The Meru People

Millett, Katherine


Book ID 499

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Millett, Katherine The Meru People, 2001
Extract Author: Katherine Millett
Extract Date: 14 June 2001

The Meru People

"2001 by Katherine Millett and Thomson Safaris, Inc.

A quiet revolution

In villages on the slopes of Mt. Meru, a quiet revolution is taking place: women are starting cottage industries to make and sell goods; groups of families are buying technology for all to use; children are going to school. The Wameru have forged bonds with the larger world that might surprise the English colonial officer who visited them in 1936 and observed only that they lived on "meat, milk, bananas, maize" and "do not migrate much to the coast."

The Meru people, known as the "Wameru" in Bantu, settled around the base of Mt. Meru in the 17th century. So did the Warusha, for whom East Africa's Arusha District is named. Today, members of these two ethnic groups still live in small villages at the western edge of Arusha National Park. Traditionally, the Wameru have been farmers, and the Warusha, like their Maasai relatives, have herded cattle.

Mama Anna's farm

When Laura Hoenig of Connecticut visited the Wameru in 2001, she spent a day in a small village and sampled cheese and butter made at Mama Anna's farm. ("Mama" is an honorific like "Mrs." and does not necessarily signify motherhood.) The farm serves as headquarters for the Usangi Women's Group. Its members, entrepreneurial women who see their future in education and economic self-help, welcome visitors to their farms and the banks of the Marisha River, where colorful birds and mischievous monkeys play.

"They were very hospitable," Hoenig said. "They took great pride in the farm and the lunch they cooked for us, and they seemed genuinely interested in having visitors." When Hoenig and her group from Thomson Safaris arrived at the farm, they found women grinding coffee beans or grain in large, wooden mortars, using pestles the size of broomsticks. After the Meru women had served a lunch of rice and vegetables, a man who may have been Mama Anna's husband took their guests to see the farm's residential buildings. These were simple brick or wood-frame structures with one or two rooms and tin roofs. Around the houses, cows, goats and chickens lived in barns and pens.

Foreign aid

Many Meru people are taking advantage of foreign aid projects like low-interest loans to help them start businesses. The assistance they receive helps them acquire and care for a cow, or buy flour and yeast to make the first few batches of bread, or get a sewing machine and thread. Assistance is also available for skill training and the marketing and transportation of finished goods.

As a point person for assistance programs, Mama Anna seems to occupy an important place in the community. She teaches other women to make cheese and butter. She participates in the Heifer Project, an international program that gives young cows to farmers with the understanding that they will give the cow's offspring to their neighbors. Some of the women who now milk and breed heifers they received from Mama Anna also congregate at her farm to enjoy each other's company while they separate the milk for cheese, churn butter, gossip and sing.

At one edge of Mamma Anna's farm, Mrs. Hoenig noticed a tank that is used to covert farmyard dung to methane gas. The fermentation process is so easy and inexpensive that biogas tanks are becoming increasingly popular in farming areas around Tanzania. The Wameru use the gas for cooking.

Unusual customs

Unusual customs govern the naming of Meru babies. Writing about her own name, the Meru-American woman Ireri Mukami explained that the first boy born in a Meru family is named for the husband's father, the first girl for his mother. The second boy is named for the mother's father, the second girl for her mother, and so on, moving to the parents' brothers and sisters as sources of names. So Mukami was named Washuka after her grandmother, but she could not be called by her real name. It would be disrespectful, according to custom, to use a living woman's name for her namesake. The younger Washuka, therefore, was given the nickname "Mukami" because it means "one who milks cows," and milking was something her grandmother liked to do.

Like the "real" names of the Wameru, which are kept secret, the traditions of Meru culture may remain hidden from outsiders, beyond the reach of German and then English colonizers, beyond missionaries of the Evangelical Lutheran church, and beyond modern government administrators. The Wameru cheerfully welcome visitors to their homes, nevertheless, to appreciate their way of life and call them by their nicknames.

Extract ID: 3167