Maasai, however, also came in times of peace, often sending women to exchange milk for sugarcane or millet. This led in turn to the exchange of brides and the emergence of kinship between certain Maasai and Meru clans. The Meru refer to this condition as gichiaro , or "birth," implying the birth of a relationship between two sides. The Maasai call it a seriani (peace), a condition that can occur only with groups with whom they have exchanged livestock and wives.[26] The exchange creates a condition of kinship that serves to prohibit further attacks, lest the blood of "brothers" be shed.

This kinship could also be created through adopting Maasai as "sons." Within Northeast Imenti, Igembe, and Tigania this occurred through capture. Warriors taken in battle were held until ransomed by kin. If no ransom was paid, they could be speared or adopted into their captor's clan. Adoption took place during every age-set, with significant numbers of Maasai joining clans in Tigania. Adoption was by oath, in which the captive became "son" to the warrior who captured him. Having become ritually absorbed into his "father's" age-set, he was free to raid any group with whom he had no ties, whether by blood or created by ritual.

In consequence many Maasai settled easily among the northern Meru subtribes. Their impact was particularly strong among the Tigania. Living on a lava grassland that offered no shelter from attack, Tiganians had no choice but to develop a system of continual preparedness if they were to survive. The Maasai model, based on circumcision, age-sets, a standing force of warriors, and ten years' duty in a war hut, fully met their needs.[27]

Warriors in every Meru region, however, adopted aspects of Maasai warfare: styles of dress, decoration, and weaponry, including long


spearheads, wooden clubs, and buffalo-skin shields. A more striking aspect of this adaptation, however, was how certain segments of the Meru began to see themselves. The change was sharpest in Tigania, particularly among clans settling in the regions of Kianjahi and perhaps Muthara. Over time warriors from these regions began to perceive themselves as Uru, and referred to the forest peoples of Igembe, Imenti, and all other regions to their south as kangiri (little diggers), a pejorative word for cultivator. In short, earlier feelings of common ancestry were steadily eroded, replaced by purely Maasai conceptions linking contempt for agriculture, pursuit of cattle, proof of manhood and personal honor to the waging of a seasonal, highly stylized method of war.

This same transformation took place, to a lesser degree, in every other Meru region that absorbed Maasai. In consequence, during the last half of the 1700s, a new dimension of war emerged in which the Meru did battle not only with raiders from outside their region but also with one another as well, seeking their neighbors' herds with the same courage and enthusiasm they had formerly reserved for foes. Gradually the entire region engaged in internecine warfare, governed by convention and limited in intensity, but so deeply rooted in the Meru way of life that it endured until the advent of colonialism.

It can be argued, on the basis of existing oral evidence, that contact with Maa-speaking peoples has proven one of the dominant events in Meru history, and one which requires additional investigation. The Maasai, for example, may have given the Meru-speaking peoples their contemporary name.[28] Imenti traditions suggest that the forests of their region were called Miru (or Meiru) by Maa-speaking peoples of the plains, a term that was also given to those who lived within them.

In the major Maasai dialects the word carries a double connotation: a place where people do not hear (speak) the Maasai language (and who are therefore deaf and dumb); and a cold place that is silent (dead) and still (i.e., a forest, which Maasai find repellent). When the earliest migrants entered the "silent and still" forests of Mount Kenya, they may simply have adopted the name given to the region by adjacent occupants of the plains. To the surrounding pastoral communities the Meiru would have become a forest people, "silent and still," in that they spoke no language heard upon the plains. This would certainly correspond to the pattern in which groups entering the three southern regions (-imbe, -ambe, -oji ) as well as Igembe (-mbe ) may each have adopted previously existing Tharaka designations for the areas they chose. It may also shed light on the origins of the Meru people of Tan-


zania, also a Bantu-speaking people living in a mountain forest, who may have accepted the term given to their region by the Maa-speaking Maasai and Arusha who lived at the mountain's base. In all events, only after years of contact with the Maasai raiders did the former migrants of Ngaa perceive themselves as Meru.


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Chapter III Mount Kenya Traditions: Fragmentation and War
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