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Symbiosis and transformation in Kenya's Meru District

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Symbiosis and transformation in Kenya's Meru District
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Goldsmith, Paul, 1952-
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African culture ( jstor )
Agricultural land ( jstor )
Agriculture ( jstor )
Clans ( jstor )
Coffee industry ( jstor )
Commercial production ( jstor )
Crops ( jstor )
Farmers ( jstor )
Farms ( jstor )
Highlands ( jstor )
Anthropology thesis, Ph. D
Dissertations, Academic -- Anthropology -- UF
City of Gainesville ( local )
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bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

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Thesis:
Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1995.
Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 201-219).
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Also available online.
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Typescript.
General Note:
Vita.
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by Paul Goldsmith.

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SYMBIOSIS AND TRANSFORMATION IN KENYA'S MERU DISTRICT


BY


PAUL GOLDSMITH











A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY.


UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA

1994


,UN:.V.r..:, -Y OF ', L.-. B I ,















DEDICATED TO GEORGE SMARDON

WHO TAUGHT PATIENCE THROUGH EXAMPLE










ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


This dissertation represents the culmination of many individual efforts. It was
funded by the Social Science Research Council. The Rockefeller Foundation provided
supplementary assistance for the collection of soil data, which although it does not
appear here, also contributed to the overall study by financing an additional round of
revisits to farms in the survey. I also received invaluable material and moral support
from members of my family and friends at several critical points on the way towards
completing the final product.
The chairman of my committee, Professor Ronald Cohen, provided steady and
untiring intellectual stimulation and guidance. To this I would add the example of
uncompromised theoretical leadership of Professor Marvin Harris, the conceptual
acumen of Professor Rene Lemarchand, and the uniquely sincere application of
intellectual ideas to African phenomena Professor Goran Hyden represents. Professor
Art Hansen also provided a supportive and practical angle on the overall enterprise, and
Professor R. Hunt Davis and Professor Peter Schmidt deserve important credit for their
institutional and personal support.
I benefited from an informal Meru think tank on Igembe development while in the
field. Its members included James Laiboni, Joel Kamincha, Samweli Meemee, Elias
Maitheta, Stanley Karunga, Gitonga M'Limung'i, Ngolwa M'Limung'i, Mutabari
M'Limung'i, and countless other local intellectuals operating from different
occupational niches in Meru and other parts of Kenya. Bashir Abdi, Peter Mbabu and
Yusuf Ahmed of Meru Mutindwa provided helpful background on different issues
ranging from local trees to Meru-Somali relations in Isiolo and the Northern Frontier
District. Osman Malta M'Mutunga of Majengo was an invaluable source of information
for the contemporary miraa trade; other Meru elders including Yusuf Mucheke and
Shabaan Hassan Manua contributed information on the historical development of the
miraa trade.
The District Officer for Igembe Division, Mr. Wandiama, warrants special mention
as the kind of unsung leader on the grassroots-administrative interface that rarely
receive the attention they deserve. Professor H.W.O.Okoth Ogendo provided
invaluable institutional support, and accepted me as a research associate at Nairobi
University's Institute for Population Study and Research. Mr. Mani of the National
Council for Science and Technology and Mr. Kibuna of the Office of the President
assisted me with official clearance without which the field study would have remained
stillborn. Professor David Gordon, of USAID's REDSO office in Nairobi helped with










input on my questionnaires, which were based on International Insitute for Tropical
Agriculture survey instruments Professor Abe Goldman was kind enough to share with
me.
The librarians and staff at the Kenya National Archives, USIA library, and at the
International Center for Agroforestry Research all opened their facilities to my use and
made me feel welcome. Dr. Anthony Kinyua of Nairobi University's Center for
Nuclear Science Techniques provided a steady institutional base and feedback over the
duration of the study. I should also mention the divisional agricultural staff in Maua for
their cooperation in the field. The views and encouragement of my colleague, Dr.
Bashir Jama, also warrant acknowledgement, as does the exposure to tropical
agriculture that I received from Professors Hugh Popenoe, Robert Conrad, Ken Buhr,
and P.K. Nair at the University of Florida's Institute for Food and Agricultural
Science.
I thank my mother, Ms. Joan Smardon, my wife Safiya Usama, and my children for
their invaluable support, tolerance, and understanding in various ways. I am also
grateful to Peter Sokol and Jill Dygert for their practical assistance during the final
period of the work in progress. Ahmed Samatar of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory,
Robert Comes, and Dr. Dorothy Edwards of the Washington University School of
Occupational Therapy provided invaluable computer support during the final stages of
write-up. Carol Lauriault's editorial and qualitative inputs were critical in seeing the
project's fruition from its initial conception to putting the document in its final form.
Peter O'Malley provided stimulation from New Orleans. Andrew Goldsmith, George
Thirikwa, Ali "Mwarabu" Mohammed, David Tomlinson, and Peter Brinkwart kept the
wheels rolling. Finally, like so many others who have tread this path before me, I
thank Professor Gwen Carter for her support and inspiration.












TABLE OF CONTENTS


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS iii

ABSTRACT viii


CHAPTERS

1 CULTURE, SYSTEM, AND SYMBIOSIS IN MERU 1

The Meru Peoples 3
Anthropological Research in the New Canaan 7
Feedback from the Field 10
Defining Development 13
The Cultural Endowment Problem 17

2 PROBLEMS, CONSTRAINTS, AND ADAPTATION 20

The Empirical Problem:
Population, Agricultural Systems, and Polity 20
The Evolution of the State 22
Problem Solving and Paradigms 28
Anthropological Research Traditions 29
Analyzing Social Systems 32
The Culture Problem 35
Culture and Cultural Endowment 37
Culture, Feedback, and Social Learning 39
Symbiosis 40
Coevolutionary Processess 43

3 KURIA! A BRIEF HISTORY OF CULTURALLY
SUSTAINED MERU LAND AND RESOURCE USE 46

Sustainability and Cultural Adaptation 48
Kuria: The Meru Definition of Sustainability 49
Precolonial Dynamics 50
Maasai-Meru Relations 53
The Nyambene Meru 55
The Meru Cultural Endowment 57
The Njuri Ncheke 58
Age-Set Organization 61
Clans, Kinship, and the Gichiaro Social Risk-Spreading
Mechanism 64
The Aathi Cultural Ideology 66
The Njuri in Transition 70
Njuri Ncheke-British Administration Cooperation 72








The Nyambene Farming System 75
Modern Dynamics of Nyambene Meru Cultural Institutions 78


4 THE COMMERCIALIZATION OF NYAMBENE
AGRICULTURE 86
Precolonial Trade Networks 86
The Decline of Pastoralist Power 87
The Impact of Ivory on Regional Trade Networks 88
Late Nineteenth Century Environmental Catastrophes 89
The British Influence 91
The Rise of Miraa as a Commercial Commodity 93
Social Aspects of Miraa Consumption 95
The Socioeconomic Context of Miraa Production 97
The Nyambene Range and The Meru Farming System 99
The Development of the Miraa Trade 103
Igembe Control of the Urban Trade 107
The International Miraa Trade 109
Miraa And Rural Development 114
Cash-Crops in Comparative Perspective 115

5 NYAMBENE AGRICULTURE AND
AGRO-ECOLOGICAL ZONES 113

The Resilience of the Igembe System 120
Agronomic Aspects of Miraa Production 123
The Land Variables in Nyambene Small farm Production 128
Crops and Cultivars 133
Indigenous Agroforestry 135
Technological Innovations 137
Livestock 138
Constraints and Inputs 141
Production and Income 145

6 COMMERCIALIZATION AND ECOZONE SYMBIOSIS 149

The Meru Lowlands in Perspective 150
Kenya's Agricultural Policy
Commercialization and Ecozone Symbiosis 152
Sectoral Goals for Kenyan Agriculture 153
Ecozone Symbiosis 161
Local Linkages 162
Markets and the Dynamics of Technological Change in the
Nyambenes 164
Production Markets 165
Crop Differentials 168
Market Influences: The Case of Sorghum 172
Consumer and Input Markets 173
Consumption Trends and Household Expenditures 178
Social Dynamics: Cultural Endowment and Social Learning 180
Formal and Informal Group Membership 182
African Developmental Processes Revisited 184










7 CONCLUSION: FEEDBACK AND TRANSFORMATION 187

African Developmental Processes Revisited 187
The Resilience of African Agriculture 189
The State and Local Systems 193
Fission and Fusion 193
Fusionary Forces: Culture Revisited 195
The Urban Ecozone and Generational Dynamics Revisited 197

REFERENCES 200
Biographical Sketch 220















Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy


SYMBIOSIS AND TRANSFORMATION IN KENYA'S MERU DISTRICT


By

Paul Goldsmith

April 1994



Chairman: Ronald Cohen
Major Department: Department of Anthropology

This study addresses processes of agricultural systems development in Meru
District. The study demonstrates how local African societies coevolve in a manner
where populations adapt, specialize, merge, and diverge in various ways that allows
new forms of social and economic organization to emerge over time. This
coevolutionary dynamic links the Igembe Meru to their past while projecting their
developmental processes into the future. Meru environmental history reflects how
variation across ecological zones influences a number of social micro-adaptations. The
Meru agricultural system evolved through continuous cultural symbiosis of hunter-
gather. pastoral, and agricultural groups. Ethnicity followed group eco-niche
specialization, favoring exchange across ecological zones and the rise of regional trade
networks. The Nyambene Meru system featured in this study served as the hub of an
extensive trade network spanning the region between Mt. Kenya and the southern Lake
Turkana area, continues to demonstrate a high level of biodiversity, adaptive responses
to modem market phenomena, and cultural institutions that embody their indigenous,
cross-generational concept of social sustainability within the contemporary context of
capitalist-led change. Local systems adapting incrementally contribute in turn to the
processes of transformation on the national level, just as macro-level developments
create possibilities on the local level.


viii












CHAPTER 1
CULTURE, SYSTEM, AND SYMBIOSIS IN MERU

I am the Lord Almighty, and I have led you out of Egypt to the land of Ca-naan.
Holy Bible, Book of Numbers.


This study is based upon field research1 designed to investigate the commercialization of
agricultural production as the main determinant of small farm agricultural change in the
Nyambene Range, a line of hills extending in a northeastern direction from the foothills of
Mt. Kenya. The study is both an agro-economic anthropological study of how
commercialization in high potential areas influences the adjacent, semi-arid lowlands, and
an exploration of how cultural factors influence and contribute to agrarian systems. The
study demonstrates how local African societies coevolve in a manner where populations
adapt, specialize, merge, and diverge in various ways that allows new forms of social and
economic organization to emerge over time. This coevolutionary dynamic links the Igembe
Meru to their past while projecting their developmental processes into the future, and
defines the multi-sectoral nature of indigenous economy.
The Nyambene region has a rather fantastic appearance. When viewed from afar the
hills and caldera form a geometry of soft curves, angles, and conical shapes. Tropical
alpine forest caps the peaks and upper hillsides of the range. The plains below are
punctuated with lunaresque massifs dominated by the Gibraltar-like silhouette of Shaba
imposed in front of the hills of Samburu country in the distance. The local farms situated
in-between the forest and the plains resemble small jungles, a dense riot of vegetation with
the long crooked boles of mwenjela (Cussonia holstii) trees projecting above the canopies
like fringed stovepipes. The eye takes in a truly large swath of central and northern Kenya
from vantage points high in the range, and the configuration and nature of the hills
themselves appear different when viewed from various angles.
The 200,000 Igembe people, a section of the greater Meru community, inhabit the core
of this area. The Igembe rely predominantly on agriculture, supplemented by cattle and
small livestock that are pastured in the lowlands. Their farming system, based on the
region's biological diversity largely disregards technological monoculture. Access to land

1This research was funded by a doctoral research fellowship provided by the Social Science Research
Council, made possible by funds provided by Hewlett Packard.








is regulated by clans which control strips of land extending from the well-watered hills to
the dry plains. Otherwise, the criss-crossed configuration of the Meru polity and social
structure does not easily fit conventional anthropological categories of group social
evolution (c. f. Johnson and Earle 1987). The lives of the Igembe Meru are still intertwined
with important cultural institutions that have long since lapsed in other parts of Meru and
Kenya; age-sets and warrior initiation rituals, gichiaro fictive kinship relations, and local
councils of the pan-Meru parliament, the Njuri Ncheke continue to influence the daily lives
of the Igembe. The commercialization of agricultural production has not overturned the
internal order as much as it has reinforced it through cultural feedback of cross-generational
continuity and adaptation.
All of this "otherness" survives into the 1990s in the presence of homogenizing forces
of the capitalist world system, including intense commercialization of local small holder
agriculture. Indeed, the influx of "cash money," support Igembe income levels matched in
few other agricultural areas of East Africa. Unlike other small farm areas in Kenya
characterized by the lack of it, money is at least partially responsible for the unusual state of
affairs in the Igembe-inhabited core of the Nyamrnbene Range. A new dedication to "cash
money" has not displaced the role of food as a domestic currency, and as a result the
Igembe have converted the lowland areas formerly reserved for grazing to field crops. This
replaces some of the food production in the highlands lowered as their indigenous
agroforestry plots mature in a hundred year cycle. At the same time they have acquired
more cattle than they possessed before, which enhances the organic input recycling
properties of their mixed agro-silvo-pastoral agricultural system.
The local Meru munch and exchange small bunches of miraa (Catha edulis), a tree
domesticated for the mildly stimulatory qualities of its young twigs, as they go about their
work. Over the last century miraa has evolved from an accessory to traditional social
ceremony and ritual to a commercial crop that serves as the engine of the local economy.
Miraa consumption, and the increased social interaction and information exchange that
accompanies it, is an interesting subject in its own right. Miraa, as the primary commercial
crop in Igembe areas, is an important element within the local economy. Because it is also
an important social component in Nyambene society, it creates socioeconomic and
environmental feedbacks into the developmental process that are somewhat more
complicated than, for example, those associated with coffee, tea, or cotton.
Environmental differentials in the East African highlands engendered ecologically based
specialization and exchange among and within groups. Local markets in the Nyambenes
are situated mainly on the creases of ecological zones, and historically served as a magnet
attracting a number of agricultural, agro-pastoral, and nomadic pastoralists. Both this and








farmer-herdsmen conflict contributed to the Meru precolonial cultural symbiosis. The
expansion of the miraa trade has carried these cultural dynamics into the contemporary era.
Igembe traders, bottled up in the Nyambene region by the Pax Britannica, breakdown of
African regional exchange during the pre-world War H phase of British colonialism, and
the Mau Mau emergency, have through their miraa marketing networks come into contact
with a number of new social and economic landscapes: the majengo neighborhoods in
Nairobi, Mombasa, and other highland towns, the arid expanses of the Northern Frontier
District between Meru, Marsabit, and Moyale on the border of Ethiopia, and the Somali
towns of Northeastern Province. In effect, a variety of social landscapes, the Western
education system, and a steady steam of new information and ideas from urban areas feed
new forms of symbiosis. Symbiosis, in this case study, refers to the coevolutionary
outcomes resulting from the dynamic interactions, confluences, and recombinations of
technical, cultural, and institutional components of Kenya' s ethnic, organizational, and
economic pluralism. The case study strives to show through the Meru material that the
heterogeneous qualities of local adaptations in Kenya are in many ways an important legacy
that, under proper conditions, can contribute to and fuel the country's multi-sectoral
development.
Once in the field, it was soon apparent that commercialization and change within the
Igembe Meru economy, perhaps more so than many local production systems in Kenya and
Africa, cannot be understood without examining the interactions and complementary
relationship between culture and agriculture. The system is therefore referred to at various
points in this study as the Nyambene cultural and agricultural system. This makes the
Nyambene case study more complex, but also, hopefully, interesting and potentially
valuable for comparison with the typical account of small farm commercialization in Africa.
Linguists often repeat the methodological maxim, "no contrast, no information." Perhaps
the most useful aspect of this study is that it does provide a contrasting trajectory of social
development, agricultural innovation, and cultural adaptation when compared to other
examples of African agrarian change involving the production of other world market
commodities and marketing through their organizational structures.
A brief map of where the following pages take one may assist the reader in following
the scheme of this work in progress. This initial chapter is a thematic exposition of the
study's context: the broad theoretical issues, the cultural, historical, and environmental
backdrop of the study, and references to how we go about the study of African societies.
The second chapter provides a more specific treatment of the empirical and conceptual
problems addressed, and the theoretical framework for their analysis. Chapters three and
four provide several perspectives on the historical, cultural, and economic development of








the system up to the present. The micro data on the Nyambene farming system and the
conclusions on ecozone symbiosis do not appear until chapters six and seven. Finally, in
chapter seven, I conclude by placing the case study within the larger macro context of
socioeconomic change and transformation in Kenya.

The Meru Peoples


The Meru are a Bantu speaking people consisting of eight groups united by common
history, culture, and social institutions. The Meru sometimes refer to the fecund country
on the northeastern fringe of Kenya' s central highlands where they live as the New
Canaan, after the Biblical promised land. There are a number of parallels between the flight
of the Israelites from Egypt and the story of how the Meru entered their own promised land
some three hundred years ago. The proto-Meru fled Mbowa, their coastal homeland, to
escape the oppression of the "Nguo Ntune," or "antu meria," red-clothed, light colored
overlords (probably the Portuguese). The Nguo Ntune attempted to enslave them by
posing three riddles, the elders solved the first two, but after they were confounded by the
third, the Mbowans plotted their escape. The Mbowa story makes them to this day wary
of divulging information to light skinned outsiders.
Three groups of clans resulted from the original flight. The white clans escaped during
the day, the black clans fled under the cover of night, and the red clans slipped away at
sunrise. These clans trekked across the dry hinterland as one group led by a heroic leader
named Komenjue. They crossed the Tana River by felling a Mugumu tree (Ficus
natalensis) large enough to span the river. Not long after this the proto-Meru clans
divided into several different groups, and moved up the foothills of Mt. Kenya and the
Nyambenes. The Meru "tribes" retained a large degree of their post-Mbowa unity by
emphasizing their common origin, culture, and language. This is reinforced through
institutions such as the Njuri Ncheke parliament and the religious authority of the Mugwe--
a person of the highest moral character chosen in each section to set an example of virtue,
advise leaders, and sanction the social rituals of each group. Through time, the Meru
prospered, growing just as much through the incorporation of other groups as through
natural fertility increase, into a community numbering over one million people, inhabiting
the district that bears their name.
The Meru district boundaries frame an irregular and ecologically varied topography. Its
main physical features include the eastern slopes of Kirimaara, or Mt. Kenya, a rocky
corridor between its foothills and the Tana River, and the Nyambene Range, a line of
geologically younger, volcanic hills rising on the northeastern flank of Africa' s second








highest mountain. The land of the Tigania, the Igembe' s cultural "cousins," spans the
foothills of Mt. Kenya and the Nyambenes.
The Nyambene region's ecosystem spans a number of different ecozones and ecotones,
and sustains an interestingly hybrid variation on society and economy. From the 8,247
foot peak of Itiene, the highest point of the Range, to the crater of Ntonyiri, the Nyambenes
Range is a variegated, fertile, well-watered extension of the highlands of central Kenya
descending into the austere badlands of northern Kenya. The hills narrow and gradually
drop in altitude before ending in a line of spectacular volcanic caldera that taper off into an
arid and waterless plain. The fringe of rangeland bordering the northern face of
Nyambenes, stretching from Isiolo to Garba Tula is one of the driest blocks of land in
Kenya. The southeastern slopes adjoin the more humid lowland plain that becomes Meru
National Park before shading into the undifferentiated semi-arid expanse that stretches
across the Northern Frontier District (NFD) into Somalia.
From these northern plains, the Nyambenes appear as a long ridge of rounded hills
whose outer slopes are as dry as the floor of the surrounding semi-desert. Their flanks are
covered with acacias, the wiry shrubs of the Barleria family, and other dry land plants,
and several unpalatable species of Pennisetum grass. A traveler viewing the range from the
north vantage point can be surprised to find an unusually green and fertile land upon
ascending and passing into the interior of the range. From the south, in contrast, the range
appears as an extension of the fertile central Kenya highlands.
The Igembe are the northern-most section of the Meru peoples. Their land bridges these
two distinct regions of Kenya: the agricultural highlands, or "upcountry," in Kenyan
parlance, and the "NFD," a term dating back to the time when the different pastoral
populations inhabiting this expanse were administratively separated from the rest of Kenya
in the colony's Northern Frontier District. Igembe Division and the more northerly parts of
Meru District in general display the legacy of both NFD-style benign neglect and the
external influences contributing to change in the highlands. Historically, the Igembe
straddled the NFD-highland divide, and developed a symbiotic, agro-pastoral cultural
heritage. They continue to evolve through linkages to the agricultural highlands and the
pastoral lowlands, although the urban experience accumulating over the past three decades
has extended the Igembe landscape to a third distinct environment.
The Nyambene farmers in this area produce some of the world's best tea, relatively less
of Meru's highly rated coffee, the finest miraa produced anywhere, and a cornucopia of
food crops. Small farms, incorporating numerous domestically valuable shrubs and trees
blend into the lush vegetation of the valleys and hillsides. The Igembe Meru cultivate field
crops on the fringes of their sophisticated agro-forests, multi-storied, jungle-like plots of








trees, yam vines, food crops, and medicinal herbs often developed over the course of
generations. Ruminants were the main livestock component of their production system.
Exceptionally tasty and tender goats, zero-grazed on a traditional diet of miraa and
mwenjela, are a specialty of the local cuisine, fetch very high prices in local markets, and
provide a culturally-patterned pathway for the adoption of new breeds of milch cows that
are now also zero-grazed on local farms.
Previously the Igembe pastoral tradition mainly centered on grazing livestock in the
extensive lower zones stretching from the base of Mt. Kenya to the I'ombe crater, an
important magadi soda lake falling on the extreme northern corner of the district. This
magadi lake is a major intersection attracting the Meru and a number of pastoral groups
who bring their livestock there for the lake's salt and minerals.2 For the Meru, I' ombe is
more than just a source of salt. The lake shares with the Nyambene and Mt. Kenya forests
an important religious position as one of the places where God dwells.
The combined spatial-cultural legacy of Nyambene society kept European influences in
check, and the Igembe entered the post colonial period sustained by a history and
environmental adaptation that supported their independent way of life. Styles of dress
depict their capacity to absorb new elements while maintaining their own traditions.
Straddlers by nature, many Igembe wear several different hats: the cowboy hats of
"godfather" capitalists, the woven caps and sombreros favored by farmers, the open
turbans preferred by herders, the Islamic-style skullcaps urban entrepreneurs often sport,
and the berets of intellectual proletarians. Many Igembe men alternate between town and
country in a high speed cycle of circular migration, especially during that period of the
lifecycle corresponding to warriorhood in the traditional age set system.
Except for the small class of urban-based professionals, the Igembe eschew paid
employment, prefering self-employment or the other opportunities that arise as a
consequence of their travels to near and distant corners of Kenya via the miraa trade. As
miraa traders they travel to dangerous destinations and endure difficult conditions in order
to establish working capital for future investments in their local place of birth. Unlike
urban migrants from other areas in Kenya, they rarely settle permanently outside their home
area.
Back home, Igembe men organize farm and business activities, walking about the
countryside chewing miraa, exchanging the respected reddish-green twigs with friends they
meet on the path. After work they retire to local canteens and bars where they imbibe a
variety of local and bottled alcoholic drinks with gusto. Surrounded by warrior herdsman


2pasotral groups who frequented I'ombe included the Maasai, Samburu, Boran, Turkana, and Somali.








and shifta bandits, their fertile homeland is located in a rough neighborhood. This
ambience reinforces their own cultural tradition of institutionalized warriorhood. In today's
world they have parlayed this culturally directed aggressiveness into a variation on modem
entrepreneurship, retaining with their Tigania neighbors elements of a warrior society now
transposed, at least partially, into the arena of economic competition.
Otherwise an ebullient and rambunctiously outgoing people, the Nyambene Meru are
regarded by other Kenyans as hot-headed and temperamental. The panga, or machete, and
not the hoe, is the main farm implement used in Nyambene farming systems. Meru
ferocity and hair-trigger tempers in the presence of pangas lead to a reputedly high
incidence of interpersonal violence, prompting one local researcher studying incidents of
spontaneous panga-slashing to designate Nyambene society as a "subculture of violence."
The label, although unsubstantiated by actual comparative statistical data from other
districts, stuck.
Journalistic interpretations of Meru culture molded the understanding of real-life events.
One year after local press ran a feature story on the Nyambene "subculture of violence,"
The death of nineteen school girls during a student strike-cum-riot at St. Kizito Secondary
School in August of 1991, confirmed the public perception of the Nyambene's as Kenya's
most unpredictably violent region.3 Urbanized Meru in Nairobi concealed their ethnic
identity for quite some time afterwards. Still, a Nyambene man once told me that he and
his friends like the ethnic image of unpredictable warriors. The sterotype confers fear and
respect in Kenya's urban areas. Indeed other Meru peoples who look down on their
"Tigania" brethren at home, cultivate a common association with their Nyambene "hillbilly"
kinsmen in the cities for the same reason.


Anthropological Research in the New Canaan


The Nyambene area first pricked my interest during a short trip to Meru Park in 1980.
Previously, I had worked among the Swahili speaking peoples of Kenya's north coast.
Over the past several decades miraa consumption has developed into a major Swahili social
institution. I was curious about the trees that have had such a large impact on coastal
society and Muslim neighborhoods in other urban areas. The trip to the Park takes one
through the heartland of the Nyambene miraa production area, but to uneducated eyes
Meru's famed miraa is almost invisible against the backdrop of their multi-cropped, multi-


3The story was splashed across the local press and made CNN. The fact that this national tragedy happened
in "Tigania," as the Nyambene region is called by outsiders, made it understandable in terms of Kenya's
ethnic folk models.








storied agroforestry plots. As a consumption item, except for a few leafy bundles that
hardly represented the banana-leaf wrapped "kilos" one sees in the rest of Kenya, it was
also less apparent than expected. On the way back from the park, we chanced upon a local
farmer who volunteered to guide us to Muringene market, the main center for miraa export,
located right off the main road. This brief visit proved very interesting, beginning with the
rather unusual sign marking the turn-off to Muringene--"Muringene, Soko La Miraa Bila
Ubaguzi," (Muringene, the Miraa Market Without Discrimination).
The miraa bazaar appeared very different compared to other local markets throughout
Kenya. For one thing, it was a temporally concentrated event where most of the exchange,
packaging, and accounting is completed between one p.m. and three p.m. It also seemed
to involve a highly ordered underlying pattern despite the spontaneous and chaotic
impression it conveyed to an outsider. And it obviously involved financial transactions
significantly higher than your average cabbage or maize market
A miraa trader I knew in Nairobi insisted I make another trip to the Nyambenes to visit
his home. I returned the next year in the company of one of my companions from the last
trip, and this time we spent a week touring the vicinity between Kangeta and Maua on foot
and in densely packed matatus, packed Peugeot 404 station wagons crammed with bodies
in the style of the American telephone booth fad. Conversations and walks in Igembe
revealed a fascinating and infrequently investigated cultural-economic complex. The trail
blazed by miraa from Nyambene farms to the coast made for an interesting study, and I
decided to expand my interest in Swahili society to look at the developmental implications
of the production and marketing of this highly used, and sometimes abused, commodity of
Swahili social intercourse.
During another stopover at Muringene during the second visit a local businessman we
met in a small cafe/bar commented to me that "we have money, but we don' t have
development" Urban Lamu, whose relatively unchanged way of life is a magnet for
Western tourists, is often described by Kenyans as also lacking development As with
Lamu, the Nyambene area did not appear undeveloped by Kenyan rural standards. It does,
however, display unique and intriguing features of cultural continuity uncharacteristic of
other areas of highly commercialized small scale agriculture. As a Westerner, I had always
considered "development" to be more than a matter of material prosperity. Heuristically,
the businessman's statement provided me with a research question on local
commercialization. Can the usual forms of sociocultural change associated with
"development' vary independently of money incomes and types of cropping strategies?
On the surface, the urban, internationally oriented, maritime-based economy of the
northern Swahili presents little in common with the small-farm, local economy of the








Nyambene Meru. As in the Swahili settlements of Kenya's north coast, the connection
between indigenous economy and vitality of local culture presented an internally generated
version of African development. Otherwise the urban-rural-seafaring world of the Swahili
and that of Nyambene mountain men couldn't be more different. Under the influence of a
world religion, the Islamic Swahili developed a sophisticated scholarly tradition of religious
study and poetry, and Swahili culture embodies a philosophical and mystical tradition, and
a markedly romantic inclination. Under the influence of nomadic pastoralists, the Meru
have developed institutionalized warriorhood to complement their down-to-earth
predilection for consumption and cultural reproduction supported by an agricultural science
based on an indigenously evolved ideology of trees.
Deeper investigation revealed several theoretical commonalties: the correspondence
between indigenous economy and the retention of indigenous cultural institutions,
production systems based on intimate knowledge of the local environment, and a cultural
ideology supporting an independent and self-sufficient attitude toward the outside world.4
I continued to find the time and resources for annual visits to Igembe division every year
except 1987. I subsequently decided to use the indigenous economy of miraa as the
departure point for a research project encompassing the larger system of Igembe Meru
agriculture and economy. 5
The central economic hypothesis emerged from a 1986 Carter lecture on African
agriculture at the University of Florida delivered by Dr. Michael Lofchie (1988). Citing
Kenya as an example of policy-induced agricultural success, Lofchie expressed a sanguine
picture of Kenya's commercial agriculture as the engine of economic growth. During the
question period I referred to the Meru experience, and questioned whether policies
successful in the high potential agricultural zone could easily be extended to the more
challenging dry zones below them. In the absence of a clear response, I was forced to
ponder for myself the perrenial implications of the enduring issue, "what is development?"6
Despite the progress of commercial agriculture in high potential zones, the problem of
accommodating Kenya's expanding population as it spills over into the lower zones is a
very real concern, and Meru presented an ideal setting to investigate the problem of the

4The initial movement up, as noted earlier, began in the coastal homeland named Mbowa after the Meru
term for the rumen of a goat. The name is symbolic of the Meru's desire to conceal their origin in order to
disguise them from the Nguo Ntune who could potentially pursue them should their true identity be known.
The Bajuni and the Nyambene Meru also share cultural personalities typified in folk models as an outgoing
friendliness that easily gives way to tempestuous reactions to perceived slights. Manda island, directly
across from Lamu, matches Meru descriptions of Mbowa right down to minor details.
5Early data on the Igembe economy became a preliminary article on the production and marketing of miraa
in Meru (Goldsmith 1988).
61n all fairness, the problem posed was beyond the scope of Lofchie's lecture on "China's Lessons for
African Agriculture."









very real concern, and Meru presented an ideal setting to investigate the problem of the
commercialization of agriculture across ecological zones. Demographic growth in the
densely populated Nyambene highlands presents three options for the expanding
population: (1) intensify highland production; (2) migrate to urban areas; and (3) establish
agricultural settlements in the lower ecological zones. The Igembe often do all three of
these things spread over time in the course of their lifecycle.
Surmounting environmental constraints that limit the growth of agriculture and the social
welfare of many Kenyans is, nevertheless, an exceedingly important factor in the current
phase of Kenya's development. Demographic growth, agricultural commercialization,
technological innovation, and governance are major dimensions in this equation. If African
development was simply a question of manipulating these factors, cobbling together
solutions would be easier than it is has proved to be up to this time. The problems
examined in this study, and indeed, the elusive qualities of human society in general, invite
us not to stop too early by limiting our investigations solely to these issues.
When the proto-Meru Thagana clans migrated from the coastal island of Mbowa to the
eastern side of Mt. Kenya, they found the other side of the river more congested than did
the first wave of Bantu clans. Population pressure pushed them up the ecological gradient
of the hills, and different sections of the Meru conquered and/or absorbed elements of the
Agumba or Aathi, hunter-gathers, non-agricultural autocthones accustomed to harvesting
the natural bounty of the forest and savanna since prehistoric times.
The composite culture that coevolved out of this process reflects elements borrowed
through interaction with non-Meru communities complementing the Meru agricultural
adaptations to the different ecologies of the highland environment. The newcomers
integrated several distinct cultural institutions within the unified polity of Meru society,
subsuming a congruent set of production techniques adapted to a pattern of zonal
agriculture that spread production across several ecological zones.
During the 1960s the upward movement of the population slowed as the last belt of
agriculturally viable forest reserve--the tea zone--was cleared and settled. What goes up
must come down. The tea zones soon became saturated, and during the 1970s the flow
reversed as people migrated down to establish farms in areas formerly used for grazing and
temporary cultivation. This is the initial, empirical departure point for this study.


Feedback from the Field


It is not accidental that the research reported here provides a metaphorical
correspondence between the intercropped, multi-storied Igembe farming systems and









monocultural agriculture on one hand, and a multicausal conceptual framework of analysis
compared with the more monocultural emphasis of most Western social science theory. In
effect, the many tiered aspects of my research parallels an epistemological posture guiding
the investigation as a whole. Patterns emerge out of reoccurring relationships among
variables. Sets of these relationships said to explain the patterns are expressed as theories.
The test or plausability of theories derives from how well these hypothetical relationships
metaphorically or symbolically represent and explain the essential characteristics of the
patterned events of empirical phenomena.
Metaphor allows us to express abstract ideas in the language of commonly understood
relationships. Metaphors we use and manipulate to impose a conceptual order on diverse
phenomena often derive from the naturalistic order embedded in our cultural and linguistic
orientations (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 4-6). Thus astronomy was the metaphysical
model for much atomic physics, just as the Oedipus myth helped Freud conceptualize the
internalization of social norms. Conceptual models are metaphorical abstractions of the
relationships among variables. For example, when we observe modernization, structures
of dependency, and other such phenomena in one setting, we then extrapolate the
conceptual relationship from one historical experience for the purpose of examining and
analyzing other case studies. The test of the model is how well it holds across many cases
and contexts.
In this manner, observed relationships are translated into comparatively useful analytical
tools. The model is operationalized to test the empirical validity of the metaphorical
relationship. The metaphor/theory is revised in the course of theory-building, critique, and
explaining the implications of new data. Conceptual processes therefore represent a two-
way street involving the interaction of empirical investigation and theoretical analysis. New
empirical and conceptual constraints arise and conceptual models are revised or expanded in
response to the new questions and problems (Laudan 1977).
This is a roundabout way of saying that the culture and system of Meru agriculture
provided important clues for understanding the more general dynamics operating within
African society and economy. Past failures to properly understand the dynamics of African
agriculture reflects to some extent the imposition of prevailing conventional models of
theoretical change. Analysis through Western theoretical lenses often produces examples
of what Hyden (1988) has identified as the monocultural tradition. Monocultural
agriculture based on single factor responses to inputs leading to increased outputs has
dominated much Third World agricultural research. According to Hyden, the particular
emphasis placed on monocropping in agriculture, the range of Western economic models--
be they neo-classical or Marxist--and external models of political development are all









representative of this monocultural tradition. The highest expression of theoretical
monoculture is elevating conceptual analysis to the level of quasi-religious paradigms.7
It became necessary, therefore, to adopt a conceptual framework allowing one to freely
intercrop theories, concepts, and even paradigms in a multi-storied configuration analogous
to the Nyambene agroforests created over the course of generations by Meru farmers. Not
to do so is an inefficient use of the social landscape from which these data have emerged.
At its most flexible best, only a loose fit can be achieved between the conceptual order and
most local case studies. There is no need to destroy theoretical models, only to follow up
on the full system-wide implications of material causation and the feedback it engenders.
Through the 1970s the monocultural political orientations of African states divided the
Organization of African Unity into two conflicting radical (i.e., Marxist) and conservative
(i.e. neo-classical) camps. No clear winners emerged among the states representing
different positions on the ideological spectrum (Young 1980). As economic reality set in,
the debates between conservatives and radicals became largely an epi-phenomenon. The
African beneficiaries of the theory-makers persevered within their day-to-day theoretical
models: God is rain...and if it doesn't fall eventually many souls proceed on to the
timeless world inhabited by the ancestors.
The consistent pattern formed by Africa's fundamental post-independence problems
contrasts with the trendiness of theoretical discourse during the same period. The relative
lack of conceptual progress of the recent past recalls Africa's "lost decade" of the 1980s.
The situation is succinctly stated in the final footnote of a refreshing critique of the agents
of development in the countryside by a Zairois anthropologist: "I have tried to interest my
colleagues back at the university in these issues but they are too busy debating esoteric
points of Marxism (Vwanawakazi 1989)."
According to this view from the field, what is needed is not another paradigm, green
revolution, or miracle tree, but greater effort to create more synergistic and symbiotic
theories by linking existing conceptual insights and data with greater sophistication. The
building blocks are there. Until we act to integrate our present knowledge, we are not, to
use John Lonsdale's phrase, "intellectual nomads in search of a paradigm (1983)," but
rather, to extrapolate from the oft-told Oriental parable, blind men in search of an elephant.






7For example, in a research tradition that can assert "...theory is timeless and proceeds in a sort of eternal
present (Kitching 1980,6)." 'theory' becomes the equivalent of some secular God.








Defining Development:


Defining development, like positing theory, is problematic. Consistent with the national
ideology, any research in Kenya must have some developmental implications. Few
definitions of development are as elegant as the economic hypothesis based on the shift of
population employed in agriculture to other sectors of the economy: as other sectors of the
national economy develop, the importance of agriculture declines (Johnston and Kilby
1975). Generally an accurate reflection of diversification, specialization, and growth of
income, this indicator is by definition limited to economic variables. Other developmental
definitions address institutions, political systems, health, gender, and a host of other
categories. The intuitive dissatisfaction with simple characterizations of Lamu and Meru as
lacking "development" speaks not to differences in this class of formal criteria, but some
intangible, missing quality.
In Kenya, and the rest of Africa, human capital has long been a critical element in the
developmental puzzle. The concept of human capital has quantitative and qualitative
dimensions. In the small scale societies of precolonial times population growth coupled
with the group's ability to provide for their health and welfare, was the primary
developmental goal. In Africa fertility is everywhere celebrated in art, song, and customs;
the poorest and most forlorn figure among the African poor is the barren woman (Illife
1987). Population, (i.e., labor) under most African conditions, was the variable limiting
the utilization of available resources and opportunities.
Normal environmental conditions meant a steady attrition of population, and the more
extreme fluctuations of climate or disease vectors could cause precipitous population
decline. The principle of safety in numbers was an equally important element of group
defense from the incursions of traditional enemies and marauding groups displaced by
environmental calamities. For these reasons, development, from the traditional African
perspective was a function of the population growth necessary to generate greater wealth,
improve group capacity to withstand extreme environmental vagaries, resist raiding by rival
groups, and to enrich the social environment that life revolved around.
The African concept of development was founded on people, and the notion of fertility
and population growth gave rise to cultural institutions based upon the safety and welfare
of the group. The material and unseen world were connected and interpenetrating as surely
as one term for God (Ngai) shared by a number of Kenyan ethnic groups is also a term for









rainfall.8 God was the great donor Africans appealed to during precolonial times. Igembe
communal prayers embraced their traditional concept of development:

Leader: Thai, Thai Murungu, Peace, Peace, God,
Congregation: Thai! Peace!

Leader: Utue irio, Grant us food,
Congregation: Thai! Peace!

Leader Utue ana babeingi Grant us many children,
Congregation: Thai! Peace!

Leader: Utue nthaka iri na inya. Give us strong warriors,
Congregation: Thai! Peace!

Leader: Utue ng'ombe, ng'ondu, na mburi. Give us cattle, sheep, and goats,
Congregation: Thai! Peace!

Leader Utue belelie nchai Grant us protection from evil,
Congregation: Thai! Peace!

Leader Ndakwelenka kinya ni mburam, I ask that I may also be blessed with them,
Congregation: Thai! Peace!

Source: Chege 1979.


The Meru concept of development expressed here is anchored in the active pursuit of
material progress within defined moral limits not unlike the Weberian Protestant ethic. To
be wealthy, i.e. rich in food, cattle, and children was desirable, but the Meru recognized
that material goals required blessings and protection from evil as well as raids. Excessive
individual pursuit of material gains at the expense of other individuals or the group could
provoke social and supernatural sanctions. Egalitarian ideology was not so much about
restricting individual differentials in wealth and power as it was about insuring the
individual's responsibility and commitment to the group. The Meru developed social,
political, and religious institutions to govern the developmental process: the Njuri Ncheke
council, spiritual-ritual leadership through the office of the Mugwe, age-set organization,
and gichiaro fictive kinship.
The influence of indigenous cultural orientations invokes questions related to the
ideological dimension of development. For two decades Kenya's population growth rate
climbed to record levels despite the sums of money pumped into Western population
control strategies. In Kenya local support for population growth is often expressed in


8This definition does not equate with the pantheism of natural forces: the Meru have several words for God
(e.g. Murungu, Ngai, Barikiba), and the body of Meru ritual and religious expression is unambiguously
based on the fundamental unity of God.









terms of the defense of cultural values; letters to the editor resisting population control as a
Western conspiracy or assault on African values appeared with great regularity in the local
press during the 1970s and 1980s. Historically, Africans controlled population when
necessary. Under certain conditions the demographic equation necessitated biocultural
adaptations for the control of population growth. The Rendille control population growth
within environmental limits through social customs governing marriage and reproduction
that are closely linked to the reproductive cycle of camels (Spencer 1973). The Chuka
developed complex and effective birth control practices when pressed by enemies on all
sides during the nineteenth century (Mwaniki 1984).
The examples of the Rendille and the Chuka underscore the view of population growth
as a process based upon rational, cost-benefit calculations taking into account the
environmental carrying capacity facing local societies (Harris 1987). But other scholars of
demography with long-term experience in Africa see the need to explore the local
institutional facets and "cultural context "of African population demography as well as
unique characteristics of demographic transition in different societies (Caldwell and
Caldwell 1987; Greelaugh 1990). Support for family planning is gaining new acceptance
in Kenya and Meru, but factors such as the AIDS epidemic may yet prove the validity of
Africa's cultural and ideological commitment to population growth. Although HIV
mortality has yet to approach the level exacted by past epidemics and environmental
catastrophes reckoned by still living Igembe memories, it strikes at the economically most
important segment of the population (Caldwell, Caldwell, and Quigan 1989).
Attitudes towards development reflect asymmetrical relationships with variables of
technology, environmental and economic carrying capacity, and structural factors
determining access to resources. The reasons for this are obvious--the West and the
Westernized have long provided the dominant models of material advancement, the critical
patronage linkages, and westernized education is a prerequisite for utilizing donors
institutional and technological transfers to developing countries. But the association
between technological advance and Westernization obscures progressive home-grown
technologies and cultural practices, and promotes cultural duality.
Westernization often enslaves at the same time as it is liberating. The conflict between
material development and social values as a regular feature of day to day life in Africa has
diminished little since Ocol P'Bitek (1967) described the quandary in The Song of Lawino
and The Song of Ocol. The success of Africa's westernized elite fails as a role model for
African society: Kenya's Anglophylic former attorney general, Charles Njonjo, provides
an example of the deep-seated discomfort which permeated Kenyans' view of his political
ambitions, a factor President Moi exploited when he engineered Njonjo's fall from grace.









The ideology of Nyerere's African Socialism, on the other hand, attempted to reconcile
techno-economic development with the social equity idealized in traditional cultural values.
Blending the two cultural traditions proved problematic, and when the Ujamaa experiment
faltered, indigenous ideological and organizational variables embedded in the Tanzanian
social environment reasserted themselves in its place (Hyden 1980).
Mazrui (1984) poses the question of whether or not technological modernization is
possible without cultural and ideological Westernization. His metaphor is that the climate
for technological development in Africa is favorable, but the sociological soil is barren.
The essay, more an analysis of the ideological arguments of the 1970s than the practical
problems accompanying Africa into the next century, fails to illuminate the relationship
between culture and science beyond stating that there is one ibidd; 299). Indigenous
African capitalism prevails in places where capitalism organized on the Western model is
faltering (McGaffey 1991). Formal economies are collapsing while informal economies
thrive. Scientific socialism failed in Somalia, but Somali socialism provides support
networks for refugees in Nairobi's Eastleigh, London, and other Western cities. The
question is nevertheless relevant, and one that we will explore in greater detail in the course
of analyzing data comprising this study.
The ground-level view of African development shares more of what Hirschmann (1984)
described metaphorically as "sailing against the wind" than the on-top-of-the-mountain-
looking-down concepts of Marxist or neoclassical stages of economic development.
According to Hirshmann, development and change describe a zig-zag course where gains
in one sector are often offset by a degree of slippage in another sector. For example,
education, urbanization, and expansion of the non-agricultural sectors, including the civil
service, contributed to state policy biases favoring urban areas while eroding the policy
support for productivity in the rural sector (Bates 1983). Structural adjustment programs
rectifying the imbalance destabilizes urban areas, creating IMF riots. Boosting producer
commodity prices increases production, and increased production lowers the world market
prices for the same commodities. Technological advances in export crop production ends
up subsidizing the Western consumer (Lipton 1988).
The state trims its sails and struggles to stay on course at the same time the tide of the
international economy pushes the vessel backwards. The journey involves not only sailing
against the wind but crossing largely uncharted waters with unpredictable political and
environmental currents, submerged ethnic reefs, and economic sandbars. It is no wonder
that African governance has been described as more a matter of good seamanship than
navigation (Jackson and Rosberg 1983).









Are all African leaders, and the sample is statistically significant, poor mariners? Or do
they share the existential predicament depicted in the common bar-art portrait of the African
woodcutter: treed by a lion, staring into the eyes of the attacking viper coiled on the branch
he's cutting, and dangling over the gaping jaws of a crocodile. The ubiquitous pictures of
this "no escape" version of Africa's triple heritage (lion, snake, crocodile) underscores how
Africans see their quandary. In the circumstances of heads of state, the response has
typically been simply to hang on as long as possible. Many of Africa's liberators--Jomo
Kenyatta, Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah, Siaka Stevens, Kenneth Kaunda-- ended up
leaving the stage with tainted reputations or in disgrace. The truly heroic African leaders
are those who die young.
The realization of a society's developmental goals is like other evolutionary processes:
based on trial and error, subject to unanticipated forces, and producing unpredictable
outcomes. Adaptation need not be optimization (Richerson and Boyd 1992, 75). The
Meru theory of development is the starting point for investigating system dynamics. The
Igembe cultural-agricultural system reproduces by producing food, livestock, and strong
warriors. Behavior is driven by material goals and guided by cultural principles that
generate both blessings and evil within society. Culture matters because it embodies a
social systems memory, and institutionalizes the society's social learning.
We can learn from social learning. Some attempt should be made in the name of
objectivity to recognize the empirically determined borders of professional knowledge.
Because in this situation we are frequently like the blind men describing an elephant, a
priori approaches to social systems is a cautionary exercise. Scientists, social or other, are
all potentially the sorcerer's apprentice. Humility, in this respect, comes from recognizing
the sum record of African developmental interventions from colonialism to the crisis-ridden
present. Bridging the chasm separating theoretical anthropological analysis and practical
application involves integrating our understanding of how the environment and technical
details of production interact with the other components of cultural systems.


The Cultural Endowment Problem


For the anthropologist, economist, and agricultural scientist alike, symbiotic theories
should be primarily a matter of extending the empirical scope of field research and
theoretical linkages among respective fields. Interdisciplinary syntheses are problems in
their own right.








The development economist9, Vernon Ruttan, and his collaborator in the development
of the innovative model of economic development, Yujiro Hayami, claim development
economists and others are forced to deal with culture at an intuitive level, rather than in
analytical terms. Ruttan advocates going beyond conventional, microeconomic models to
understand technical and institutional change, but finds the real understanding of cultural
endowments in the study of economics inadequate for the scholars and practitioners of
development who share the conviction that 'culture matters'. In the 1988 article, which
takes a problem-solving view of the importance of culture in economic change, Ruttan
looks to the specialists in culture for filling the gaps in a generalized "pattern" model for
induced innovation which places "cultural endowments" in an interrelated category
alongside resource endowments, technology, and institutions. This led Ruttan to
investigate anthropology for contributions that can shed light on the relationship between
cultural endowments, technical, and institutional change.
Ruttan claims that the economist who invests time in searching the ethnographic
literature encounters two major problems: interpretations of culture which usually neglect
the historical, political, and economic context because of the commitment to learning
through fieldwork, and the problem of "many anthropologies" resulting from the
intellectual fragmentation within the discipline. Ruttan reduces these anthropological
differences to the materialist-interpretive division. Ruttan notes that the cultural materialist
approach is congenial to the economistic approach and useful for macroeconomic analysis
seeking to understand the impact of resource endowment and technology on differences in
institutional performance and change. But the overlap and similarity with economics also
restricts its utility because it does not substantially address the cultural endowment
problem, and institutions are analyzed as derivatives of the infrastructure. On the other
hand, much of the interpretive school's interpretational analysis strikes Ruttan as
"excessively personal and idiosyncratic," and he says cognitive and symbolic anthropology
must be analyzed in relation to social organization and institutional change.
The detailed attention given to ideology and processes in the work of Clifford Geertz, in
contrast, earns special praise from Ruttan for filling a gap not addressed by other
disciplines: "interpretive anthropology places cultural differences and change at the center
of its agenda, even if it presently tends towards the idealistic and romantic, it offers the
most potential to make a practical contribution to development economics over the long run
ibidd. 255)." Ruttan's article, by defining a general problem, albeit primarily in terms of


9Development economics came into existence as an applied sub-discipline of economics. Hayami and
Ruttan (1985) apply the model discussed here to international development.









his own model, represents a narrow interpretation of anthropology's relevance to
developmental issues.10 Ruttan nevertheless identifies issues of practical, methodological,
and theoretical importance. He concludes that economists will continue using modest
extensions of microeconomic theory as the strategy to deal with culture "until our
colleagues in the other social sciences are able to provide us with more helpful analytic
tools ibidd; 256)."
That insightful cultural exegesis is possible is evidenced by the fact that it is often done
by observers other than professional anthropologists. 11 An example of the interpretive
anthropological approach is Geertz's (1972) famous article, "Notes On The Balinese
Cockfight," where the author combines the curiosity invoked by an unanticipated personal
experience in the field and thorough scholarship into the contextual setting to tease the
meaning of the cockfight as an important cultural institution in Bali. The cockfight
symbolizes the potential for social conflict in a context where political violence otherwise
appears at variance with its cultural setting. The problem is positing a systematic
methodology that can be used to apply this approach across cases.
Symbolic systems link up with their material settings, and the differences between form
and style, function and symbol are not as great as some would have us think (Richerson,
Bettinger, and Boyd 1993). If it is true, as Geertz asserts, that we cannot understand a
culture the same way a native does (1983), it is only logical to make reference to the
standard social science grid lines--economy, ecology, history, etc.--when mapping
culture.12 Either we do this, or concede the study of cultural domains to the post-
modernists, who eschew these grids in favor of their own distancing rhetoric and guilt
complexes.13 How we go about this is treated in detail in the next chapter.


10Critiques of the Haymai-Ruttan model include the fact that the specific social order determining
institutional arrangements in developing countries cannot be understood in purely economic terms.
1 11t is difficult, for example, to find fault with Pico Iyer's (1989) treatment of Japanese baseball, an essay
that uses a sport to delineate institutionalized cultural differences between Japan and America in an
unpretentious and theoretically unobjectionable (from most anthropological perspectives) manner. Also, I
have observed that "native" analysis of sociocultural behavior gravitates towards materialist determinants,
but without erecting a materialist/cultural dichotomy.
12The accuracy of interpretive analyses is contingent upon the researchers' individual skills, their ability to
identify the important features of a cultural reality and to extract meaning from it, not analytical tools.
Indeed, Harris's major criticism of phenomenology or "Geertzian belle lettres" is that it contains no
methodology apart from the researcher's individual insight, placing it beyond established scientific
principles of accountability (1987). It is curious that, although Geertz believes we (i.e. Westerners) cannot
cognitively understand them, they (i.e. non-Westerners) understand us well enough to fit into and contribute
to modern multi-cultural society in the West.
13 Clifford (1986; 1990) is a principle spokesman for the new ethnography that seeks to locate the
ethnographer as a writer of cultural texts. Marcus and Fisher (1986) are the chief critics of the "sins" of
Western anthropology. Roth (1989), Carrithers (1990) and Keesing (1990) critique the postmodern school
from different stances.













CHAPTER 2
CULTURE AND ADAPTATION

Uncertainty in the political, economic, and sociological spheres arises not so much as
a result of data and measurement problems, but because of an extraordinary
atomization of theories of agrarian change, and a failure to link them to the
environmental social dialectic... (Blaikie 1989, 19).


Many African countries achieved political independence during the 1960s with higher
per capital incomes than the poor, predominantly agrarian, former colonies in Asia,
countries which three decades later are newly industrialized economies with some of the
highest growth rates in the world. In comparison, many African nations experienced
economic progress during the early years after independence only to slip back into an
economic and political malaise. The consequences for most of the population are material
and political conditions worse than those of the colonial period.
Africa remains the only region of the world where the sustained efforts of individuals
nations and the international community appear inconsequential in the face of contrary
environmental forces, fractious polities engendered by the continent's social diversity, and
the vagaries of world economy. The widespread and widely noted turbulence manifesting
throughout Africa presents the backdrop to this case study of agricultural commercialization
in rural Kenya. Field research on the Nyambene Meru cultural-agricultural system
provides the departure point for exploring African evolutionary processes, the systemic
dynamics underpinning social change and group adaptation, and the parameters of
socioeconomic transition in Africa. The following discussion refers to the context
accompanying the spread of small-scale commercial agriculture across ecological zones in
Meru, and the practical developmental issues it subsumes.


The Empirical Problem: Population, Agricultural Systems, and Polity


Kenya is an agricultural country. After one century of precipitous population growth
and enormous social change, over eight out of ten Kenyans still live in the countryside.
Few individuals are more than one generation removed from the family farm, and rural
values still exert a strong influence on modem society. The country's deepening economic
and social crisis is often blamed on demographic factors: the population nearly doubled









over the past fifteen years reaching 24 million in 1992; growth has slowed from a high of
4.1% to a rate of 3.8% a year, the highest demographic growth rate in known history.
This demographic-environmental equation presents a formidable challenge to the economic
status quo. Competition over land follows from the fact that eighty per cent of the
population live on less than twenty per cent of Kenya's land mass. Another 20% of
marginal agricultural land overlap with the arid and semi-arid regions that occupy over 60%
of the country.
Intensified production in high potential zones and the development of arid and semi-arid
areas (ASAL) is not only necessary to feed the projected population of 34 million Kenyans
by the year 2000, but is also expected to remain the primary source of their employment
and the main source of the export earnings necessary to spur multi-sectoral growth
(Government of Kenya 1989; World Bank 1990b). This general prescription applies to the
agricultural sectors of other African countries, according to the World Bank, where
increased food production is necessary to raise per capital nutrition as well as reverse the
trend of natural resource degradation (World Bank 1989, 89).
Liberal commodity price policies, a supportive state presence in the agricultural sector,
and the capitalistic private sector have produced a rate of economic growth sufficient to
keep pace with population growth into the early 1980s. Critics of Kenya's small holder
agricultural policies (e.g. Hunt 1984; Peterson 1986) were silenced by evidence that small
farm production for markets improves regional equity (Gyimah-Brempong 1988) and
bolsters personal incomes while enhancing household nutritional levels (Young 1988;
Heald 1991).
By the middle of the same decade, however, the effects of population growth, falling
prices for Kenya's export crops (especially coffee), and a bloated and inefficient public
sector began to erode living standards and intensify the competition for scarce resources
ranging from land to social services. Internal and external pressure on the political system
increased at the same time. Political mobilization highlights the mismanagement of public
resources, blatant corruption, and manipulation of the political process by state actors.
Many rural areas suffer the general decline of state institutions, while the private sector
forces, which are expected to take over many state functions according to the logic of
structural adjustment programs, remain largely inert. Social change has left a gap in many
rural areas: many traditional institutions of rural society are vitiated, but new ones have yet
to fully congeal in their place. Consequently, societal response to agrarian crisis such as
drought and famine is limited to individual and household-level coping strategies (Stini









1987, Corbett 1988; Cossins and Upton 1988b).1 Fortunately, in Kenya the state has been
able to act effectively in he face of such crisis, but its ability to engineer solutions to other,
more fundamental problems is questionable due to the erosion of its organization capacity.


The Role of the State


The paramount role of the state as the key to economic progress in many areas of Africa
grew out of the sheer dominance of the African colonial state in relation to other local social
structures. After independence, it was assumed that development would take-off once the
state was redirected towards advancing the cause of indigenous society. Modernization and
radical political economy critiques alike endorsed development policies based on strong
centralized state structures. These ideas proved to be seriously flawed.
Post independence state-society discontinuities disclosed the endemic pathologies of
state structures in Africa. Local responses ranged from active opposition to withdrawal on
the grass roots level back into the subsistence economy (Rothchild and Chazan 1988;
Hyden 1980). The international community turned to private sector policies while the
dysfunctional African governments continued to gamer most of the blame for the
continent's condition. One of Africa's most eminent historians even went so far as to label
the state the 'Black Man's Burden' (Davidson 1992). On the other hand, the current
situation in Somalia indicates that no state at all is even worse.
The state is a distinct form of social organization that grows out of a socioeconomic
system's internal dynamics, or is precipitated by the presence of other states in the region.
Although other organizational structures perform the function of the state in local socieites,
the emergence of the state as an organization is never partial: it is either there or it is not,
and more than other forms of political organization, the state is correlated with
multiculturalism and uni-ethnicity (Cohen 1993).
Contemporary African states came into existence as the result of the expansionary
behaviors of European states. This ancestry produced many problems. Ostensibly, the
state promotes the interests of its constituent societies, but this has often not been the case
in Africa the externally imposed state has failed to develop a viable relationship with civil
society. Many problems on the state level are manifestations of forces incubated within
ethnic groups and localized interests. Although the state may both foster developmental
processes in some instances, and may sabotage them in others, these contradictory


1The Igembe have been able to muster coherent social responses to problems arising in their area. The
institutional aspect of local society receives detailed treatment in chapter 3.









processes nevertheless proceed in a manner that makes their study a matter of empirical
investigation.2
The thrust of Western strategies has been large-scale and capital-technology dominant
strategies whereas the African environment historically favors local cultural adaptation,
niche specialization, and degrees of cultural pluralism more than large organizational
structures. The character and behavior of African states reveal the centrifugal strength of
these small-scale social formations, and these local forces embody the cultural dynamics
that will eventually define the salient features of African capitalism. Adaptive large scale
organization, the state being the primary example, can be expected to emerge out of
complex processes of change, innovation, and adaptation on the local and regional levels.
Thus agricultural change and the contribution of the state to it cannot be studied in isolation
from each other. In any event, the agricultural problem transcends solutions solely located
within state institutions.
Determinants of land and resource use are complex, and a number of factors impose
clear limits on agricultural progress in Kenya's productive highland areas. High potential
agricultural zones are now demographically saturated and easy policy and technology
options have been exhausted. Intensified productivity of highland agriculture can at best
incrementally increase crop yields. Over half of the country is an arid expanse supporting
nomadic pastoralism and wildlife reserves. The remaining twenty per cent is semi-arid land
of low agricultural potential, much of which forms an uneven band of traditional grazing
lands, interspersed with swidden plots of dryland grains, on the margins of the high
potential zones. This land occupies an important swing position as Kenya negotiates the
uncertain territory between a Malthusian future and economic transformation.
Colonial governments and external donor agencies have for decades pursued
technological solutions for the agrarian problem consistent with the view that, by Western
standards, traditional African agricultural production is a technologically primitive, pre-
scientific, and embedded in culturally conservative peasant social formations. The project
approach in the relatively non-commercialized areas of years past has produced a
succession of outright failures, false starts, poorly coordinated donor interventions, and ill-
conceived policies, beginning with the infamous Tanzanian groundnut scheme
(Hogendorm and Scott 1981), repeated during the Sahel crisis of the 1970s, and continuing



2Under capable managers the Kenyan government achieved laudable success promoting production and
social welfare in sectors such as small holder tea and milk production (Leonard 1991). Local research
institutes have made large strides in developing improved cultivars for coffee and maize, and improved
livestock breeds.









to the present.3 Externally-conceived panaceas usually involved the creation of new
institutional structures to oversee implementation.4 The sum record of these interventions,
discounting fiscal cost-benefit analysis, is one of mixed success aggravated by
unanticipated administrative, social, political, and environmental problems (Moris 1981;
Batisse 1988; Lusigi 1988).
Commercialization and privatization now replace to a large degree the state and donor-
assisted projects of the past as the primary force of change in the agricultural sector at this
stage of Kenya's economic transition. Donor and International Financial Institutions
structural adjustment programs are now the guiding policy blueprint for empowering
market and private sector forces. They also set off serious social problems, with
unexpected internal consequences across Africa (Howard and Nafizer 1991, Fearon 1988,
Hopkins 1986). Real income has declined, and cuts in government expenditures have
effected education, medical facilities, social, services and agricultural extension much more
than those inefficient sectors of the state most responsible for the forced acceptance of the
structural adjustment policies in the first place.
In Asia, many other preconditions for economic transition were already in place and
waiting for a catalyst to spur multi-sectoral growth. African socioeconomic conditions are
obviously different, and at best uneven. During the period of large-scale agricultural
expansion, the share of Gross Domestic Product for agriculture, an important economic
indicator of sectoral development (Johnston and Kilby 1975), decreased from 35 per cent
in 1965 to 31 per cent in 1988. In terms of the sectoral development model, African
industrialization is still-born (Mylteka 1989). Although this generalization only partly
applies to Kenya, prospects for industrial growth are constrained by a number of internal
and external factors (Godfrey 1987). High technology drives the world economy, and the
dependence of Third World economies on primary commodities reflects conditions of
growth that discourage significant investment in commercial crop systems since the break-
up of colonial semi-monopolies (Dow 1989, 34).5 Export performance reflects the cycle of

3 Horowitz (1979) critiques Sahelian pastoral and livestock projects. Hogg (1984, 1987) reviews the
problems in small-scale ASAL water and agricultural projects in northern Kenya. Wiggins (1985)
examines different donor approaches, including the British EMI project in Meru, and Lusigi (1987)
discusses the problems of UNESCO's Integrated Project for Arid Lands, also in northern Kenya. Franke and
that Chasin 1980) provide a general critique showing the link between famine and Western development
strategies all of these case studies represent.
4The new field of development administration became the organizational adjunct of disciplines addressing
technical and policy-based innovations for developing countries. From the perspective of administrative
science, however, the whole idea is oxymoronic since administrations mainly seek to promote their own
survival (Shaffer 1969).
5While crop production and primary commodities no longer figure highly in Western capital markets, local
investment in agricultural enterprises by agribusiness and a variety of national and international research
institutes qualify this observation. Three agricultural corporations ranked in the top ten companies quoted









decreasing relative value for primary commodities and stagnant manufacturing (Svedberg
1991).
Kenya has passed the point of no return in the transition from a collection of
subsistence-oriented communities to a more integrated and economically diversified
society. If the process of multi-sectoral economic growth and diversification falters,
economic stagnation, shortages and maldistribution of essential commodities, and conflict
over the country's limited resources will rapidly undermine past progress. The agricultural
sector's failure to maintain its past momentum relative to population growth heightens the
danger of system-wide entropy overtaking the historical trend of growth and
diversification.
The pace and structure of demographic growth is a critical parameter. From an
estimated population below two million at the beginning of this century, Kenya's
population approached 10 million at independence in 1963 and passed the 22 million mark
in 1988. Fifty per cent of the population is 15 years of age or less. Despite the early
warning signs of population to resource imbalance, from 1965 to 1988 the fertility rate for
women of child-bearing age has dipped only slightly, from an average of eight to seven
children: some forty per cent of the population are women in the childbearing category.
Between 1979 and 1989, the 3.3 per cent growth rate for agriculture, the engine of the
national economy, lagged behind population growth that peaked at 4.1 % according to
figures quoted in the Economist Intelligence Unit for Kenya (1989). The reduced, decade-
end population growth rate is estimated as 3.8 per cent--a net per capital production deficit
of 3 per cent for the decade.
Although Kenya's agriculture is considered to be a policy model for other African
countries (Lofchie 1988), and net per capital productivity has increased, Kenyan farmers
face formidable constraints influencing agriculture's ability to satisfy the requirements listed
above. Even after the considerable progress of the past several decades, national food
security is tenuous (in December of 1991 the Government of Kenya announced an
impending shortfall in the country's staple food, maize, despite adequate rains). Food
consumed on-farm partially explains the gap between production and consumption (Cohen
1988; Bates 1990). But more and more Kenyans are leaving the subsistence sector. The
rate of urbanization is above eight per cent. Twenty per cent of the population now live in



at the Nairobi Stock Exchange based on post-tax returns to capital: Brook Bond (#4), British American
Tobacco (#8), and Sasini Tea and Coffee (#9). Standard Chartered Bank Kenya, which has sizeable
agricultural investments ranked #2. and Kenya Breweries, which directly relies on the agricultural sector for
its raw materials ranked #10 (source: The Economic Review Oct. 4-10, 1993: 13-15).









urban areas compared to nine per cent in 1965; 57 per cent of these urbanites reside in
Nairobi (World Bank 1990).
The experience of other world regions offers generalized insights into socioeconomic
transition but no ready answers for Africa's problems, which are themselves partially the
consequence of the post 1500 AD capitalist transition in the West. This is why theoretical
formulations of capitalism have to be redefined relative to Africa's unique historical
circumstances (Callaghy 1988).6 Understanding social transition to capitalism in Africa is
a theoretical challenge due to the sheer diversity of associated phenomena and historical
dynamics specific to time and place that it subsumes. A number of reasons, including the
fact that agrarian capitalism in Kenya is more advanced than other African countries,
designates Kenya as the unofficial test case for agriculturally supported economic transition
in sub-Saharan Africa (Illife 1983, 41-42). The incorporation of ASAL regions, including
the periphery of the Meru highlands featured here, is a test of the test case.
The adaptive qualities of indigenous production systems are synergistic indicators of
adaptive agencies already observable within the transformation of traditional societies. It
follows that African capitalism, insofar as capitalism posits the most economically adaptive
path to development historically, will evolve apace with other sociocultural adaptations
including the all important variables of national and local political organization,
environmental management, and cultural guidance. The Nyambene production system
under consideration here yields substantial data of this order.
The Nyambene case study is especially interesting because, as discussed in Chapter
One, socioeconomic change in the Nyambenes has followed a pathway of indigenous
capitalism that appears as unique as it is successful in comparison to other similar regions
in Kenya. The Igembe system, in regard to specific technological and social components,
is adapting in the direction of the relatively Westernized macro economic environment. It
is exceedingly important to note, however, that on the macro level (in this instance I am
referring to the eastern Africa region) the regional political economy also appears to be
moving in the direction of a Nyambene-type economic and social order as reflected in the
growing economic power of informal economies and indigenous sectors of production
relative to the state and economic sectors dominated by foreign capital, the patterns of
disengagement from the state, and the largely invisible internal order created by the myriads
of inter-connected local ethnic systems and economic organizations embedded within the



6Callaghy addressed Marxist and Weberian theoretical approaches, but the situation where capitalism is both
part of the problem and the generic solution suggests that neoclassical economic theories and regional
variations on capitalism itself require further qualification within the African context.









regional system (Hyden 1983; Chazan 1988; Azarya 1988).7 The ongoing exercise in
privatization and creating what the World Bank labels an "enabling environment" for
economic development favors the growing influence of local, societal phenomena on the
order of the data on Nyambene society and economy presented here.
This study attempts to extract some of the cultural and agricultural dynamics of the
system. I do this by placing the field data collected through surveys, interviews, and
observation in the context of historical patterns linking highland ecological zones and
lowlands. The contemporary forces of commercialization intersect the cultural management
of agricultural resources to define the local developmental trajectory. The five main factors
listed below in table 2.1 have selected for this unique coevolutionary trajectory of
Nyambene commercialization.



Table 2.1: Factors Selecting For Coevolutionary Development in Northern Meru


Environmental Variation
Econiche Specialization
Internal Organization
Markets and Exchange
The Domain of the State and National Economy




The way these factors have operated in this case form the basic structure of the data
presentation which follows. They can be summarized briefly in theoretical terms
Environmental variation conditioned production strategies based on econiche specialization:
hunting and foraging, pastoralism, and agriculture. Local societies, which together form a
system of relations have developed adaptive strategies based on combinations of different
production complexes. The internal organization of these systems represent complex sets
of institutions and cultural orientations supporting specific group production strategies. In
Meru, environmental variation conditioned specialization and exchange. Adaptation and
change are ongoing processes driven to a large degree by markets and other forms of
exchange that extend across the sociocultural context to factors such as cultural
borrowings, intermarraige, and the incorporation of isolated clans or members of ethnic


7Much regional economic activity is only "invisible" insofar as it is not reflected in official statistics and
involves by-passing state control in the form of licensing, marketing boards, and customs duties.









groups into other ethnically defined systems. The state represents a domain of variables
that, in the case of many areas of East Africa, appeared within the regional environment in a
sudden and dramatic manner. During the major portion of this century the colonial state
and later, its indigenized, post-independence extension exerted a direct economic influence
on a number of Kenya's local societies in Kenya, and only an indirect influence on others.
The effect of this contact in Meru has been to allow for the autonomous and therefore
coevolutionary development of this particular region in relation to other areas more directly
affected by government policy and its implementation.


Historical Patterning


The pattern of development in Meru represents the culmination of long term historical
processes set in motion by the primarily environmental variables listed in Table 2.2. These
regionally specific factors patterned the subsequent adaptations and impart directionality to
each local system's developmental pathway, which have become in term subsumed within
the Igembe cultural and agricultural system.



Table 2.2: Africa's Environmental Parameters8

Large land mass spatially separated from other world land masses.
Environmental conditions encouraging high but cyclical levels of biological activity.
Low population relative to land mass.
Physical and spatial barriers to regional communication.
Old soils of limited fertility.
Unpredictable long and short cycles of humidity due to ITCZ fluctuations.
Emphasis on cultural adaptation over forms of technological innovation.




Africa assumed a slow and decentralized developmental profile after the desiccation of
the Sahara sealed most of the continent off from other world regions 20,000 years ago.
Holding other factors constant, the low population relative to Africa's large land mass alone
would explain a slower developmental trajectory in comparison to the quickening of
developmental processes in Europe and many parts of Asia. Physical barriers, ecological
constraints, erratic climactic conditions and periodic environmental disasters also
contributed to uneven cycles of growth in African production and population. Africa's


8 Sources for this list include Curtin 1984, Nicholson 1986, Jones 1987, and Oliver 1992.









population was 30 per cent of the world total in 10,000 B.C.; it declined to 10 per cent in
500 A.D., and slipped to 8 per cent in 1800 (Jones 1981, 155).
Africa's environmental conditions produced the following continental pattern.
Concentrated populations supporting levels of production and the state structure necessary
to surmount environmental barriers to exchange originally developed in mainly Sahel-type
environments, not the highland areas which are the main loci of production and change
today.9 Low population densities in the territorities outside state systems facilitated a de
facto exit option weakening the central control of local rulers. The exit option encouraged
migrations contributing to both the rise and decline of state systems during the last one
thousand years.
Large tracts of the continent fell outside the influence of forces supporting primary and
secondary state formation.10 In these areas development was a slow, gradual process
occurring over decades, centuries, and millennia. The ecological variation of eastern Africa
underpinned a range of environmental adaptations. The rise of Meru society subsumed
econiche specializations that were able to survive alongside the developing hybrid system
until recently.
Ethno-environmental specializations included hunting and gathering represented by
"Aathi" groups like the Agumba and Ndorobo, settled agro-pastoralism supplemented by
small scale irrigation in the settlements of the Mwoko the nomadic pastoralism of the
Maasai, Samburu, and Boran, and the predominantly agricultural specialization of the
Tumbiri and Thagana clans (Fadiman 1976; Mwaniki 1984; Sutton 1990; Lambert 1949).
These legacies resurface in the cultural-agricultural configuration of the Nyambene system.
Precolonial group interactions in Africa reveal the small scale and local nature of social
organization, economic strategies, and complementary specialization. Post-colonial
interactions among groups in the region continue in the vein of similar coeveolutionary
dynamics.
The dramatic socioeconomic changes of the past century have had little impact on this
aspect of indigenous social organization. Clans easily percolated through the territorial
boundaries created by the Pax Britannica, underscoring the mutable and plastic quality of
ethnicity in general (Kasfir 1979). The clan--a group defined by common descent--remains
a primary social unit conditioning access to resources where land is a critical factor of
production. Culturally homogenous clans cluster into tribes, but clan relations with other


9The Ethiopia highlands are an exception to this trend, but even in this case the rise of states usually
entailed exchange relations with the adjacent lowlands.
10Secondary state formation stems from external forces such as circumscription, or defense against other
states.









groups can transcend tribe.11 The proclivity for small organizational units resurfaces in
economic organization.
The Igembe system of Meru described in the following pages represents symbiotic
outcomes generated by interactions and combinations of the forces listed above. The
Igembe have continued to straddle different socioeconomic domains in response to the
influences of factors introduced by state during the past eight decades. The concept of
symbiosis proved to be emblematic of general evolutionary forces influencing system
change and transition as well as a discrete mechanisms of adaptation underpinning the
growth and expansion of the Meru polity. As we shall see, ecozone variation produces a
powerful and interrelated set of forces affecting the development of the northern Meru
region. Fieldwork in Meru spanned the commercialized highland agro-ecological zones
and the drylands on their periphery, and provides us with an example of an instance where
the configuration of agricultural production, change and response to external factors is
generated by locally evolved agricultural technology and organization.
The productivity of the Nyambene Meru system rests upon indigenous technology,
research, and development sustained by internal cultural institutions that have proved to be
responsive to innovation, social learning, and market opportunities over time. The
reproduction of the internal order under commercial forces is, however, dependent upon
critical linkages to the external capitalist order. The nature of this relationship sheds light
on the dynamics of agrarian-led socioeconomic transition in Africa. Like in the case study,
the emergence of a unitary state-society system within Kenya's borders also embodies
linkages among groups and regions leading to an uni-ethnic outcome through processes
similar to those operating in Meru historically. Culture is a critical part of the overall
picture. I will, therefore, attempt to address the theoretical context of how we study and
integrate cultural factors into the analysis of social systems before delineating the specific
conceptual components that guided the research.


Anthropological Research Traditions:


A question emerges immediately about how these significant elements should be related
to one another. Fieldwork demonstrated, and pointed to, their relevance. Anthropological
theory points to ways in which they can be understood and explained. Absorbing the


1 There are cases of one clan spread across two tribes--the Atangwa clan is represented within both the
Kamba and Gikuyu peoples--and of clans that alternate between two distinct cultural units according to
material conditions, as the alternating identity of the Ariaal clan, which is associated with both the Rendille
and Samburu, and as of late, the Turkana, according to changing contexts (Spencer 1973; Hjort 1981).









unparsimonious sequence of detail and complexity present in a small scale system creates
an objective dilemma: a system is properly analyzed only by breaking it down into its
component parts, but it is properly understood only in its entirety. Social scientific
modeling and specification of the relationships among causes and effects in society is
therefore inherently problematic, leading to Achen's observation that "a functionally
specific theory of a realistic social situation may be just barely conceivable in principle, but
it would be massively complex. And if it were achieved, no one would want it (1982,
13)."
Hirschmann observes that, in the distinctive intellectual climate of the social sciences,
gradual loss of certainty replaces the cumulative growth of knowledge, "as the slow
mapping out of the extent of our ignorance, which was previously hidden by an initial
certainty, parading as paradigm (1981, 59)." The view presented here is that the quest for
paradigms tends to divert social science disciplines away from their pragmatic orientations,
undermines their societal relevance, and by encouraging theoretical inbreeding, produces an
intellectual rigidity that in the long run sabotages conceptual progress as well as practical
application.12 For this reason, this study is based on a problem-solving orientation
consistent with Gellner's observation that fully refined formulations of initial concepts are
the product of multiple reformulations:

Validity in science is not established in accordance with some simple, orderly criterion, the Natural
Law of cognition so to speak; the constitutional law of science is not the logical product of a
single mind and one design. It is not like those buildings admired by Descartes, which were
designed by one architect, but more like those oriental palaces which grow by accretion. It
resembles the shreds and patches, the untidy amalgam of a growing, plural, ongoing culture, its
law is a customary law which emerges from one contingency and crisis to the next, and not from
some supreme constitutional edict issued by Nature (1974, 7).


From a problem solving perspective, there is little sense in allowing paradigmatic
boundaries imposed on the corpus of social science theory to limit one's use of potentially
useful theoretical concepts to those found within a single intellectual school: indeed,
"individual theories working in isolation generally solve no problem (Laudan 1977,
115).13 Problem-solving is the larger paradigm behind scientific theories. We can talk

12Parsimonious theories produce logical and often elegant models out of the inherently disorderly data of
social science. But Kuhn's (1967) dialectical interpretation of scientific revolutions as the outcome of
paradigm competition acted to distort social science theoretical discourse on the complexities of causality in
sociocultural systems. Competition among theoretical schools fosters the development of theory, but the
rivalry among paradigms, or paradigm-candidates, often assumed an all-or-none aspect in the social sciences.
13The Nyambene Meru farming system, which developed much in the style of such an oriental palace, has
much in common with this view of science. The Igembe have progressed as far as they have largely
through developing syntheses characteristic of what Laudan describes as the problem-solving scientific
model. The distinctiveness of the system reflects the synthesis of borrowings from other local systems.









about theoretical ideas in the social sciences associated with different research traditions
without placing these traditions in zero-sum relationships with each other.
Adam Kuper (1990), writing in his capacity as editor of a leading journal of
anthropological theory, identifies three distinct institutionalized research programs which
constitute the stable core of twentieth century anthropology. He describes the first as the
Boasian study of culture: a relativistic approach concerned with the particulars of culture
and cultural differences, focusing on description and explanation as opposed to
explanation. The second program derives from the Darwinian emphasis on materialistic,
evolutionary processes: models based on general principles related to the nomathetic
biological, ecological, and technological forces at work across different periods of human
history. The third program is the study of social structures identified with traditions of
Weberian and Marxian sociology. Kuper clearly intended to sidestep the non-productive
wrangle that results from characterizing these research traditions as paradigms.
The phenomenological school corresponds to the Boasian program: the culturology of
mental, ideational, cognitive, and otherwise cultural manifestations of social systems. The
best known example of this approach is the work of Clifford Geertz whose semiotic
approach is representative of other work in the tradition referred to as interpretive
anthropology. This school is essentially humanistic, and as such it is not at odds with
other approaches aspiring to scientific criteria (Lett 1988). Its practitioners identify with the
humanities, and often distance themselves from formal scientific formulae.
Cultural materialism as formulated by Marvin Harris (1979) exemplifies theories in what
Kuper labeled the natural science, Darwinian evolutionary research program. Cultural
materialism succeeded the ecological school of Julian Steward and Leslie White, and
incorporates Marxist influences, although it assigns theoretical priority to the
infrastructural--the demographic, technological, economic, and ecological--determinants of
systems development and collapse in place of the Marxist emphasis on structural causality.
Sociobiology, where infrastructural factors of an environmental and techno-economic
nature are secondary to the biological traits selected for in evolutionary successful
populations, also falls into the general evolutionary category.
Kuper's "third 'project," the sociological program, consists of theories emphasizing the
structural or social relations of production as determinants of social formations that range
from early British structural-functional anthropology to the Marxian tradition, including
neo-Marxist dependency formulations, Wallerstein's world system analysis, and French
structural Marxism with its emphasis on modes of production.
Diesing (1991, 139-140) also classifies the conceptual plurality of social sciences in
three categories defined by their respective goals. The tradition of logical empiricism









represents approaches aimed at deriving causal or statistical laws that enable us to control
something. Hermeneutics is deployed for improving communication and mutual
understanding, and the applied goal of joint action and living together. The third type of
science, typified by psychoanalysis, targets emancipatory self-knowledge of causes
determining consciousness and behavior. It uses both causal laws and interpretive
technique to probe hidden operations.
All of these objectives, relevant to our analysis in their own fashion, encourage a
synthetic theoretical approach consistent with the problem-solving orientation articulated by
Laudan.14 There is no universal principle demanding the separation of concepts and goals,
and as Laudan observes, scientists can often work within different, and even naturally
inconsistent research traditions (1977, 140). This approach equates well with another
stream in anthropology which chooses or combines elements from different paradigm-
oriented research traditions for their utility. Cohen defines such problem solving
approaches as eclecticism:

...an epistemic creed whose foundation is a stubborn commitment to realism, relevance, and
testable validity. Eclecticism...places the onus on researchers to depict reality, its causal nexi, and
the changing weights given to specific factors in its most empirically valid, inclusive, and relevant
format. The criterion for choosing questions and seeking answers is therefore not commitment to
a paradigm, but rather policy testing and guidance, i.e. the relevance of the explanation in its
applicability to the solution of a real world problem (1988, 26).


The eclectic-empirical tradition emphasizes precision and rigor in place of the
paradigmatic criteria as a precondition for the exegesis of data.15 Social research under this
set of guidelines follows problems and demands accuracy and relevance. Clear, real world
conditions produce complex problems requiring choices about which data are most relevent
to puzzle solving that cannot be limited by paridigmatic limitations. Eclecticism is accused
of disorganized searching for any and all factors that prove interesting to an individual
researcher. But "eclecticism" need not be eclectic: it can also incorporate a systems
framework capable of embracing a variety of theoretical constructs.


14Choice of theory is rationally evaluated--normative rationality is admittedly time and culture-dependent--
according to its superior properties vis a vis the designated problem (1977; 130). "Rational choice" among
theories is therefore governed by the "progressive" capacity of theories in terms problem-solving, and being
scientifically reasonable is doing whatever we can to maximize the progress of scientific research traditions
ibidd.; 123).
15By-passing the paradigmatic conflict over ultimate causality reduces the Kuperian research programs to
two main approaches, the materialist tradition and the phenomenological tradition. The former is further
simplified by refraining from assumptions regarding dialectical processes at the core of the Marxist conflict
models which, as Ellen states, reduced to the ecological level can be expressed in terms of a predator-prey
relationship (1982, 246). Incorporating the latter research program, on the other hand, is viewed mainly as
a methodological problem which we mentioned in the first chapter.









Paradigmatic approaches to development and governance held sway in Africa during the
first quarter century of the post-independence period. Not only has the objective condition
of most Africans deteriorated in relative if not absolute terms during this period, but the
social sciences themselves are faced with a major problem of reproduction on the African
continent. 16


Analyzing Social Systems


The nature of the subject matter makes social sciences, unlike the material-based
sciences, wary of the Western positivism traditionally rooted in asserting control over
physical processes. We know more about the pathways social phenomena travel on than
their destinations: social variables combine and articulate in established patterns, but at any
given juncture any one variable or component of a social system can behave in a manner to
make the development of a system over time decidedly unpredictable. Social science, like
the life sciences which also labored under the scientific precedents of mechanistic, iron-clad
laws established in the physical sciences as they came of age (Mayr 1982), has to develop
theories appropriate to the phenomena it embraces in order to reach an understanding of
underlying principles.
This problem is a manifestation of a deeper dichotomy between the material and cultural
that runs through anthropology.17 Every theory has embedded design constraints
demanding trade-offs. The trade-off for elegance and parsimony in theoretical models is
the reduction of empirical reality to abstract constructs. The trade-off for contextual
sensitivity in phenomenological theories is reduced inter-connectiveness, testability, and a
proclivity for cultural relativity. Together these two issues present an essential quandary
for anthropology.
Materialist theory is comparative and evolutionary in nature. The basic analytical
divisions presented in Harris's Cultural Materialism illustrates these features of materialist
theory (1979). The cultural materialism research tradition explains system change through
the principle of infrastructural causality: assigning analytic priority to what Harris labels as
the demo-eco-econo-techno infrastructure. The evolution of cultural differences is shown

16progressive social science is self-reforming, seeking to extend our knowledge and understanding through
improved theories and methodologies rather than revision and reinterpretation of societal data within a
predetermined, paradigmatic mold.
17History proves that the borders between theory and myth, science and scientism are rife with binary and
ethnocentric we/they categories applied to simplistic or non-developmental frameworks (Goody 1977). The
assumed dichotomy then propels us to seek positive and/or negative data to support dualistic hypotheses in
terms of primitive and advanced rational and irrational, or savage and domestic as in the study of the
evolution of thought in general, or as in the case of Levi-Strauss in particular (ibid: 4-8).









to be the result of the operation of infrastructural variables. The separation of sociocultural
phenomena into domains facilitates interdisciplinary perspectives by organizing a full range
of system variables within analytical categories that can be applied to all other social science
research traditions.
Prioritizing infrastructural shifts strip structural relations of their causal primacy,
otherwise cultural materialism (i.e. Harris) and historical materialisms (i.e.Marxists) are
conceptually similar, especially in the case of some French structural Marxist models where
structure is merged with the infrastructure.18 Harris unequivocally broke with other
Marxisms by rejecting the dogma of Hegelian dialectics, replacing it with a formulation of
system reinforcing and system changing feedback loops connecting infrastructure and the
other levels of the system that largely replicates the functions subsumed by dialectical
processes.19 The mode of production school pioneered by French scholars working in
African societies established a holistic base-superstructure framework within the Marxist
research tradition, but failed to escape the basic assumptions of dialectical materialism.20
Some cognitive and interpretive social scientists on the other end of the theoretical
spectrum recoil at Harris's behaviorism and what they see as the reduction of all culture to a
dependent variable of material processes, and the low methodological priority given to
cultural expression in what Harris categorizes as emic mental phenomena, or informants'
reports on their own cognitive, cultural orientations (1979).
Phenomenological theorists work instead displays almost exclusive reference to the
domain of superstructure (i.e. culture) in the course of explicating specific cultural
orientations, deep structures, ideas, and belief systems as keys to a particularistic





18The greatest enmity, as Laudan notes, occurs among proponents of similar theories: "precisely because
some theories represent attempts within the framework of the tradition to improve and correct their
predecessors (1977, 81)."
19The materialist critics of cultural materialism do not object to the analytical division of sociocultural and
economic phenomena, but to the principle of infrastructural determination. Marxist critics argue that
determinacy resides solely in the relations of production (Harris's "structure"), and assert that revising the
core assumption of social change in Marxism--the dialectic process of history--to the level of feedback loops
reduces Harris's theories to mechanistic materialism (e.g. Worsley 1983).
20Harris (1979) praises the general concept of the French Marxists as being consistent with cultural
materialism except for the inclusion of dialectical assumptions. Godelier, however, reverts to the "vulgar
materialism" stereotype of cultural materialism, accusing Harris of demoting social relations to
epiphenomenal adjuncts of a set of adaptive techniques to the natural and biological environment (1986,
49). Godelier's The Mental and The Material (1986), for example, provides an insightful discussion of
cultural-structural/infrastructural dynamics by way of analyzing socially generated information about the
environment and social relations. In the end, however, he imposes the structural relations-cum-historical
contradictions monocausal framework of his research tradition even while honestly presenting useful data
generated by other theoretical approaches.









construction of social reality.21 Explorations into the more symbolic, metaphorical, and
localized side of culture represent an entirely different ethnographic research tradition where
the observation and interpretation is independent of formal scientific analysis. The logical
empiricism of science versus the interpretive, humanistic nature of phenomenology, not
causal theory, is the real issue here. Harris is not guilty of ignoring research domains that
he distances himself from a priori. These are the more ephemeral manifestations of
cognitive and cultural phenomena, which he considers to be beyond the methodological ken
of scientific observation and hypothesis testing. Methodologically, cultural materialist
theory is behavioral, and uses modifications of Pike's linguistic categories of emic and etic
to distinguish between reliably observed behavioral data and cognitive data--to separate
what people say and what they believe from what they do and how they behave.
Long time frames clearly confirm the validity of infrastructural theories but present a
methodological gap for cultural materialism and its direct forerunner, Julian Steward's
cultural ecology:

Given a sufficiently long time span and degree of generalization, technical, economic, and
environmental factors can 'explain' almost all trends of survival and decline, but the nomothetic
rhetoric of similarities, tendencies, and relativities, and broad classification of types of social
formations has somehow to be translated into the language of ethnographic analysis (Ellen 1982,
60).

Culturally-centered studies, in comparison, often lack a comprehensive methodological
framework in the first place. We can, therefore, also note that the language of ethnographic
analysis has yet to be uniformly translated into an inter-connected framework of social
system attributes. Ruttan's (1988) criticism of anthropology centered on this reduction of
human cultural activities and behaviors to an individual ethnographer's reaction and
understanding. We are back to where we started. Human cultural systems are too complex
to be easily grasped within a single theory or paradigm.
Materialist, evolutionary theory is the starting point for looking at how and why cultures
are similar and different. The discord over level and source of causality in the materialist
domain at least partially evaporates if we shift the semantic emphasis on infrastructural
causality to infrastructural selection, or, for that matter, for causality on the structural and
superstructural levels as well. This allows us to discriminate better between the material





21Curiously, however, in an essay titled "Native's Point of View': Anthropological Understanding'," the
principle figure in the cognitive-semiotic school. Geertz, rejects the idea that the fieldworker can personally
participate in or enter into the cognitive world of another culture (1983, 58).









determinants of cultural systems and the cultural feedbacks that they generate.22 As Riedl
(1977) and Kaufmann (1993) note, incremental adaptations produce an organism or system
individually tuned to its specific environment. But this also alters the environment. The
evolutionary process, once underway, generates a mutually causal relationship between
adaptation and feedback.
Variables linked to culture present the major constraints for robust system analysis
encompassing the full spectrum of ethnographic problems anthropologists encounter. The
analytical utility of ethnographic method largely lies in observing the dynamics that
maximize our understanding of the interplay between culture and other forces, and
distinguish the critical differences emerging out of broad tendencies and similarities.
Materialist and ethnographic perspectives employed as complementary conceptual frames
allow us to take full advantage of anthropology's (and social science's) conceptual
endowment. Anthropologists' work oscillates between an unrelenting attraction for the
holistic and general explanations of human phenomena and the investigation of the most
localized, idiosyncratic, and peculiar details manifesting throughout the social universe.
Anthropology is a young discipline, and as Gellner notes, the answer is usually found at
the end, and not at the beginning (1973, 7).


Culture and Cultural Endowment:


Culture, by virtue of its adaptive qualities and synergistic presence in the system, is
synonymous with the self-organizing property of human systems. Culture operates
through a group's internal network of linkages. Cultural components are aligned within
specific social structures as defined by conventional criteria of kinship, age-set systems,
social hierarchies, economic class, and regional, religious, ethnic, and other organizations.
Cultural adaptation, including the role of social learning and decision-making in group
processes, is perhaps even more amenable to analysis through evolutionary principles than
genetic change (Boyd and Richerson 1985). Evolutionary principles can enhance our ideas
of culture as the internal organizing principle of social systems. Cultural responses, more
than biological adaptation which requires long time frames for accumulated mutations to
exert their influence, influenced the human developmental sequence from the simian origins
and prehistoric roots of the earliest societies to the present. This distinguishes cultural



22Feedbacks present the theoretical problem of how different causal variables, articulating together over
time, develop synergetic properties that complicate the material and interpretive analyses of ethnographic
problems.









adaptation as the dominant species characteristic enhancing biological survival and genetic
transmission (Ellen 1982, 237).
An important distinction has to be made between selection on environmental and internal
cultural selection within a population or ethnically defined system. Language is often a
criteria for membership in a group, which in turn determines access to land and other
resources. Inclusive criteria defining groups vis a vis other groups is a fundamental
assumption of Marxism and other theoretical variations emphasizing structural
determinancy be it socioeconomic class or ethnicity. Culture, and the behavioral repertoires
it represents, is often colinear with language criteria. As this case study demonstrates,
however, cultural adaptation and inheritance subject to selectionary forces transcends ethnic
categories. One of the goals of this study is to show how the Meru cultural endowment
evolved to reinforce practices and mechanisms supporting sustainable development in the
sense of cross-generational adaptive fitness.
Ruttan's term "cultural endowment" is used here in reference to cultural institutions,
culturally transmitted behaviors, and ideologies arising out of a system's internal order.
Defining a cultural endowment is useful for problem solving, but not in isolation from
other system components. Structure is further qualified by factoring in interstitial and
system-wide organizational phenomena such as patronage nets, patrimonial political order,
factions, societal institutions, interest groups, and decentralized and centralized state
organizations.
The inter-connectivity of these societal components and how their configurations
respond to the information flows and feedbacks determines the state of the system and its
dynamics. The nature of a system's economic and social connections are thus one key to
cultural dynamics. Methodological stress on the means of communication, as "the
technology of the intellect (Goody 1977, 10)," are a crucial feature of the system's
development. In the Meru case study, much of the intra-system communication involves
informal and non-state loci. I try to represent to some degree the social dynamics involved
here. As we shall see, miraa, in fact, is a basic adjunct to the multi-ethnic, cross-cultural
processes of socialization (Weir 1985; Kennedy 1987). As mentioned earlier, this fact in
itself, would be a thesis of its own. The Igembe have adapted to their economic
environment by producing miraa on a commercial basis, and the consumption of miraa
contributes to the reformulation of social interactions and the processing of information
which is itself the outcome of what Boyd and Richerson (1985) term biased transmission
within a number of local systems.
Most independent variables designated in anthropological literature qualify as system
parameters. Infrastructural variables provide the starting point for the conceptual grid used









for analyzing and locating socioeconomic change over time, but it is the synergetic
combination of material and non-material parameters that produces system dynamics. We
concur with the conceptual order posited in Harris's (1979) cultural materialism regarding
the primacy of infrastructural variables, with the important caveat that evolutionary
development introduces other parameters which may neutralize the primacy of
infrastructure in given situations. In other words, parameter change where change in one
variable effects the others does not a priori refer to infrastructural variables even if they
ultimately derive from shifts in demography, technology, and economy. This is
tantamount to a multi-causal qualification of materialistic theories (including neoclassical
economics, Marxist and neo-Marxist). A holistic approach does not negate monocausal
variables, but it does weaken their causality by linking them to changes in other parameters
and the accompanying feedbacks.
This study builds on the foundation of Johnson and Earle's work by exploring the Meru
variation on the causes, mechanisms, and patterns of evolution (1987, 1). These authors
reinforce the point made by Cohen (1978) that, once it appears, the state becomes a
primary determinant of social evolution. The Meru example is interesting, however,
because the reorganization of society that occurs via the transition to capitalism is occurring
largely in the absence of the state influence on commercialization in other similar areas.
The extent to which internal variables are a direct influence on the production system is
reflected in the farming systems data (Chapters 5 and 6).
The discontinuity between state-initiated economic change and the grass root processes
of social development conceptually complicates proper understanding of both macro level
and micro level dynamics. Small scale formations remain a primary feature of the African
environment, despite the influence of centralizing forces of mainly external origin. The
African situation makes the task of analyzing how the parts of the state-society equation
contribute to socioeconomic transformation more difficult because local systems are
coevolving at the same time strong selective forces are cutting African state systems to a
more manageable size. The situation prevailing in Somalia, following the dissolution of the
state, exemplifies the ability of cultural institutions to reorganize smaller units of social
organization--traditional Somali segmentary lineages in this case. The Somali case is an
extreme example of the fluctuating and "lenticular" qualities described by the relationship
among sub-ethnicity, the state, and supranational organizations (Cohen 1992). As it also
shows, it is not likely that once statehood is present, a region can not easily return to
statelessness. Some form of state-like organization, if not another state, will emerge and a
regime will then step into the gap. The case of Meru involves similar theoretical questions.
The question is not one of state-led versus local development, but a question of how









evolution is adapting states and local systems to each other in current the post-colonial
phase of historical development.


Culture. Feedback, and Social Learning,

We will now list some attributes of culture within the social systems. To reiterate the
materialist concept, culture is generated by other levels of the system, and cultural variables
produce various positive and negative feedback (Harris 1979). There is little argument
that, in this sense, culture reinforces the directionality of infrastructural and structural
pathways. The conclusion reached by (Kaufmann 1993), paralleled in Riedl's (1977)
work, is that after a certain level of system complexity emerges, neither structure or
feedback enjoy adaptive primacy. This hypothesis supports the critical importance of
feedback in the system, and at least part of that feedback is cultural.
Feedback generated by the system reflects some of the internal dynamics generated by
its own development, and can help us understand a system's capacity for adaptive change.
Local feedback influences the larger system's development as local systems or social units
are increasingly integrated into the larger system. This idea receives support from Riedl,
who notes that "the systems conditions which link different levels of complexity to
feedback loops of cause and effect are responsible for the evolution of life (1977, 358)."
The key factor is the group mechanisms for discrimination and classification of the
information coming into a system. The cultural analog appears in Boyd and Richerson's
(1985) concept of biased transmission, referring to knowledge that has been selected for by
the cultural system and replicated across generations. Naturally, cultural information
gathering and social learning are more efficient than individual trial and error. The
importance of culture in creating and transmitting information is another important adaptive
quality that makes it critical for indigenous-led development. In a recent article, Richerson
and Boyd (1992) stress that people pick and choose whom and what to imitate in the first
place, and that social learning is favored over individual learning because it allows
individuals to avoid the costs associated with learning. The strength of biased transmission
depends upon the amount of cultural variation. The variation generated by the
environmental differences underpinning group specializations is reflected in the symbiotic
properties of Igembe Meru society.
On the societal level, they link the increase of non-parental transmission of knowledge
to cultural success and how this aided the spread of low-fertility norms contributing to
demographic transition. This has very interesting implications for the Nyambene case
study where cultural institions increase the weight of "teachers," i.e., individuals from each









generation recognized on the basis of their achievement. One ramification is that Africa's
local systems do not have built-in cultural proclivities supporting reproduction leading to
over-population. Demographic indicators contained within the survey data presented in
Chapter Six indicate that the Nyambene system is not only self-regulating (and that the
Meru do not have to be taught family planning), but also indicate that its culturally
institutionalized age set system deploys labor within different spatial sectors of the
production system (ecological zones) and economic sectors of the production system
(economic nodes) according to an efficient scheme. Another ramification is that,
theoretically, the Nyambene system data argues for selection operating on the level of the
group, in contrast to group evolution as being a cumulative outcome of selective forces on
individuals within the population. The folk-knowledge corollary of this in Meru is
conveyed in the saying "muntu ni antu: a person is people" [the person is a function of the
group to which he or she belongs].
Cultural systems contain highly evolved self-regulatory mechanisms that identify
problems, classify constraints, and evaluate outcomes. A complex system "knows" its
world by virtue of an internal model capable of compressing information and allowing
action: it is driven in part by the dynamic behavior generated by its internal state and in part
by the steady flow of information from its world (Kaufmann 1993). Riedl (1977)
mentions the replication and separation of identical information as a fundamental principle
of life. Culture is the informational software guiding social systems.
Kaufmnann's idea of spontaneous internal organization embodies the idea that culture is
constrained by the nature of a system's internal linkages. Riedl mentions the same idea
when he states that "old systems" are highly interconnected and in principle, unalterable. A
system becomes conservative because new adaptations building on the older ones burden
the system's ability to change (1977, 362). This explains why a highly developed,
complex system with copious information storage capacity can be less responsive to
change, and more prone to entropic forces than smaller, information-poor systems (like
Igembe society) that maintain broad structures for the exchange and dissemination of
information. The conservative caste of non-adaptive social orders explains why history is
punctuated with revolutions and short periods of far-reaching change like the Neolithic shift
to domesticated food and livestock production (Schusky 1989).
By analogy, an adaptive cultural endowment is one that is receptive to and encourages
the integration of social learning. The feedback into the system is also selected for or
against depending upon the internal order of the system. An evaluation of a cultural
system's adaptive properties, examined in this case study in association with the notion of
sustainability, must take these arguments into account.









Symbiosis


I referred to symbiosis in the preceding chapter as an important but neglected
mechanism of social evolution in the African environment. Symbiosis helps us to elicit the
pattern and dynamics of the Nyambene system's development. Forces supporting small
and localized adaptations also support symbiotic interactions. Incremental changes, such as
those at the center of the Nyambene system's development, feed back into the macro-level
transition. Together, these forces drive the local and national level systems towards a state
where the multiple interactions among micro and macro variables interact to generate
socioeconomic transformation.
Symbiosis grows out of exchange, conflict, cooperation, diffusion, and systemic
syntheses. This produces synergetic outcomes in which the whole becomes greater than
the sum of its parts; a cultural equation where one plus one is greater than two.23 Riedl
(1977) and Kaufmann (1993) note that adaptive gains are paid for in the long run by
reduced adaptive potential. A reduced scope for internally generated adaptations implies
that the potential advantages of symbiotic adaptations are increased. In our case study, for
example, symbiotic interactions expand the range of ecological niches available to an
agrarian society. Increased complexity promoted the Meru polity's stability, and decreased
its vulnerability to environmental catastrophe heightened in other local societies by the
growing regional population density.
There are numerous manifestations of accommodation and cultural symbioses among
African societies. Symbiosis may result from hostile and predatory relations between
organisms where a threatened population survives by integrating elements of the dominant
population in a shared environment. As noted above, anthropological examples of
symbiosis often emerge from conflict relations such as Bantu-pastoralist interactions
(Kimambo 1974), the Nilotic penetration of intralacustrine kingdoms in Uganda (Oliver
1991), and the Maasai-Meru relations depicted in this case study (Mboroki 1972; Rimita
1988).
Perhaps the most developed thesis on this theme is Spencer's (1973) study of Rendille
and Samburu pastoralists who evolved a symbiotic alliance founded on econiche
adaptations based on camel and cattle specialization in adjacent environments. The

23Margulis and Sagan's 1986 book Microcosnmos is a tour de force developing the critical role of symbiotic
processes from the very beginnings of life on earth. The authors extend symbiotic syntheses in the world
of microbes to a microcosmos of evolutionary development subsuming the details of human physiology.
The role of symbiosis, "the merging of organisms into new collectives (pg. 20)," is described as a major
power of change on earth. Symbiotic coevolution couples large-scale and small-scale in a seamless cycle of
mutual causality (Jansch 1980. quoted in Peat and Briggs 1989,164), echoing Riedl's (1977) description of
two way causality.









relevance of symbiosis to the Nyambene system's internal development cannot be
overstated. We attempt to examine the historical and contemporary aspects of cultural and
agricultural system symbiosis in the following pages. As noted, this problem-driven
analysis attempts to provide information on the important role of the cultural endowment in
socioeconomic processes. The specific problem is that due to the saturated nature of the
high potential highlands, the lower zones and the informal sector of the urban economy
share the greater responsibility burden of supporting Kenya's surging population as the
historical flow of population gradually moving up the ecological gradient has reversed into
a flow back down.
National agricultural goals are therefore contingent upon technological change and the
environmental carrying capacity of fragile ecological systems under conditions of high
population growth, low input use, and limited off-farm economic opportunities. Both of
these factors of innovation and conservation appear to be largely beyond the existing
institutional capacity, including government ministries, PVOs, and NGOs. In recognition
of this reality, the role of market forces in the more problematic ASAL areas is expanded to
include what the Kenya National Development Plan 1989-1993 refers to as the potential for
ecozone symbiosis: ASAL strategies include "determining ways and means of effecting
symbiotic exchange of resources and products between the ASAL and high potential areas
(page 134)."
Unfortunately, the mechanisms and socioeconomic loci of "symbiotic exchange" are not
defined in the Development Plan. These are ostensibly informal linkages, new and
traditional forms of eco-niche specialization, migration and new settlement, reinvestment of
agricultural profits from high potential zone commodities in the lower zones, and the
exchange of location-specific information contained in indigenous knowledge systems in
local resource use and management. The research indicated that ecozone symbiosis has
been integral to Meru historical processes.


Coevolutionary Processes


We end our review of evolutionary concepts with the idea of how the linkage of systems
or their components influence development.. Individual systems and organisms that alter
in response to parameter changes also change or deform their landscapes with
consequences for other entities sharing the environment. Two general ecological models
differentiate coevolutionary patterns and processes. In the Red Queen Hypothesis (Van
Valen 1973), species evolve continuously in relationship to each other where a fitness
advantage in one species is compensated by a similar adaptation in another. The second is









known as Evolutionary Stable Strategies, or ESS (Maynard Smith and Price 1973). This
states that adaptive changes, tradeoffs, and responses eventually stabilize within an
unchanging, overall system stasis.
The critical variable differentiating the two patterns is design constraints within the
organism. Adaptations carry a price. For example running faster may require a higher
metabolic rate. But some traits can increase without constraints, as Richerson and Boyd
indicate for much social learning. Constrained adaptations settle into ESS, whereas
unbounded traits become trapped in Red Queen rat races. Free market policies assume an
ESS outcome based on differential comparative advantage, but Third World commodity
production, where an exotic market crop is substituted for a traditional cultivar, displays
characteristics of the Red Queen Hypothesis. As noted by Lipton (1988) for improved
coffee and market cultivars, improvements in production are offset by decreases in prices.
The IFI's Structural Adjustment Programs can also feed the rat race: countries, like Ghana,
boost their cocoa production only to experience decreased prices due to increased supplies.
This is central to the question of African development, which seeks a strategy that can
tune local economies so as to propel nations out of the boom-bust cycle of primary
commodity production. The implication is that much of Kenya's development up to this
point, in fact based on social learning and borrowing of technology, supports the Red
Queen scenario. For example, commercial cultivars easily substituted for local crops (e.g.
coffee, cotton, tobacco) supported local change but not a change in the relationship of the
local system (in this case, Kenya) to the world economy. In reality, the position of Africa
in world trade has slipped significantly over the past decades, and by 1988 Africa only
accounted for 5 % of international commerce (World bank 1989). The ultimate question is,
therefore, not one of boosting on-farm production. Rather, boosting incomes, increasing
diversification and exchange, and providing inputs feeding multi-sectoral growth is the
critical variable.
Exchange and linkages among regions and the state are a critical variable here. Other
studies have shown that sustaining the self-sufficiency of local systems in isolation is
difficult (Hansen 1994). A way out of the coevolutionary conundrum emerges out of the
idea that Africa will benefit by developing the richness of its internal couplings, implying a
return to some of the regional exchange dynamics of the late precolonial period. This, in
addition to existing linkages to the world system, will buffer local economies against the
forces of the Red Queen. This, again, implies that a shift in the couplings of local systems
directly aligned with the world economy markets and labor markets supported by colonial









governments will contribute to regional sustainability over time by increasing and
diversifying their couplings.24
The idea advanced here is qualitatively different from the simple delinking strategies
advocated by dependency theorists, described in detail by Blomstrom and Hettne (1984).
Linkages to the international economy are adaptive when they generate internal growth and
diversification (Collier and Lal 1980), but ultimately maladaptive when they reinforce
monocultural complexes (c.f. Hyden 1988). Historical interactions among local systems
underscore how the outcome of increased couplings is often cultural and economic
symbioses.
In what follows in succeeding chapters, we shall examine the system's development: the
historical evolution of the production system synthesized under Meru and Igembe ethnicity,
the internal order of Igembe society, the specific configuration of Igembe agriculture and
the dynamics of change and the symbiosis between ecozones. Chapter Three provides a
picture of the Igembe cultural endowment by providing a history of ethnic interactions, the
development of cultural institutions, and showing how they are attuned to problem solving
and conflict resolution. Chapter Four parallels some of the information in Chapter Three,
but centers on the system's economic development. Chapter Five presents an outline of the
production system, and Chapter Six analyses how it is changing and replicating itself
across ecological zones. Finally, Chapter Seven extrapolates some of the dynamics of the
local system to analysis of developments on the national level.
In the chapter that follows, the origins and role of the Igembe cultural endowment are
examined. The cultural endowment consists of ideologies and institutions. Ideologies
point to the "biases" in biased transmission as discussed by Richerson and Boyd (1992),
and influence the accumulation of choices that guided the evolution of the local system from
the past to its current form. Cultural institutions are seen operating in terms of (1) the
stable and adapting relation of internal factors within Igembe society as they remain in
continuous relation to their past as it meets their future, and (2) the relationship of Meru to
the outside world.







24Local examples of this phenomena are documented in the final chapter of Gluckman's work on the Lozi
of Zambia, in Cohen and Atieno-Odhiambo (1989), Berman and Lonsdale (1991), and many other studies of
local society in Africa. deJanvry's (1985, 1987) work on Brazil provides a similar perspective for Latin
America.













CHAPTER 3
KURIA!: A BRIEF HISTORY OF CULTURALLY SUSTAINED MERU LAND
AND RESOURCE USE

"A great curiosity in the literature is why cooperation and social learning are so widely discounted
given the rich empirical variety of local institutional arrangements for managing common
issues." (Herring 1990, 64).


This chapter provides material on Igembe cultural institutions in order to give substance to
the importance of cultural adaptation and feedback discussed in the two previous chapters.
We try, in particular, to stress the importance of the Igembe's system's cultural endowment
as it applies to land and resource management and social guidance. This has long been one
of the most under-valued dimensions of African production due to a variety of factors. The
reports of early explorers, missionaries, and adventurers initiated feedback that conditioned
a view of African natives as irresponsible tenants of a wild but Edenesque environment.1
In the absence of other constraints, European ideologies legitimized exploitation by positing
poor environmental management as one of the claims that supported European intervention
and control. This impression survived beyond the colonial period.2
Environmental issues go to the heart of development policies that regard African culture
as rooted in conservative peasant values, if not outright maladaptive practices.
Environmental degradation, one in the cluster of failed governance, implicated African
peasants (and goats) as the agents of environmental destruction. The large-scale famines of
the 1970s and 1980s became environmental media events disseminating the dust bowl
disaster image that mobilized new kinds of eclectic international responses. Massive food






1The European image of Africa as a region where the natives "lived in a malevolent conditions of chaos"
was partially true as travelers saw the results of slavery and other forces of conflict and change (Davidson
1992, 80). Slavery deflated the quickening pace of change in some areas by siphoning off population and
destabilizing regional ethnic relations.
2The paternalism of widely read authors like Elspeth Huxley reinforced the environmentally ignorant
African stereotype. If Africans were proving to out-perform the settler economy, it was because they
exploited techniques and behaviors that placed their economic interests over colonial environmental concerns
(Anderson and Throup 1985, Steinhart 1987). Colonial policies and administrators, however, treated the
environmental mission seriously, especially in regard to the entrenched emphasis on forestry and soil
conservation inherited from British India (Anderson 1992).









relief and delivery became a critical component of Western approaches to development just
as colonial enforced conservation measures were earlier (Anderson and Grove 1987).3


Sustainability and Cultural Adaptation:


Sustainable development became a buzz word during the late 1980s as environmental
issues came to occupy an increasingly prominent position in formal discussion of
development. Sustainability does not appear in the topics covered in Eicher and Baker's
definitive survey of African agriculture published in 1982, but by 1992 environmental
sustainability and related issues were the major subject of the Earth summit, and provided
the underlying concept of the World Bank's 1992 annual World Development Report,
Development and the Environment. The report defines sustainability in its broadest sense:
"Sustainable development is development that lasts," in the sense that current generations
should "meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet
their own needs." By the early 1990s it was de rigour in many texts to attach the adjective
"sustainable" to standard references to agriculture, economy, and development.
Sustainable agriculture, for example, subsumes twin objectives of production and
conservation. Emphasis on sustainable agriculture mirrors heightened awareness of the
global effects of environmental pollution, the breakdown of local systems, and a
recognition of the inter-connected quality of bio-physical environments paralleling the inter-
dependent nature of the world political economy. This is a world-wide concern, requiring
interdisciplinary scientific endeavor (Wilken 1989). Institutional agricultural research has
overcome its monocultural biases to investigate hypotheses related to intercropping,
vegetative regeneration under heavy grazing regimes, and various other technological
aspects of traditional production strategies. In fact, much of this research merely quantifies
the appropriateness of practices based on local knowledge.
Local systems logically embody ideologies of conservation as well, although research
has concentrated on other dimensions of traditional practices, and seldom make explicit the
indigenous conceptualization of sustainability. The sustainability of a system is gauged by
its ability to adapt and to evolve in relationship to changing system parameters. The idea is
used here in reference to cross-generational adaptive fitness. The Nyambene system is an




3Game conservation, state forestry, terracing, cattle-culling, protecting watersheds, and rotational schemes
were the primary elements of the colonial Africans conservation strategy. Some of these policies directly
fed political opposition in the native reserves after World War II (Beinart 1987).









especially interesting case study because it displays consistent internal dynamics
contributing to a gradual, but largely uninterrupted, developmental trajectory.
Other regional societies were arguably more progressive in their adaptation to the
Western presence that redirected Africa's socioeconomic processes over the last two
centuries. The accumulation of material rewards of this accommodation for the Gikuyu,
Embu, and Mt. Kenya sections of the Meru is not disputed. Their adaptation to the new
order, however, was paid for by replacing some of their internal organization and
institutions with monocultural external linkages. The Nyambene traditionalist exemplar
presents us with a rabbit and hare situation where the Igembe are rapidly overtaking their
rural counterparts during the current period of economic stagnancy, and forging ahead
largely on the strength of their own cultural endowment.
The survival, indeed the vitality, of the Nyambene cultural endowment contrasts with
other ecologically similar and culturally related areas across the Mt. Kenya region.4 The
strength of the indigenous cultural orientation is reinforced by the feedback deriving from
the unique trajectory of capitalist development emerging out of the commercialization of
indigenous Nyambene agriculture (Goldsmith 1988).5 The Meru, and the Igembe in
particular, developed social concepts and agricultural practices generations ago that are only
now coming of age in developmental circles. It is impossible to discuss the Igembe cultural
endowment without reference to their production practices, but the main concern of this
essay is its social support system.
Institutions, customs, traditions, and myths represent the cultural DNA that guides a
local system as it adapts to its environment and responds to crises.6 Cultural institutions
coordinate the different parts of the system, store and evaluate knowledge, organize, and
establish priorities for group and individual decision making. These institutions are
cognitively linked to symbolic systems, ideologies, beliefs, and myths that continue to
exert certain influences on the behavior of a system, even when their institutional structures
lapse. They can, therefore, provide loci for investigating the transmitted cognitive and
structural orientations of a society. The adaptive capacity of traditional systems points to
corresponding cultural endowments or knowledge systems used to classify, identify,
respond to, and solve problems as they arise. The ethnographic and historical record
contains numerous examples of cultural adaptations and techno-environmental practices

4The Nyambenes encompass two Meru sub-groups, the Tigania and Igembe. The Igembe are the main
subject of this discussion.
5The Nyambene path to capitalism appears more the exception than the rule in sub-Saharan Africa, not
discounting notable examples of similar cases like Ghana's early cocoa farmers studied by Hill (1963).
6 The description of institutions etc. as cultural DNA was made by the Nobel Physicist, Murray Gell-
Mann, quoted in Lewin (1992, 15).









underpinning sustainable production systems in Africa (Kjekshus 1977, Allen 1965,
Richards 1985). Situations where cultural institutions survive the selective forces in the
social and physical environment, and continue to guide local society, present an
opportunity to analyze their role in local systems.


Kuria: The Meru Definition of Sustainability:


The thick canopy of trees, even in areas of dense settlement, is a striking feature of the
Meru highland landscape on the east side of Mt. Kenya.7 The Meru recognize the
restorative properties of forests and trees, and observers have often commented on their
overarching social emphasis on resource conservation (Laughton 1944, Lambert 1949,
Bernard 1988). Two sizable forests, the Nyambene and Ngaya, remain intact despite the
intense demand for productive land in the Igembe region central to this discussion.8
Numerous groves of indigenous trees also exist in densely populated areas, and local farms
are small, intensely manicured domestic agro-forests that generate relatively high incomes
and a variety of domestic products. Local farmers also express positive attitudes toward
wildlife despite the problems of crop damage by animals straying from the forests, plains,
and Meru National Park.9
Respect for these natural resources runs deeper than simple utility and use value. The
Meru invest their natural environment with material, curative, aesthetic, ritual, and spiritual
qualities. They use concoctions of trees and herbs to treat people, animals, and crop
diseases. Their sophisticated indigenous agroforestry practices are the result of continuous
observation and experimentation with plants and trees over time. Exchange relations have

7 Homan remarked that while large trees are few in Gikuyu country, survey is difficult and costly in Meru
due to the indigenous tree cover, which makes aerial methods impossible in some areas (1960. 237). In
Igembe the ideology of trees holds a number of species sacred, and even a metaphor for marriage: "a women
is a garden where you plant trees."
8The name Ngaya comes from one of the words in Meru for God which also refers to rain. The Igembe
Meru consider Mt. Kenya, Ngaya, the Nyambene forest, and the I'ombe crater in the far comer of the district
to be primary places of God, although there are numerous other sacred lakes and small hills, forests etc.
where sacrifices are offered.
9Field notes, Oct. 31, 1992. Between Kangeta and Nkinyang'a we came across a colobus monkey crossing
the road. There were people attracted to the sight, but the monkey was not harassed: the monkey behaved as
if he/she was in familiar territory. Ng'olwa said to harm such a creature would be a great crime. "It is
believed," he said, "that such a creature is a messenger between God's world and men, and killing it would
invoke a great curse on the area. Coming across it in the bush is a different situation, but killing is not the
issue in either situation." Colobus monkeys are apparently not a "sacred" species. Meru made traditional
headdress from colobus skins and the contextual setting of this attitude is one where a monkey from the
Nyambene forest regularly visits this densely settled area without causing significant damage to crops. In
contrast the only wild monkey colony in the United States, the offspring of monkeys brought to film a
Tarzan movie, living outside Silver Springs, Florida, have been scheduled for termination despite the fact
that there is no evidence that they have interfered with the human population or farms.









yet to lessen their independent disposition or their cultural commitment to resource
conservation.
The linkage between strong indigenous institutions and the Meru ethic of conservation
shares a complicated historical dynamic that is particularly interesting in the light of the
concept of sustainability. The main thread in the argument presented here is that the Meru
people perceived development in terms of indigenous applied agricultural science,
governance structures represented by their social institutions, and the conservation of
natural resources upon which Meru society depends. For the Meru all these ideas are
conveyed through the formal "Kuria" greeting used by Meru elders and Njuri Ncheke
leaders.10
Kuria means to raise or nurture, as in raising children or planting crops. In the cultural
context it is both intuitively and explicitly an all-inclusive term for what we call
sustainability. The greeting symbolizes the Njuri Ncheke ideology of a pan-generational
commitment to social development. Kuria subsumes socially defined goals that mandate
the proper management of not only environmental resources, but also, the human resources
forming the Meru polity.11 The Njuri Ncheke intersects Meru age-set structures in the
form of age-set councils on several levels from the clan on up. Age-sets symbolize the
procession of generations across time, and institutionalize kuria-sustainability as a concept
of cross-generational adaptive fitness.
Local sustainability grew out of multi-ethnic interaction as well as internal guidance.
The Meru entered the region as a small group of clans and evolved into the dominant
society in the region. Their historical dynamic presents empirical evidence of symbiotic
processes as a strong evolutionary force: social and technological adaptation accompanied
the integration of several different ethnic populations into a unified production system
utilizing the high ecological variation in the region. Meru often identify their relations with
other groups in terms of conflict, but a closer examination of their system and discussion
with informants reveals a synthetic society born of symbiotic processes. 12 Recognition of
the symbiotic qualities of African social phenomena broadens the conceptual framework to
include the syntheses and adaptive socioeconomic arrangements that arise out of the
conditions that engender both conflict and the potential for cooperation.



1OThe salutation and response for individuals and groups is simply"kuria!"
11A progressive leader is sometimes called mukuri, from the same root.
12Analyses of Africa often focus on group interactions in terms of conflict and power relations. Curtin's
study, Cross Cultural Trade in World History (1984). two recent articles by Hopkins (1988; 1986). and
Wolfs Europe and the People Without History (1985) do present an alternative view where exchange and
interaction receive their due credit along with conflict and war.









Precolonial Dynamics:


The Meru environmental configuration fosters a pattern of ecozone specialization expressed
in the subsistence adaptations of different ethnic groups inhabiting the Mt. Kenya region at
different times. Diverse groups entered the area and colonized different ecological sectors
according to their original production strategies. Contemporary Meru society evolved
under the influences of populations present in the region prior to their arrival. Group
interactions were complex, and varied according to the area and the specific section of the
Meru.
The proto-Meru were actually the last group to enter the region. The original inhabitants
of the region were Agumba and Ndorobo hunter-gatherer groups inhabiting the montane
forests and savannas. Over two thousand years ago, Cushitic agropastoralists migrated
from the Ethiopian highlands and took up residence in intermediate zones where they kept
small ruminants and cultivated indigenous African grains, millets, eleusine, and sorghum.
Approximately one millennia ago, Highland Nilotes entered the region and added cattle to
the list of domesticated elements of local production systems (Sutton 1980). The people
known locally in Meru as Mwoko, probably pre-Kalenjin remnants of this population, are
associated with the abandoned Sirikwa irrigation works on the escarpment of the Rift
Valley. Groups of Oromo speaking Eastern Cushites reached the area by the 1500s adding
to the cultural melange.
A wave of Bantu agriculturalists, migrating from the northeast ,crossed the Tana River,
also around 1500 A.D., eventually displaced most of the agro-pastoralists groups. They
probably absorbed some of them as they congealed into the forerunners of the Gikuyu,
Embu, Mbere, Tharaka, and Chuka (Mwaniki 1984). These Bantu settlers, known in local
traditions as the Tumnibiri clans, were followed by south-bound plains Nilotes, pastoral
Maasai and Samburu spreading from the Rift Valley corridor to the grasslands fringing the
western flanks of Mt. Kenya and the Nyambene Range. A second wave of Bantu settlers,
identified in traditions as the Thagana clans (Thagana is the Meru name for the Tana
River), fled their coastal homeland, an island they call Mbowa, and followed the Tumbiri
clans into the region. Clans entering the Mt. Kenya vicinity during the second migration
crossed the Tana twenty one generations ago, which would date their appearance in the
region to the late 1600s or the early 1700s. These Thagana clans developed into the Meru
speaking peoples who maintained their initial unity through the Njuri Ncheke council
(Fadiman 1976; Laughton 1944).
Initial movements of the first Bantu clans crossing the Tana assumed a north to south
direction; settlement centered on the middle highland zones, or the maize zones in the









ecozone classification employed in this study. The exception to this pattern are the
agropastoralist Mbere and Tharaka, who relied on livestock and millet production in the
lowlands of eastern Mt. Kenya. The Maasai had moved into the high pasturelands in the
rain shadow on the northern fringes of Mt. Kenya and into the lower southwestern flanks
of the Nyambenes, while their Samburu cousins utilized adjacent rangelands on the
northern slopes on a seasonal basis, effectively sealing-off expansion to the west.
The Tumbiri settlers absorbed most of the earlier Cushitic and Nilotic agro-pastoralists.
The pre-Kalenjin Mwoko are the one population mentioned in Meru traditions who
remained unassimilated after the spread of the Tumbiri clans. A small pocket of the earlier
Highland Nilote-Southern Cushite population, the Mokogodo, also survived in the Mt.
Kenya area. The second wave of Bantu clans encountered higher population densities and
later movements were in a west and northwesterly direction. The proto-Meru Thagana
clans divided into different communities in the lowlands between Mt. Kenya and the
Nyambenes. Migration was replaced by irrendentist expansion once pastoralist movements
sealed off the northwestern corner of Mt. Kenya. The Tumbiri migration had pushed the
Embu and Mbeere to their locations south of Meru District, and the arrival of Thagana clans
served to force the Chuka up, becoming the first group to settle in the higher coffee zone
and the tea zone of Mt. Kenya.
The arrival of the proto-Meru Thagana was a major turning point in the region. The
population was reaching its saturation point relative to the extensive production .ati tegiep
prevailing during that period: hunting, shifting cultivation, and the cattle based nomadic
pastoralism of the Maasai. By the mid 1700s the scarcity of game and increasing
population density led to increased sedentarization. The Meru clans occupied the
northeastern corner of the Mt. Kenya foothills, now divided into several sections or sub-
ethnicities, and moved up the slopes of Mt. Kenya and the Nyambenes. This resulted in
the zonal agricultural system described by Bernard (1972). Ethnic relations quickened as
the region's periodic droughts intensified conflict among the now circumscribed
populations. Agriculture underwent a shift towards intensified agricultural production as
groups colonized the higher zones bordering the band of montane forest on Mt. Kenya and
the Nyambenes.
The Meru polity evolved through processes of integration, conflict, and synthesis. The
Meru fought the Maasai after crossing the Tana. They clashed with Oromo pastoralists on
the plains of Tharaka during the Nyamdure drought of 1725-29 (Mwaniki 1984, 151). The
Igembe variously refer to these pastoralists as the Agira, Akara, and Ukara, and claim they
were related to the Mwoko (Fadiman 1976, 155). The Meru absorbed some of these









Cushitic/Nilotic groups,13 and developed peaceful relations based on blood brotherhood
with others (Lambert 1949, 13). They also established fictive kinship relations with the
Waso Nyiro Borana, the southernmost extension of the greater Borana population of
southern Ethiopia inhabiting the rangelands overlapping the northern borders of present day
Meru District, and with the Rendille, another Cushitic group inhabiting the more distant
north.14


Maasai-Meru Relations


The Meru term Uuru, enemy, is reserved exclusively for the Maasai and Samburu.
Meru traditions describe their relations with the Maasai in particular as a protracted state of
hostility and conflict. Even so, herdsmen and farmers maintained symbiotic relations even
amidst local hostilities, and considerable intermarraige took place, especially among the
Tigania (Hjort 1981). The Meru of Kangeta traded with the Samburu at a market on the
border of the maize and millet zone. Dolichos (Lab Lab niger), or hyacinth beans, are a
major crop on the northern flank of the Nyambenes. The papery skin of these beans
detaches upon drying; when the wind carried these flakes across the plains the distant
Samburu knew that the Igembe harvest was ready, and they came to exchange skins, goats
and other products for food.
Even so, much of the last century saw extended hostilities between the northern Meru
and their warrior pastoralist neighbors. The Meru ultimately prevailed, pushing the Maasai
beyond the modem borders of the district, and chasing the Samburu to the other side of the
Waso Nyiro River. The enmity, however, was matched by other forms of interaction,
because of all the groups in the region, the Maasai influence on the northern Meru is
particularly pronounced. (Mboroki 1972). The Nilotes marked influence on north Imenti
and Nyambene society led one British District Commissioner to observe that, while
linguistically Bantu, the northern Meru were in many other aspects culturally Nilotic
(KNA/DC Mru 1, 1927).
Famine and internecine warfare accelerated the decline of the Maasai in the Mt. Kenya
vicinity. When sections of the Maasai polity crumbled, refugees sought refuge with their
kin among the Meru and the northern Gikuyu (Muriuki 1976, 133). The Meru absorbed
significant numbers of these Maasai (and Samburu to a lesser degree), especially in Tigania

13Sutton and Oliver discuss Cushitic and Nilotic cultural syntheses occurring on the southern edge of the
Ethiopean highlands as the prelude to an agropastoralist migration and settlement in the Kenya highlands
around 1000 A.D.
14 The Meru term, gichiaro, referring to local practices of blood brotherhood, is discussed presently.









and north Imenti. Maasai territories were divided into two southern and northern reserves
following the allocation of land in Kenya's central Rift Valley to British settlers. In 1911
the Maasai leader, Lenana, concluded an agreement with the British to move all Maasai
proper to the southern reserve. Apparently a number of Maasai were able to avoid
relocation through their association with the Tigania. Some Tigania joined a portion of
their Maasai relations and trekked to present-day Narok District during the Kiaramu famine
of 1918-1919. Several years later colonial authorities detained those Maasai remaining in
the district and resettled them outside Meru. Only the Samburu remained in the Mt. Kenya
region.
In this manner the Meru polity expanded to cover the succession of ecological zones
from montane forest to semi-arid rangeland that occur across the highland-lowland
interface, the production system assimilating various elements of ethnic, econiche
specialization in the process. Conflict as well as peaceful assimilation fed the growth
process, and contributed a number of the differences distinguishing the various Meru sub-
ethnicities. The assimilation of ethnic and cultural elements represents an extremely
complicated process as this summary of the ethnic and cultural mix that produced the
contemporary Gikuyu, which also holds for most contemporary populations of the Mt.
Kenya region, reveals:

These early occupants of the Mt. Kenya region have left a deep imprint on the Kikuyu and their
cousins. The numerous physical types seen amongst them bear testimony that the Gikuyu
represent a fusion of many different ethnic elements. No doubt some of the words and traits were
borrowed at various stages of contact from the plains Nilotic speakers such as the II Tikirri.
Ndorobo or Athi and the Maasai. However it should be noted that many of them were acquired
from the Eastern Cushitic-speaking peoples in the first instance. It is probable, therefore, that the
Thagicu, or proto Thagicu, might have acquired some of these Eastern Cushitic cultural
characteristics directly from the Eastern Cushitic-speaking elements. The most important of these
traits are circumcision and clitoridectomy as the major initiation rites, the Cushitic prohibition
against eating fish, and presumably the idea of a cycling age-set system. It is likely, though by no
means certain, that these features were borrowed from the Gumba. Furthermore, the Gumba are
reputed to have taught the Gikuyu the art of iron-working, while the Aathi are claimed to have sold
large chunks of their former hunting grounds to some of the Kikuyu. Muriuki 1976, 118.


The complexity of ethnic interactions mirrors the variation in the regional environment.
A chief feature of the Meru environment, as stressed earlier, is a succession of ecological
zones based on altitude, the spatial orientation of highland masses influencing rainfall and
rainshadows, and the location of physical features such as rivers, lakes, forests, and other
natural resources contributing to the multiplicity of ecological niches within the region.
Adaptation to specific conditions within ecological zones maximized the production
potential of these zones, and specialization promoted interaction and exchange among
populations across the ecological gradient.










The Nyambene Meru:


The sections of the Meru proper, as defined by membership in the Njuri Ncheke, (the
Imenti, Tigania, Igembe, Miutine, Igoji, Mwimbe, and Muthambe) are descended from the
Thagana clans. The Chuka and Tharaka, products of the Tumbiri clans migration, are
Meru by administrative definition and cultural-linguistic similarity. They claim a separate
identity for legitimate reasons borne out in the historical record of the district's internal
group relations. The Tigania and the Igembe share the Nyambene region and a reputation
dating back to the early colonial period for being in the vanguard of traditional culture, and
resistant to Western influences (Lambert 1947). The Tharaka of the district's eastern
lowlands, the most isolated of all Meru's sub-groups, enjoy a reputation for cultural
conservatism to the point of aggressive xenophobia.
The two major dispersal points from where both the Tumbiri and Thagana populations
expanded into the rest of the district lie on either side of the Nyambenes. The one
surviving group linked to the Tumbiri clans and the Gikuyu, the Thaicu, remained on the
lower slopes of the northern Nyambenes. Igembe traditions trace their migration as also
coming from the northerly direction. They avoided contact with the Thaicu presence in the
middle zones, and initially settled near the fringes of the Nyambene forest. They expanded
first into the small valleys on the windward side, and then down the middle spine of the
Nyambene range. The Tigania approached the Nyambenes from the other side and settled
in the foothills between the two mountain ranges and on the southern slopes of the
Nyambenes.
Proximity to the forest served as a refuge during Maasai raids, and explains Igembe oral
traditions of contact, conflict, and incorporation of Agumba elements. Except for the
numerically small Thaicu, there is no evidence of large populations inhabiting the
Nyambene range other than the Agumba forest dwellers and the Mwoko, whom the Igembe
associate with knowledge of water (Lambert 1949). The Agumba were defeated by the
newcomers and ceased to exist as a separate entity. The Mwoko were agro-pastoralists.
As Highland Nilotes they would have practiced circular age-sets organization (instead of
the linear age-set organization associated with the Plains Nilotes), and the reference to
knowledge of water may refer to Sirikwa-type irrigation practices. Mwoko relations with
the Igembe and Tigania were hostile, and the Nyambene Meru ultimately prevailed over
them as well.
Both of these groups left their mark on the Meru sub-groups of the Nyambenes.
Although traditions claim they took over age-set organization from the Maasai (Rimita









1988), Igembe and Tigania age set organization is cyclical while Imenti age-sets are linear.
Nyambene Meru have highly developed ethno-botanical repertoires, and this is especially
evident in Nyambene high-zone agriculture. The Igembe also identify certain families with
a strong agro-pastoral orientation as being of Mwoko origin. It follows that Maasai
influence became strong later, and especially among the Tigania who, like the north Imenti,
permitted a Maasai presence in the midst of their agricultural settlements (Mboroki 1972).
The Igembe reflect a particularly strong synthesis of elements derived from the different
populations they encountered and absorbed. Ecological knowledge, medicine, and magic
from the hunters and foragers, cattle and age-set social structures from the Plains Nilotes,
and circumcision practices from the Cushites blended into their own essentially agricultural
orientation. The socioeconomic synthesis, the location and natural fecundity of the
Nyambenes, and strong political institutions underpinned the rise of local production
system as the hub of the regional trade network (Chanler 1893). The ethnic elements
contributing to this ethno-environmental consolidation are presented in table 3.1.


Table 3.1: Ethnic groups and Ecological Zones

Ecological Band Ethnic Group Subsistence Technology

High Zones AGumba Foraging, hunting
Botanical knowledge
Maasai High range "buuri" and
lowland grazing 15

Middle Zones Southern Cushites agro-pastoralism
Highland Nilotes agro-pastoralism
(Mwoko/Sirikwa) knowledge of water
Tumbiri/Thagana Bantu clans agriculture, iron
new cultivars

Lower Zones Maasai/Samburu cattle
military organization
Ndorobo/Aathi hunting,
knowledge of plants
and wild animals.
Borana/Rendille cattle/camels



Each group practiced a dominant subsistence strategy, and each contributed different
technological features to the system. The ultimate result of the process was the


15 Buuri is the Meru/Maasai term for the high altitude grass lands, for the most part occurring in the
Mt.Kenya rain shadow. The Maasai were apparently using this and parts of the Mt. Kenya forest as grazing
land before the Meru moved into these areas.









consolidation of the system within the borders of Meru ethnicity. Chanler (1896)
established a base camp in Thaicu for his forays into the NFD during his 1892-93
expedition. In reading his accounts there is no mistaking that the Igembe and Thaicu were
two distinct communities, a mutually shared attitude that remains until the present. This is
the one exception in the historical pattern of integration and synthesis in the Nyambenes.
The Nilo-Cushitic Mokogodo also maintained a distinct identity, but removed themselves
from the sphere of Meru influence by migrating to a peripheral area between Isiolo and
Nanyuki.16
The ecologically similar environments in Meru and the Kenya highlands therefore
accomodated sociocultural adaptations constituting a distinct medley of developmental
trajectories.17 Sensitivity to common environmental initial conditions influenced
population growth, migration, and symbiotic processes prior to the inclusion of local
systems within an external political economy. Assuming a central role for the
demographic-environmental parameter, and that "population growth and a chain reaction of
economic and social changes underlie cultural evolution (Johnson and Earle 1987, 5),"
understanding the chain reaction that follows becomes the practical concern for tallying and
interpreting tsociocultural variables to describe the congruencies in developmental
processes. 18


The Meru Cultural Endowment


We will now attempt to explicate the dynamic relationships between land and resources,
cultural institutions, and both the ideology and practice of conservation within the farming
systems of the Nyambene region. The Meru cultural endowment consists of an
environmental sensibility which manifests as a set of agricultural practices and formalized
relationships with other groups. Internal and external relations are guided by local political
councils that meet locally and on the Njuri Ncheke level. Each of these components will be
examined in turn.



16The identity of the Mokogodo confused British administrators who saw them as a branch of the Samburu.
Sutton (1974, 160) associates them with the Yaaku, an ancient Southern Cushite community.
17Contemporary differences among the Gikuyu. Embu, and Meru areas continue to resist facile comparison,
a point underscored in recent studies in each respective area of Mt. Kenya (e.g. Haugerud 1984, McKenzie
1989, Kitching 1980, Chege 1989, Leo 1984, Goldsmith 1988, Glazier 1985).
18 The historic advantage of anthropology as a discipline is "the ability to see humans as biological
organisms and creatures of culture, to see the cultural and the biological as interacting and complementary,
and to see humans in ecosystems as well as social systems (Keesing 1976. 15)." is largely negated by the
internal wrangling over these two positions.









Numerous elements of Meru society reflect the cultural influences of earlier populations
in the region. The Njuri Ncheke, however, was a uniquely Meru governance structure
which recreated and institutionalized the Meru clans original unity across the different
sections' geographic and social borders. The Njuri Ncheke system is organized around
both the territorial unit and the generational strata. Land is linked to the Njuri Ncheke
through its local clan-based councils or njuri. Kiama are comparable councils operating on
each rung of the age set system.19 The kiama councils select their most able leaders,
agambi, spokesmen (kugamba=to be wise, judicious), to sit on the local njuri. The system
replicates itself on successively higher levels, the highest being the pan-Meru regional
council.
The Meru's Gikuyu and Embu agricultural neighbors practiced local government based
on the njuri and kiama councils without developing a formal council structure joining local
units. Age set organization was also universal in the region, although perhaps most highly
developed among the pastoral Nilotic populations. Age-sets, besides providing for defense
of the land by maintaining a standing army of warriors, also regulate internal social control
by specifying a codified set of social obligations within and among age grades at each stage
in the progression through the lifecycle. Clans governed access to land and natural
resources, just as the age-set system provided a standing army to protect (and acquire)
them. Kinship, real and fictive, conditioned exchange relations.
The ethnoscience and cultural ideologies reflecting the diverse populations became
incorporated into the Meru polity over time. Environmental knowledge was developed by
all the groups in the region specific to their respective ecological niches. Bantu clans were
agricultural experts, pastoralists specialized in animal science, and the sophisticated
botanical tradition, evident in agricultural, medicinal, and ritual practices, is arguably the
legacy of the autochthonous hunters and foragers. All of these components combined
synergistically in the Meru system. We will now discuss how these different components
worked in combination to generate sustainable social development.


The Njuri Ncheke:


After crossing the Thagana and encountering the military power of the Maasai and Mwoko,
the Meru prayed to God for a leader. When a young boy displayed the divinely indicated
traits, the Meru selected nine elders to act as his guardian until he came of age. The boy


19 Both njuri and kiama are glossed as "council" in English. Because these terms refer to contexts in many
cases, the local terms will be retained in the text.









became the first Mugwe or Mukiama, and the nine elders formed the Njuri Ncheke,
alternately known as the Njuri ya Kiama, the council where selected representatives from
different group's local njuri met to settle disputes and decide policies for the greater Meru
polity. These representatives, or Agambi (sing. mugambi), met at Nchiiru, now a small
market center in Tigania near the border of Imenti, the largest Meru sub-tribe which
inhabits the slopes of Mt. Kenya. All members of a locality could belong to the kiama,
while only chosen individuals underwent formal internal initiation into the higher grades of
the council based on criteria of public service and virtue.
Lambert, the Meru District Commissioner between 1937 and 1942, saw local structures
as the key to governance in the District, and his description of the njuri system is worth
quoting.

When a man leaves the warrior grades he becomes eligible for initiation into the Kiama kya
Nkomnango, and in general all elders become members of this body. The elders of each mwiriga
[clan] choose representatives from among their numbers to be initiated into the Njuri ya
Kiamna, the working nucleus of the whole kianwma. These men--the Njuri--are the parliament and
the supreme court of the tribal unit they represent. Thus the legislature and judiciary of the
mwiriga are the njuri elders belonging to that mwiriga, who will join in with the similar body
of the next mwiriga for the settlement of matters affecting the two. A section of the tribe is
governed by Njuri Ncheke elders representing each mwiriga in the section: and the whole tribe
by Njuri elders representing each section (1947, 6).


The second stage of njuri initiation inducted members into the "locked, or closed"
council of the Njuri Mpingire. Initiation into the Njuri Imbere, referring to "the winnowed
ones," was the highest, or "pure council of elders," restricted to an individual "who has
never had sex outside of marriage, a person who has never shed blood of a relative, or in
unprovoked attack, stolen except from another tribe, and above all a man of good health
and good reputation (Rimita 1988, 50-51)." Initiations entailed specific contributions at
each level, so the individual members of the Njuri system were men of material means in
addition to distinguishing themselves by their adherence to ethical standards.
The Mugwe (Mu'we among the Tigania and Igembe sections) was the group ritual
expert and leader who presided over the religious and cosmological affairs of each Meru
section. The Mugwe sat with the Njuri Imbere, the highest ranking council within the
Njuri Ncheke, presided over important social rituals such as the initiation of a new riika,
and was consulted in all the important decisions of the group. Chosen from the grade of
ritual elders but separate from the njuri/age-set institutional structure, the Mugwe
represented in personal deportment the highest social ideals of conduct, personal integrity,
and sexual behavior in Meru society. Social change vitiated the ritual functions of this









purely religious authority, and the office perished with the death of the last Igembe Mugwe
shortly before Kenya's independence in 1963 (Bernardi 1989).
The authority and efficacy of the Njuri Ncheke rested on consensus-based decision
making, its political legitimacy, and the supernatural authority accruing to it as a body of
elders. The council set social and environmental policies, arbitrated disputes, established
new policies during times of crisis, and had authority to assess fines and penalties for
individuals and groups. In extreme cases Nyambene council passed death sentences or
marginalized individuals by sentencing them to periods of exile in the inhospitable northern
grazing area. The council could call upon warriors to enforce law and order and police
markets, and each age-set was taxed in the form of sponsoring rituals and group feasts for
other groups and riika.
Supernatural controls contributed to the authority of the njuri councils within the
community, but the council was not as such a body of practitioners of supernatural arts.
Supernatural phenomena took several forms. Individuals and groups were targets of
different kinds of curses. Violation of socially prescribed behavior could also ipsofacto
place the individual in the state of mugiro, or ritual impurity, ostracizing the individual from
normal social intercourse, and serving as a forewarning of mystical misfortune. The
individual then had to confer with the particular ritual specialist, of which there were
several varieties, to remove the curse. The curse in effect functioned to make crimes or a
social offense public, and seeking to cleanse oneself of mugiro amounted to admission of
guilt (Fadiman 1982). The Mugwe, in contrast to the supernatural specialists, was a seer
who interpreted omens and dreams, dispensed benedictions, and arbitrated public morality
(Bernardi 1989).
Curative methods and protective measures against unseen forces on the metaphysical
level utilized a variety of natural objects within a complex symbolic system linking the
natural world with the social and religious realms. Respect for ancestral and other spirits
associated with specific places and natural landmarks further linked the environment and
society in what amounted to a long-term relationship of responsible custodianship. This
respect/fear relationship influenced the manner in which land transfers were conducted.
The dominant agriculturalists could have easily taken by force forest areas from the
autochthones. Instead, however, use rights were conferred through ritual, exchange, and
in the end, as demographic pressure increased, intermarriage and integration of the forest
dwellers into the agricultural polity (Muriuki 1974, Lambert 1949).
In Igembe the clan names of groups bordering the Nyambene (Aathi) and Ngaya
(Amwathi) forests bear witness to the presence of these hunter-gatherers. Group land
ownership entailed a dimension of spiritual stewardship. Lambert observed that "...the









dead and those who are still unborn are as much members of the group as the living (1949,
114)." When the land was settled, the Meru would have wanted to establish some kind of
kinship relations with the spirits of the land they now occupied. The living acted as the
trustees for the souls of the dead and those not yet born, and the Meru settlers respected the
rights and power of those ancestral spirits of a locality who had exercised dominion over
the land and resources since time immemorial.
Within the Meru cultural ideology or world view, respect for ancestors in effect merges
with the practical utility of land, both as agricultural land and in its pristine state. The Meru
regard the forest as a whole and certain individual trees as sacred. This practical notion of
the sacred is not distinct from the use values of forest products and understanding its
importance as a social commons, as a magnet for rain, a refuge from enemies, and as a
place of God.20 The Njuri Ncheke was the group repository of this secular/supernatural
authority with ultimate jurisdiction over individuals, age-sets, and clans. As a political
body, it appeared to be particularly active in issues and policies related to land.


Age-Set Organization:


Age group systems provide a set of checks and balances among generations that includes
the influence of ancestors and generations not yet of age symbolically represented in the
cycle. Age-set organization conditions a cross-generational concept of social development
and acts as a constant reminder of the obligations of a generation to their own children and
to future generations.
The ethnographic record provides a complex array of variations on age group systems.
Reviewing, classifying, and developing a systematic terminology has preoccupied more
than one scholar (Prins 1953, Bernardi 1982, Stewart 1977). Distilled to its most essential
attribute, age-set systems represent a set of rules embedded in generational social structures
(Stewart 1977, 5). These rules vary according to the system and locality, and govern
different demographic, political, and cultural aspects of the system. Even where it is not
formally embedded in the social structure, the notion of an individual's and a generation's
progression through the life cycle represents a universal characteristic of human society.21
The Nyambene Meru retain an age-set structure whose rules define the recruitment and
formation of an age-set generation, the intervening sequence of progression through age-


20The Meru perform special sacrifices in the forest: they used it to hide from the Maasai (and the British
during Mau Mau), and recognize its hydrological importance.
21Americans, for example, refer to succeeding generations with reference to the great depression, the baby
boom, the Vietnam War, and the Reagan years.









grades, and the transfer of political power (ntuiko) from one generation to the next.22 In
this manner age-set organization provides for the uniform progression of male generations
through the lifecycle. Each age-set, or riika, pass through life sharing common
responsibilities to society, obligations toward each other as individuals, and to other
generational groups. The Nyambene Meru system consists of eight cycling age sets
divided into two moieties.



Table 3.2: Nyambene Riika and Moieties

Mbaine (old) Ntangi
Lubetaa Miriti
Guantai Gichunge
Kiramunya Ithalie
Micubu Ratanya




Age-sets fell into two alternating streams, the mbaine and the ntangi, representing the
initial two age-sets in the Nyambene succession. Three circumcision groups initiated at
five year intervals form an age-set. The first is called Ndunguri, the second Kobia, and the
third Kaberia: both age-sets and circumcision groups repeat in cycles of eight and three
years.23 The initiation period for a riika covers ten years; five years later circumcision of a
new riika begins. Circumcision may deviate from the set pattern according to
circumstances such as famine or war. When this happens, circumcision dates are adjusted
to compensate for deviations.
Meru oral traditions state that they adopted the military organization of the Maasai and
Samburu as a matter of self defense, and out of respect for the social discipline it instilled
(Rimita 1988). The Igembe also comment that their circumcision rites are said to resemble
those of the Abagusii and Kalenjin, pointing to greater Mwoko influence than allowed for
in the historical accounts of both local and outside investigators.24 This would also explain
why Nyambene age-sets are cyclical as are those of the Kalenjin while Maasai age-sets are
of the linear model. Cyclical age-sets encourage a subtle cognitive approach to time as
possessing circular qualities, and the Nyambene Meru sometimes refer to particular age-

22Fadiman (1982) provides a detailed account of Meru age-sets.
23Individuals are identified by their riika and circumcision group, e.g Lubetaa Kobia, Minrit Kaberia. etc.
24 Local Igembe informants accept that the age-set structure may be derived from contact with Maasai, but
linguistic analysis suggests Cushitic influences particularly in connection with their circumcision practices.
The Mbaine/Natangi stream possibly represents generations initiated after changes in the original
circumcision rites and practices, and not the adoption of age-sets per se.









sets in terms of repeating themes in their historical memory. For example, the Lubetaa
generation is associated with periods of building and development, Miriti with breaking
down, and Guantai, who assumed warrior status in 1990, with periods of upheaval.
Each stage in the life cycle involves social responsibilities: warriorhood, economic
activity and commitment to family, governance, and for those who survive to old age,
sharing of wisdom, historical knowledge, and religious authority are represented by the
gerontocracy. The balances built into the system checked generational conflicts.
Warriorhood was a time of freedom and exploits not easily abandoned for the
responsibilities of adulthood. The accumulation of novice warriors exacted pressure on the
ranks of senior warriors to leave the communal warrior barracks (gaaru) to marry.
Younger warriors pressured their elders by actions which invaded the realm of senior
warrior prerogatives. A generation is subordinated to the one above it within a student-
teacher relationship. Abuse of the teacher status is checked by the same relationship
between the generation who are fathers to the "students," and their "teacher" generation.
Table 3.3 is adapted from Fadiman's presentation (1982, 149).25



Table 3.3: Traditional Meru Lifecycle Progression

Age Life Stage Termination Moiety

0-7 Infant/Child Growth of permanent teeth
7-15+ Uncircumcised boy Puberty
17-18+ Circumcision candidate Circumcision
19-29- Warrior Marriage Mbaine
29-40+ Junior elder First son's ntuiko Ntangi
40-55+ Ruling elder Ntuiko transfer Mbaine
55-70+ Ritual elder Ntuiko transfer Ntangi
70+ The Gerontocracy Death/Ancestorship Mbaine


Formerly, when the indigenous political order was the sole repository of power,
generational leaders typically resisted the passing of their position until njuri intervention
insured the process took place. This transitional period, marked by official handing over in
the ntuiko ceremony, is often characterized by high-spirited and sometimes violent


251 have added the alternating moeties to the scheme, and adapted dates in the elder sequence to match the
fifteen and five year interval rule governing ntuiko and circumcision. The rituals accompanying these rites
of passage involved the expenditure of resources, and the fifteen year ideal intervals were adjusted according
to prevailing factors such as famine, etc.









demonstrations of virility. Transfer of power not mediated by cultural institutions, in
contrast, is a major governance problem in contemporary Africa.

Clans. Kinship, and the Gichiaro Social Risk-Spreading Mechanism:


The mwiriga, or clan, provides access to land and provides the local unit's institutionalized
governance. Most of the original administrative sub-divisions in Meru correspond to clan
names, and in the middle and high zone areas these units can be considered equivalent to
original clan territories. Present Meru clans came to gain stewardship over the land through
complex historical interactions between the Thagana clans and the various groups already
present in the region. Original Meru clans are divided into three groups, red, white, and
black according to the time of day when they escaped their coastal homeland at Mbowa.
These divisions correspond to important ritual duties, and only white clans can perform
specific religious rituals (Mahner 1972).
Since the proto-Meru Thagana clans departed Mbowa as a small body of refugees, it is
difficult to explain the spectacular population growth which made them the sixth most
populous ethnic group in Kenya today other than through a significant incorporation of
other populations. Increasing population was desirable in order to provide additional labor
for production and to provide defense. Kinship practices were mutable in order to
accommodate outsider acquisition of land, and there is little to suggest that the Meru
discriminated on the basis of ethnicity.
Beyond ties of kinship, the institution of gchiaro provided a form of blood-brotherhood
or fictive kinship which bound different groups and different sections of different groups
into a complex web of formal alliances.26 The underlying logic of gichiaro emerges when
viewed as a risk spreading strategy. These alliances do not make much sense as a network
of military alliances--the Igembe are joined to the Imenti by gichiaro, but the Imenti are also
joined to the Tigania, who are not linked through gichiaro to the Igembe. Gichiaro
permitted a member of one group to help themselves to food in the fields or home of their
gichiaro relation, but groups not joined by this ritualized bond are fair game for each other.
Within Meru it created avenues of safe passage, but indicates a broader social logic than
Fadiman's discussion (1982) reveals. Although raiding fulfilled the cultural need for a
warrior group to prove itself, it was mainly a function of need in time of shortfall.



26Chanler's (1896) account attests to the extent of gichiaro as a fundamental adjunct to trade. In a number
of situations Chanler submitted to gichiaro rituals to cement trade agreements, and he actively used the
institution from the Nyambenes to Rendille territory to promote the success of his expedition.









Gichiaro formalized symbiotic relations between agricultural and pastoral groups. The
Igembe maintained gichiaro with the Borana, and even with the distant Rendille, who came
from near Lake Turkana to trade. Visitors to Nyambene markets included Gikuyu, Kamba,
Embu, and other Meru from the highlands, and a host of nomadic pastoralists including the
Maasai, Samburu, Somali, and Borana. As the Nyambene Range became the center of
inter-regional exchange gichiaro not only facilitated interaction and exchange among the
host of ethnic groups in the region but came to incorporate outside commercial interests as
well. Coastal and Somali traders and Europeans all sought to establish gichiaro ties as a
practical measure to facilitate trade and safe passage through the Nyambene region, which
by the end of the nineteenth century had become a main staging area for movement into the
NFD and west to Baringo.
Often blood kinship followed fictive kinship. Such relations buffered groups against
environmental disasters, as Maasai-Meru relations illustrate. The migration of Maasai and
Tigania Meru to Narok during the Kiaranmu (named after the solar intensity of the period)
famine of 1917-1918 was mentioned earlier. During the 1984 drought, the worst drought
of this half of the century, Maasai over two generations removed from contact with the
Meru returned to seek assistance from their Meru relatives in Tigania, and received it.
Gichiaro relations could be abrogated for specific reasons, and this appears to be the case
when the Imenti Meru of Katheri expelled and fought with the Maasai with whom they had
lived in shared coexistence for generations (Mboroki 1972).
Intermarriage, maternal kinship relations (an individual could be granted land by their
wife or mother's kin) and gichiaro fictive kinship facilitated the access of different parties to
land. Igembe and Tigania settling in each others respective territory usually do so through
intermarriage. Imenti Meru and other settlers from outside the Nyambene area, in contrast,
undergo gichiaro rituals in order to acquire land in the new settlement schemes in lower
zones of Igembe.
These practices represent traditional Meru mechanisms based on the idea of group
strategies to promote social strength and well-being. Sustaining population growth meant
the efficient and wise use of natural resources in order to preserve the inheritance of future
generations. The inheritance consisted of, more than anything else, land. Most Meru
consider wealth in the form of cattle or money as essentially impermanent, whereas land is
fixed a security worthy of long-term investment. Land straddles the intersection of material
production and the institutional factors of clan, council, and age-set, and the cultural
ideology permeating them.
Land, natural resources, the supernatural-religious realm, and cultural institutions are
interlinked. The Njuri Ncheke sanctioned the environmental policies regulating forest and









rangeland as social commons whose use rested on religious authority. The Meru regard for
certain trees and animals as sacred or possessing unique attributes extended to the positive
material social benefits and cultural sensibilities of proper resource management. This
underlying ideology can be discerned in the deeper ethos of conservation embedded in
everyday discourse and actions in Igembe Division.

The Aathi Cultural Ideology27

Comparison of a number of clues indicates that important elements of Igembe Meru cultural
ideologies influencing resource use and management derive from the pre-agricultural
peoples who roamed the East African landscape since the paleolithic era. Any
environmental history and cultural exegis of the Mt. Kenya region must account for the
influence of the areas original inhabitants, although the interactions among these people and
their various Nilotic and Bantu neighbors represent an exceedingly complex phenomena.
Very few of the hunter gatherers of the Kenya highlands maintained a separate existence
into the modem period. In most cases they were absorbed into the expanding agricultural
communities, but their contribution to the overall cultural complexion of the Meru system
deserves a brief discussion of its own.
The map accompanying the account of Chanler's expedition of 1892-93 provides a
detailed account of the Nyambenes and different ethnic group's positions within the region
prior to colonialism, and establishes the near ubiquitous presence of these bands on the
marginal fringes of other communities. Chanler's expedition registers a picture of
highland-lowland interactions perhaps at the brink of precipitous change. Regional
conditions were to undergo an even greater convulsion after he left the vicinity in 1893.
The conversations Chanler (1896) recorded with a group of surviving Ndorobo
resisting incorporation into pastoral and agricultural communities are a poignant testimony
to the demise of (and the ideological commitment to) a lifestyle harking back to the earliest
phase of human culture in eastern Africa:

I asked the old man why they did not go to the mountains settle down with the people there, and
work, and thus be relieved forever from starvation and famine. He said: No. they were fond of their
mode of life; they knew no other; their fathers had lived the same life before them, and they were
unwilling to trust themselves in the vicinage of any other people. The worst time for them was
during the rains; for then they were unable to use their bows, as the strings frayed and broke.
During the rainy season they literally starved; those of greatest vitality surviving, while the weaker
ones died. Their one pleasure is the intoxication produced by honey-wine (279).



27Aathi. as used here. refers to the collective hunter-gatherer heritage in Meru for reasons explained in the
text.









We can hypothesize that some Aathi phenomena resurface in the religious function of
the forest and natural objects, and the pervasive yet intangible realm of magic and religion.
Aathi indigenous knowledge is implicated in the incorporation of botanical expertise, and
supports the influence of an inherited ethos of conservation as a factor in decision making
within land and resource management in Igembe. The configuration of Mt. Kenya
agricultural systems and some of the mystical attachment to land observed among the Mt.
Kenya peoples bear the mark of these autochthonous peoples, even if their role is
frequently obscured in local accounts28. The proto-Meru likely established symbiotic
exchange relations among scattered groups of the coastal hinterland, and their route to the
highlands may even have followed trails established by Boni hunter-gatherers who
migrated up the Tana on a seasonal basis (Stiles 1981). Their encounters with the Agumba
upon reaching higher zones may have reinforced the hunting predilections of some groups
acquired earlier during their migration.
Permanent residence, supernaturally sanctioned land rights, Aathi botanical and magical
knowledge, and chronic demand for labor explain why Bantu agricultural clans integrated
the Ndorobo while the Maasai and other pastoral groups retained their Ndorobo as clients
even if they were in all respects aspiring to be Maasai as the result of contacts ((Berntsen
1979, 112; Lewis 1960). Fundamentally different cosmological values and issues of social
access to the critical resources of land, cattle, and labor differentiate agricultural and
pastoral systems on levels of ethnic interaction and cultural ideology. Agricultural groups
limited by labor rather than land were prone to assimilate outsiders: pastoralists were prone
to incorporate the same groups as lower in status to utilize their skills while limiting their
social access to livestock.
Like Gikuyu traditions, the Nyambene Meru mention the Agumba population as forest
dwellers: short, light complexioned people whose habitations were pits excavated deep
within the forest (Muriuki 1975, Rimita 1982). The Igembe clashed with and defeated the
small Agumba groups in the Nyambenes. Survivors were absorbed into Bantu clans. The
Agumba of Meru traditions slowly melted away into the forests.29 According to a Mwimbe
informant's version of the autochthones fate conveyed to the Kenya land commission in the
1940s, they...


28Reference to these groups varies in content and transmission. The confusion surrounding Aathi.
Agumba, Ndorobo, and Okiek partially stems from the use of these different names in loose and
interchangeable contexts. In highland oral traditions the non-pastoral pre-Meru inhabitants of the region
appear variously as magicians, witchdoctors, ironsmiths, hunters, healers, middlemen, botanists,
rainmakers.
29 In 1900 a British party climbing Mt. Kenya encountered a band of impoverished Ndorobo at the extreme
elevation of 12.000' (Mwaniki 1984. 189).










gradually dwindled away with the cutting of the forest, although on friendly terms with the
invaders, until only a few old men were left. These old men then turned into plantation
birds which inhabit the forest this day in large numbers, and they are to be heard talking
their original language together in the forest at night (Orde-Browne, quoted in Lambert
1949, 44).


Savanna-based Ndorobo groups survived much longer, perhaps partially through their
alliances with pastoralists (Blackburn 1976). Their survival also owes to a strong cultural
ideology to their form of existence despite the option for incorporation into other groups.
Commercialization of the ivory trade allowed for a brief upswing in the fortunes of
Ndorobo as hunters, guides, and middlemen. The trade boom in ivory of the 1800s
probably added several decades to their independent existence. The final incorporation of
the Aathi represents the end of the hunter-forager lifestyle, but not its tradition. The
establishment of European conservation effectively alienated the remaining hunters from the
material resources they subsisted on, and the Ndorobo almost ceased to exist, although
native hunting continued into the next century (Steinhart 1989).30 The commercial
harvesting of ivory soon proved to be environmentally unsustainable, and an ancient
cultural strategy largely vanished with the hunting ban. The local knowledge of these
peoples and other influences nevertheless survived via incorporation into the Meru
production system.
At least some aspects of the Agumba/Ndorobo heritage is subsumed within references
to the Aathi. The Agumba and Ndorobo became Aathi clans as the Igembe settlers
absorbed the forest dwellers of the Nyambene forest zones. By occupying land fringing
forested areas they assimilated in the cultural and symbolic sense, their ancestors as well.
High zone agriculture shows the influence of their botanical and pharmacological
knowledge, supernatural practices, and certain cultural sensibilities regarding nature in
general and the forest in particular. This knowledge and Aathi cultural traits appear in the
Njuri Ncheke code of conservation, and the ideology of trees manifesting in Igembe
agroforestry practices. The high cultural status of stately fig trees (Ficus natalensis and
Ficus Graciolor) among Bantu peoples is well known; a number of other trees are also
considered sacred in Meru, have important ritual uses, or are associated with magic.
Cutting the forest in any way was subject to punishment by ostracization.



30The 300 or so Ndorobo listed in early Meru District reports are the last specific group of hunter-gatherers
mentioned in Meru District: known as Mwethi or Mwimbe Dorobo to the Meru. Imwesi to themselves.
they even took place in the 1934 District Sports Trials as "fine handsome fellows, dressed Maasai fashion
(Lambert 1949,13)."








The word Aathi is generic throughout the Bantu-speaking region. The original meaning
of hunter is overlaid with various connotations according to context. In the Nyambenes,
the connotation is often linked with magical powers. According to Fadiman, njuri ya aathi
were associated with fringe societies of hunters and blacksmiths who hived off from the
main body of proto-Meru during the migration from the coast. Fadiman refers to them as
fringe groups of Meru; others use the word to refer to non-agricultural foragers whose
descent may reflect any combination of Agumba, Ndorobo, Okiek, Sirikwa, Waata, or
other such groups. Mwaniki indicates the labels were cultural appellations that embraced a
number of autochthonous and possibly early Cushitic ethnicities (1984, 177). Lambert
(1949) considered the Aathi to represent a cultural stage, while he referred to Agumba and
Ndorobo as specific groups; individuals and groups passed through or reverted to this
stage until the recent present.
Hunting is a low-caste activity, nevertheless, it remained a common survival strategy for
poorer members of the community well into this century (Steinhart 1989, 247). Since
agriculturalists resorted to hunting (and sorcery) during times of poverty and famine, it
follows that Aathi represented an occupational mode, and substituted as a generic ethnic
label coterminous with the lawful inhabitants of forest reserves.31 Bernsten (1979) records
that the Maasai depended upon symbiosis with the Ndorobo to maintain economically their
cultural ideal of pastoral purity, but they too would frequently "go Ndorobo" as
individuals, and in large numbers during times of severe drought. The same was true of
the Gabra who became Waata foragers during drought, and sometimes remained so out of
preference for the hunting-gathering way of life (Robinson 1979, 8). "Aathi" thus
represented a cultural stage, but also a Meru sub-identity derived from the incorporation of
Agumbaand Ndorobo peoples.
Mention of the Njuri ya Katheka Kai crops up in connection with two 'secret' societies,
the njuri ya kaitha and the njuri ya aathi. Members of the Njuri ya Kaitha were
vegetarians, and employed vegetable poisons against their victims, and items of botanical
origin in their remedies and charms. The Njuri ya Aathi were, in contrast, hunters and
utilized medicines derived from animals. Both entities were originally groups who
remained outside regular clan structures and developed their own councils, as distinct from
other Meru who reverted to hunting when conditions necessitated it (Fadiman 1982, 18).
These groups relied upon their hunter and blacksmith reputations for supernatural power,
using the practice of public curses as a form of social control and as a subsistence strategy
as their resource base inexorably came under the control of agricultural communities.


31Agumba. in contrast, is a low-caste, derogatory appellation among the Meru.








These mystical "weapons of the weak (c.f. Scott 1985)" worked to guarantee group
survival during the transitional period between association with the Meru polity and full
incorporation.
The evolution of these groups clearly follows shifting patterns of land use and political
control. With integration these groups developed a new role, biamnia ya mithega, or
councils of magic, as land became converted to agrarian uses. The members now used
their aathi magic to protect the remaining land not cultivated, and later, to protect crops
from intruders. During the periodic famines of the 1800s the application of magical
techniques were turned against the owners of crops to procure food: the magicians even
imprisoned wealthier farmers inside their farms until the owners paid fines in the form of
grain and beer to remove the curse. A still more novel form of kiama emerged after the turn
of the century. The kiama kya mwaa, or party of fools, got its original members from
famine victims. The kiama kya mwaa toured an area performing ribald dances and, once
they succeeded in provoking laughter, they would curse the spectators for lack of respect.
A nominal payment removed the curse. The agriculturalists derided these bodies as 'bianima
of the stomach', but nevertheless feared their supernatural power (Fadiman 1984, 19-24).
The cultural endowment of the Meru can be briefly summed up by reiterating how the
cultural institutions of riika or age-sets, the Njuri Ncheke, and the religious authority of the
Mugwe combined synergistically as a set of legal, and metaphysical checks and balances
among generations. The Mugwe exemplified moral and ritual conduct, and the Njuri
Ncheke guided social development. The system worked well during the sixteen generation
span of Meru precolonial history. The Meru prospered, surmounted environmental
disasters, absorbed other communities, and grew in numbers in the process of realizing
their own version of manifest destiny on the highland-lowland interface.


The Njuri in Transition:


The first administrators in the district perceived the Meru political/legal system and its
institutional structures in terms of superstition and sorcery. In 1924 the District
Commissioner (DC) commented that "the district is still backward, belief in witchcraft
prevalent, especially in Tigania and Igembe (Kna/DC/Mru 1, 1924)." The authorities of
this period conducted an undeclared campaign against the njuri system, and considered two
"secret" societies, the Njuri ya Kaitha and the Njuri ya Aathi, as part of it.
In the 1927 district report the DC stated that the Nyambene indigenous authority was a
system of lower and higher kiama. He noted that these societies were part of the njuri
system, and declared that their members were well represented on local tribunals. The








Kaitha and Aathi societies sorcerers used their powers for extortion: bewitched individuals
would fall sick and die if they failed to pay a fine. Payment was a de facto initiation into
the kiama, disclosure of its secrets invoked another curse. The report conveys a certain
degree of confusion as the "Njuri Impingire" and the "Njuri a Katheka Kai" were all
lumped together as part of the formal kiama system.
Katheka kai specifies a place of witchcraft or evil, and was associated with the Aathi and
Kaitha societies, although the report adds all elders have supernatural powers (Kna/DC/
Mru 1, 1927). A campaign initiated the next year targeted the houses of Kaitha and Aathi
members, and the anti-witchcraft campaign of the next several years was apparently so
successful that any reference to it and the Njuri ya Katheka Kai soon vanished from the
official record. It is interesting to note that the Njuri itself, seen as an unprogressive
institution opposing the authority of the British administration, subsequently came to be
perceived by British administrators as a model of progressive state-society partnership.
The Njuri was especially instrumental in advancing state supported environmental policies
and land reform. The question that naturally arises is, did the Njuri change, or,
conversely, did a change in the perception of the local administration lead to this reversal of
roles.
Situations where the Njuri Ncheke allowed itself to be associated with low status groups
parallels similar strategies of sabotage, foot-dragging, and other forms of systematic non-
compliance with the authorities in power that peripheral groups had employed against the
Meru polity. And the Meru leaders sitting in the kiama and njuri councils were clearly
separate from the British-deputized local headman and chiefs. If the former were cast in the
role as opponents to change, the latter were typically opportunistic individuals chosen from
outside the local political hierarchy who exploited their position for self-aggrandizing
accumulation of wealth and patronage resources.
Kamba and Gikuyu chiefs acted to consolidate their position by recruiting private armies
and corruptly accumulating resources allowing them to live well beyond their official
means. Their excesses were tolerated by the administration as "a necessary ingredient of
local administration and the fuel of the administrative engine...without it the whole system
would have collapsed (Tignor 1979, 199)." The creation of local administration began
from "colonial policies, conceived largely in ignorance," which "tilted the balance against
the stabilizing egalitarianism of of gerontocratic democracy (Forbes Monro 1975, 65)."
Administrative chiefs and emerging mission-educated elites clearly set local societies on a
new path of political development where traditional status and individualistic opportunism
eventually inverted the social order (Mutiso 1975).









That this did not happen in Meru, and particularly in the Nyambenes, denotes the
presence of a strong local political order that was capable of neutralizing individuals
empowered by the British. Opposition to the administration through supernatural means
and non-compliance quickly evaporated when perceptive administrators recognized the
social legitimacy of the Njuri system.


Njuri Ncheke-British Administration Cooperation:


In 1933 the first mention of a policy shift was signaled by the District Commissioner,
A.G. Hopkins. Hopkins, speaking of Tigania and Igembe, accused his administration
chiefs of superstitiously bending to the will of the Njuri Ncheke every time the council
exercised their veto over an administration policy they did not support. Hopkins branded
the institution as possessing "an attitude of extreme distrust of government and the use of
their powers secretly to condemn any order or suggestion emanating from government."
Despite this condemnation, Hopkins goes on to suggest that the first step to reduce
suspicion would be to recognize the Njuri Ncheke's important position in Meru society
(KNA/DC/Mru 1, 1933,7-8).
His successor in 1938 and 1939, V.M. McKeag, adopted a more liberal view of native
custom. McKeag took a certain anthropological interest in the Meru system. Although he
suppressed the Lenta dance, which follows circumcision ceremonies, as an orgy of
consumption and fighting, he recognized the role of social ceremonies as social
mechanisms for providing the entire community with important animal protein supplements
to their daily diet of grains and tubers. His annual report for 1938 catalogues in detail the
types of ceremony accompanying initiations, marriages, births, and other socially
significant events warranting celebration and the consumption of livestock by different social
groups. McKeag also acknowledged the Njuri Ncheke council as the source of important
environmental controls through the examples of fines assessed by njuri elders for offenses
such as cultivation in prohibited places, felling prohibited trees, failing to adopt erosion
control practices, and setting unauthorized grass fires.
H.E. Lambert served as D.C before McKeag in 1934 and 1935, returning for another
short stint during part of 1939. He completed a third tour of duty in Meru District in 1941
and 1942. Meru clearly inspired Lambert with the desire to investigate and analyze social
change on the local level; the extensive details preserved in his district reports and
subsequent papers are a valuable source of information. Lambert, like many of the British
officials of his time, took a keen interest in local environment conservation. Unlike many
of his colleagues, however, he also developed a keen appreciation for native agriculture.









Although he shared the British colonial obsession with soil and forestry conservation
(Anderson 1992), he also recognized in the local institutions many common developmental
interests. He successfully enlisted the Njuri in a cooperative campaign to promote local
commercial agriculture and environmental protection.
Formal recognition of the Njuri Ncheke was one of Lambert's initial actions. Chiefs
and headmen paid in cash, he observed, "have no place in the customary scheme of
things," and he saw recognition of the Njuri Ncheke as the first step in a progressive
direction: "it is there and will continue to remain there; no amount of ignoring its existence
will cause its existence to cease or reduce its power as the prime indigenous governing
body (KNA/DC/Mru 2 1934, 37)." During the period spanned by Lambert's intervals as
D.C., a number of agricultural innovations involving new food cultivars, the use of inputs
such as cattle vaccines, and the introduction of coffee, took root in local society. Lambert
also recognized the progressive nature of Meru agriculture and threw his weight behind a
number of local practices.
Lambert was an unusual representative of colonial government insofar as incisive
critique of some European behaviors accompanied his support for indigenous institutions.
He criticized local Europeans for presenting to the natives an image of "big business,
hedonism, and ephemerality," and he singled out some Christian missions for proselytizing
without educating, and ignoring the fundamental Meru spirituality based on the belief in
one God: "If the African would retain his own faith all would be well. But he will not; he
will imitate what he thinks is ours." On the problem of progress, Lambert goes on to say
that, "Government should cooperate with the right missions in restoring--in better form--
the ancient faith of the African. And that better form of Christianity based on the
indigenous creed and retaining as many of its social sanctions as are, or can be made,
compatible with it (KNA/DC/Mru 2/1939, 32-35)."
Lambert's specific criticism of some missions--he singled out the Italian Catholic
missions as setting a particularly slothful and corrupt example for the locals--did not
prevent him from campaigning with a large measure of success against other less
progressive local customs including female circumcision and cultural injunctions against
warrior agricultural labor, which he justifiably saw as removing the most physically-able
segment of the population from the most important productive sector.
The new administration-local coalition ceded to the njuri councils the regulation of
grazing, protection of hills, forests, and other resources. Following this new strategy,
based on cooperation, Lambert observed a reversal in hillside cultivation and lack of
erosion measures, the building of trenches to protect crops from wildlife attacks (which
failed to stem the incursions of wild pigs), and a reduction of tree poaching, which in any









case was attributed to Gikuyu settlers in the district. Reports filed during the pre-World
War II period consistently refer to Meru conservation versus the Gikuyu "get rich quick"
attitude, the threat of Gikuyu timber merchants invading Meru forest reserves, and the
dangers of Gikuyu political campaigning among the Meru population.
The Gikuyu problem was rooted in objective conditions different than those prevailing
in Meru, which undercut the threat of Gikuyu land consciousness infecting the district after
World War II. The growing unrest in Central Province did indirectly influence later
developments in Meru. These probably owed to internal factors: divisions in the polity
resulting from missionary opposition to traditional practices, generational conflicts, and
reactions to colonial antipathy for specific traditional practices, as much as opposition to the
British presence itself. The Njuri, for their part, interpreted the international conflict in
local terms, and provided a measure of material assistance to the administration during the
war:

"Hitler is an njama destroying his own people;
Churchill is a Mugambi of the Njuri of the King."


Support for the anti-colonial cause gathered, as to be expected, in the traditionalist areas of
north Imenti, Tigania, and Igembe, but there were incidents of Meru-Gikuyu conflict as
well.32 Another episode of aathi witchcraft led by a government chief in Tigania broke
out; the accidental spread of contagious bovine pleuro-pneumonia into the cattle population
by the vetinerary department spurred local resentment, but in general the war did not
overly upset the routine of Meru life (KNA/DC/Mru 4, 1945).
World War II and the Mau Mau rebellion set in motion a colony-wide revision of native
agricultural policy meant to dampen rural sector forces supporting the liberation movement
(Anderson 1988; Berman and Lonsdale 1992). Meru coffee planting which had begun in
1937 accelerated after the war and commercial agriculture, more than political demands,
precipitated a revision of land tenure in Meru District. Traditional tenure was based on clan
ownership as in other parts of Africa, and also recognized rights of the individual based on
tree tenure--planting bananas, yams, and miraa in Igembe and Tigania was a sufficient
guarantee of individual custodianship. Land could be conferred to outsiders through
marriage and in other cases, by the approval of the clan elders. According to a 1942 Njuri




32Meru--Gikuyu conflict, including one over women in Naari and an attempt by Gikuyu settlers to
cultivate land next to the Ngaya forest in Igembe requiring Njuri intervention also blunted potential support
for the movement.








ruling, land transferred could also be redeemed by repaying the initial purchase price
(Homan 1960).
The growth of the coffee industry called into question the principle of redeeming plots.
In 1949 the Njuri established additional payments as compensation for coffee plantings and
other related investments. The Njuri was also involved in establishing policies for
settlement schemes in new zones, reallocation of land for the purpose of consolidating
scattered holdings, and the registration of titled freeholdings. The slow pace of Njuri
deliberations on these issues led to the formation of local land boards to adjudicate
individual land claims in each area, but the role of the Njuri as the unquestioned custodian
of group and clan land control insured its survival into the post independence period
(Homan ibid.).
The Meru anticipated independence by building a new structure at Nciiru to house the
Njuri Ncheke. The Kenyatta government, however, saw the Njuri as an alternate local
government and restricted its operations to the local level. The Pan-Meru council was not
able to use the new parliament building, and the importance of the Njuri and age-sets faded
among the Mt. Kenya Meru during the post-independence era. In 1979, the Meru town
council nevertheless devoted one side of the monument commemorating the ten year
anniversary of the Moi, "Nyayo" government to a bas relief of Njuri Ncheke elders.
The Njuri and age-set organization remained strong in Tigania and Igembe where the
continued vitality of the Nyambene cultural endowment was supported by the distinct
complex of commercialized traditional agrarian production.



The Nvambene Farming System:


The commercialization process in Meru was uneven, and reflected inherent cultural and
spatial aspects. The Mt. Kenya side of the district responded more enthusiastically to
missionary efforts, education, and progressive measures supported by the administration.
Small scale coffee production began in 1934 under administration supervision in selected
areas of Meru and Kisii districts and accelerated during the post-war decades. Coffee
carries with it the association of being a progressive crop due to its importance for the
settler economy and its connection with modem sector institutions; still, relatively few
Nyambene farmers adopted it as their primary cash crop even as production rapidly









expanded after independence (Bernard 1972).33 Instead, the production of miraa (Catha
edulis), or khat, led the shift to commercialization in Igembe Division. Coffee has never
been able to compete with miraa in returns to the farmer.
The indigenous Nyambene agroforestry system differs radically from production
systems based on monocultural tea and coffee production. In terms of returns to land and
labor, and reinforcement of conservation practices, the Igembe farming system is among
the most profitable and efficient agricultural systems of its kind in Africa.
Miraa was originally cultivated for ceremonial and social uses. During this century the
farming system responded to commercial demands and the cash needs present in the
modern economy without sacrificing its natural environmentally sustainability in terms of
minimizing chemical inputs and maximizing biodiversity through a variety of local multi-
purpose tree species, and integrating high value commodity production. The harvesting,
packaging, and marketing of miraa is labor intensive and generates substantial off-farm
employment. Miraa profits financed much of the subsequent coffee and tea planting in the
vicinity, and in general sustains the high population of the northern Nyambenes.
An acre of high quality miraa can generate, at current rates, many times over the
financial equivalent of an acre's annual production of of arabica coffee in Meru without
investment in chemical inputs. The same acre of miraa also provides food, fuelwood,
building materials, high quality livestock fodder, and herbal medicines effective for treating
both humans and domestic animals. Multi-story farms minimize erosion and insect
problems, trees pump and recycle nutrients from the subsoil, reduce leaching of nutrients
by lowering soil temperature, and increase soil moisture retention,. Careful management of
the vegetative canopy maximizes sunlight intercept for understory crops. Inputs are limited
to manure and ashes, and a periodic smoking by burning dried cuttings and branches to
limit insect infestation. Insecticide use, increasingly popular during the 1980s, is declining
following a recent Njuri Ncheke ban proclaimed in 1991.
Mature miraa farms are the product of generations, and while a miraa tree will produce
good income five years after planting, it only reaches full maturity after one hundred years.
A young tree is called muthairo; as it matures it becomes the respected and economically
valuable mbaine. The truly old mbaine stand out like the older trees in natural forests.
There are trees that can be accurately dated back over two hundred years in the heart of
traditional cultivation. Specimens of yet older trees are said to pre-date the establishment of



33Despite the economic success of miraa in Igembe. its association with unprogressive traditional
behaviors influenced some farmers to plant coffee as a less lucrative alternative for the modernity the
national institution of coffee represented.









the riika system among the Meru, and stand as tangible representatives of group histories
and cultural continuity.
Small groves of mbaine continue to serve as the meeting place for local njuri. The
miraa trees are so valuable that the Meru have developed a science of arboreal surgery for
old trees attacked by a bacterial disease, Aspirilla mellea.34. Diseased spots on the limbs
are excised without damaging the tree itself. Underground infections require the deep
excavation of the tree to remove infected portions of the root system, after which the soil is
returned and the tree resumes its normal existence.35
The average land holding in Igembe Division is three acres. In the high zones where
average holdings are usually smaller, even a developed farm less than an acre can support a
family. The work generated by the picking-tying-wrapping of miraa, transporting and
selling of miraa, provides employment. The healthy income distribution associated with it
is high in comparison to many other commercial agricultural commodities in Kenya.
Marketing miraa exposes warrior-grade youths to other economic and social influences.
This, and a high level of household self-sufficiency, help the Igembe maintain a robust
rural economy relative to other small farm regions of the Kenya highlands.
Results from on farm surveys record twenty-nine species of soil fertility enhancing trees
(all but four were indigenous varieties). Some on farm trees help retain soil moisture; two
varieties are reported to repel insects, and there were several cases of succulent plants that
are buried in the ground with seedlings to aid their establishment for the slow release of
moisture. The nitrogen-fixing potential of local tree species, synergistic properties of
intercropping patterns, and some of the ingenious techniques farmers employ represent
hypotheses waiting to be tested by formal methods. A priori prejudice against Catha edulis
has deflected professional interest in the properties of the Igembe farming system up to this
point in time, even though Lambert called for research into local systems over five decades
ago:36

It should be our business to discover the principles underlying native agriculture and to improve on
rather than inculcate new ones of which the long-term effects are unknown to us. We can generally


34 The infection is called ura locallyUra. Ura also attacks tea, bananas, and many other trees, destroying
roots and turning heartwood into dry rot.
35The Igembe also describe the root systems of different trees. Miraa has an extensive but not deep root
system, although the roots remain deep enough as to not interfere with crop roots. Mwenjela, in contrast,
has a very deep root system that pumps water up from sub-soil horizons. Farmers say that the moisture of
the succulent mwejela roots "cool" the soil and help diffuse moisture to other species and crops.
36Miraa is exported abroad in increasingly greater volume, earns the country foreign exchange, and planting
is expanding rapidly in parts of Meru district where it is not cultivated. Institutional research offers limited
returns to the sophisticated, long-term Nyambene miraa production tradition in comparison to the potential
research benefits for other traditional food components of the system (e.g. Lipton 1988).








find something in native practice on which to base our teaching. Manuring, wash stopping, stall
feeding, for instance are not new ideas to the African; all we have to do (and it is plenty) is to
select, develop, and extend the ideas already there (KNA/DC/Mru 2, 1939, 59).


A comparative example underscores the influence of the Meru cultural ethos on
agricultural strategies. The Kenya Woodfuel Development Project (KWDP) study of
household tree planting in Kakamega, Kenya established that tree planting and percentage
of vegetative biomass on farms increases with population density and decrease in farm size.
The KWDP, however, operated on the assumption that farmer tree planting is an
agricultural innovation (Chavangi 1992, 152).37 The project achieved some success in
absolute numbers of seedlings established in certain locales. This is offset by cost/benefit
factors and the question of continued support from the project independent of donors
Considering the two districts' ecological and demographical similarities, Meru small farm
practices are sophisticated and rely upon local ethnoscientific guidance to the degree that
need for external assistance does not even arise.
The indigenous Nyambene agroforestry complex in particular offers important lessons
for the study of environmentally adaptive agricultural development systems in Africa.
Igembe avoided the famine accompanying the Kiaraniu drought of 1918-19 which exacted
ten per cent mortality rates in other parts of the district (KNA/DC/Mru 1, 1919). During
the 1984 drought far fewer families in Igembe (800) required famine relief than nearby
Tigania (12,000), Nithi (5,000), and the two Imenti (4,598 combined) divisions.38 These
figures reflect both lower ecological vulnerability to drought and greater food purchasing
power. But the Igembe agricultural system's chief claim to sustainability is its adaptive
internal tradition of farmer experimentation, combining innovation and the practical testing
of techniques.39


Modern Dynamics of Nyambene Meru Cultural Institutions;


In Igembe the role of warriorhood transformed to entrepreneurhood as the economy
commercialized. Warriorhood in the Nyambenes is now largely a category of economic
activity, and just as individual riika were expected to distinguish themselves in the

37The KWDP supplied mainly exotic species to farmers and reported varying rates of adoption. The trees
were grown for harvest over the short-term, and results '"suggest that the fuelwood situation for
participating households has begun to improve (Chavangi 1992, 167)."
38Families assisted in Igembe were predominantly from Thaicu, and not Igembe proper.
391In response to survey questions which asked farmers to list the source of new techniques and technology,
seventy-nine per cent listed other farmers and twenty-one per cent volunteered the unlisted category of
individual, on farm experimentation. Comparative figures for the extension service and national media were
twenty-eight per cent and sixteen per cent.









traditional milieu, an Igembe generation is still expected to advance in some way the
welfare of the community. Rigby reports a similar conversion among Tanzanian Maasai
warriors who now bear responsibility for herd vetinerary treatment, procuring water, and
transport within livestock marketing networks (1985, 157).
The first Miriti generation presided over the initial commercialization of miraa. The
contemporary Lubetaa riika distinguished themselves by greatly expanding the sphere of
commercial activity. They are also associated with a local enclosure movement linked to
the shift to formal individual tenure within the farming system.40 The decision to market
miraa as a commodity is recognized in Igembe as a revolutionary innovation, and one Miriti
informant remarked to me how his father told him his generation bears the responsibility
for pioneering economic innovations in the manner of the first Miriti generation.41 These
examples convey how local society sees change through the optic of Meru cultural
ideology.
In the Nyambenes, age-set structures still contribute to individual and group discipline
and enforce a culturally defined concept of development as a social process across time.
Age-sets are still controlled by the internal dynamic where adjacent generations remain
linked in a student-teacher relationship. The activities associated with each stage in the
lifecycle, however, have shifted. Table 3.4 transposes traditional progression into the
modern equivalents for stages in the life cycle.
Although formal age-set structures reinforce a stable internal order, they are often
associated with anti-progressive warrior behaviors. Condemnation of the warrior tradition
and its effect on political institutions and behaviors obscures important overall features of
the age-set system where it survives.42 In an edited volume on the subject, Southall (1977,
175) joins others who assail warriorhood as a bankrupt tradition at the center of Africa's
political and economic problems: "lacking any ideological anchor, it degenerates easily into
fascism...technological atavism and anachronism...certainly in Africa its fruits are poverty,
dependency, and bloodshed." Adaptation to changing circumstances, not warriorhood or
other African cultural traits, is the core issue, applicable to this and other institutions.




40 This is recognized by the fact that the common hedgeplant, euphorbia tirucalli, is now called mulubetaa
in some places.
41The current Miriti riika, although the first generation to attend school in large numbers, are hard-pressed
to duplicate the Lubetaa economic success and see themselves in competition with their immediate elders.
42The sequestering of initiation groups in the Menegai forest of Kenya's Nakuru District in December of
1991 was reported in connection with rumors of ethnic violence in the Rift Valley, although there was no
direct evidence that schoolboy circumcision groups were deployed when the violence did erupt several
months later. Warrior initiation has been severely criticized in Meru as well.









Table 3.4: Modern Generational Progression in Igembe

Traditional Progression Modern Progression Age-Set

Kiigumi pre-circumcision organization Primary education, herding, farming

Nthaaka junior warriorhood Primary/Secondary education Gwantai
Senior warriorhood-Ramare council Miraa harvesting, urban marketing

Kiama kya Nkomango Marriage, Stage 1 farmnning, Miriti
Junior elder Urban-rural straddling

Njuri Ncheke Settlement, stage 2 farming Lubetaa
Senior elders Off-farm occupations/employment

Gerontocracy-Ritual Authority Family and social authority Ratanaa
Michubu
Ithalie




A major land dispute involving Igembe grazing lands in the Northern Grazing Area
during February of 1991 provides a contemporary illustration of institutionalized cultural
dynamics. A large group of Tigania living near the Igembe-Tigania border occupied twenty
thousand acres of Igembe land between the Turuka crater and Mulaa hill on the dry lower
margins of the Nyambenes. The contested area, the flat plain of Kiani Kya Mwitu, or "the
dying place," was the site of a major Meru-Samburu battle near the end of the last century.
Word of the invasion spread rapidly, and an Igembe age-set army of Miriti "warriors" led
by Lubetaa "junior elders" armed with mainly agricultural weapons--machetes, axes, and
some spears--assembled at Kangeta market and marched to Kya Mwitu where they engaged
the Tigania in skirmishes. Support vehicles also made the trip and were instrumental in
delivering injured combatants to the hospital.
The conflict involved the Karama clan of Tigania and a segment of the Njia clan in
Igembe. Hostilities continued for several days, leading to the involvement of divisional
administration. The District Officer and the divisional head of police came under attack by
Tigania who stoned their vehicles when they tried to arbitrate. This led to the "knee-
capping" of several Tigania by armed policemen, adding to the ranks of the injured and the
five Tigania said to have died in the conflict. The Njuri Ncheke was called in to mediate the
conflict at this point. A prior meeting of the respective bodies for Igembe and Tigania had
met on October 23 without resolving their differences, but submitted a report and the list of
elders in attendance to the District administration. All the administrative locations in the
two divisions were represented by elders.









In March the council met again. After prayers, individuals addressed the assembly
delineating the need to reconcile the differences over the boundary. Sworn witnesses then
gave testimony which recounted past deliberations involving njuri elders, British
administrators, and post-independence Kenyan officials. The statements were signed and
thumbprinted. The history of the border, down to the individual trees and rocks marking
it, was surveyed with reference to past rituals and social exchanges as indicated in the
testimony of one elder, Daniel M'Amanja:

And you. M'Mailutha, used to sit at Karwamba, the place where we used to exchange miraa
or tobacco. Facing Luthii, the Antuanduru were sitting at Ndubai [Antuanduru is a Karama
subclan], and those who were sitting at Karibubu were from Kangeta. The day that I
circumcised Lubetaa at Maitai ya Ndubai at Ciomathia, were not your boys cut with mine?
Secondly, when I went to Likiau and killed the kudu and got a horn called Rikiau, was I not
with you?..Now let us refer to Kamungine which was the place for the ceremony.
M'Mailutha indicated a tree/pole called mulikinyai; and when M'Akwalu was requested to do
so also, he crossed and went to show his pole of muburwa with lukerenya in the middle--
from those mulikinyai to muburwa markers there were two hundred steps. It was divided
into two, Karama/Kangeta, and there are also poles [showing the border] at Keruria, Small
Kamuciere to Karama, and Big Kamuciere to Kangeta. Big Ndubai [a distinctive crater] to
Karama, and Small Ndubai to Kangeta. The fourth [i.e. marker] is the culvert at the foot of
Kamuciere hill on the road to Maua (Minutes of the Joint. Tigania/Igembe Njuri Ncheke
meeting of 3/90).


The series of meetings established the border according to criteria mentioned in this
account. Important supporting testimony verified that the Karama clan of Tigania and the
Njia clan of Kangeta held traditional sacrifices at Rumai and Turuka, hills aligned with the
respective Karama and Kangeta sides of the border. Maps were drawn to illustrate
positions of important landmarks.
When the Karama rejected the evidence and held to their claim, the Njuri decided to
administer the Nthenge oath to the parties. The curse incurred by violating this, the most
powerful of Meru oaths, is greatly feared. On the appointed day the Karama elders failed
to appear. The combined Njuri Ncheke of Tigania and Igembe ratified the border and
petitioned the administration to formally survey and mark the boundary. The District
Commissioner placed the official imprimatur on the solution by visiting the sight of the
conflict later that year.
The conflict offers a fascinating insight into the confluence of traditional-modem
institutional dynamics. The original action was incited by the local chief for Karama
location (appointed by the administration) and a local member of the county council. The
police and the local administration failed to achieve a peaceful solution. The Njuri Ncheke
settled the issue where administrative intervention failed, but hostilities under the surface
remain: a Karama university student I spoke to conceded the legitimacy of the old border,









but insisted that Karama people's rights to the land is based on the high incidence of
intermarriage between Karama and Njia clans.
The conflict was actually triggered by the division of Muthara location in Tigania into
two administrative locations. After the division, the original Muthara clans promptly
revoked Karama access to the lowland areas of Muthara location. Where access to local
resources still follows the basic unit of the clan, political leaders manipulate clan and
kinship factors: the government-appointed chief of Karama then instigated the issue of his
peoples right to unused land. Land hunger in Tigania, where the high zone agriculture is
based on coffee production, is much greater than in Igembe where returns to land and labor
are significantly higher. In Muthara and Kianjai locations, cultivation has spread all the
way to the borders of Isiolo, extremely marginal land for cultivation. The Karama invasion
was an attempt to obtain new land for future expansion, the Igembe margins of the
Northern Grazing Area are not yet settled.
The njuri system was losing its authority to use warriors to enforce its decisions by
Lambert's time. Now coucils of elders compete with local government and a number of
other institutions. Elders' power lie in their control of many agricultural resources. Future
conflicts may take on a generational aspect as competition grows over internal clan and
family resources. During the early 1980s, I heard younger males charge that their elders
waste the profits of miraa production on their own social consumption. Similarly, younger
individuals, particularly the educated, are resisting recruitment into the local njuri,
complaining that elders use membership to extort monies for the meat and beer used in their
ceremonies. New generational pressures are reflected in the noticable rise in community
support for local education, and schools now rival the njuri as grass-roots level
organizational nodes.
The Nyambene system, despite its conservative, hillbilly reputation, has demonstrated
an internal capacity for subtle and successful adaptation without losing its own internal
structure. Change generated critical feedback energizing traditional institutions even as
some modern institutions atrophied. Agricultural commercialization blended with the old
order to help maintain the system's adaptive qualities. The Njuri Ncheke environmental
ideology continues to provide important ideological inputs as the agricultural system adapts
to lowland farming. The more important issue, not just for Meru, but for the whole of
Africa, is that there is no sustainability without institutions and mechanisms for resolving
the conflicts that inevitably crop up where there is competition for economic resources.













CHAPTER 4
THE COMMERCIALIZATION OF NYAMBENE AGRICULTURE

There is no evidence that the qat habit is dangerously injurious to health. It does cause
constipation, but it has never been suggested that it may seriously damage the body as may
tobacco, which is alleged to cause cancer, or alcohol, which may cause liver complaints. Qat does
not create an addiction, like opium or hashish, in that those who are suddenly deprived of it, do not
suffer physical consequences. Deprivation may cause mental distress, but that is all. Confirmed
qat eaters who are deprived of the leaf, when they visit foreign countries, quickly adapt themselves
to its absence. (Serjeant 1983, 172)



This chapter traces the growth of commercial agriculture in the Nyambenes. It overlaps
with the historical sequence presented in the previous chapter, but focuses on economic
rather than cultural and institutional factors. A description of the growth of miraa
production and marketing appears elsewhere (Goldsmith 1988). For this reason, this
aspect of economic growth is summarized, and augmented with information on new
developments in miraa marketing networks.

Precolonial Trade Networks


The phase of local ethnic consolidation detailed in the previous chapter overlapped with
a period characterized by expanding commercial relations among groups. Specialized
commodity production and exchange based on eco-niche specialization grew into multi-
ethnic regional trade networks linking highlands to lowlands. The position of the
Nyambene Range, straddling the ethno-ecological interface, made local markets the most
important in the northern highland region's precolonial economy. It is not difficult to
conceive the spatial advantages of Nyambene markets in the precolonial regional economy.
The pastoral Galla, Samburu, and Somali are proximate to the perimeter of Meru grazing
areas that extend in an arch from the Nyambene foothills to near the Waso Nyiro River. To
the southeast, a short distance across the dryland cultivation areas of Tharaka, the Tana
River begins its curving path to the coast. The gentle plain on the other side of the Tana
leads to Kitui, the center of the extensive nineteenth century Kamba trade networks. Nyeri,
the traditional capital of the Gikuyu, is reached by following routes extending around
Mount Kenya to the southwest; the rest of Meru and Embu district lie on the southerly
tangent skirting its eastern slopes.









The Igembe Meru ethnic trade network, as indicated by the existence of formal gichiaro,
or fictive kinship relations, included all of these ethnic groups, the Tharaka, and the major
sections of the Mt. Kenya Meru. Local markets in the Mount Kenya region were respected
institutions whose neutrality was observed even during periods of warfare (Muriuki 1974,
Mwaniki 1984). Even though Meru-Maasai/Samburu were considered hostile, specific
markets for trade with these groups also existed. Ethnicity did not in any way present an
obstacle to trade, and gichiaro served as the equivalent to most-favored-nation status in the
international economy.
Although harmonious relations among these groups fostered peaceful cultural
symbiosis, the droughts and famines of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
presaged a growing trend towards conflict as the pressures on land resources increased. A
series of droughts between 1825 and 1840 produced more intense social consequences than
the earlier dry cycles in the region. Drought induced famines of 1825-1829 earned names
like "Mbaranganu-the destroyer" in Kirinyaga and Embu, and 'Kithithiria-the finisher," in
southern Meru. It was followed within a decade by two other famines, the "Kiverio-
refusing to help people" famine, and the "Kavovo-hating without reason" famine. The
"sweet potato" famine ofm 1843, as it was named across the region because people
survived by virtue of these tubers, was perhaps the worst (Mwaniki 1972, 6). Famines,
however, were largely localized, and this also contributed to the development of exchange
in the region as groups relied upon exchange relations to buffer periodic shortfalls.
A variety of factors supporting a surge in population growth and the growing regional
and external trade produced a boom in food and livestock production as "networks
overlapped and intersected in intricate patterns that defy reconstruction (Ambler 1988, 87)."


Decline of Pastoralist Power


The growing strength of agricultural groups corresponded to the eventual decline of
pastoral power. Even where linked by symbiotic arrangements, over time cattle herders
became more vulnerable to drought and more prone to internal conflict as rangelands
receded. During the 1840s raiding had replaced the largely laissez faire social relations
characterizing agriculturalist and pastoralist interactions. The pastoral groups living in
pockets and on the fringes of Meru agricultural communities (except areas of Tigania where
extensive intermarriage had occurred) were expelled. In 1856 Meru warriors from north
Imenti defeated the Maasai and pursued them as far as the Laikipia plateau. During the
latter decades of the century, the Tigania and Igembe Meru similarly drove Maasai and
Samburu groups from the lower reaches of the Nyambene Range to the other side of the









Waso Nyiro River.(Mwaniki 1984, Mboroki 1972). By the 1870s Maasai were raiding
coastal settlements (Salim 1975), and the Laikipiak Maasai, weakened by the raids of other
Maasai sections and proximate agriculturalists, self-destructed in a final spurt of
internecine warfare during the 1880s (Sobania 1974, Hjort 1981).
The exception to pastoral decline was the Somali expansion. The movement of the
Somali into present day Kenya, although obviously reflecting demographic and ecologicval
factors, also sprung from a religious revival in Bardera during the 1820s. Somali clans
crossed the Juba River and severely pressed the Boran of northeastern Kenya. The Somali
mixed livestock strategy based on camels, cattle, and small ruminants proved superior to
the Boran cattle-based economy, allowing them to consolidate territorial gains during the
post 1850s droughts (Merriman 1987). During the 1860s Somali defeated the Boran at El
Wak and Wajir. Somali pressure pushed the Boran to the western edge of present day
Northeastern Province. Within a few decades Somali groups had reached Isiolo, on the
doorstep of the Nyambenes.
The decline of Maasai and Boran cattle-based monoculture contrasted with the resilience
of the Somali mixed ecological adaptation. The Samburu and Rendille, present a third
variation where the groups maintained their territorial position through the complex
environmental and cultural symbiosis described by Spencer (1973).


The Impact of Ivory on Regional Trade Networks


Items manufactured abroad started to enter the highland-lowland trade networks by the
early nineteenth century through Kamba linkages with the coast. The first major world
commodity exported from the Nyambene region was ivory. The commodization of ivory
stimulated commercial forces that penetrated into the most remote and inhospitable comers
of northern Kenya, subtlety altering economic relations among groups. Coastal caravans
emanating out of Zanzibar centered primarily on slaves along the routes transversing
present-day Tanzania into central Africa, and on ivory in much of present day Kenya
(Sharif 1987). Parties in search of ivory entered the region with increasing frequency after
the mid-point of the nineteenth century following the same trails, reducing the Kamba to
secondary players.
The ivory boom briefly created a new role for the remaining hunter-gatherer groups who
were able to augment their meager existence by becoming guides, ivory-hunters, and
middlemen between their warrior herdsmen patrons and the traders roaming the area.
During the years prior to and after the turn of the century, the ivory trade became a









multiracial bazaar in the bush as Swahili traders from the coast, Ndorobo, Somalis,
Kamba, and Europeans combed the landscape in search of the commodity.
Judging from the accounts of Chanler (1896), the Igembe and Tigania of the
Nyambenes and the Rendille of the NFD remained somewhat aloof of this phenomena
insofar as these groups traded from a position of strength. Chanler camped in Thaichu and
had to deal gingerly with the Igembe to procure the food and supplies he needed for his
expedition to Rendille country. When he finally found the Rendille, who come across as a
proud and wealthy group in his narrative, he was forced to bide his time and use
considerable diplomacy before completing a deal for small livestock and donkeys with the
white-clad nomads. Five years later, Arkell-Hardwick (1903) describes how the Igembe
ambushed his party and killed the major Somali trader in the region.1 This, and other
accounts indicate that the Igembe did not have to venture away from their area to trade--for
the most part other groups visited them--and were hostile to perceived threats to their local
autonomy.
Like other African commodity booms, the ivory bonanza was short lived. Europeans
became actively involved as hunters, and during the latter years of the century elephant
hunting financed missionary and commercial penetration of the African interior. Procuring
tusks became difficult as elephant populations declined. Not only the elephants suffered.
Expeditions lived off the meat provided by slaughtering wildlife in large numbers. Later,
the European administration banned hunting and demarcated game reserves. Hunting was
transformed into a ritualized activity for sportsmen and a model for imperial training like
Baden-Powell's scouting movement. Before this occurred the European freebooters
manning the hunting expeditions were used to staff the punitive missions being launched
against recalcitrant African populations. Some Europeans even treated the new diversion of
manhunting the same as game hunting, counting their kills in the same terms they used for
their bags of game (MacKenzie 1987).


Late Nineteenth Century Environmental Catastrophes


A number of environmental disasters punctuated the rise of Western influence in East
Africa. Smallpox, rinderpest, jiggers, locusts, and famine appeared on the landscape at
different intervals. Severe drought decimated livestock populations, reduced the human
population, and vitiated local exchange. Trade networks collapsed, replaced by survival
strategies on an extreme scale ranging from the pawning of women and children, migration


1This attack took place on the southern approach to Igembe country, probably around Nkinyang'a.









on an unprecedented scale producing an onslaught of refugees, and finally, the repudiation
of all social and cultural conventions including long-standing ties of fictive kinship in
cases. Largescale raiding grew with the breakdown of law and order. The social linkages
between different groups became more important than economic relations, as the most
affected groups sought succor from kin and patrons who had food, and refrained from
raiding neighboring groups with whom they shared gichiaro relations (Fadiman 1976).
The great famine of 1897-1901 completed what the rinderpest epidemic of 1891 and the
smallpox epidemics of 1890s began. The famine may have caused up to fifty % mortality
among the Kitui Akamba where it perhaps hit hardest (Lindbloom 1920)--a fantastic level
of human devastation by any standard--and effected virtually every area of Kenya's central
highlands. These catastrophes, most severe for populations in the lowlands, and
immediately followed by the British intrusion, served to permanently alter high zone-low
zone group relations. The native economy reverted to survival strategies as local markets
wilted along with crops in the wake of the famines and epidemics of the last decade of the
nineteenth century.
The calamities acted to undermine the conservative cultural orientation towards trade of
NFD pastoral groups who had been formerly secure in their predominantly subsistence
production. Before the rinderpest epidemic, Somali traders eager to procure ivory, rhino
horns, salt, and slaves had sought these products among the pastoralists occupying the far
north of present-day Kenya. These largely self-sufficient societies disdained trade at the
time as a low-status occupation. After the calamities, when a pair of tusks could be
exchanged for thirty head of cattle, the Borana and Gabbra actively hunted elephants and
rhino for their products, and sought out the Somali in their own territory in order to recoup
their herds (Robinson 1979).
The famine gave rise to some important elements of the new order to come. Powerful
individuals who had the resources to withstand the drought were able to profit from the
desperate circumstances of others, often in a manner that previously had been socially
reprehensible. Those who sought refuge in the mission stations returned to their farms
with seeds and a headstart on the traditionalists who spurned contact, and the flight of
refugees to the first nodes of British administration represent the beginnings of African
urbanization. The crisis attracted the first generation of future mission educated elites,
initiated the Swahilization of upcountry natives settling in the "Majengo" areas of upcountry
towns like Nairobi, Machakos, and Kitui (Ambler 1988), and symbolized the beginning of
social inversion in local society where traditional elites were displaced by actors on the
periphery (Mutiso 1975).









The late century events reformulated the previous pattern of ecozone symbiosis. The
rangelands were already experiencing the social and environmental consequences of the
population brake on the expansion-predicated pastoral mode. Many highland communities
less effected by the drought profited from the helplessness of the lowland refugees where
their kin and near-kin on the lower slopes suffered the depredations of hungry migrants and
raiders who crossed the Tana in large numbers. Consequently, they were able to rapidly
recoup their domestic losses much faster when sufficient rains reappeared in 1899.
The calamities apparently wreaked relatively little change on Meru internal organization.
Meru (particularly the important Nyambene region) largely drops out of the historical
accounts of Ambler and other commentators who describe the disastrous events preceding
the turn of the century. Fadiman's (1976, 1982) work on Meru history is also curiously
silent on this score, which leads us to infer that: (1) the effect of the drought and epidemics
in Meru was less severe than in the southern areas of Mt. Kenya and the adjoining
lowlands; (2) except for a significant incorporation of Maasai by the Tigania section of the
Meru, the district remained insulated to a large degree from the social consequences of the
upheaval. Even Arkell Hardwick, an ivory trader who spent time in the Nyambenes during
1898-99, is completely silent on the topic of regional catastrophic events intervening
between his visit and Chanler's journey five years earlier.
The Nyambene area was nevertheless influenced by the far reaching developments that
emerged out of the famine and gathered strength during the next century. The imposition
of British authority at the turn of the century transcended and froze in a stroke the processes
of migration, interaction, and consolidation beginning several thousand years ago. Prior to
this, a regional political economy as indicated by internal institutions like the Meru Njuri
Ncheke, regular rural markets, formalized devices for inter-group interaction, and cultural
methods for demarcation and control of resources such as land, was rapidly evolving. It
was nevertheless incomplete, and exchange oriented or commercial production as a
dominant aspect of the production system's logic was relatively recent, particularly on the
pastoralist side, as well (Smith 1992, Arkell-Hardwick 1903, Chanler 1896).

The British Influence


The British presence was of an altogether different order than local societies could
comprehend initially. As Lonsdale (1986, 141) succinctly states, small political
communities with long histories were engulfed by conquest in a larger state without
memories. The Pax Britannica hardened ethnic groups into "tribes," those tenured
inhabitants of territories demarcated by formal borders. The British reoriented









administration and exchange towards Nairobi, and economic change traveled from the
center on the new "hub and spokes" alignment. As in other regional economies across
Kenya, the indigenous Mount Kenya trade network declined and stagnated. Previously,
the comparative advantage based on econiche adaptations had not conferred undue
advantage on the higher ecozones vis a vis middle and lower zones. This changed as
colonial administrative centers became the new nodes of exchange, and traditional social
relations across Kenya were revised or eclipsed by the new order (Waller 1989, Cohen and
Atieno-Odhiambo 1989). Ethnic differences and the calamities of the late 19th century
nevertheless created the wrong impression among Europeans arriving on the scene. It has
taken a generation of scholarly work to replace the incorrect impression of tribes as
autonomous and hostile units with the actual condition of cultural and economic symbiosis:

The population of what became Kenya may have amounted to 3 million in 1890, of whom three-
quarters would have lived in the highlands. Three main groups were involved in the conquest.
Inland from the coast the first to be met were the highland Bantu, primarily the Kamba and the
Gikuyu, but also the Embu and Meru of Mt. Kenya. They were peoples, not tribes, potential
nations rather than actual dispersions of related lineages. There were boundaries between them, and
they gave their neighbors different names, but these served to demarcate different environments and
the different cultures that had grown up in their management, and not absolute breaks in political
allegiance and economic self-sufficiency. Trade, marriage, and patronage knew no confines. As
the one purely pastoral people of the highlands, the Maasai could only survive in close connection
with the 'mixed farming' peoples who lived beyond their escarpments. They were the bankers of
the highlands. Their capital, and their currency, was livestock. (Berman and Lonsdale 1992. 19-20).


After the initial confrontations between the British and local societies, the shift to
colonialism did not engender substantial conflict (Oliver 1991, Illife 1982).2 The threat of
lethal famine, local group hostilities, and traditional concepts of the internal order were
being replaced by a new spatial order based on nodes of European capitalism. The new
regional organization provided by the colonial administration, modern transport, and the
establishment of settler agriculture substantially reordered the local landscape. In some
cases, like that of the crowded Gikuyu areas, the development of the settler economy
presented new opportunities for accumulation (Kanogo 1987). In general, like the effects
of the epidemics and natural disasters of the 1890s across the Kenyan landscape, the
penetration of European capitalism was uneven, and affected the internal organization of
different groups in different ways.
The European economy set the Gikuyu reserves on a path of conflict, both internal and
external, which significantly impacted on the colony's pathway to political independence


2 In many areas prophecies about iron snakes snorting fire and people wearing colored clothes like the
wings of butterflies had primed highland populations for changes that were beginning to manifest even as
famine and disease traumatized the local order.









and beyond (Berman and Lonsdale 1992). The dynamics in the Luo areas was different.
Nyanza became linked to the colonial economy as a labor reserve, out-migration produced a
Luo cultural gloss on the different environments spanning the rural reserve and the urban
and coastal areas that formed the expanding Luo landscape (Cohen and Atieno-Odhiambo
1989). Decentralized societies bifurcated into two streams of traditional and Western
development. Nowhere was the pattern exactly the same and understanding the transition
to capitalism involves exploring underlying uneven and incongruous, but linked,
processes of change.
The Nyambene Meru response to colonial rule fills in some of the missing patterns in
the standard picture of colonial rule and capitalist penetration. In particular, it highlights a
pattern of change in which internal organization was not overturned by a new class of
modem elites. It also shows how different commercial crops influence and determine the
process of commercialization and rural development in different ways. In more general
terms, environmental factors condition the choice of export crops grown locally, and
different commodities are system attractors that create feedback and influence the cultural-
agricultural system in different ways. Income distribution, household labor allocation and
consumption, use of inputs, investment strategies, social orientation, relationships to
modern institutions and emergent or deepened cleavages within a local society vary
according to dominant market parameters.
A number of marketed crops are produced in the Nyambene area: coffee, tea, miraa,
cotton, tobacco, and various food crops are all grown for sale. Of all these commodities,
miraa emerged out of the complex of indigenous production as the commercial flagship of
the Nyambene system. Assessing the dynamics supporting the emergence of miraa as a
major commercial commodity is important for understanding the unique properties of the
Meru agricultural system and for understanding what it signifies for small-scale African
agriculture.


The Rise of Miraa as a Commercial Commodity


Miraa (Catha edulis) is a tree indigenous to the highland forests of eastern Africa. It is
traditionally valued for its stimulatory and medicinal properties in parts of Africa and Asia.
In the case of Ethiopia and southern Arabia, where miraa is known as chat and khat
respectively, its use is a longstanding social institution. Catha edulis domestication may
actually predate the domestication of coffee in these regions where it has been cultivated on
a commercial basis for centuries (Weir 1985; Kennedy 1987).









The fresh leaves and tender young shoots of the tree are chewed to induce a state of
increased alertness and enhanced concentration.3Because it is highly perishable, traditional
markets for miraa and khat were located within a short radius of the areas where
domesticated production thrives, and almost always involved alcohol eschewing Muslims.
Still, traditional miraa consumption extended to a remarkably large geographic area prior to
this century. In Meru its use was governed by social controls similar to those associated
with beer. Consumption outside ceremonial occasions was limited to senior elders and the
gerontocracy. These controls lapsed as commercial production drew younger generations
into the miraa industry.
Wild miraa occurs as a tree growing up to seventy feet in indigenous East African
forests (Dale and Greenway 1961). Miraa is a hardy species that can grow in a variety of
environments. Domesticated miraa is usually limited to highland areas between 4,000 and
7,000 feet above sea level. It is cultivated as a tree, large shrub, or closely cropped bush
according to ecological conditions. In most systems it is intercropped with other trees and
crops. In Yemen, it is grown with a variety of fruit trees and grapes. The best miraa was
irrigated by natural springs, a practice that has expanded to include small petrol pumps in
recent times. Yemeni khat is also monocropped on terraces carved out of steep hills, and
at higher altitudes it is cultivated as a bush cut back to the ground every several years, much
in the manner of tea. In Ethiopia's Hararghe region, it is planted among field crops.
In Kenya the popularity of miraa beyond the geographically restricted areas where it is
grown is a relatively recent phenomenon following in the wake of urbanization and the
development of transport infrastructure. The popularity of miraa among Kenya's Muslim
communities was the principle stimuli for commercial production after the precolonial era,
but today its use has outstripped earlier religious, ethnic, and social boundaries. Kenya's
consumption has doubled several times since independence, and its use outside the areas
where traditional social controls limited the potential for abuse often generates heated
debate, particularly within Kenya's Muslim community (Troughear 1982; Goldsmith
1985). The contentious aspects of miraa consumption has not hindered the expansion of
production. In fact, miraa production is increasing at a faster rate than most other market
commodities in Kenya for a number of reasons. The popularity of miraa, like other
socially consumed commodities, has increased as urbanization and economic change within
the region accelerates.



3 The active organic compounds, cathine and cathinone, are unstable phytochemical precursors of
norpseudoephedrine (Kalix and Braeden (1985). Pseudoepherine is a common ingredient used in commercial
cold and asthma preparations.









Social Aspects of Miraa Consumption


Pre-eminently a social commodity, miraa consumption presents an interesting variation
on the social impacts created by coffee, sugar, alcohol, and exotic spices in response to
Western socioeconomic change (Mintz 1985; Schivelbusch 1993). Like coffee, tea, sugar,
and the non-medicinal use of hard alcohol, miraa consumption outside of traditional
settings is linked to other important social and economic changes.
The history of miraa consumption closely parallels that of coffee. Like Somalis, Arabs,
and Swahilis, the Meru tell the same legend explaining the discovery of miraa by a
herdsman, who found his goats happily munching on branches of miraa after an
uncharacteristic overnight absence (Getahun and Krikorian 1973, 354-356). The happy
goat story is also invoked to explain the discovery of coffee (Jacob, 1935; Hattox 1985,
13). It is altogether likely that the Igembe learned the uses of miraa from the hunter-
gatherers' extensive pharmacopeia, domesticated the tree, and incorporated into their social
and ceremonial milieu.
When coffee first became available in Europe, contrary and fanciful reasons were
produced to condemn it as a poison: "a vile and worthless foreign novelty...the fruit of
goats and camels...induced palsy, impotence, and leanness." A Women's Petition Against
Coffee published in London in 1674 blamed coffee for removing men from their homes
and causing impotence. Italian priests appealed to Pope Clement VIII to ban Christian use
of coffee claiming that Satan gave the "hellish black brew" to infidel Moslems as a
substitute for the forbidden wine. The irony here is that coffee consumption was
persecuted in the Islamic world as well: coffee houses in Cairo, Mecca and Constantinople
were charged as being centers for vice and immorality. As late as 1656 the Ottoman
authorities suppressed coffee for political reasons (Roden 1977, 21).4
Some users of the subversive drink praised it as an elixir. It was reserved for royalty
with severe penalties for use by commoners. The rising economic elite then adopted it as a
civilized pastime, a parlour drink in contrast to the indecorous conduct prevailing in the
pubs that catered to the growing working class. Voltaire's sentiment, "I have been
poisoning myself for eighty years and I'm not dead," ultimately carried the day, and coffee
entered the sphere of mass consumption (Hattox 1985). The term "Penny Universities"
came into use when coffee houses made their appearance across the English landscape.
Coffee imbibed in these Penny Universities provided an alternative to the endemic beer and


4Criticism of miraa and khat matches almost word for word these sentiments expressed in connection with
coffee.




Full Text
71
Kaitha and Aathi societies sorcerers used their powers for extortion: bewitched individuals
would fall sick and die if they failed to pay a fine. Payment was a de facto initiation into
the kiama, disclosure of its secrets invoked another curse. The report conveys a certain
degree of confusion as the "Njuri Impingire" and the "Njuri a Katheka Kai" were all
lumped together as part of the formal kiama system.
Katheka kai specifies a place of witchcraft or evil, and was associated with the Aathi and
Kaitha societies, although the report adds all elders have supernatural powers (Kna/DC/
Mru 1, 1927). A campaign initiated the next year targeted the houses of Kaitha and Aathi
members, and the anti-witchcraft campaign of the next several years was apparently so
successful that any reference to it and the Njuri ya Katheka Kai soon vanished from the
official record. It is interesting to note that the Njuri itself, seen as an unprogressive
institution opposing the authority of the British administration, subsequently came to be
perceived by British administrators as a model of progressive state-society partnership.
The Njuri was especially instrumental in advancing state supported environmental policies
and land reform. The question that naturally arises is, did the Njuri change, or,
conversely, did a change in the perception of the local administration lead to this reversal of
roles.
Situations where the Njuri Ncheke allowed itself to be associated with low status groups
parallels similar strategies of sabotage, foot-dragging, and other forms of systematic non-
compliance with the authorities in power that peripheral groups had employed against the
Meru polity. And the Meru leaders sitting in the kiama and njuri councils were clearly
separate from the British-deputized local headman and chiefs. If the former were cast in the
role as opponents to change, the latter were typically opportunistic individuals chosen from
outside the local political hierarchy who exploited their position for self-aggrandizing
accumulation of wealth and patronage resources.
Kamba and Gikuyu chiefs acted to consolidate their position by recruiting private armies
and corruptly accumulating resources allowing them to live well beyond their official
means. Their excesses were tolerated by the administration as "a necessary ingredient of
local administration and the fuel of the administrative engine...without it the whole system
would have collapsed (Tignor 1979, 199)." The creation of local administration began
from "colonial policies, conceived largely in ignorance," which "tilted the balance against
the stabilizing egalitarianism of of gerontocratic democracy (Forbes Monro 1975, 65)."
Administrative chiefs and emerging mission-educated elites clearly set local societies on a
new path of political development where traditional status and individualistic opportunism
eventually inverted the social order (Mutiso 1975).


204
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133
describe their tree resources, and does not purport to be a census of each farm nor an
indication of relative biomass of different respective species.23
Table 5.8: Indigenous/Exotic On Farm Trees And Primary Use Value
(average)
All
Zones
z 1/2
z 3
z 4/5
No. of species
8.04
8.84
7.96
7.27
No. of exotic species
2.2
2.8
2.27
1.50
No. of forage species
1.93
2.3
1.88
1.59
No. of fuel species
3.30
4.06
2.42
3.45
No. of timber species
3.75
3.84
3.64
3.77
No. of fruit species
1.1
1.06
1.38
0.86
No. of species not planted
by farmer
2.31
1.87
1.84
3.59
The low percentage of exotic species (25% for all zones) reflects the greater utilization
of indigenous species in Mem. The number of forest and savanna species preserved is
actually high for all zones, although data reflects the high number of indigenous trees
associated with lower zones, where tree planting is at a comparatively "young" stage. Once
again the high and middle zones reflect uniform patterns, the major variation showing up in
the lower zone data.
Indigenous agroforestry is less developed in the lower zones since permanent settlement
is recent, but a high number of trees are retained on farm when the land is cleared. Farmers
harvest fuelwood without chopping down off-farm trees, even though open bushland is
plentiful. Farmers also experiment with new tree-crop combinations on lower zone farms,
and on several farms one could see purposeful attempts to adapt principles of the high zone
to the more arid settings. One informant I spoke to in the Mwiyo area (zone 2), who has
farmed in Thambiro (zone 4) for 15 years, directly stated that: "see how it is here with all
the trees and crops combined in this manner, well, that is how it will be down in manda
(i.e. the bush zones) some day. We plant trees according to the same ideas as here but they
take time to grow and we started only recently to farm in those places."24
Some landowners in the sparsely settled Murera-Ndoleli area poach trees providing high
quality firewood and charcoal for sale in higher zones. The availability of fuelwood limits
23Commercial species were counted only when noted as a multipurpose species, i.e., cases of miraa listed
as a forage and income-generating species. For practical reasons a minimum of twelve species were
recorded.
24Personal communication, Samweli Meemee, June 10,1991.


159
There are indications that Igembe fertility is beginning to respond to environmental
constraints favoring the decline cited in demographic transition theories (Cordell, Gregory
and Piche 1987). The following table notes the age of household heads in the sample as
compared to the national profile of the husband population in households interviewed by
Kenya Demographic and Health Survey. The distribution of Igembe household heads
across these categories makes them as a group older than the national average. Assuming
that the national sample included urban areas, the difference still appears significant. The
other implication is that lowland settlement is an option, and younger men are not driven to
the lower zones by economic necessity. An indication from the <30 category is that the
shift from traditional warriorhood to entrepreneurial warriorhood, life-cycle factors still acts
to delay the onset of domestic duties in the Nyambenes.
Table 6.6: Age of Male Household Heads Across Ecological Zones (percentages)
Kenya* z 1/2 z 3
7. 4/5
All Zones (n=791
<30
12.80
6.2
0
9.0
5.0
30-39
32.70
25.0
36.0
13.6
25.3
40-49
28.60
37.5
32.0
36.3
35.4
50+
25.8
31.2
32.0
40.9
34.1
60+**
31.2
12.0
27.2
21.5
Mean age
44
42
45
*source=Demographic and Health Survey 1989. Nairobi: Republic of Kenya
**These numbers are presented as a sub-set of the 50+ category
The data shows that lower zone farmers in the sample are slightly older than their high
zone counterparts (77 % over forty, 40 % over fifty, versus 64 and 32 % in zone 3). Older
men are already more familiar with lower zones than their younger counterparts. The
Michubu and Ratanaa generations grew up practicing the local transhumance where twice a
year men migrated to the lower zones with their herds of cattle. Many younger men have
not spent time in the NGA zones. The Lubetaa generation and their followers participate in
this practice to a increasingly lesser degree. The Lubetaa and Miriti came of age when
marketing miraa in urban areas was a common option. Some have migrated to lower zones
to establish farms, but other economic options are more remunerative and naturally more
appealing to younger men.
This is an important fact. Older people are in a better position to face the risks of lower
zone cultivation because they can fall back on the children they left in the higher zones or


112
over the local Nyambene wholesale markets to the extent that the perishable nature of miraa
often creates markets favoring large-scale wholesale buyers, and dealers with capital are
positioned to enter into short-term agreements with client growers. Wealthy dealers now
rent miraa farms (i.e. the produce of the miraa trees alone), adding to their normal profit by
serving as a bank for local farmers. This new practice is criticized for reducing farmers
incomes.
While true, it can also be observed that much local economic diversification, though still
in the mold of what Chamber's (1983) once called "roadside capitalism," i.e. bars,
lodgings, butcheries, and the like, has only come about recently. The position of the
patrons anchored in the miraa economy contrasts markedly with that of other wealthy
individuals based in the formal economy and the state. These rural patrons inherit a host of
reciprocal expectations and a wider range of community obligations with their position.
Involved in the labor intensive, day to day cycle of miraa production and marketing
exposes them to a constant barrage of social demands from petty loans, sharing hospitality,
and becoming involved in other's personal problems.
The most successful Miriti generation dealer in the Muringene area described his work
as combining the demands made on a campaigning politician and religious minister: "You
constantly have to smile, hold babies, reach into your pocket, and never allow yourself to
become angry." He developed an ulcer. When 1 showed a picture of a monoculture coffee
and tea landscape taken on the Tigania side of the Nyambenes, he remarked "now this
looks like a civilized country," not knowing the picture was taken on the other side of the
forest above us.
A large number of Igembe's successful businessmen refrain from drinking, and the
social obligations that come with it. A view commonly expressed by people involved in the
miraa industry is that miraa is lucrative but the profits have a tendency to evaporate quickly.
The most successful dealer in Ntonyiri mentioned to me that miraa profits never bring
progress unless reinvested in other enterprises. The relatively few individuals who
amassed wealth through their position in the state, on the other hand, remain largely aloof
of local society and its ideological leveling mechanisms.
Cash-Crops in Comparative Perspective
The three-fold expansion of coffee holdings that took place in Meru District during the
1960s largely bypassed the Nyambenes, and farmers who did plant coffee received half of
what their Mt. Kenya counterparts received during the same period (Bernard 1972,123).
After a slow start, smallholder tea production began at a later date and took off during the


34
Paradigmatic approaches to development and governance held sway in Africa during the
first quarter century of the post-independence period. Not only has the objective condition
of most Africans deteriorated in relative if not absolute terms during this period, but the
social sciences themselves are faced with a major problem of reproduction on the African
continent.16
Analyzing Social Systems
The nature of the subject matter makes social sciences, unlike the material-based
sciences, wary of the Western positivism traditionally rooted in asserting control over
physical processes. We know more about the pathways social phenomena travel on than
their destinations: social variables combine and articulate in established patterns, but at any
given juncture any one variable or component of a social system can behave in a manner to
make the development of a system over time decidedly unpredictable. Social science, like
the life sciences which also labored under the scientific precedents of mechanistic, iron-clad
laws established in the physical sciences as they came of age (Mayr 1982), has to develop
theories appropriate to the phenomena it embraces in order to reach an understanding of
underlying principles.
This problem is a manifestation of a deeper dichotomy between the material and cultural
that runs through anthropology.17 Every theory has embedded design constraints
demanding trade-offs. The trade-off for elegance and parsimony in theoretical models is
the reduction of empirical reality to abstract constructs. The trade-off for contextual
sensitivity in phenomenological theories is reduced inter-connectiveness, testability, and a
proclivity for cultural relativity. Together these two issues present an essential quandary
for anthropology.
Materialist theory is comparative and evolutionary in nature. The basic analytical
divisions presented in Harris's Cultural Materialism illustrates these features of materialist
theory (1979). The cultural materialism research tradition explains system change through
the principle of infrastructural causality: assigning analytic priority to what Harris labels as
the demo-eco-econo-techno infrastructure. The evolution of cultural differences is shown
16Progressive social science is self-reforming, seeking to extend our knowledge and understanding through
improved theories and methodologies rather than revision and reinterpretation of societal data within a
predetermined, paradigmatic mold.
17History proves that the borders between theory and myth, science and scientism are rife with binary and
ethnocentric we/they categories applied to simplistic or non-developmental frameworks (Goody 1977). The
assumed dichotomy then propels us to seek positive and/or negative data to support dualistic hypotheses in
terms of primitive and advanced rational and irrational, or savage and domestic as in the study of the
evolution of thought in general, or as in the case of Lvi-Strauss in particular (ibid: 4-8).


44
known as Evolutionary Stable Strategies, or ESS (Maynard Smith and Price 1973). This
states that adaptive changes, tradeoffs, and responses eventually stabilize within an
unchanging, overall system stasis.
The critical variable differentiating the two patterns is design constraints within the
organism. Adaptations carry a price. For example running faster may require a higher
metabolic rate. But some traits can increase without constraints, as Richerson and Boyd
indicate for much social learning. Constrained adaptations settle into ESS, whereas
unbounded traits become trapped in Red Queen rat races. Free market policies assume an
ESS outcome based on differential comparative advantage, but Third World commodity
production, where an exotic market crop is substituted for a traditional cultivar, displays
characteristics of the Red Queen Hypothesis. As noted by Lipton (1988) for improved
coffee and market cultivars, improvements in production are offset by decreases in prices.
The IFI's Structural Adjustment Programs can also feed the rat race: countries, like Ghana,
boost their cocoa production only to experience decreased prices due to increased supplies.
This is central to the question of African development, which seeks a strategy that can
tune local economies so as to propel nations out of the boom-bust cycle of primary
commodity production. The implication is that much of Kenya's development up to this
point, in fact based on social learning and borrowing of technology, supports the Red
Queen scenario. For example, commercial cultivars easily substituted for local crops (e.g.
coffee, cotton, tobacco) supported local change but not a change in the relationship of the
local system (in this case, Kenya) to the world economy. In reality, the position of Africa
in world trade has slipped significantly over the past decades, and by 1988 Africa only
accounted for 5 % of international commerce (World bank 1989). The ultimate question is,
therefore, not one of boosting on-farm production. Rather, boosting incomes, increasing
diversification and exchange, and providing inputs feeding multi-sectoral growth is the
critical variable.
Exchange and linkages among regions and the state are a critical variable here. Other
studies have shown that sustaining the self-sufficiency of local systems in isolation is
difficult (Hansen 1994). A way out of the coevolutionary conundrum emerges out of the
idea that Africa will benefit by developing the richness of its internal couplings, implying a
return to some of the regional exchange dynamics of the late precolonial period. This, in
addition to existing linkages to the world system, will buffer local economies against the
forces of the Red Queen. This, again, implies that a shift in the couplings of local systems
directly aligned with the world economy markets and labor markets supported by colonial


77
the riika system among the Mem, and stand as tangible representatives of group histories
and cultural continuity.
Small groves of mbaine continue to serve as the meeting place for local njuri. The
miraa trees are so valuable that the Mem have developed a science of arboreal surgery for
old trees attacked by a bacterial disease, Aspirilla mellea?4 Diseased spots on the limbs
are excised without damaging the tree itself. Underground infections require the deep
excavation of the tree to remove infected portions of the root system, after which the soil is
returned and the tree resumes its normal existence.35
The average land holding in Igembe Division is three acres. In the high zones where
average holdings are usually smaller, even a developed farm less than an acre can support a
family. The work generated by the picking-tying-wrapping of miraa, transporting and
selling of miraa, provides employment. The healthy income distribution associated with it
is high in comparison to many other commercial agricultural commodities in Kenya.
Marketing miraa exposes warrior-grade youths to other economic and social influences.
This, and a high level of household self-sufficiency, help the Igembe maintain a robust
mral economy relative to other small farm regions of the Kenya highlands.
Results from on farm surveys record twenty-nine species of soil fertility enhancing trees
(all but four were indigenous varieties). Some on farm trees help retain soil moisture; two
varieties are reported to repel insects, and there were several cases of succulent plants that
are buried in the ground with seedlings to aid their establishment for the slow release of
moisture. The nitrogen-fixing potential of local tree species, synergistic properties of
intercropping patterns, and some of the ingenious techniques farmers employ represent
hypotheses waiting to be tested by formal methods. A priori prejudice against Catha edulis
has deflected professional interest in the properties of the Igembe farming system up to this
point in time, even though Lambert called for research into local systems over five decades
ago:36
It should be our business to discover the principles underlying native agriculture and to improve on
rather than inculcate new ones of which the long-term effects are unknown to us. We can generally
34 The infection is called ura locallyUra. Ura also attacks tea, bananas, and many other trees, destroying
roots and turning heartwood into dry rot.
35The Igembe also describe the root systems of different trees. Miraa has an extensive but not deep root
system, although the roots remain deep enough as to not interfere with crop roots. Mwenjela. in contrast,
has a very deep root system that pumps water up from sub-soil horizons. Farmers say that the moisture of
the succulent mwejela roots "cool" the soil and help diffuse moisture to other species and crops.
36Miraa is exported abroad in increasingly greater volume, earns the country foreign exchange, and planting
is expanding rapidly in parts of Meru district where it is not cultivated. Institutional research offers limited
returns to the sophisticated, long-term Nyambene miraa production tradtion in comparison to the potential
research benefits for other traditional food components of the system (e.g. Lipton 1988).


116
"distortions." As a consequence, its developmental pattern retains something of an
uninterrupted quality, sensitive to regional and cultural conditions and influences dating
back to pre-colonial times. Due to spatial and historical factors, the full force of whatever
progressive forces came with the Western presence exerted a delayed and indirect influence
on the system (Bernard 1979, Goldsmith 1988). As commercialization draws the Igembe
squarely into the center of modern developments, the Igembe cultural orientation continues
to select for some modem "traits" while ignoring others. The concepts of social learning
and cultural selection expand our theoretical approach. Both indigenous and Western
scientific knowledge are, in the end, knowledge. Ideally, a local system can optimize the
positive contribution of both of these cultural domains. In agricultural terms, this appears
to be the case in the Igembe system.
It is abundantly clear that agronomic science and related disciplines must go beyond the
focus on commercial crops and its monocultural orientation if an optimum synthesis of
Western and indigenous knowledge and management is ever to evolve. We can expect little
overall progress until food crops, including neglected traditional grains, tubers, and
livestock components of African farming systems, receive the attention they warrant
(Lipton 1988). The research on individual crops and inputs must encompass the study of
small scale systems synergistic properties. Western agricultural science was by virtue of its
own training, research traditions, and professional culture resistant to the implications of
Africa's growing agricultural malaise until it became a widespread disaster (Gibbon 1987).
Internal household dynamics, variation in environmental adaptation, erratic influences of
climate and market, historical patterns and current policy frameworks all add to the
complexity of African small holder agriculture. It is exceedingly difficult to accurately
measure on-farm production, internal consumption, and the multiple currencies,
reciprocities, and loci of exchange in local economies. Figures on the formal economy
seldom account for the "real," i.e. informal, parallel, and illicit economies (MacGaffey
1991).
It is simpler to understand adaptations, technological innovations, and other forms of
change as the outcomes of evolutionary processes than it is to account for the causal
determinants by specifying a regressed model of change linking responses to matrices of
the relative influence of individual variables. The intrinsic problems of African data also
distort the on-the-ground reality (Eele 1989). The analysis of the system in the next two
chapters will nevertheless proceed in terms of conventional analytical categories, organized
according to the following scheme (figure 5.1). The aim is to provide an overall picture of
the farming system's components and indicate the trajectory of change as it reflects both the
systems internal organization and external influences.


208
Heatherington, Penelope (1993). "Explaining the Crisis of Capitalism in Kenya." African
Affairs. 92.
Hill, Polly (1985). "The Practical Need for a Socioeconomic Classification of Tropical
Agrarian Systems." In Social Anthropology and Development Policy, eds. Ralph Grillo
and Alan Rew. London and New York: Tavistock Pub.: 116-129.
Hill, Polly. (1963). The Migrant Cocoa Farmers of Southern Ghana: A Study in Rural
Capitalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hill, Polly. (1987). Development Economics on Trial. The Anthropological Case for a
Prosecution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Himbra, David (1993). "Myths and Realities of African Capitalism." Journal of Modem
African Studies. 31(1).
Hirschmann, Albert O. (1981). Essays in Trespassing. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press.
Hirschman, Albert O. (1984). "Sailing Against the Wind." In Pioneers in Development,
eds. Gerald M. Meier and Dudley Seers. New York: Oxford University Press for the
World Bank.
Hjort, Anders (1974). "Trading Miraa: From School Lever to Shop Owner in Kenya."
Ethnos. 39 (1).
Hjort, Anders (1981). "Ethnic Transformation, Dependency, and Change." In Change and
Development in Nomadic Societies eds. John Galaty and Philip C. Salzman. Boulder:
Westview.
Hogendorm, J.S. and K.M. Scott (1981). "The East African Groundnut Scheme: Lessons
of Large-Scale Agricultural Failure." African Economic History 10.
Hogg, Richard (1980). "Pastoralism and Impoverishment: The Case of the Isiolo Boran of
Northern Kenya." Disasters Vol.4, No.3: 299-310.
Hogg, Richard (1984). "Development in Kenya: Drought, Desertification, and Food
Scarcity. African Affairs 86 (312).
Homan, F. Derek (1960). "Land Consolidation and Redistribution of Population in the
Imenti Sub-tribe of the Meru (Kenya). In African Agrarian Systems, ed. Daniel Biebuyck.
London: Oxford University Press.
Hopkins, Antony G. (1973). An Economic History of West Africa. New York, Columbia
University Press.
Hopkins, Antony G. (1986). "The World Bank in Africa: Historical Reflections on the
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History to Development Economics." Geneve-Afrique. 26 (2.).


182
Autonomy connects to practical issues of utility and optimization that resurface within
the Igembe system on the level of decision making. The Igembe operated according to their
own model for decades for the simple reason that little that the missionaries, colonial
administrators, or their neighbors could offer appeared to be a superior alternative to their
own way of doing things. They were not anti-state, but pro-Njuri Ncheke, not anti
market, but pro-self-suffiency. They strongly value food production despite their zeal for
marketing miraa (and tea, goats, potatoes, etc.), a point Kenyan and foreign administrators
and agricultural personnel continuously fail to perceive when they erroneously identify
miraa production with increased food production.28
The infrastructural pathway at this point determines possibilities some analysts call a
strategy set. In Igembe, the set contains three main options:
Intensify highland production
Establish a new holding in the lowlands
Pursue urban opportunities
In Igembe all of these options entail participation in group strategies. While
methodologically a problem decided on the level of individuals, information sharing and
cultural transmission introduces a group component (Boyd and Richerson 1992). Markets
and individual profit maximization are therefore not the sole determinants of individual
choice, and decision. One actor's materially optimizing choice is not necessarily the
culturally optimal choice, while conditions of rapid change act to undermine the high
correlation between fitness and utility (Smith and Winterhalder 1992,48). The cultural
endowment can therefore pool the information of many individual experiences to enhance
individual decision making in conditions of change where the calculus of material and
cultural optimization is complex.
If farmers simply wanted to optimize production for exchange, they would have few
problems converting their miraa-mwenjela-banana/yam jungles into monocropped holdings
to do so. Instead, they have followed their own multi-cultural agricultural bias even as the
monetarization of exchange initiated by the miraa industry sweeps the countryside. In the
case of the strategy set above, the culturally-patterned cognition of an Igembe individual
may likely think in terms of all three options. Moreover, the age-set system has adapted to
accommodate a composite strategy: go to the urban zone during the warrior age-grade;
28The importance of food production for on-farm food security was reinforced by the 1980-1981 drought
which produced a famine remembered for the presence of money but no food to buy with it.


93
ale consumption that kept the masses in a state of foggy inebriation. Sober discussions on
religion, politics, and society accompanied the shift from governance by royal decree to a
society governed by institutions (Jacobs 1935).
Also like coffee, expanded miraa consumption provoked controversy, far-fetched
scientific theories, and attempts to ban it before the elite economic classes began to use it.
The history of miraa and khat use is different from coffee insofar as the main opposition to
it emanates from Westerners sources. It has always enjoyed local social legitimacy where it
is grown as a traditional crop. The first Westerners to describe its use in Kenya found it a
curious social custom whose social importance seemed to outweigh its physical effects.
Chanler (1896), induced to chew some in the course of his negotiations with the Igembe,
found its effect mild; Arkell-Hardwick (1903) was exasperated by its delaying effect on
trade negotiations.5 Some British administrators registered slight disapproval of miraa
consumption, but unlike damning reports of its debilitating effects in Yemen, the more
severe criticism of miraa came after independence when its societal critics castigated it as an
addictive drug and blamed it for a host of societal ills including indolence, crime, and
violence.
The miraa debate shares strong similarities with legal debates over the status of coffee in
the Islamic world during the sixteenth century (Hattox 1985,70). Like coffee, some
Muslim scholars classified miraa as an inebriant, and a "haramu" or illicit commodity
subject to the same laws proscribing alcohol. The most organized opposition centered
around a faction of the Muslim religious establishment on the coast whose anti-miraa
campaign is partially funded by Iran. This campaign appears to have run its course without
effecting consumption-many users educated in Islamic law concede that miraa is
"makruh," a substance whose use is neither approved or disapproved, but best avoided,
like cigarettes and cannabis.
Like the example of coffee, miraa has become a social force encouraging discussion and
the exchange of ideas. On the coast, the local meeting places for miraa chewers are
important political nodes during election campaigns, and miraa use frequently coincides
with criticism of corruption in religious and political spheres.
The social rituals governing khat consumption is most highly developed in Yemen,
where it is used by the majority of the population, and it is an important factor in mediating
changing social relations set in motion by modernization (Weir 1985). John G. Kennedy,
a medical doctor, headed a team that conducted the only serious clinical study to date of
5He commented that: "the sap of this wood possesses certain stimulating qualities, and is extensively
chewed by the natives of North Kenia. I tried it afterwards, and found it of a somewhat peppery flavour. Its
effect on me was rather nauseating, and afterwards it gave me a slight headache (pg. 124)."


60
purely religious authority, and the office perished with the death of the last Igembe Mugwe
shortly before Kenya's independence in 1963 (Bernardi 1989).
The authority and efficacy of the Njuri Ncheke rested on consensus-based decision
making, its political legitimacy, and the supernatural authority accruing to it as a body of
elders. The council set social and environmental policies, arbitrated disputes, established
new policies during times of crisis, and had authority to assess fines and penalties for
individuals and groups. In extreme cases Nyambene council passed death sentences or
marginalized individuals by sentencing them to periods of exile in the inhospitable northern
grazing area. The council could call upon warriors to enforce law and order and police
markets, and each age-set was taxed in the form of sponsoring rituals and group feasts for
other groups and riika.
Supernatural controls contributed to the authority of the njuri councils within the
community, but the council was not as such a body of practitioners of supernatural arts.
Supernatural phenomena took several forms. Individuals and groups were targets of
different kinds of curses. Violation of socially prescribed behavior could also ipso facto
place the individual in the state of mugiro, or ritual impurity, ostracizing the individual from
normal social intercourse, and serving as a forewarning of mystical misfortune. The
individual then had to confer with the particular ritual specialist, of which there were
several varieties, to remove the curse. The curse in effect functioned to make crimes or a
social offense public, and seeking to cleanse oneself of mugiro amounted to admission of
guilt (Fadiman 1982). The Mugwe, in conttast to the supernatural specialists, was a seer
who interpreted omens and dreams, dispensed benedictions, and arbitrated public morality
(Bernardi 1989).
Curative methods and protective measures against unseen forces on the metaphysical
level utilized a variety of natural objects within a complex symbolic system linking the
natural world with the social and religious realms. Respect for ancestral and other spirits
associated with specific places and natural landmarks further linked the environment and
society in what amounted to a long-term relationship of responsible custodianship. This
respect/fear relationship influenced the manner in which land transfers were conducted.
The dominant agriculturalists could have easily taken by force forest areas from the
autochthones. Instead, however, use rights were conferred through ritual, exchange, and
in the end, as demographic pressure increased, intermarriage and integration of the forest
dwellers into the agricultural polity (Muriuki 1974, Lambert 1949).
In Igembe the clan names of groups bordering the Nyambene (Aathi) and Ngaya
(Amwathi) forests bear witness to the presence of these hunter-gatherers. Group land
ownership entailed a dimension of spiritual stewardship. Lambert observed that "...the


63
sets in terms of repeating themes in their historical memory. For example, the Lubetaa
generation is associated with periods of building and development, Miriti with breaking
down, and Guantai, who assumed warrior status in 1990, with periods of upheaval.
Each stage in the life cycle involves social responsibilities: warriorhood, economic
activity and commitment to family, governance, and for those who survive to old age,
sharing of wisdom, historical knowledge, and religious authority are represented by the
gerontocracy. The balances built into the system checked generational conflicts.
Warriorhood was a time of freedom and exploits not easily abandoned for the
responsibilities of adulthood. The accumulation of novice warriors exacted pressure on the
ranks of senior warriors to leave the communal warrior barracks (gaaru) to marry.
Younger warriors pressured their elders by actions which invaded the realm of senior
warrior prerogatives. A generation is subordinated to the one above it within a student-
teacher relationship. Abuse of the teacher status is checked by the same relationship
between the generation who are fathers to the "students," and their "teacher" generation.
Table 3.3 is adapted from Fadiman's presentation (1982, 149)-25
Table 3.3: Traditional Mem Lifecycle Progression
Ase
Life Stase
Termination
Moietv
0-7
Infant/Child
Growth of permanent teeth
7-15+
Uncircumcised boy
Puberty
17-18+
Circumcision candidate
Circumcision
19-29-
Warrior
Manriage
Mbaine
29-40+
Junior elder
First son's ntuiko
Ntangi
40-55+
Ruling elder
Ntuiko transfer
Mbaine
55-70+
Ritual elder
Ntuiko transfer
Ntangi
70+
The Gerontocracy
Death/Ancestorship
Mbaine
Formerly, when the indigenous political order was the sole repository of power,
generational leaders typically resisted the passing of their position until njuri intervention
insured the process took place. This transitional period, marked by official handing over in
the ntuiko ceremony, is often characterized by high-spirited and sometimes violent
25I have added the alternating moeties to the scheme, and adapted dates in the elder sequence to match the
fifteen and five year interval rule governing ntuiko and circumcision. The rituals accompanying these rites
of passage involved the expenditure of resources, and the fifteen year ideal intervals were adjusted according
to prevailing factors such as famine, etc.


5
highest mountain. The land of the Tigania, the Igembe's cultural "cousins," spans the
foothills of ML Kenya and the Nyambenes.
The Nyambene region's ecosystem spans a number of different ecozones and ecotones,
and sustains an interestingly hybrid variation on society and economy. From the 8,247
foot peak of Itiene, the highest point of the Range, to the crater of Ntonyiri, the Nyambenes
Range is a variegated, fertile, well-watered extension of the highlands of central Kenya
descending into the austere badlands of northern Kenya. The hills narrow and gradually
drop in altitude before ending in a line of spectacular volcanic caldera that taper off into an
arid and waterless plain. The fringe of rangeland bordering the northern face of
Nyambenes, stretching from Isiolo to Garba Tula is one of the driest blocks of land in
Kenya. The southeastern slopes adjoin the more humid lowland plain that becomes Meru
National Park before shading into the undifferentiated semi-arid expanse that stretches
across the Northern Frontier District (NFD) into Somalia.
From these northern plains, the Nyambenes appear as a long ridge of rounded hills
whose outer slopes are as dry as the floor of the surrounding semi-desert Their flanks are
covered with acacias, the wiry shrubs of the Barlea family, and other dry land plants,
and several unpalatable species of Pennisetum grass. A traveler viewing the range from the
north vantage point can be surprised to find an unusually green and fertile land upon
ascending and passing into the interior of the range. From the south, in contrast, the range
appears as an extension of the fertile central Kenya highlands.
The Igembe are the northern-most section of the Mem peoples. Their land bridges these
two distinct regions of Kenya: the agricultural highlands, or "upcountry," in Kenyan
parlance, and the "NFD," a term dating back to the time when the different pastoral
populations inhabiting this expanse were administratively separated from the rest of Kenya
in the colony's Northern Frontier DistricL Igembe Division and the more northerly parts of
Mem District in general display the legacy of both NFD-style benign neglect and the
external influences contributing to change in the highlands. Historically, the Igembe
straddled the NFD-highland divide, and developed a symbiotic, agro-pastoral cultural
heritage. They continue to evolve through linkages to the agricultural highlands and the
pastoral lowlands, although the urban experience accumulating over the past three decades
has extended the Igembe landscape to a third distinct environment
The Nyambene farmers in this area produce some of the world's best tea, relatively less
of Mem's highly rated coffee, the finest miraa produced anywhere, and a cornucopia of
food crops. Small farms, incorporating numerous domestically valuable shrubs and trees
blend into the lush vegetation of the valleys and hillsides. The Igembe Mem cultivate field
crops on the fringes of their sophisticated agro-forests, multi-storied, jungle-like plots of


CHAPTER 3
KURIA!: A BRIEF HISTORY OF CULTURALLY SUSTAINED MERU LAND
AND RESOURCE USE
"A great curiosity in the literature is why cooperation and social learning are so widely discounted
given the rich empirical variety of local institutional arrangements for managing common
issues." (Herring 1990, 64).
This chapter provides material on Igembe cultural institutions in order to give substance to
the importance of cultural adaptation and feedback discussed in the two previous chapters.
We try, in particular, to stress the importance of the Igembe's system's cultural endowment
as it applies to land and resource management and social guidance. This has long been one
of the most under-valued dimensions of African production due to a variety of factors. The
reports of early explorers, missionaries, and adventurers initiated feedback that conditioned
a view of African natives as irresponsible tenants of a wild but Edenesque environment.1
In the absence of other constraints, European ideologies legitimized exploitation by positing
poor environmental management as one of the claims that supported European intervention
and control. This impression survived beyond the colonial period.2
Environmental issues go to the heart of development policies that regard African culture
as rooted in conservative peasant values, if not outright maladaptive practices.
Environmental degradation, one in the cluster of failed governance, implicated African
peasants (and goats) as the agents of environmental destruction. The large-scale famines of
the 1970s and 1980s became environmental media events disseminating the dust bowl
disaster image that mobilized new kinds of eclectic international responses. Massive food
1The European image of Africa as a region where the natives "lived in a malevolent conditions of chaos"
was partially true as travelers saw the results of slavery and other forces of conflict and change (Davidson
1992,80). Slavery deflated the quickening pace of change in some areas by siphoning off population and
destabilizing regional ethnic relations.
2The paternalism of widely read authors like Elspeth Huxley reinforced the environmentally ignorant
African stereotype. If Africans were proving to out-perform the settler economy, it was because they
exploited techniques and behaviors that placed their economic interests over colonial environmental concerns
(Ariderson and Throup 1985, Steinhart 1987). Colonial policies and administrators, however, treated the
environmental mission seriously, especially in regard to the entrenched emphasis on forestry and soil
conservation inherited from British India (Anderson 1992).
46


32
about theoretical ideas in the social sciences associated with different research traditions
without placing these traditions in zero-sum relationships with each other.
Adam Kuper (1990), writing in his capacity as editor of a leading journal of
anthropological theory, identifies three distinct institutionalized research programs which
constitute the stable core of twentieth century anthropology. He describes the first as the
Boasian study of culture: a relativistic approach concerned with the particulars of culture
and cultural differences, focusing on description and explanation as opposed to
explanation. The second program derives from the Darwinian emphasis on materialistic,
evolutionary processes: models based on general principles related to the nomathetic
biological, ecological, and technological forces at work across different periods of human
history. The third program is the study of social structures identified with traditions of
Weberian and Marxian sociology. Kuper clearly intended to sidestep the non-productive
wrangle that results from characterizing these research traditions as paradigms.
The phenomenological school corresponds to the Boasian program: the culturology of
mental, ideational, cognitive, and otherwise cultural manifestations of social systems. The
best known example of this approach is the work of Clifford Geertz whose semiotic
approach is representative of other work in the tradition referred to as interpretive
anthropology. This school is essentially humanistic, and as such it is not at odds with
other approaches aspiring to scientific criteria (Lett 1988). Its practitioners identify with the
humanities, and often distance themselves from formal scientific formulae.
Cultural materialism as formulated by Marvin Harris (1979) exemplifies theories in what
Kuper labeled the natural science, Darwinian evolutionary research program. Cultural
materialism succeeded the ecological school of Julian Steward and Leslie White, and
incorporates Marxist influences, although it assigns theoretical priority to the
infrastructural-the demographic, technological, economic, and ecological-determinants of
systems development and collapse in place of the Marxist emphasis on structural causality.
Sociobiology, where infrastructural factors of an environmental and techno-economic
nature are secondary to the biological traits selected for in evolutionary successful
populations, also falls into the general evolutionary category.
Kuper's "third 'project," the sociological program, consists of theories emphasizing the
structural or social relations of production as determinants of social formations that range
from early British structural-functional anthropology to the Marxian tradition, including
neo-Marxist dependency formulations, Wallerstein's world system analysis, and French
structural Marxism with its emphasis on modes of production.
Diesing (1991, 139-140) also classifies the conceptual plurality of social sciences in
three categories defined by their respective goals. The tradition of logical empiricism


142
particular. In the heartland of traditional miraa cultivation, the aversion to chemical use was
much stronger than in other areas.
Production and Income
The final aspect of the agricultural system to be considered is production and income
generation. Although the economy is highly commercialized, small farm income is very
difficult to assess. Farmer reports are unreliable as people are generally not willing to
disclose their on-farm income. In the instances of accurate responses, other problems
arise. Miraa income fluctuates notoriously within a seasonal cycle as well as from year to
year. Tea income was the most stable at the time of the fieldwork, and despite the
systematic under-reporting of tea income, it was possible to generate plausible figures of
household income, as was the case with coffee if only because coffee income was neglible
in most cases. For these reasons, the ranking of income source data is presented here in
place of household income.
Off-farm income is a primary determinant of rural differentiation in other similar areas of
the Kenyan highlands (Haugerud 1984). While the same dynamics likely apply here, it
should also be recognized that the pattern of economic activity differs in this part of Meru
District, and the proliferation of informal sector economy and the Mem trade diaspora
presents economic opportunities generally not available to Embu farmers where Haugerud
collected her data.
Farmers were asked to rank the top three sources of household income. Some high
zone farmers ranked as many as five or six, and in general the number of sources decreased
with altitude. The level of off-farm income appears high for rural Kenya. Also, labor rates
are much higher in Igembe than the Mt. Kenya region. This can be attributed to the role of
miraa income, and the late, but nonetheless extensive, monetarization of the local economy.
The data conveys a picture of income-generation trends and dynamics. The main
sources of high zone income are miraa and tea, with some contribution coming from
marketed food crops. More significantly, 21 % of zones 1/2, and 19 % of zone 3 families
report income from salary employment. True to the spatial and commercial gap between
highlands and lowlands, trade contributes to a higher percentage of highland household
incomes, 47 % in the upper zones and 23 % in zone 3, dropping to 19 % in the lowlands.
All of these figures are high, and reflect the local pattern of micro-exchange dominated by,
but not limited to miraa-related businesses. Beer brewing, sales of honey, cattle salt,
timber, and firewood are other activities frequently named. Miraa harvesting likely
accounts for a significant portion of the off-farm labor responses listed.


98
Igembe Division itself is a densely populated region where it is difficult to distinguish
rich from poor on the basis of appearance. Small but permanent rivers running down the
hillsides belie a locally widespread wealth not common in Africa. Scattered homesteads
uniformly dot the landscape, surrounded by the configuration of fields and agro-forests that
give the area its unusual appearance. The observer who enters this area in search of miraa
is unlikely to spot it against the riot of trees, shrubs, and crops that stand out from the
luxurious natural vegetation. More obvious are the ubiquitous plots of tea and coffee.
Upon closer inspection, scattered trees of mbaine miraa emerge within intercropped
systems incorporating maize, cassava, sweet potatoes, peas, bananas, the leathery sheaths
of gomba plants (Ensete ventrilosum), a cash crop in its own right, varieties of indigenous
and exotic trees cultivated for timber, firewood, and forage, and bordering the plots of tea
and coffee. Mwenjela, prized for goat fodder, is planted next to the miraa trees, and
supports jungle-like growths of yam vines, while acting as a ladder for harvesting older
miraa trees. The plots of the younger, wiry limbed muthairo, often organized in straight
lines, are more easily identified either growing alone, or interspersed with the tea and
coffee. Not all smallholdings contain miraa, and some farmers consciously prefer growing
tea, and up to several years ago, coffee.
The type and quality of miraa can vary greatly within a very short distance. The old
trees planted by the Gwantai and Ithalie, extremely valuable today, produce a very high
quality miraa called alele, or shamba ya wazee, because it was reserved for the elders. This
mbaine is most common in Thuuru, Mwiyo, and Muringene, areas that border each other
midway between Kangeta and Maua. This Kangeta-Muringene miraa is marked by tea, and
grows in the Kikuyu grass zone. Miraa cultivation expanded beyond Maua to high rainfall
areas formerly dominated by coffee. This miraa, despite its appealing bright red
appearance to unsophisticated consumers, is of considerably lower quality, as is the miraa
grown down the road transecting Maua and Meru National Park.
Laare town is the other principal miraa market. Laare miraa is marked by coffee, and
grows in the star grass zone. There are essential differences between the two markets.
Laare miraa may fetch only half the price of most of the miraa sold in Muringene, but it is
more plentiful and travels much better. Laare miraa is purchased for the international
export trade for these reasons. It is cheaper and retains an acceptable level of freshness for
several days longer than the otherwise higher quality Muringene miraa.
Miraa produces one harvest a month during the rains, and one harvest every 45 days
during the dry season. When the miraa is ready to be harvested, an overseer is hired at the
rate of 150 ksh.(approximately $6-10 US.), and several laborers who are paid 15 ksh. per


166
exploited to increase the delivery of modem sector "development." They have, in contrast,
relied upon the overall complex of commercialization to complement internally generated
change.
Production Markets
Specific crops also represent structures, and the relationship between producers and the
buyers/processors. Bates refers to this when he says "because of variations in economies
of scale...the producers and procurers of different crops inhabit distinctive social universes
(1989, 80)." Market distinctions among the three kinds of markets identified above-
production, consumption, and inputs-are important, as is the specific milieu of particular
commodity markets like miraa. It is the first of these three markets, markets for
production, that powered the growth of the farming system.
Coffee, potatoes, and miraa present three variations of small holder production for
markets. All three are small holder crops grown in the core highland eco-zones, and all are
demonstrably capable of generating substantial income from a small parcel of land under
favorable conditions. Minor ecological variations favor the production of these crops in
specific areas. Coffee dominates the eastern slopes of Mt. Kenya, potatoes are the
principle commodity in the North Imenti rain shadow on the northern slopes of Mt. Kenya,
and commercial miraa production is the preserve of the Nyambene highlands.
Nyambene society was oriented towards subsistence and local exchange during most of
the colonial period. When miraa boomed, external markets for production grew much
quicker than local markets for consumption goods or inputs. Part of the success of miraa
comes from its low consumer price, itself a function of producer self-sufficiency and
wariness of dependence on external imports and groups. With the possible exception of
bottled beer, most other consumer desirables (nice clothing, stone houses, electricity) were
not part of the Nyambene social universe for their on-farm counterparts. Since land sales
were rare in the miraa zone (individuals established a farm or brought unused land under
cultivation), and school fees not the burden they are today, miraa income-cash money-
often fueled Igembe social consumption instead (c.f. Iliffe 1983,22).
The high degree of self-sufficiency in food, livestock products, and the important
elements of social consumption, i.e. the three main kinds of local beer, miraa, and meat,
and egalitarian social ideologies dampened the acceptance of outside consumption patterns.
Education and clothing demanded cash, but even these were minimalized. Otherwise the
socioeconomic system required a minimum of purchased inputs from consumer markets.
Local producer profits promoted the increase of cattle under cooperative arrangements with
local Borana in the NGA and beyond, and perpetuated "hedonistic" social ideologies of


42
Symbiosis
I referred to symbiosis in the preceding chapter as an important but neglected
mechanism of social evolution in the African environment. Symbiosis helps us to elicit the
pattern and dynamics of the Nyambene system's development. Forces supporting small
and localized adaptations also support symbiotic interactions. Incremental changes, such as
those at the center of the Nyambene system's development, feed back into the macro-level
transition. Together, these forces drive the local and national level systems towards a state
where the multiple interactions among micro and macro variables interact to generate
socioeconomic transformation.
Symbiosis grows out of exchange, conflict, cooperation, diffusion, and systemic
syntheses. This produces synergetic outcomes in which the whole becomes greater than
the sum of its parts; a cultural equation where one plus one is greater than two.23 Riedl
(1977) and Kaufmann (1993) note that adaptive gains are paid for in the long run by
reduced adaptive potential. A reduced scope for internally generated adaptations implies
that the potential advantages of symbiotic adaptations are increased. In our case study, for
example, symbiotic interactions expand the range of ecological niches available to an
agrarian society. Increased complexity promoted the Mem polity's stability, and decreased
its vulnerability to environmental catastfophe heightened in other local societies by the
growing regional population density.
There are numerous manifestations of accommodation and cultural symbioses among
African societies. Symbiosis may result from hostile and predatory relations between
organisms where a threatened population survives by integrating elements of the dominant
population in a shared environment. As noted above, anthropological examples of
symbiosis often emerge from conflict relations such as Bantu-pastoralist interactions
(Kimambo 1974), the Nilotic penetration of intralacustrine kingdoms in Uganda (Oliver
1991), and the Maasai-Meru relations depicted in this case study (Mboroki 1972; Rimita
1988).
Perhaps the most developed thesis on this theme is Spencer's (1973) study of Rendille
and Samburu pastoralists who evolved a symbiotic alliance founded on econiche
adaptations based on camel and cattle specialization in adjacent environments. The
23Margulis and Sagan's 1986 book Microcosmos is a tour de force developing the critical role of symbiotic
processes from the very beginnings of life on earth. The authors extend symbiotic syntheses in the world
of microbes to a microcosmos of evolutionary development subsuming the details of human physiology.
The role of symbiosis, "the merging of organisms into new collectives (pg. 20)," is described as a major
power of change on earth. Symbiotic coevolution couples large-scale and small-scale in a seamless cycle of
mutual causality (Jansch 1980. quoted in Peat and Briggs 1989,164), echoing Riedl's (1977) description of
two way causality.


64
demonstrations of virility. Transfer of power not mediated by cultural institutions, in
contrast, is a major governance problem in contemporary Africa.
Clans. Kinship, and the Gichiaro Social Risk-Spreading Mechanism;
The mwiriga, or clan, provides access to land and provides the local unit's institutionalized
governance. Most of the original administrative sub-divisions in Meru correspond to clan
names, and in the middle and high zone areas these units can be considered equivalent to
original clan territories. Present Mem clans came to gain stewardship over the land through
complex historical interactions between the Thagana clans and the various groups already
present in the region. Original Mem clans are divided into three groups, red, white, and
black according to the time of day when they escaped their coastal homeland at Mbowa.
These divisions correspond to important ritual duties, and only white clans can perform
specific religious rituals (Mahner 1972).
Since the proto-Mem Thagana clans departed Mbowa as a small body of refugees, it is
difficult to explain the spectacular population growth which made them the sixth most
populous ethnic group in Kenya today other than through a significant incorporation of
other populations. Increasing population was desirable in order to provide additional labor
for production and to provide defense. Kinship practices were mutable in order to
accommodate outsider acquisition of land, and there is little to suggest that the Meru
discriminated on the basis of ethnicity.
Beyond ties of kinship, the institution of gchiaro provided a form of blood-brotherhood
or fictive kinship which bound different groups and different sections of different groups
into a complex web of formal alliances.26 The underlying logic of gichiaro emerges when
viewed as a risk spreading strategy. These alliances do not make much sense as a network
of military alliances-the Igembe are joined to the Imenti by gichiaro, but the Imenti are also
joined to the Tigania, who are not linked through gichiaro to the Igembe. Gichiaro
permited a member of one group to help themselves to food in the fields or home of their
gichiaro relation, but groups not joined by this ritualized bond are fair game for each other.
Within Mem it created avenues of safe passage, but indicates a broader social logic than
Fadiman's discussion (1982) reveals. Although raiding fulfilled the cultural need for a
warrior group to prove itself, it was mainly a function of need in time of shortfall.
26Chanler's (1896) account attests to the extent of gichiaro as a fundamental adjunct to trade. In a number
of situations Chanler submitted to gichiaro rituals to cement trade agreements, and he actively used the
institution from the Nyambenes to Rendille territory to promote the success of his expedition.


39
for analyzing and locating socioeconomic change over time, but it is the synergetic
combination of material and non-material parameters that produces system dynamics. We
concur with the conceptual order posited in Harris's (1979) cultural materialism regarding
the primacy of infrastructural variables, with the important caveat that evolutionary
development introduces other parameters which may neutralize the primacy of
infrastructure in given situations. In other words, parameter change where change in one
variable effects the others does not a priori refer to infrastructural variables even if they
ultimately derive from shifts in demography, technology, and economy. This is
tantamount to a multi-causal qualification of materialistic theories (including neoclassical
economics, Marxist and neo-Marxist). A holistic approach does not negate monocausal
variables, but it does weaken their causality by linking them to changes in other parameters
and the accompanying feedbacks.
This study builds on the foundation of Johnson and Earle's work by exploring the Mem
variation on the causes, mechanisms, and patterns of evolution (1987, 1). These authors
reinforce the point made by Cohen (1978) that, once it appears, the state becomes a
primary determinant of social evolution. The Meru example is interesting, however,
because the reorganization of society that occurs via the transition to capitalism is occurring
largely in the absence of the state influence on commercialization in other similar areas.
The extent to which internal variables are a direct influence on the production system is
reflected in the farming systems data (Chapters 5 and 6).
The discontinuity between state-initiated economic change and the grass root processes
of social development conceptually complicates proper understanding of both macro level
and micro level dynamics. Small scale formations remain a primary feature of the African
environment, despite the influence of centralizing forces of mainly external origin. The
African situation makes the task of analyzing how the parts of the state-society equation
contribute to socioeconomic transformation more difficult because local systems are
coevolving at the same time strong selective forces are cutting African state systems to a
more manageable size. The situation prevailing in Somalia, following the dissolution of the
state, exemplifies the ability of cultural institutions to reorganize smaller units of social
organizationtraditional Somali segmentary lineages in this case. The Somali case is an
extreme example of the fluctuating and "lenticular" qualities described by the relationship
among sub-ethnicity, the state, and supranational organizations (Cohen 1992). As it also
shows, it is not likely that once statehood is present, a region can not easily return to
statelessness. Some form of state-like organization, if not another state, will emerge and a
regime will then step into the gap. The case of Meru involves similar theoretical questions.
The question is not one of state-led versus local development, but a question of how


110
basic items and provisions. Often these shops employ individuals who use the job as an
apprenticeship to learn the trade before striking out on their own (Hjort 1974).
Kampuni are representative of the social and economic organization of the miraa trade
where deals are based on a person's word. Trust, rather than a contract, is the essential
nexus of miraa transactions from field to consumer. Despite the high volume and value of
miraa, most dealings are in cash, and there is a minimum of written records. "Shipping
papers" from Nyambene markets usually consist of numbers and messages tallied on the
standardized form provided by the papered back of cigarette package foils. The standard
lined ledger is sometimes used for larger day to day records. Otherwise, the miraa trade
creates little paperwork.
The informal basis of both the kampuni solo operator allows for miraa traders to return
back to their Nyambene homes on a periodic basis. Despite the attractions of modern urban
life, most Igembe traders rarely prefer the outside existence to the ambience of kin and
friends, good food, and invigorating climate of the Nyambenes. This partially explains the
great lengths traders go to minimize their overhead by sharing food and shelter gaaru-style
in towns and cities, always a source of wonderment to their urban clients who cannot
understand why men engaged in a seemingly lucrative business "utterly lack any sense of
self-improvement." Urbanites seldom understand how miraa traders working abroad go to
great lengths to minimize their expenses in order to earn the capital to reinvest back home in
land and other enterprises. Successful traders usually acquire enough capital to invest in
new land, and leave the management of the rural enterprise to their wife, while they return
to the city, rotating with their associates between city and country on a regular basis.
Miraa traders, who often lack formal education, see their outside existence as an
educational and broadening experience, and as a step towards establishing themselves back
home.17 Ideally this means getting married and acquiring land. Consistency and
persistence is the real key to success in the fluctuating market. Traders provide for each
other, and if one doesn't receive miraa one day, someone will share their consignment with
him. Individuals do attempt various schemes at times, and sometimes thefts can end up in
the hands of police although internally-arbitrated settlements are more common.
The miraa business entails long hours, hard work, and personal discipline to maintain a
daily clientele. Because the work is so demanding, everyone hopes to eventually exit from
the export domain to set himself up managing a farm or small business. Since now many
17This characteristic is rapidly changing as the new generation of miraa dealers enter the market with at
least several years of primary education. Also, often secondary school leavers and even university graduates
sometimes find themselves at least temporarily involved in the marketing system in order to generate
income.


69
The word Aathi is generic throughout the Bantu-speaking region. The original meaning
of hunter is overlaid with various connotations according to context. In the Nyambenes,
the connotation is often linked with magical powers. According to Fadiman, njuri ya aathi
were associated with fringe societies of hunters and blacksmiths who hived off from the
main body of proto-Meru during the migration from the coast. Fadiman refers to them as
fringe groups of Meru; others use the word to refer to non-agricultural foragers whose
descent may reflect any combination of Agumba, Ndorobo, Okiek, Sirikwa, Waata, or
other such groups. Mwaniki indicates the labels were cultural appellations that embraced a
number of autochthonous and possibly early Cushitic ethnicities (1984, 177). Lambert
(1949) considered the Aathi to represent a cultural stage, while he refered to Agumba and
Ndorobo as specific groups; individuals and groups passed through or reverted to this
stage until the recent present.
Hunting is a low-caste activity, nevertheless, it remained a common survival strategy for
poorer members of the community well into this century (Steinhart 1989,247). Since
agriculturalists resorted to hunting (and sorcery) during times of poverty and famine, it
follows that Aathi represented an occupational mode, and substituted as a generic ethnic
label coterminous with the lawful inhabitants of forest reserves.31 Bemsten (1979) records
that the Maasai depended upon symbiosis with the Ndorobo to maintain economically their
cultural ideal of pastoral purity, but they too would frequently "go Ndorobo" as
individuals, and in large numbers during times of severe drought. The same was true of
the Gabra who became Waata foragers during drought, and sometimes remained so out of
preference for the hunting-gathering way of life (Robinson 1979, 8). "Aathi" thus
represented a cultural stage, but also a Mem sub-identity derived from the incorporation of
Agumbaand Ndorobo peoples.
Mention of the Njuri ya Katheka Kai crops up in connection with two 'secret' societies,
the njuri ya kaitha and the njuri ya aathi. Members of the Njuri ya Kaitha were
vegetarians, and employed vegetable poisons against their victims, and items of botanical
origin in their remedies and charms. The Njuri ya Aathi were, in contrast, hunters and
utilized medicines derived from animals. Both entities were originally groups who
remained outside regular clan structures and developed their own councils, as distinct from
other Mem who reverted to hunting when conditions necessitated it (Fadiman 1982,18).
These groups relied upon their hunter and blacksmith reputations for supernatural power,
using the practice of public curses as a form of social control and as a subsistence strategy
as their resource base inexorably came under the control of agricultural communities.
3 Agumba, in contrast, is a low-caste, derogatory appellation among the Meru.


The Nyambene Farming System 75
Modern Dynamics of Nyambene Meru Cultural Institutions 78
4 THE COMMERCIALIZATION OF NYAMBENE
AGRICULTURE 86
Precolonial Trade Networks 86
The Decline of Pastoralist Power 87
The Impact of Ivory on Regional Trade Networks 88
Late Nineteenth Century Environmental Catastrophes 89
The British Influence 91
The Rise of Miraa as a Commercial Commodity 93
Social Aspects of Miraa Consumption 95
The Socioeconomic Context of Miraa Production 97
The Nyambene Range and The Meru Farming System 99
The Development of the Miraa Trade 103
Igembe Control of the Urban Trade 107
The International Miraa Trade 109
Miraa And Rural Development 114
Cash-Crops in Comparative Perspective 115
5 NYAMBENE AGRICULTURE AND
AGRO-ECOLOGICAL ZONES 113
The Resilience of the Igembe System 120
Agronomic Aspects of Miraa Production 123
The Land Variables in Nyambene Small farm Production 128
Crops and Cultivars 133
Indigenous Agroforestry 135
Technological Innovations 137
Livestock 138
Constraints and Inputs 141
Production and Income 145
6 COMMERCIALIZATION AND ECOZONE SYMBIOSIS 149
The Meru Lowlands in Perspective 150
Kenya's Agricultural Policy
Commercialization and Ecozone Symbiosis 152
Sectoral Goals for Kenyan Agriculture 15 3
Ecozone Symbiosis 161
Local Linkages 162
Markets and the Dynamics of Technological Change in the
Nyambene s 164
Production Markets 165
Crop Differentials 168
Market Influences: The Case of Sorghum 172
Consumer and Input Markets 173
Consumption Trends and Household Expenditures 178
Social Dynamics: Cultural Endowment and Social Learning 180
Formal and Informal Group Membership 182
African Developmental Processes Revisited 184
vi


207
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180
Exchange, even in the lower zones, is a more important element of crop choice than
ecological or nutritional considerations. This shift has implications that point to the role of
the fourth market mentioned above-services, transport, communications and information-
in supporting the trend.
The data presented attempts to create a picture of ecozone symbiosis as part of the
overall system's development. But the question of vital infrastructure and social goods,
however, is to some degree a function of competition in the political marketplace. Political
leadership in Igembe in turn mirrors the relative strength of cultural institutions up to the
present. From our system's perspective, the Igembe have largely eschewed national
politics partially due to their own proclivity for autonomy, partially due to the nature of
local political leadership, and partially as a result of their own limited engagement in many
formal institutions. Participation in the national arena, and greater linkages to nation-wide
coevolutionary processes, is now receiving greater local attention. This topic will be
discussed as a part of the following section on social dynamics.
Social Dynamics: Cultural Endowment and Social Learning
Technological innovations and their implementation is a function of proper information
and adaptive processes. Information and distance do not appear to impede regional
linkages fostering specialization and exchange. To use the example quoted earlier, before
the introduction of modem communications, the Samburu crossed the plains to seek
Igembe markets when they espied the papery chaff of dolichos harvested in Igembe floating
on the wind. In contrast, Igembe's already poor attendance and slumping performance in
education (Igembe is the lowest ranking division in the district) occurs against the local
backdrop of.most farmer's proximity to schools and a major campaign to upgrade
educational facilities by a major NGO.
The role of cultural endowment in the transmission of information mitigates the
universal importance attached to formal education in Kenya. Cultural traits were
discussed earlier in terms of selective forces. The flow of information and indigenous
knowledge reflects the Igembe local system's independence and autonomy. Central
characteristics of the Nyambene region, spatially on the periphery of modem
developments, insulated from the thrust of Western influences, and economically linked to
the economy of pastoral lands, represent dualistic forces complicating the dynamics of
transformational processes.


144
the rear in Meru District's already low performance on the national secondary-school
admission examination.30
Poor educational performance may be an Igembe luxury permitted by the high level of
activity in other economic sectors. Many local Igembe note that development of miraa
activities leads to a decline in education, and further note that school performance is
dropping in the recently commercialized areas of the new Ntonyiri division just as it did
when miraa activity soared in the Kangeta/Muringene area two decades ago. Similar
attitudes toward education prevail in neighboring Somali locations where certain sub-clans
specialized in trade.31 Students rapidly lose interest in education once they have acquired
the fundamentals of reading and writing necessary for business. We must be careful not
too carry these generalizations to far. Interest in and support for education has increased,
and communities have faithfully contributed to the expansion and improvement of
educational facilities. With even university graduates "tarmacking" for employment,
familiar local utilitarian attitudes toward education prevail, and the non-material benefits of
education are especially less than apparent in households where parents did not school.
This utilitarian attitude shows up in the data for household food production. The high
level of commercialization does not translate into neglect for food products within the
Nyambene system. Even a strong tilt towards the ideology of "cash money" during the
past decade has not blunted the bias for maintaining household food production at a high
level: many local farmers respond and benefit from markets, but there remains a
fundamentally conservative attitude towards total dependence on commodity markets as a
substitute for on-farm food production.
There is no comparative data to assess relative levels of food production in other areas,
but if we use a 5-6 months supply of food per harvest as a criterion, over half of the local
farms can be considered at least largely self-sufficient. Another 28 % are net food sellers.
Considering the high level of non-food crops cultivated in the higher zones, small farm
size, and minimal use of fertilizer on domestic crops, these levels appear to be respectable.
The lower zone farms producing less than four months food supply appear to be in a
vulnerable position considering the more subsistence orientation of some lower zone
households.32 Harvests were in fact very low during the 1991 long rains. One informant
30Personal communication, James Laiboni.
3 Personal communication, Bashir Jama. The reference was specifically to the Garba Tula area which has
developed a reputation for entrepreneurship in lieu of more pastoral pursuits that dominate the more remote
Somali locations. Ogaden Somalis from Garba Tula, proximate to the northern extreme of the Nyambene
Range, not surprisingly, are active in the miraa trade.
32The data may reflect to at least some degree the influence of the low rainfall and lower zone drought
conditions that characterized the period from the October-December rains of 1990 through the March-May
rains of 1992 during which the data was collected.


61
dead and those who are still unborn are as much members of the group as the living (1949,
114)." When the land was settled, the Meru would have wanted to establish some kind of
kinship relations with the spirits of the land they now occupied. The living acted as the
trustees for the souls of the dead and those not yet bom, and the Meru settlers respected the
rights and power of those ancestral spirits of a locality who had exercised dominion over
the land and resources since time immemorial.
Within the Meru cultural ideology or world view, respect for ancestors in effect merges
with the practical utility of land, both as agricultural land and in its pristine state. The Meru
regard the forest as a whole and certain individual trees as sacred. This practical notion of
the sacred is not distinct from the use values of forest products and understanding its
importance as a social commons, as a magnet for rain, a refuge from enemies, and as a
place of God.20 The Njuri Ncheke was the group repository of this secular/supematural
authority with ultimate jurisdiction over individuals, age-sets, and clans. As a political
body, it appeared to be particularly active in issues and policies related to land.
Age-Set Organization:
Age group systems provide a set of checks and balances among generations that includes
the influence of ancestors and generations not yet of age symbolically represented in the
cycle. Age-set organization conditions a cross-generational concept of social development
and acts as a constant reminder of the obligations of a generation to their own children and
to future generations.
The ethnographic record provides a complex array of variations on age group systems.
Reviewing, classifying, and developing a systematic terminology has preoccupied more
than one scholar (Prins 1953, Bemardi 1982, Stewart 1977). Distilled to its most essential
attribute, age-set systems represent a set of rules embedded in generational social structures
(Stewart 1977, 5). These rules vary according to the system and locality, and govern
different demographic, political, and cultural aspects of the system. Even where it is not
formally embedded in the social structure, the notion of an individual's and a generation's
progression through the life cycle represents a universal characteristic of human society.21
The Nyambene Mem retain an age-set structure whose mies define the recruitment and
formation of an age-set generation, the intervening sequence of progression through age-
2The Meru perform special sacrifices in the forest; they used it to hide from the Maasai (and the British
during Mau Mau), and recognize its hydrological importance.
21 Americans, for example, refer to succeeding generations with reference to the great depression, the baby
boom, the Vietnam War, and the Reagan years.


192
capital, and an inflow of ideas and techniques from urbanized Igembe and other Meru
whose education has allowed them to access the national information base. The vertical,
high to low form of traditional clan land holdings insures lower zone farmers of
representation in political networks based in the highlands. The comparative advantage of
this symbiosis supports a growing commercial production sector, which in turn favors
incremental technological innovations like improved cultivare and the other modem as well
as traditional inputs that enhance it.
We can, therefore, theorize that in light of past dynamics and adaptive responses to
changing system parameters, the Igembe will manage change in lowland resource
management in a manner that promotes their own welfare and environmental sustainability
within a wider market economy. The development of the Nyambene semi-arid lands
periphery should contribute to Kenya's socioeconomic transition by incrementally boosting
agricultural production, absorbing some of the excess population in the high zones, and by
reinforcing expanding sectoral linkages within the regional and national economy.
Moreover, the Igembe farming system with its repository of important indigenous
knowledge providing feedback into other small holder farming systems in the area.
At a more macro level this perspective on Kenya's demographic-economic equation is
one that is much more optimistic than present day writings that have yet imagined or
conceived. With land as a constant, and population growth already passing the point of no
return, the parallel processes of intersectoral growth are cental to the consolidation of
Kenyan society as a political, economic, and social unit. Such a transformation involves a
series of linked transitions-the growth of civil society out of local ethnic entities, new
forms of adaptation, innovation, and specialization in production, and other complex
developments leading to the emergence of a distinct form of African capitalism. What we
have done here is to explore one of the pathways to commercialization which contributes
incrementally to the process.
The case study presented here points to Kenya's transition as dependent upon important
interactions among and feedback created by the internal organization of local systems. The
transformation of local systems into an interconnected whole involves the consolidation of
a substantially different kind of state than the one imposed on Africa by European
colonialism. The story is not all benign or hopeful. The conflicts centering on land
demonstrate the critical role of the state in negotiating the shift from a society based on
local, agrarian based systems to a diversified national society. This occurs while local level
factors generate feed back into the national arena, and in the case of Kenya, land issues


109
If we conservatively estimate the average value of one bunda at sh. 100 over the year,
the 1985 daily wholesale value of exports fluctuates between 240,000 and 320,000 ksh.,
or some sh. 80m annually (at 250,000 per day). Likewise, if we estimate the value of
Laare miraa at sh. 50 per bunda, the estimated daily value of exports fluctuates between
210,000-480,000 ksh., also ksh. 80m annually. These "ballpark figures indicate that
miraa production was an at least 160m ksh. a year industry (very likely much more), not
counting the miraa that is exported at alternative depots such as the Kaelo location which is
the center of Somalia-bound miraa.
The vehicles heading for the major urban markets arrive in Nairobi no later than eight
pm., and arrive in Mombasa shortly before sunrise. In 1992, approximately eight vehicles
(some carrying the low quality mizuzu, as the miraa tree prunings are called, to the NFD)
were departing from Muringene, and at least twice as many from Ntonyiri/Laare area. It is
difficult to estimate exports from Ntonyiri Division because now many exports are shipped
out at night, and leave from a variety of local markets other than Laare.
The Nairobi miraa terminal is in Majengo, a cramped mass of mud and corrugated iron
houses lined by open gutters whose ankle deep water is disguised by a film of dust and
garbage that collects on the surface. The miraa is unloaded in darkness, and quickly finds
its way to the correct owners who share cramped quarters and a gaaru-like communal
existence. The outward appearance of poverty in Majengo, however, is a facade hiding the
large amounts of cash that these migrating entrepreneurs handle. A pile of trash has
marked the middle of the main intersection for years.16 The neighborhood is equally
famous as a den of thieves: on several occasions more professional criminals have pulled
off major heists, stealing the cash receipts of an entire vehicle.
Informality also dominates the operation of successful miraa trading organizations. The
Meru refer to the fundamental miraa marketing group as "kampuni," or a company. They
are usually limited to several members, although older, diversified operations may own
vehicles and several shops, usually forming a small chain on one miraa route. They are not
officially registered or incorporated as a formal "company" by law, but arise around a
successful businessman, usually a Lubetaa trader. Originally these small firms were
kinship oriented, but dependence on one's kin soon gave way to qualifications based on
reliability, integrity, and friendship. Members of kampuni are usually Igembe Meru,
although client retailers may be from any ethnic group. In the city and towns, kampuni
members usually operate shops where they retail and wholesale miraa in addition to other
1^This Majengo landmark was cleaned up in 1991 and vehicles are now able to pass through the
intersection.


211
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111 (2).


8
storied agroforestry plots. As a consumption item, except for a few leafy bundles that
hardly represented the banana-leaf wrapped "kilos" one sees in the rest of Kenya, it was
also less apparent than expected. On the way back from the park, we chanced upon a local
farmer who volunteered to guide us to Muringene market, the main center for miraa export,
located right off the main road. This brief visit proved very interesting, beginning with the
rather unusual sign marking the turn-off to Muringene"Muringene, Soko La Miraa Bila
Ubaguzi," (Muringene, the Miraa Market Without Discrimination).
The miraa bazaar appeared very different compared to other local markets throughout
Kenya. For one thing, it was a temporally concentrated event where most of the exchange,
packaging, and accounting is completed between one p.m. and three p.m. It also seemed
to involve a highly ordered underlying pattern despite the spontaneous and chaotic
impression it conveyed to an outsider. And it obviously involved financial transactions
significantly higher than your average cabbage or maize market
A miraa trader I knew in Nairobi insisted I make another trip to the Nyambenes to visit
his home. I returned the next year in the company of one of my companions from the last
trip, and this time we spent a week touring the vicinity between Kangeta and Maua on foot
and in densely packed matatus, packed Peugeot 404 station wagons crammed with bodies
in the style of the American telephone booth fad. Conversations and walks in Igembe
revealed a fascinating and infrequently investigated cultural-economic complex. The trail
blazed by miraa from Nyambene farms to the coast made for an interesting study, and I
decided to expand my interest in Swahili society to look at the developmental implications
of the production and marketing of this highly used, and sometimes abused, commodity of
Swahili social intercourse.
During another stopover at Muringene during the second visit a local businessman we
met in a small cafe/bar commented to me that "we have money, but we don't have
development" Urban Lamu, whose relatively unchanged way of life is a magnet for
Western tourists, is often described by Kenyans as also lacking development As with
Lamu, the Nyambene area did not appear undeveloped by Kenyan rural standards. It does,
howver, display unique and intriguing features of cultural continuity uncharacteristic of
other areas of highly commercialized small scale agriculture. As a Westerner, I had always
considered "development" to be more than a matter of material prosperity. Heuristically,
the businessman's statement provided me with a research question on local
commercialization. Can the usual forms of sociocultural change associated with
"development' vary independently of money incomes and types of cropping strategies?
On the surface, the urban, internationally oriented, maritime-based economy of the
northern Swahili presents little in common with the small-farm, local economy of the


19
his own model, represents a narrow interpretation of anthropology's relevance to
developmental issues.10 Ruttan nevertheless identifies issues of practical, methodological,
and theoretical importance. He concludes that economists will condnue using modest
extensions of microeconomic theory as the strategy to deal with culture "until our
colleagues in the other social sciences are able to provide us with more helpful analytic
tools (ibid; 256)."
That insightful cultural exegesis is possible is evidenced by the fact that it is often done
by observers other than professional anthropologists.11 An example of the interpretive
anthropological approach is Geertz's (1972) famous article, "Notes On The Balinese
Cockfight," where the author combines the curiosity invoked by an unanticipated personal
experience in the field and thorough scholarship into the contextual setting to tease the
meaning of the cockfight as an important cultural institution in Bali. The cockfight
symbolizes the potential for social conflict in a context where political violence otherwise
appears at variance with its cultural setting. The problem is positing a systematic
methodology that can be used to apply this approach across cases.
Symbolic systems link up with their material settings, and the differences between form
and style, function and symbol are not as great as some would have us think (Richerson,
Bettinger, and Boyd 1993). If it is true, as Geertz asserts, that we cannot understand a
culture the same way a native does (1983), it is only logical to make reference to the
standard social science grid lines-economy, ecology, history, etc.when mapping
culture.12 Either we do this, or concede the study of cultural domains to the post
modernists, who eschew these grids in favor of their own distancing rhetoric and guilt
complexes.13 How we go about this is treated in detail in the next chapter.
10Critiques of the Haymai-Ruttan model include the fact that the specific social order determining
institutional arrangements in developing countries cannot be understood in purely economic terms.
1 fit is difficult, for example, to find fault with Pico Iyer's (1989) treatment of Japanese baseball, an essay
that uses a sport to delineate institutionalized cultural differences between Japan and America in an
unpretentious and theoretically unobjectionable (from most anthropological perspectives) manner. Also, I
have observed that "native" analysis of sociocultural behavior gravitates towards materialist determinants,
but without erecting a materialist/cultural dichotomy.
12The accuracy of interpretive analyses is contingent upon the researchers' individual skills, their ability to
identify the important features of a cultural reality and to extract meaning from it, not analytical tools.
Indeed, Harris's major criticism of phenomenology or "Geertzian belle lettres" is that it contains no
methodology apart from the researchers individual insight, placing it beyond established scientific
principles of accountability (1987). It is curious that, although Geertz believes we (i.e. Westerners) cannot
cognitively understand them, they (i.e. non-Westerners) understand us well enough to fit into and contribute
to modem multi-cultural society in the West.
13 Clifford (1986; 1990) is a principle spokesman for the new ethnography that seeks to locate the
ethnographer as a writer of cultural texts. Marcus and Fisher (1986) are the chief critics of the "sins" of
Western anthropology. Roth (1989), Carrithers (1990) and Keesing (1990) critique the postmodern school
from different stances.


103
for the growing number of landless peasants. Had coffee production been allowed in
Gikuyu country, where the pressures in the native reserve were the greatest, perhaps the
post-World War II Mau Mau conflict might have been avoided (Sorrenson 1967, 270).
Adequate land and the success of miraa as a cash crop created different conditions in the
Nyambenes, but a number of Igembe nevertheless came out in strong support of the Mau
Mau. The hidden Liburu crater behind Nkinyang'a was used as a meeting place for Meru
freedom fighters. Many households near the Nyambene forest in Kiegoi were relocated to
Gichanine and more centralized locations close to the Kangeta chiefs camp where they
could be better observed by the local administration. The British now viewed miraa with a
jaundiced eye (e.g. Greenway 1947). Although they did not declare miraa illegal in 1945
as Hjort (1974, 29) reports, they tried to restrict its export and considered placing a tax on
each tree. For the Igembe this was an alarming trend. Some people, especially those
whose fields were near roads, uprooted their trees; many felt taxation would eventually lead
to alienation of land as in other parts of the colony.
British opposition to miraa and the curfew imposed in the reserves frustrated trade and
forced smugglers to funnel exports through routes crossing the Northern Grazing Area
(NGA). This threat to their autonomy, and the mass detention of Embu and Meru along
with Gikuyu in urban areas when Mau Mau broke out, may at least partially explain the
strong solidarity with the forest fighters expressed in Igembe to this day, anti-Gikuyu
sentiment notwithstanding. Like the Gikuyu, the Igembe were resentful of government
programs that blocked their development (Throup 1985,427). Disaffected individuals
among the Igembe rose up in opposition. Some Igembe farmers lost cattle and land for
supporting the rebellion, and the period associated locally with the Ratanaa, was in general
one of non-growth.
One major development took place before the outbreak of Mau Mau During the late
1940s an Arab named Abdul Saleh started to export Meru miraa to Nairobi. Deliveries
were uneven at first, but it found a ready-made market, particularly among Muslims in
neighborhoods like Pumwani and Eastleigh. Urban miraa consumption increased despite
the curfew. Consumers eagerly awaited miraa making the long trip from Nyambene
markets by truck, sometimes skirting the sundown curfew to buy miraa when the truck was
late.
The earlier urban traders were often non-Igembe Meru, particularly Meru Muslims from
Meru town who could bridge the different worlds of rural Igembe and urban Nairobi. As
"de-tribalized" urban Africans, they enjoyed less restricted mobility. Daudi Mbogori, a
Meru from Imenti, is credited with being the first local trader to market miraa in the cities.
He was enormously successful, acquired property in Mombasa and Nairobi, and a beer


85
Waso Nyiro River.(Mwaniki 1984, Mboroki 1972). By the 1870s Maasai were raiding
coastal settlements (Salim 1975), and the Laikipiak Maasai, weakened by the raids of other
Maasai sections and proximate agriculturalists, self-destructed in a final spurt of
internecine warfare during the 1880s (Sobania 1974, Hjort 1981).
The exception to pastoral decline was the Somali expansion. The movement of the
Somali into present day Kenya, although obviously reflecting demographic and ecologicval
factors, also sprung from a religious revival in Bardera during the 1820s. Somali clans
crossed the Juba River and severely pressed the Boran of northeastern Kenya. The Somali
mixed livestock strategy based on camels, cattle, and small ruminants proved superior to
the Boran cattle-based economy, allowing them to consolidate territorial gains during the
post 1850s droughts (Merriman 1987). During the 1860s Somali defeated the Boran at El
Wak and Wajir. Somali pressure pushed the Boran to the western edge of present day
Northeastern Province Within a few decades Somali groups had reached Isiolo, on the
doorstep of the Nyambenes.
The decline of Maasai and Boran cattle-based monoculture contrasted with the resilience
of the Somali mixed ecological adaptation. The Samburu and Rendille, present a third
variation where the groups maintained their territorial position through the complex
environmental and cultural symbiosis described by Spencer (1973).
The Impact of Ivory on Regional Trade Networks
Items manufactured abroad started to enter the highland-lowland trade networks by the
early nineteenth century through Kamba linkages with the coast. The first major world
commodity exported from the Nyambene region was ivory. The commodization of ivory
stimulated commercial forces that penetrated into the most remote and inhospitable comers
of northern Kenya, subtlety altering economic relations among groups. Coastal caravans
emanating out of Zanzibar centered primarily on slaves along the routes transversing
present-day Tanzania into central Africa, and on ivory in much of present day Kenya
(Sharif 1987). Parties in search of ivory entered the region with increasing frequency after
the mid-point of the nineteenth century following the same trails, reducing the Kamba to
secondary players.
The ivory boom briefly created a new role for the remaining hunter-gatherer groups who
were able to augment their meager existence by becoming guides, ivory-hunters, and
middlemen between their warrior herdsmen patrons and the traders roaming the area.
During the years prior to and after the turn of the century, the ivory trade became a


11
monocultural agriculture on one hand, and a multicausal conceptual framework of analysis
compared with the more monocultural emphasis of most Western social science theory. In
effect, the many tiered aspects of my research parallels an epistemological posture guiding
the investigation as a whole. Patterns emerge out of reoccurring relationships among
variables. Sets of these relationships said to explain the patterns are expressed as theories.
The test or plausability of theories derives from how well these hypothetical relationships
metaphorically or symbolically represent and explain the essential characteristics of the
patterned events of empirical phenomena.
Metaphor allows us to express abstract ideas in the language of commonly understood
relationships. Metaphors we use and manipulate to impose a conceptual order on diverse
phenomena often derive from the naturalistic order embedded in our cultural and linguistic
orientations (Lakoff and Johnson 1980,4-6). Thus astronomy was the metaphysical
model for much atomic physics, just as the Oedipus myth helped Freud conceptualize the
internalization of social norms. Conceptual models are metaphorical abstractions of the
relationships among variables. For example, when we observe modernization, structures
of dependency, and other such phenomena in one setting, we then extrapolate the
conceptual relationship from one historical experience for the purpose of examining and
analyzing other case studies. The test of the model is how well it holds across many cases
and contexts.
In this manner, observed relationships are translated into comparatively useful analytical
tools. The model is operationalized to test the empirical validity of the metaphorical
relationship. The metaphor/theory is revised in the course of theory-building, critique, and
explaining the implications of new data. Conceptual processes therefore represent a two-
way street involving the interaction of empirical investigation and theoretical analysis. New
empirical and conceptual constraints arise and conceptual models are revised or expanded in
response to the new questions and problems (Laudan 1977).
This is a roundabout way of saying that the culture and system of Meru agriculture
provided important clues for understanding the more general dynamics operating within
African society and economy. Past failures to properly understand the dynamics of African
agriculture reflects to some extent the imposition of prevailing conventional models of
theoretical change. Analysis through Western theoretical lenses often produces examples
of what Hyden (1988) has identified as the monocultural tradition. Monocultural
agriculture based on single factor responses to inputs leading to increased outputs has
dominated much Third World agricultural research. According to Hyden, the particular
emphasis placed on monocropping in agriculture, the range of Western economic models--
be they neo-classical or Marxist-and external models of political development are all


215
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62
grades, and the transfer of political power (ntuiko) from one generation to the next.22 In
this manner age-set organization provides for the uniform progression of male generations
through the lifecycle. Each age-set, or riika, pass through life sharing common
responsibilities to society, obligations toward each other as individuals, and to other
generational groups. The Nyambene Meru system consists of eight cycling age sets
divided into two moieties.
Table 3.2: Nyambene Riika and Moieties
Mhaine (old)
Lubetaa
Guantai
Kiramunya
Micubu
Ntamu
Miriti
Gichunge
Ithalie
Ratanya
Age-sets fell into two alternating streams, the mbaine and the ntangi, representing the
initial two age-sets in the Nyambene succession. Three circumcision groups initiated at
five year intervals form an age-set. The first is called Ndunguri, the second Kobia, and the
third Kaberia: both age-sets and circumcision groups repeat in cycles of eight and three
years.23 The initiation period for a riika covers ten years; five years later circumcision of a
new riika begins. Circumcision may deviate from the set pattern according to
circumstances such as famine or war. When this happens, circumcision dates are adjusted
to compensate for deviations.
Meru oral traditions state that they adopted the military organization of the Maasai and
Samburu as a matter of self defense, and out of respect for the social discipline it instilled
(Rimita 1988). The Igembe also comment that their circumcision rites are said to resemble
those of the Abagusii and Kalenjin, pointing to greater Mwoko influence than allowed for
in the historical accounts of both local and outside investigators.24 This would also explain
why Nyambene age-sets are cyclical as are those of the Kalenjin while Maasai age-sets are
of the linear model. Cyclical age-sets encourage a subtle cognitive approach to time as
possessing circular qualities, and the Nyambene Meru sometimes refer to particular age-
"Fadiman (1982) provides a detailed account of Meru age-sets.
^Individuals are identified by their riika and circumcision group, e.g Lubetaa Kobia, Mirit Kaberia. etc.
24 Local Igembe informants accept that the age-set structure may be derived from contact with Maasai, but
linguistic analysis suggests Cushitic influences particularly in connection with their circumcision practices.
The Mbaine/Natangi stream possibly represents generations initiated after changes in the original
circumcision rites and practices, and not the adoption of age-sets per se.


106
The new Miriti generation (initiated in 1975) found regional miraa markets largely
saturated. It was certainly more difficult for an individual to become quickly established as
a trader than it was for their Lubetaa predecessors. There were still some small niches and
crannies in urban markets to be filled, and limited opportunities in smaller towns for a
trader. In general, however, market involution increased as more petty dealers divided the
available profits into smaller parts. Miraa dealing became more of an exercise in satisficing
an urban existence than accumulating capital. The competition and supply kept the price of
miraa down even as the overall quantity of exports continued to expand.
Profits, under these conditions, are often expended on drinking and other forms of
urban recreation. The bare-bones existence of urban traders partially subsidizes consumers
by keeping overheads low. Miraa dealers erect small kiosks in African neighborhoods that
serve as small shops and the cramped quarters where traders sleep. Living in urban areas
does present other opportunities for the more enterprising entrepreneurs, but the limits of
local markets now represent a ceiling for Igembe traders.
The International Miraa Trade
The miraa market has undergone another major expansion during the 1980s as the
export of small quantities of miraa to western Europe began. The bulk of this miraa went
to England, smaller shipments were put on planes destined for West Germany, Italy, and
Scandinavian countries. By the mid-1980s Ethiopian chat could occasionally be found in
New York, Washington D.C., and Toronto. By the early 1990s Meru miraa also began
finding its way to North America. Like the earlier expansions, small populations of
traditional consumers, mainly Somalis augmented by Ethiopians and Yemeni Arabs, were
the primary consumers.
Previously Somalis had been active in exporting miraa to Somalia, and perhaps the
small amounts smuggled into Saudia Arabia, where it carries a large criminal penalty. The
collapse of the Somali state dispersed Somalis literally across the world as Western
governments as far away as Australia admitted refugees. The number of Somalis in
London and the United Kingdom, hosts to a small Somali population from former British
Somaliland and other East African territories, increased substantially.14
This export market is almost totally controlled by Somali miraa exporters who travel to
Laare and other Ntonyiri markets to purchase their shipments directly from farmers and
^Somalis in London consistently assess their population in London as around 20,000. There could be
considerably more than that as the registration of Somali refugees continues.


33
represents approaches aimed at deriving causal or statistical laws that enable us to control
something. Hermeneutics is deployed for improving communication and mutual
understanding, and the applied goal of joint action and living together. The third type of
science, typified by psychoanalysis, targets emancipatory self-knowledge of causes
determining consciousness and behavior. It uses both causal laws and interpretive
technique to probe hidden operations.
All of these objectives, relevant to our analysis in their own fashion, encourage a
synthetic theoretical approach consistent with the problem-solving orientation articulated by
Laudan.14 There is no universal principle demanding the separation of concepts and goals,
and as Laudan observes, scientists can often work within different, and even naturally
inconsistent research traditions (1977, 140). This approach equates well with another
stream in anthropology which chooses or combines elements from different paradigm-
oriented research traditions for their utility. Cohen defines such problem solving
approaches as eclecticism:
...an epistemic creed whose foundation is a stubborn commitment to realism, relevance, and
testable validity. Eclecticism...places the onus on researchers to depict reality, its causal nexi, and
the changing weights given to specific factors in its most empirically valid, inclusive, and relevant
format. The criterion for choosing questions and seeking answers is therefore not commitment to
a paradigm, but rather policy testing and guidance, i.e. the relevance of the explanation in its
applicability to the solution of a real world problem (1988, 26).
The eclectic-empirical tradition emphasizes precision and rigor in place of the
paradigmatic criteria as a precondition for the exegesis of data.15 Social research under this
set of guidelines follows problems and demands accuracy and relevance. Clear, real world
conditions produce complex problems requiring choices about which data are most relevent
to puzzle solving that cannot be limited by paridigmatic limitations. Eclecticism is accused
of disorganized searching for any and all factors that prove interesting to an individual
researcher. But "eclecticism" need not be eclectic: it can also incorporate a systems
framework capable of embracing a variety of theoretical constructs.
14Choice of theory is rationally evaluated-normative rationality is admittedly time and culture-dependent-
according to its superior properties vis a vis the designated problem (1977; 130). "Rational choice" among
theories is therefore governed by the "progressive" capacity of theories in terms problem-solving, and being
scientifically reasonable is doing whatever we can to maximize the progress of scientific research traditions
(ML: 123).
15By-passing the paradigmatic conflict over ultimate causality reduces the Kuperian research programs to
two main approaches, the materialist tradition and the phenomenological tradition. The former is further
simplified by refraining from assumptions regarding dialectical processes at the core of the Marxist conflict
models which, as Ellen states, reduced to the ecological level can be expressed in terms of a predator-prey
relationship (1982,246). Incorporating the latter research program, on the other hand, is viewed mainly as
a methodological problem which we mentioned in the first chapter.


191
synthetic and symbiotic systems like Mem society become interconnected and integrated
within national economic sectors and institutions, the shift to a post-agrarian society
begins. The reorganized structure operates within conditions similar to those now
governing the local systems. As local societies become integrated into a larger, cross-
connected grid, unique and adaptive qualities based on many features of the earlier order
survive. The new order does not supplant the older 'traditional' systems. It builds upon
them and demonstrates their adaptability rather than their constraining qualities.
The existence of the modem state is not the product of Africa's societal processes. It
did not emerge. It was imported as part of the larger imperial order emanating out of
Europe.6 When the African states' linkages to the European economic order weakened
during the post independence period, large scale organization in Africa became increasingly
vulnerable to the centrifugal forces of local phenomena that have dominated Africa for
millennia. Indeed, even the sacrosanct political map of Africa is yet to sort itself out in
relationship to Africa's internal forces of selection and indigennous mechanisms of long
and short term adaptation.7 Africa's future is certainly one of participation in the wider
world. But what we have shown is that what it is, and what it will become is strongly
influenced by its own internal relationships.
Demography and Commercialization
Population growth in Kenya has now passed the threshold in which exit and other local
survival and subsistence strategies enabled by spatial isolation are no longer viable. The
country has become a cmcible where numerous forms of economic, social, and political
linkages have connected local systems to each other in a variety of ways. Intensified
interactions engender both cooperation and conflict: the potential for symbiosis exists
alongside the potential for dissolution. Demographic change is driving the country in the
direction of a transformation. What this means, and how it will occur, and what form it
will take are presently unknown.
Our analysis has shown that the Igembe lower zones will absorb a significant portion of
the growing Igembe population. The organization of the Nyambene cultural-agricultural
system embraces a socioeconomic structure enhancing ecozone symbiosis. Zonal linkages
provide insurance against the shortfalls of periodic dry years, a source of investment
6To use Riedl's (1977) analogy, evolution does not produce a GM car with a bronze age wheel. Yet many
African nations at independence did resemble a GM car with two or more bronze age wheels.
7African states survive within their colonial configuration in part due to the sacrosanct article in the
Organization of African Unity's charter safeguarding colonial borders, and in part because governments are
upheld by the international system of nation states (Jackson and Rosberg 1985).


52
ecozone classification employed in this study. The exception to this pattern are the
agropastoralist Mbere and Tharaka, who relied on livestock and millet production in the
lowlands of eastern Mt. Kenya. The Maasai had moved into the high pasturelands in the
rain shadow on the northern fringes of Mt. Kenya and into the lower southwestern flanks
of the Nyambenes, while their Samburu cousins utilized adjacent rangelands on the
northern slopes on a seasonal basis, effectively sealing-off expansion to the west.
The Tumbiri settlers absorbed most of the earlier Cushitic and Nilotic agro-pastoralists.
The pre-Kalenjin Mwoko are the one population mentioned in Meru traditions who
remained unassimilated after the spread of the Tumbiri clans. A small pocket of the earlier
Highland Nilote-Southem Cushite population, the Mokogodo, also survived in the Mt.
Kenya area. The second wave of Bantu clans encountered higher population densities and
later movements were in a west and northwesterly direction. The proto-Meru Thagana
clans divided into different communities in the lowlands between Mt. Kenya and the
Nyambenes. Migration was replaced by irrendentist expansion once pastoralist movements
sealed off the northwestern comer of Mt. Kenya. The Tumbiri migration had pushed the
Embu and Mbeere to their locations south of Meru District, and the arrival of Thagana clans
served to force the Chuka up, becoming the first group to settle in the higher coffee zone
and the tea zone of Mt. Kenya.
The arrival of the proto-Mem Thagana was a major turning point in the region. The
population was reaching its saturation point relative to the extensive production strategies
prevailing during that period: hunting, shifting cultivation, and the cattle based nomadic
pastoralism of the Maasai. By the mid 1700s the scarcity of game and increasing
population density led to increased sedentarization. The Mem clans occupied the
northeastern comer of the Mt. Kenya foothills, now divided into several sections or sub
ethnicities, and moved up the slopes of Mt. Kenya and the Nyambenes. This resulted in
the zonal agricultural system described by Bernard (1972). Ethnic relations quickened as
the region's periodic droughts intensified conflict among the now circumscribed
populations. Agriculture underwent a shift towards intensified agricultural production as
groups colonized the higher zones bordering the band of montane forest on Mt. Kenya and
the Nyambenes.
The Mem polity evolved through processes of integration, conflict, and synthesis. The
Mem fought the Maasai after crossing the Tana. They clashed with Oromo pastoralists on
the plains of Tharaka during the Nyamdure drought of 1725-29 (Mwaniki 1984, 151). The
Igembe variously refer to these pastoralists as the Agir, Akara, and Ukara, and claim they
were related to the Mwoko (Fadiman 1976, 155). The Mem absorbed some of these


65
Gichiaro formalized symbiotic relations between agricultural and pastoral groups. The
Igembe maintained gichiaro with the Borana, and even with the distant Rendille, who came
from near Lake Turkana to trade. Visitors to Nyambene markets included Gikuyu, Kamba,
Embu, and other Meru from the highlands, and a host of nomadic pastoralists including the
Maasai, Samburu, Somali, and Borana. As the Nyambene Range became the center of
inter-regional exchange gichiaro not only facilitated interaction and exchange among the
host of ethnic groups in the region but came to incorporate outside commercial interests as
well. Coastal and Somali traders and Europeans all sought to establish gichiaro ties as a
practical measure to facilitate trade and safe passage through the Nyambene region, which
by the end of the nineteenth century had become a main staging area for movement into the
NFD and west to Baringo.
Often blood kinship followed fictive kinship. Such relations buffered groups against
environmental disasters, as Maasai-Meru relations illustrate. The migration of Maasai and
Tigania Meru to Narok during the Kiaramu (named after the solar intensity of the period)
famine of 1917-1918 was mentioned earlier. During the 1984 drought, the worst drought
of this half of the century, Maasai over two generations removed from contact with the
Meru returned to seek assistance from their Mem relatives in Tigania, and received it.
Gichiaro relations could be abrogated for specific reasons, and this appears to be the case
when the Imenti Mem of Katheri expelled and fought with the Maasai with whom they had
lived in shared coexistence for generations (Mboroki 1972).
Intermarriage, maternal kinship relations (an individual could be granted land by their
wife or mother's kin) and gichiaro fictive kinship facilitated the access of different parties to
land. Igembe and Tigania settling in each others respective territory usually do so through
intermarriage. Imenti Meru and other settlers from outside the Nyambene area, in contrast,
undergo gichiaro rituals in order to acquire land in the new settlement schemes in lower
zones of Igembe.
These practices represent traditional Mem mechanisms based on the idea of group
strategies to promote social strength and well-being. Sustaining population growth meant
the efficient and wise use of natural resources in order to preserve the inheritance of future
generations. The inheritance consisted of, more than anything else, land. Most Meru
consider wealth in the form of cattle or money as essentially impermanent, whereas land is
fixed a security worthy of long-term investment. Land straddles the intersection of material
production and the institutional factors of clan, council, and age-set, and the cultural
ideology permeating them.
Land, natural resources, the supernatural-religious realm, and cultural institutions are
interlinked. The Njuri Ncheke sanctioned the environmental policies regulating forest and


30
groups can transcend tribe.11 The proclivity for small organizational units resurfaces in
economic organization.
The Igembe system of Meru described in the following pages represents symbiotic
outcomes generated by interactions and combinations of the forces listed above. The
Igembe have continued to straddle different socioeconomic domains in response to the
influences of factors introduced by state during the past eight decades. The concept of
symbiosis proved to be emblematic of general evolutionary forces influencing system
change and transition as well as a discrete mechanisms of adaptation underpinning the
growth and expansion of the Mem polity. As we shall see, ecozone variation produces a
powerful and interrelated set of forces affecting the development of the northern Mem
region. Fieldwork in Mem spanned the commercialized highland agro-ecological zones
and the drylands on their periphery, and provides us with an example of an instance where
the configuration of agricultural production, change and response to external factors is
generated by locally evolved agricultural technology and organization.
The productivity of the Nyambene Mem system rests upon indigenous technology,
research, and development sustained by internal cultural institutions that have proved to be
responsive to innovation, social learning, and market opportunities over time. The
reproduction of the internal order under commercial forces is, however, dependent upon
critical linkages to the external capitalist order. The nature of this relationship sheds light
on the dynamics of agrarian-led socioeconomic transition in Africa. Like in the case study,
the emergence of a unitary state-society system within Kenya's borders also embodies
linkages among groups and regions leading to an uni-ethnic outcome through processes
similar to those operating in Mem historically. Culture is a critical part of the overall
picture. I will, therefore, attempt to address the theoretical context of how we study and
integrate cultural factors into the analysis of social systems before delineating the specific
conceptual components that guided the research.
Anthropological Research Traditions:
A question emerges immediately about how these significant elements should be related
to one another. Fieldwork demonstrated, and pointed to, their relevance. Anthropological
theory points to ways in which they can be understood and explained. Absorbing the
1 1 There are cases of one clan spread across two tribes-the Atangwa clan is represented within both the
Kamba and Gikuyu peoples-and of clans that alternate between two distinct cultural units according to
material conditions, as the alternating identity of the Ariaal clan, which is associated with both the Rendille
and Samburu, and as of late, the Turkana, according to changing contexts (Spencer 1973; Hjort 1981).


153
The logic of commercialization leaves targeted production goals largely to
socioeconomic forces. Proper policy factors can make an important difference (Lofchie
1989). Still, official dogma and external prescriptions replacing the state with markets are
no substitute for a close reading of the situation by local policy makers, as demonstrated by
Mosely's (1987) analysis of the wrangle between donors and Kenyan officials over
fertilizer subsidies and production. In this case, events supported the position of the
Kenyan policy makers who argued (like many of the farmers in our survey) production
statistics reflected rainfall and not the Kenya government's fertilizer prices and policies.7
The Igembe case study provides a test case for commercial forces. By providing data on
local processes, we can better specify the most enabling role of the state in meeting its own
policy formulations.
Sectoral Goals for Kenyan Agriculture:
Planners set three major goals emphasizing national food security and export led growth
for the agricultural sector: (1) achievement of self-sufficiency in food production; (2)
maintaining adequate levels of national food reserves; and (3) expanding production of
agricultural commodities for export (National Development Plan 1989-1993. 103). These
goals were to be realized through greater intensification of production in high potential
zones, and greater integration of low potential arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) into the
national economy.
National policy targets improved production for seven major commodities: coffee, tea,
maize, wheat, milk, meat, and horticultural products. The first three of these-maize,
beans, and milkutilize approximately two-thirds of Kenya's agricultural land. The chief
structural mechanism for achieving growth targets is improved economic incentives.
Kenya's market-led strategy specified improved turnaround in payments to farmers by
parastatal marketing boards, and the gradual withdrawal of the state from commodity
markets through economic liberalization (Ibid.. 114).8
The chief technological mechanisms for achieving targeted production goals are
adoption of available high yield seed varieties, more extensive use of fertilizers, and
7In this case negotiations between donors and the Kenyans, and delays in shipping, led to the belated arrival
of the fertilizer after the onset of the rains. The donor's policy position was undermined by the non
availability of the fertilizer and favorable rains resulting in harvest levels consistent with the Kenyan
officials views.
8Marketing boards are now instructed to limit delays on payments to farmers to a maximum of two
months. In the past the turnaround sometimes exceeded one year delays. The Plan calls for the role of the
National Grain and Produce Board to be limited to maintenance of strategic food reserves and to serve as the
buyer of last resort for local produce.


150
brake on development in the bordering highlands.2 Tourism, a major foreign exchange
earner in Kenya suffers, security consumes resources, and impoverished victims of
lowland conflict and instabilityboth political and environmental-flee to towns and cities in
the highlands. The change in land and resource management in the relatively marginal
lower zones therefore has direct social, economic, and political ramifications for the
national political economy.
Study of agricultural systems, such as the one under investigation here, occurs against a
backdrop of often poorly understood adaptations to local conditions and sweeping
characterizations of environmental conditions (Homewood and Rodgers 1987). Local
production systems can be exceedingly complex, variability abounds, and very small
ecological differences can exert a major influence on production strategies. The entire
environmental and historical complexion of Africa, if not antithetical to broad-based
policies and prescriptions, favors finely-tuned and synthetic approaches.
There is no way out of this conundrum where even taxonomic formulae, a basic article
of natural science, are confounded by socio-historical complexity. One example of a
rudimentary step in this direction, Polly Hill's (1985) call for socioeconomic classification
of tropical agrarian systems, loses its utility in the complexity engendered by a comparison
of the example of a "dry grain mode" in northern Nigeria and south India. The only
recourse is to qualify valid theoretical concepts and developmental trajectories in terms of
the complex and sometimes contradictory data they often subsume.3
Where natural monocultures reflecting local micro-adaptations specific to one
environmental niche exist, they are part of a cultural mosaic, and generate multiple and
synergetic linkages. The Nyambene Meru system evolved out of these symbiotic processes
based on local differentials in the Mt. Kenya region. Consequentially, the greater Meru
District cultural and agricultural mileiu displays considerable internal variation. This is why
it is necessary to unpack features of the Igembe system and, when instructive, make
comparisons with other local systems. This chapter provides data that link processes of
agrarian change to the environmental variation, ecological specialization, and efficient
response to market stimuli discussed in the preceeding chapters.
2Several factors already demonstrate some destabilizing influences. One is the recruitment and exploitation
of Maasai and Kalenjin warriors from underdeveloped areas on the highland periphery by KANU party
bosses for political thuggery. This is symptomatic of deeper problems connected to land and
underdevelopment. Another is the rise in banditry emanating from Somalia's political and environmental
disaster.
3 A simple example is the reference to mwenjela (Cussonia holstii) in an earlier chapter. The tree, regarded
as useless in the culturally congruent Embu District neighboring Meru, is one of the fundamental
components of the Nyambene farming system. Colonial and post-colonial policies overlaying the
differentials in local adaptations introduced yet another set of varying influences.


15
terms of the defense of cultural values; letters to the editor resisting population control as a
Western conspiracy or assault on African values appeared with great regularity in the local
press during the 1970s and 1980s. Historically, Africans controlled population when
necessary. Under certain conditions the demographic equation necessitated biocultural
adaptations for the control of population growth. The Rendille control population growth
within environmental limits through social customs governing marriage and reproduction
that are closely linked to the reproductive cycle of camels (Spencer 1973). The Chuka
developed complex and effective birth control practices when pressed by enemies on all
sides during the nineteenth century (Mwanikj 1984).
The examples of the Rendille and the Chuka underscore the view of population growth
as a process based upon rational, cost-benefit calculations taking into account the
environmental carrying capacity facing local societies (Harris 1987). But other scholars of
demography with long-term experience in Africa see the need to explore the local
institutional facets and "cultural context "of African population demography as well as
unique characteristics of demographic transition in different societies (Caldwell and
Caldwell 1987; Greelaugh 1990). Support for family planning is gaining new acceptance
in Kenya and Meru, but factors such as the AIDS epidemic may yet prove the validity of
Africa's cultural and ideological commitment to population growth Although HIV
mortality has yet to approach the level exacted by past epidemics and environmental
catastrophes reckoned by still living Igembe memories, it strikes at the economically most
important segment of the population (Caldwell, Caldwell, and Quigan 1989).
Attitudes towards development reflect asymmetrical relationships with variables of
technology, environmental and economic carrying capacity, and structural factors
determining access to resources. The reasons for this are obvious-the West and the
Westernized have long provided the dominant models of material advancement, the critical
patronage linkages, and westernized education is a prerequisite for utilizing donors
institutional and technological transfers to developing countries. But the association
between technological advance and Westernization obscures progressive home-grown
technologies and cultural practices, and promotes cultural duality.
Westernization often enslaves at the same time as it is liberating. The conflict between
material development and social values as a regular feature of day to day life in Africa has
diminished little since Ocol P'Bitek (1967) described the quandary in The Song ofLawino
and The Song of Ocol. The success of Africa's westernized elite fails as a role model for
African society: Kenya's Anglophylic former attorney general, Charles Njonjo, provides
an example of the deep-seated discomfort which permeated Kenyans' view of his political
ambitions, a factor President Moi exploited when he engineered Njonjo's fall from grace.


151
The Mera Lowlands in Perspective:
The potential for ASAL development through ecozone linkages depends upon
adaptations developing within the extension of existing developmental trends bridging the
highlands and the lowlands. The idea of sustainability and questions of technological
innovation in these areas turn on the internal organization of not only the local cultural and
agricultural system, but also utilizing linkages with the regional and national systems. The
Meru lowlands have a reputation as a problem area. The Tharaka are the main Meru sub
group who established permanent residence in the lowlands. Colonial administrators
despaired at early date of bringing "development" to this area, as evidenced by one of the
more cynical observations quoted from the District Commissioner's 1927 Annual Report:
That country is rich in the poisonous plants used by the Meru witchdoctors and a good trade in
poisons is said to exist between the two tribes. The country is so inhospitable that it is incapable
of much development and its chief product is honey which is fermented and drunk by both sexes,
young and old. Drunkenness is a frequent condition of the people; it is possible that only by
being constantly drunk they become reconciled to live in such a country and such a climate
(DC/Mru 2/ 1927, pg. 7).
Tharaka lies to the eastern, Tigania side of the Nyambenes, and shares a border with
Igembe on the far north comer. The Tharaka traditional system was arguably sustainable in
the past for the simple reason that the austere environment and the hostility of local Tharaka
towards other groups kept outsiders out and allowed the population unimpeded access to its
subsistence resources4 This was likely a function of the extremely low population density,
allowing the Tharaka to spread their resources and utilize wild foods. Security in isolation,
as infered by the quote above, is only a temporary condition. Self-sufficiency is
temporary, and no guarantee of sustainability (c.f. Hansen 1994).
This other side of the Nyambenes, consisting of what the colonial administration
designated as the Northern Grazing Area (NGA), served as a buffer between the Meru and
their Maasai and Samburu neighbors. The Igembe, Tigania, and Imenti utilized it as a rainy
season grazing area: herders shifted their livestock to the lowlands in two annual migrations
beginning in April and October. The NGA was also the traditional no-man's land where
Meru social exiles banished by the Njuri Ncheke served their sentences. It became a
staging area for resistance by the anticolonial kiama like the Kagitha and Katheka Kai
4Tharaka is famous for an incident where arrows were shot at a Kenyan District Commissioner addressing
an official baraza on land policies. More germane to the discussion, Tharaka was the only other part of
Meru outside of Igembe to escape the worst effects of the 1918-1919 Kiaramu drought.


131
intensification of agriculture in a number of ways, and confers a number of benefits, not
the least of which is reduced labor inputs. When household production is oriented to both
subsistence and commercial production, off-farm labor, as other studies have shown, is an
important determinant of household production (Haugerud 1984). Intercropping produces
a number of synergetic, system enhancing advantages summarized in the list below
(sources: Eicher and Baker 1982: 130; Richards 1983 26).
Table 5.7: Benefits of Intercropping
Soil exposure to rainfall is minimized, reducing erosion.
The spread of pest and disease is minimized because neighboring plants are not likely to be of the same
species.
Use of available soil moisture and nutrients is maximized due to the complementary function of different
root systems.
Greater canopy cover suppresses weed growth, especially during the later stages of cultivation.
Plants with different growth characteristics and leaf patterns can be planted in such a way as to maximize
use of available sunlight.
Risk of crop failure is reduced by planting species with different moisture requirements and maturation
times.
Legumes and leguminous tree species intercropped with other varieties improve the land by returning
nitrogen to the soil.
The high level of intercropping is hypothetically another factor reducing control of labor
as a factor in rural differentiation. But there are a number of other material benefits.
Besides spreading risk, improving soils, and creating a buffer against famine through the
presence of drought-resistant crops, the products and residues from intercropped systems
enhance the recycling capacity of the farming system especially when the manure of
domestic livestock and fowl is returned to the soil. By nature such systems are
management intensive and each individual farm is fine-tuned according to the local
ecological properties and factors related to the household.
The pattern changes as one goes down the slope to the lower zones. From the tea-miraa
to the coffee-miraa zones, for example, the variety and number of different cultivars
decreases. The number of cultivars and complexity of the intercropping-agroforestry
configuration continues to drop the lower one travels. Intercropping is nevertheless very


27
regional system (Hyden 1983; Chazan 1988; Azarya 1988).7 The ongoing exercise in
privatization and creating what the World Bank labels an "enabling environment" for
economic development favors the growing influence of local, societal phenomena on the
order of the data on Nyambene society and economy presented here.
This study attempts to extract some of the cultural and agricultural dynamics of the
system. I do this by placing the field data collected through surveys, interviews, and
observation in the context of historical patterns linking highland ecological zones and
lowlands. The contemporary forces of commercialization intersect the cultural management
of agricultural resources to define the local developmental trajectory. The five main factors
listed below in table 2.1 have selected for this unique coevolutionary trajectory of
Nyambene commercialization.
Table 2.1: Factors Selecting For Coevolutionary Development in Northern Meru
Environmental Variation
Econiche Specialization
Internal Organization
Markets and Exchange
The Domain of the State and National Economy
The way these factors have operated in this case form the basic structure of the data
presentation which follows. They can be summarized briefly in theoretical terms
Environmental variation conditioned production strategies based on econiche specialization:
hunting and foraging, pastoralism, and agriculture. Local societies, which together form a
system of relations have developed adaptive strategies based on combinations of different
production complexes. The internal organization of these systems represent complex sets
of institutions and cultural orientations supporting specific group production strategies. In
Meru, environmental variation conditioned specialization and exchange. Adaptation and
change are ongoing processes driven to a large degree by markets and other forms of
exchange that extend across the sociocultural context to factors such as cultural
borrowings, intermarraige, and the incorporation of isolated clans or members of ethnic
7Much regional economic activity is only "invisible" insofar as it is not reflected in official statistics and
involves by-passing state control in the form of licensing, marketing boards, and customs duties.


156
Table 6.3: Projected Growth in Meru Agricultural Production for Selected Commodities
1984 to 2000
(in tons for crops/million liters for milk)
1984/2000
1984 2000 Yields per ha.*
Tea (green leaves)
18.8
42.0
3,000
6,000
Coffee
151.2
225.0
2,800
6.500
Cotton (raw)
5.4
43.5
1,254
4,950
Maize
180.0
621.0
2,250
4,385
Pulses
50.8
64.0
825
3,880
Potatoes
115.0
510.0
10,000
16,500
Milk
30.0
105.0
600
2,250**
Meat
(dairy and cattle)
8.2
16.5
28
65***
Source: Planning Project for the Meru District 1985, 63.
* averages of cross-zone figures for some crops
**=liters per cow
***=kg. per head of cattle
Tea yields have been increasing steadily despite downward price trends since 1984.
Small farm tea output, which has more than doubled since 1983/84, is still only two-thirds
that of estates, but Kenya's tea estates achieve the highest production per land unit levels in
the world (Othieno 1989). If we use Rift Valley levels as a marker for large farm
production, small holder maize output also shows significant unrealized potential for
increase (note that Central and Western provinces are predominantly small holder regions).
Table 6.4: Comparative Crop Yields for Tea and Maize in Kenya
Tea yields
(kg. ner hectare) 83/84 85/86 87/88 1989 1990 1991
Small farms 838 1,177 1,325 1,779 1.945 1,981
Estates 2,969 3,124 3,184
Source: Economic Surveys, 1989, 1992. Republic of Kenya.
Maize yields
(90 kg bags per hectare) 1977 1978 1979
Eastern
17.2
16.3
16.2
Central
25.2
22
19.7
Rift Valley
46.4
35
32.1
Nyanza
30.5
26.5
22
Western
32.9
27.2
25.9
Source: Integrated Rural Surveys Basic Report, Republic of Kenya 1981.


175
The table not only notes the higher level of consumer markets, but also the distinct
Igembe profile. Previously, Igembe entrepreneurs who developed modem consumption
preferences in urban areas were constrained by peer pressure back home from building
stone houses, using gas stoves, and other related innovations. Once Igembe consumption
took off, however, Mikinduri and other Nyambene market centers were left far behind.
The building of stone houses by people outside the small circle of educated elites is now a
broader indicator of growing rural economic differentiation. Off-farm consumption in the
high zones encourages production in lower zones. Bars and butcheries require fuelwood
and charcoal, goats for roasting, and other products provided by lower zone households.
The growth of towns and markets and emphasis on "cash money" is linked to the
penetration of the cash economy in the agricultural sector itself. Lower self-sufficiency in
food production, school fees, and higher demand for purchased commodities erodes the
traditional biases against on-farm employment, and money is rapidly redefining social
relations. As opposed to the towns like Maua, Laare, and Mutuati where some service
sector jobs are filled by Tigania and Igembe, most farm labor is local and the level of
agricultural employment is high for a small farm area. The generally higher wage rates are
another characteristic of the growth of the cash economy in Igembe. High prices of local
produce discourage merchants from other areas of Meru from purchasing many locally
available Igembe farm products.
Table 6.14: Number of Households Hiring Farm Labor
Total hshlds hiring permanent seasonal casual
z 1/2
26
11
6
17
z 3
15
2
0
13
z 4/5
13
0
0
13
all zones (%)
67.5%
16.3%
7.5%
53.75%
The trend in Igembe household labor hiring follows the general zonal pattern, but the high
level of peremanent employees in the high zones contrasts with the overall totals for casual
labor.
The next table records the level of household members in off-farm occupations. Again
the number is high, but it must be remembered that the miraa industry has opened avenues
to urban employment. Miraa dealing is a difficult occupation; profits for present day retail


206
Franke, Richard W. and Barbara H. Chasin (1980). Seeds of Famine. Totowa, New
Jersey: Rowman and Allanheld Pub.
Gachathi, F.N. (1989) Kikuvu Botanical Dictionary. Nairobi: AMREF Printing Dept.
Geertz, Clifford (1963). "The Integrative Revolution: Primordial Sentiments and Civil
Politics in the New States," in Old Societies. New States ed. Clifford Geertz. The Free
Press of Glencoe, Division of the Macmillan Company: 105-157.
Geertz, Clifford (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books Inc.
Geertz, Clifford (1983). Ixical Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology.
New York: Basic Books Inc.
Gertzel, Cherry J. (1970). The Politics of Independent Kenya 1963-1968. Evanston II.:
Northwestern University Press.
Gibbon, David (1987). Restoring Regenerative Systems of Production in Sub Saharan
Africa: Research Requirements." Disasters 11(1).
Gibbon, David and Adam Pain (1975). East African Weeds And Their Control. Nairobi:
Oxford University Press, Longman Group Ltd.
Glantz, Michael H. (1987). "Drought in Africa," Scientific American vol. 256, no. 6: 34-
40.
Glazier, Jack (1985). Land and the Uses of Tradition Among the Mbeere of Kenva. New
York: University Press of America.
Gleick, James (1987). Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books.
Godelier, Maurice (1986). The Mental and the Material. London and New York: Verso.
Godfrey, Martin (1987). "Stabilization and Structural Adjustment of the Kenyan Economy,
1975-85: An Assessment of Performance." Development and Change vol. 18: 595-624.
Godoy, Ricardo and Christopher Bennet. (1989). "Diversification among Coffee
Smallholders in the Highlands of South Sumatra. Human Ecology 16(4).
Goldman, Abe (1992). Sustainability in Africa: Integrating Concepts. 1992 Carter
Lecture Series, University of Florida, Gainesville, April 9-11.
Goldsmith, Paul (1988a). "The Production and Marketing of Miraa in Kenya" in Satisfying
Africa's Food Needs ed. R. Cohen. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.
Goldsmith, Paul (1988b). "Miraa Consumption in Kenya: A Biocultural Analysis." Paper
prresented at the African Studies Association Meeting, Chicago, Illinois, Oct. 29-Nov. 2.
Gould, Stephan Jay and Niles Eldridge (1977). Punctuated Equilibria: the Tempo and
Mode of Evolution Reconsidered." Paleobiology 3.
Government of Kenya (1986). Economic Survey. Nairobi: Ministry of Planning


190
In reality, Kenya's structurally disadvantaged small farmers effectively piggy-backed,
benefiting from the pro-agriculture policies, protected by the politically important estate
sector, and adopting the benefits of markets and technologies pioneered by large farms.
Leo accurately captures the dynamic of class forces when he states that contrary to the view
of peasant and capitalist modes of production as succeeding phases, "one retreating while
the other advances," in Kenya they are "flourishing in tandem and mutually reinforcing
(1984,70)." The similar hypothesis of ecozone symbiosis, and the obvious case for
symbiotic relations linking Kenya's small holder and estate agricultural sectors are other
examples of symbiotic forces discussed in detail above. The failure to recognize the
dynamics of local and regional African systems can only perpetuate the unnecessary
obstacles affecting theoretical and practical problem-solving at a time when African polities
are increasingly veering towards chaotic states. Kenya, once considered a centerpiece of
African development, has become increasingly turbulent as ethnicity resurfaces in
connection with population pressure, political competition, and the perpetuation of personal
rule. The turbulence is itself indicative of the forces pushing the country towards a major
socioeconomic transformation.
There is, nevertheless, reason to assume that the emergence of African capitalism will
preserve, to some degree, the distinct configuration of local adaptations and specialization
synergetically connected to each other as well as within socioeconomic networks on the
national and international levels. The resurgence of ethnicity and sub-nationalisms in parts
of Europe supports this proposition, as do a number of African social, economic, and
political traits.5 Neither ethnicity nor class are permanent conditions or final "states" in the
development of social systems, but are modalities that vary according to alterations in the
organizational configuration as a system seeks stability. Regardless of the ultimate
outcome, local phenomena are likely to be central to African systems development for the
forseeable future.
The critical observation deriving from all of this is that national transformation in Africa
logically proceeds from indigenous sectoral developments embedded in local systems. The
evolution of the Meru system demonstrates how symbiotic and coevolutionary forces in the
Mt. Kenya region engendered linkages and interconnections among local production
systems reflecting cultural adaptations, promoting the incorporation of diverse ethnic,
cultural, technological, and institutional components within the cultural organization. As
5Cohen (1992,1993) examines the "lenticular" qualities of the state and the relationship between the re-
emergence of ethnicity and nationalisms and the growth of international social structures. He employs an
evolutionary theoretical framework to link the rise of ethnic nationalism, the decline of the nation-state, and
the expanded role of international organizational entities in the same sense as populations within an ecology
wax and wane in relationship to each other as they seek an equilibrium point.


29
population was 30 per cent of the world total in 10,000 B.C.; it declined to 10 per cent in
500 A.D., and slipped to 8 per cent in 1800 (Jones 1981, 155).
Africa's environmental conditions produced the following continental pattern.
Concentrated populations supporting levels of production and the state structure necessary
to surmount environmental barriers to exchange orginally developed in mainly Sahel-type
environments, not the highland areas which are the main loci of production and change
today.9 Low population densities in the territorities outside state systems facilitated a de
facto exit option weakening the central control of local rulers. The exit option encouraged
migrations contributing to both the rise and decline of state systems during the last one
thousand years.
Large tracts of the continent fell outside the influence of forces supporting primary and
secondary state formation.10 In these areas development was a slow, gradual process
occurring over decades, centuries, and millennia. The ecological variation of eastern Africa
underpinned a range of environmental adaptations. The rise of Meru society subsumed
econiche specializations that were able to survive alongside the developing hybrid system
until recently.
Ethno-environmental specializations included hunting and gathering represented by
"Aathi" groups like the Agumba and Ndorobo, settled agro-pastoralism supplemented by
small scale irrigation in the settlements of the Mwoko the nomadic pastoralism of the
Maasai, Samburu, and Boran, and the predominantly agricultural specialization of the
Tumbiri and Thagana clans (Fadiman 1976; Mwaniki 1984; Sutton 1990; Lambert 1949).
These legacies resurface in the cultural-agricultural configuration of the Nyambene system.
Precolonial group interactions in Africa reveal the small scale and local nature of social
organization, economic strategies, and complementary specialization. Post-colonial
interactions among groups in the region continue in the vein of similar coeveolutionary
dynamics.
The dramatic socioeconomic changes of the past century have had little impact on this
aspect of indigenous social organization. Clans easily percolated through the territorial
boundaries created by the Pax Britannica, underscoring the mutable and plastic quality of
ethnicity in general (Kasfir 1979). The clan-a group defined by common descent-remains
a primary social unit conditioning access to resources where land is a critical factor of
production. Culturally homogenous clans cluster into tribes, but clan relations with other
9The Ethiopia highlands are an exception to this trend, but even in this case the rise of states usually
entailed exchange relations with the adjacent lowlands.
10Secondary state formation stems from external forces such as circumscription, or defense against other
states.


161
are of more recent origin and lower quality. There can be no doubt, however, that lower
zone families face obstacles in providing education for their children. In any other Kenyan
district this might signify a structural disadvantage for the future of the lower zone
population. In Meru, however, where primary school performance has been dropping, it is
difficult to comment on how educational trends will impact on the larger symbiotic
processes.
Table 6.7: Household Demographic Indicators
Hih
middle
low
1 wife
25
14
16
> 1 wife
7
7
5
no spouse*
0
4
1
no. of children
5.7
5.7
5.3
age of oldest child
18.8
21.1
21.3
education level of
oldest child
6.25
5.8
2.2
*This category contains female household heads.
There are two observations that can be made here. High fertility, although dropping,
supports forces of technological change and innovation. On the other hand the die is
already cast regarding the lower zones. Migration has been slow, and many plots allocated
in the land schemes of the late 1970s and early 1980s remain unexploited. Eventually,
however, we can expect that the expanding population will bring these lands under
cultivation for economic reasons as much as demographic ones.
Ecozone Symbiosis
The picture for the lower zones is more complicated than that of the commercialized
higher zones due to the institutional support necessary for dry zone technological
adaptations and the infrastructural development prerequisites for optimizing production in
marginal environments. The state also occupies a more critical role in the lower zone
ASAL because the environmental fragility of these areas makes them vulnerable to
accelerated resource degradation in the face of population growth.
The government established a new ministry for developing ASAL regions in 1988, and
the 1989-1993 Kenya National Development Plan (KNDP) outlined a special policy focus
for ASAL regions. ASAL policies specify public works programs to absorb economically


96
largely operates independently of state control or involvement, politicians, famous for
manipulating access to the state and local resources, have had little scope for interference.
The ultimate impact of changes taking place within the local economy are yet to be seen, but
one observation is very clear: the miraa industry is incredibly efficient, flexible in the face
of external changes, remarkably free of waste and corruption, and it bears little resemblance
to other agricultural enterprises in Kenya.
It does, however, allow us to challenge or qualify some of the assumptions about the
nature of African rural production. Production of surplus for the market was not new to
African societies, and the transition to market oriented agriculture can be smooth. We
cannot uncritically accept notions that "the rural social order constituted in itself a powerful
blockage restructuring the development of the market as long as its institutions remained
relatively undisturbed by outside pressure (Hart 1982, 38)." The rural social order actually
facilitated the organization of the miraa trade and the distribution of its profits, and lends
continuity to the development process.
The Igembe Meru entered the capitalist economy with a full complement of precolonial
baggage in the style of Hyden's (1981) uncaptured peasants, and demonstrate that small
holder peasants can exert considerable influence on the course of events in Africa. While
the response of such peasants to unfavorable policies and prices is often perceived as
withdrawal from markets into subsistence production, this should not blind us to the range
of possibilities and responses offered by alternative markets and parallel economies be they
of an affective (Hyden 1981), magendo (Kasfir 1980), or of some as yet unknown nature.
The Igembe parlayed a potential market and unfavorable conditions (or the lack of favorable
ones) into a system of production and marketing which supports a major social institution
in East Africa. They show little reluctance to sacrifice their autonomy when attracted into
the formal economy by proper incentives and favorable policies, despite their success
within the parallel economy.
The Nvambene Range and The Mem Farming System
The particular determinants of modem day cash crops are to be found in the traditional
zone agriculture practiced by the Meru, and outlined in detail by Bernard (1972). This first
zone occurs above the altitude of 5,500 feet and is characterized by high rainfall, cool
temperatures, and powdery, over-acidic, and structureless soil of the brown loam type.
Traditionally this zone was used for grazing cattle, but during the past several decades it
has given way to tea, wheat, potatoes, and pyrethrum. The more productive "Kikuyu
Grass" zone overlaps with the bracken zone, but is distinguished by volcanic loams and


160
employed in other occupations. Some of the farmers in the new settlement areas stated that
they relied on family assistance from above when asked about their response to the 1984
drought. Older men are also more willing to accept the slower and more traditional pace of
life in the lower zones, and accept being spatially removed from the mainstream of
contemporary political and social change.
Several of the farmers in the survey "retired" from urban trade to settle in lowlands
where the availability of land offered more independence than the constricted parcels in the
high zones. Conversations with some farmers indicated that at least in certain cases
migration to the lowlands appears to be the result of an economic pull as much as a
demographic push. The inference is that migration and lower zone settlement is not forced
on younger men from land poor families. Settling in lower zones is still a choice, and not a
survival strategy. People move up and down with ease, and establishing a lower zone
homestead does not mean withdrawal from the higher zone economy.
The number of children per household indicated in the table below is lower than the
national fertility rate which was averaging 7.9 children per woman during the 1970s (also
note the incidence of polygamous households and age of household heads in previous
table). Approximately 25 % of the household heads in the survey are in polygynous
unions, considerably higher than the national (17 %) and Eastern Province (14.2 %)
averages. Nationally, polygyny declines with the individual's level of education, an
observation that matches the low education levels in Igembe. Older husbands and
polygynous males have more children, and the pattern conforms with the Nyambene's
traditionalist reputation.
The other observation related to these figures is that they represent all children and not
only those residing within the household. The overall fertility rate of the Igembe sample
would appear to be lower than many other areas of the country,11 and Meru District is the
only Mt. Kenya region district classified in the medium fertility category in Kenya's
National Demographic Survey; the other highland districts are classified as high. The
explanation might lie in the traditional fertility dampening mechanisms referred to by Odile
and McNicoll (1987), which here would include later age at marriage due to the age-set
system's influence, combined with the circular migration pattern that absents Igembe
husbands from the rural household for long periods of time.
Another discrepancy among zones is the education level of children. Using the oldest
child as an indicator, the educational level of children in lower zones is almost one-third
that of the highlands. There is no shortage of primary schools in the lower zones, but they
11This remains a hypothesis until more cross-categorical analysis can be done.


99
bunda of ten "kilos" of miraa.7 A good worker can tie up as much as two bunda in a half
days work. The miraa is picked early in the morning and the workers begin the task of
tying the twigs into successively larger units using banana fiber string. The twenty ensete
or gomba leaves that are required to package a finished bunda add 25 ksh. to the cost.
Often the gomba comes from areas in the vicinity that are unsuitable for miraa cultivation.
By noon the miraa is usually ready to be taken to the market. The chart below provides a
range of the profits that can be realized from a "typical" miraa shamba (as a miraa plot is
called) in the vicinity of the Kangeta-Muringene market, according to a 100/- to 160/- range
of wholesale prices. This does not include the owner's own labor contribution or that of
household members.
Table 4.1: 1986 Miraa Production Costs And Profits8
(with price variations in Ksh.For An Average Kangeta Shamba)
Wholesale Price 160 140sh, 120sh. lOOsh,
(Per 10 kilo bunda)
Profits
10 bunda=
1050
850
650
450
8 bunda=
810
650
490
330
6 bunda=
570
450
330
210
16 ksh.= SI U.S.
Five-hundred shillings represented a respectable rural income in 1986, and a plot can
generate up to ten harvests a year depending upon climatic conditions. In Laare the labor
costs paid are around half of those in Muringene, but the quantity of miraa is usually
greater, as is the amount of miraa one worker can tie up in one day. Traditionally, only
elders handled miraa. The development of commercial production, however, created a
demand for labor that eroded this injunction, and the similar restrictions on consumption.
Now even children, particularly in Laare, may earn wages by harvesting. The multiple
harvests that take place throughout the year reflect a substantial annual income for
producers augmented by opportunities for wage labor throughout the year, and
supplemented by the relatively high level of household self-sufficiency.9
7A miraa "kilo is not a unit of weight, but rather a unit of volume that in absolute terms varies according
to location and time of the year.
^This and other statistical tables that appear in the sstudy are based on field data except where noted
otherwise.
9These figures expanded so much by 1993 that a bunda of benchmark Muringene miraa wholesale for
1500/- or more than $20 US. It is difficult to estimate the relative market value of miraa due to


91
The fresh leaves and tender young shoots of the tree are chewed to induce a state of
increased alertness and enhanced concentration.3Because it is highly perishable, traditional
markets for miraa and khat were located within a short radius of the areas where
domesticated production thrives, and almost always involved alcohol eschewing Muslims.
Still, traditional miraa consumpdon extended to a remarkably large geographic area prior to
this century. In Meru its use was governed by social controls similar to those associated
with beer. Consumption outside ceremonial occasions was limited to senior elders and the
gerontocracy. These controls lapsed as commercial production drew younger generations
into the miraa industry.
Wild miraa occurs as a tree growing up to seventy feet in indigenous East African
forests (Dale and Green way 1961). Miraa is a hardy species that can grow in a variety of
environments. Domesticated miraa is usually limited to highland areas between 4,000 and
7,000 feet above sea level. It is cultivated as a tree, large shrub, or closely cropped bush
according to ecological condidons. In most systems it is intercropped with other trees and
crops. In Yemen, it is grown with a variety of fruit trees and grapes. The best miraa was
irrigated by natural springs, a practice that has expanded to include small petrol pumps in
recent times. Yemeni khat is also monocropped on terraces carved out of steep hills, and
at higher altitudes it is cultivated as a bush cut back to the ground every several years, much
in the manner of tea. In Ethiopias Hararghe region, it is planted among field crops.
In Kenya the popularity of miraa beyond the geographically restricted areas where it is
grown is a relatively recent phenomenon following in the wake of urbanization and the
development of transport infrastructure. The popularity of miraa among Kenya's Muslim
communities was the principle stimuli for commercial production after the precolonial era,
but today its use has outstripped earlier religious, ethnic, and social boundaries. Kenyas
consumption has doubled several times since independence, and its use outside the areas
where traditional social controls limited the potential for abuse often generates heated
debate, particularly within Kenya's Muslim community (Troughear 1982; Goldsmith
1985). The contentious aspects of miraa consumption has not hindered the expansion of
production. In fact, miraa production is increasing at a faster rate than most other market
commodities in Kenya for a number of reasons. The popularity of miraa, like other
socially consumed commodities, has increased as urbanization and economic change within
the region accelerates.
3 The active organic compounds, cathine and cathinone, are unstable phytochemical precursors of
norpseudoephedrine (Kalix and Braeden (1985). Pseudoepherine is a common ingredient used in commercial
cold and asthma preparations.


Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
SYMBIOSIS AND TRANSFORMATION IN KENYA'S MERU DISTRICT
By
Paul Goldsmith
April 1994
Chairman: Ronald Cohen
Major Department: Department of Anthropology
This study addresses processes of agricultural systems development in Meru
District. The study demonstrates how local African societies coevolve in a manner
where populations adapt, specialize, merge, and diverge in various ways that allows
new forms of social and economic organization to emerge over time. This
coevolutionary dynamic links the Igembe Meru to their past while projecting then-
developmental processes into the future. Mem environmental history reflects how
variation across ecological zones influences a number of social micro-adaptations. The
Mem agricultural system evolved through continuous cultural symbiosis of hunter-
gather. pastoral, and agricultural groups. Ethnicity followed group eco-niche
specialization, favoring exchange across ecological zones and the rise of regional trade
networks. The Nyambene Mem system featured in this study served as the hub of an
extensive trade network spanning the region between Mt. Kenya and the southern Lake
Turkana area, continues to demonstrate a high level of biodiversity, adaptive responses
to modem market phenomena, and cultural institutions that embody their indigenous,
cross-generational concept of social sustainability within the contemporary context of
capitalist-led change. Local systems adapting incrementally contribute in turn to the
processes of transformation on the national level, just as macro-level developments
create possibilities on the local level.
vm


55
The Nvambene Mera:
The sections of the Meru proper, as defined by membership in the Njuri Ncheke, (the
Imenti, Tigania, Igembe, Miutine, Igoji, Mwimbe, and Muthambe) are descended from the
Thagana clans. The Chuka and Tharaka, products of the Tumbiri clans migration, are
Meru by administrative definition and cultural-linguistic similarity. They claim a separate
identity for legitimate reasons borne out in the historical record of the district's internal
group relations. The Tigania and the Igembe share the Nyambene region and a reputation
dating back to the early colonial period for being in the vanguard of traditional culture, and
resistant to Western influences (Lambert 1947). The Tharaka of the district's eastern
lowlands, the most isolated of all Mem's sub-groups, en joy a reputation for cultural
conservatism to the point of aggressive xenophobia.
The two major dispersal points from where both the Tumbiri and Thagana populations
expanded into the rest of the district lie on either side of the Nyambenes. The one
surviving group linked to the Tumbiri clans and the Gikuyu, the Thaicu, remained on the
lower slopes of the northern Nyambenes. Igembe traditions trace their migration as also
coming from the northerly direction. They avoided contact with the Thaicu presence in the
middle zones, and initially settled near the fringes of the Nyambene forest. They expanded
first into the small valleys on the windward side, and then down the middle spine of the
Nyambene range. The Tigania approached the Nyambenes from the other side and settled
in the foothills between the two mountain ranges and on the southern slopes of the
Nyambenes.
Proximity to the forest served as a refuge during Maasai raids, and explains Igembe oral
traditions of contact, conflict, and incorporation of Agumba elements. Except for the
numerically small Thaicu, there is no evidence of large populations inhabiting the
Nyambene range other than the Agumba forest dwellers and the Mwoko, whom the Igembe
associate with knowledge of water (Lambert 1949). The Agumba were defeated by the
newcomers and ceased to exist as a separate entity. The Mwoko were agro-pastoralists.
As Highland Nilotes they would have practiced circular age-sets organization (instead of
the linear age-set organization associated with the Plains Nilotes), and the reference to
knowledge of water may refer to Sirikwa-type irrigation practices. Mwoko relations with
the Igembe and Tigania were hostile, and the Nyambene Meru ultimately prevailed over
them as well.
Both of these groups left their mark on the Meru sub-groups of the Nyambenes.
Although traditions claim they took over age-set organization from the Maasai (Rimita


101
elders uniformly fall back on the cycle of generations to describe the development of the
miraa trade (table 4.2).
Table 4.2: Approximate Riika Initiation Dates and the Expansion of Miraa Marketing
Miriti (1870): Local Nyambene markets.
Gwantai (1885): Meru town and Isiolo.
Kiramunya (1900): Meru town and Isiolo.
Ithalie (1915): Meru town and Isiolo.
Michubu (1930): NFD markets via NGA.
Ratanaa (1945): Tanzania, Nairobi and NFD markets.
Lubetaa (I960): Nairobi, Northeastern Province. Mombasa and small urban centers.
Miriti (1975): Nairobi, Northeastern Province. Mombasa and small urban centers.
Gwantai (1990): International markets.
Holding (1942) mentions 19 generations since the Meru migration from the coast.10
The Miriti, initiated before the turn of century, are credited with pioneering the modem
marketing of miraa. The actual domestication of miraa itself took place at a much earlier
date, and the length of cultivation in different areas of the Nyambenes can be gauged by the
age of miraa.11 The Gwantai are said to be the first riika to actively trade miraa dating to
before the turn of the century. The Ithalie, a few of whom are still alive, bridged the pre
colonial and colonial periods. Miraa evolveded from a social and ceremonial role to that of
a major trade item during the time of the Ithalie, when social, political, and environmental
changes accompanying the inception and consolidation of colonial rule led people to "new
ways of livelihood, building on the traditions they knew, but responding to new economics
and political realities (Barkan 1984, 21)." External influences were stimulating a
reformulation of former trade networks, and smaller communities like the Igembe Meru
sought to maximize their possibilities through specialization and reinforcing their pre
existing links with outsiders (Ambler 1985,204). By this time miraa had become a regular
item of exchange, and the Igembe transported it to a half-way point between their area and
Isiolo, where they exchanged the miraa for goats and skins.
10The post-migration generations numbered twenty two with the initiation of the new Gwantai riika in
1990-1991.
11 The first old miraa trees I saw were described as planted "by the father of the father of the father of my
grandfather. If the owner of the tree is Lubetaa, the tree would date back to the previous Gwantai
generation, or around 1875. I later learned to ask local farmers which generation planted the miraa growing
on their farms. Farmers usually responded to this query without hesitation.


79
traditional milieu, an Igembe generation is still expected to advance in some way the
welfare of the community. Rigby reports a similar conversion among Tanzanian Maasai
warriors who now bear responsibility for herd vetinerary treatment, procuring water, and
transport within livestock marketing networks (1985,157).
The first Miriti generation presided over the initial commercialization of miraa. The
contemporary Lubetaa riika distinguished themselves by greatly expanding the sphere of
commercial activity. They are also associated with a local enclosure movement linked to
the shift to formal individual tenure within the farming system.40 The decision to market
miraa as a commodity is recognized in Igembe as a revolutionary innovation, and one Miriti
informant remarked to me how his father told him his generation bears the responsibility
for pioneering economic innovations in the manner of the first Miriti generation.41 These
examples convey how local society sees change through the optic of Meru cultural
ideology.
In the Nyambenes, age-set structures still contribute to individual and group discipline
and enforce a culturally defined concept of development as a social process across time.
Age-sets are still controlled by the internal dynamic where adjacent generations remain
linked in a student-teacher relationship. The activities associated with each stage in the
lifecycle, however, have shifted. Table 3.4 transposes traditional progression into the
modern equivalents for stages in the life cycle.
Although formal age-set structures reinforce a stable internal order, they are often
associated with anti-progressive warrior behaviors. Condemnation of the warrior tradition
and its effect on political institutions and behaviors obscures important overall features of
the age-set system where it survives.42 In an edited volume on the subject, Southall (1977,
175) joins others who assail warriorhood as a bankrupt tradition at the center of Africa's
political and economic problems: "lacking any ideological anchor, it degenerates easily into
fascism...technological atavism and anachronism...certainly in Africa its fruits are poverty,
dependency, and bloodshed." Adaptation to changing circumstances, not warriorhood or
other African cultural traits, is the core issue, applicable to this and other institutions.
40 This is recognized by the fact that the common hedgeplant, euphorbia lirucalli, is now called mulubetaa
in some places.
41The current Miriti riika, although the first generation to attend school in large numbers, are hard-pressed
to duplicate the Lubetaa economic success and see themselves in competition with their immediate elders.
42The sequestering of initiation groups in the Menegai forest of Kenya's Nakuru District in December of
1991 was reported in connection with rumors of ethnic violence in the Rift Valley, although there was no
direct evidence that schoolboy circumcision groups were deployed when the violence did erupt several
months later. Warrior initiation has been severely criticized in Meru as well.


143
Table 5.17: Ranked Household Income Sources By Percentage
High Zones
1 2
3
Middle Zone
1 2
3
Lower Zones
1 2
3
salary
9
6
6
15
0
4
9
5
0
trade
22
16
9
0
15
8
5
14
0
off-farm labor
0
6
9
12
8
15
5
9
14
cash crops
66
25
3
62
27
4
27
18
5
food crops
3
31
47
12
31
8
45
27
5
family. 0
remittances
6
9
0
4
4
0
5
0
trees/charcoal
0
3
0
0
0
15
0
0
5
livestock sale
0
0
3
0
8
4
0
9
14
other
0
0
6
0
8
0
5
5
5
The low number of household income earners in the low zones reflects their spatial
isolation, reduced access to education, training, and other economic opportunities outside
farming. Low zone farming itself is in fact an important income generation alternative for a
considerable segment of the population not indicated by data presented in the table. The
movement of people makes the relative percentage of people primarily dependent on lower
zone production difficult to estimate.
Table 5.18: Number of Household Income Earners by Zones
hiah
middle
low
all
1 income earner
15
11
5
31
2 income earners
5
0
0
5
3 income earners
0
2
0
2
sample total
20
13
5
38
The data indicates a diverse range of income generating activities consistent with the
high level of mobility and growing variety of economic activity. Lower zone farmers
naturally were involved in some harvesting of natural resources as a secondary activity. It
must be remembered that, in general, formal sector employment locally and in the urban
sector is relatively low due to the prevailing low level of education in the Nyambenes.
Students who go on to higher education do well, but in 1991 only fifteen students qualified
for national university intake in all of Igembe and Ntonyiri. The two divisions brought up


136
range goats. At 1000/- and occasionally higher, the price of a good Igembe goat
approaches the lower range price for indigenous range cattle. Table 5.10, however, does
not account for this important difference in range and zero-grazed goats. The latter practice
again demonstrates the local capacity for maximizing the potential returns to factors of
production characteristic of Nyambene production.
Table 5.10: Household Livestock Profile by Zone
Zones
Z 1/2
Z 3
Z 4/5
average no. cattle
2.75
4.6
4.2
av. no. grade cattle
2.3
1.43
0.3
av. no. goats=
1.8
3.2
3.7
av. no. sheep
1.2
1.75
1.05
av. no. poultry
6.8
8.9
9.5
av. milk prod (liters)
10.2
5.7
3.44
av. milk sales (liters)
8.2
1.64
0
No. reporting sales
40%
15%
0%
The figures in the table are largely self-explanatory, with a few caveats. Sheep,
symbolically associated with peace and harmony, and are an important element in Igembe
ritual sacrifices made in the case of drought and other natural disasters (Mahner 1977).26
They are kept mainly for ceremonial purposes, and are rarely slaughtered in local
butcheries. Poultry are not a serious component of household production as of yet; then-
low cost and requirements appear to make them the poor man's animal, as lower zone
figures attest.
The livestock numbers are a good indicator of wealth differentials between zones 1-3
and zones 4-5, especially absolute numbers for cattle and grade cattle. Like land, the range
available to lower farm households is much greater than in the higher zones but limitations
of capital and labor restrict this form of investment. The figures do not necessarily reflect
the livestock wealth of lower zone farmers in all cases. The general impression confirmed
by sight appraisal is that the livestock profile is consistent with the lower material level in
the earlier phase of development characteristic of marginal zone agriculture. Several
farmers did indicate that they kept cattle (not enumerated in the on-farm survey) in the arid
grazing areas. In this situation having a farm closer to the range areas permits individuals
to develop a land holding while maintaining closer contact with their cattle.
26Serious social conflicts requiring sacrifices, in contrast, such as the important "Nthenge" ceremony,
usually revolve around the naturally obstreperous goat.


18
The development economist9, Vernon Ruttan, and his collaborator in the development
of the innovative model of economic development, Yujiro Hayami, claim development
economists and others are forced to deal with culture at an intuitive level, rather than in
analytical terms. Ruttan advocates going beyond conventional, microeconomic models to
understand technical and institutional change, but finds the real understanding of cultural
endowments in the study of economics inadequate for the scholars and practitioners of
development who share the conviction that 'culture matters'. In the 1988 article, which
takes a problem-solving view of the importance of culture in economic change, Ruttan
looks to the specialists in culture for filling the gaps in a generalized "pattern" model for
induced innovation which places "cultural endowments" in an interrelated category
alongside resource endowments, technology, and institutions. This led Ruttan to
investigate anthropology for contributions that can shed light on the relationship between
cultural endowments, technical, and institutional change.
Ruttan claims that the economist who invests time in searching the ethnographic
literature encounters two major problems: interpretations of culture which usually neglect
the historical, political, and economic context because of the commitment to learning
through fieldwork, and the problem of "many anthropologies" resulting from the
intellectual fragmentation within the discipline. Ruttan reduces these anthropological
differences to the materialist-interpretive division. Ruttan notes that the cultural materialist
approach is congenial to the economistic approach and useful for macroeconomic analysis
seeking to understand the impact of resource endowment and technology on differences in
institutional performance and change. But the overlap and similarity with economics also
restricts its utility because it does not substantially address the cultural endowment
problem, and institutions are analyzed as derivatives of the infrastructure. On the other
hand, much of the interpretive school's interpretational analysis strikes Ruttan as
"excessively personal and idiosyncratic," and he says cognitive and symbolic anthropology
must be analyzed in relation to social organization and institutional change.
The detailed attention given to ideology and processes in the work of Clifford Geertz, in
contrast, earns special praise from Ruttan for filling a gap not addressed by other
disciplines: "interpretive anthropology places cultural differences and change at the center
of its agenda, even if it presently tends towards the idealistic and romantic, it offers the
most potential to make a practical contribution to development economics over the long run
(ibid. 255)." Ruttan's article, by defining a general problem, albeit primarily in terms of
9Development economics came into existence as an applied sub-discipline of economics. Hayami and
Ruttan (1985) apply the model discussed here to international development.


2
is regulated by clans which control strips of land extending from the well-watered hills to
the dry plains. Otherwise, the criss-crossed configuration of the Mera polity and social
structure does not easily fit conventional anthropological categories of group social
evolution (c.f. Johnson and Earle 1987). The lives of the Igembe Mera are still intertwined
with important cultural institutions that have long since lapsed in other parts of Mera and
Kenya; age-sets and warrior initiation rituals, gichiaro fictive kinship relations, and local
councils of the pan-Mera parliament, the Njuri Ncheke continue to influence the daily lives
of the Igembe. The commercialization of agricultural production has not overturned the
internal order as much as it has reinforced it through cultural feedback of cross-generational
continuity and adaptation.
All of this "otherness" survives into the 1990s in the presence of homogenizing forces
of the capitalist world system, including intense commercialization of local small holder
agriculture. Indeed, the influx of "cash money," support Igembe income levels matched in
few other agricultural areas of East Africa. Unlike other small farm areas in Kenya
characterized by the lack of it, money is at least partially responsible for the unusual state of
affairs in the Igembe-inhabited core of the Nyambene Range. A new dedication to "cash
money" has not displaced the role of food as a domestic currency, and as a result the
Igembe have converted the lowland areas formerly reserved for grazing to field crops. This
replaces some of the food production in the highlands lowered as their indigenous
agroforestry plots mature in a hundred year cycle. At the same time they have acquired
more cattle than they possessed before, which enhances the organic input recycling
properties of their mixed agro-silvo-pastoral agricultural system.
The local Mera munch and exchange small bunches of miraa (Catha edulis), a tree
domesticated for the mildly stimulatory qualities of its young twigs, as they go about their
work. Over the last century miraa has evolved from an accessory to traditional social
ceremony and ritual to a commercial crop that serves as the engine of the local economy.
Miraa consumption, and the increased social interaction and information exchange that
accompanies it, is an interesting subject in its own right. Miraa, as the primary commercial
crop in Igembe areas, is an important element within the local economy. Because it is also
an important social component in Nyambene society, it creates socioeconomic and
environmental feedbacks into the developmental process that are somewhat more
complicated than, for example, those associated with coffee, tea, or cotton.
Environmental differentials in the East African highlands engendered ecologically based
specialization and exchange among and within groups. Local markets in the Nyambenes
are situated mainly on the creases of ecological zones, and historically served as a magnet
attracting a number of agricultural, agro-pastoral, and nomadic pastoralists. Both this and


184
Table 6.21: Group Membership By Type
All zones
7. 1/2
z 3
z 4/5
cooperative society
11
10
i
0
njuri ncheke
8
3
2
3
self help
21
14
3
4
water
14
12
0
2
church/women's
10
7
3
0
group ranch
5
1
3
1
ngo project
2
0
0
2
political
2
0
0
2
Group strategies are adaptive responses for collecting optimal information in situations
where the costs of acquiring information are unknown. The cost of information is a
constraint affecting decision making optimization (Smith and Winterhalder 1992, 55). This
is especially critical for single actors in unique or novel situations, or groups operating in
new environments.
Maladaptive environmental practices have been attributed to migrants practicing dryland
farming (Painter 1987). Igembe farmers adapt to new conditions by pooling cultural
knowledge and information from other sources. The factors of kinship, multiple residence,
transport and mobility all indicate that lower zone production in Mem is not likely to suffer
from information shortages and isolation as is often the case in less environmentally
differentiated regions. The state presence in the Nyambenes has not translated into a large
role as indicated by the table below. Igembe autonomy correlates with the high internal
level of social learning transmitted through the cultural unit.
Table 6.22: Technical/Agricultural Information Sources
zones 1/2
zone 3
zones 4//5
all zones /%
extension
3
6
4
13
16.25%
other farmers
29
20
14
63
78.75%
media
15
5
3
23
28.75%
schools*
0
2
1
3
3.75%
NGOs groups
3
1
0
4
5%
own experience/
11
3
3
17
21.25%
experimentation
*these responses refered to techniques assimilated through children's agricultural courses at school.


CHAPTER 6
COMMERCIALIZATION AND ECOZONE SYMBIOSIS
And in the earth are tracts diverse though neighboring,
And gardens of vines and fields sown with com,
And palm trees-growing out of single roots or otherwise:
Watered with the same water, yet some of them we make
More excellent than others to eat.
Behold verily in these things are signs for those who understand.
(Holy Qur'an XIII, 4)1
In Mera, the settlement of the marginal zones represents a final phase in the expansion
of small scale agrarian production. The farming system was described in the preceding
chapter. The next step is to examine the ecozone symbiosis hypothesis: the pattern of high
zone-low zone linkages, and how the interaction of economic and demographic variables
influences developments in the lowlands.
To recapitulate our original micro "problem," the informal sector, with its small-scale
artisanal and service activities and agricultural occupations, represents the two main options
for accommodating the large segment of the population entering the work force. The role
of agriculture in this phase of economic transition is feeding the population, increasing
household income, generating foreign exchange, and stimulating growth in other economic
sectors. The high potential, highland areas are rapidly reaching the population saturation
point. Economic growth in this sector depends upon greater intensification of the highland
production and greater incorporation of lower potential arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL)
into the national economy.
Kenyan national agricultural policy has shifted towards the small farm sector to achieve
these goals while many small farmers are shifting to lowlands due to population pressure in
the highlands. Kenya's ASAL regions may make a positive contribution to the economy in
the form of boosted food and animal resources for the growing population. As a socially
unstable, famine-prone frontier, these areas can also potentially serve as a political hazard.
Banditry and turbulence in the northern areas of the country already act as a destabilizing
Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation. Commentators view the reference to palms and roots as an adaptation
emblematic of the wonder of creation. The reference to water signifies the variety of fruit; their shapes,
colors, tastes, and textures, issuing out of a single source (Yusuf Ali pg. 587 notes).
149


157
Meru is known among highland districts for its low level of input use.9 Judging from
the low 16 to 17 bag level (i.e.1.5 ton/ha.), the district's untapped potential for increasing
maize production levels is high in comparison to other districts. A similarly untapped
capacity for optimization and agricultural growth also exists in densely populated Kisii
District, an ecologically similar highland area without the dryland frontier present on Meru
Districts margins (Oucho and Okoth-Ogendo 1987). We can assume, therefore, that even
in Martin's (1987) worst case scenario of stagnant industrial sector growth, Kenya is not
yet on the Malthusian brink. The situation varies from area to area, and accelerating
population pressure is greatest in marginal areas, the most fragile environments in the first
place (Lusigi 1988).
Technological change and infrastructural development within Kenya's small farm
sector, not the long-berated land question, is therefore the crucial variable as the economy
faces the new challenges of the 1990s. Despite its appeal to some analysts (e.g. Hunt
1984), radical land reform can only temporarily forestall the consequences of demographic
growth, and small farm expansion through the subdivision process is now considered to
have reached its economically viable limits (World Bank 1990b). Intensifying production
in high potential highland areas, and enhancing the conditions for production to lower
potential lands on their periphery, of which the market is just one variable, is necessary to
provide opportunities for the expanding population. For this reason the overall
technological transformation of agricultural production is more critical than land reform,
which may be desirable on a case by case basis.
There are few large farms involved in ASAL food production, although private and
group ranches have figured prominently as policy options for commercial utilization of
ASAL areas in Kenya. Large farms may promote technological innovation in the livestock
sector, but in the case of food it appears a combination of markets, state and private
agencies, and the small holder population itself will have to act as the main agents of
change. Lowlands are less accessible. It is harder for the government to provide staff and
services in these areas. In general, the low population density in the lowlands skews the
cost-benefit relationship and lowers the prospects of recovering resources deployed in these
areas for the benefit of the overall national polity. Moreover, ASAL developmental
formulae are, for the most part,unproven theories with a low success rate, and even the
failures are of limited educational value.
9This is often attributed by observers to the lands natural fertility, although in the case of Nyambene
region, cultural conservatism is also cited in Meru District agricultural reports.


59
became the first Mugwe or Mukiama, and the nine elders formed the Njuri Ncheke,
alternately known as the Njuri ya Kiama, the council where selected representatives from
different group's local njuri met to settle disputes and decide policies for the greater Meru
polity. These representatives, or Agambi (sing, mugambi), met at Nchiiru, now a small
market center in Tigania near the border of Imenti, the largest Mem sub-tribe which
inhabits the slopes of Mt. Kenya. All members of a locality could belong to the kiama,
while only chosen individuals underwent formal internal initiation into the higher grades of
the council based on criteria of public service and virtue.
Lambert, the Mem District Commissioner between 1937 and 1942, saw local structures
as the key to governance in the District, and his description of the njuri system is worth
quoting.
When a man leaves the warrior grades he becomes eligible for initiation into the Kiama kya
Nkomango, and in general all elders become members of this body. The elders of each mwiriga
[clan] choose representatives from among their numbers to be initiated into the Njuri ya
Kiama, the working nucleus of the whole kiama. These men-the Njuriare the parliament and
the supreme court of the tribal unit they represent. Thus the legislature and judiciary of the
mwiriga are the njuri elders belonging to that mwiriga, who will join in with the similar body
of the next mwiriga for the settlement of matters affecting the two. A section of the tribe is
governed by Njuri Ncheke elders representing each mwiriga in the section; and the whole tribe
by Njuri elders representing each section (1947,6).
The second stage of njuri initiation inducted members into the "locked, or closed"
council of the Njuri Mpingire. Initiation into the Njuri Imbere, referring to "the winnowed
ones," was the highest, or "pure council of elders," restricted to an individual "who has
never had sex outside of marriage, a person who has never shed blood of a relative, or in
unprovoked attack, stolen except from another tribe, and above all a man of good health
and good reputation (Rimita 1988,50-51)." Initiations entailed specific contributions at
each level, so the individual members of the Njuri system were men of material means in
addition to distinguishing themselves by their adherence to ethical standards.
The Mugwe (Mu'we among the Tigania and Igembe sections) was the group ritual
expert and leader who presided over the religious and cosmological affairs of each Meru
section. The Mugwe sat with the Njuri Imbere, the highest ranking council within the
Njuri Ncheke, presided over important social rituals such as the initiation of a new riika,
and was consulted in all the important decisions of the group. Chosen from the grade of
ritual elders but separate from the njuri/age-set institutional structure, the Mugwe
represented in personal deportment the highest social ideals of conduct, personal integrity,
and sexual behavior in Meru society. Social change vitiated the ritual functions of this


158
The record of donor and state organized interventions dating back to the infamous East
African Groundnut Scheme is for the most part, uniformly dismal (Horgendorm and Scott
1981, Wiggins 1985, Hogg 1984). A view of the past efforts in the Sahel under the aegis
of the Club du Sahel (Franke and Chasin 1980), the Ethiopian experience under Afro-
Marxism, and the limited accomplishments of UNESCO's Integrated Project for Arid
Lands (IPAL) in northern Kenya almost suggest a policy of benign laizzez faire is
preferable to external involvement in fragile lands.
.c.Population Demography Across Zones:
Intensification of highland agricultural is one part of the policy equation; the more
difficult questions are those involving utilization of lower zones, and the presumed shift
from pastoral livestock production to food production in some marginal areas. Structural
adjustment program goals to reduce state control of markets and prices coincide with the
growing market demand and private marketing channels for food production. The price
structure for ASAL grain production has also been supported by famines in the Horn of
Africa and the high level of famine aid procurement by international agencies in Kenya.
The result was an economic boom for dry zone millet farmers, who have done much better
during the first years of the 1990s than their counterparts in the coffee growing areas.10
Table 6.5 gives us an idea of Meru population growth relative to land categories. These
figures ostensibly reflect an increase in farming households from 158,100 to 272,700. The
majority of household increase will be in lower zones with some growth in higher zones
due to subdivision of holdings.
Table 6.5: Projected Change in Meru Households by Number and Size of Holding
Asro-ecoloaical zone
1984
No. of farms
Mean
Ha/farm
2000
No. of farms
Mean
Ha/farm
Coffee
80.6
1.02
120.6
.065
Cotton
48.2
2.71
92.1
1.59
Cereals
12.9
3.75
29.5
1.64
Cereals/Livestock
16.4
10.90
24.6
7.31
Source: Planning Project for the Meru District 1985, 26.
10I spent the 1991 millet harvest season in Tharaka. 90 kg. bags of millet could be seen everywhere.
Buyers with transportation were making a healthy profit by buying millet at the source, and canvas-drapped
mountains of the bags could be seen in the Marimanti market, a scene of severe famine six years earlier.


67
We can hypothesize that some Aathi phenomena resurface in the religious function of
the forest and natural objects, and the pervasive yet intangible realm of magic and religion.
Aathi indigenous knowledge is implicated in the incorporation of botanical expertise, and
supports the influence of an inherited ethos of conservation as a factor in decision making
within land and resource management in Igembe. The configuration of Mt. Kenya
agricultural systems and some of the mystical attachment to land observed among the Mt.
Kenya peoples bear the mark of these autochthonous peoples, even if their role is
frequently obscured in local accounts28- The proto-Meru likely established symbiotic
exchange relations among scattered groups of the coastal hinterland, and their route to the
highlands may even have followed trails established by Boni hunter-gatherers who
migrated up the Tana on a seasonal basis (Stiles 1981). Their encounters with the Agumba
upon reaching higher zones may have reinforced the hunting predilections of some groups
acquired earlier during their migration.
Permanent residence, supematurally sanctioned land rights, Aathi botanical and magical
knowledge, and chronic demand for labor explain why Bantu agricultural clans integrated
the Ndorobo while the Maasai and other pastoral groups retained their Ndorobo as clients
even if they were in all respects aspiring to be Maasai as the result of contacts ((Bemtsen
1979, 112; Lewis 1960). Fundamentally different cosmological values and issues of social
access to the critical resources of land, cattle, and labor differentiate agricultural and
pastoral systems on levels of ethnic interaction and cultural ideology. Agricultural groups
limited by labor rather than land were prone to assimilate outsiders: pastoralists were prone
to incorporate the same groups as lower in status to utilize their skills while limiting their
social access to livestock.
Like Gikuyu traditions, the Nyambene Mem mention the Agumba population as forest
dwellers: short, light complexioned people whose habitations were pits excavated deep
within the forest (Muriuki 1975, Rimita 1982). The Igembe clashed with and defeated the
small Agumba groups in the Nyambenes. Survivors were absorbed into Bantu clans. The
Agumba of Mem traditions slowly melted away into the forests.29 According to a Mwimbe
informant's version of the autochthones fate conveyed to the Kenya land commission in the
1940s, they...
^Reference to these groups varies in content and transmission. The confusion surrounding Aathi.
Agumba, Ndorobo, and Okiek partially stems from the use of these different names in loose and
interchangeable contexts. In highland oral traditions the non-pastoral pre-Meru inhabitants of the region
appear variously as magicians, witchdoctors, ironsmiths, hunters, healers, middlemen, botanists,
rainmakers.
29 In 1900 a British party climbing Mt. Kenya encountered a band of impoverished Ndorobo at the extreme
elevation of 12,000' (Mwaniki 1984, 189).


138
system, livestock enhances intensification through zero-grazing and nutrient recycling.
Grade cattle are an important indicator of capital accumulation and diversification of
household commercial production in the high zones. Most milk is sold locally; a small-
scale dairy initiated several years ago at Kiegoi, in the tea zone, failed. It is unlikely to be
revived in the near future because a ready market exists for fresh milk and the Meru Central
Farmers Cooperative Dairy in Meru town provides a steady supply of packaged milk for
those who want to purchase processed milk.
Constraints and Inputs
The following table itemizes what farmers in the survey volunteered as the principle
production problems they encounter on farm.28 The obvious technical constraint across all
zones is crop damage or losses due to insects, weeds, and crop diseases. Farmers refered
primarily to insects. Weed problems are partially a function of labor availability, although
infestation by certain noxious weeds (the sedges in particular) cannot be solved by
increased weeding alone. The insect/weed/disease problem effects mainly food crops,
potato blights and maize stalk borers represent frequently mentioned examples.
It is interesting to note that technical skills were not felt to be a problem for dry zone
farmers. In the context of lower zone adaptation being examined here, most farmers felt
they adequately understood the environment to the degree that they could evaluate problems
and find technological solutions for them over time.
Over half of the farmers in the sample ranked the biophysical constraints of insects and
disease, and soil productivity as their primary constraints. The higher zone farmers reveal
a sensitivity to such problems caused by lack of capital: the inability to improve their
farms, invest in technical inputs, or hire labor to address physical constraints. Zone 3
farmers were more concerned with soil fertility decline than their inability to reverse it, and
the dry zone farmers were also concerned with low and unpredictable rainfall. The data for
zones 1/2 indicate that soil fertility problems actually decline relative to other constraints
with intensification. The response to the question assessing soil fertility status in table 5.13
supports this observation. The relatively low percentage of farmers citing land shortages
was unexpected in view of the importance of this issue in highland areas.
28Farmers usually limited answers to two or three main concerns when asked about their main production
constraints. They were not asked to rank or choose their responses from a list, and all the constraints listed
can be generally assumed to affect other farmers, at least in their ecozone, as well.


SYMBIOSIS AND TRANSFORMATION IN KENYA'S MERU DISTRICT
BY
PAUL GOLDSMITH
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY.
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
1994
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA LIBRARIES


135
is also bom out by changes in livestock production. There are numerous existing
technologies that can boost production and contribute to intensification. Unfortunately,
most of these do not make it off the shelf. As in policy domains, bridging the gap from
what is available in the research institute and what is going on on the farm is the one critical
constraint in small scale agriculture in the developing world (Anderson 1992).
Livestock
Livestock, the traditional bank and form of surplus investment, represent a domain of
changing management and investment. The pattern of livestock holdings is changing as
farming replaces rangeland in the lower zones. The decrease in cattle and ruminants is not
only due to creeping settlement. Up to 1984 the traditional practice of investing surplus
from miraa sales in cattle prevailed. Most of the cattle were herded in the Northern Grazing
Area during the dry season, and in many cases all but a few on-farm cattle remained on the
range throughout the year. Formerly, cattle were often entrusted to Borana herders with
whom the Igembe maintained traditional ties.
The 1984 drought caused massive losses of cattle, vitiated Meru-Borana cattle-sharing
arrangements, and reinforced the growing trend of investing in fewer grade cattle in place
of larger numbers of the local Zebu/Kongoni breeds adapted to the lower zones. This shift
is one of the examples of concentration and consolidation of household enterprises most
prevalent in the higher zones, especially in the tea zone where small holder dairy production
is most advanced.25 The upgrading of cattle, replacing local breeds with Holsteins,
Ayreshires, and Jersey breeds, is a major technological innovation resulting from the
relatively high miraa and tea incomes of the 1980s. The increasing local reservoir of shared
knowledge concerning exotic breeds also contributes to the growing demand for grade
cattle. The expansion of cultivated forage on-farm, principally napier grass, accompanies
the shift to stall-fed and staked cattle, boosting Africa's traditionally low production levels
(Jahnke 1982).
Zero-grazed goats, on the other hand, are a wholly indigenous practice the Igembe have
raised to a very high form, reflected in the extraordinarily high prices a young miraa-
mwenjela raised billy goat commands. Zero-grazed goats obtain over twice the price of
25A cooperative dairy was begun in Kiegoi during the 1980s but collapsed. The reason for such
cooperative failures is more often than not poor management, as indicated by local farmer reports here.
Milk is marketed locally, and the lower price in the tea zone (4/- per liter versus 5-6/- in Zone 2 and
sometimes higher in zones 3 and 4) reflects the high supply.


129
always known to the members of farm families. There are some ancient miraa trees in the
vicinity of Thuuru and the Ntoyi/Muringene area which are said to precede Meru settlement
in the area, and local speculation dates them as being up to three hundred years old. The
fact that these trees are domesticated-the difference between wild and domesticated miraa is
easily noted--suggests that earlier Agumba and Cushitic foragers utilized wild miraa trees
and passed this knowledge onto the agriculturalists who came after them. Otherwise the
Meru quote the happy goat story, a generic explanation for the domestication of miraa and
coffee throughout eastern Africa and southern Arabia (Getahun and Krikorian 1972, Hattox
1985).21
Table 5.6: Zonal Household Land Holding Profile
All
Zones 1/2 Zone 3 Zones 4/5 Zones
average size plot
2.33
2.47
6.83
3.90
average # of plots per household
2.03
2.15
1.36
1.88
total average acreage
within home zone
4.7
5.32
9.31
6.18
average household acreage all zones
7.45
5.33
9.63
7.36
(Z1/2 n=32 households, 65 plots; z 3 n=26 households, 56 plots; z 4/5 N=22, 30 plots 30)
(sample n=80, total number of plots=151)
Table 5.6 presents information on household land holdings across ecological zones. As
we can see, households based in the higher zones display significant differences from the
lower zone profile. Lower zone farms are consolidated, but holdings are more limited
mainly to the lower zone. The average size of plots increases across descending zones.
The overall number of plots per household and plots a household has in other zones is
highest in areas of traditional cultivation. Some, but not all, high zone families own plots
at lower altitudes, and some maintain compounds at lower elevations. Some zone 3
farmers indicated they had shifted from a higher zone, often to develop their holdings and
to take advantage of larger holdings in some instances. The majority of households
surveyed in zones 4 and 5 do not own land in the high zones.22 Lower zone farms are
poorer, but their lower level of development is also due to the relatively short time of
21A farmer went searching for his wayward goats after they failed to return home. As the story goes for
both coffee and Catha edulis, the goats are found happily munching away under a certain tree, inducing the
farmer to taste the tree's produce. It is likely in any scenario that original knowledge of miraa and many
medicinal trees was learned by observing animals in the wild.
Although this was not always the case, sampling naturally missed landowners based in the higher areas
because they rarely had compounds we could target during the surveys.


195
subsumed within the structural network supports the fusion of local systems into an
emerging civil society.
The adaptive evolution of both the African state with its couplings to the international
system, and the adaptive evolution of society with its symbiotic processes, require time to
develop. Current events on the continent confirm that entropy can overtake the weak
internal organization of African states and reconstitute smaller units incorporated into state
systems by colonial boundaries as independent entities. New states like Eritrea and the
Somaliland Republic have adapted to entopic forces by disengaging from the larger state
systems into which they were incorporated. If nations fail to adapt within their present
configuration, Africa will break into a multiplicity of small units. The process of large and
small scale integration will then start over.
Economic sustainability requires institutional mechanisms for conflict resolution and
without this, disintegrative, internal factors can erode Kenya's fragile political unity. It is
nevertheless impossible to predict the resolution of these struggles in Kenya due to the
nature of state intervention. As Callaghy observes, "change is slow, incremental, uneven,
and often contradictory from a given analytic point of view, and dependent upon the
outcome of unpredictable socioeconomic and political struggles (1988,92)." Kenya is
now not only a test case of agrarian led transition, but also of the parallel coevolutionary
political processes crucial for maintaining the larger structures that support it. The Meru
case study provides an parallel example of ethnic symbiosis engendered by internal
adaptations following out of the complementary specialization to environmental variation,
agricultural efficiency, and culturally mediated synthesis.
Fusionary Forces: Culture Revisited
We are able to make some final observations related to the system dynamics framework
employed throughout this study. Culture, synonymous with the self-organizing property
of human systems, sets human development apart from other biological processes by virtue
of its adaptive qualities and synergistic presence in the system. In Africa's daunting
circumstances, the historical traditions of societal interactions, recombinations, and
cooperative strategies, and syntheses is the critical glue that holds society together during
the interval required for the state and the emerging civil society to evolve. The present


45
governments will contribute to regional sustainability over time by increasing and
diversifying their couplings.24
The idea advanced here is qualitatively different from the simple delinking strategies
advocated by dependency theorists, described in detail by Blomstrom and Hettne (1984).
Linkages to the international economy are adaptive when they generate internal growth and
diversification (Collier and Lai 1980), but ultimately maladaptive when they reinforce
monocultural complexes (c.f. Hyden 1988). Historical interactions among local systems
underscore how the outcome of increased couplings is often cultural and economic
symbioses.
In what follows in succeeding chapters, we shall examine the system's development: the
historical evolution of the production system synthesized under Meru and Igembe ethnicity,
the internal order of Igembe society, the specific configuration of Igembe agriculture and
the dynamics of change and the symbiosis between ecozones. Chapter Three provides a
picture of the Igembe cultural endowment by providing a history of ethnic interactions, the
development of cultural institutions, and showing how they are attuned to problem solving
and conflict resolution. Chapter Four parallels some of the information in Chapter Three,
but centers on the system's economic development. Chapter Five presents an outline of the
production system, and Chapter Six analyses how it is changing and replicating itself
across ecological zones. Finally, Chapter Seven extrapolates some of the dynamics of the
local system to analysis of developments on the national level.
In the chapter that follows, the origins and role of the Igembe cultural endowment are
examined. The cultural endowment consists of ideologies and institutions. Ideologies
point to the "biases" in biased transmission as discussed by Richerson and Boyd (1992),
and influence the accumulation of choices that guided the evolution of the local system from
the past to its current form. Cultural institutions are seen operating in terms of (1) the
stable and adapting relation of internal factors within Igembe society as they remain in
continuous relation to their past as it meets their future, and (2) the relationship of Mem to
the outside world.
24Local examples of this phenomena are documented in the final chapter of Gluckman's work on the Lozi
of Zambia, in Cohen and Atieno-Odhiambo (1989), Berman and Lonsdale (1991), and many other studies of
local society in Africa. deJanvrys (1985,1987) work on Brazil provides a similar perspective for Latin
America.


164
agriculturalists concentrated on the higher zones, where other groups like the Thaichu and
Muthara Tigania cultivated millet on the lower flanks of the range.16 Beyond the
Nyambene foothills lay the pastoral Maasai, Samburu, and Borana, with Ndorobo
occupying an interstitial role in between groups. A small wedge of Turkana somehow
came to occupy the fringe between the NGA and Samburu, and by the end of the last
century the Somali had also entered the region by driving a wedge between southern and
northern branches of the Borana.17
The current production and exchange still reflects this original agro-ethnic configuration
with the important addition of formal sector consumer commodities, cooperative societies
linked to parastatal organizations for specific crops, and the role of state institutions
providing services, marketing facilities, and ostensible support for rural development
activities through various ministries. The principle change in terms of land use has been
the conversion of NGA to lowland agriculture, and some small scale irrigation schemes and
pastoral areas bordering Meru District. Many of the latter have lapsed due to endemic
banditry, which accelerated following the collapse of the Somali state.
Our examination of demographic trends indicates that shifts in land and resource use
reflect a mixture of market and subsistence forces. Markets, therefore, represent a primary
force supporting ecozone symbiosis, which in effect is an extension of the matrix of
commercial and institutional factors contributing to the higher zone large farm-small farm
symbiosis.
Markets and the Dynamics of Technological Change in the Nvambenes
Since the public works programs and the activities of the new Ministry for Arid Lands
Reclamation have failed to materialize for the most part, markets remain as the main source
of technological and economic change in ASAL regions. Markets and exchange raise
ecological possibilities to actual options for local producers. With new choices, modern
commercialization brings with it a number of changes within local systems, including the
modifications of social and household practices associated with specific crops and
marketing organizations (Heald 1991), differential access to resources (Berry 1988), and
new tenure regimes based upon deterministic variables such as trees and gender (Okoth-
16This helps explain the Igembe/Aathi/agroforestry versus Tigania/Maasai/agro-pastoralism cultural axes.
Group specialization before population growth diffused individual sections beyond one ecological band also
fits the regional model of eco-niche specialization and exchange.
17The Somali defeated the Galla/Borana in major battles at Mandera and El Wak and the steady southward
movement of Darod Somali clans had a widespread effect on regional relations from the coast to the interior
(Ylvislaker 1979,78-79).


95
core area and even to other parts of the district.6 In contrast to coffee, tea, pyrethrum,
cotton, and many other crops produced for the market, miraa is a purely indigenously
developed and marketed cash crop. Traditional cultivation in the Nyambenes was limited to
pockets in the high zone between 5,500 and 6,500 feet. Miraa also grows in lower and
drier zones, and new propagation is taking place with permanent settlement in the lower
ecozones abutting areas of traditional cultivation.
The origins of the miraa trade lie well back in precolonial times, but the expansion that
has taken place, especially during the past half-century, follows in the wake of the
economic and social change accompanying regional integration into the world economy.
Consumer demand exists in both urban and rural areas, and the miraa network responds
rapidly to technological and infrastructural developments in its quest to surmount
environmental and political obstacles that stand between markets and a product that has an
economic half-life of forty-eight hours. Miraa's market value depends on its freshness and
quality. Efficient marketing of picked miraa is a fundamental requirement of its
distribution, making marketing risky in comparison to tea, coffee, and other cash crops
produced for international markets.
Nyambene miraa is distributed efficiently to every comer of the country and beyond.
Production, packaging, and distribution employs many people in the Nyambenes, many
Nyambene people outside the Nyambenes, and various non-Meru people who are
integrated into the miraa network. Traditional miraa cultivation thus set in motion feedback
leading to an economic institution that cannot be easily replicated under other smallholder
conditions. Agronomic knowledge is not an on the shelf technology. Market demand
reflects the differentials in the age of trees, place, and species cultivated. The complex
marketing networks evolved, and are not likely to be replicated in other areas in simple
fashion. The growth of commercialized miraa production in the Nyambenes was
dependent upon the right combination of favorable environmental conditions, historical and
spatial variables, and circumstances of social change.
The nearly complete absence of land sales in the miraa growing area, the high
productivity of a small plot under miraa, and high opportunity for off-farm income in the
harvesting, marketing, and other aspects of the industry give considerable options to the
Nyambene peasant cultivator compared to many other Kenyan smallholders. Free entry to
the market lessens the power concentrated in patron's hands. Because the miraa industry
6Miraa production is now established in the Munithu area of Imenti division, and is being planted in Chuka
and Runyenjes on the southern flank of Meru as well. In these cases it is marketed solely on a local basis,
but its importance as a source of petty household income is likely to grow as long as local consumption
increases and the coffee industry remains stagnant.


54
and north Imenti. Maasai territories were divided into two southern and northern reserves
following the allocation of land in Kenya's central Rift Valley to British settlers. In 1911
the Maasai leader, Lenana, concluded an agreement with the British to move all Maasai
proper to the southern reserve. Apparently a number of Maasai were able to avoid
relocation through their association with the Tigania. Some Tigania joined a portion of
their Maasai relations and trekked to present-day Narok District during the Kiaramu famine
of 1918-1919. Several years later colonial authorities detained those Maasai remaining in
the district and resettled them outside Meru. Only the Samburu remained in the Mt. Kenya
region.
In this manner the Meru polity expanded to cover the succession of ecological zones
from montane forest to semi-arid rangeland that occur across the highland-lowland
interface, the production system assimilating various elements of ethnic, econiche
specialization in the process. Conflict as well as peaceful assimilation fed the growth
process, and contributed a number of the differences distinguishing the various Meru sub
ethnicities. The assimilation of ethnic and cultural elements represents an extremely
complicated process as this summary of the ethnic and cultural mix that produced the
contemporary Gikuyu, which also holds for most contemporary populations of the Mt.
Kenya region, reveals:
These early occupants of the Mt. Kenya region have left a deep imprint on the Kikuyu and their
cousins. The numerous physical types seen amongst them bear testimony that the Gikuyu
represent a fusion of many different ethnic elements. No doubt some of the words and traits were
borrowed at various stages of contact from the plains Nilotic speakers such as the II Tikirri,
Ndorobo or Athi and the Maasai. However it should be noted that many of them were acquired
from the Eastern Cushitic-speaking peoples in the first instance. It is probable, therefore, that the
Thagicu, or proto Thagicu, might have acquired some of these Eastern Cushitic cultural
characteristics directly from the Eastern Cushitic-speaking elements. The most important of these
traits are circumcision and clitoridectomy as the major initiation rites, the Cushitic prohibition
against eating fish, and presumably the idea of a cycling age-set system. It is likely, though by no
means certain, that these features were borrowed from the Gumba. Furthermore, the Gumba are
reputed to have taught the Gikuyu the art of iron-working, while the Aathi are claimed to have sold
large chunks of their former hunting grounds to some of the Kikuyu. Muriuki 1976, 118.
The complexity of ethnic interactions mirrors the variation in the regional environment.
A chief feature of the Meru environment, as stressed earlier, is a succession of ecological
zones based on altitude, the spatial orientation of highland masses influencing rainfall and
rainshadows, and the location of physical features such as rivers, lakes, forests, and other
natural resources contributing to the multiplicity of ecological niches within the region.
Adaptation to specific conditions within ecological zones maximized the production
potential of these zones, and specialization promoted interaction and exchange among
populations across the ecological gradient.


CHAPTER 4
THE COMMERCIALIZATION OF NYAMBENE AGRICULTURE
There is no evidence that the qat habit is dangerously injurious to health. It does cause
constipation, but it has never been suggested that it may seriously damage the body as may
tobacco, which is alleged to cause cancer, or alcohol, which may cause liver complaints. Qat does
not create an addiction, like opium or hashish, in that those who are suddenly deprived of it, do not
suffer physical consequences. Deprivation may cause mental distress, but that is all. Confirmed
qat eaters who are deprived of the leaf, when they visit foreign countries, quickly adapt themselves
to its absence. (Serjeant 1983,172)
This chapter traces the growth of commercial agriculture in the Nyambenes. It overlaps
with the historical sequence presented in the previous chapter, but focuses on economic
rather than cultural and institutional factors. A description of the growth of miraa
production and marketing appears elsewhere (Goldsmith 1988). For this reason, this
aspect of economic growth is summarized, and augmented with information on new
developments in miraa marketing networks.
Precolonial Trade Networks
The phase of local ethnic consolidation detailed in the previous chapter overlapped with
a period characterized by expanding commercial relations among groups. Specialized
commodity production and exchange based on eco-niche specialization grew into multi
ethnic regional trade networks linking highlands to lowlands. The position of the
Nyambene Range, straddling the ethno-ecological interface, made local markets the most
important in the northern highland region's precolonial economy. It is not difficult to
conceive the spatial advantages of Nyambene markets in the precolonial regional economy.
The pastoral Galla, Samburu, and Somali are proximate to the perimeter of Mera grazing
areas that extend in an arch from the Nyambene foothills to near the Waso Nyiro River. To
the southeast, a short distance across the dryland cultivation areas of Tharaka, the Tana
River begins its curving path to the coast. The gentle plain on the other side of the Tana
leads to Kitui, the center of the extensive nineteenth century Kamba trade networks. Nyeri,
the traditional capital of the Gikuyu, is reached by following routes extending around
Mount Kenya to the southwest; the rest of Mera and Embu district lie on the southerly
tangent skirting its eastern slopes.
83


58
Numerous elements of Mem society reflect the cultural influences of earlier populations
in the region. The Njuri Ncheke, however, was a uniquely Mem governance structure
which recreated and institutionalized the Mem clans original unity across the different
sections geographic and social borders. The Njuri Ncheke system is organized around
both the territorial unit and the generational strata. Land is linked to the Njuri Ncheke
through its local clan-based councils or njuri. Kiama are comparable councils operating on
each rung of the age set system.19 The kiama councils select their most able leaders,
agambi, spokesmen (kugamba=io be wise, judicious), to sit on the local njuri. The system
replicates itself on successively higher levels, the highest being the pan-Meru regional
council.
The Meru's Gikuyu and Embu agricultural neighbors practiced local government based
on the njuri and kiama councils without developing a formal council structure joining local
units. Age set organization was also universal in the region, although perhaps most highly
developed among the pastoral Nilotic populations. Age-sets, besides providing for defense
of the land by maintaining a standing army of warriors, also regulate internal social control
by specifying a codified set of social obligations within and among age grades at each stage
in the progression through the lifecycle. Clans governed access to land and natural
resources, just as the age-set system provided a standing army to protect (and acquire)
them. Kinship, real and Active, conditioned exchange relations.
The ethnoscience and cultural ideologies reflecting the diverse populations became
incoiporated into the Mem polity over time. Environmental knowledge was developed by
all the groups in the region specific to their respective ecological niches. Bantu clans were
agricultural experts, pastoralists specialized in animal science, and the sophisticated
botanical tradition, evident in agricultural, medicinal, and ritual practices, is arguably the
legacy of the autochthonous hunters and foragers. All of these components combined
synergistically in the Mem system. We will now discuss how these different components
worked in combination to generate sustainable social development.
The Niuri Ncheke:
After crossing the Thagana and encountering the military power of the Maasai and Mwoko,
the Mem prayed to God for a leader. When a young boy displayed the divinely indicated
traits, the Mem selected nine elders to act as his guardian until he came of age. The boy
19 Both njuri and kiama are glossed as "council" in English. Because these terms refer to contexts in many
cases, the local terms will be retained in the text.


163
highland population. Many Tigania had no such route to outside opportunities, and now
Tigania dryland cultivation extends to the borders of Isiolo town, and the search for land is
spawning conflicts on every border of their division.
The pattern contrasts with Igembe, where informal sector and urban linkages slowed the
push into the lower zones. Igembe's agro-ecological zones are linked not only to each
other, but to the urban sector as well, and urban developments exert an important if indirect
influence on the lower zones in parts of Mem. This is not limited to growing markets for
food and inputs, but also involves the urban-rural flow of resources and ideas. Due to the
nature of the miraa trade, the urban-rural linkages mainly follow informal sector activities,
both economic and social, where symbiotic exchange is located mainly but not exclusively
within areas of the urban underclass.13
Descriptions of Mem zonal agricultural (Bernard 1972, Fadiman 1982), while generally
tme of Mt. Kenya agriculture, are not as easily applied to the Nyambene region. The
Igembe settled on the forest fringe and high zone valleys in the middle of the range.14
Igembe zonal agriculture was limited to the higher and intermediate ecological zones (zones
2 and 3) and fringing areas. Low population density permitted rotation of plots for food
production and steady access to new land under the regime of clan land tenure. Planting
miraa, bananas, and yams established individual cross-generational rights to land holdings.
The longevity of miraa provides important clues to the pattern of permanent settlement and
confirms traditional settlement, outside the primary dispersal point for the initial Igembe
settlers in Antubochiu and Akachiu locations, where miraa was not cultivated.
There was certainly no settlement in the drier margins before the collapse of the local
Maasai and the defeat of the Samburu.15 The lower zones on the northwestern flank of the
range were important grazing areas utilized collectively by the Imenti, Tigania, and Igembe
who migrated with their herds on a bi-yearly basis after the rainy seasons. The colonial
administration designated the NGA to serve as a buffer area between the Mem and pastoral
groups on their fringe. Prior to this, Chanler's (1896) account indicates that Igembe
13This term is employed with caution. Underclass as used here is not synonymous with the urban
underclass of industrial societies, but is qualified as those areas of informal, magendo (i.e. illicit and quasi-
legal) activities particularly identified with the Majengo and Eastleigh areas of Nairobi, and their equivalents
in other Kenyan towns. The growth of the international miraa trade, however, arguably links these urban
areas with "underclass" zones of Western Europe and North America.
^Conversations with Igembe and Thaichu informants confirm the separate identity of these groups despite
their linguistic and cultural affinities. Chanler (1896) also describes these two groups as separate polities.
Although the Thaichu responded to opportunities to act as middlemen during the brief interlude of caravan
trade during the late 19th century, they quickly slipped into isolation with the establishment of Meru town
as District administrative headquarters.
15The ethic of forest conservation described in Chapter Three is also a function of the Nyambene and Ngaya
forests role as a refuge from attack.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This dissertation represents the culmination of many individual efforts. It was
funded by the Social Science Research Council. The Rockefeller Foundation provided
supplementary assistance for the collection of soil data, which although it does not
appear here, also contributed to the overall study by financing an additional round of
revisits to farms in the survey. I also received invaluable material and moral support
from members of my family and friends at several critical points on the way towards
completing the final product.
The chairman of my committee, Professor Ronald Cohen, provided steady and
untiring intellectual stimulation and guidance. To this I would add the example of
uncompromised theoretical leadership of Professor Marvin Harris, the conceptual
acumen of Professor Rene Lemarchand, and the uniquely sincere application of
intellectual ideas to African phenomena Professor Goran Hyden represents. Professor
Art Hansen also provided a supportive and practical angle on the overall enterprise, and
Professor R. Hunt Davis and Professor Peter Schmidt deserve important credit for their
institutional and personal support.
I benefited from an informal Meru think tank on Igembe development while in the
field. Its members included James Laiboni, Joel Kamincha, Samweli Meemee, Elias
Maitheta, Stanley Karunga, Gitonga M'Limung'i, Ngolwa M'Limung'i, Mutabari
M'Limung'i, and countless other local intellectuals operating from different
occupational niches in Meru and other parts of Kenya. Bashir Abdi, Peter Mbabu and
Yusuf Ahmed of Meru Mutindwa provided helpful background on different issues
ranging from local trees to Meru-Somali relations in Isiolo and the Northern Frontier
District. Osman Malta MMutunga of Majengo was an invaluable source of information
for the contemporary miraa trade; other Meru elders including Yusuf Mucheke and
Shabaan Hassan Manua contributed information on the historical development of the
miraa trade.
The District Officer for Igembe Division, Mr. Wandiama, warrants special mention
as the kind of unsung leader on the grassroots-administrative interface that rarely
receive the attention they deserve. Professor H.W.O.Okoth Ogendo provided
invaluable institutional support, and accepted me as a research associate at Nairobi
Universitys Institute for Population Study and Research Mr. Mani of the National
Council for Science and Technology and Mr. Kibuna of the Office of the President
assisted me with official clearance without which the field study would have remained
stillborn. Professor David Gordon, of USAID's REDSO office in Nairobi helped with
in


183
return, marry, and invest in highland production as a junior elder, and initiate other
economic activities, including the lower zone option, as the household enterprise matures.
Formal and Informal Group Membership;
Local groups comprise a sub-set of organizational nodes. The group is a popular formal
mechanism for information diffusion as well as other activities. The Igembe have
developed various forms of rural self-help groups, local organization for water projects,
and other group structures for achieving local goals. Participation is high in these groups,
and as one would expect in conditions of shared cultural orientations, there is no distinct
zonal pattern.
Table 6.20: Group Membership by Household and Zone
(By number and percentage)
All Zones
high zones
middle zone
lower zones
Husband/Wife Group Member
31
20
7
4
Wife Only
27
6
9
12
Total (%)
72.5
81.3
61.5
72.7
No GrouD Membership (%)
27.5
18.7
38.5
27.3
Locally-organized self-help groups without any church or NGO affiliation have been
part of the social landscape for some time. Water development in Kangeta and Njia
locations, for example, has taken place through independent local organizations. The
generation of surplus (i.e. zone 1/2 agriculture) appears to correlate highly with this kind of
group formation. Presently churches and the local international NGO (Plan International)
are the main source of group developmental funds in peripheral areas.
The njuri is also an active institution, particularly in lower zones: 10 % of household
heads declared themselves as members, but the true number is probably higher.
Commercial crops are the rural equivalent of occupations in the rural sector, and determine
the kind of marketing organization (cooperatives for state-marketed commodities) or social
networks a farmer belongs to.


201
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4
the system up to the present. The micro data on the Nyambene farming system and the
conclusions on ecozone symbiosis do not appear until chapters six and seven. Finally, in
chapter seven, I conclude by placing the case study within the larger macro context of
socioeconomic change and transformation in Kenya.
The Mem Peoples
The Meru are a Bantu speaking people consisting of eight groups united by common
history, culture, and social institutions. The Meru sometimes refer to the fecund country
on the northeastern fringe of Kenya's central highlands where they live as the New
Canaan, after the Biblical promised land. There are a number of parallels between the flight
of the Israelites from Egypt and the story of how the Meru entered their own promised land
some three hundred years ago. The proto-Meru fled Mbowa, their coastal homeland, to
escape the oppression of the "Nguo Ntune," or "antu meria," red-clothed, light colored
overlords (probably the Portuguese). The Nguo Ntune attempted to enslave them by
posing three riddles, the elders solved the first two, but after they were confounded by the
third, the Mbowans plotted their escape. The Mbowa story makes them to this day wary
of divulging information to light skinned outsiders.
Three groups of clans resulted from the original flight. The white clans escaped during
the day, the black clans fled under the cover of night, and the red clans slipped away at
sunrise. These clans trekked across the dry hinterland as one group led by a heroic leader
named Komenjue. They crossed the Tana River by felling a Mugumu tree (Ficus
natalensis) large enough to span the river. Not long after this the proto-Mem clans
divided into several different groups, and moved up the foothills of Ml Kenya and the
Nyambenes. The Mem "tribes" retained a large degree of their post-Mbowa unity by
emphasizing their common origin, culture, and language. This is reinforced through
institutions such as the Njuri Ncheke parliament and the religious authority of the Mugwe
a person of the highest moral character chosen in each section to set an example of virtue,
advise leaders, and sanction the social rituals of each group. Through time, the Mem
prospered, growing just as much through the incorporation of other groups as through
natural fertility increase, into a community numbering over one million people, inhabiting
the district that bears their name.
The Mem district boundaries frame an irregular and ecologically varied topography. Its
main physical features include the eastern slopes of Kirimaara, or Mt. Kenya, a rocky
corridor between its foothills and the Tana River, and the Nyambene Range, a line of
geologically younger, volcanic hills rising on the northeastern flank of Africa's second


70
These mystical "weapons of the weak (c.f. Scott 1985)" worked to guarantee group
survival during the transitional period between association with the Meru polity and full
incorporation.
The evolution of these groups clearly follows shifting patterns of land use and political
control. With integration these groups developed a new role, biama ya mithega, or
councils of magic, as land became converted to agrarian uses. The members now used
their aathi magic to protect the remaining land not cultivated, and later, to protect crops
from intruders. During the periodic famines of the 1800s the application of magical
techniques were turned against the owners of crops to procure food: the magicians even
imprisoned wealthier farmers inside their farms until the owners paid fines in the form of
grain and beer to remove the curse. A still more novel form of kiama emerged after the turn
of the century. The kiama kya mwaa, or party of fools, got its original members from
famine victims. The kiama kya mwaa toured an area performing ribald dances and, once
they succeeded in provoking laughter, they would curse the spectators for lack of respect.
A nominal payment removed the curse. The agriculturalists derided these bodies as 'biama
of the stomach', but nevertheless feared their supernatural power (Fadiman 1984, 19-24).
The cultural endowment of the Meru can be briefly summed up by reiterating how the
cultural institutions of riika or age-sets, the Njuri Ncheke, and the religious authority of the
Mugwe combined synergistically as a set of legal, and metaphysical checks and balances
among generations. The Mugwe exemplified moral and ritual conduct, and the Njuri
Ncheke guided social development. The system worked well during the sixteen generation
span of Meru precolonial history. The Meru prospered, surmounted environmental
disasters, absorbed other communities, and grew in numbers in the process of realizing
their own version of manifest destiny on the highland-lowland interface.
The Niuri in Transition:
The first administrators in the district perceived the Meru political/legal system and its
institutional structures in terms of superstition and sorcery. In 1924 the District
Commissioner (DC) commented that "the district is still backward, belief in witchcraft
prevalent, especially in Tigania and Igembe (Kna/DC/Mru 1, 1924)." The authorities of
this period conducted an undeclared campaign against the njuri system, and considered two
"secret" societies, the Njuri ya Kaitha and the Njuri ya Aathi, as part of it.
In the 1927 district report the DC stated that the Nyambene indigenous authority was a
system of lower and higher kiama. He noted that these societies were part of the njuri
system, and declared that their members were well represented on local tribunals. The


205
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Among the Meru of Mt. Kenya." African Studies Review 20 (1): 87-101.
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162
active populations in infrastructural development. A new Ministry of Arid Lands
Development and Reclamation was created, and a second generation ASAL Programme
established. The goals of this ASAL program included the expected elements associated
with enhancement of production: support for dry-land farming and pastoral systems
development, and general improved quality of life for the poor populations living in these
"Kenya B" regions.12
The theme of ecozone linkages in this study is equivalent to the notion of symbiotic
exchange refered to in the KNDP. The data presented here shows that the state-led
campaign for ASAL development has yet to materialize in lower Meru. Governmental
services in the high potential zones, for that matter, are decreasing under the constraints of
structural adjustment policies and donor retrenchment in rsponse to developments within
Kenya's political arena. Ecozone symbiosis, as the historical precedents demonstrate,
covers a wide spectrum of social and economic interactions.
Local Linkages:
Economic exchange and related developments in the Nyambene region this century
reveal a complicated and multi-directional network of flows. Commodity exchange
between the Nyambene Meru and the pastoral groups on their fringe is centuries old. The
trade involved a number of commodities from food to harvested natural resources to miraa.
Modem demand for miraa began with the development of Isiolo as a major center for NFD
livestock marketed in Nairobi and Central Province. The commercialization of miraa
production since the pre-World War I Miriti generation thus initially followed a highland-
lowland path; only later did miraa transport to Nairobi and Mombasa developed in its the
wake.
We can compare Igembe Division with ecologically similar areas of Tigania where
coffee and food crops are the primary marketed commodities to hypothesize that the
intensive miraa-led commercialization of highland production in Igembe has actually
delayed the conversion of lowland rangelands to agriculture. Indigenous
commercialization, in contrast to state-led monoculture, induced expanded sectoral linkages
within the local economy. Miraa supported the more intensive, multi-commodity
agroforestry complex, and the indigenous organization of miraa marketing and export
opened up the prospects of urban trade and informal sector occupations as an option for the
12"Kenya B" is a term urban Kenyans sometimes use when refering to the NFD and other remote regions of
the country where life is fundamentally unaltered in comparison to highland regions and urban centers.


167
consumption which spread risk by consuming the easy money with kin relations and age-
mates. Land and cattle retained their traditional value, where styles of house construction
were constrained by local egalitarian mores.
Urban consumers and other Meru often criticize the Igembe as being wealthy but
incapable of building or living in more permanent dwellings. Outsiders rarely appreciated
that traders' traditional behaviors maintained the miraa market's low overheads, or the
cultural constraints that limited investment in modem dwellings in their home areas. There
was a time when miraa buyers, perceived as "proud," or insensitive to the cultural
ideologies penetrating the organization of commercial marketing risked access to steady
supplies during periodic times of scarcity.
Agricultural investments were a different case. Igembe cultural institutions such as age-
sets and the feedback of the Njuri Ncheke "Kuria" ideology acted to reinforce values
attached to food production-intercropping is articulated as a cultural and agricultural
principle extending to marriage (a woman is a garden where you plant trees) and even
polygamy (risk spreading in the sense of maintaining holdings in different ecozones).18
The cultivation of tea, which in 1973 occupied only 129 hectares in Igembe, expanded
rapidly. This form of land use proved also adaptive as it spread to the margins of these
zones, i.e. steep hillsides and some formerly forested drier areas, and beyond.19 At the
same time food production spread to uncultivated niches of higher zones and down the
Nyambene slopes. The intensively intercropped miraa permaculture, however, remained
at the core of the Nyambene production system and dominated the most fertile areas of
traditional cultivation-zones 2 and 3 in our scheme.
The nature of the miraa economy with its high labor inputs and high level of income
distribution had retarded capital accumulation in any case. Miraa traders could make money
quickly but they could also lose it equally fast: one derailed shipment, or the theft of profits
by highwaymen or local chicanery could put a rising career on the skids. The extended
pragmatic hedonism was an occupational liability for young businessmen drunk with
success. Capital accumulation and reinvestment did proceed, albeit slowly. Household
self-sufficiency decreased in the face of population growth, market production increased,
off-farm income grew, and the local economy became highly monetarized over a short
period of time.
^Polygamy is actually one strategy for spreading household production across zones.
19Gikuyu outsiders boosted the popularity of tea in Igembe. Individual entrepreneurs acquired tea zone land
parcels formerly under clan tenure and planted tea. When the Igembe saw the profitability of tea farming
they quickly followed suite.


38
adaptation as the dominant species characteristic enhancing biological survival and genetic
transmission (Ellen 1982, 237).
An important distinction has to be made between selection on environmental and internal
cultural selection within a population or ethnically defined system. Language is often a
criteria for membership in a group, which in turn determines access to land and other
resources. Inclusive criteria defining groups vis a vis other groups is a fundamental
assumption of Marxism and other theoretical variations emphasizing structural
determinancy be it socioeconomic class or ethnicity. Culture, and the behavioral repertoires
it represents, is often colinear with language criteria. As this case study demonstrates,
however, cultural adaptation and inheritance subject to selectionary forces transcends ethnic
categories. One of the goals of this study is to show how the Meru cultural endowment
evolved to reinforce practices and mechanisms supporting sustainable development in the
sense of cross-generational adaptive fitness.
Ruttan's term "cultural endowment" is used here in reference to cultural institutions,
culturally transmitted behaviors, and ideologies arising out of a system's internal order.
Defining a cultural endowment is useful for problem solving, but not in isolation from
other system components. Structure is further qualified by factoring in interstitial and
system-wide organizational phenomena such as patronage nets, patrimonial political order,
factions, societal institutions, interest groups, and decentralized and centralized state
organizations.
The inter-connectivity of these societal components and how their configurations
respond to the information flows and feedbacks determines the state of the system and its
dynamics. The nature of a system's economic and social connections are thus one key to
cultural dynamics. Methodological stress on the means of communication, as "the
technology of the intellect (Goody 1977,10)," are a crucial feature of the system's
development. In the Meru case study, much of the intra-system communication involves
informal and non-state loci. I try to represent to some degree the social dynamics involved
here. As we shall see, miraa, in fact, is a basic adjunct to the multi-ethnic, cross-cultural
processes of socialization (Weir 1985; Kennedy 1987). As mentioned earlier, this fact in
itself, would be a thesis of its own. The Igembe have adapted to their economic
environment by producing miraa on a commercial basis, and the consumption of miraa
contributes to the reformulation of social interactions and the processing of information
which is itself the outcome of what Boyd and Richerson (1985) term biased transmission
within a number of local systems.
Most independent variables designated in anthropological literature qualify as system
parameters. Infrastructural variables provide the starting point for the conceptual grid used


57
consolidation of the system within the borders of Meru ethnicity. Chanler (1896)
established a base camp in Thaicu for his forays into the NFD during his 1892-93
expedition. In reading his accounts there is no mistaking that the Igembe and Thaicu were
two distinct communities, a mutually shared attitude that remains until the present. This is
the one exception in the historical pattern of integration and synthesis in the Nyambenes.
The Nilo-Cushitic Mokogodo also maintained a distinct identity, but removed themselves
from the sphere of Meru influence by migrating to a peripheral area between Isiolo and
Nanyuki.16
The ecologically similar environments in Meru and the Kenya highlands therefore
accomodated sociocultural adaptations constituting a distinct medley of developmental
trajectories.17 Sensitivity to common environmental initial conditions influenced
population growth, migration, and symbiotic processes prior to the inclusion of local
systems within an external political economy. Assuming a central role for the
demographic-environmental parameter, and that "population growth and a chain reaction of
economic and social changes underlie cultural evolution (Johnson and Earle 1987, 5),"
understanding the chain reaction that follows becomes the practical concern for tallying and
interpreting tsociocultural variables to describe the congruencies in developmental
processes.18
The Mem Cultural Endowment
We will now attempt to explicate the dynamic relationships between land and resources,
cultural institutions, and both the ideology and practice of conservation within the farming
systems of the Nyambene region. The Meru cultural endowment consists of an
environmental sensibility which manifests as a set of agricultural practices and formalized
relationships with other groups. Internal and external relations are guided by local political
councils that meet locally and on the Njuri Ncheke level. Each of these components will be
examined in turn.
16The identity of the Mokogodo confused British administrators who saw them as a branch of the Samburu.
Sutton (1974, 160) associates them with the Yaaku, an ancient Southern Cushite community.
1 Contemporary differences among the Gikuyu, Embu, and Meru areas continue to resist facile comparison,
a point underscored in recent studies in each respective area of Mt. Kenya (e.e. Haugerud 1984, McKenzie
1989, Kitchingl980, Chege 1989, Leo 1984, Goldsmith 1988. Glazier 1985).
18 The historic advantage of anthropology as a discipline is "the ability to see humans as biological
organisms and creatures of culture, to see the cultural and the biological as interacting and complementary,
and to see humans in ecosystems as well as social systems (Keesing 1976,15), is largely negated by the
internal wrangling over these two positions.


188
The priority of commercial agriculture as the primary engine of the colonial economy
meant designating native reserves as a source of labor for commercial estates. The failure
of the settler farmers to deliver the goods during the world depression opened the way for
increased African commercial production. Settler fortunes rebounded during World War
II, but as the demand for African produce soared, native trade networks were revitalized
and Africans turned to the black market to circumvent the government's discriminatory
farm price policies. Even landless "squatters" on large farms parlayed settler dependence
on their labor and the demand for produce into an economic advantage. Conditions during
the war reestablished the native reserves on the path of agrarian capitalism, foreshadowing
the imminent clash between the settler and African economy (Anderson and Throup 1985).
The Swinnerton Plan of 1952 legalized African cash crop production, but the perceived
need to preserve large scale commercial agriculture lived on as a fundamental premise of the
negotiations leading to political independence. The Million Acre Scheme initiated after
independence to transfer land ownership to indigenous Africans embraced the twin goals of
alleviating land hunger while preserving the estate sector by creating a yeoman capitalist
small holder class. For the next two decades many of these estates remained monocultural
enterprises under the control of cooperative societies and group land companies. The
expansion of peasant agriculture, however, acted to undermine the large-is-good
assumptions of Kenya's post-colonial land and agricultural policies from the beginning
(Leo 1984). By the 1980s official policy recognized small farms as the critical factor in
Kenya's agriculture sector, but the theoretical assumptions behind academic critiques failed
to recognize the true nature of Kenya's agrarian processes.
The shadow cast by different Euro-centric theories obscured the role of Africas small
farmers in the continent's socioeconomic processes. Modernization and neo-classical
theories assumed that development springs largely from technologically-modem and large-
scale enterprises. The uni-modal versus bimodal debate (Peterson 1986; Hunt 1984)
largely missed the true coevolutionary processes at work in Kenya's agrarian sector by
assuming that large estate and small holder production units are in opposition and constrain
one another. Similarly, the Marxist research tradition analyzes economic change in terms
of European models focusing on categories of social classes locked in dialectical
opposition. Differentiation happens, and theorists then 'decide' whether it adds to or
subtracts from 'development'.
Heatherington (1993) provides an updated review of shifts in the Marxist conceptual
frames through which developmental processes are viewed. Africa's small scale producers
are classified as peasantries (or even pre-peasant social formations), a "transient" social
class subordinate to other social classes in historical change. Initially post-independence


128
traditional settlement equivalent to the coffee of the agro-ecological zone scheme, and the
high potential category in the government classification. Our "middle zone," zone 3 in the
survey, includes coffee growing areas and zones that in terms of altitude and humidity are
congruent with the AEZ cereal zone, and the government medium potential category. Our
lowland zones, zones 4 and 5 in the survey, correspond to the cotton and cereal/livestock
AEZs, and fall in between the medium and low potential lands in the government table.
These were not under permanent settlement until recently, and although now demarcated
into schemes, large areas of these new schemes are still not settled.
These three zones require some additional explanation. Zone 2 is the original area of
Igembe settlement, although time of cultivation and oral histories indicate that zone 3 was
settled after the best locations in zone 2, the bottom lands of small valleys, filled up
relatively soon after the Igembe arrival in the areas. During the late precolonial and early
colonial periods cultivation expanded to the margins of these zones, formerly less
defendable due to precolonial Maasai-Samburu raiding problems. Zones 1 and 4 were
also, for the most part, settled later. The exceptions to this are yam plots in the zone 1 tea
areas (although often not the site of household compounds), and the humid blocks of the
lowlands traditionally occupied by the Thaichu sub-ethnicity. Such variation within the
three groupings qualify the impression given by the statistics that appeal' here for time
under cultivation (Table 5.5).19 Zone 5 is the area of most recent settlement, and the farms
in this zone are mainly individual homesteads allocated by or validated by settlement
schemes in the original Northern Grazing Area land.20
Table 5.5: Time of Land Under Cultivation by Ecological Zone
zones 1/2 zone 3 zones 4/5
years land under cultivation 81.82 73.26 18.9
all farms av=60.96 years
median=40 years
The presence of mbaine miraa facilitated dating the amount of time plots have been
under cultivation-the generation and moiety of the individual who planted the miraa was
19Farms in the survey ran from over two hundred years of age to one year under cultivation.
20 The Northern Grazing area has a colorful history of its own discussed in the next chapter.


CHAPTER 7
CONCLUSION: FEEDBACK AND TRANSFORMATION;
We didn't see the chaos growing; and when its advancing waves found us we were unprepared for
its feverish narratives and wild manifestations. We were unprepared for an era twisted out of
natural proportions, unprepared when our road began to speak in the bizarre language of violence
and transformations. (Ben Okri, Song of Enchantment).
African Developmental Processes Revisited
The evolutionary pattern of the Mera system presented here highlights the processes of
ecozone symbiosis and agrarian adaptation. The historical background shows how
ecozone symbiosis dates back to prehistoric times. The fusion of different populations and
the components of cultural complexes originally generated by ecological variation and
group specialization resulted in Meru's synthetic social organization and increasingly
sophisticated systems of land and resource management. The consolidation of groups
within Meru ethnicity accompanied the rise of local markets to encompass important
regional trade networks. The Pax Brittanica identified territories as permanently associated
with ethnic groups and reformulated local parameters in a way that undercut many of the
local linkages supporting the emergence of a regional political economy. The efficiency of
African agricultural production, however, undermined settler enterprises and eventually
revived the original dynamics of environmental adaptation and specialization, exchange
among groups, and linkages among different economic sectors. This dynamic has been
consistently displaced by analysis of development and agrarian change guided by
theoretical paradigms that have their root in external perceptions of African production
systems.
The British administration began their colonial project with the distorted impression of a
thinly inhabited central Kenya. Large tracts of seemingly abandoned land were declared the
property of the crown. The cost of administering the new territories in British East Africa
justified the decision to establish European, commercial agriculture. Large portions of
Maasai land became the preserve of settlers like the famous Lord Delamere. Settler
agriculture and ranching enterprises in the Rift Valley soon experienced problems of
production and labor availability, prompting state policies that discriminated against the
native reserves. The subsequent economic history of the colonial era became mainly one of
the straggle of the state-subsidized settler sector vis a vis native interests (Kanogo 1987).
187


21
over the past fifteen years reaching 24 million in 1992; growth has slowed from a high of
4.1% to a rate of 3.8% a year, the highest demographic growth rate in known history.
This demographic-environmental equation presents a formidable challenge to the economic
status quo. Competition over land follows from the fact that eighty per cent of the
population live on less than twenty per cent of Kenya's land mass. Another 20% of
marginal agricultural land overlap with the arid and semi-arid regions that occupy over 60%
of the country.
Intensified production in high potential zones and the development of arid and semi-arid
areas (ASAL) is not only necessary to feed the projected population of 34 million Kenyans
by the year 2000, but is also expected to remain the primary source of their employment
and the main source of the export earnings necessary to spur multi-sectoral growth
(Government of Kenya 1989; World Bank 1990b). This general prescription applies to the
agricultural sectors of other African countries, according to the World Bank, where
increased food production is necessary to raise per capita nutrition as well as reverse the
trend of natural resource degradation (World Bank 1989, 89).
Liberal commodity price policies, a supportive state presence in the agricultural sector,
and the capitalistic private sector have produced a rate of economic growth sufficient to
keep pace with population growth into the early 1980s. Critics of Kenya's small holder
agricultural policies (e.g. Hunt 1984; Peterson 1986) were silenced by evidence that small
farm production for markets improves regional equity (Gyimah-Brempong 1988) and
bolsters personal incomes while enhancing household nutritional levels (Young 1988;
Heald 1991).
By the middle of the same decade, however, the effects of population growth, falling
prices for Kenya's export crops (especially coffee), and a bloated and inefficient public
sector began to erode living standards and intensify the competition for scarce resources
ranging from land to social services. Internal and external pressure on the political system
increased at the same time. Political mobilization highlights the mismanagement of public
resources, blatant corruption, and manipulation of the political process by state actors.
Many rural areas suffer the general decline of state institutions, while the private sector
forces, which are expected to take over many state functions according to the logic of
structural adjustment programs, remain largely inert. Social change has left a gap in many
rural areas: many traditional institutions of rural society are vitiated, but new ones have yet
to fully congeal in their place. Consequently, societal response to agrarian crisis such as
drought and famine is limited to individual and household-level coping strategies (Stini


169
Be that as it may, there is little future for coffee in the Nyambenes. In contrast, adaptive
institutional management sustains the popularity of tea, and it remains high as a small
holder crop. Farmer protests prompted reforms that boosted production prices at a time
when world prices were showing a downward trend. In 1991 the base price was raised
from 1/- to 3/-, and the adjusted bonus prices (based on world market prices) almost
doubled that (Table 6.8). Igembe farmers served by the Kiegoi KTDA factory saw the
value of their produce go from 1/80 to 2/40 in 1989 to near 7/- in 1990, and 12/- in 1992.
As this ranking of small scale tea factories shows, the Meru are also proficient
monoculturalists under proper conditions.
Table 6.8: Meru Small Holder Tea Prices and National Rank Among Kenya Tea Factories
in 1990
(Base price=3/-.l
Bonus Payment KTDA Rank
Githongo
5/51.
4
Imenti
5/22.
5
Kinoru
4/90.
6
Thanangu
4/11.
8
Kiegoi
4/27.
7
Nyambene coffee farmers, in contrast, seldom receive even a base-bonus total of 3/- per
kilo of cherry delivered to factories, and sometimes even less than 1/- after loans and inputs
are deducted; in 1992 coffee farmers in Nkinyang'a claimed that they were receiving as
little as 0/50 shillings a kilo. At the same time a World Bank (1990) sectoral report forecast
an 8 % growth p.a. in coffee volume and earnings based on the replacement of older coffee
varieties with the new Ruiru 11 variety developed at the "Jacaranda" Kenya Coffee
Research Station near Thika and a 50,000 ha. expansion of Robusta coffee production.
Ruiru 11 indeed marks a major technological advance. On-station trials indicate the
new, disease resistant variety produces more coffee per acre with 2/3 less chemical inputs.
Ruiru 11 was explicidy designed with the small farmer in mind (Onchoka and Nyoro
1991). Unfortunately, the timing of its introduction coincided with a popular reaction
against coffee in rural areas. Igembe farmers, with their limited patience for external
corruption and waste in the face of alternative land use options (i.e. miraa and food
production) are largely beyond the reach of optimizing developments in the Kenya coffee
industry.


40
evolution is adapting states and local systems to each other in current the post-colonial
phase of historical development.
Culture. Feedback, and Social Learning;
We will now list some attributes of culture within the social systems. To reiterate the
materialist concept, culture is generated by other levels of the system, and cultural variables
produce various positive and negative feedback (Harris 1979). There is little argument
that, in this sense, culture reinforces the directionality of infrastructural and structural
pathways. The conclusion reached by (Kaufmann 1993), paralleled in Riedl's (1977)
work, is that after a certain level of system complexity emerges, neither structure or
feedback enjoy adaptive primacy. This hypothesis supports the critical importance of
feedback in the system, and at least part of that feedback is cultural.
Feedback generated by the system reflects some of the internal dynamics generated by
its own development, and can help us understand a systems capacity for adaptive change.
Local feedback influences the larger system's development as local systems or social units
are increasingly integrated into the larger system. This idea receives support from Riedl,
who notes that "the systems conditions which link different levels of complexity to
feedback loops of cause and effect are responsible for the evolution of life (1977, 358)."
The key factor is the group mechanisms for discrimination and classification of the
information coming into a system. The cultural analog appears in Boyd and Richerson's
(1985) concept of biased transmission, refering to knowledge that has been selected for by
the cultural system and replicated across generations. Naturally, cultural information
gathering and social learning are more efficient than individual trial and error. The
importance of culture in creating and transmitting information is another important adaptive
quality that makes it critical for indigenous-led development. In a recent article, Richerson
and Boyd (1992) stress that people pick and choose whom and what to imitate in the first
place, and that social learning is favored over individual learning because it allows
individuals to avoid the costs associated with learning. The strength of biased transmission
depends upon the amount of cultural variation. The variation generated by the
environmental differences underpinning group specializations is reflected in the symbiotic
properties of Igembe Meru society.
On the societal level, they link the increase of non-parental transmission of knowledge
to cultural success and how this aided the spread of low-fertility norms contributing to
demographic transition. This has very interesting implications for the Nyambene case
study where cultural institions increase the weight of "teachers," i.e., individuals from each


124
cultivation is becoming more common, especially in Ntonyiri where farmers have told me
"miraa haipendi miti mingine (miraa doesn't like other trees)!"
Miraa inputs are limited to manure, ashes, and periodic firing to control insects.
Farmers claim fertilization affects the taste of harvested miraa adversely, taste being a major
indication of quality in local markets, less so in the growing Somali miraa trade where the
main criteria is strength and the size of the kilo retail bundles. In the areas of traditional
cultivation even manure is measured out carefully as to not overly effect the natural
sweetness of the product. This sweetness and fineness in texture and consistency is the
goal of the good farmer, who also understands the proper use of miraa is in chewing twigs
that are equivalent to a fine wine or cognac in a different tradition.
Miraa, like most indigenous cultivars, is disease resistant. The scourge of uura,
(Aspirilla melea), refered to earlier, is especially a problem for the valuable mbaine trees.
This bacterial disease effects many forest species as well as bananas, tea, mwenjela, and
other components of the indigenous agroforestry system, and is most common in formerly
forested areas. The only chemical treatment for infected trees is the application of methyl
bromide, a chemical used for sterilizing greenhouse soil so toxic that the sale of it to local
farmers is out of the question. The specialized arboreal surgery described earlier thus
promises to remain the main method of dealing with the infection.
The practice of excavating root systems is also employed to ferret out moles, the most
troublesome agricultural pest in the area. Moles attack the roots of trees and the important
understory food root crops such as potatoes, yams, cassava, and taro. In 1990 the bounty
for moles caught in this way was Ksh. 100/-. The high premium on the mole's head is an
indication of their potential for destruction. Trapping is the other technique employed to
control their numbers. The unrelated mole rat poses problems similar to those of moles in
the humid lower zones.
The arts of pollarding, trimming and pruning miraa trees extends to other trees. Many
common on-farm trees assume a different appearance in the Nyambenes as farmers shape
them into different forms to maximize sunlight penetration while harvesting poles and
firewood.16 This is another art largely unrecognized by the formal agroforestry
establishment, and greatly increases a farmer's ability to utilize different trees according to
on-farm conditions, in addition to optimizing fuelwood production in many cases.
The destruction caused by the spread of the cypress aphid in Kenya provides another
interesting example of the Igembe approach to tree management. The aphid spread from
16On two occasions I was embarrassed by asking about the identity of certain trees only to learn that they
were the common Jacaranda minsofolia and Cordia africana pruned by farmers until they presented different
profiles than those of free-growing specimens.


120
means of settling disputes. This pattern provides useful data that can be evaluated and
critiqued for its merits and applicability in other contexts.
Agronomic Aspects of Miraa Production
The Nyambene farming system displays a number of distinctive features: the unique
qualities of miraa as a commercial agricultural commodity, a high level of biodiversity
incorporated into the farming system,8 and a traditional agroforestry system which
maintains high levels of organic input recycling, the zonal characteristics of production, and
explicit corresponding ideological components such as the "kuria" concept of multi-
generational resource management and the "ideology of trees.
While recognizing specific qualities associated with specific agricultural commodities, a
variable like miraa or coffee or sugar does not explain all the variance or unique qualities of
a farming system. Miraa's role in the farming system can be analyzed in terms of its
similarity to other commodities: labor, management, household dynamics, and marketing
requirements.9 Miraa production has also preserved many aspects of the system that the
adoption of other commercial crops, if other areas of Mt. Kenya are any indication,
displace. Miraa production emerged out of the configuration of indigenous crops, and the
highland yam-banana agroforestry complex in particular. By virtue of its commercial
value, it in turn preserved the indigenous agroforestry tradition, and delineated a pathway
for integrating new cultivars, tree species, and other components in an incremental manner.
The livestock component of the high zone farms presents an example of such a
pathway. Traditional pen-raised or "zero-grazed" goats provided a niche within the
farming system for the modem innovation of zero-grazed, grade cattle. The high levels of
milk produced by such animals boosts household income, manure aids the nutrient
recycling system already functioning within the local permaculture, while feedback for
boosting the quality of forage encourages the addition of napier grass and greater utilization
of crop wastes (banana and maize stalks, sweet potato vines and leaves, etc.).
In the same manner, the incorporation of exotic trees follows the design of the already
existing system, and not according to the "designs" of agroforestry projects and evaluations
of potential returns to small holder systems (Hoekstra 1987). The success of tea emulates a
8 The importance of biodiversity, agroforestry, and notions of environmental sustainability only gained
serious recognition when the limits of Western monoculture become painfully apparent. A list of tree and
plant species are itemized in an index accompanying the text.
9Since the focus of the research is more on the system than the specific role of the household in it, and
although the household is an important unit of analysis unto itself, the rigorous demands of analyzing
internal household dynamics necessitated that this aspect of the system was not central to the study. We
will assume various insights including gender issues highlighted by other work in this important domain
generally hold true for the Nyambene system (Moock 1978), except where evidence indicates otherwise.


SYMBIOSIS AND TRANSFORMATION IN KENYA'S MERU DISTRICT
BY
PAUL GOLDSMITH
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY.
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
1994
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA LIBRARIES

DEDICATED TO GEORGE SMARDON
WHO TAUGHT PATIENCE THROUGH EXAMPLE

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This dissertation represents the culmination of many individual efforts. It was
funded by the Social Science Research Council. The Rockefeller Foundation provided
supplementary assistance for the collection of soil data, which although it does not
appear here, also contributed to the overall study by financing an additional round of
revisits to farms in the survey. I also received invaluable material and moral support
from members of my family and friends at several critical points on the way towards
completing the final product.
The chairman of my committee, Professor Ronald Cohen, provided steady and
untiring intellectual stimulation and guidance. To this I would add the example of
uncompromised theoretical leadership of Professor Marvin Harris, the conceptual
acumen of Professor Rene Lemarchand, and the uniquely sincere application of
intellectual ideas to African phenomena Professor Goran Hyden represents. Professor
Art Hansen also provided a supportive and practical angle on the overall enterprise, and
Professor R. Hunt Davis and Professor Peter Schmidt deserve important credit for their
institutional and personal support.
I benefited from an informal Meru think tank on Igembe development while in the
field. Its members included James Laiboni, Joel Kamincha, Samweli Meemee, Elias
Maitheta, Stanley Karunga, Gitonga M'Limung'i, Ngolwa M'Limung'i, Mutabari
M'Limung'i, and countless other local intellectuals operating from different
occupational niches in Meru and other parts of Kenya. Bashir Abdi, Peter Mbabu and
Yusuf Ahmed of Meru Mutindwa provided helpful background on different issues
ranging from local trees to Meru-Somali relations in Isiolo and the Northern Frontier
District. Osman Malta MMutunga of Majengo was an invaluable source of information
for the contemporary miraa trade; other Meru elders including Yusuf Mucheke and
Shabaan Hassan Manua contributed information on the historical development of the
miraa trade.
The District Officer for Igembe Division, Mr. Wandiama, warrants special mention
as the kind of unsung leader on the grassroots-administrative interface that rarely
receive the attention they deserve. Professor H.W.O.Okoth Ogendo provided
invaluable institutional support, and accepted me as a research associate at Nairobi
Universitys Institute for Population Study and Research Mr. Mani of the National
Council for Science and Technology and Mr. Kibuna of the Office of the President
assisted me with official clearance without which the field study would have remained
stillborn. Professor David Gordon, of USAID's REDSO office in Nairobi helped with
in

input on my questionnaires, which were based on International Insitute for Tropical
Agriculture survey instruments Professor Abe Goldman was kind enough to share with
me.
The librarians and staff at the Kenya National Archives, USIA library, and at the
International Center for Agroforestry Research all opened their facilities to my use and
made me feel welcome. Dr. Anthony Kinyua of Nairobi University's Center for
Nuclear Science Techniques provided a steady institutional base and feedback over the
duration of the study. I should also mention the divisional agricultural staff in Maua for
their cooperation in the field. The views and encouragement of my colleague, Dr.
Bashir Jama, also warrant acknowledgement, as does the exposure to tropical
agriculture that I received from Professors Hugh Popenoe, Robert Conrad, Ken Buhr,
and P.K. Nair at the University of Florida's Institute for Food and Agricultural
Science.
I thank my mother, Ms. Joan Smardon, my wife Safiya Usama, and my children for
their invaluable support, tolerance, and understanding in various ways. I am also
grateful to Peter Sokol and Jill Dygert for their practical assistance during the final
period of the work in progress. Ahmed Samatar of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory,
Robert Comes, and Dr. Dorothy Edwards of the Washington University School of
Occupational Therapy provided invaluable computer support during the final stages of
write-up. Carol Lauriault's editorial and qualitative inputs were critical in seeing the
project's fruition from its initial conception to putting the document in its final form.
Peter O'Malley provided stimulation from New Orleans. Andrew Goldsmith, George
Thirikwa, Ali "Mwarabu" Mohammed, David Tomlinson, and Peter Brinkwart kept the
wheels rolling. Finally, like so many others who have tread this path before me, I
thank Professor Gwen Carter for her support and inspiration.
IV

TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS i
ABSTRACT viii
CHAPTERS
1CULTURE, SYSTEM, AND SYMBIOSIS IN MERU 1
The Meru Peoples 3
Anthropological Research in the New Canaan 7
Feedback from the Field
Defining Development
The Cultural Endowment Problem
2 PROBLEMS, CONSTRAINTS, AND ADAPTATION
The Empirical Problem:
Population, Agricultural Systems, and Polity
The Evolution of the State
Problem Solving and Paradigms
Anthropological Research Traditions
Analyzing Social Systems
The Culture Problem
Culture and Cultural Endowment
Culture, Feedback, and Social Learning
Symbiosis
Coevolutionary Processess
3 KURIA! A BRIEF HISTORY OF CULTURALLY
SUSTAINED MERU LAND AND RESOURCE USE
Sustainability and Cultural Adaptation
Kuria: The Meru Definition of Sustainability
Precolonial Dynamics
Maasai-Meru Relations
The Nyambene Meru
The Meru Cultural Endowment
The Njuri Ncheke
Age-Set Organization
Clans, Kinship, and the Gichiaro Social Risk-Spreading
Mechanism
The Aathi Cultural Ideology
The Njuri in Transition
Njuri Ncheke-British Administration Cooperation
v
-J -o on on on ui ui m ui u 4n. ^ w w w w to M N) to i> >-*
tO O On 4^ HOOOUlWO'OOO ON W O O O Ui (O O OO to O O O WO

The Nyambene Farming System 75
Modern Dynamics of Nyambene Meru Cultural Institutions 78
4 THE COMMERCIALIZATION OF NYAMBENE
AGRICULTURE 86
Precolonial Trade Networks 86
The Decline of Pastoralist Power 87
The Impact of Ivory on Regional Trade Networks 88
Late Nineteenth Century Environmental Catastrophes 89
The British Influence 91
The Rise of Miraa as a Commercial Commodity 93
Social Aspects of Miraa Consumption 95
The Socioeconomic Context of Miraa Production 97
The Nyambene Range and The Meru Farming System 99
The Development of the Miraa Trade 103
Igembe Control of the Urban Trade 107
The International Miraa Trade 109
Miraa And Rural Development 114
Cash-Crops in Comparative Perspective 115
5 NYAMBENE AGRICULTURE AND
AGRO-ECOLOGICAL ZONES 113
The Resilience of the Igembe System 120
Agronomic Aspects of Miraa Production 123
The Land Variables in Nyambene Small farm Production 128
Crops and Cultivars 133
Indigenous Agroforestry 135
Technological Innovations 137
Livestock 138
Constraints and Inputs 141
Production and Income 145
6 COMMERCIALIZATION AND ECOZONE SYMBIOSIS 149
The Meru Lowlands in Perspective 150
Kenya's Agricultural Policy
Commercialization and Ecozone Symbiosis 152
Sectoral Goals for Kenyan Agriculture 15 3
Ecozone Symbiosis 161
Local Linkages 162
Markets and the Dynamics of Technological Change in the
Nyambene s 164
Production Markets 165
Crop Differentials 168
Market Influences: The Case of Sorghum 172
Consumer and Input Markets 173
Consumption Trends and Household Expenditures 178
Social Dynamics: Cultural Endowment and Social Learning 180
Formal and Informal Group Membership 182
African Developmental Processes Revisited 184
vi

7 CONCLUSION: FEEDBACK AND TRANSFORMATION 187
African Developmental Processes Revisited 187
The Resilience of African Agriculture 189
The State and Local Systems 193
Fission and Fusion 193
Fusionary Forces: Culture Revisited 195
The Urban Ecozone and Generational Dynamics Revisited 197
REFERENCES 200
Biographical Sketch 220
Vll

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
SYMBIOSIS AND TRANSFORMATION IN KENYA'S MERU DISTRICT
By
Paul Goldsmith
April 1994
Chairman: Ronald Cohen
Major Department: Department of Anthropology
This study addresses processes of agricultural systems development in Meru
District. The study demonstrates how local African societies coevolve in a manner
where populations adapt, specialize, merge, and diverge in various ways that allows
new forms of social and economic organization to emerge over time. This
coevolutionary dynamic links the Igembe Meru to their past while projecting then-
developmental processes into the future. Mem environmental history reflects how
variation across ecological zones influences a number of social micro-adaptations. The
Mem agricultural system evolved through continuous cultural symbiosis of hunter-
gather. pastoral, and agricultural groups. Ethnicity followed group eco-niche
specialization, favoring exchange across ecological zones and the rise of regional trade
networks. The Nyambene Mem system featured in this study served as the hub of an
extensive trade network spanning the region between Mt. Kenya and the southern Lake
Turkana area, continues to demonstrate a high level of biodiversity, adaptive responses
to modem market phenomena, and cultural institutions that embody their indigenous,
cross-generational concept of social sustainability within the contemporary context of
capitalist-led change. Local systems adapting incrementally contribute in turn to the
processes of transformation on the national level, just as macro-level developments
create possibilities on the local level.
vm

CHAPTER 1
CULTURE, SYSTEM, AND SYMBIOSIS IN MERU
I am the Lord Almighty, and I have led you out of Egypt to the land of Ca-naan.
Holy Bible, Book of Numbers.
This study is based upon field research1 designed to investigate the commercialization of
agricultural production as the main determinant of small farm agricultural change in the
Nyambene Range, a line of hills extending in a northeastern direction from the foothills of
Ml Kenya. The study is both an agro-economic anthropological study of how
commercialization in high potential areas influences the adjacent, semi-arid lowlands, and
an exploration of how cultural factors influence and contribute to agrarian systems. The
study demonstrates how local African societies coevolve in a manner where populations
adapt, specialize, merge, and diverge in various ways that allows new forms of social and
economic organization to emerge over time. This coevolutionary dynamic links the Igembe
Meru to their past while projecting their developmental processes into the future, and
defines the multi-sectoral nature of indigenous economy.
The Nyambene region has a rather fantastic appearance. When viewed from afar the
hills and caldera form a geometry of soft curves, angles, and conical shapes. Tropical
alpine forest caps the peaks and upper hillsides of the range. The plains below are
punctuated with lunaresque massifs dominated by the Gibraltar-like silhouette of Shaba
imposed in front of the hills of Samburu country in the distance. The local farms situated
in-between the forest and the plains resemble small jungles, a dense riot of vegetation with
the long crooked boles of mwenjela (Cussonia holstii) trees projecting above the canopies
like fringed stovepipes. The eye takes in a truly large swath of central and northern Kenya
from vantage points high in the range, and the configuration and nature of the hills
themselves appear different when viewed from various angles.
The 200,000 Igembe people, a section of the greater Meru community, inhabit the core
of this area. The Igembe rely predominantly on agriculture, supplemented by cattle and
small livestock that are pastured in the lowlands. Their farming system, based on the
region's biological diversity largely disregards technological monoculture. Access to land
!This research was funded by a doctoral research fellowship provided by the Social Science Research
Council, made possible by funds provided by Hewlett Packard.
1

2
is regulated by clans which control strips of land extending from the well-watered hills to
the dry plains. Otherwise, the criss-crossed configuration of the Mera polity and social
structure does not easily fit conventional anthropological categories of group social
evolution (c.f. Johnson and Earle 1987). The lives of the Igembe Mera are still intertwined
with important cultural institutions that have long since lapsed in other parts of Mera and
Kenya; age-sets and warrior initiation rituals, gichiaro fictive kinship relations, and local
councils of the pan-Mera parliament, the Njuri Ncheke continue to influence the daily lives
of the Igembe. The commercialization of agricultural production has not overturned the
internal order as much as it has reinforced it through cultural feedback of cross-generational
continuity and adaptation.
All of this "otherness" survives into the 1990s in the presence of homogenizing forces
of the capitalist world system, including intense commercialization of local small holder
agriculture. Indeed, the influx of "cash money," support Igembe income levels matched in
few other agricultural areas of East Africa. Unlike other small farm areas in Kenya
characterized by the lack of it, money is at least partially responsible for the unusual state of
affairs in the Igembe-inhabited core of the Nyambene Range. A new dedication to "cash
money" has not displaced the role of food as a domestic currency, and as a result the
Igembe have converted the lowland areas formerly reserved for grazing to field crops. This
replaces some of the food production in the highlands lowered as their indigenous
agroforestry plots mature in a hundred year cycle. At the same time they have acquired
more cattle than they possessed before, which enhances the organic input recycling
properties of their mixed agro-silvo-pastoral agricultural system.
The local Mera munch and exchange small bunches of miraa (Catha edulis), a tree
domesticated for the mildly stimulatory qualities of its young twigs, as they go about their
work. Over the last century miraa has evolved from an accessory to traditional social
ceremony and ritual to a commercial crop that serves as the engine of the local economy.
Miraa consumption, and the increased social interaction and information exchange that
accompanies it, is an interesting subject in its own right. Miraa, as the primary commercial
crop in Igembe areas, is an important element within the local economy. Because it is also
an important social component in Nyambene society, it creates socioeconomic and
environmental feedbacks into the developmental process that are somewhat more
complicated than, for example, those associated with coffee, tea, or cotton.
Environmental differentials in the East African highlands engendered ecologically based
specialization and exchange among and within groups. Local markets in the Nyambenes
are situated mainly on the creases of ecological zones, and historically served as a magnet
attracting a number of agricultural, agro-pastoral, and nomadic pastoralists. Both this and

3
farmer-herdsmen conflict contributed to the Meru precolonial cultural symbiosis. The
expansion of the miraa trade has carried these cultural dynamics into the contemporary era.
Igembe traders, bottled up in the Nyambene region by the Pax Britannica, breakdown of
African regional exchange during the pre-world War II phase of British colonialism, and
the Man Mau emergency, have through their miraa marketing networks come into contact
with a number of new social and economic landscapes: the majengo neighborhoods in
Nairobi, Mombasa, and other highland towns, the arid expanses of the Northern Frontier
District between Meru, Marsabit, and Moyale on the border of Ethiopia, and the Somali
towns of Northeastern Province. In effect, a variety of social landscapes, the Western
education system, and a steady steam of new information and ideas from urban areas feed
new forms of symbiosis. Symbiosis, in this case study, refers to the coevolutionary
outcomes resulting from the dynamic interactions, confluences, and recombinations of
technical, cultural, and institutional components of Kenya's ethnic, organizational, and
economic pluralism. The case study strives to show through the Meru material that the
heterogeneous qualities of local adaptations in Kenya are in many ways an important legacy
that, under proper conditions, can contribute to and fuel the country's multi-sectoral
development
Once in the field, it was soon apparent that commercialization and change within the
Igembe Meru economy, perhaps more so than many local production systems in Kenya and
Africa, cannot be understood without examining the interactions and complementary
relationship between culture and agriculture. The system is therefore referred to at various
points in this study as the Nyambene cultural and agricultural system. This makes the
Nyambene case study more complex, but also, hopefully, interesting and potentially
valuable for comparison with the typical account of small farm commercialization in Africa.
Linguists often repeat the methodological maxim, "no contrast, no information." Perhaps
the most useful aspect of this study is that it does provide a contrasting trajectory of social
development, agricultural innovation, and cultural adaptation when compared to other
examples of African agrarian change involving the production of other world market
commodities and marketing through their organizational structures.
A brief map of where the following pages take one may assist the reader in following
the scheme of this work in progress. This initial chapter is a thematic exposition of the
study's context: the broad theoretical issues, the cultural, historical, and environmental
backdrop of the study, and references to how we go about the study of African societies.
The second chapter provides a more specific treatment of the empirical and conceptual
problems addressed, and the theoretical framework for their analysis. Chapters three and
four provide several perspectives on the historical, cultural, and economic development of

4
the system up to the present. The micro data on the Nyambene farming system and the
conclusions on ecozone symbiosis do not appear until chapters six and seven. Finally, in
chapter seven, I conclude by placing the case study within the larger macro context of
socioeconomic change and transformation in Kenya.
The Mem Peoples
The Meru are a Bantu speaking people consisting of eight groups united by common
history, culture, and social institutions. The Meru sometimes refer to the fecund country
on the northeastern fringe of Kenya's central highlands where they live as the New
Canaan, after the Biblical promised land. There are a number of parallels between the flight
of the Israelites from Egypt and the story of how the Meru entered their own promised land
some three hundred years ago. The proto-Meru fled Mbowa, their coastal homeland, to
escape the oppression of the "Nguo Ntune," or "antu meria," red-clothed, light colored
overlords (probably the Portuguese). The Nguo Ntune attempted to enslave them by
posing three riddles, the elders solved the first two, but after they were confounded by the
third, the Mbowans plotted their escape. The Mbowa story makes them to this day wary
of divulging information to light skinned outsiders.
Three groups of clans resulted from the original flight. The white clans escaped during
the day, the black clans fled under the cover of night, and the red clans slipped away at
sunrise. These clans trekked across the dry hinterland as one group led by a heroic leader
named Komenjue. They crossed the Tana River by felling a Mugumu tree (Ficus
natalensis) large enough to span the river. Not long after this the proto-Mem clans
divided into several different groups, and moved up the foothills of Ml Kenya and the
Nyambenes. The Mem "tribes" retained a large degree of their post-Mbowa unity by
emphasizing their common origin, culture, and language. This is reinforced through
institutions such as the Njuri Ncheke parliament and the religious authority of the Mugwe
a person of the highest moral character chosen in each section to set an example of virtue,
advise leaders, and sanction the social rituals of each group. Through time, the Mem
prospered, growing just as much through the incorporation of other groups as through
natural fertility increase, into a community numbering over one million people, inhabiting
the district that bears their name.
The Mem district boundaries frame an irregular and ecologically varied topography. Its
main physical features include the eastern slopes of Kirimaara, or Mt. Kenya, a rocky
corridor between its foothills and the Tana River, and the Nyambene Range, a line of
geologically younger, volcanic hills rising on the northeastern flank of Africa's second

5
highest mountain. The land of the Tigania, the Igembe's cultural "cousins," spans the
foothills of ML Kenya and the Nyambenes.
The Nyambene region's ecosystem spans a number of different ecozones and ecotones,
and sustains an interestingly hybrid variation on society and economy. From the 8,247
foot peak of Itiene, the highest point of the Range, to the crater of Ntonyiri, the Nyambenes
Range is a variegated, fertile, well-watered extension of the highlands of central Kenya
descending into the austere badlands of northern Kenya. The hills narrow and gradually
drop in altitude before ending in a line of spectacular volcanic caldera that taper off into an
arid and waterless plain. The fringe of rangeland bordering the northern face of
Nyambenes, stretching from Isiolo to Garba Tula is one of the driest blocks of land in
Kenya. The southeastern slopes adjoin the more humid lowland plain that becomes Meru
National Park before shading into the undifferentiated semi-arid expanse that stretches
across the Northern Frontier District (NFD) into Somalia.
From these northern plains, the Nyambenes appear as a long ridge of rounded hills
whose outer slopes are as dry as the floor of the surrounding semi-desert Their flanks are
covered with acacias, the wiry shrubs of the Barlea family, and other dry land plants,
and several unpalatable species of Pennisetum grass. A traveler viewing the range from the
north vantage point can be surprised to find an unusually green and fertile land upon
ascending and passing into the interior of the range. From the south, in contrast, the range
appears as an extension of the fertile central Kenya highlands.
The Igembe are the northern-most section of the Mem peoples. Their land bridges these
two distinct regions of Kenya: the agricultural highlands, or "upcountry," in Kenyan
parlance, and the "NFD," a term dating back to the time when the different pastoral
populations inhabiting this expanse were administratively separated from the rest of Kenya
in the colony's Northern Frontier DistricL Igembe Division and the more northerly parts of
Mem District in general display the legacy of both NFD-style benign neglect and the
external influences contributing to change in the highlands. Historically, the Igembe
straddled the NFD-highland divide, and developed a symbiotic, agro-pastoral cultural
heritage. They continue to evolve through linkages to the agricultural highlands and the
pastoral lowlands, although the urban experience accumulating over the past three decades
has extended the Igembe landscape to a third distinct environment
The Nyambene farmers in this area produce some of the world's best tea, relatively less
of Mem's highly rated coffee, the finest miraa produced anywhere, and a cornucopia of
food crops. Small farms, incorporating numerous domestically valuable shrubs and trees
blend into the lush vegetation of the valleys and hillsides. The Igembe Mem cultivate field
crops on the fringes of their sophisticated agro-forests, multi-storied, jungle-like plots of

6
trees, yam vines, food crops, and medicinal herbs often developed over the course of
generations. Ruminants were the main livestock component of their production system.
Exceptionally tasty and tender goats, zero-grazed on a traditional diet of miraa and
mwenjela, are a specialty of the local cuisine, fetch very high prices in local markets, and
provide a culturally-patterned pathway for the adoption of new breeds of milch cows that
are now also zero-grazed on local farms.
Previously the Igembe pastoral tradition mainly centered on grazing livestock in the
extensive lower zones stretching from the base of Mt. Kenya to the I' ombe crater, an
important magadi soda lake falling on the extreme northern comer of the district This
magadi lake is a major intersection attracting the Meru and a number of pastoral groups
who bring their livestock there for the lake's salt and minerals.2 For the Meru, I' ombe is
more than just a source of salt. The lake shares with the Nyambene and Mt Kenya forests
an important religious position as one of the places where God dwells.
The combined spatial-cultural legacy of Nyambene society kept European influences in
check, and the Igembe entered the post colonial period sustained by a history and
environmental adaptation that supported their independent way of life. Styles of dress
depict their capacity to absorb new elements while maintaining their own traditions.
Straddlers by nature, many Igembe wear several different hats: the cowboy hats of
"godfather" capitalists, the woven caps and sombreros favored by farmers, the open
turbans preferred by herders, the Islamic-style skullcaps urban entrepreneurs often sport,
and the berets of intellectual proletarians. Many Igembe men alternate between town and
country in a high speed cycle of circular migration, especially during that period of the
lifecycle corresponding to warriorhood in the traditional age set system.
Except for the small class of urban-based professionals, the Igembe eschew paid
employment, prefering self-employment or the other opportunities that arise as a
consequence of their travels to near and distant comers of Kenya via the miraa trade. As
miraa traders they travel to dangerous destinations and endure difficult conditions in order
to establish working capital for future investments in their local place of birth. Unlike
urban migrants from other areas in Kenya, they rarely settle permanently outside their home
area.
Back home, Igembe men organize farm and business activities, walking about the
countryside chewing miraa, exchanging the respected reddish-green twigs with friends they
meet on the path. After work they retire to local canteens and bars where they imbibe a
variety of local and bottled alcoholic drinks with gusto. Surrounded by warrior herdsman
2Pasotral groups who frequented I'ombe included the Maasai, Samburu, Boran, Turkana, and Somali.

7
and shift a bandits, their fertile homeland is located in a rough neighborhood. This
ambience reinforces their own cultural tradition of institutionalized warriorhood. In today's
world they have parlayed this culturally directed aggressiveness into a variation on modem
entrepreneurship, retaining with their Tigania neighbors elements of a warrior society now
transposed, at least partially, into the arena of economic competition.
Otherwise an ebullient and rambunctiously outgoing people, the Nyambene Meru are
regarded by other Kenyans as hot-headed and temperamental. The panga, or machete, and
not the hoe, is the main farm implement used in Nyambene farming systems. Meru
ferocity and hair-trigger tempers in the presence of pangas lead to a reputedly high
incidence of interpersonal violence, prompting one local researcher studying incidents of
spontaneous panga-slashing to designate Nyambene society as a "subculture of violence."
The label, although unsubstantiated by actual comparative statistical data from other
districts, stuck.
Journalistic interpretations of Meru culture molded the understanding of real-life events.
One year after local press ran a feature story on the Nyambene "subculture of violence,"
The death of nineteen school girls during a student strike-cum-riot at St Kizito Secondary
School in August of 1991, confirmed the public perception of the Nyambene's as Kenya's
most unpredictably violent region.3 Urbanized Meru in Nairobi concealed their ethnic
identity for quite some time afterwards. Still, a Nyambene man once told me that he and
his friends like the ethnic image of unpredictable warriors. The sterotype confers fear and
respect in Kenya's urban areas. Indeed other Meru peoples who look down on their
"Tigania" brethren at home, cultivate a common association with their Nyambene "hillbilly"
kinsmen in the cities for the same reason.
Anthropological Research in the New Canaan
The Nyambene area first pricked my interest during a short trip to Meru Park in 1980.
Previously, I had worked among the Swahili speaking peoples of Kenya's north coast.
Over the past several decades miraa consumption has developed into a major Swahili social
institution. I was curious about the trees that have had such a large impact on coastal
society and Muslim neighborhoods in other urban areas. The trip to the Park takes one
through the heartland of the Nyambene miraa production area, but to uneducated eyes
Meru's famed miraa is almost invisible against the backdrop of their multi-cropped, multi-
3The story was splashed across the local press and made CNN. The fact that this national tragedy happened
in "Tigania," as the Nyambene region is called by outsiders, made it understandable in terms of Kenya's
ethnic folk models.

8
storied agroforestry plots. As a consumption item, except for a few leafy bundles that
hardly represented the banana-leaf wrapped "kilos" one sees in the rest of Kenya, it was
also less apparent than expected. On the way back from the park, we chanced upon a local
farmer who volunteered to guide us to Muringene market, the main center for miraa export,
located right off the main road. This brief visit proved very interesting, beginning with the
rather unusual sign marking the turn-off to Muringene"Muringene, Soko La Miraa Bila
Ubaguzi," (Muringene, the Miraa Market Without Discrimination).
The miraa bazaar appeared very different compared to other local markets throughout
Kenya. For one thing, it was a temporally concentrated event where most of the exchange,
packaging, and accounting is completed between one p.m. and three p.m. It also seemed
to involve a highly ordered underlying pattern despite the spontaneous and chaotic
impression it conveyed to an outsider. And it obviously involved financial transactions
significantly higher than your average cabbage or maize market
A miraa trader I knew in Nairobi insisted I make another trip to the Nyambenes to visit
his home. I returned the next year in the company of one of my companions from the last
trip, and this time we spent a week touring the vicinity between Kangeta and Maua on foot
and in densely packed matatus, packed Peugeot 404 station wagons crammed with bodies
in the style of the American telephone booth fad. Conversations and walks in Igembe
revealed a fascinating and infrequently investigated cultural-economic complex. The trail
blazed by miraa from Nyambene farms to the coast made for an interesting study, and I
decided to expand my interest in Swahili society to look at the developmental implications
of the production and marketing of this highly used, and sometimes abused, commodity of
Swahili social intercourse.
During another stopover at Muringene during the second visit a local businessman we
met in a small cafe/bar commented to me that "we have money, but we don't have
development" Urban Lamu, whose relatively unchanged way of life is a magnet for
Western tourists, is often described by Kenyans as also lacking development As with
Lamu, the Nyambene area did not appear undeveloped by Kenyan rural standards. It does,
howver, display unique and intriguing features of cultural continuity uncharacteristic of
other areas of highly commercialized small scale agriculture. As a Westerner, I had always
considered "development" to be more than a matter of material prosperity. Heuristically,
the businessman's statement provided me with a research question on local
commercialization. Can the usual forms of sociocultural change associated with
"development' vary independently of money incomes and types of cropping strategies?
On the surface, the urban, internationally oriented, maritime-based economy of the
northern Swahili presents little in common with the small-farm, local economy of the

9
Nyambene Meru. As in the Swahili settlements of Kenya's north coast, the connection
between indigenous economy and vitality of local culture presented an internally generated
version of African development. Otherwise the urban-rural-seafaring world of the Swahili
and that of Nyambene mountain men couldn't be more different. Under the influence of a
world religion, the Islamic Swahili developed a sophisticated scholarly tradition of religious
study and poetry, and Swahili culture embodies a philosophical and mystical tradition, and
a markedly romantic inclination. Under the influence of nomadic pastoralists, the Meru
have developed institutionalized warriorhood to complement their down-to-earth
predilection for consumption and cultural reproduction supported by an agricultural science
based on an indigenously evolved ideology of trees.
Deeper investigation revealed several theoretical commonalties: the correspondence
between indigenous economy and the retention of indigenous cultural institutions,
production systems based on intimate knowledge of the local environment, and a cultural
ideology supporting an independent and self-sufficient attitude toward the outside world.4
I continued to find the time and resources for annual visits to Igembe division every year
except 1987. I subsequently decided to use the indigenous economy of miraa as the
departure point for a research project encompassing the larger system of Igembe Meru
agriculture and economy.5
The central economic hypothesis emerged from a 1986 Carter lecture on African
agriculture at the University of Florida delivered by Dr. Michael Lofchie (1988). Citing
Kenya as an example of policy-induced agricultural success, Lofchie expressed a sanguine
picture of Kenya's commercial agriculture as the engine of economic growth. During the
question period I referred to the Meru experience, and questioned whether policies
successful in the high potential agricultural zone could easily be extended to the more
challenging dry zones below them. In the absence of a clear response, I was forced to
ponder for myself the perrenial implications of the enduring issue, "what is development?"6
Despite the progress of commercial agriculture in high potential zones, the problem of
accommodating Kenya's expanding population as it spills over into the lower zones is a
very real concern, and Meru presented an ideal setting to investigate the problem of the
4The initial movement up, as noted earlier, began in the coastal homeland named Mbowa after the Meru
term for the rumen of a goat The name is symbolic of the Meru's desire to conceal their origin in order to
disguise them from the Nguo Ntune who could potentially pursue them should their true identity be known.
The Bajuni and the Nyambene Meru also share cultural personalities typified in folk models as an outgoing
friendliness that easily gives way to tempestuous reactions to perceived slights. Manda island, directly
across from Lamu, matches Meru descriptions of Mbowa right down to minor details.
5Early data on the Igembe economy became a preliminary article on the production and marketing of miraa
in Meru (Goldsmith 1988).
6In all fairness, the problem posed was beyond the scope of Lofchie's lecture on "China's Lessons for
African Agriculture.

10
very real concern, and Meru presented an ideal setting to investigate the problem of the
commercialization of agriculture across ecological zones. Demographic growth in the
densely populated Nyambene highlands presents three options for the expanding
population: (1) intensify highland production; (2) migrate to urban areas; and (3) establish
agricultural settlements in the lower ecological zones. The Igembe often do all three of
these things spread over time in the course of their lifecycle.
Surmounting environmental constraints that limit the growth of agriculture and the social
welfare of many Kenyans is, nevertheless, an exceedingly important factor in the current
phase of Kenya's development. Demographic growth, agricultural commercialization,
technological innovation, and governance are major dimensions in this equation. If African
development was simply a question of manipulating these factors, cobbling together
solutions would be easier than it is has proved to be up to this time. The problems
examined in this study, and indeed, the elusive qualities of human society in general, invite
us not to stop too early by limiting our investigations solely to these issues.
When the proto-Meru Thagana clans migrated from the coastal island of Mbowa to the
eastern side of Mt. Kenya, they found the other side of the river more congested than did
the first wave of Bantu clans. Population pressure pushed them up the ecological gradient
of the hills, and different sections of the Meru conquered and/or absorbed elements of the
Agumba or Aathi, hunter-gathers, non-agricultural autocthones accustomed to harvesting
the natural bounty of the forest and savanna since prehistoric times.
The composite culture that coevolved out of this process reflects elements borrowed
through interaction with non-Meru communities complementing the Mem agricultural
adaptations to the different ecologies of the highland environment. The newcomers
integrated several distinct cultural institutions within the unified polity of Mem society,
subsuming a congruent set of production techniques adapted to a pattern of zonal
agriculture that spread production across several ecological zones.
During the 1960s the upward movement of the population slowed as the last belt of
agriculturally viable forest reserve-the tea zone-was cleared and settled. What goes up
must come down. The tea zones soon became saturated, and during the 1970s the flow
reversed as people migrated down to establish farms in areas formerly used for grazing and
temporary cultivation. This is the initial, empirical departure point for this study.
Feedback from the Field
It is not accidental that the research reported here provides a metaphorical
correspondence between the intercropped, multi-storied Igembe farming systems and

11
monocultural agriculture on one hand, and a multicausal conceptual framework of analysis
compared with the more monocultural emphasis of most Western social science theory. In
effect, the many tiered aspects of my research parallels an epistemological posture guiding
the investigation as a whole. Patterns emerge out of reoccurring relationships among
variables. Sets of these relationships said to explain the patterns are expressed as theories.
The test or plausability of theories derives from how well these hypothetical relationships
metaphorically or symbolically represent and explain the essential characteristics of the
patterned events of empirical phenomena.
Metaphor allows us to express abstract ideas in the language of commonly understood
relationships. Metaphors we use and manipulate to impose a conceptual order on diverse
phenomena often derive from the naturalistic order embedded in our cultural and linguistic
orientations (Lakoff and Johnson 1980,4-6). Thus astronomy was the metaphysical
model for much atomic physics, just as the Oedipus myth helped Freud conceptualize the
internalization of social norms. Conceptual models are metaphorical abstractions of the
relationships among variables. For example, when we observe modernization, structures
of dependency, and other such phenomena in one setting, we then extrapolate the
conceptual relationship from one historical experience for the purpose of examining and
analyzing other case studies. The test of the model is how well it holds across many cases
and contexts.
In this manner, observed relationships are translated into comparatively useful analytical
tools. The model is operationalized to test the empirical validity of the metaphorical
relationship. The metaphor/theory is revised in the course of theory-building, critique, and
explaining the implications of new data. Conceptual processes therefore represent a two-
way street involving the interaction of empirical investigation and theoretical analysis. New
empirical and conceptual constraints arise and conceptual models are revised or expanded in
response to the new questions and problems (Laudan 1977).
This is a roundabout way of saying that the culture and system of Meru agriculture
provided important clues for understanding the more general dynamics operating within
African society and economy. Past failures to properly understand the dynamics of African
agriculture reflects to some extent the imposition of prevailing conventional models of
theoretical change. Analysis through Western theoretical lenses often produces examples
of what Hyden (1988) has identified as the monocultural tradition. Monocultural
agriculture based on single factor responses to inputs leading to increased outputs has
dominated much Third World agricultural research. According to Hyden, the particular
emphasis placed on monocropping in agriculture, the range of Western economic models--
be they neo-classical or Marxist-and external models of political development are all

12
representative of this monocultural tradition. The highest expression of theoretical
monoculture is elevating conceptual analysis to the level of quasi-religious paradigms.7
It became necessary, therefore, to adopt a conceptual framework allowing one to freely
intercrop theories, concepts, and even paradigms in a multi-storied configuration analogous
to the Nyambene agroforests created over the course of generations by Meru fanners. Not
to do so is an inefficient use of the social landscape from which these data have emerged.
At its most flexible best, only a loose fit can be achieved between the conceptual order and
most local case studies. There is no need to destroy theoretical models, only to follow up
on the full system-wide implications of material causation and the feedback it engenders.
Through the 1970s the monocultural political orientations of African states divided the
Organization of African Unity into two conflicting radical (i.e., Marxist) and conservative
(i.e. neo-classical) camps. No clear winners emerged among the states representing
different positions on the ideological spectrum (Young 1980). As economic reality set in,
the debates between conservatives and radicals became largely an epi-phenomenon. The
African beneficiaries of the theory-makers persevered within their day-to-day theoretical
models: God is rain...and if it doesn't fall eventually many souls proceed on to the
timeless world inhabited by the ancestors.
The consistent pattern formed by Africa's fundamental post-independence problems
contrasts with the trendiness of theoretical discourse during the same period. The relative
lack of conceptual progress of the recent past recalls Africa's "lost decade" of the 1980s.
The situation is succinctly stated in the final footnote of a refreshing critique of the agents
of development in the countryside by a Zairois anthropologist: "I have tried to interest my
colleagues back at the university in these issues but they are too busy debating esoteric
points of Marxism (Vwanawakazi 1989)."
According to this view from the field, what is needed is not another paradigm, green
revolution, or miracle tree, but greater effort to create more synergistic and symbiotic
theories by linking existing conceptual insights and data with greater sophistication. The
building blocks are there. Until we act to integrate our present knowledge, we are not, to
use John Lonsdales phrase, "intellectual nomads in search of a paradigm (1983)," but
rather, to extrapolate from the oft-told Oriental parable, blind men in search of an elephant.
7For example, in a research tradition that can assert "...theory is timeless and proceeds in a sort of eternal
present (Kitching 1980,6)," 'theory' becomes the equivalent of some secular God.

13
Defining Development:
Defining development, like positing theory, is problematic. Consistent with the national
ideology, any research in Kenya must have some developmental implications. Few
definitions of development are as elegant as the economic hypothesis based on the shift of
population employed in agriculture to other sectors of the economy: as other sectors of the
national economy develop, the importance of agriculture declines (Johnston and Kilby
1975). Generally an accurate reflection of diversification, specialization, and growth of
income, this indicator is by definition limited to economic variables. Other developmental
definitions address institutions, political systems, health, gender, and a host of other
categories. The intuitive dissatisfaction with simple characterizations of Lamu and Meru as
lacking "development" speaks not to differences in this class of formal criteria, but some
intangible, missing quality.
In Kenya, and the rest of Africa, human capital has long been a critical element in the
developmental puzzle. The concept of human capital has quantitative and qualitative
dimensions. In the small scale societies of precolonial times population growth coupled
with the group's ability to provide for their health and welfare, was the primary
developmental goal. In Africa fertility is everywhere celebrated in art, song, and customs;
the poorest and most forlorn figure among the African poor is the barren woman (Illife
1987). Population, (i.e., labor) under most African conditions, was the variable limiting
the utilization of available resources and opportunities.
Normal environmental conditions meant a steady attrition of population, and the more
extreme fluctuations of climate or disease vectors could cause precipitous population
decline. The principle of safety in numbers was an equally important element of group
defense from the incursions of traditional enemies and marauding groups displaced by
environmental calamities. For these reasons, development, from the traditional African
perspective was a function of the population growth necessary to generate greater wealth,
improve group capacity to withstand extreme environmental vagaries, resist raiding by rival
groups, and to enrich the social environment that life revolved around.
The African concept of development was founded on people, and the notion of fertility
and population growth gave rise to cultural institutions based upon the safety and welfare
of the group. The material and unseen world were connected and interpenetrating as surely
as one term for God (Ngai) shared by a number of Kenyan ethnic groups is also a term for

14
rainfall.8 God was the great donor Africans appealed to during precolonial times. Igembe
communal prayers embraced their traditional concept of development:
Leader: Thai, Thai Murungu,
Congregation: Thai!
Leader: Utue irio,
Congregation: Thai!
Leader: Utue ana babeingi
Congregation: Thai!
Leader: Utue nthaka iri na inya.
Congregation: Thai!
Leader: Utue ngombe, ng'ondu, na mburi.
Congregation: Thai!
Leader Utue belelie nchai
Congregation: Thai!
Leader: Ndakwelenka kinya ni mbura,
Congregation: Thai!
Source: Chege 1979.
Peace, Peace, God,
Peace!
Grant us food,
Peace!
Grant us many children.
Peace!
Give us strong warriors,
Peace!
Give us cattle, sheep, and goats.
Peace!
Grant us protection from evil,
Peace!
I ask that I may also be blessed with them.
Peace!
The Meru concept of development expressed here is anchored in the active pursuit of
material progress within defined moral limits not unlike the Weberian Protestant ethic. To
be wealthy, i.e. rich in food, cattle, and children was desirable, but the Meru recognized
that material goals required blessings and protection from evil as well as raids. Excessive
individual pursuit of material gains at the expense of other individuals or the group could
provoke social and supernatural sanctions. Egalitarian ideology was not so much about
restricting individual differentials in wealth and power as it was about insuring the
individual's responsibility and commitment to the group. The Mem developed social,
political, and religious institutions to govern the developmental process: the Njuri Ncheke
council, spiritual-ritual leadership through the office of the Mugwe, age-set organization,
and gichiaro Active kinship.
The influence of indigenous cultural orientations invokes questions related to the
ideological dimension of development. For two decades Kenya's population growth rate
climbed to record levels despite the sums of money pumped into Western population
control strategies. In Kenya local support for population growth is often expressed in
8This definition does not equate with the pantheism of natural forces: the Meru have several words for God
(e.g. Murungu, Ngai, Barikiba), and the body of Meru ritual and religious expression is unambiguously
based on the fundamental unity of God.

15
terms of the defense of cultural values; letters to the editor resisting population control as a
Western conspiracy or assault on African values appeared with great regularity in the local
press during the 1970s and 1980s. Historically, Africans controlled population when
necessary. Under certain conditions the demographic equation necessitated biocultural
adaptations for the control of population growth. The Rendille control population growth
within environmental limits through social customs governing marriage and reproduction
that are closely linked to the reproductive cycle of camels (Spencer 1973). The Chuka
developed complex and effective birth control practices when pressed by enemies on all
sides during the nineteenth century (Mwanikj 1984).
The examples of the Rendille and the Chuka underscore the view of population growth
as a process based upon rational, cost-benefit calculations taking into account the
environmental carrying capacity facing local societies (Harris 1987). But other scholars of
demography with long-term experience in Africa see the need to explore the local
institutional facets and "cultural context "of African population demography as well as
unique characteristics of demographic transition in different societies (Caldwell and
Caldwell 1987; Greelaugh 1990). Support for family planning is gaining new acceptance
in Kenya and Meru, but factors such as the AIDS epidemic may yet prove the validity of
Africa's cultural and ideological commitment to population growth Although HIV
mortality has yet to approach the level exacted by past epidemics and environmental
catastrophes reckoned by still living Igembe memories, it strikes at the economically most
important segment of the population (Caldwell, Caldwell, and Quigan 1989).
Attitudes towards development reflect asymmetrical relationships with variables of
technology, environmental and economic carrying capacity, and structural factors
determining access to resources. The reasons for this are obvious-the West and the
Westernized have long provided the dominant models of material advancement, the critical
patronage linkages, and westernized education is a prerequisite for utilizing donors
institutional and technological transfers to developing countries. But the association
between technological advance and Westernization obscures progressive home-grown
technologies and cultural practices, and promotes cultural duality.
Westernization often enslaves at the same time as it is liberating. The conflict between
material development and social values as a regular feature of day to day life in Africa has
diminished little since Ocol P'Bitek (1967) described the quandary in The Song ofLawino
and The Song of Ocol. The success of Africa's westernized elite fails as a role model for
African society: Kenya's Anglophylic former attorney general, Charles Njonjo, provides
an example of the deep-seated discomfort which permeated Kenyans' view of his political
ambitions, a factor President Moi exploited when he engineered Njonjo's fall from grace.

16
The ideology of Nyerere's African Socialism, on the other hand, attempted to reconcile
techno-economic development with the social equity idealized in traditional cultural values.
Blending the two cultural traditions proved problematic, and when the Ujamcia experiment
faltered, indigenous ideological and organizational variables embedded in the Tanzanian
social environment reasserted themselves in its place (Hyden 1980).
Mazrui (1984) poses the question of whether or not technological modernization is
possible without cultural and ideological Westernization. His metaphor is that the climate
for technological development in Africa is favorable, but the sociological soil is barren.
The essay, more an analysis of the ideological arguments of the 1970s than the practical
problems accompanying Africa into the next century, fails to illuminate the relationship
between culture and science beyond stating that there is one (ibid: 299). Indigenous
African capitalism prevails in places where capitalism organized on the Western model is
faltering (McGaffey 1991). Formal economies are collapsing while informal economies
thrive. Scientific socialism failed in Somalia, but Somali socialism provides support
networks for refugees in Nairobi's Eastleigh, London, and other Western cides. The
question is nevertheless relevant, and one that we will explore in greater detail in the course
of analyzing data comprising this study.
The ground-level view of African development shares more of what Hirschmann (1984)
described metaphorically as "sailing against the wind" than the on-top-of-the-mountain-
looking-down concepts of Marxist or neoclassical stages of economic development.
According to Hirshmann, development and change describe a zig-zag course where gains
in one sector are often offset by a degree of slippage in another sector. For example,
education, urbanization, and expansion of the non-agricultural sectors, including the civil
service, contributed to state policy biases favoring urban areas while eroding the policy
support for productivity in the rural sector (Bates 1983). Structural adjustment programs
rectifying the imbalance destabilizes urban areas, creating IMF riots. Boosting producer
commodity prices increases production, and increased production lowers the world market
prices for the same commodities. Technological advances in expon crop production ends
up subsidizing the Western consumer (Lipton 1988).
The state trims its sails and struggles to stay on course at the same time the tide of the
international economy pushes the vessel backwards. The journey involves not only sailing
against the wind but crossing largely uncharted waters with unpredictable political and
environmental currents, submerged ethnic reefs, and economic sandbars. It is no wonder
that African governance has been described as more a matter of good seamanship than
navigation (Jackson and Rosberg 1983).

17
Are all African leaders, and the sample is statistically significant, poor mariners? Or do
they share the existential predicament depicted in the common bar-art portrait of the African
woodcutter: treed by a lion, staring into the eyes of the attacking viper coiled on the branch
he's cutting, and dangling over the gaping jaws of a crocodile. The ubiquitous pictures of
this "no escape" version of Africa's triple heritage (lion, snake, crocodile) underscores how
Africans see their quandary. In the circumstances of heads of state, the response has
typically been simply to hang on as long as possible. Many of Africa's liberators-Jomo
Kenyatta, Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah, Siaka Stevens, Kenneth Kaunda- ended up
leaving the stage with tainted reputations or in disgrace. The truly heroic African leaders
are those who die young.
The realization of a society's developmental goals is like other evolutionary processes:
based on trial and error, subject to unanticipated forces, and producing unpredictable
outcomes. Adaptation need not be optimization (Richerson and Boyd 1992,75). The
Meru theory of development is the starting point for investigating system dynamics. The
Igembe cultural-agricultural system reproduces by producing food, livestock, and strong
warriors. Behavior is driven by material goals and guided by cultural principles that
generate both blessings and evil within society. Culture matters because it embodies a
social systems memory, and institutionalizes the society's social learning.
We can learn from social learning. Some attempt should be made in the name of
objectivity to recognize the empirically determined borders of professional knowledge.
Because in this situation we are frequently like the blind men describing an elephant, a
priori approaches to social systems is a cautionary exercise. Scientists, social or other, are
all potentially the sorcerer's apprentice. Humility, in this respect, comes from recognizing
the sum record of African developmental interventions from colonialism to the crisis-ridden
present. Bridging the chasm separating theoretical anthropological analysis and practical
application involves integrating our understanding of how the environment and technical
details of production interact with the other components of cultural systems.
The Cultural Endowment Problem
For the anthropologist, economist, and agricultural scientist alike, symbiotic theories
should be primarily a matter of extending the empirical scope of field research and
theoretical linkages among respective fields. Interdisciplinary syntheses are problems in
their own right.

18
The development economist9, Vernon Ruttan, and his collaborator in the development
of the innovative model of economic development, Yujiro Hayami, claim development
economists and others are forced to deal with culture at an intuitive level, rather than in
analytical terms. Ruttan advocates going beyond conventional, microeconomic models to
understand technical and institutional change, but finds the real understanding of cultural
endowments in the study of economics inadequate for the scholars and practitioners of
development who share the conviction that 'culture matters'. In the 1988 article, which
takes a problem-solving view of the importance of culture in economic change, Ruttan
looks to the specialists in culture for filling the gaps in a generalized "pattern" model for
induced innovation which places "cultural endowments" in an interrelated category
alongside resource endowments, technology, and institutions. This led Ruttan to
investigate anthropology for contributions that can shed light on the relationship between
cultural endowments, technical, and institutional change.
Ruttan claims that the economist who invests time in searching the ethnographic
literature encounters two major problems: interpretations of culture which usually neglect
the historical, political, and economic context because of the commitment to learning
through fieldwork, and the problem of "many anthropologies" resulting from the
intellectual fragmentation within the discipline. Ruttan reduces these anthropological
differences to the materialist-interpretive division. Ruttan notes that the cultural materialist
approach is congenial to the economistic approach and useful for macroeconomic analysis
seeking to understand the impact of resource endowment and technology on differences in
institutional performance and change. But the overlap and similarity with economics also
restricts its utility because it does not substantially address the cultural endowment
problem, and institutions are analyzed as derivatives of the infrastructure. On the other
hand, much of the interpretive school's interpretational analysis strikes Ruttan as
"excessively personal and idiosyncratic," and he says cognitive and symbolic anthropology
must be analyzed in relation to social organization and institutional change.
The detailed attention given to ideology and processes in the work of Clifford Geertz, in
contrast, earns special praise from Ruttan for filling a gap not addressed by other
disciplines: "interpretive anthropology places cultural differences and change at the center
of its agenda, even if it presently tends towards the idealistic and romantic, it offers the
most potential to make a practical contribution to development economics over the long run
(ibid. 255)." Ruttan's article, by defining a general problem, albeit primarily in terms of
9Development economics came into existence as an applied sub-discipline of economics. Hayami and
Ruttan (1985) apply the model discussed here to international development.

19
his own model, represents a narrow interpretation of anthropology's relevance to
developmental issues.10 Ruttan nevertheless identifies issues of practical, methodological,
and theoretical importance. He concludes that economists will condnue using modest
extensions of microeconomic theory as the strategy to deal with culture "until our
colleagues in the other social sciences are able to provide us with more helpful analytic
tools (ibid; 256)."
That insightful cultural exegesis is possible is evidenced by the fact that it is often done
by observers other than professional anthropologists.11 An example of the interpretive
anthropological approach is Geertz's (1972) famous article, "Notes On The Balinese
Cockfight," where the author combines the curiosity invoked by an unanticipated personal
experience in the field and thorough scholarship into the contextual setting to tease the
meaning of the cockfight as an important cultural institution in Bali. The cockfight
symbolizes the potential for social conflict in a context where political violence otherwise
appears at variance with its cultural setting. The problem is positing a systematic
methodology that can be used to apply this approach across cases.
Symbolic systems link up with their material settings, and the differences between form
and style, function and symbol are not as great as some would have us think (Richerson,
Bettinger, and Boyd 1993). If it is true, as Geertz asserts, that we cannot understand a
culture the same way a native does (1983), it is only logical to make reference to the
standard social science grid lines-economy, ecology, history, etc.when mapping
culture.12 Either we do this, or concede the study of cultural domains to the post
modernists, who eschew these grids in favor of their own distancing rhetoric and guilt
complexes.13 How we go about this is treated in detail in the next chapter.
10Critiques of the Haymai-Ruttan model include the fact that the specific social order determining
institutional arrangements in developing countries cannot be understood in purely economic terms.
1 fit is difficult, for example, to find fault with Pico Iyer's (1989) treatment of Japanese baseball, an essay
that uses a sport to delineate institutionalized cultural differences between Japan and America in an
unpretentious and theoretically unobjectionable (from most anthropological perspectives) manner. Also, I
have observed that "native" analysis of sociocultural behavior gravitates towards materialist determinants,
but without erecting a materialist/cultural dichotomy.
12The accuracy of interpretive analyses is contingent upon the researchers' individual skills, their ability to
identify the important features of a cultural reality and to extract meaning from it, not analytical tools.
Indeed, Harris's major criticism of phenomenology or "Geertzian belle lettres" is that it contains no
methodology apart from the researchers individual insight, placing it beyond established scientific
principles of accountability (1987). It is curious that, although Geertz believes we (i.e. Westerners) cannot
cognitively understand them, they (i.e. non-Westerners) understand us well enough to fit into and contribute
to modem multi-cultural society in the West.
13 Clifford (1986; 1990) is a principle spokesman for the new ethnography that seeks to locate the
ethnographer as a writer of cultural texts. Marcus and Fisher (1986) are the chief critics of the "sins" of
Western anthropology. Roth (1989), Carrithers (1990) and Keesing (1990) critique the postmodern school
from different stances.

CHAPTER 2
CULTURE AND ADAPTATION
Uncertainty in the political, economic, and sociological spheres arises not so much as
a result of data and measurement problems, but because of an extraordinary
atomization of theories of agrarian change, and a failure to link them to the
environmental social dialectic... (Blaikie 1989, 19).
Many African countries achieved political independence during the 1960s with higher
per capita incomes than the poor, predominantly agrarian, former colonies in Asia,
countries which three decades later are newly industrialized economies with some of the
highest growth rates in the world. In comparison, many African nations experienced
economic progress during the early years after independence only to slip back into an
economic and political malaise. The consequences for most of the population are material
and political conditions worse than those of the colonial period.
Africa remains the only region of the world where the sustained efforts of individuals
nations and the international community appear inconsequential in the face of contrary
environmental forces, fractious polities engendered by the continent's social diversity, and
the vagaries of world economy. The widespread and widely noted turbulence manifesting
throughout Africa presents the backdrop to this case study of agricultural commercialization
in rural Kenya. Field research on the Nyambene Meru cultural-agricultural system
provides the departure point for exploring African evolutionary processes, the systemic
dynamics underpinning social change and group adaptation, and the parameters of
socioeconomic transition in Africa. The following discussion refers to the context
accompanying the spread of small-scale commercial agriculture across ecological zones in
Meru, and the practical developmental issues it subsumes.
The Empirical Problem: Population, Agricultural Systems, and Polity
Kenya is an agricultural country. After one century of precipitous population growth
and enormous social change, over eight out of ten Kenyans still live in the countryside.
Few individuals are more than one generation removed from the family farm, and rural
values still exert a strong influence on modem society. The country's deepening economic
and social crisis is often blamed on demographic factors: the population nearly doubled
20

21
over the past fifteen years reaching 24 million in 1992; growth has slowed from a high of
4.1% to a rate of 3.8% a year, the highest demographic growth rate in known history.
This demographic-environmental equation presents a formidable challenge to the economic
status quo. Competition over land follows from the fact that eighty per cent of the
population live on less than twenty per cent of Kenya's land mass. Another 20% of
marginal agricultural land overlap with the arid and semi-arid regions that occupy over 60%
of the country.
Intensified production in high potential zones and the development of arid and semi-arid
areas (ASAL) is not only necessary to feed the projected population of 34 million Kenyans
by the year 2000, but is also expected to remain the primary source of their employment
and the main source of the export earnings necessary to spur multi-sectoral growth
(Government of Kenya 1989; World Bank 1990b). This general prescription applies to the
agricultural sectors of other African countries, according to the World Bank, where
increased food production is necessary to raise per capita nutrition as well as reverse the
trend of natural resource degradation (World Bank 1989, 89).
Liberal commodity price policies, a supportive state presence in the agricultural sector,
and the capitalistic private sector have produced a rate of economic growth sufficient to
keep pace with population growth into the early 1980s. Critics of Kenya's small holder
agricultural policies (e.g. Hunt 1984; Peterson 1986) were silenced by evidence that small
farm production for markets improves regional equity (Gyimah-Brempong 1988) and
bolsters personal incomes while enhancing household nutritional levels (Young 1988;
Heald 1991).
By the middle of the same decade, however, the effects of population growth, falling
prices for Kenya's export crops (especially coffee), and a bloated and inefficient public
sector began to erode living standards and intensify the competition for scarce resources
ranging from land to social services. Internal and external pressure on the political system
increased at the same time. Political mobilization highlights the mismanagement of public
resources, blatant corruption, and manipulation of the political process by state actors.
Many rural areas suffer the general decline of state institutions, while the private sector
forces, which are expected to take over many state functions according to the logic of
structural adjustment programs, remain largely inert. Social change has left a gap in many
rural areas: many traditional institutions of rural society are vitiated, but new ones have yet
to fully congeal in their place. Consequently, societal response to agrarian crisis such as
drought and famine is limited to individual and household-level coping strategies (Stini

22
1987, Corbett 1988; Cossins and Upton 1988b).1 Fortunately, in Kenya the state has been
able to act effectively in he face of such crisis, but its ability to engineer solutions to other,
more fundamental problems is questionable due to the erosion of its organization capacity.
The Role of the State
The paramount role of the state as the key to economic progress in many areas of Africa
grew out of the sheer dominance of the African colonial state in relation to other local social
structures. After independence, it was assumed that development would take-off once the
state was redirected towards advancing the cause of indigenous society. Modernization and
radical political economy critiques alike endorsed development policies based on strong
centralized state structures. These ideas proved to be seriously flawed.
Post independence state-society discontinuities disclosed the endemic pathologies of
state structures in Africa. Local responses ranged from active opposition to withdrawal on
the grass roots level back into the subsistence economy (Rothchild and Chazan 1988;
Hyden 1980). The international community turned to private sector policies while the
dysfunctional African governments continued to gamer most of the blame for the
continent's condition. One of Africa's most eminent historians even went so far as to label
the state the 'Black Man's Burden' (Davidson 1992). On the other hand, the current
situation in Somalia indicates that no state at all is even worse.
The state is a distinct form of social organization that grows out of a socioeconomic
system's internal dynamics, or is precipitated by the presence of other states in the region.
Although other organizational structures perform the function of the state in local socieites,
the emergence of the state as an organization is never partial: it is either there or it is not,
and more than other forms of political organization, the state is correlated with
multiculturalism and uni-ethnicity (Cohen 1993).
Contemporary African states came into existence as the result of the expansionary
behaviors of European states. This ancestry produced many problems. Ostensibly, the
state promotes the interests of its constituent societies, but this has often not been the case
in Africa the externally imposed state has failed to develop a viable relationship with civil
society. Many problems on the state level are manifestations of forces incubated within
ethnic groups and localized interests. Although the state may both foster developmental
processes in some instances, and may sabotage them in others, these contradictory
'The Igembe have been able to muster coherent social responses to problems arising in their area. The
institutional aspect of local society receives detailed treatment in chapter 3.

23
processes nevertheless proceed in a manner that makes their study a matter of empirical
investigation.2
The thrust of Western strategies has been large-scale and capital-technology dominant
strategies whereas the African environment historically favors local cultural adaptation,
niche specialization, and degrees of cultural pluralism more than large organizational
structures. The character and behavior of African states reveal the centrifugal strength of
these small-scale social formations, and these local forces embody the cultural dynamics
that will eventually define the salient features of African capitalism. Adaptive large scale
organization, the state being the primary example, can be expected to emerge out of
complex processes of change, innovation, and adaptation on the local and regional levels.
Thus agricultural change and the contribution of the state to it cannot be studied in isolation
from each other. In any event, the agricultural problem transcends solutions solely located
within state institutions.
Determinants of land and resource use are complex, and a number of factors impose
clear limits on agricultural progress in Kenya's productive highland areas. High potential
agricultural zones are now demographically saturated and easy policy and technology
options have been exhausted. Intensified productivity of highland agriculture can at best
incrementally increase crop yields. Over half of the country is an ar id expanse supporting
nomadic pastoralism and wildlife reserves. The remaining twenty per cent is semi-arid land
of low agricultural potential, much of which forms an uneven band of traditional grazing
lands, interspersed with swidden plots of dryland grains, on the margins of the high
potential zones. This land occupies an important swing position as Kenya negotiates the
uncertain territory between a Malthusian future and economic transformation.
Colonial governments and external donor agencies have for decades pursued
technological solutions for the agrarian problem consistent with the view that, by Western
standards, traditional African agricultural production is a technologically primitive, pre-
scientific, and embedded in culturally conservative peasant social formations. The project
approach in the relatively non-commercialized areas of years past has produced a
succession of outright failures, false starts, poorly coordinated donor interventions, and ill-
conceived policies, beginning with the infamous Tanzanian groundnut scheme
(Hogendorm and Scott 1981), repeated during the Sahel crisis of the 1970s, and continuing
2Under capable managers the Kenyan government achieved laudable success promoting production and
social welfare in sectors such as small holder tea and milk production (Leonard 1991). Local research
institutes have made large strides in developing improved cultivars for coffee and maize, and improved
livestock breeds.

24
to the present.3 Externally-conceived panaceas usually involved the creation of new
institutional structures to oversee implementation.4 The sum record of these interventions,
discounting fiscal cost-benefit analysis, is one of mixed success aggravated by
unanticipated administrative, social, political, and environmental problems (Moris 1981;
Batisse 1988; Lusigi 1988).
Commercialization and privatization now replace to a large degree the state and donor-
assisted projects of the past as the primary force of change in the agricultural sector at this
stage of Kenya's economic transition. Donor and International Financial Institutions
structural adjustment programs are now the guiding policy blueprint for empowering
market and private sector forces. They also set off serious social problems, with
unexpected internal consequences across Africa (Howard and Nafizer 1991, Fearon 1988,
Hopkins 1986). Real income has declined, and cuts in government expenditures have
effected education, medical facilities, social, services and agricultural extension much more
than those inefficient sectors of the state most responsible for the forced acceptance of the
structural adjustment policies in the first place.
In Asia, many other preconditions for economic transition were already in place and
waiting for a catalyst to spur multi-sectoral growth. African socioeconomic conditions are
obviously different, and at best uneven. During the period of large-scale agricultural
expansion, the share of Gross Domestic Product for agriculture, an important economic
indicator of sectoral development (Johnston and Kilby 1975), decreased from 35 percent
in 1965 to 31 per cent in 1988. In terms of the sectoral development model, African
industrialization is still-bom (Mylteka 1989). Although this generalization only partly
applies to Kenya, prospects for industrial growth are constrained by a number of internal
and external factors (Godfrey 1987). High technology drives the world economy, and the
dependence of Third World economies on primary commodities reflects conditions of
growth that discourage significant investment in commercial crop systems since the break
up of colonial semi-monopolies (Dow 1989, 34).5 Export performance reflects the cycle of
3 Horowitz (1979) critiques Sahelian pastoral and livestock projects. Hogg (1984, 1987) reviews the
problems in small-scale ASAL water and agricultural projects in northern Kenya. Wiggins (1985)
examines different donor approaches, including the British EMI project in Meru, and Lusigi (1987)
discusses the problems of UNESCO's Integrated Project for Arid Lands, also in northern Kenya. Franke and
that Chasin 1980) provide a general critique showing the link between famine and Western development
strategies all of these case studies represent.
4The new field of development administration became the organizational adjunct of disciplines addressing
technical and policy-based innovations for developing countries. From the perspective of administrative
science, however, the whole idea is oxymoronic since administrations mainly seek to promote their own
survival (Shaffer 1969).
5While crop production and primary commodities no longer figure highly in Western capital markets, local
investment in agricultural enterprises by agribusiness and a variety of national and international research
institutes qualify this observation. Three agricultural corporations ranked in the top ten companies quoted

25
decreasing relative value for primary commodities and stagnant manufacturing (Svedberg
1991).
Kenya has passed the point of no return in the transition from a collection of
subsistence-oriented communities to a more integrated and economically diversified
society. If the process of multi-sectoral economic growth and diversification falters,
economic stagnation, shortages and maldistribution of essential commodities, and conflict
over the country's limited resources will rapidly undermine past progress. The agricultural
sector's failure to maintain its past momentum relative to population growth heightens the
danger of system-wide entropy overtaking the historical trend of growth and
diversification.
The pace and structure of demographic growth is a critical parameter. From an
estimated population below two million at the beginning of this century, Kenya's
population approached 10 million at independence in 1963 and passed the 22 million mark
in 1988. Fifty per cent of the population is 15 years of age or less. Despite the early
warning signs of population to resource imbalance, from 1965 to 1988 the fertility rate for
women of child-bearing age has dipped only slightly, from an average of eight to seven
children: some forty per cent of the population are women in the childbearing category.
Between 1979 and 1989, the 3.3 per cent growth rate for agriculture, the engine of the
national economy, lagged behind population growth that peaked at 4.1% according to
figures quoted in the Economist Intelligence Unit for Kenya (T989). The reduced, decade-
end population growth rate is estimated as 3.8 per cent-a net per capita production deficit
of 3 per cent for the decade.
Although Kenya's agriculture is considered to be a policy model for other African
countries (Lofchie 1988), and net per capita productivity has increased, Kenyan farmers
face formidable constraints influencing agriculture's ability to satisfy the requirements listed
above. Even after the considerable progress of the past several decades, national food
security is tenuous (in December of 1991 the Government of Kenya announced an
impending shortfall in the country's staple food, maize, despite adequate rains). Food
consumed on-farm partially explains the gap between production and consumption (Cohen
1988; Bates 1990). But more and more Kenyans are leaving the subsistence sector. The
rate of urbanization is above eight per cent. Twenty per cent of the population now live in
at the Nairobi Stock Exchange based on post-tax returns to capital: Brook Bond (#4), British American
Tobacco (#8), and Sasini Tea and Coffee (#9). Standard Chartered Bank Kenya, which has sizeable
agricultural investments ranked #2, and Kenya Breweries, which directly relies on the agricultural sector for
its raw materials ranked #10 (source: The Economic Review Oct. 4-10, 1993: 13-15). "

26
urban areas compared to nine per cent in 1965; 57 per cent of these urbanites reside in
Nairobi (World Bank 1990).
The experience of other world regions offers generalized insights into socioeconomic
transition but no ready answers for Africa's problems, which are themselves partially the
consequence of the post 1500 AD capitalist transition in the West. This is why theoretical
formulations of capitalism have to be redefined relative to Africa's unique historical
circumstances (Callaghy 1988).6 Understanding social transition to capitalism in Africa is
a theoretical challenge due to the sheer diversity of associated phenomena and historical
dynamics specific to time and place that it subsumes. A number of reasons, including the
fact that agrarian capitalism in Kenya is more advanced than other African countries,
designates Kenya as the unofficial test case for agriculturally supported economic transition
in sub-Saharan Africa (Illife 1983,41-42). The incorporation of ASAL regions, including
the periphery of the Meru highlands featured here, is a test of the test case.
The adaptive qualities of indigenous production systems are synergistic indicators of
adaptive agencies already observable within the transformation of traditional societies. It
follows that African capitalism, insofar as capitalism posits the most economically adaptive
path to development historically, will evolve apace with other sociocultural adaptations
including the all important variables of national and local political organization,
environmental management, and cultural guidance. The Nyambene production system
under consideration here yields substantial data of this order.
The Nyambene case study is especially interesting because, as discussed in Chapter
One, socioeconomic change in the Nyambenes has followed a pathway of indigenous
capitalism that appears as unique as it is successful in comparison to other similar regions
in Kenya. The Igembe system, in regard to specific technological and social components,
is adapting in the direction of the relatively Westernized macro economic environment. It
is exceedingly important to note, however, that on the macro level (in this instance I am
referring to the eastern Africa region) the regional political economy also appears to be
moving in the direction of a Nyambene-type economic and social order as reflected in the
growing economic power of informal economies and indigenous sectors of production
relative to the state and economic sectors dominated by foreign capital, the patterns of
disengagement from the state, and the largly invisible internal order created by the myriads
of inter-connected local ethnic systems and economic organizations embedded within the
6Callaghy addressed Marxist and Weberian theoretical approaches, but the situation where capitalism is both
part of the problem and the generic solution suggests that neoclassical economic theories and regional
variations on capitalism itself require further qualification within the African context.

27
regional system (Hyden 1983; Chazan 1988; Azarya 1988).7 The ongoing exercise in
privatization and creating what the World Bank labels an "enabling environment" for
economic development favors the growing influence of local, societal phenomena on the
order of the data on Nyambene society and economy presented here.
This study attempts to extract some of the cultural and agricultural dynamics of the
system. I do this by placing the field data collected through surveys, interviews, and
observation in the context of historical patterns linking highland ecological zones and
lowlands. The contemporary forces of commercialization intersect the cultural management
of agricultural resources to define the local developmental trajectory. The five main factors
listed below in table 2.1 have selected for this unique coevolutionary trajectory of
Nyambene commercialization.
Table 2.1: Factors Selecting For Coevolutionary Development in Northern Meru
Environmental Variation
Econiche Specialization
Internal Organization
Markets and Exchange
The Domain of the State and National Economy
The way these factors have operated in this case form the basic structure of the data
presentation which follows. They can be summarized briefly in theoretical terms
Environmental variation conditioned production strategies based on econiche specialization:
hunting and foraging, pastoralism, and agriculture. Local societies, which together form a
system of relations have developed adaptive strategies based on combinations of different
production complexes. The internal organization of these systems represent complex sets
of institutions and cultural orientations supporting specific group production strategies. In
Meru, environmental variation conditioned specialization and exchange. Adaptation and
change are ongoing processes driven to a large degree by markets and other forms of
exchange that extend across the sociocultural context to factors such as cultural
borrowings, intermarraige, and the incorporation of isolated clans or members of ethnic
7Much regional economic activity is only "invisible" insofar as it is not reflected in official statistics and
involves by-passing state control in the form of licensing, marketing boards, and customs duties.

28
groups into other ethnically defined systems. The state represents a domain of variables
that, in the case of many areas of East Africa, appeared within the regional environment in a
sudden and dramatic manner. During the major portion of this century the colonial state
and later, its indigenized, post-independence extension exerted a direct economic influence
on a number of Kenya's local societies in Kenya, and only an indirect influence on others.
The effect of this contact in Meru has been to allow for the autonomous and therefore
coevolutionary development of this particular region in relation to other areas more directly
affected by government policy and its implementation.
Historical Patterning
The pattern of development in Meru represents the culmination of long term historical
processes set in motion by the primarily environmental variables listed in Table 2.2. These
regionally specific factors patterned the subsequent adaptations and impart directionality to
each local system's developmental pathway, which have become in term subsumed within
the Igembe cultural and agricultural system.
Table 2.2: Africa's Environmental Parameters8
Large land mass spatially separated from other world land masses.
Environmental conditions encouraging high but cyclical levels of biological activity.
Low population relative to land mass.
Physical and spatial barriers to regional communication.
Old soils of limited fertility.
Unpredictable long and short cycles of humidity due to ITCZ fluctuations.
Emphasis on cultural adaptation over forms of technological innovation.
Africa assumed a slow and decentralized developmental profile after the desiccation of
the Sahara sealed most of the continent off from other world regions 20,000 years ago.
Holding other factors constant, the low population relative to Africa's large land mass alone
would explain a slower developmental trajectory in comparison to the quickening of
developmental processes in Europe and many parts of Asia. Physical barriers, ecological
constraints, erratic climactic conditions and periodic environmental disasters also
contributed to uneven cycles of growth in African production and population. Africa's
8 Sources for this list include Curtin 1984, Nicholson 1986, Jones 1987, and Oliver 1992.

29
population was 30 per cent of the world total in 10,000 B.C.; it declined to 10 per cent in
500 A.D., and slipped to 8 per cent in 1800 (Jones 1981, 155).
Africa's environmental conditions produced the following continental pattern.
Concentrated populations supporting levels of production and the state structure necessary
to surmount environmental barriers to exchange orginally developed in mainly Sahel-type
environments, not the highland areas which are the main loci of production and change
today.9 Low population densities in the territorities outside state systems facilitated a de
facto exit option weakening the central control of local rulers. The exit option encouraged
migrations contributing to both the rise and decline of state systems during the last one
thousand years.
Large tracts of the continent fell outside the influence of forces supporting primary and
secondary state formation.10 In these areas development was a slow, gradual process
occurring over decades, centuries, and millennia. The ecological variation of eastern Africa
underpinned a range of environmental adaptations. The rise of Meru society subsumed
econiche specializations that were able to survive alongside the developing hybrid system
until recently.
Ethno-environmental specializations included hunting and gathering represented by
"Aathi" groups like the Agumba and Ndorobo, settled agro-pastoralism supplemented by
small scale irrigation in the settlements of the Mwoko the nomadic pastoralism of the
Maasai, Samburu, and Boran, and the predominantly agricultural specialization of the
Tumbiri and Thagana clans (Fadiman 1976; Mwaniki 1984; Sutton 1990; Lambert 1949).
These legacies resurface in the cultural-agricultural configuration of the Nyambene system.
Precolonial group interactions in Africa reveal the small scale and local nature of social
organization, economic strategies, and complementary specialization. Post-colonial
interactions among groups in the region continue in the vein of similar coeveolutionary
dynamics.
The dramatic socioeconomic changes of the past century have had little impact on this
aspect of indigenous social organization. Clans easily percolated through the territorial
boundaries created by the Pax Britannica, underscoring the mutable and plastic quality of
ethnicity in general (Kasfir 1979). The clan-a group defined by common descent-remains
a primary social unit conditioning access to resources where land is a critical factor of
production. Culturally homogenous clans cluster into tribes, but clan relations with other
9The Ethiopia highlands are an exception to this trend, but even in this case the rise of states usually
entailed exchange relations with the adjacent lowlands.
10Secondary state formation stems from external forces such as circumscription, or defense against other
states.

30
groups can transcend tribe.11 The proclivity for small organizational units resurfaces in
economic organization.
The Igembe system of Meru described in the following pages represents symbiotic
outcomes generated by interactions and combinations of the forces listed above. The
Igembe have continued to straddle different socioeconomic domains in response to the
influences of factors introduced by state during the past eight decades. The concept of
symbiosis proved to be emblematic of general evolutionary forces influencing system
change and transition as well as a discrete mechanisms of adaptation underpinning the
growth and expansion of the Mem polity. As we shall see, ecozone variation produces a
powerful and interrelated set of forces affecting the development of the northern Mem
region. Fieldwork in Mem spanned the commercialized highland agro-ecological zones
and the drylands on their periphery, and provides us with an example of an instance where
the configuration of agricultural production, change and response to external factors is
generated by locally evolved agricultural technology and organization.
The productivity of the Nyambene Mem system rests upon indigenous technology,
research, and development sustained by internal cultural institutions that have proved to be
responsive to innovation, social learning, and market opportunities over time. The
reproduction of the internal order under commercial forces is, however, dependent upon
critical linkages to the external capitalist order. The nature of this relationship sheds light
on the dynamics of agrarian-led socioeconomic transition in Africa. Like in the case study,
the emergence of a unitary state-society system within Kenya's borders also embodies
linkages among groups and regions leading to an uni-ethnic outcome through processes
similar to those operating in Mem historically. Culture is a critical part of the overall
picture. I will, therefore, attempt to address the theoretical context of how we study and
integrate cultural factors into the analysis of social systems before delineating the specific
conceptual components that guided the research.
Anthropological Research Traditions:
A question emerges immediately about how these significant elements should be related
to one another. Fieldwork demonstrated, and pointed to, their relevance. Anthropological
theory points to ways in which they can be understood and explained. Absorbing the
1 1 There are cases of one clan spread across two tribes-the Atangwa clan is represented within both the
Kamba and Gikuyu peoples-and of clans that alternate between two distinct cultural units according to
material conditions, as the alternating identity of the Ariaal clan, which is associated with both the Rendille
and Samburu, and as of late, the Turkana, according to changing contexts (Spencer 1973; Hjort 1981).

31
unparsimonious sequence of detail and complexity present in a small scale system creates
an objective dilemma: a system is properly analyzed only by breaking it down into its
component parts, but it is properly understood only in its entirety. Social scientific
modeling and specification of the relationships among causes and effects in society is
therefore inherently problematic, leading to Achen's observation that "a functionally
specific theory of a realistic social situation may be just barely conceivable in principle, but
it would be massively complex. And if it were achieved, no one would want it (1982,
13)."
Hirschmann observes that, in the distinctive intellectual climate of the social sciences,
gradual loss of certainty replaces the cumulative growth of knowledge, "as the slow
mapping out of the extent of our ignorance, which was previously hidden by an initial
certainty, parading as paradigm (1981, 59)." The view presented here is that the quest for
paradigms tends to divert social science disciplines away from their pragmatic orientations,
undermines their societal relevance, and by encouraging theoretical inbreeding, produces an
intellectual rigidity that in the long run sabotages conceptual progress as well as practical
application.12 For this reason, this study is based on a problem-solving orientation
consistent with Gellner's observation that fully refined formulations of initial concepts are
the product of multiple reformulations:
Validity in science is not established in accordance with some simple, orderly criterion, the Natural
Law of cognition so to speak; the constitutional law of science is not the logical product of a
single mind and one design. It is not like those buildings admired by Descartes, which were
designed by one architect, but more like those oriental palaces which grow by accretion. It
resembles the shreds and patches, the untidy amalgam of a growing, plural, ongoing culture, its
law is a customary law which emerges from one contingency and crisis to the next, and not from
some supreme constitutional edict issued by Nature (1974,7).
From a problem solving perspective, there is little sense in allowing paradigmatic
boundaries imposed on the corpus of social science theory to limit one's use of potentially
useful theoretical concepts to those found within a single intellectual school: indeed,
"individual theories working in isolation generally solve no problem (Laudan 1977,
115).13 Problem-solving is the larger paradigm behind scientific theories. We can talk
12Parsimonious theories produce logical and often elegant models out of the inherendy disorderly data of
social science. But Kuhn's (1967) dialectical interpretation of scientific revolutions as the outcome of
paradigm competition acted to distort social science theoretical discourse on the complexities of causality in
sociocultural systems. Competition among theoretical schools fosters the development of theory, but the
rivalry among paradigms, or paradigm-candidates, often assumed an all-or-none aspect in the social sciences.
13The Nyambene Meru farming system, which developed much in the style of such an oriental palace, has
much in common with this view of science. The Igembe have progressed as far as they have largely
through developing syntheses characteristic of what Laudan describes as the problem-solving scientific
model. The distinctiveness of the system reflects the synthesis of borrowings from other local systems.

32
about theoretical ideas in the social sciences associated with different research traditions
without placing these traditions in zero-sum relationships with each other.
Adam Kuper (1990), writing in his capacity as editor of a leading journal of
anthropological theory, identifies three distinct institutionalized research programs which
constitute the stable core of twentieth century anthropology. He describes the first as the
Boasian study of culture: a relativistic approach concerned with the particulars of culture
and cultural differences, focusing on description and explanation as opposed to
explanation. The second program derives from the Darwinian emphasis on materialistic,
evolutionary processes: models based on general principles related to the nomathetic
biological, ecological, and technological forces at work across different periods of human
history. The third program is the study of social structures identified with traditions of
Weberian and Marxian sociology. Kuper clearly intended to sidestep the non-productive
wrangle that results from characterizing these research traditions as paradigms.
The phenomenological school corresponds to the Boasian program: the culturology of
mental, ideational, cognitive, and otherwise cultural manifestations of social systems. The
best known example of this approach is the work of Clifford Geertz whose semiotic
approach is representative of other work in the tradition referred to as interpretive
anthropology. This school is essentially humanistic, and as such it is not at odds with
other approaches aspiring to scientific criteria (Lett 1988). Its practitioners identify with the
humanities, and often distance themselves from formal scientific formulae.
Cultural materialism as formulated by Marvin Harris (1979) exemplifies theories in what
Kuper labeled the natural science, Darwinian evolutionary research program. Cultural
materialism succeeded the ecological school of Julian Steward and Leslie White, and
incorporates Marxist influences, although it assigns theoretical priority to the
infrastructural-the demographic, technological, economic, and ecological-determinants of
systems development and collapse in place of the Marxist emphasis on structural causality.
Sociobiology, where infrastructural factors of an environmental and techno-economic
nature are secondary to the biological traits selected for in evolutionary successful
populations, also falls into the general evolutionary category.
Kuper's "third 'project," the sociological program, consists of theories emphasizing the
structural or social relations of production as determinants of social formations that range
from early British structural-functional anthropology to the Marxian tradition, including
neo-Marxist dependency formulations, Wallerstein's world system analysis, and French
structural Marxism with its emphasis on modes of production.
Diesing (1991, 139-140) also classifies the conceptual plurality of social sciences in
three categories defined by their respective goals. The tradition of logical empiricism

33
represents approaches aimed at deriving causal or statistical laws that enable us to control
something. Hermeneutics is deployed for improving communication and mutual
understanding, and the applied goal of joint action and living together. The third type of
science, typified by psychoanalysis, targets emancipatory self-knowledge of causes
determining consciousness and behavior. It uses both causal laws and interpretive
technique to probe hidden operations.
All of these objectives, relevant to our analysis in their own fashion, encourage a
synthetic theoretical approach consistent with the problem-solving orientation articulated by
Laudan.14 There is no universal principle demanding the separation of concepts and goals,
and as Laudan observes, scientists can often work within different, and even naturally
inconsistent research traditions (1977, 140). This approach equates well with another
stream in anthropology which chooses or combines elements from different paradigm-
oriented research traditions for their utility. Cohen defines such problem solving
approaches as eclecticism:
...an epistemic creed whose foundation is a stubborn commitment to realism, relevance, and
testable validity. Eclecticism...places the onus on researchers to depict reality, its causal nexi, and
the changing weights given to specific factors in its most empirically valid, inclusive, and relevant
format. The criterion for choosing questions and seeking answers is therefore not commitment to
a paradigm, but rather policy testing and guidance, i.e. the relevance of the explanation in its
applicability to the solution of a real world problem (1988, 26).
The eclectic-empirical tradition emphasizes precision and rigor in place of the
paradigmatic criteria as a precondition for the exegesis of data.15 Social research under this
set of guidelines follows problems and demands accuracy and relevance. Clear, real world
conditions produce complex problems requiring choices about which data are most relevent
to puzzle solving that cannot be limited by paridigmatic limitations. Eclecticism is accused
of disorganized searching for any and all factors that prove interesting to an individual
researcher. But "eclecticism" need not be eclectic: it can also incorporate a systems
framework capable of embracing a variety of theoretical constructs.
14Choice of theory is rationally evaluated-normative rationality is admittedly time and culture-dependent-
according to its superior properties vis a vis the designated problem (1977; 130). "Rational choice" among
theories is therefore governed by the "progressive" capacity of theories in terms problem-solving, and being
scientifically reasonable is doing whatever we can to maximize the progress of scientific research traditions
(ML: 123).
15By-passing the paradigmatic conflict over ultimate causality reduces the Kuperian research programs to
two main approaches, the materialist tradition and the phenomenological tradition. The former is further
simplified by refraining from assumptions regarding dialectical processes at the core of the Marxist conflict
models which, as Ellen states, reduced to the ecological level can be expressed in terms of a predator-prey
relationship (1982,246). Incorporating the latter research program, on the other hand, is viewed mainly as
a methodological problem which we mentioned in the first chapter.

34
Paradigmatic approaches to development and governance held sway in Africa during the
first quarter century of the post-independence period. Not only has the objective condition
of most Africans deteriorated in relative if not absolute terms during this period, but the
social sciences themselves are faced with a major problem of reproduction on the African
continent.16
Analyzing Social Systems
The nature of the subject matter makes social sciences, unlike the material-based
sciences, wary of the Western positivism traditionally rooted in asserting control over
physical processes. We know more about the pathways social phenomena travel on than
their destinations: social variables combine and articulate in established patterns, but at any
given juncture any one variable or component of a social system can behave in a manner to
make the development of a system over time decidedly unpredictable. Social science, like
the life sciences which also labored under the scientific precedents of mechanistic, iron-clad
laws established in the physical sciences as they came of age (Mayr 1982), has to develop
theories appropriate to the phenomena it embraces in order to reach an understanding of
underlying principles.
This problem is a manifestation of a deeper dichotomy between the material and cultural
that runs through anthropology.17 Every theory has embedded design constraints
demanding trade-offs. The trade-off for elegance and parsimony in theoretical models is
the reduction of empirical reality to abstract constructs. The trade-off for contextual
sensitivity in phenomenological theories is reduced inter-connectiveness, testability, and a
proclivity for cultural relativity. Together these two issues present an essential quandary
for anthropology.
Materialist theory is comparative and evolutionary in nature. The basic analytical
divisions presented in Harris's Cultural Materialism illustrates these features of materialist
theory (1979). The cultural materialism research tradition explains system change through
the principle of infrastructural causality: assigning analytic priority to what Harris labels as
the demo-eco-econo-techno infrastructure. The evolution of cultural differences is shown
16Progressive social science is self-reforming, seeking to extend our knowledge and understanding through
improved theories and methodologies rather than revision and reinterpretation of societal data within a
predetermined, paradigmatic mold.
17History proves that the borders between theory and myth, science and scientism are rife with binary and
ethnocentric we/they categories applied to simplistic or non-developmental frameworks (Goody 1977). The
assumed dichotomy then propels us to seek positive and/or negative data to support dualistic hypotheses in
terms of primitive and advanced rational and irrational, or savage and domestic as in the study of the
evolution of thought in general, or as in the case of Lvi-Strauss in particular (ibid: 4-8).

35
to be the result of the operation of infrastructural variables. The separation of sociocultural
phenomena into domains facilitates interdisciplinary perspectives by organizing a full range
of system variables within analytical categories that can be applied to all other social science
research traditions.
Prioritizing infrastructural shifts strip structural relations of their causal primacy,
otherwise cultural materialism (i.e. Harris) and historical materialisms (i.e.Marxists) are
conceptually similar, especially in the case of some French structural Marxist models where
structure is merged with the infrastructure.18 Harris unequivocally broke with other
Marxisms by rejecting the dogma of Hegelian dialectics, replacing it with a formulation of
system reinforcing and system changing feedback loops connecting infrastructure and the
other levels of the system that largely replicates the functions subsumed by dialectical
processes.19 The mode of production school pioneered by French scholars working in
African societies established a holistic base-superstructure framework within the Marxist
research tradition, but failed to escape the basic assumptions of dialectical materialism.20
Some cognitive and interpretive social scientists on the other end of the theoretical
spectrum recoil at Harris's behaviorism and what they see as the reduction of all culture to a
dependent variable of material processes, and the low methodological priority given to
cultural expression in what Harris categorizes as emic mental phenomena, or informants'
reports on their own cognitive, cultural orientations (1979).
Phenomenological theorists work instead displays almost exclusive reference to the
domain of superstructure (i.e. culture) in the course of explicating specific cultural
orientations, deep structures, ideas, and belief systems as keys to a particularistic
18The greatest enmity, as Laudan notes, occurs among proponents of similar theories: "precisely because
some theories represent attempts within the framework of the tradition to improve and correct their
predecessors (1977,81).
19The materialist critics of cultural materialism do not object to the analytical division of sociocultural and
economic phenomena, but to the principle of infrastructural determination. Marxist critics argue that
determinacy resides solely in the relations of production (Harris's "structure"), and assert that revising the
core assumption of social change in Marxism-the dialectic process of history-to the level of feedback loops
reduces Harris's theories to mechanistic materialism (e.g. Worsley 1983).
20Harris (1979) praises the general concept of the French Marxists as being consistent with cultural
materialism except for the inclusion of dialectical assumptions. Godelier, however, reverts to the "vulgar
materialism" stereotype of cultural materialism, accusing Harris of demoting social relations to
epiphenomenal adjuncts of a set of adaptive techniques to the natural and biological environment (1986,
49). Godelier's The Mental and The Material (1986), for example, provides an insightful discussion of
cultural-structural/infrastructural dynamics by way of analyzing socially generated information about the
environment and social relations. In the end, however, he imposes the structural relations-cum-historical
contradictions monocausal framework of his research tradition even while honestly presenting useful data
generated by other theoretical approaches.

36
construction of social reality.21 Explorations into the more symbolic, metaphorical, and
localized side of culture represent an entirely different ethnographic research tradition where
the observation and interpretation is independent of formal scientific analysis. The logical
empiricism of science versus the interpretive, humanistic nature of phenomenology, not
causal theory, is the real issue here. Harris is not guilty of ignoring research domains that
he distances himself from a priori. These are the more ephemeral manifestations of
cognitive and cultural phenomena, which he considers to be beyond the methodological ken
of scientific observation and hypothesis testing. Methodologically, cultural materialist
theory is behavioral, and uses modifications of Pike's linguistic categories of emic and etic
to distinguish between reliably observed behavioral data and cognitive data--to separate
what people say and what they believe from what they do and how they behave.
Long time frames clearly confirm the validity of infrastructural theories but present a
methodological gap for cultural materialism and its direct forerunner, Julian Steward's
cultural ecology:
Given a sufficiently long time span and degree of generalization, technical, economic, and
environmental factors can 'explain' almost all trends of survival and decline, but the nomothetic
rhetoric of similarities, tendencies, and relativities, and broad classification of types of social
formations has somehow to be translated into the language of ethnographic analysis (Ellen 1982,
60).
Culturally-centered studies, in comparison, often lack a comprehensive methodological
framework in the first place. We can, therefore, also note that the language of ethnographic
analysis has yet to be uniformly translated into an inter-connected framework of social
system attributes. Ruttan's (1988) criticism of anthropology centered on this reduction of
human cultural activities and behaviors to an individual ethnographer's reaction and
understanding. We are back to where we started. Human cultural systems are too complex
to be easily grasped within a single theory or paradigm.
Materialist, evolutionary theory is the starting point for looking at how and why cultures
are similar and different. The discord over level and source of causality in the materialist
domain at least partially evaporates if we shift the semantic emphasis on infrastructural
causality to infrastructural selection, or, for that matter, for causality on the structural and
superstructura! levels as well. This allows us to discriminate better between the material
21Curiously, however, in an essay titled '"Native's Point of View: Anthropological Understanding', the
principle figure in the cognitive-semiotic school. Geertz, rejects the idea that the fieldworker can personally
participate in or enter into the cognitive world of another culture (1983, 58).

37
determinants of cultural systems and the cultural feedbacks that they generate.22 As Riedl
(1977) and Kaufmann (1993) note, incremental adaptations produce an organism or system
individually tuned to its specific environment. But this also alters the environment. The
evolutionary process, once underway, generates a mutually causal relationship between
adaptation and feedback.
Variables linked to culture present the major constraints for robust system analysis
encompassing the full spectrum of ethnographic problems anthropologists encounter. The
analytical utility of ethnographic method largely lies in observing the dynamics that
maximize our understanding of the interplay between culture and other forces, and
distinguish the critical differences emerging out of broad tendencies and similarities.
Materialist and ethnographic perspectives employed as complementary conceptual frames
allow us to take full advantage of anthropology's (and social science's) conceptual
endowment. Anthropologists' work oscillates between an unrelenting attraction for the
holistic and general explanations of human phenomena and the investigation of the most
localized, idiosyncratic, and peculiar details manifesting throughout the social universe.
Anthropology is a young discipline, and as Gellner notes, the answer is usually found at
the end, and not at the beginning (1973,7).
Culture and Cultural Endowment:
Culture, by virtue of its adaptive qualities and synergistic presence in the system, is
synonymous with the self-organizing property of human systems. Culture operates
through a group's internal network of linkages. Cultural components are aligned within
specific social structures as defined by conventional criteria of kinship, age-set systems,
social hierarchies, economic class, and regional, religious, ethnic, and other organizations.
Cultural adaptation, including the role of social learning and decision-making in group
processes, is perhaps even more amenable to analysis through evolutionary principles than
genetic change (Boyd and Richerson 1985). Evolutionary principles can enhance our ideas
of culture as the internal organizing principle of social systems. Cultural responses, more
than biological adaptation which requires long time frames for accumulated mutations to
exert their influence, influenced the human developmental sequence from the simian origins
and prehistoric roots of the earliest societies to the present. This distinguishes cultural
Feedbacks present the theoretical problem of how different causal variables, articulating together over
time, develop synergetic properties that complicate the material and interpretive analyses of ethnographic
problems.

38
adaptation as the dominant species characteristic enhancing biological survival and genetic
transmission (Ellen 1982, 237).
An important distinction has to be made between selection on environmental and internal
cultural selection within a population or ethnically defined system. Language is often a
criteria for membership in a group, which in turn determines access to land and other
resources. Inclusive criteria defining groups vis a vis other groups is a fundamental
assumption of Marxism and other theoretical variations emphasizing structural
determinancy be it socioeconomic class or ethnicity. Culture, and the behavioral repertoires
it represents, is often colinear with language criteria. As this case study demonstrates,
however, cultural adaptation and inheritance subject to selectionary forces transcends ethnic
categories. One of the goals of this study is to show how the Meru cultural endowment
evolved to reinforce practices and mechanisms supporting sustainable development in the
sense of cross-generational adaptive fitness.
Ruttan's term "cultural endowment" is used here in reference to cultural institutions,
culturally transmitted behaviors, and ideologies arising out of a system's internal order.
Defining a cultural endowment is useful for problem solving, but not in isolation from
other system components. Structure is further qualified by factoring in interstitial and
system-wide organizational phenomena such as patronage nets, patrimonial political order,
factions, societal institutions, interest groups, and decentralized and centralized state
organizations.
The inter-connectivity of these societal components and how their configurations
respond to the information flows and feedbacks determines the state of the system and its
dynamics. The nature of a system's economic and social connections are thus one key to
cultural dynamics. Methodological stress on the means of communication, as "the
technology of the intellect (Goody 1977,10)," are a crucial feature of the system's
development. In the Meru case study, much of the intra-system communication involves
informal and non-state loci. I try to represent to some degree the social dynamics involved
here. As we shall see, miraa, in fact, is a basic adjunct to the multi-ethnic, cross-cultural
processes of socialization (Weir 1985; Kennedy 1987). As mentioned earlier, this fact in
itself, would be a thesis of its own. The Igembe have adapted to their economic
environment by producing miraa on a commercial basis, and the consumption of miraa
contributes to the reformulation of social interactions and the processing of information
which is itself the outcome of what Boyd and Richerson (1985) term biased transmission
within a number of local systems.
Most independent variables designated in anthropological literature qualify as system
parameters. Infrastructural variables provide the starting point for the conceptual grid used

39
for analyzing and locating socioeconomic change over time, but it is the synergetic
combination of material and non-material parameters that produces system dynamics. We
concur with the conceptual order posited in Harris's (1979) cultural materialism regarding
the primacy of infrastructural variables, with the important caveat that evolutionary
development introduces other parameters which may neutralize the primacy of
infrastructure in given situations. In other words, parameter change where change in one
variable effects the others does not a priori refer to infrastructural variables even if they
ultimately derive from shifts in demography, technology, and economy. This is
tantamount to a multi-causal qualification of materialistic theories (including neoclassical
economics, Marxist and neo-Marxist). A holistic approach does not negate monocausal
variables, but it does weaken their causality by linking them to changes in other parameters
and the accompanying feedbacks.
This study builds on the foundation of Johnson and Earle's work by exploring the Mem
variation on the causes, mechanisms, and patterns of evolution (1987, 1). These authors
reinforce the point made by Cohen (1978) that, once it appears, the state becomes a
primary determinant of social evolution. The Meru example is interesting, however,
because the reorganization of society that occurs via the transition to capitalism is occurring
largely in the absence of the state influence on commercialization in other similar areas.
The extent to which internal variables are a direct influence on the production system is
reflected in the farming systems data (Chapters 5 and 6).
The discontinuity between state-initiated economic change and the grass root processes
of social development conceptually complicates proper understanding of both macro level
and micro level dynamics. Small scale formations remain a primary feature of the African
environment, despite the influence of centralizing forces of mainly external origin. The
African situation makes the task of analyzing how the parts of the state-society equation
contribute to socioeconomic transformation more difficult because local systems are
coevolving at the same time strong selective forces are cutting African state systems to a
more manageable size. The situation prevailing in Somalia, following the dissolution of the
state, exemplifies the ability of cultural institutions to reorganize smaller units of social
organizationtraditional Somali segmentary lineages in this case. The Somali case is an
extreme example of the fluctuating and "lenticular" qualities described by the relationship
among sub-ethnicity, the state, and supranational organizations (Cohen 1992). As it also
shows, it is not likely that once statehood is present, a region can not easily return to
statelessness. Some form of state-like organization, if not another state, will emerge and a
regime will then step into the gap. The case of Meru involves similar theoretical questions.
The question is not one of state-led versus local development, but a question of how

40
evolution is adapting states and local systems to each other in current the post-colonial
phase of historical development.
Culture. Feedback, and Social Learning;
We will now list some attributes of culture within the social systems. To reiterate the
materialist concept, culture is generated by other levels of the system, and cultural variables
produce various positive and negative feedback (Harris 1979). There is little argument
that, in this sense, culture reinforces the directionality of infrastructural and structural
pathways. The conclusion reached by (Kaufmann 1993), paralleled in Riedl's (1977)
work, is that after a certain level of system complexity emerges, neither structure or
feedback enjoy adaptive primacy. This hypothesis supports the critical importance of
feedback in the system, and at least part of that feedback is cultural.
Feedback generated by the system reflects some of the internal dynamics generated by
its own development, and can help us understand a systems capacity for adaptive change.
Local feedback influences the larger system's development as local systems or social units
are increasingly integrated into the larger system. This idea receives support from Riedl,
who notes that "the systems conditions which link different levels of complexity to
feedback loops of cause and effect are responsible for the evolution of life (1977, 358)."
The key factor is the group mechanisms for discrimination and classification of the
information coming into a system. The cultural analog appears in Boyd and Richerson's
(1985) concept of biased transmission, refering to knowledge that has been selected for by
the cultural system and replicated across generations. Naturally, cultural information
gathering and social learning are more efficient than individual trial and error. The
importance of culture in creating and transmitting information is another important adaptive
quality that makes it critical for indigenous-led development. In a recent article, Richerson
and Boyd (1992) stress that people pick and choose whom and what to imitate in the first
place, and that social learning is favored over individual learning because it allows
individuals to avoid the costs associated with learning. The strength of biased transmission
depends upon the amount of cultural variation. The variation generated by the
environmental differences underpinning group specializations is reflected in the symbiotic
properties of Igembe Meru society.
On the societal level, they link the increase of non-parental transmission of knowledge
to cultural success and how this aided the spread of low-fertility norms contributing to
demographic transition. This has very interesting implications for the Nyambene case
study where cultural institions increase the weight of "teachers," i.e., individuals from each

41
generation recognized on the basis of their achievement. One ramification is that Africa's
local systems do not have built-in cultural proclivities supporting reproduction leading to
over-population. Demographic indicators contained within the survey data presented in
Chapter Six indicate that the Nyambene system is not only self-regulating (and that the
Meru do not have to be taught family planning), but also indicate that its culturally
institutionalized age set system deploys labor within different spatial sectors of the
production system (ecological zones) and economic sectors of the production system
(economic nodes) according to an efficient scheme. Another ramification is that,
theoretically, the Nyambene system data argues for selection operating on the level of the
group, in contrast to group evolution as being a cumulative outcome of selective forces on
individuals within the population. The folk-knowledge corollary of this in Meru is
conveyed in the saying "muntu ni antu: a person is people" [the person is a function of the
group to which he or she belongs].
Cultural systems contain highly evolved self-regulatory mechanisms that identify
problems, classify constraints, and evaluate outcomes. A complex system "knows" its
world by virtue of an internal model capable of compressing information and allowing
action: it is driven in part by the dynamic behavior generated by its internal state and in part
by the steady flow of information from its world (Kaufmann 1993). Riedl (1977)
mentions the replication and separation of identical information as a fundamental principle
of life. Culture is the informational software guiding social systems.
Kaufmann's idea of spontaneous internal organization embodies the idea that culture is
constrained by the nature of a system's internal linkages. Riedl mentions the same idea
when he states that "old systems" are highly interconnected and in principle, unalterable. A
system becomes conservative because new adaptations building on the older ones burden
the system's ability to change (1977, 362). This explains why a highly developed,
complex system with copious information storage capacity can be less responsive to
change, and more prone to entropic forces than smaller, information-poor systems (like
Igembe society) that maintain broad structures for the exchange and dissemination of
information. The conservative caste of non-adaptive social orders explains why history is
punctuated with revolutions and short periods of far-reaching change like the Neolithic shift
to domesticated food and livestock production (Schusky 1989).
By analogy, an adaptive cultural endowment is one that is receptive to and encourages
the integration of social learning. The feedback into the system is also selected for or
against depending upon the internal order of the system. An evaluation of a cultural
system's adaptive properties, examined in this case study in association with the notion of
sustainability, must take these arguments into account.

42
Symbiosis
I referred to symbiosis in the preceding chapter as an important but neglected
mechanism of social evolution in the African environment. Symbiosis helps us to elicit the
pattern and dynamics of the Nyambene system's development. Forces supporting small
and localized adaptations also support symbiotic interactions. Incremental changes, such as
those at the center of the Nyambene system's development, feed back into the macro-level
transition. Together, these forces drive the local and national level systems towards a state
where the multiple interactions among micro and macro variables interact to generate
socioeconomic transformation.
Symbiosis grows out of exchange, conflict, cooperation, diffusion, and systemic
syntheses. This produces synergetic outcomes in which the whole becomes greater than
the sum of its parts; a cultural equation where one plus one is greater than two.23 Riedl
(1977) and Kaufmann (1993) note that adaptive gains are paid for in the long run by
reduced adaptive potential. A reduced scope for internally generated adaptations implies
that the potential advantages of symbiotic adaptations are increased. In our case study, for
example, symbiotic interactions expand the range of ecological niches available to an
agrarian society. Increased complexity promoted the Mem polity's stability, and decreased
its vulnerability to environmental catastfophe heightened in other local societies by the
growing regional population density.
There are numerous manifestations of accommodation and cultural symbioses among
African societies. Symbiosis may result from hostile and predatory relations between
organisms where a threatened population survives by integrating elements of the dominant
population in a shared environment. As noted above, anthropological examples of
symbiosis often emerge from conflict relations such as Bantu-pastoralist interactions
(Kimambo 1974), the Nilotic penetration of intralacustrine kingdoms in Uganda (Oliver
1991), and the Maasai-Meru relations depicted in this case study (Mboroki 1972; Rimita
1988).
Perhaps the most developed thesis on this theme is Spencer's (1973) study of Rendille
and Samburu pastoralists who evolved a symbiotic alliance founded on econiche
adaptations based on camel and cattle specialization in adjacent environments. The
23Margulis and Sagan's 1986 book Microcosmos is a tour de force developing the critical role of symbiotic
processes from the very beginnings of life on earth. The authors extend symbiotic syntheses in the world
of microbes to a microcosmos of evolutionary development subsuming the details of human physiology.
The role of symbiosis, "the merging of organisms into new collectives (pg. 20)," is described as a major
power of change on earth. Symbiotic coevolution couples large-scale and small-scale in a seamless cycle of
mutual causality (Jansch 1980. quoted in Peat and Briggs 1989,164), echoing Riedl's (1977) description of
two way causality.

43
relevance of symbiosis to the Nyambene system's internal development cannot be
overstated. We attempt to examine the historical and contemporary aspects of cultural and
agricultural system symbiosis in the following pages. As noted, this problem-driven
analysis attempts to provide information on the important role of the cultural endowment in
socioeconomic processes. The specific problem is that due to the saturated nature of the
high potential highlands, the lower zones and the informal sector of the urban economy
share the greater responsibility burden of supporting Kenya's surging population as the
historical flow of population gradually moving up the ecological gradient has reversed into
a flow back down.
National agricultural goals are therefore contingent upon technological change and the
environmental carrying capacity of fragile ecological systems under conditions of high
population growth, low input use, and limited off-farm economic opportunities. Both of
these factors of innovation and conservation appear to be largely beyond the existing
institutional capacity, including government ministries, PVOs, and NGOs. In recognition
of this reality, the role of market forces in the more problematic ASAL areas is expanded to
include what the Kenya National Development Plan 1989-1993 refers to as the potential for
ecozone symbiosis: ASAL strategies include "determining ways and means of effecting
symbiotic exchange of resources and products between the ASAL and high potential areas
(page 134)."
Unfortunately, the mechanisms and socioeconomic loci of "symbiotic exchange" are not
defined in the Development Plan. These are ostensibly informal linkages, new and
traditional forms of eco-niche specialization, migration and new settlement, reinvestment of
agricultural profits from high potential zone commodities in the lower zones, and the
exchange of location-specific information contained in indigenous knowledge systems in
local resource use and management. The research indicated that ecozone symbiosis has
been integral to Meru historical processes.
Coevolutionarv Processes
We end our review of evolutionary concepts with the idea of how the linkage of systems
or their components influence development.. Individual systems and organisms that alter
in response to parameter changes also change or deform their landscapes with
consequences for other entities sharing the environment. Two general ecological models
differentiate coevolutionary patterns and processes. In the Red Queen Hypothesis (Van
Valen 1973), species evolve continuously in relationship to each other where a fitness
advantage in one species is compensated by a similar adaptation in another. The second is

44
known as Evolutionary Stable Strategies, or ESS (Maynard Smith and Price 1973). This
states that adaptive changes, tradeoffs, and responses eventually stabilize within an
unchanging, overall system stasis.
The critical variable differentiating the two patterns is design constraints within the
organism. Adaptations carry a price. For example running faster may require a higher
metabolic rate. But some traits can increase without constraints, as Richerson and Boyd
indicate for much social learning. Constrained adaptations settle into ESS, whereas
unbounded traits become trapped in Red Queen rat races. Free market policies assume an
ESS outcome based on differential comparative advantage, but Third World commodity
production, where an exotic market crop is substituted for a traditional cultivar, displays
characteristics of the Red Queen Hypothesis. As noted by Lipton (1988) for improved
coffee and market cultivars, improvements in production are offset by decreases in prices.
The IFI's Structural Adjustment Programs can also feed the rat race: countries, like Ghana,
boost their cocoa production only to experience decreased prices due to increased supplies.
This is central to the question of African development, which seeks a strategy that can
tune local economies so as to propel nations out of the boom-bust cycle of primary
commodity production. The implication is that much of Kenya's development up to this
point, in fact based on social learning and borrowing of technology, supports the Red
Queen scenario. For example, commercial cultivars easily substituted for local crops (e.g.
coffee, cotton, tobacco) supported local change but not a change in the relationship of the
local system (in this case, Kenya) to the world economy. In reality, the position of Africa
in world trade has slipped significantly over the past decades, and by 1988 Africa only
accounted for 5 % of international commerce (World bank 1989). The ultimate question is,
therefore, not one of boosting on-farm production. Rather, boosting incomes, increasing
diversification and exchange, and providing inputs feeding multi-sectoral growth is the
critical variable.
Exchange and linkages among regions and the state are a critical variable here. Other
studies have shown that sustaining the self-sufficiency of local systems in isolation is
difficult (Hansen 1994). A way out of the coevolutionary conundrum emerges out of the
idea that Africa will benefit by developing the richness of its internal couplings, implying a
return to some of the regional exchange dynamics of the late precolonial period. This, in
addition to existing linkages to the world system, will buffer local economies against the
forces of the Red Queen. This, again, implies that a shift in the couplings of local systems
directly aligned with the world economy markets and labor markets supported by colonial

45
governments will contribute to regional sustainability over time by increasing and
diversifying their couplings.24
The idea advanced here is qualitatively different from the simple delinking strategies
advocated by dependency theorists, described in detail by Blomstrom and Hettne (1984).
Linkages to the international economy are adaptive when they generate internal growth and
diversification (Collier and Lai 1980), but ultimately maladaptive when they reinforce
monocultural complexes (c.f. Hyden 1988). Historical interactions among local systems
underscore how the outcome of increased couplings is often cultural and economic
symbioses.
In what follows in succeeding chapters, we shall examine the system's development: the
historical evolution of the production system synthesized under Meru and Igembe ethnicity,
the internal order of Igembe society, the specific configuration of Igembe agriculture and
the dynamics of change and the symbiosis between ecozones. Chapter Three provides a
picture of the Igembe cultural endowment by providing a history of ethnic interactions, the
development of cultural institutions, and showing how they are attuned to problem solving
and conflict resolution. Chapter Four parallels some of the information in Chapter Three,
but centers on the system's economic development. Chapter Five presents an outline of the
production system, and Chapter Six analyses how it is changing and replicating itself
across ecological zones. Finally, Chapter Seven extrapolates some of the dynamics of the
local system to analysis of developments on the national level.
In the chapter that follows, the origins and role of the Igembe cultural endowment are
examined. The cultural endowment consists of ideologies and institutions. Ideologies
point to the "biases" in biased transmission as discussed by Richerson and Boyd (1992),
and influence the accumulation of choices that guided the evolution of the local system from
the past to its current form. Cultural institutions are seen operating in terms of (1) the
stable and adapting relation of internal factors within Igembe society as they remain in
continuous relation to their past as it meets their future, and (2) the relationship of Mem to
the outside world.
24Local examples of this phenomena are documented in the final chapter of Gluckman's work on the Lozi
of Zambia, in Cohen and Atieno-Odhiambo (1989), Berman and Lonsdale (1991), and many other studies of
local society in Africa. deJanvrys (1985,1987) work on Brazil provides a similar perspective for Latin
America.

CHAPTER 3
KURIA!: A BRIEF HISTORY OF CULTURALLY SUSTAINED MERU LAND
AND RESOURCE USE
"A great curiosity in the literature is why cooperation and social learning are so widely discounted
given the rich empirical variety of local institutional arrangements for managing common
issues." (Herring 1990, 64).
This chapter provides material on Igembe cultural institutions in order to give substance to
the importance of cultural adaptation and feedback discussed in the two previous chapters.
We try, in particular, to stress the importance of the Igembe's system's cultural endowment
as it applies to land and resource management and social guidance. This has long been one
of the most under-valued dimensions of African production due to a variety of factors. The
reports of early explorers, missionaries, and adventurers initiated feedback that conditioned
a view of African natives as irresponsible tenants of a wild but Edenesque environment.1
In the absence of other constraints, European ideologies legitimized exploitation by positing
poor environmental management as one of the claims that supported European intervention
and control. This impression survived beyond the colonial period.2
Environmental issues go to the heart of development policies that regard African culture
as rooted in conservative peasant values, if not outright maladaptive practices.
Environmental degradation, one in the cluster of failed governance, implicated African
peasants (and goats) as the agents of environmental destruction. The large-scale famines of
the 1970s and 1980s became environmental media events disseminating the dust bowl
disaster image that mobilized new kinds of eclectic international responses. Massive food
1The European image of Africa as a region where the natives "lived in a malevolent conditions of chaos"
was partially true as travelers saw the results of slavery and other forces of conflict and change (Davidson
1992,80). Slavery deflated the quickening pace of change in some areas by siphoning off population and
destabilizing regional ethnic relations.
2The paternalism of widely read authors like Elspeth Huxley reinforced the environmentally ignorant
African stereotype. If Africans were proving to out-perform the settler economy, it was because they
exploited techniques and behaviors that placed their economic interests over colonial environmental concerns
(Ariderson and Throup 1985, Steinhart 1987). Colonial policies and administrators, however, treated the
environmental mission seriously, especially in regard to the entrenched emphasis on forestry and soil
conservation inherited from British India (Anderson 1992).
46

47
relief and delivery became a critical component of Western approaches to development just
as colonial enforced conservation measures were earlier (Anderson and Grove 1987).3
Sustainability and Cultural Adaptation:
Sustainable development became a buzz word during the late 1980s as environmental
issues came to occupy an increasingly prominent position in formal discussion of
development. Sustainability does not appear in the topics covered in Eicher and Baker's
definitive survey of African agriculture published in 1982, but by 1992 environmental
sustainability and related issues were the major subject of the Earth summit, and provided
the underlying concept of the World Bank's 1992 annual World Development Report,
Development and the Environment. The report defines sustainability in its broadest sense:
"Sustainable development is development that lasts," in the sense that current generations
should "meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet
their own needs." By the early 1990s it was de rigour in many texts to attach the adjective
"sustainable" to standard references to agriculture, economy, and development.
Sustainable agriculture, for example, subsumes twin objectives of production and
conservation. Emphasis on sustainable agriculture mirrors heightened awareness of the
global effects of environmental pollution, the breakdown of local systems, and a
recognition of the inter-connected quality of bio-physical environments paralleling the inter
dependent nature of the world political economy. This is a world-wide concern, requiring
interdisciplinary scientific endeavor (Wilken 1989). Institutional agricultural research has
overcome its monocultural biases to investigate hypotheses related to intercropping,
vegetative regeneration under heavy grazing regimes, and various other technological
aspects of traditional production strategies. In fact, much of this research merely quantifies
the appropriateness of practices based on local knowledge.
Local systems logically embody ideologies of conservation as well, although research
has concentrated on other dimensions of traditional practices, and seldom make explicit the
indigenous conceptualization of sustainability. The sustainability of a system is gauged by
its ability to adapt and to evolve in relationship to changing system parameters. The idea is
used here in reference to cross-generational adaptive fitness. The Nyambene system is an
3Game conservation, state forestry, terracing, cattle-culling, protecting watersheds, and rotational schemes
were the primary elements of the colonial Africans conservation strategy. Some of these policies directly
fed political opposition in the native reserves after World War II (Beinart 1987).

48
especially interesting case study because it displays consistent internal dynamics
contributing to a gradual, but largely uninterrupted, developmental trajectory.
Other regional societies were arguably more progressive in their adaptation to the
Western presence that redirected Africa's socioeconomic processes over the last two
centuries. The accumulation of material rewards of this accommodation for the Gikuyu,
Embu, and Mt. Kenya sections of the Meru is not disputed. Their adaptation to the new
order, however, was paid for by replacing some of their internal organization and
institutions with monocultural external linkages. The Nyambene traditionalist exemplar
presents us with a rabbit and hare situation where the Igembe are rapidly overtaking their
rural counterparts during the current period of economic stagnancy, and forging ahead
largely on the strength of their own cultural endowment.
The survival, indeed the vitality, of the Nyambene cultural endowment contrasts with
other ecologically similar and culturally related areas across the Mt. Kenya region.4 The
strength of the indigenous cultural orientation is reinforced by the feedback deriving from
the unique trajectory of capitalist development emerging out of the commercialization of
indigenous Nyambene agriculture (Goldsmith 1988).5 The Meru, and the Igembe in
particular, developed social concepts and agricultural practices generations ago that are only
now coming of age in developmental circles. It is impossible to discuss the Igembe cultural
endowment without reference to their production practices, but the main concern of this
essay is its social support system.
Institutions, customs, traditions, and myths represent the cultural DNA that guides a
local system as it adapts to its environment and responds to crises.6 Cultural institutions
coordinate the different parts of the system, store and evaluate knowledge, organize, and
establish priorities for group and individual decision making. These institutions are
cognitively linked to symbolic systems, ideologies, beliefs, and myths that continue to
exert certain influences on the behavior of a system, even when their institutional structures
lapse. They can, therefore, provide loci for investigating the transmitted cognitive and
structural orientations of a society. The adaptive capacity of traditional systems points to
corresponding cultural endowments or knowledge systems used to classify, identify,
respond to, and solve problems as they arise. The ethnographic and historical record
contains numerous examples of cultural adaptations and techno-environmental practices
4The Nyambenes encompass two Meru sub-groups, the Tigania and Igembe. The Igembe are the main
subject of this discussion.
5The Nyambene path to capitalism appears more the exception than the rule in sub-Saharan Africa, not
discounting notable examples of similar cases like Ghana's early cocoa farmers studied by Hill (1963).
6 The description of institutions etc. as cultural DNA was made by the Nobel Physicist, Murray Gell-
Mann, quoted in Lewin (1992, 15).

49
underpinning sustainable production systems in Africa (Kjekshus 1977, Allen 1965,
Richards 1985). Situations where cultural institutions survive the selective forces in the
social and physical environment, and continue to guide local society, present an
opportunity to analyze their role in local systems.
Kuria: The Meru Definition of Sustainability:
The thick canopy of trees, even in areas of dense settlement, is a striking feature of the
Meru highland landscape on the east side of Mt. Kenya.7 The Meru recognize the
restorative properties of forests and trees, and observers have often commented on their
overarching social emphasis on resource conservation (Laughton 1944, Lambert 1949,
Bernard 1988). Two sizable forests, the Nyambene and Ngaya, remain intact despite the
intense demand for productive land in the Igembe region central to this discussion.8
Numerous groves of indigenous trees also exist in densely populated areas, and local farms
are small, intensely manicured domestic agro-forests that generate relatively high incomes
and a variety of domestic products. Local farmers also express positive attitudes toward
wildlife despite the problems of crop damage by animals straying from the forests, plains,
and Meru National Park.9
Respect for these natural resources runs deeper than simple utility and use value. The
Meru invest their natural environment with material, curative, aesthetic, ritual, and spiritual
qualities. They use concoctions of trees and herbs to treat people, animals, and crop
diseases. Their sophisticated indigenous agroforestry practices are the result of continuous
observation and experimentation with plants and trees over time. Exchange relations have
7 Homan remarked that while large trees are few in Gikuyu country, survey is difficult and costly in Meru
due to the indigenous tree cover, which makes aerial methods impossible in some areas (1960,237). In
Igembe the ideology of trees holds a number of species sacred, and even a metaphor for marriage: "a women
is a garden where you plant trees."
^The name Ngaya comes from one of the words in Meru for God which also refers to rain. The Igembe
Meru consider Mt. Kenya. Ngaya. the Nyambene forest, and the I'ombe crater in the far comer of the district
to be primary places of God, although there are numerous other sacred lakes and small hills, forests etc.
where sacrifices are offered.
^Field notes, Oct. 31, 1992. Between Kangeta and Nkinyang'a we came across a colobus monkey crossing
the road. There were people attracted to the sight, but the monkey was not harassed: the monkey behaved as
if he/she was in familiar territory. Ng'olwa said to harm such a creature would be a great crime. "It is
believed," he said, "that such a creature is a messenger between God's world and men, and killing it would
invoke a great curse on the area. Coming across it in the bush is a different situation, but killing is not the
issue in either situation." Colobus monkeys are apparently not a "sacred" species. Meru made traditional
headdress from colobus skins and the contextual setting of this attitude is one where a monkey from the
Nyambene forest regularly visits this densely settled area without causing significant damage to crops. In
contrast the only wild monkey colony in the United States, the offspring of monkeys brought to film a
Tarzan movie, living outside Silver Springs, Florida, have been scheduled for termination despite the fact
that there is no evidence that they have interfered with the human population or farms.

50
yet to lessen their independent disposition or their cultural commitment to resource
conservation.
The linkage between strong indigenous institutions and the Mem ethic of conservation
shares a complicated historical dynamic that is particularly interesting in the light of the
concept of sustainability. The main thread in the argument presented here is that the Mem
people perceived development in terms of indigenous applied agricultural science,
governance structures represented by their social institutions, and the conservation of
natural resources upon which Mem society depends. For the Mem all these ideas are
conveyed through the formal "Kuria" greeting used by Meru elders and Njuri Ncheke
leaders.10
Kuria means to raise or nurture, as in raising children or planting crops. In the cultural
context it is both intuitively and explicitly an all-inclusive term for what we call
sustainability. The greeting symbolizes the Njuri Ncheke ideology of a pan-generational
commitment to social development. Kuria subsumes socially defined goals that mandate
the proper management of not only environmental resources, but also, the human resources
forming the Meru polity.11 The Njuri Ncheke intersects Mem age-set structures in the
form of age-set councils on several levels from the clan on up. Age-sets symbolize the
procession of generations across time, and institutionalize kuria-sustainability as a concept
of cross-generational adaptive fitness.
Local sustainability grew out of multi-ethnic interaction as well as internal guidance.
The Mem entered the region as a small group of clans and evolved into the dominant
society in the region. Their historical dynamic presents empirical evidence of symbiotic
processes as a strong evolutionary force: social and technological adaptation accompanied
the integration of several different ethnic populations into a unified production system
utilizing the high ecological variation in the region. Mem often identify their relations with
other groups in terms of conflict, but a closer examination of their system and discussion
with informants reveals a synthetic society born of symbiotic processes.12 Recognition of
the symbiotic qualities of African social phenomena broadens the conceptual framework to
include the syntheses and adaptive socioeconomic arrangements that arise out of the
conditions that engender both conflict and the potential for cooperation.
10The salutation and response for individuals and groups is simply'Tuna!"
11A progressive leader is sometimes called mukuri, from the same root.
12Analyses of Africa often focus on group interactions in terms of conflict and power relations. Curtin's
study, Cross Cultural Trade in World History (1984), two recent articles by Hopkins (1988; 1986), and
Wolfs Europe and the People Without History (1985) do present an alternative view where exchange and
interaction receive their due credit along with conflict and war.

51
Precolonial Dynamics:
The Meru environmental configuration fosters a pattern of ecozone specialization expressed
in the subsistence adaptations of different ethnic groups inhabiting the Mt. Kenya region at
different times. Diverse groups entered the area and colonized different ecological sectors
according to their original production strategies. Contemporary Meru society evolved
under the influences of populations present in the region prior to their arrival. Group
interactions were complex, and varied according to the area and the specific section of the
Meru.
The proto-Meru were actually the last group to enter the region. The original inhabitants
of the region were Agumba and Ndorobo hunter-gatherer groups inhabiting the montane
forests and savannas. Over two thousand years ago, Cushitic agropastoralists migrated
from the Ethiopian highlands and took up residence in intermediate zones where they kept
small ruminants and cultivated indigenous African grains, millets, eleusine, and sorghum.
Approximately one millennia ago, Highland Nilotes entered the region and added cattle to
the list of domesticated elements of local production systems (Sutton 1980). The people
known locally in Meru as Mwoko, probably pre-Kalenjin remnants of this population, are
associated with the abandoned Sirikwa irrigation works on the escarpment of the Rift
Valley. Groups of Oromo speaking Eastern Cushites reached the area by the 1500s adding
to the cultural melange.
A wave of Bantu agriculturalists, migrating from the northeast,crossed the Tana River,
also around 1500 A.D., eventually displaced most of the agro-pastoralists groups. They
probably absorbed some of them as they congealed into the forerunners of the Gikuyu,
Embu, Mbere, Tharaka, and Chuka (Mwaniki 1984). These Bantu settlers, known in local
traditions as the Tumbiri clans, were followed by south-bound plains Nilotes, pastoral
Maasai and Samburu spreading from the Rift Valley corridor to the grasslands fringing the
western flanks of Mt. Kenya and the Nyambene Range. A second wave of Bantu settlers,
identified in traditions as the Tha gana clans (Thagana is the Meru name for the Tana
River), fled their coastal homeland, an island they call Mbowa, and followed the Tumbiri
clans into the region. Clans entering the Mt. Kenya vicinity during the second migration
crossed the Tana twenty one generations ago, which would date their appearance in the
region to the late 1600s or the early 1700s. These Thagana clans developed into the Meru
speaking peoples who maintained their initial unity through the Njuri Ncheke council
(Fadiman 1976; Laughton 1944).
Initial movements of the first Bantu clans crossing the Tana assumed a north to south
direction; settlement centered on the middle highland zones, or the maize zones in the

52
ecozone classification employed in this study. The exception to this pattern are the
agropastoralist Mbere and Tharaka, who relied on livestock and millet production in the
lowlands of eastern Mt. Kenya. The Maasai had moved into the high pasturelands in the
rain shadow on the northern fringes of Mt. Kenya and into the lower southwestern flanks
of the Nyambenes, while their Samburu cousins utilized adjacent rangelands on the
northern slopes on a seasonal basis, effectively sealing-off expansion to the west.
The Tumbiri settlers absorbed most of the earlier Cushitic and Nilotic agro-pastoralists.
The pre-Kalenjin Mwoko are the one population mentioned in Meru traditions who
remained unassimilated after the spread of the Tumbiri clans. A small pocket of the earlier
Highland Nilote-Southem Cushite population, the Mokogodo, also survived in the Mt.
Kenya area. The second wave of Bantu clans encountered higher population densities and
later movements were in a west and northwesterly direction. The proto-Meru Thagana
clans divided into different communities in the lowlands between Mt. Kenya and the
Nyambenes. Migration was replaced by irrendentist expansion once pastoralist movements
sealed off the northwestern comer of Mt. Kenya. The Tumbiri migration had pushed the
Embu and Mbeere to their locations south of Meru District, and the arrival of Thagana clans
served to force the Chuka up, becoming the first group to settle in the higher coffee zone
and the tea zone of Mt. Kenya.
The arrival of the proto-Mem Thagana was a major turning point in the region. The
population was reaching its saturation point relative to the extensive production strategies
prevailing during that period: hunting, shifting cultivation, and the cattle based nomadic
pastoralism of the Maasai. By the mid 1700s the scarcity of game and increasing
population density led to increased sedentarization. The Mem clans occupied the
northeastern comer of the Mt. Kenya foothills, now divided into several sections or sub
ethnicities, and moved up the slopes of Mt. Kenya and the Nyambenes. This resulted in
the zonal agricultural system described by Bernard (1972). Ethnic relations quickened as
the region's periodic droughts intensified conflict among the now circumscribed
populations. Agriculture underwent a shift towards intensified agricultural production as
groups colonized the higher zones bordering the band of montane forest on Mt. Kenya and
the Nyambenes.
The Mem polity evolved through processes of integration, conflict, and synthesis. The
Mem fought the Maasai after crossing the Tana. They clashed with Oromo pastoralists on
the plains of Tharaka during the Nyamdure drought of 1725-29 (Mwaniki 1984, 151). The
Igembe variously refer to these pastoralists as the Agir, Akara, and Ukara, and claim they
were related to the Mwoko (Fadiman 1976, 155). The Mem absorbed some of these

53
Cushitic/Nilotic groups,13 and developed peaceful relations based on blood brotherhood
with others (Lambert 1949,13). They also established fictive kinship relations with the
Waso Nyiro Borana, the southernmost extension of the greater Borana population of
southern Ethiopia inhabiting the rangelands overlapping the northern borders of present day
Meru District, and with the Rendille, another Cushitic group inhabiting the more distant
north.14
Maasai-Meru Relations
The Meru term Uuru, enemy, is reserved exclusively for the Maasai and Samburu.
Meru traditions describe their relations with the Maasai in particular as a protracted state of
hostility and conflict. Even so, herdsmen and farmers maintained symbiotic relations even
amidst local hostilities, and considerable intermarraige took place, especially among the
Tigania (Hjort 1981). The Meru of Kangeta traded with the Samburu at a market on the
border of the maize and millet zone. Dolichos (Lab Lab niger), or hyacinth beans, are a
major crop on the northern flank of the Nyambenes. The papery skin of these beans
detaches upon drying; when the wind earned these flakes across the plains the distant
Samburu knew that the Igembe harvest was ready, and they came to exchange skins, goats
and other products for food.
Even so, much of the last century saw extended hostilities between the northern Meat
and their warrior pastoralist neighbors. The Meru ultimately prevailed, pushing the Maasai
beyond the modem borders of the district, and chasing the Samburu to the other side of the
Waso Nyiro River. The enmity, however, was matched by other forms of interaction,
because of all the groups in the region, the Maasai influence on the northern Meru is
particularly pronounced. (Mboroki 1972). The Nilotes marked influence on north Imenti
and Nyambene society led one British District Commissioner to observe that, while
linguistically Bantu, the northern Meru were in many other aspects culturally Nilotic
(KNA/DC Mru 1, 1927).
Famine and internecine warfare accelerated the decline of the Maasai in the Mt. Kenya
vicinity. When sections of the Maasai polity crumbled, refugees sought refuge with their
kin among the Meru and the northern Gikuyu (Muriuki 1976, 133). The Meru absorbed
significant numbers of these Maasai (and Samburu to a lesser degree), especially in Tigania
13Sutton and Oliver discuss Cushitic and Nilotic cultural syntheses occurring on the southern edge of the
Ethiopean highlands as the prelude to an agropastoralist migration and settlement in the Kenya highlands
around 1000 A.D.
14 The Meru term, gichiaro, refering to local practices of blood brotherhood, is discussed presently.

54
and north Imenti. Maasai territories were divided into two southern and northern reserves
following the allocation of land in Kenya's central Rift Valley to British settlers. In 1911
the Maasai leader, Lenana, concluded an agreement with the British to move all Maasai
proper to the southern reserve. Apparently a number of Maasai were able to avoid
relocation through their association with the Tigania. Some Tigania joined a portion of
their Maasai relations and trekked to present-day Narok District during the Kiaramu famine
of 1918-1919. Several years later colonial authorities detained those Maasai remaining in
the district and resettled them outside Meru. Only the Samburu remained in the Mt. Kenya
region.
In this manner the Meru polity expanded to cover the succession of ecological zones
from montane forest to semi-arid rangeland that occur across the highland-lowland
interface, the production system assimilating various elements of ethnic, econiche
specialization in the process. Conflict as well as peaceful assimilation fed the growth
process, and contributed a number of the differences distinguishing the various Meru sub
ethnicities. The assimilation of ethnic and cultural elements represents an extremely
complicated process as this summary of the ethnic and cultural mix that produced the
contemporary Gikuyu, which also holds for most contemporary populations of the Mt.
Kenya region, reveals:
These early occupants of the Mt. Kenya region have left a deep imprint on the Kikuyu and their
cousins. The numerous physical types seen amongst them bear testimony that the Gikuyu
represent a fusion of many different ethnic elements. No doubt some of the words and traits were
borrowed at various stages of contact from the plains Nilotic speakers such as the II Tikirri,
Ndorobo or Athi and the Maasai. However it should be noted that many of them were acquired
from the Eastern Cushitic-speaking peoples in the first instance. It is probable, therefore, that the
Thagicu, or proto Thagicu, might have acquired some of these Eastern Cushitic cultural
characteristics directly from the Eastern Cushitic-speaking elements. The most important of these
traits are circumcision and clitoridectomy as the major initiation rites, the Cushitic prohibition
against eating fish, and presumably the idea of a cycling age-set system. It is likely, though by no
means certain, that these features were borrowed from the Gumba. Furthermore, the Gumba are
reputed to have taught the Gikuyu the art of iron-working, while the Aathi are claimed to have sold
large chunks of their former hunting grounds to some of the Kikuyu. Muriuki 1976, 118.
The complexity of ethnic interactions mirrors the variation in the regional environment.
A chief feature of the Meru environment, as stressed earlier, is a succession of ecological
zones based on altitude, the spatial orientation of highland masses influencing rainfall and
rainshadows, and the location of physical features such as rivers, lakes, forests, and other
natural resources contributing to the multiplicity of ecological niches within the region.
Adaptation to specific conditions within ecological zones maximized the production
potential of these zones, and specialization promoted interaction and exchange among
populations across the ecological gradient.

55
The Nvambene Mera:
The sections of the Meru proper, as defined by membership in the Njuri Ncheke, (the
Imenti, Tigania, Igembe, Miutine, Igoji, Mwimbe, and Muthambe) are descended from the
Thagana clans. The Chuka and Tharaka, products of the Tumbiri clans migration, are
Meru by administrative definition and cultural-linguistic similarity. They claim a separate
identity for legitimate reasons borne out in the historical record of the district's internal
group relations. The Tigania and the Igembe share the Nyambene region and a reputation
dating back to the early colonial period for being in the vanguard of traditional culture, and
resistant to Western influences (Lambert 1947). The Tharaka of the district's eastern
lowlands, the most isolated of all Mem's sub-groups, en joy a reputation for cultural
conservatism to the point of aggressive xenophobia.
The two major dispersal points from where both the Tumbiri and Thagana populations
expanded into the rest of the district lie on either side of the Nyambenes. The one
surviving group linked to the Tumbiri clans and the Gikuyu, the Thaicu, remained on the
lower slopes of the northern Nyambenes. Igembe traditions trace their migration as also
coming from the northerly direction. They avoided contact with the Thaicu presence in the
middle zones, and initially settled near the fringes of the Nyambene forest. They expanded
first into the small valleys on the windward side, and then down the middle spine of the
Nyambene range. The Tigania approached the Nyambenes from the other side and settled
in the foothills between the two mountain ranges and on the southern slopes of the
Nyambenes.
Proximity to the forest served as a refuge during Maasai raids, and explains Igembe oral
traditions of contact, conflict, and incorporation of Agumba elements. Except for the
numerically small Thaicu, there is no evidence of large populations inhabiting the
Nyambene range other than the Agumba forest dwellers and the Mwoko, whom the Igembe
associate with knowledge of water (Lambert 1949). The Agumba were defeated by the
newcomers and ceased to exist as a separate entity. The Mwoko were agro-pastoralists.
As Highland Nilotes they would have practiced circular age-sets organization (instead of
the linear age-set organization associated with the Plains Nilotes), and the reference to
knowledge of water may refer to Sirikwa-type irrigation practices. Mwoko relations with
the Igembe and Tigania were hostile, and the Nyambene Meru ultimately prevailed over
them as well.
Both of these groups left their mark on the Meru sub-groups of the Nyambenes.
Although traditions claim they took over age-set organization from the Maasai (Rimita

56
1988), Igembe and Tigania age set organization is cyclical while Imenti age-sets are linear.
Nyambene Meru have highly developed ethno-botanical repertoires, and this is especially
evident in Nyambene high-zone agriculture. The Igembe also identify certain families with
a strong agro-pastoral orientation as being of Mwoko origin. It follows that Maasai
influence became strong later, and especially among the Tigania who, like the north Imenti,
permitted a Maasai presence in the midst of their agricultural settlements (Mboroki 1972).
The Igembe reflect a particularly strong synthesis of elements derived from the different
populations they encountered and absorbed. Ecological knowledge, medicine, and magic
from the hunters and foragers, cattle and age-set social structures from the Plains Nilotes,
and circumcision practices from the Cushites blended into their own essentially agricultural
orientation. The socioeconomic synthesis, the location and natural fecundity of the
Nyambenes, and strong political institutions underpinned the rise of local production
system as the hub of the regional trade network (Chanler 1893). The ethnic elements
contributing to this ethno-environmental consolidation are presented in table 3.1.
Table 3.1: Ethnic groups and Ecological Zones
Ecological Band
Ethnic Group
Subsistence Technology
High Zones
AGumba
Foraging, hunting
Botanical knowledge
Maasai
High range "buuri" and
lowland grazing15
Middle Zones
Southern Cushites
agro-pastoral ism
Highland Nilotes
agro-pastoralism
(Mwoko/Sirikwa)
knowledge of water
Tumbiri/Thagana Bantu clans
agriculture, iron
new cultivars
Lower Zones
Maasai/Samburu
cattle
military organization
Ndorobo/Aathi
hunting,
knowledge of plants
and wild animals.
Borana/Rendille
cattle/camels
Each group practiced a dominant subsistence strategy, and each contributed different
technological features to the system. The ultimate result of the process was the
15 Buuri is the Meru/Maasai term for the high altitude grass lands, for the most part occuring in the
Mt.Kenya rain shadow. The Maasai were apparently using this and parts of the Mt. Kenya forest as grazing
land before the Meru moved into these areas.

57
consolidation of the system within the borders of Meru ethnicity. Chanler (1896)
established a base camp in Thaicu for his forays into the NFD during his 1892-93
expedition. In reading his accounts there is no mistaking that the Igembe and Thaicu were
two distinct communities, a mutually shared attitude that remains until the present. This is
the one exception in the historical pattern of integration and synthesis in the Nyambenes.
The Nilo-Cushitic Mokogodo also maintained a distinct identity, but removed themselves
from the sphere of Meru influence by migrating to a peripheral area between Isiolo and
Nanyuki.16
The ecologically similar environments in Meru and the Kenya highlands therefore
accomodated sociocultural adaptations constituting a distinct medley of developmental
trajectories.17 Sensitivity to common environmental initial conditions influenced
population growth, migration, and symbiotic processes prior to the inclusion of local
systems within an external political economy. Assuming a central role for the
demographic-environmental parameter, and that "population growth and a chain reaction of
economic and social changes underlie cultural evolution (Johnson and Earle 1987, 5),"
understanding the chain reaction that follows becomes the practical concern for tallying and
interpreting tsociocultural variables to describe the congruencies in developmental
processes.18
The Mem Cultural Endowment
We will now attempt to explicate the dynamic relationships between land and resources,
cultural institutions, and both the ideology and practice of conservation within the farming
systems of the Nyambene region. The Meru cultural endowment consists of an
environmental sensibility which manifests as a set of agricultural practices and formalized
relationships with other groups. Internal and external relations are guided by local political
councils that meet locally and on the Njuri Ncheke level. Each of these components will be
examined in turn.
16The identity of the Mokogodo confused British administrators who saw them as a branch of the Samburu.
Sutton (1974, 160) associates them with the Yaaku, an ancient Southern Cushite community.
1 Contemporary differences among the Gikuyu, Embu, and Meru areas continue to resist facile comparison,
a point underscored in recent studies in each respective area of Mt. Kenya (e.e. Haugerud 1984, McKenzie
1989, Kitchingl980, Chege 1989, Leo 1984, Goldsmith 1988. Glazier 1985).
18 The historic advantage of anthropology as a discipline is "the ability to see humans as biological
organisms and creatures of culture, to see the cultural and the biological as interacting and complementary,
and to see humans in ecosystems as well as social systems (Keesing 1976,15), is largely negated by the
internal wrangling over these two positions.

58
Numerous elements of Mem society reflect the cultural influences of earlier populations
in the region. The Njuri Ncheke, however, was a uniquely Mem governance structure
which recreated and institutionalized the Mem clans original unity across the different
sections geographic and social borders. The Njuri Ncheke system is organized around
both the territorial unit and the generational strata. Land is linked to the Njuri Ncheke
through its local clan-based councils or njuri. Kiama are comparable councils operating on
each rung of the age set system.19 The kiama councils select their most able leaders,
agambi, spokesmen (kugamba=io be wise, judicious), to sit on the local njuri. The system
replicates itself on successively higher levels, the highest being the pan-Meru regional
council.
The Meru's Gikuyu and Embu agricultural neighbors practiced local government based
on the njuri and kiama councils without developing a formal council structure joining local
units. Age set organization was also universal in the region, although perhaps most highly
developed among the pastoral Nilotic populations. Age-sets, besides providing for defense
of the land by maintaining a standing army of warriors, also regulate internal social control
by specifying a codified set of social obligations within and among age grades at each stage
in the progression through the lifecycle. Clans governed access to land and natural
resources, just as the age-set system provided a standing army to protect (and acquire)
them. Kinship, real and Active, conditioned exchange relations.
The ethnoscience and cultural ideologies reflecting the diverse populations became
incoiporated into the Mem polity over time. Environmental knowledge was developed by
all the groups in the region specific to their respective ecological niches. Bantu clans were
agricultural experts, pastoralists specialized in animal science, and the sophisticated
botanical tradition, evident in agricultural, medicinal, and ritual practices, is arguably the
legacy of the autochthonous hunters and foragers. All of these components combined
synergistically in the Mem system. We will now discuss how these different components
worked in combination to generate sustainable social development.
The Niuri Ncheke:
After crossing the Thagana and encountering the military power of the Maasai and Mwoko,
the Mem prayed to God for a leader. When a young boy displayed the divinely indicated
traits, the Mem selected nine elders to act as his guardian until he came of age. The boy
19 Both njuri and kiama are glossed as "council" in English. Because these terms refer to contexts in many
cases, the local terms will be retained in the text.

59
became the first Mugwe or Mukiama, and the nine elders formed the Njuri Ncheke,
alternately known as the Njuri ya Kiama, the council where selected representatives from
different group's local njuri met to settle disputes and decide policies for the greater Meru
polity. These representatives, or Agambi (sing, mugambi), met at Nchiiru, now a small
market center in Tigania near the border of Imenti, the largest Mem sub-tribe which
inhabits the slopes of Mt. Kenya. All members of a locality could belong to the kiama,
while only chosen individuals underwent formal internal initiation into the higher grades of
the council based on criteria of public service and virtue.
Lambert, the Mem District Commissioner between 1937 and 1942, saw local structures
as the key to governance in the District, and his description of the njuri system is worth
quoting.
When a man leaves the warrior grades he becomes eligible for initiation into the Kiama kya
Nkomango, and in general all elders become members of this body. The elders of each mwiriga
[clan] choose representatives from among their numbers to be initiated into the Njuri ya
Kiama, the working nucleus of the whole kiama. These men-the Njuriare the parliament and
the supreme court of the tribal unit they represent. Thus the legislature and judiciary of the
mwiriga are the njuri elders belonging to that mwiriga, who will join in with the similar body
of the next mwiriga for the settlement of matters affecting the two. A section of the tribe is
governed by Njuri Ncheke elders representing each mwiriga in the section; and the whole tribe
by Njuri elders representing each section (1947,6).
The second stage of njuri initiation inducted members into the "locked, or closed"
council of the Njuri Mpingire. Initiation into the Njuri Imbere, referring to "the winnowed
ones," was the highest, or "pure council of elders," restricted to an individual "who has
never had sex outside of marriage, a person who has never shed blood of a relative, or in
unprovoked attack, stolen except from another tribe, and above all a man of good health
and good reputation (Rimita 1988,50-51)." Initiations entailed specific contributions at
each level, so the individual members of the Njuri system were men of material means in
addition to distinguishing themselves by their adherence to ethical standards.
The Mugwe (Mu'we among the Tigania and Igembe sections) was the group ritual
expert and leader who presided over the religious and cosmological affairs of each Meru
section. The Mugwe sat with the Njuri Imbere, the highest ranking council within the
Njuri Ncheke, presided over important social rituals such as the initiation of a new riika,
and was consulted in all the important decisions of the group. Chosen from the grade of
ritual elders but separate from the njuri/age-set institutional structure, the Mugwe
represented in personal deportment the highest social ideals of conduct, personal integrity,
and sexual behavior in Meru society. Social change vitiated the ritual functions of this

60
purely religious authority, and the office perished with the death of the last Igembe Mugwe
shortly before Kenya's independence in 1963 (Bernardi 1989).
The authority and efficacy of the Njuri Ncheke rested on consensus-based decision
making, its political legitimacy, and the supernatural authority accruing to it as a body of
elders. The council set social and environmental policies, arbitrated disputes, established
new policies during times of crisis, and had authority to assess fines and penalties for
individuals and groups. In extreme cases Nyambene council passed death sentences or
marginalized individuals by sentencing them to periods of exile in the inhospitable northern
grazing area. The council could call upon warriors to enforce law and order and police
markets, and each age-set was taxed in the form of sponsoring rituals and group feasts for
other groups and riika.
Supernatural controls contributed to the authority of the njuri councils within the
community, but the council was not as such a body of practitioners of supernatural arts.
Supernatural phenomena took several forms. Individuals and groups were targets of
different kinds of curses. Violation of socially prescribed behavior could also ipso facto
place the individual in the state of mugiro, or ritual impurity, ostracizing the individual from
normal social intercourse, and serving as a forewarning of mystical misfortune. The
individual then had to confer with the particular ritual specialist, of which there were
several varieties, to remove the curse. The curse in effect functioned to make crimes or a
social offense public, and seeking to cleanse oneself of mugiro amounted to admission of
guilt (Fadiman 1982). The Mugwe, in conttast to the supernatural specialists, was a seer
who interpreted omens and dreams, dispensed benedictions, and arbitrated public morality
(Bernardi 1989).
Curative methods and protective measures against unseen forces on the metaphysical
level utilized a variety of natural objects within a complex symbolic system linking the
natural world with the social and religious realms. Respect for ancestral and other spirits
associated with specific places and natural landmarks further linked the environment and
society in what amounted to a long-term relationship of responsible custodianship. This
respect/fear relationship influenced the manner in which land transfers were conducted.
The dominant agriculturalists could have easily taken by force forest areas from the
autochthones. Instead, however, use rights were conferred through ritual, exchange, and
in the end, as demographic pressure increased, intermarriage and integration of the forest
dwellers into the agricultural polity (Muriuki 1974, Lambert 1949).
In Igembe the clan names of groups bordering the Nyambene (Aathi) and Ngaya
(Amwathi) forests bear witness to the presence of these hunter-gatherers. Group land
ownership entailed a dimension of spiritual stewardship. Lambert observed that "...the

61
dead and those who are still unborn are as much members of the group as the living (1949,
114)." When the land was settled, the Meru would have wanted to establish some kind of
kinship relations with the spirits of the land they now occupied. The living acted as the
trustees for the souls of the dead and those not yet bom, and the Meru settlers respected the
rights and power of those ancestral spirits of a locality who had exercised dominion over
the land and resources since time immemorial.
Within the Meru cultural ideology or world view, respect for ancestors in effect merges
with the practical utility of land, both as agricultural land and in its pristine state. The Meru
regard the forest as a whole and certain individual trees as sacred. This practical notion of
the sacred is not distinct from the use values of forest products and understanding its
importance as a social commons, as a magnet for rain, a refuge from enemies, and as a
place of God.20 The Njuri Ncheke was the group repository of this secular/supematural
authority with ultimate jurisdiction over individuals, age-sets, and clans. As a political
body, it appeared to be particularly active in issues and policies related to land.
Age-Set Organization:
Age group systems provide a set of checks and balances among generations that includes
the influence of ancestors and generations not yet of age symbolically represented in the
cycle. Age-set organization conditions a cross-generational concept of social development
and acts as a constant reminder of the obligations of a generation to their own children and
to future generations.
The ethnographic record provides a complex array of variations on age group systems.
Reviewing, classifying, and developing a systematic terminology has preoccupied more
than one scholar (Prins 1953, Bemardi 1982, Stewart 1977). Distilled to its most essential
attribute, age-set systems represent a set of rules embedded in generational social structures
(Stewart 1977, 5). These rules vary according to the system and locality, and govern
different demographic, political, and cultural aspects of the system. Even where it is not
formally embedded in the social structure, the notion of an individual's and a generation's
progression through the life cycle represents a universal characteristic of human society.21
The Nyambene Mem retain an age-set structure whose mies define the recruitment and
formation of an age-set generation, the intervening sequence of progression through age-
2The Meru perform special sacrifices in the forest; they used it to hide from the Maasai (and the British
during Mau Mau), and recognize its hydrological importance.
21 Americans, for example, refer to succeeding generations with reference to the great depression, the baby
boom, the Vietnam War, and the Reagan years.

62
grades, and the transfer of political power (ntuiko) from one generation to the next.22 In
this manner age-set organization provides for the uniform progression of male generations
through the lifecycle. Each age-set, or riika, pass through life sharing common
responsibilities to society, obligations toward each other as individuals, and to other
generational groups. The Nyambene Meru system consists of eight cycling age sets
divided into two moieties.
Table 3.2: Nyambene Riika and Moieties
Mhaine (old)
Lubetaa
Guantai
Kiramunya
Micubu
Ntamu
Miriti
Gichunge
Ithalie
Ratanya
Age-sets fell into two alternating streams, the mbaine and the ntangi, representing the
initial two age-sets in the Nyambene succession. Three circumcision groups initiated at
five year intervals form an age-set. The first is called Ndunguri, the second Kobia, and the
third Kaberia: both age-sets and circumcision groups repeat in cycles of eight and three
years.23 The initiation period for a riika covers ten years; five years later circumcision of a
new riika begins. Circumcision may deviate from the set pattern according to
circumstances such as famine or war. When this happens, circumcision dates are adjusted
to compensate for deviations.
Meru oral traditions state that they adopted the military organization of the Maasai and
Samburu as a matter of self defense, and out of respect for the social discipline it instilled
(Rimita 1988). The Igembe also comment that their circumcision rites are said to resemble
those of the Abagusii and Kalenjin, pointing to greater Mwoko influence than allowed for
in the historical accounts of both local and outside investigators.24 This would also explain
why Nyambene age-sets are cyclical as are those of the Kalenjin while Maasai age-sets are
of the linear model. Cyclical age-sets encourage a subtle cognitive approach to time as
possessing circular qualities, and the Nyambene Meru sometimes refer to particular age-
"Fadiman (1982) provides a detailed account of Meru age-sets.
^Individuals are identified by their riika and circumcision group, e.g Lubetaa Kobia, Mirit Kaberia. etc.
24 Local Igembe informants accept that the age-set structure may be derived from contact with Maasai, but
linguistic analysis suggests Cushitic influences particularly in connection with their circumcision practices.
The Mbaine/Natangi stream possibly represents generations initiated after changes in the original
circumcision rites and practices, and not the adoption of age-sets per se.

63
sets in terms of repeating themes in their historical memory. For example, the Lubetaa
generation is associated with periods of building and development, Miriti with breaking
down, and Guantai, who assumed warrior status in 1990, with periods of upheaval.
Each stage in the life cycle involves social responsibilities: warriorhood, economic
activity and commitment to family, governance, and for those who survive to old age,
sharing of wisdom, historical knowledge, and religious authority are represented by the
gerontocracy. The balances built into the system checked generational conflicts.
Warriorhood was a time of freedom and exploits not easily abandoned for the
responsibilities of adulthood. The accumulation of novice warriors exacted pressure on the
ranks of senior warriors to leave the communal warrior barracks (gaaru) to marry.
Younger warriors pressured their elders by actions which invaded the realm of senior
warrior prerogatives. A generation is subordinated to the one above it within a student-
teacher relationship. Abuse of the teacher status is checked by the same relationship
between the generation who are fathers to the "students," and their "teacher" generation.
Table 3.3 is adapted from Fadiman's presentation (1982, 149)-25
Table 3.3: Traditional Mem Lifecycle Progression
Ase
Life Stase
Termination
Moietv
0-7
Infant/Child
Growth of permanent teeth
7-15+
Uncircumcised boy
Puberty
17-18+
Circumcision candidate
Circumcision
19-29-
Warrior
Manriage
Mbaine
29-40+
Junior elder
First son's ntuiko
Ntangi
40-55+
Ruling elder
Ntuiko transfer
Mbaine
55-70+
Ritual elder
Ntuiko transfer
Ntangi
70+
The Gerontocracy
Death/Ancestorship
Mbaine
Formerly, when the indigenous political order was the sole repository of power,
generational leaders typically resisted the passing of their position until njuri intervention
insured the process took place. This transitional period, marked by official handing over in
the ntuiko ceremony, is often characterized by high-spirited and sometimes violent
25I have added the alternating moeties to the scheme, and adapted dates in the elder sequence to match the
fifteen and five year interval rule governing ntuiko and circumcision. The rituals accompanying these rites
of passage involved the expenditure of resources, and the fifteen year ideal intervals were adjusted according
to prevailing factors such as famine, etc.

64
demonstrations of virility. Transfer of power not mediated by cultural institutions, in
contrast, is a major governance problem in contemporary Africa.
Clans. Kinship, and the Gichiaro Social Risk-Spreading Mechanism;
The mwiriga, or clan, provides access to land and provides the local unit's institutionalized
governance. Most of the original administrative sub-divisions in Meru correspond to clan
names, and in the middle and high zone areas these units can be considered equivalent to
original clan territories. Present Mem clans came to gain stewardship over the land through
complex historical interactions between the Thagana clans and the various groups already
present in the region. Original Mem clans are divided into three groups, red, white, and
black according to the time of day when they escaped their coastal homeland at Mbowa.
These divisions correspond to important ritual duties, and only white clans can perform
specific religious rituals (Mahner 1972).
Since the proto-Mem Thagana clans departed Mbowa as a small body of refugees, it is
difficult to explain the spectacular population growth which made them the sixth most
populous ethnic group in Kenya today other than through a significant incorporation of
other populations. Increasing population was desirable in order to provide additional labor
for production and to provide defense. Kinship practices were mutable in order to
accommodate outsider acquisition of land, and there is little to suggest that the Meru
discriminated on the basis of ethnicity.
Beyond ties of kinship, the institution of gchiaro provided a form of blood-brotherhood
or fictive kinship which bound different groups and different sections of different groups
into a complex web of formal alliances.26 The underlying logic of gichiaro emerges when
viewed as a risk spreading strategy. These alliances do not make much sense as a network
of military alliances-the Igembe are joined to the Imenti by gichiaro, but the Imenti are also
joined to the Tigania, who are not linked through gichiaro to the Igembe. Gichiaro
permited a member of one group to help themselves to food in the fields or home of their
gichiaro relation, but groups not joined by this ritualized bond are fair game for each other.
Within Mem it created avenues of safe passage, but indicates a broader social logic than
Fadiman's discussion (1982) reveals. Although raiding fulfilled the cultural need for a
warrior group to prove itself, it was mainly a function of need in time of shortfall.
26Chanler's (1896) account attests to the extent of gichiaro as a fundamental adjunct to trade. In a number
of situations Chanler submitted to gichiaro rituals to cement trade agreements, and he actively used the
institution from the Nyambenes to Rendille territory to promote the success of his expedition.

65
Gichiaro formalized symbiotic relations between agricultural and pastoral groups. The
Igembe maintained gichiaro with the Borana, and even with the distant Rendille, who came
from near Lake Turkana to trade. Visitors to Nyambene markets included Gikuyu, Kamba,
Embu, and other Meru from the highlands, and a host of nomadic pastoralists including the
Maasai, Samburu, Somali, and Borana. As the Nyambene Range became the center of
inter-regional exchange gichiaro not only facilitated interaction and exchange among the
host of ethnic groups in the region but came to incorporate outside commercial interests as
well. Coastal and Somali traders and Europeans all sought to establish gichiaro ties as a
practical measure to facilitate trade and safe passage through the Nyambene region, which
by the end of the nineteenth century had become a main staging area for movement into the
NFD and west to Baringo.
Often blood kinship followed fictive kinship. Such relations buffered groups against
environmental disasters, as Maasai-Meru relations illustrate. The migration of Maasai and
Tigania Meru to Narok during the Kiaramu (named after the solar intensity of the period)
famine of 1917-1918 was mentioned earlier. During the 1984 drought, the worst drought
of this half of the century, Maasai over two generations removed from contact with the
Meru returned to seek assistance from their Mem relatives in Tigania, and received it.
Gichiaro relations could be abrogated for specific reasons, and this appears to be the case
when the Imenti Mem of Katheri expelled and fought with the Maasai with whom they had
lived in shared coexistence for generations (Mboroki 1972).
Intermarriage, maternal kinship relations (an individual could be granted land by their
wife or mother's kin) and gichiaro fictive kinship facilitated the access of different parties to
land. Igembe and Tigania settling in each others respective territory usually do so through
intermarriage. Imenti Meru and other settlers from outside the Nyambene area, in contrast,
undergo gichiaro rituals in order to acquire land in the new settlement schemes in lower
zones of Igembe.
These practices represent traditional Mem mechanisms based on the idea of group
strategies to promote social strength and well-being. Sustaining population growth meant
the efficient and wise use of natural resources in order to preserve the inheritance of future
generations. The inheritance consisted of, more than anything else, land. Most Meru
consider wealth in the form of cattle or money as essentially impermanent, whereas land is
fixed a security worthy of long-term investment. Land straddles the intersection of material
production and the institutional factors of clan, council, and age-set, and the cultural
ideology permeating them.
Land, natural resources, the supernatural-religious realm, and cultural institutions are
interlinked. The Njuri Ncheke sanctioned the environmental policies regulating forest and

66
rangeland as social commons whose use rested on religious authority. The Meru regard for
certain trees and animals as sacred or possessing unique attributes extended to the positive
material social benefits and cultural sensibilities of proper resource management. This
underlying ideology can be discerned in the deeper ethos of conservation embedded in
everyday discourse and actions in Igembe Division.
The Aathi Cultural Ideology27
Comparison of a number of clues indicates that important elements of Igembe Mem cultural
ideologies influencing resource use and management derive from the pre-agricultural
peoples who roamed the East African landscape since the paleolithic era. Any
environmental history and cultural exegis of the Mt. Kenya region must account for the
influence of the areas original inhabitants, although the interactions among these people and
their various Nilotic and Bantu neighbors represent an exceedingly complex phenomena.
Very few of the hunter gatherers of the Kenya highlands maintained a separate existence
into the modem period. In most cases they were absorbed into the expanding agricultural
communities, but their contribution to the overall cultural complexion of the Mem system
deserves a brief discussion of its own.
The map accompanying the account of Chanler's expedition of 1892-93 provides a
detailed account of the Nyambenes and different ethnic group's positions within the region
prior to colonialism, and establishes the near ubiquitous presence of these bands on the
marginal fringes of other communities. Chanler's expedition registers a picture of
highland-lowland interactions perhaps at the brink of precipitous change. Regional
conditions were to undergo an even greater convulsion after he left the vicinity in 1893.
The conversations Chanler (1896) recorded with a group of surviving Ndorobo
resisting incorporation into pastoral and agricultural communities are a poignant testimony
to the demise of (and the ideological commitment to) a livestyle harking back to the earliest
phase of human culture in eastern Africa:
I asked the old man why they did not go to the mountains settle down with the people there, and
work, and thus be relieved forever from starvation and famine. He said: No, they were fond of their
mode of life; they knew no other; their fathers had lived the same life before them, and they were
unwilling to trust themselves in the vicinage of any other people. The worst time for them was
during the rains; for then they were unable to use their bows, as the strings frayed and broke.
During the rainy season they literally starved; those of greatest vitality surviving, while the weaker
ones died. Their one pleasure is the intoxication produced by honey-wine (279).
-'Aathi. as used here, refers to the collective hunter-gatherer heritage in Meru for reasons explained in the
text.

67
We can hypothesize that some Aathi phenomena resurface in the religious function of
the forest and natural objects, and the pervasive yet intangible realm of magic and religion.
Aathi indigenous knowledge is implicated in the incorporation of botanical expertise, and
supports the influence of an inherited ethos of conservation as a factor in decision making
within land and resource management in Igembe. The configuration of Mt. Kenya
agricultural systems and some of the mystical attachment to land observed among the Mt.
Kenya peoples bear the mark of these autochthonous peoples, even if their role is
frequently obscured in local accounts28- The proto-Meru likely established symbiotic
exchange relations among scattered groups of the coastal hinterland, and their route to the
highlands may even have followed trails established by Boni hunter-gatherers who
migrated up the Tana on a seasonal basis (Stiles 1981). Their encounters with the Agumba
upon reaching higher zones may have reinforced the hunting predilections of some groups
acquired earlier during their migration.
Permanent residence, supematurally sanctioned land rights, Aathi botanical and magical
knowledge, and chronic demand for labor explain why Bantu agricultural clans integrated
the Ndorobo while the Maasai and other pastoral groups retained their Ndorobo as clients
even if they were in all respects aspiring to be Maasai as the result of contacts ((Bemtsen
1979, 112; Lewis 1960). Fundamentally different cosmological values and issues of social
access to the critical resources of land, cattle, and labor differentiate agricultural and
pastoral systems on levels of ethnic interaction and cultural ideology. Agricultural groups
limited by labor rather than land were prone to assimilate outsiders: pastoralists were prone
to incorporate the same groups as lower in status to utilize their skills while limiting their
social access to livestock.
Like Gikuyu traditions, the Nyambene Mem mention the Agumba population as forest
dwellers: short, light complexioned people whose habitations were pits excavated deep
within the forest (Muriuki 1975, Rimita 1982). The Igembe clashed with and defeated the
small Agumba groups in the Nyambenes. Survivors were absorbed into Bantu clans. The
Agumba of Mem traditions slowly melted away into the forests.29 According to a Mwimbe
informant's version of the autochthones fate conveyed to the Kenya land commission in the
1940s, they...
^Reference to these groups varies in content and transmission. The confusion surrounding Aathi.
Agumba, Ndorobo, and Okiek partially stems from the use of these different names in loose and
interchangeable contexts. In highland oral traditions the non-pastoral pre-Meru inhabitants of the region
appear variously as magicians, witchdoctors, ironsmiths, hunters, healers, middlemen, botanists,
rainmakers.
29 In 1900 a British party climbing Mt. Kenya encountered a band of impoverished Ndorobo at the extreme
elevation of 12,000' (Mwaniki 1984, 189).

68
gradually dwindled away with the cutting of the forest, although on friendly terms with the
invaders, until only a few old men were left. These old men then turned into plantation
birds which inhabit the forest this day in large numbers, and they are to be heard talking
their original language together in the forest at night (Orde-Browne, quoted in Lambert
1949, 44).
Savanna-based Ndorobo groups survived much longer, perhaps partially through their
alliances with pastoralists (Blackburn 1976). Their survival also owes to a strong cultural
ideology to their form of existence despite the option for incorporation into other groups.
Commercialization of the ivory trade allowed for a brief upswing in the fortunes of
Ndorobo as hunters, guides, and middlemen. The trade boom in ivory of the 1800s
probably added several decades to their independent existence. The final incorporation of
the Aathi represents the end of the hunter-forager lifestyle, but not its tradition. The
establishment of European conservation effectively alienated the remaining hunters from the
material resources they subsisted on, and the Ndorobo almost ceased to exist, although
native hunting continued into the next century (Steinhart 1989).30 The commercial
harvesting of ivory soon proved to be environmentally unsustainable, and an ancient
cultural strategy largely vanished with the hunting ban. The local knowledge of these
peoples and other influences nevertheless survived via incorporation into the Meru
production system.
At least some aspects of the Agumba/Ndorobo heritage is subsumed within references
to the Aathi. The Agumba and Ndorobo became Aathi clans as the Igembe settlers
absorbed the forest dwellers of the Nyambene forest zones. By occupying land fringing
forested areas they assimilated in the cultural and symbolic sense, their ancestors as well.
High zone agriculture shows the influence of their botanical and pharmacological
knowledge, supernatural practices, and certain cultural sensibilities regarding nature in
general and the forest in particular. This knowledge and Aathi cultural traits appear in the
Njuri Ncheke code of conservation, and the ideology of trees manifesting in Igembe
agroforestry practices. The high cultural status of stately fig trees (Ficus natalensis and
Ficus Graciolor) among Bantu peoples is well known; a number of other trees are also
considered sacred in Meru, have important ritual uses, or are associated with magic.
Cutting the forest in any way was subject to punishment by ostracization.
30The 300 or so Ndorobo listed in early Meru District reports are the last specific group of hunter-gatherers
mentioned in Meru District: known as Mwethi or Mwimbe Dorobo to the Meru, Imwesi to themselves,
they even took place in the 1934 District Sports Trials as "fine handsome fellows, dressed Maasai fashion
(Lambert 1949,13).

69
The word Aathi is generic throughout the Bantu-speaking region. The original meaning
of hunter is overlaid with various connotations according to context. In the Nyambenes,
the connotation is often linked with magical powers. According to Fadiman, njuri ya aathi
were associated with fringe societies of hunters and blacksmiths who hived off from the
main body of proto-Meru during the migration from the coast. Fadiman refers to them as
fringe groups of Meru; others use the word to refer to non-agricultural foragers whose
descent may reflect any combination of Agumba, Ndorobo, Okiek, Sirikwa, Waata, or
other such groups. Mwaniki indicates the labels were cultural appellations that embraced a
number of autochthonous and possibly early Cushitic ethnicities (1984, 177). Lambert
(1949) considered the Aathi to represent a cultural stage, while he refered to Agumba and
Ndorobo as specific groups; individuals and groups passed through or reverted to this
stage until the recent present.
Hunting is a low-caste activity, nevertheless, it remained a common survival strategy for
poorer members of the community well into this century (Steinhart 1989,247). Since
agriculturalists resorted to hunting (and sorcery) during times of poverty and famine, it
follows that Aathi represented an occupational mode, and substituted as a generic ethnic
label coterminous with the lawful inhabitants of forest reserves.31 Bemsten (1979) records
that the Maasai depended upon symbiosis with the Ndorobo to maintain economically their
cultural ideal of pastoral purity, but they too would frequently "go Ndorobo" as
individuals, and in large numbers during times of severe drought. The same was true of
the Gabra who became Waata foragers during drought, and sometimes remained so out of
preference for the hunting-gathering way of life (Robinson 1979, 8). "Aathi" thus
represented a cultural stage, but also a Mem sub-identity derived from the incorporation of
Agumbaand Ndorobo peoples.
Mention of the Njuri ya Katheka Kai crops up in connection with two 'secret' societies,
the njuri ya kaitha and the njuri ya aathi. Members of the Njuri ya Kaitha were
vegetarians, and employed vegetable poisons against their victims, and items of botanical
origin in their remedies and charms. The Njuri ya Aathi were, in contrast, hunters and
utilized medicines derived from animals. Both entities were originally groups who
remained outside regular clan structures and developed their own councils, as distinct from
other Mem who reverted to hunting when conditions necessitated it (Fadiman 1982,18).
These groups relied upon their hunter and blacksmith reputations for supernatural power,
using the practice of public curses as a form of social control and as a subsistence strategy
as their resource base inexorably came under the control of agricultural communities.
3 Agumba, in contrast, is a low-caste, derogatory appellation among the Meru.

70
These mystical "weapons of the weak (c.f. Scott 1985)" worked to guarantee group
survival during the transitional period between association with the Meru polity and full
incorporation.
The evolution of these groups clearly follows shifting patterns of land use and political
control. With integration these groups developed a new role, biama ya mithega, or
councils of magic, as land became converted to agrarian uses. The members now used
their aathi magic to protect the remaining land not cultivated, and later, to protect crops
from intruders. During the periodic famines of the 1800s the application of magical
techniques were turned against the owners of crops to procure food: the magicians even
imprisoned wealthier farmers inside their farms until the owners paid fines in the form of
grain and beer to remove the curse. A still more novel form of kiama emerged after the turn
of the century. The kiama kya mwaa, or party of fools, got its original members from
famine victims. The kiama kya mwaa toured an area performing ribald dances and, once
they succeeded in provoking laughter, they would curse the spectators for lack of respect.
A nominal payment removed the curse. The agriculturalists derided these bodies as 'biama
of the stomach', but nevertheless feared their supernatural power (Fadiman 1984, 19-24).
The cultural endowment of the Meru can be briefly summed up by reiterating how the
cultural institutions of riika or age-sets, the Njuri Ncheke, and the religious authority of the
Mugwe combined synergistically as a set of legal, and metaphysical checks and balances
among generations. The Mugwe exemplified moral and ritual conduct, and the Njuri
Ncheke guided social development. The system worked well during the sixteen generation
span of Meru precolonial history. The Meru prospered, surmounted environmental
disasters, absorbed other communities, and grew in numbers in the process of realizing
their own version of manifest destiny on the highland-lowland interface.
The Niuri in Transition:
The first administrators in the district perceived the Meru political/legal system and its
institutional structures in terms of superstition and sorcery. In 1924 the District
Commissioner (DC) commented that "the district is still backward, belief in witchcraft
prevalent, especially in Tigania and Igembe (Kna/DC/Mru 1, 1924)." The authorities of
this period conducted an undeclared campaign against the njuri system, and considered two
"secret" societies, the Njuri ya Kaitha and the Njuri ya Aathi, as part of it.
In the 1927 district report the DC stated that the Nyambene indigenous authority was a
system of lower and higher kiama. He noted that these societies were part of the njuri
system, and declared that their members were well represented on local tribunals. The

71
Kaitha and Aathi societies sorcerers used their powers for extortion: bewitched individuals
would fall sick and die if they failed to pay a fine. Payment was a de facto initiation into
the kiama, disclosure of its secrets invoked another curse. The report conveys a certain
degree of confusion as the "Njuri Impingire" and the "Njuri a Katheka Kai" were all
lumped together as part of the formal kiama system.
Katheka kai specifies a place of witchcraft or evil, and was associated with the Aathi and
Kaitha societies, although the report adds all elders have supernatural powers (Kna/DC/
Mru 1, 1927). A campaign initiated the next year targeted the houses of Kaitha and Aathi
members, and the anti-witchcraft campaign of the next several years was apparently so
successful that any reference to it and the Njuri ya Katheka Kai soon vanished from the
official record. It is interesting to note that the Njuri itself, seen as an unprogressive
institution opposing the authority of the British administration, subsequently came to be
perceived by British administrators as a model of progressive state-society partnership.
The Njuri was especially instrumental in advancing state supported environmental policies
and land reform. The question that naturally arises is, did the Njuri change, or,
conversely, did a change in the perception of the local administration lead to this reversal of
roles.
Situations where the Njuri Ncheke allowed itself to be associated with low status groups
parallels similar strategies of sabotage, foot-dragging, and other forms of systematic non-
compliance with the authorities in power that peripheral groups had employed against the
Meru polity. And the Meru leaders sitting in the kiama and njuri councils were clearly
separate from the British-deputized local headman and chiefs. If the former were cast in the
role as opponents to change, the latter were typically opportunistic individuals chosen from
outside the local political hierarchy who exploited their position for self-aggrandizing
accumulation of wealth and patronage resources.
Kamba and Gikuyu chiefs acted to consolidate their position by recruiting private armies
and corruptly accumulating resources allowing them to live well beyond their official
means. Their excesses were tolerated by the administration as "a necessary ingredient of
local administration and the fuel of the administrative engine...without it the whole system
would have collapsed (Tignor 1979, 199)." The creation of local administration began
from "colonial policies, conceived largely in ignorance," which "tilted the balance against
the stabilizing egalitarianism of of gerontocratic democracy (Forbes Monro 1975, 65)."
Administrative chiefs and emerging mission-educated elites clearly set local societies on a
new path of political development where traditional status and individualistic opportunism
eventually inverted the social order (Mutiso 1975).

72
That this did not happen in Meru, and particularly in the Nyambenes, denotes the
presence of a strong local political order that was capable of neutralizing individuals
empowered by the British. Opposition to the administration through supernatural means
and non-compliance quickly evaporated when perceptive administrators recognized the
social legitimacy of the Njuri system.
Njuri Ncheke-British Administration Cooperation;
In 1933 the first mention of a policy shift was signaled by the District Commissioner,
A.G. Hopkins. Hopkins, speaking of Tigania and Igembe, accused his administration
chiefs of superstitiously bending to the will of the Njuri Ncheke every time the council
exercised their veto over an administration policy they did not support. Hopkins branded
the institution as possessing "an attitude of extreme distr ust of government and the use of
their powers secretly to condemn any order or suggestion emanating from government."
Despite this condemnation, Hopkins goes on to suggest that the first step to reduce
suspicion would be to recognize the Njuri Ncheke's important position in Meru society
(KNA/DC/Mru 1, 1933, 7-8).
His successor in 1938 and 1939, V.M. McKeag, adopted a more liberal view of native
custom. McKeag took a certain anthropological interest in the Mei*u system. Although he
suppressed the Lenta dance, which follows circumcision ceremonies, as an orgy of
consumption and fighting, he recognized the role of social ceremonies as social
mechanisms for providing the entire community with important animal protein supplements
to their daily diet of grains and tubers. His annual report for 1938 catalogues in detail the
types of ceremony accompanying initiations, marriages, births, and other socially
significant events warranting celebration and the consumtion of livestock by different social
groups. McKeag also acknowledged the Njuri Ncheke council as the source of important
environmental controls through the examples of fines assessed by njuri elders for offenses
such as cultivation in prohibited places, felling prohibited trees, failing to adopt erosion
control practices, and setting unauthorized grass fires.
H.E. Lambert served as D.C before McKeag in 1934 and 1935, returning for another
short stint during part of 1939. He completed a third tour of duty in Mem District in 1941
and 1942. Mem clearly inspired Lambert with the desire to investigate and analyze social
change on the local level; the extensive details preserved in his district reports and
subsequent papers are a valuable source of information. Lambert, like many of the British
officials of his time, took a keen interest in local environment conservation. Unlike many
of his colleagues, however, he also developed a keen appreciation for native agriculture.

73
Although he shared the British colonial obsession with soil and forestry conservation
(Anderson 1992), he also recognized in the local institutions many common developmental
interests. He successfully enlisted the Njuri in a cooperative campaign to promote local
commercial agriculture and environmental protection.
Formal recognition of the Njuri Ncheke was one of Lambert's initial actions. Chiefs
and headmen paid in cash, he observed, "have no place in the customary scheme of
things," and he saw recognition of the Njuri Ncheke as the first step in a progressive
direction: "it is there and will continue to remain there; no amount of ignoring its existence
will cause its existence to cease or reduce its power as the prime indigenous governing
body (KNA/DC/Mru 2 1934, 37)." During the period spanned by Lambert's intervals as
D.C., a number of agricultural innovations involving new food cultivars, the use of inputs
such as cattle vaccines, and the introduction of coffee, took root in local society. Lambert
also recognized the progressive nature of Meru agriculture and threw his weight behind a
number of local practices.
Lambert was an unusual representative of colonial government insofar as incisive
critique of some European behaviors accompanied his support for indigenous institutions.
He criticized local Europeans for presenting to the natives an image of "big business,
hedonism, and ephemerality," and he singled out some Christian missions for proselytizing
without educating, and ignoring the fundamental Meru spirituality based on the belief in
one God: "If the African would retain his own faith all would be well. But he will not; he
will imitate what he thinks is ours." On the problem of progress, Lamben goes on to say
that, "Government should cooperate with the right missions in restoring-in better form-
the ancient faith of the African. And that better form of Christianity based on the
indigenous creed and retaining as many of its social sanctions as are, or can be made,
compatible with it (KNA/DC/Mru 2/1939, 32-35)."
Lambert's specific criticism of some missionshe singled out the Italian Catholic
missions as setting a particularly slothful and corrupt example for the localsdid not
prevent him from campaigning with a large measure of success against other less
progressive local customs including female circumcision and cultural injunctions against
warrior agricultural labor, which he justifiably saw as removing the most physically-able
segment of the population from the most important productive sector.
The new administration-local coalition ceded to the njuri councils the regulation of
grazing, protection of hills, forests, and other resources. Following this new strategy,
based on cooperation, Lambert observed a reversal in hillside cultivation and lack of
erosion measures, the building of trenches to protect crops from wildlife attacks (which
failed to stem the incursions of wild pigs), and a reduction of tree poaching, which in any

74
case was attributed to Gikuyu settlers in the district. Reports filed during the pre-World
War II period consistently refer to Meru conservation versus the Gikuyu "get rich quick"
attitude, the threat of Gikuyu timber merchants invading Mem forest reserves, and the
dangers of Gikuyu political campaigning among the Mem population.
The Gikuyu problem was rooted in objective conditions different than those prevailing
in Mem, which undercut the threat of Gikuyu land consciousness infecting the district after
World War II. The growing unrest in Central Province did indirectly influence later
developments in Mem. These probably owed to internal factors: divisions in the polity
resulting from missionary opposition to traditional practices, generational conflicts, and
reactions to colonial antipathy for specific traditional practices, as much as opposition to the
British presence itself. The Njuri, for their part, interpreted the international conflict in
local terms, and provided a measure of material assistance to the administration during the
war:
"Hitler is an njama destroying his own people;
Churchill is a Mugambi of the Njuri of the King."
Support for the anti-colonial cause gathered, as to be expected, in the tr aditionalist areas of
north Imenti, Tigania, and Igembe, but there were incidents of Mem-Gikuyu conflict as
well.32 Another episode of aathi witchcraft led by a government chief in Tigania broke
out; the accidental spread of contagious bovine pleuro-pneumonia into the cattle population
by the vetinerary department spurred local resentment, but in general the war did not
overly upset the routine of Mem life (KNA/DC/Mru 4, 1945).
World War II and the Mau Mau rebellion set in motion a colony-wide revision of native
agricultural policy meant to dampen rural sector forces supporting the liberation movement
(Anderson 1988; Berman and Lonsdale 1992). Mem coffee planting which had begun in
1937 accelerated after the war and commercial agriculture, more than political demands,
precipitated a revision of land tenure in Mem District. Traditional tenure was based on clan
ownership as in other parts of Africa, and also recognized rights of the individual based on
tree tenureplanting bananas, yams, and miraa in Igembe and Tigania was a sufficient
guarantee of individual custodianship. Land could be conferred to outsiders through
marriage and in other cases, by the approval of the clan elders. According to a 1942 Njuri
32Meru-Gikuyu conflict, including one over women in Naari and an attempt by Gikuyu settlers to
cultivate land next to the Ngaya forest in Igembe requiring Njuri intervention also blunted potential support
for the movement.

75
ruling, land transferred could also be redeemed by repaying the initial purchase price
(Homan 1960).
The growth of the coffee industry called into question the principle of redeeming plots.
In 1949 the Njuri established additional payments as compensation for coffee plantings and
other related investments. The Njuri was also involved in establishing policies for
settlement schemes in new zones, reallocation of land for the purpose of consolidating
scattered holdings, and the registration of titled freeholdings. The slow pace of Njuri
deliberations on these issues led to the formation of local land boards to adjudicate
individual land claims in each area, but the role of the Njuri as the unquestioned custodian
of group and clan land control insured its survival into the post independence period
(Homan ibid.).
The Meru anticipated independence by building a new structure at Nciiru to house the
Njuri Ncheke. The Kenyatta government, however, saw the Njuri as an alternate local
government and restricted its operations to the local level. The Pan-Meru council was not
able to use the new parliament building, and the importance of the Njuri and age-sets faded
among the Mt. Kenya Meru during the post-independence era. In 1979, the Meru town
council nevertheless devoted one side of the monument commemorating the ten year
anniversary of the Moi, "Nyayo" government to a bas relief of Njuri Ncheke elders.
The Njuri and age-set organization remained strong in Tigania and Igembe where the
continued vitality of the Nyambene cultural endowment was supported by the distinct
complex of commercialized traditional agrarian production.
The Nvambene Farming System:
The commercialization process in Meru was uneven, and reflected inherent cultural and
spatial aspects. The Mt. Kenya side of the district responded more enthusiastically to
missionary efforts, education, and progressive measures supported by the administration.
Small scale coffee production began in 1934 under administration supervision in selected
areas of Meru and Kisii districts and accelerated during the post-war decades. Coffee
carries with it the association of being a progressive crop due to its importance for the
settler economy and its connection with modem sector institutions; still, relatively few
Nyambene farmers adopted it as their primary cash crop even as production rapidly

76
expanded after independence (Bernard 1972).33 Instead, the production of miraa (Catha
edulis), or khat, led the shift to commercialization in Igembe Division. Coffee has never
been able to compete with miraa in returns to the farmer.
The indigenous Nyambene agroforestry system differs radically from production
systems based on monocultural tea and coffee production. In terms of returns to land and
labor, and reinforcement of conservation practices, the Igembe farming system is among
the most profitable and efficient agricultural systems of its kind in Africa.
Miraa was originally cultivated for ceremonial and social uses. During this century the
farming system responded to commercial demands and the cash needs present in the
modem economy without sacrificing its natural environmentally sustainability in terms of
minimizing chemical inputs and maximizing biodiversity through a variety of local multi
purpose tree species, and integrating high value commodity production. The harvesting,
packaging, and marketing of miraa is labor intensive and generates substantial off-farm
employment. Miraa profits financed much of the subsequent coffee and tea planting in the
vicinity, and in general sustains the high population of the northern Nyambenes.
An acre of high quality miraa can generate, at current rates, many times over the
financial equivalent of an acre's annual production of of arabica coffee in Meru without
investment in chemical inputs. The same acre of miraa also provides food, fuelwood,
building materials, high quality livestock fodder, and herbal medicines effective for treating
both humans and domestic animals. Multi-story farms minimize erosion and insect
problems, trees pump and recycle nutrients from the subsoil, reduce leaching of nutrients
by lowering soil temperature, and increase soil moisture retention,. Careful management of
the vegetative canopy maximizes sunlight intercept for understory crops. Inputs are limited
to manure and ashes, and a periodic smoking by burning dried cuttings and branches to
limit insect infestation. Insecticide use, increasingly popular during the 1980s, is declining
following a recent Njuri Ncheke ban proclaimed in 1991.
Mature miraa farms are the product of generations, and while a miraa tree will produce
good income five years after planting, it only reaches full maturity after one hundred years.
A young tree is called muthaim, as it matures it becomes the respected and economically
valuable mbaine. The truly old mbaine stand out like the older trees in natural forests.
There are trees that can be accurately dated back over two hundred years in the heart of
traditional cultivation. Specimens of yet older trees are said to pre-date the establishment of
33Despite the economic success of miraa in Igembe, its association with unprogressive traditional
behaviors influenced some farmers to plant coffee as a less lucrative alternative for the modernity the
national institution of coffee represented.

77
the riika system among the Mem, and stand as tangible representatives of group histories
and cultural continuity.
Small groves of mbaine continue to serve as the meeting place for local njuri. The
miraa trees are so valuable that the Mem have developed a science of arboreal surgery for
old trees attacked by a bacterial disease, Aspirilla mellea?4 Diseased spots on the limbs
are excised without damaging the tree itself. Underground infections require the deep
excavation of the tree to remove infected portions of the root system, after which the soil is
returned and the tree resumes its normal existence.35
The average land holding in Igembe Division is three acres. In the high zones where
average holdings are usually smaller, even a developed farm less than an acre can support a
family. The work generated by the picking-tying-wrapping of miraa, transporting and
selling of miraa, provides employment. The healthy income distribution associated with it
is high in comparison to many other commercial agricultural commodities in Kenya.
Marketing miraa exposes warrior-grade youths to other economic and social influences.
This, and a high level of household self-sufficiency, help the Igembe maintain a robust
mral economy relative to other small farm regions of the Kenya highlands.
Results from on farm surveys record twenty-nine species of soil fertility enhancing trees
(all but four were indigenous varieties). Some on farm trees help retain soil moisture; two
varieties are reported to repel insects, and there were several cases of succulent plants that
are buried in the ground with seedlings to aid their establishment for the slow release of
moisture. The nitrogen-fixing potential of local tree species, synergistic properties of
intercropping patterns, and some of the ingenious techniques farmers employ represent
hypotheses waiting to be tested by formal methods. A priori prejudice against Catha edulis
has deflected professional interest in the properties of the Igembe farming system up to this
point in time, even though Lambert called for research into local systems over five decades
ago:36
It should be our business to discover the principles underlying native agriculture and to improve on
rather than inculcate new ones of which the long-term effects are unknown to us. We can generally
34 The infection is called ura locallyUra. Ura also attacks tea, bananas, and many other trees, destroying
roots and turning heartwood into dry rot.
35The Igembe also describe the root systems of different trees. Miraa has an extensive but not deep root
system, although the roots remain deep enough as to not interfere with crop roots. Mwenjela. in contrast,
has a very deep root system that pumps water up from sub-soil horizons. Farmers say that the moisture of
the succulent mwejela roots "cool" the soil and help diffuse moisture to other species and crops.
36Miraa is exported abroad in increasingly greater volume, earns the country foreign exchange, and planting
is expanding rapidly in parts of Meru district where it is not cultivated. Institutional research offers limited
returns to the sophisticated, long-term Nyambene miraa production tradtion in comparison to the potential
research benefits for other traditional food components of the system (e.g. Lipton 1988).

78
find something in native practice on which to base our teaching. Manuring, wash stopping, stall
feeding, for instance are not new ideas to the African; all we have to do (and it is plenty) is to
select, develop, and extend the ideas already there (KNA/DC/Mru 2,1939,59).
A comparative example underscores the influence of the Meru cultural ethos on
agricultural strategies. The Kenya Woodfuel Development Project (KWDP) study of
household tree planting in Kakamega, Kenya established that tree planting and percentage
of vegetative biomass on farms increases with population density and decrease in farm size.
The KWDP, however, operated on the assumption that farmer tree planting is an
agricultural innovation (Chavangi 1992, 152).37 The project achieved some success in
absolute numbers of seedlings established in certain locales. This is offset by cost/benefit
factors and the question of continued support from the project independent of donors
Considering the two districts' ecological and demographical similarities, Meru small farm
practices are sophisticated and rely upon local ethnoscientific guidance to the degree that
need for external assistence does not even arise.
The indigenous Nyambene agroforestry complex in particular offers important lessons
for the study of environmentally adaptive agricultural development systems in Africa.
Igembe avoided the famine accompanying the Kiaramu drought of 1918-19 which exacted
ten per cent mortality rates in other parts of the district (KNA/DC/Mru 1, 1919). During
the 1984 drought far fewer families in Igembe (800) required famine relief than nearby
Tigania (12,000), Nithi (5,000), and the two Imenti (4,598 combined) divisions.38 These
figures reflect both lower ecological vulnerability to drought and greater food purchasing
power. But the Igembe agricultural system's chief claim to sustainability is its adaptive
internal tradition of farmer experimentation, combining innovation and the practical testing
of techniques.39
Modem Dynamics of Nvambene Mem Cultural Institutions:
In Igembe the role of warriorhood transformed to entrepreneurhood as the economy
commercialized. Warriorhood in the Nyambenes is now largely a category of economic
activity, and just as individual riika were expected to distinguish themselves in the
37The KWDP supplied mainly exotic species to farmers and reported varying rates of adoption. The trees
were grown for harvest over the short-term, and results "'suggest that the fuelwood situation for
participating households has begun to improve (Chavangi 1992, 167)."
38Families assisted in Igembe were predominantly from Thaicu, and not Igembe proper.
39In response to survey questions which asked farmers to list the source of new techniques and technology,
seventy-nine per cent listed other farmers and twenty-one per cent volunteered the unlisted category of
individual, on farm experimentation. Comparative figures for the extension service and national media were
twenty-eight per cent and sixteen per cent.

79
traditional milieu, an Igembe generation is still expected to advance in some way the
welfare of the community. Rigby reports a similar conversion among Tanzanian Maasai
warriors who now bear responsibility for herd vetinerary treatment, procuring water, and
transport within livestock marketing networks (1985,157).
The first Miriti generation presided over the initial commercialization of miraa. The
contemporary Lubetaa riika distinguished themselves by greatly expanding the sphere of
commercial activity. They are also associated with a local enclosure movement linked to
the shift to formal individual tenure within the farming system.40 The decision to market
miraa as a commodity is recognized in Igembe as a revolutionary innovation, and one Miriti
informant remarked to me how his father told him his generation bears the responsibility
for pioneering economic innovations in the manner of the first Miriti generation.41 These
examples convey how local society sees change through the optic of Meru cultural
ideology.
In the Nyambenes, age-set structures still contribute to individual and group discipline
and enforce a culturally defined concept of development as a social process across time.
Age-sets are still controlled by the internal dynamic where adjacent generations remain
linked in a student-teacher relationship. The activities associated with each stage in the
lifecycle, however, have shifted. Table 3.4 transposes traditional progression into the
modern equivalents for stages in the life cycle.
Although formal age-set structures reinforce a stable internal order, they are often
associated with anti-progressive warrior behaviors. Condemnation of the warrior tradition
and its effect on political institutions and behaviors obscures important overall features of
the age-set system where it survives.42 In an edited volume on the subject, Southall (1977,
175) joins others who assail warriorhood as a bankrupt tradition at the center of Africa's
political and economic problems: "lacking any ideological anchor, it degenerates easily into
fascism...technological atavism and anachronism...certainly in Africa its fruits are poverty,
dependency, and bloodshed." Adaptation to changing circumstances, not warriorhood or
other African cultural traits, is the core issue, applicable to this and other institutions.
40 This is recognized by the fact that the common hedgeplant, euphorbia lirucalli, is now called mulubetaa
in some places.
41The current Miriti riika, although the first generation to attend school in large numbers, are hard-pressed
to duplicate the Lubetaa economic success and see themselves in competition with their immediate elders.
42The sequestering of initiation groups in the Menegai forest of Kenya's Nakuru District in December of
1991 was reported in connection with rumors of ethnic violence in the Rift Valley, although there was no
direct evidence that schoolboy circumcision groups were deployed when the violence did erupt several
months later. Warrior initiation has been severely criticized in Meru as well.

80
Table 3.4: Modern Generational Progression in Igembe
Traditional Progression
Modern Progression
Aite-Set
Kiigumi pre-circumcision organization
Primary education, herding, farming
Nthaaka junior warriorhood
Senior warriorhood-Ramare council
Primary/Secondary education
Miraa harvesting, urban marketing
Gwantai
Kiama kya Nkomango
Junior elder
Marriage, Stage 1 farming,
Urban-rural straddling
Miriti
Njuri Ncheke
Senior elders
Settlement, stage 2 farming
Off-farm occupations/employment
Lubetaa
Gerontocracy-Ritual Authority
Family and social authority
Ratanaa
Michubu
Ithalie
A major land dispute involving Igembe grazing lands in the Northern Grazing Area
during February of 1991 provides a contemporary illustration of institutionalized cultural
dynamics. A large group of Tigania living near the Igembe-Tigania border occupied twenty
thousand acres of Igembe land between the Turuka crater and Mulaa hill on the dry lower
margins of the Nyambenes. The contested area, the flat plain of Kiani Kya Mwitu, or "the
dying place," was the site of a major Meru-Samburu battle near the end of the last century.
Word of the invasion spread rapidly, and an Igembe age-set army of Miriti "warriors" led
by Lubetaa "junior elders" armed with mainly agricultural weapons-machetes, axes, and
some spears-assembled at Kangeta market and marched to Kya Mwitu where they engaged
the Tigania in skirmishes. Support vehicles also made the trip and were instrumental in
delivering injured combatants to the hospital.
The conflict involved the Karama clan of Tigania and a segment of the Njia clan in
Igembe. Hostilities continued for several days, leading to the involvement of divisional
administration. The District Officer and the divisional head of police came under attack by
Tigania who stoned their vehicles when they tried to arbitrate. This led to the "knee
capping" of several Tigania by armed policemen, adding to the ranks of the injured and the
five Tigania said to have died in the conflict. The Njuri Ncheke was called in to mediate the
conflict at this point. A prior meeting of the respective bodies for Igembe and Tigania had
met on October 23 without resolving their differences, but submitted a report and the list of
elders in attendance to the District administration. All the administrative locations in the
two divisions were represented by elders.

81
In March the council met again. After prayers, individuals addressed the assembly
delineating the need to reconcile the differences over the boundary. Sworn witnesses then
gave testimony which recounted past deliberations involving njuri elders, British
administrators, and post-independence Kenyan officials. The statements were signed and
thumbprinted. The history of the border, down to the individual trees and rocks marking
it, was surveyed with reference to past rituals and social exchanges as indicated in the
testimony of one elder, Daniel M'Amanja:
And you, M'Mailutha, used to sit at Karwamba, the place where we used to exchange miraa
or tobacco. Facing Luthii, the Antuanduru were sitting at Ndubai [Antuanduru is a Karama
subclan], and those who were sitting at Karibubu were from Kangeta. The day that I
circumcised Lubetaa at Maitai ya Ndubai at Ciomathia, were not your boys cut with mine?
Secondly, when I went to Likiau and killed the kudu and got a horn called Rikiau, was 1 not
with you?..Now let us refer to Kamungine which was the place for the ceremony.
M'Mailutha indicated a tree/pole called mulikinyar, and when M'Akwalu was requested to do
so also, he crossed and went to show his pole of muburwa with lukerenya in the middle-
from those mulikinyai to muburwa markers there were two hundred steps. It was divided
into two, Karama/Kangeta, and there are also poles [showing the border] at Keruria, Small
Kamuciere to Karama, and Big Kamuciere to Kangeta. Big Ndubai [a distinctive crater] to
Karama, and Small Ndubai to Kangeta. The fourth [i.e. marker] is the culvert at the foot of
Kamuciere hill on the road to Maua (Minutes of the Joint. Tigania/Igembe Njuri Ncheke
meeting of 3/90).
The series of meetings established the border according to criteria mentioned in this
account. Important supporting testimony verified that the Karama clan of Tigania and the
Njia clan of Kangeta held traditional sacrifices at Rumai and Turuka, hills aligned with the
respective Karama and Kangeta sides of the border. Maps were drawn to illustrate
positions of important landmarks.
When the Karama rejected the evidence and held to their claim, the Njuri decided to
administer the Nthenge oath to the parties. The curse incurred by violating this, the most
powerful of Meru oaths, is greatly feared. On the appointed day the Karama elders failed
to appear. The combined Njuri Ncheke of Tigania and Igembe ratified the border and
petitioned the administration to formally survey and mark the boundary. The District
Commisioner placed the official imprimatur on the solution by visiting the sight of the
conflict later that year.
The conflict offers a fascinating insight into the confluence of traditional-modem
institutional dynamics. The original action was incited by the local chief for Karama
location (appointed by the administration) and a local member of the county council. The
police and the local administration failed to achieve a peaceful solution. The Njuri Ncheke
settled the issue where administrative intervention failed, but hostilities under the surface
remain: a Karama university student I spoke to conceded the legitimacy of the old border,

82
but insisted that Karama people's rights to the land is based on the high incidence of
intermarriage between Karama and Njia clans.
The conflict was actually triggered by the division of Muthara location in Tigania into
two administrative locations. After the division, the original Muthara clans promptly
revoked Karama access to the lowland areas of Muthara location. Where access to local
resources still follows the basic unit of the clan, political leaders manipulate clan and
kinship factors: the government-appointed chief of Karama then instigated the issue of his
peoples right to unused land. Land hunger in Tigania, where the high zone agriculture is
based on coffee production, is much greater than in Igembe where returns to land and labor
are significantly higher. In Muthara and Kianjai locations, cultivation has spread all the
way to the borders of Isiolo, extremely marginal land for cultivation. The Karama invasion
was an attempt to obtain new land for future expansion, the Igembe margins of the
Northern Grazing Area are not yet settled.
The njuri system was losing its authority to use warriors to enforce its decisions by
Lambert's time. Now coucils of elders compete with local government and a number of
other institutions. Elders' power lie in their control of many agricultural resources. Future
conflicts may take on a generational aspect as competition grows over internal clan and
family resources. During the early 1980s, I heard younger males charge that their elders
waste the profits of miraa production on their own social consumption. Similarly, younger
individuals, particularly the educated, are resisting recruitment into the local njuri,
complaining that elders use membership to extort monies for the meat and beer used in their
ceremonies. New generational pressures are reflected in the noticable rise in community
support for local education, and schools now rival the njuri as grass-roots level
organizational nodes.
The Nyambene system, despite its conservative, hillbilly reputation, has demonstrated
an internal capacity for subtle and successful adaptation without losing its own internal
structure. Change generated critical feedback energizing traditional institutions even as
some modem institutions atrophied. Agricultural commercialization blended with the old
order to help maintain the system's adaptive qualities. The Njuri Ncheke environmental
ideology continues to provide important ideological inputs as the agricultural system adapts
to lowland farming. The more important issue, not just for Meru, but for the whole of
Africa, is that there is no sustainability without institutions and mechanisms for resolving
the conflicts that inevitably crop up where there is competition for economic resources.

CHAPTER 4
THE COMMERCIALIZATION OF NYAMBENE AGRICULTURE
There is no evidence that the qat habit is dangerously injurious to health. It does cause
constipation, but it has never been suggested that it may seriously damage the body as may
tobacco, which is alleged to cause cancer, or alcohol, which may cause liver complaints. Qat does
not create an addiction, like opium or hashish, in that those who are suddenly deprived of it, do not
suffer physical consequences. Deprivation may cause mental distress, but that is all. Confirmed
qat eaters who are deprived of the leaf, when they visit foreign countries, quickly adapt themselves
to its absence. (Serjeant 1983,172)
This chapter traces the growth of commercial agriculture in the Nyambenes. It overlaps
with the historical sequence presented in the previous chapter, but focuses on economic
rather than cultural and institutional factors. A description of the growth of miraa
production and marketing appears elsewhere (Goldsmith 1988). For this reason, this
aspect of economic growth is summarized, and augmented with information on new
developments in miraa marketing networks.
Precolonial Trade Networks
The phase of local ethnic consolidation detailed in the previous chapter overlapped with
a period characterized by expanding commercial relations among groups. Specialized
commodity production and exchange based on eco-niche specialization grew into multi
ethnic regional trade networks linking highlands to lowlands. The position of the
Nyambene Range, straddling the ethno-ecological interface, made local markets the most
important in the northern highland region's precolonial economy. It is not difficult to
conceive the spatial advantages of Nyambene markets in the precolonial regional economy.
The pastoral Galla, Samburu, and Somali are proximate to the perimeter of Mera grazing
areas that extend in an arch from the Nyambene foothills to near the Waso Nyiro River. To
the southeast, a short distance across the dryland cultivation areas of Tharaka, the Tana
River begins its curving path to the coast. The gentle plain on the other side of the Tana
leads to Kitui, the center of the extensive nineteenth century Kamba trade networks. Nyeri,
the traditional capital of the Gikuyu, is reached by following routes extending around
Mount Kenya to the southwest; the rest of Mera and Embu district lie on the southerly
tangent skirting its eastern slopes.
83

84
The Igembe Mera ethnic trade network, as indicated by the existence of formal gichiaro,
or fictive kinship relations, included all of these ethnic groups, the Tharaka, and the major
sections of the Mt. Kenya Mera. Local markets in the Mount Kenya region were respected
institutions whose neutrality was observed even during periods of warfare (Muriuki 1974,
Mwaniki 1984). Even though Meru-Maasai/Samburu were considered hostile, specific
markets for trade with these groups also existed. Ethnicity did not in any way present an
obstacle to trade, and gichiaro served as the equivalent to most-favored-nation status in the
international economy.
Although harmonious relations among these groups fostered peaceful cultural
symbiosis, the droughts and famines of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
presaged a growing trend towards conflict as the pressures on land resources increased. A
series of droughts between 1825 and 1840 produced more intense social consequences than
the earlier dry cycles in the region. Drought induced famines of 1825-1829 earned names
like "Mbaranganu-the destroyer" in Kirinyaga and Embu, and 'Kithithiria-the finisher," in
southern Mera. It was followed within a decade by two other famines, the "Kiverio-
refusing to help people" famine, and the "Kavovo-hating without reason" famine. The
"sweet potato" famine ofm 1843, as it was named across the region because people
survived by virtue of these tubers, was perhaps the worst (Mwaniki 1972, 6). Famines,
however, were largely localized, and this also contributed to the development of exchange
in the region as groups relied upon exchange relations to buffer periodic shortfalls.
A variety of factors supporting a surge in population growth and the growing regional
and external trade produced a boom in food and livestock production as "networks
overlapped and intersected in intricate patterns that defy reconstruction (Ambler 1988, 87)."
Decline of Pastoralist Power
The growing strength of agricultural groups corresponded to the eventual decline of
pastoral power. Even where linked by symbiotic arrangements, over time cattle herders
became more vulnerable to drought and more prone to internal conflict as rangelands
receded. During the 1840s raiding had replaced the largely laissez faire social relations
characterizing agriculturalist and pastoralist interactions. The pastoral groups living in
pockets and on the fringes of Mera agricultural communities (except areas of Tigania where
extensive intermarriage had occurred) were expelled. In 1856 Meru warriors from north
Imenti defeated the Maasai and pursued them as far as the Laikipia plateau. During the
latter decades of the century, the Tigania and Igembe Mera similarly drove Maasai and
Sambura groups from the lower reaches of the Nyambene Range to the other side of the

85
Waso Nyiro River.(Mwaniki 1984, Mboroki 1972). By the 1870s Maasai were raiding
coastal settlements (Salim 1975), and the Laikipiak Maasai, weakened by the raids of other
Maasai sections and proximate agriculturalists, self-destructed in a final spurt of
internecine warfare during the 1880s (Sobania 1974, Hjort 1981).
The exception to pastoral decline was the Somali expansion. The movement of the
Somali into present day Kenya, although obviously reflecting demographic and ecologicval
factors, also sprung from a religious revival in Bardera during the 1820s. Somali clans
crossed the Juba River and severely pressed the Boran of northeastern Kenya. The Somali
mixed livestock strategy based on camels, cattle, and small ruminants proved superior to
the Boran cattle-based economy, allowing them to consolidate territorial gains during the
post 1850s droughts (Merriman 1987). During the 1860s Somali defeated the Boran at El
Wak and Wajir. Somali pressure pushed the Boran to the western edge of present day
Northeastern Province Within a few decades Somali groups had reached Isiolo, on the
doorstep of the Nyambenes.
The decline of Maasai and Boran cattle-based monoculture contrasted with the resilience
of the Somali mixed ecological adaptation. The Samburu and Rendille, present a third
variation where the groups maintained their territorial position through the complex
environmental and cultural symbiosis described by Spencer (1973).
The Impact of Ivory on Regional Trade Networks
Items manufactured abroad started to enter the highland-lowland trade networks by the
early nineteenth century through Kamba linkages with the coast. The first major world
commodity exported from the Nyambene region was ivory. The commodization of ivory
stimulated commercial forces that penetrated into the most remote and inhospitable comers
of northern Kenya, subtlety altering economic relations among groups. Coastal caravans
emanating out of Zanzibar centered primarily on slaves along the routes transversing
present-day Tanzania into central Africa, and on ivory in much of present day Kenya
(Sharif 1987). Parties in search of ivory entered the region with increasing frequency after
the mid-point of the nineteenth century following the same trails, reducing the Kamba to
secondary players.
The ivory boom briefly created a new role for the remaining hunter-gatherer groups who
were able to augment their meager existence by becoming guides, ivory-hunters, and
middlemen between their warrior herdsmen patrons and the traders roaming the area.
During the years prior to and after the turn of the century, the ivory trade became a

86
multiracial bazaar in the bush as Swahili traders from the coast, Ndorobo, Somalis,
Kamba, and Europeans combed the landscape in search of the commodity.
Judging from the accounts of Chanler (1896), the Igembe and Tigania of the
Nyambenes and the Rendille of the NFD remained somewhat aloof of this phenomena
insofar as these groups traded from a position of strength. Chanler camped in Thaichu and
had to deal gingerly with the Igembe to procure the food and supplies he needed for his
expedition to Rendille country. When he finally found the Rendille, who come across as a
proud and wealthy group in his narrative, he was forced to bide his time and use
considerable diplomacy before completing a deal for small livestock and donkeys with the
white-clad nomads. Five years later, Arkell-Hardwick (1903) describes how the Igembe
ambushed his party and killed the major Somali trader in the region.1 This, and other
accounts indicate that the Igembe did not have to venture away from their area to trade-for
the most part other groups visited them-and were hostile to perceived threats to their local
autonomy.
Like other African commodity booms, the ivory bonanza was short lived. Europeans
became actively involved as hunters, and during the latter years of the century elephant
hunting financed missionary and commercial penetration of the African interior. Procuring
tusks became difficult as elephant populations declined. Not only the elephants suffered.
Expeditions lived off the meat provided by slaughtering wildlife in large numbers. Later,
the European administration banned hunting and demarcated game reserves. Hunting was
transformed into a ritualized activity for sportsmen and a model for imperial training like
Baden-Powell's scouting movement. Before this occurred the European freebooters
manning the hunting expeditions were used to staff the punitive missions being launched
against recalcitrant African populations. Some Europeans even treated the new diversion of
manhunting the same as game hunting, counting their kills in the same terms they used for
their bags of game (MacKenzie 1987).
Late Nineteenth Century Environmental Catastrophes
A number of environmental disasters punctuated the rise of Western influence in East
Africa. Smallpox, rinderpest, jiggers, locusts, and famine appeared on the landscape at
different intervals. Severe drought decimated livestock populations, reduced the human
population, and vitiated local exchange. Trade networks collapsed, replaced by survival
strategies on an extreme scale ranging from the pawning of women and children, migration
^is attack took place on the southern approach to Igembe country, probably around Nkinyang'a.

87
on an unprecedented scale producing an onslaught of refugees, and finally, the repudiation
of all social and cultural conventions including long-standing ties of fictive kinship in
cases. Largescale raiding grew with the breakdown of law and order. The social linkages
between different groups became more important than economic relations, as the most
affected groups sought succor from kin and patrons who had food, and refrained from
raiding neighboring groups with whom they shared gichiaro relations (Fadiman 1976).
The great famine of 1897-1901 completed what the rinderpest epidemic of 1891 and the
smallpox epidemics of 1890s began. The famine may have caused up to fifty % mortality
among the Kitui Akamba where it perhaps hit hardest (Lindbloom 1920)-a fantastic level
of human devastation by any standard-and effected virtually every area of Kenya's central
highlands. These catastrophes, most severe for populations in the lowlands, and
immediately followed by the British intrusion, served to permanently alter high zone-low
zone group relations. The native economy reverted to survival strategies as local markets
wilted along with crops in the wake of the famines and epidemics of the last decade of the
nineteenth century.
The calamities acted to undermine the conservative cultural orientation towards trade of
NFD pastoral groups who had been formerly secure in their predominantly subsistence
production. Before the rinderpest epidemic, Somali traders eager to procure ivory, rhino
horns, salt, and slaves had sought these products among the pastoralists occupying the far
north of present-day Kenya. These largely self-sufficient societies disdained trade at the
time as a low-status occupation. After the calamities, when a pair of tusks could be
exchanged for thirty head of cattle, the Borana and Gabbra actively hunted elephants and
rhino for their products, and sought out the Somali in their own territory in order to recoup
their herds (Robinson 1979).
The famine gave rise to some important elements of the new order to come. Powerful
individuals who had the resources to withstand the drought were able to profit from the
desperate circumstances of others, often in a manner that previously had been socially
reprehensible. Those who sought refuge in the mission stations returned to their farms
with seeds and a headstart on the traditionalists who spumed contact, and the flight of
refugees to the first nodes of British administration represent the beginnings of African
urbanization. The crisis attracted the first generation of future mission educated elites,
initiated the Swahilization of upcountry natives settling in the "Majengo" areas of upcountry
towns like Nairobi, Machakos, and Kitui (Ambler 1988), and symbolized the beginning of
social inversion in local society where traditional elites were displaced by actors on the
periphery (Mutiso 1975).

88
The late century events reformulated the previous pattern of ecozone symbiosis. The
rangelands were already experiencing the social and environmental consequences of the
population brake on the expansion-predicated pastoral mode. Many highland communities
less effected by the drought profited from the helplessness of the lowland refugees where
their kin and near-kin on the lower slopes suffered the depredations of hungry migrants and
raiders who crossed the Tana in large numbers. Consequently, they were able to rapidly
recoup their domestic losses much faster when sufficient rains reappeared in 1899.
The calamities apparently wreaked relatively little change on Meru internal organization.
Meru (particularly the important Nyambene region) largely drops out of the historical
accounts of Ambler and other commentators who describe the disastrous events preceding
the turn of the century. Fadiman's (1976,1982) work on Meru history is also curiously
silent on this score, which leads us to infer that: (1) the effect of the drought and epidemics
in Meru was less severe than in the southern areas of Mt. Kenya and the adjoining
lowlands; (2) except for a significant incorporation of Maasai by the Tigania section of the
Meru, the district remained insulated to a large degree from the social consequences of the
upheaval. Even Arkell Hardwick, an ivory trader who spent time in the Nyambenes during
1898-99, is completely silent on the topic of regional catastrophic events intervening
between his visit and Chanler's journey five years earlier.
The Nyambene area was nevertheless influenced by the far reaching developments that
emerged out of the famine and gathered strength during the next century. The imposition
of British authority at the turn of the century transcended and froze in a stroke the processes
of migration, interaction, and consolidation beginning several thousand years ago. Prior to
this, a regional political economy as indicated by internal institutions like the Meru Njuri
Ncheke, regular rural markets, formalized devices for inter-group interaction, and cultural
methods for demarcation and control of resources such as land, was rapidly evolving. It
was nevertheless incomplete, and exchange oriented or commercial production as a
dominant aspect of the production system's logic was relatively recent, particularly on the
pastoralist side, as well (Smith 1992, Arkell-Hardwick 1903, Chanler 1896).
The British Influence
The British presence was of an altogether different order than local societies could
comprehend initially. As Lonsdale (1986,141) succinctly states, small political
communities with long histories were engulfed by conquest in a larger state without
memories. The Pax Britannica hardened ethnic groups into "tribes," those tenured
inhabitants of territories demarcated by formal borders. The British reoriented

89
administration and exchange towards Nairobi, and economic change traveled from the
center on the new "hub and spokes" alignment. As in other regional economies across
Kenya, the indigenous Mount Kenya trade network declined and stagnated. Previously,
the comparative advantage based on econiche adaptations had not conferred undue
advantage on the higher ecozones vis a vis middle and lower zones. This changed as
colonial administrative centers became the new nodes of exchange, and traditional social
relations across Kenya were revised or eclipsed by the new order (Waller 1989, Cohen and
Atieno-Odhiambo 1989). Ethnic differences and the calamities of the late 19th century
nevertheless created the wrong impression among Europeans arriving on the scene. It has
taken a generation of scholarly work to replace the incorrect impression of tribes as
autonomous and hostile units with the actual condition of cultural and economic symbiosis:
The population of what became Kenya may have amounted to 3 million in 1890, of whom three-
quarters would have lived in the highlands. Three main groups were involved in the conquest.
Inland from the coast the first to be met were the highland Bantu, primarily the Kamba and the
Gikuyu, but also the Embu and Meru of Mt. Kenya. They were peoples, not tribes, potential
nations rather than actual dispersions of related lineages. There were boundaries between them, and
they gave their neighbors different names, but these served to demarcate different environments and
the different cultures that had grown up in their management, and not absolute breaks in political
allegiance and economic self-sufficiency. Trade, marriage, and patronage knew no confines. As
the one purely pastoral people of the highlands, the Maasai could only survive in close connection
with the 'mixed farming' peoples who lived beyond their escarpments. They were the bankers of
the highlands. Their capital, and their currency, was livestock. (Berman and Lonsdale 1992,19-20).
After the initial confrontations between the British and local societies, the shift to
colonialism did not engender substantial conflict (Oliver 1991, Illife 1982).2 The threat of
lethal famine, local group hostilities, and traditional concepts of the internal order were
being replaced by a new spatial order based on nodes of European capitalism. The new
regional organization provided by the colonial administration, modern transport, and the
establishment of settler agriculture substantially reordered the local landscape. In some
cases, like that of the crowded Gikuyu areas, the development of the settler economy
presented new opportunities for accumulation (Kanogo 1987). In general, like the effects
of the epidemics and natural disasters of the 1890s across the Kenyan landscape, the
penetration of European capitalism was uneven, and affected the internal organization of
different groups in different ways.
The European economy set the Gikuyu reserves on a path of conflict, both internal and
external, which significantly impacted on the colony's pathway to political independence
2 In many areas prophecies about iron snakes snorting fire and people wearing colored clothes like the
wings of butterflies had primed highland populations for changes that were beginning to manifest even as
famine and disease traumatized the local order.

90
and beyond (Berman and Lonsdale 1992). The dynamics in the Luo areas was different.
Nyanza became linked to the colonial economy as a labor reserve, out-migration produced a
Luo cultural gloss on the different environments spanning the rural reserve and the urban
and coastal areas that formed the expanding Luo landscape (Cohen and Atieno-Odhiambo
1989). Decentralized societies bifurcated into two streams of traditional and Western
development. Nowhere was the pattern exactly the same and understanding the transition
to capitalism involves exploring underlying uneven and incongruous, but linked,
processes of change.
The Nyambene Mem response to colonial rule fills in some of the missing patterns in
the standard picture of colonial rule and capitalist penetration. In particular, it highlights a
pattern of change in which internal organization was not overturned by a new class of
modem elites. It also shows how different commercial crops influence and determine the
process of commercialization and rural development in different ways. In more general
terms, environmental factors condition the choice of export crops grown locally, and
different commodities are system attractors that create feedback and influence the cultural-
agricultural system in different ways. Income distribution, household labor allocation and
consumption, use of inputs, investment strategies, social orientation, relationships to
modem institutions and emergent or deepened cleavages within a local society vary
according to dominant market parameters.
A number of marketed crops are produced in the Nyambene area: coffee, tea, miraa,
cotton, tobacco, and various food crops are all grown for sale. Of all these commodities,
miraa emerged out of the complex of indigenous production as the commercial flagship of
the Nyambene system. Assessing the dynamics supporting the emergence of miraa as a
major commercial commodity is important for understanding the unique properties of the
Mem agricultural system and for understanding what it signifies for small-scale African
agriculture.
The Rise of Miraa as a Commercial Commodity
Miraa (Catha edulis) is a tree indigenous to the highland forests of eastern Africa. It is
traditionally valued for its stimulatory and medicinal properties in parts of Africa and Asia.
In the case of Ethiopia and southern Arabia, where miraa is known as chat and khat
respectively, its use is a longstanding social institution. Catha edulis domestication may
actually predate the domestication of coffee in these regions where it has been cultivated on
a commercial basis for centuries (Weir 1985; Kennedy 1987).

91
The fresh leaves and tender young shoots of the tree are chewed to induce a state of
increased alertness and enhanced concentration.3Because it is highly perishable, traditional
markets for miraa and khat were located within a short radius of the areas where
domesticated production thrives, and almost always involved alcohol eschewing Muslims.
Still, traditional miraa consumpdon extended to a remarkably large geographic area prior to
this century. In Meru its use was governed by social controls similar to those associated
with beer. Consumption outside ceremonial occasions was limited to senior elders and the
gerontocracy. These controls lapsed as commercial production drew younger generations
into the miraa industry.
Wild miraa occurs as a tree growing up to seventy feet in indigenous East African
forests (Dale and Green way 1961). Miraa is a hardy species that can grow in a variety of
environments. Domesticated miraa is usually limited to highland areas between 4,000 and
7,000 feet above sea level. It is cultivated as a tree, large shrub, or closely cropped bush
according to ecological condidons. In most systems it is intercropped with other trees and
crops. In Yemen, it is grown with a variety of fruit trees and grapes. The best miraa was
irrigated by natural springs, a practice that has expanded to include small petrol pumps in
recent times. Yemeni khat is also monocropped on terraces carved out of steep hills, and
at higher altitudes it is cultivated as a bush cut back to the ground every several years, much
in the manner of tea. In Ethiopias Hararghe region, it is planted among field crops.
In Kenya the popularity of miraa beyond the geographically restricted areas where it is
grown is a relatively recent phenomenon following in the wake of urbanization and the
development of transport infrastructure. The popularity of miraa among Kenya's Muslim
communities was the principle stimuli for commercial production after the precolonial era,
but today its use has outstripped earlier religious, ethnic, and social boundaries. Kenyas
consumption has doubled several times since independence, and its use outside the areas
where traditional social controls limited the potential for abuse often generates heated
debate, particularly within Kenya's Muslim community (Troughear 1982; Goldsmith
1985). The contentious aspects of miraa consumption has not hindered the expansion of
production. In fact, miraa production is increasing at a faster rate than most other market
commodities in Kenya for a number of reasons. The popularity of miraa, like other
socially consumed commodities, has increased as urbanization and economic change within
the region accelerates.
3 The active organic compounds, cathine and cathinone, are unstable phytochemical precursors of
norpseudoephedrine (Kalix and Braeden (1985). Pseudoepherine is a common ingredient used in commercial
cold and asthma preparations.

92
Social Aspects of Miraa Consumption
Pre-eminently a social commodity, miraa consumption presents an interesting variation
on the social impacts created by coffee, sugar, alcohol, and exotic spices in response to
Western socioeconomic change (Mintz 1985; Schivelbusch 1993). Like coffee, tea, sugar,
and the non-medicinal use of hard alchohol, miraa consumption outside of traditional
settings is linked to other important social and economic changes.
The history of miraa consumption closely parallels that of coffee. Like Somalis, Arabs,
and Swahilis, the Meru tell the same legend explaining the discovery of miraa by a
herdsman, who found his goats happily munching on branches of miraa after an
uncharacteristic overnight absence (Getahun and Krikorian 1973, 354-356). The happy
goat story is also invoked to explain the discovery of coffee (Jacob, 1935; Hattox 1985,
13). It is altogether likely that the Igembe learned the uses of miraa from the hunter-
gatherers' extensive pharmacopeia, domesticated the tree, and incorporated into their social
and ceremonial milieu.
When coffee first became available in Europe, contrary and fanciful reasons were
produced to condemn it as a poison: "a vile and worthless foreign novelty...the fruit of
goats and camels...induced palsy, impotence, and leanness." A Women's Petition Against
Coffee published in London in 1674 blamed coffee for removing men from their homes
and causing impotence. Italian priests appealed to Pope Clement VIII to ban Christian use
of coffee claiming that Satan gave the "hellish black brew" to infidel Moslems as a
substitute for the forbidden wine. The irony here is that coffee consumption was
persecuted in the Islamic world as well: coffee houses in Cairo, Mecca and Constantinople
were charged as being centers for vice and immorality. As late as 1656 the Ottoman
authorities suppressed coffee for political reasons (Roden 1977, 21).4
Some users of the subversive drink praised it as an elixir. It was reserved for royalty
with severe penalties for use by commoners. The rising economic elite then adopted it as a
civilized pastime, a parlour drink in contrast to the indecorous conduct prevailing in the
pubs that catered to the growing working class. Voltaire's sentiment, "I have been
poisoning myself for eighty years and I'm not dead," ultimately carried the day, and coffee
entered the sphere of mass consumption (Hattox 1985). The term "Penny Universities"
came into use when coffee houses made their appearance across the English landscape.
Coffee imbibed in these Penny Universities provided an alternative to the endemic beer and
4Criticism of miraa and khat matches almost word for word these sentiments expressed in connection with
coffee.

93
ale consumption that kept the masses in a state of foggy inebriation. Sober discussions on
religion, politics, and society accompanied the shift from governance by royal decree to a
society governed by institutions (Jacobs 1935).
Also like coffee, expanded miraa consumption provoked controversy, far-fetched
scientific theories, and attempts to ban it before the elite economic classes began to use it.
The history of miraa and khat use is different from coffee insofar as the main opposition to
it emanates from Westerners sources. It has always enjoyed local social legitimacy where it
is grown as a traditional crop. The first Westerners to describe its use in Kenya found it a
curious social custom whose social importance seemed to outweigh its physical effects.
Chanler (1896), induced to chew some in the course of his negotiations with the Igembe,
found its effect mild; Arkell-Hardwick (1903) was exasperated by its delaying effect on
trade negotiations.5 Some British administrators registered slight disapproval of miraa
consumption, but unlike damning reports of its debilitating effects in Yemen, the more
severe criticism of miraa came after independence when its societal critics castigated it as an
addictive drug and blamed it for a host of societal ills including indolence, crime, and
violence.
The miraa debate shares strong similarities with legal debates over the status of coffee in
the Islamic world during the sixteenth century (Hattox 1985,70). Like coffee, some
Muslim scholars classified miraa as an inebriant, and a "haramu" or illicit commodity
subject to the same laws proscribing alcohol. The most organized opposition centered
around a faction of the Muslim religious establishment on the coast whose anti-miraa
campaign is partially funded by Iran. This campaign appears to have run its course without
effecting consumption-many users educated in Islamic law concede that miraa is
"makruh," a substance whose use is neither approved or disapproved, but best avoided,
like cigarettes and cannabis.
Like the example of coffee, miraa has become a social force encouraging discussion and
the exchange of ideas. On the coast, the local meeting places for miraa chewers are
important political nodes during election campaigns, and miraa use frequently coincides
with criticism of corruption in religious and political spheres.
The social rituals governing khat consumption is most highly developed in Yemen,
where it is used by the majority of the population, and it is an important factor in mediating
changing social relations set in motion by modernization (Weir 1985). John G. Kennedy,
a medical doctor, headed a team that conducted the only serious clinical study to date of
5He commented that: "the sap of this wood possesses certain stimulating qualities, and is extensively
chewed by the natives of North Kenia. I tried it afterwards, and found it of a somewhat peppery flavour. Its
effect on me was rather nauseating, and afterwards it gave me a slight headache (pg. 124)."

94
miraa consumption in Yemen. The results of this extensive study, including physical
examinations of consumers and non-consumers in a control group, concluded that the
adverse effects of Catha edulis are exaggerated by many observers, and that chewers do not
significantly suffer from health problems other than those found in the population at large
(1987). This study, and other research during the last three decades, confirms the
commonly quoted view put forth by the Aden Medical Service in 1958 that the substance is
essentially harmless in the local setting (Serjeant 1983,172).
In Meru, miraa is more often seen as a custom linked to the atavistic cultural orientation
of the Nyambene population than that of modem drug abuse. Alcohol abuse fueled by
miraa profits is in reality a far greater problem. Miraa consumption in the Nyambenes
differs from that in urban areas. The Igembe prefer high quality miraa used in smaller
quantities, chewed slowly, and exchanged with friends. They eschew the use of gum,
sweets, cloves, and other accessories which mask the distinctive astringent sweetness of
quality miraa. They often chew it in the context of daily work, and turn to beer for post
work recreation. What makes the growth of the miraa phenomenon so interesting is how
radically it differs from other examples of the development of commercial agriculture in
Kenya.
The Socioeconomic Context of Miraa Production
Kenyan commercial agriculture embodies a number of different strategies ranging from
capital intensive large scale production to smallholder production organized by private
companies or government parastatals. Miraa production and marketing in Kenya provides
an example of indigenous economic initiative based within internal social organization
similar to the dynamics revealed in Polly Hill's study of Ghana's cocoa farmers (1974).
The pattern of ecological adaptation combined with regional integration, and the utilization
of inter-ethnic regional trade networks more resembles Kjekshus's picture of East Africa's
ecologically-determined trade during the nineteenth century (1977) than state-managed
examples of commodity production. Like the laissez faire economic growth associated
with the Kola trade among the Hausa in West Africa during the nineteenth century (Lovejoy
1980, 141), miraa has provided the capital for the shift to the full commercialization of
agriculture in the Nyambene area, while retaining important aspects of local social
organization.
Miraa cultivation in Meru is confined to a very small section of the Nyambenes,
approximately fifty square kilometers, although cultivation is now expanding beyond this

95
core area and even to other parts of the district.6 In contrast to coffee, tea, pyrethrum,
cotton, and many other crops produced for the market, miraa is a purely indigenously
developed and marketed cash crop. Traditional cultivation in the Nyambenes was limited to
pockets in the high zone between 5,500 and 6,500 feet. Miraa also grows in lower and
drier zones, and new propagation is taking place with permanent settlement in the lower
ecozones abutting areas of traditional cultivation.
The origins of the miraa trade lie well back in precolonial times, but the expansion that
has taken place, especially during the past half-century, follows in the wake of the
economic and social change accompanying regional integration into the world economy.
Consumer demand exists in both urban and rural areas, and the miraa network responds
rapidly to technological and infrastructural developments in its quest to surmount
environmental and political obstacles that stand between markets and a product that has an
economic half-life of forty-eight hours. Miraa's market value depends on its freshness and
quality. Efficient marketing of picked miraa is a fundamental requirement of its
distribution, making marketing risky in comparison to tea, coffee, and other cash crops
produced for international markets.
Nyambene miraa is distributed efficiently to every comer of the country and beyond.
Production, packaging, and distribution employs many people in the Nyambenes, many
Nyambene people outside the Nyambenes, and various non-Meru people who are
integrated into the miraa network. Traditional miraa cultivation thus set in motion feedback
leading to an economic institution that cannot be easily replicated under other smallholder
conditions. Agronomic knowledge is not an on the shelf technology. Market demand
reflects the differentials in the age of trees, place, and species cultivated. The complex
marketing networks evolved, and are not likely to be replicated in other areas in simple
fashion. The growth of commercialized miraa production in the Nyambenes was
dependent upon the right combination of favorable environmental conditions, historical and
spatial variables, and circumstances of social change.
The nearly complete absence of land sales in the miraa growing area, the high
productivity of a small plot under miraa, and high opportunity for off-farm income in the
harvesting, marketing, and other aspects of the industry give considerable options to the
Nyambene peasant cultivator compared to many other Kenyan smallholders. Free entry to
the market lessens the power concentrated in patron's hands. Because the miraa industry
6Miraa production is now established in the Munithu area of Imenti division, and is being planted in Chuka
and Runyenjes on the southern flank of Meru as well. In these cases it is marketed solely on a local basis,
but its importance as a source of petty household income is likely to grow as long as local consumption
increases and the coffee industry remains stagnant.

96
largely operates independently of state control or involvement, politicians, famous for
manipulating access to the state and local resources, have had little scope for interference.
The ultimate impact of changes taking place within the local economy are yet to be seen, but
one observation is very clear: the miraa industry is incredibly efficient, flexible in the face
of external changes, remarkably free of waste and corruption, and it bears little resemblance
to other agricultural enterprises in Kenya.
It does, however, allow us to challenge or qualify some of the assumptions about the
nature of African rural production. Production of surplus for the market was not new to
African societies, and the transition to market oriented agriculture can be smooth. We
cannot uncritically accept notions that "the rural social order constituted in itself a powerful
blockage restructuring the development of the market as long as its institutions remained
relatively undisturbed by outside pressure (Hart 1982, 38)." The rural social order actually
facilitated the organization of the miraa trade and the distribution of its profits, and lends
continuity to the development process.
The Igembe Meru entered the capitalist economy with a full complement of precolonial
baggage in the style of Hyden's (1981) uncaptured peasants, and demonstrate that small
holder peasants can exert considerable influence on the course of events in Africa. While
the response of such peasants to unfavorable policies and prices is often perceived as
withdrawal from markets into subsistence production, this should not blind us to the range
of possibilities and responses offered by alternative markets and parallel economies be they
of an affective (Hyden 1981), magendo (Kasfir 1980), or of some as yet unknown nature.
The Igembe parlayed a potential market and unfavorable conditions (or the lack of favorable
ones) into a system of production and marketing which supports a major social institution
in East Africa. They show little reluctance to sacrifice their autonomy when attracted into
the formal economy by proper incentives and favorable policies, despite their success
within the parallel economy.
The Nvambene Range and The Mem Farming System
The particular determinants of modem day cash crops are to be found in the traditional
zone agriculture practiced by the Meru, and outlined in detail by Bernard (1972). This first
zone occurs above the altitude of 5,500 feet and is characterized by high rainfall, cool
temperatures, and powdery, over-acidic, and structureless soil of the brown loam type.
Traditionally this zone was used for grazing cattle, but during the past several decades it
has given way to tea, wheat, potatoes, and pyrethrum. The more productive "Kikuyu
Grass" zone overlaps with the bracken zone, but is distinguished by volcanic loams and

97
loamy clays. The Kikuyu grass which characterizes this area after the forest has been
cleared is an excellent forage for cattle. The Kikuyu grass zone supports the same crops as
the high bracken zone, and occurs between 5,000 and 8,000 feet.
The star grass zone, which falls between the 4,000 and 6,000 feet, is highly productive
agricultural land with fertile soils, adequate rainfall, and moderate temperatures which make
it ideal for a wide range of traditional and introduced crops. These include bananas, root
crops, cereals and pulses, and it is the prime area for coffee production.
The zones that occur below 4,000 feet have decided disadvantages compared to the
higher zones. Productive soils occur in some areas, but lower and more variable rainfall,
and high evaporation limits most agricultural production to millet, sorghum, and other
drought resistant crops. The grass-woodland zone between 4,000 and 3,000 feet is used
for the shifting agriculture of cereals, pulses, and tobacco. Biologicasl vectors make life in
these lower zones more precarious. Malaria and other diseases pose a threat for humans,
tsetse fly and other parasites for cattle. An area in the northern part of the range free of
tsetse fly renders it fit for cattle grazing. Other lower zones are used primarily for goats
and sheep, and the harvesting of wood, salt, and other sundry wild resources.
Most of the population lived in the temperate middle zones but maintained the fields they
had cleared at lower altitudes, augmenting them as they gradually cleared the forest above.
As a result, the extended families inhabiting these vertical holdings had access to a wide
variety of food crops and cash crops, livestock, forest products, and honey. The vertical
pattern also functioned to heighten the fragmentation and isolation of the different sections
of the Meru. It is not easy to use ecozone criteria as a criteria for economic differentials in
the Nyambenes because a household often possesses land in more than one zone, and may
also maintain livestock in the lowlands.
The Meru presence in the lower zones increased the incidence of exchange and conflict
with pastoral groups. The variety of ecological niches, ethnically diverse peoples
embracing the agricultural, hunting-gathering, and pastoral modes of production fostered a
proliferation of exchange networks linking different economic and social groups (Waller
1985, 348). These networks promoted interaction, symbiosis, and a high degree of
flexibility both with regard to mode of production and ethnic identity (Hjort 1981, 53-54).
The Igembe and Tigania of the Nyambene Range were situated in an advantageous location
to benefit by the expansion of the local pre-colonial trade, and the long distance trade from
the coast in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The range juts out like an island of
prosperity into the drier areas on the edge of the highlands, placing the residents of the
Nyambenes in a position to profit from trade with their pastoral and agricultural neighbors,
and the caravans and trading parties that came later.

98
Igembe Division itself is a densely populated region where it is difficult to distinguish
rich from poor on the basis of appearance. Small but permanent rivers running down the
hillsides belie a locally widespread wealth not common in Africa. Scattered homesteads
uniformly dot the landscape, surrounded by the configuration of fields and agro-forests that
give the area its unusual appearance. The observer who enters this area in search of miraa
is unlikely to spot it against the riot of trees, shrubs, and crops that stand out from the
luxurious natural vegetation. More obvious are the ubiquitous plots of tea and coffee.
Upon closer inspection, scattered trees of mbaine miraa emerge within intercropped
systems incorporating maize, cassava, sweet potatoes, peas, bananas, the leathery sheaths
of gomba plants (Ensete ventrilosum), a cash crop in its own right, varieties of indigenous
and exotic trees cultivated for timber, firewood, and forage, and bordering the plots of tea
and coffee. Mwenjela, prized for goat fodder, is planted next to the miraa trees, and
supports jungle-like growths of yam vines, while acting as a ladder for harvesting older
miraa trees. The plots of the younger, wiry limbed muthairo, often organized in straight
lines, are more easily identified either growing alone, or interspersed with the tea and
coffee. Not all smallholdings contain miraa, and some farmers consciously prefer growing
tea, and up to several years ago, coffee.
The type and quality of miraa can vary greatly within a very short distance. The old
trees planted by the Gwantai and Ithalie, extremely valuable today, produce a very high
quality miraa called alele, or shamba ya wazee, because it was reserved for the elders. This
mbaine is most common in Thuuru, Mwiyo, and Muringene, areas that border each other
midway between Kangeta and Maua. This Kangeta-Muringene miraa is marked by tea, and
grows in the Kikuyu grass zone. Miraa cultivation expanded beyond Maua to high rainfall
areas formerly dominated by coffee. This miraa, despite its appealing bright red
appearance to unsophisticated consumers, is of considerably lower quality, as is the miraa
grown down the road transecting Maua and Meru National Park.
Laare town is the other principal miraa market. Laare miraa is marked by coffee, and
grows in the star grass zone. There are essential differences between the two markets.
Laare miraa may fetch only half the price of most of the miraa sold in Muringene, but it is
more plentiful and travels much better. Laare miraa is purchased for the international
export trade for these reasons. It is cheaper and retains an acceptable level of freshness for
several days longer than the otherwise higher quality Muringene miraa.
Miraa produces one harvest a month during the rains, and one harvest every 45 days
during the dry season. When the miraa is ready to be harvested, an overseer is hired at the
rate of 150 ksh.(approximately $6-10 US.), and several laborers who are paid 15 ksh. per

99
bunda of ten "kilos" of miraa.7 A good worker can tie up as much as two bunda in a half
days work. The miraa is picked early in the morning and the workers begin the task of
tying the twigs into successively larger units using banana fiber string. The twenty ensete
or gomba leaves that are required to package a finished bunda add 25 ksh. to the cost.
Often the gomba comes from areas in the vicinity that are unsuitable for miraa cultivation.
By noon the miraa is usually ready to be taken to the market. The chart below provides a
range of the profits that can be realized from a "typical" miraa shamba (as a miraa plot is
called) in the vicinity of the Kangeta-Muringene market, according to a 100/- to 160/- range
of wholesale prices. This does not include the owner's own labor contribution or that of
household members.
Table 4.1: 1986 Miraa Production Costs And Profits8
(with price variations in Ksh.For An Average Kangeta Shamba)
Wholesale Price 160 140sh, 120sh. lOOsh,
(Per 10 kilo bunda)
Profits
10 bunda=
1050
850
650
450
8 bunda=
810
650
490
330
6 bunda=
570
450
330
210
16 ksh.= SI U.S.
Five-hundred shillings represented a respectable rural income in 1986, and a plot can
generate up to ten harvests a year depending upon climatic conditions. In Laare the labor
costs paid are around half of those in Muringene, but the quantity of miraa is usually
greater, as is the amount of miraa one worker can tie up in one day. Traditionally, only
elders handled miraa. The development of commercial production, however, created a
demand for labor that eroded this injunction, and the similar restrictions on consumption.
Now even children, particularly in Laare, may earn wages by harvesting. The multiple
harvests that take place throughout the year reflect a substantial annual income for
producers augmented by opportunities for wage labor throughout the year, and
supplemented by the relatively high level of household self-sufficiency.9
7A miraa "kilo is not a unit of weight, but rather a unit of volume that in absolute terms varies according
to location and time of the year.
^This and other statistical tables that appear in the sstudy are based on field data except where noted
otherwise.
9These figures expanded so much by 1993 that a bunda of benchmark Muringene miraa wholesale for
1500/- or more than $20 US. It is difficult to estimate the relative market value of miraa due to

100
The Development of the Miraa Trade
The strength of regional trade networks eventually promoted miraa to its unique position
as the engine of development in the Nyambenes. Some of the more remarkable features of
this trade are reflected in its strong pattern of integration with the indigenous social
structure from earlier times to the present, a pattern that contrasts with the commercial
agriculture that has developed in other parts of Kenya (e.g. Buch Hansen 1984, Leo 1984,
Haugerud 1984, Kitching 1980, Heald 1991). The generational dynamics of Meru social
structure as based upon the age-set system program how the Mem perceive the historical
development of the miraa trade. As warriors, men of one riika lived in common barracks
until marrying, and retained membership in their riika throughout life as they progressed
from the stage of warrior, to adult, and elder. Those who distinguish themselves by their
skill in war and leadership during the warrior stage, and by their wisdom and ritual
knowledge during adulthood, were elevated to a position of governance by membership in
their respective njuri council. The system, in short, connected alternating moieties into
overlapping alliances, acting to create a system of secular social control which was both
part of and in addition to the regular kinship relations (Maher 1975, 404).
This form of social organization is hardly unique to the Mem, and occurs among
pastoral groups throughout eastern Africa in addition to many of the Bantu peoples who
came into contact with them (Muriuki 1974; Spear 1982 et.al.). The system, however, has
lapsed among most of the agricultural people who formerly practiced it in the face of
outside influences such as Western education, Christianity, the replacement of indigenous
norms of governance, and the socioeconomic stratifications that have accompanied the
development of commercial agriculture. New avenues of accumulation sapped the strength
of old trade networks (Waller 1985, 376) and internal organization alike. Economic change
had far reaching effects in many areas, and gave rise to new elites who were the result of a
process of inversion created by the confrontation between old values and the new order
(Mutiso 1976).
Among the Igembe, as noted in Chapter 3, social organization based on the riika age-set
system remained intact, and circumcision along traditional lines still takes place. Age sets
also provide a convenient scale by which to measure historical developments, and Igembe
devaluations and uneven price increases, except to venture that, relative to other market commodities, the
returns to miraa have increased.

101
elders uniformly fall back on the cycle of generations to describe the development of the
miraa trade (table 4.2).
Table 4.2: Approximate Riika Initiation Dates and the Expansion of Miraa Marketing
Miriti (1870): Local Nyambene markets.
Gwantai (1885): Meru town and Isiolo.
Kiramunya (1900): Meru town and Isiolo.
Ithalie (1915): Meru town and Isiolo.
Michubu (1930): NFD markets via NGA.
Ratanaa (1945): Tanzania, Nairobi and NFD markets.
Lubetaa (I960): Nairobi, Northeastern Province. Mombasa and small urban centers.
Miriti (1975): Nairobi, Northeastern Province. Mombasa and small urban centers.
Gwantai (1990): International markets.
Holding (1942) mentions 19 generations since the Meru migration from the coast.10
The Miriti, initiated before the turn of century, are credited with pioneering the modem
marketing of miraa. The actual domestication of miraa itself took place at a much earlier
date, and the length of cultivation in different areas of the Nyambenes can be gauged by the
age of miraa.11 The Gwantai are said to be the first riika to actively trade miraa dating to
before the turn of the century. The Ithalie, a few of whom are still alive, bridged the pre
colonial and colonial periods. Miraa evolveded from a social and ceremonial role to that of
a major trade item during the time of the Ithalie, when social, political, and environmental
changes accompanying the inception and consolidation of colonial rule led people to "new
ways of livelihood, building on the traditions they knew, but responding to new economics
and political realities (Barkan 1984, 21)." External influences were stimulating a
reformulation of former trade networks, and smaller communities like the Igembe Meru
sought to maximize their possibilities through specialization and reinforcing their pre
existing links with outsiders (Ambler 1985,204). By this time miraa had become a regular
item of exchange, and the Igembe transported it to a half-way point between their area and
Isiolo, where they exchanged the miraa for goats and skins.
10The post-migration generations numbered twenty two with the initiation of the new Gwantai riika in
1990-1991.
11 The first old miraa trees I saw were described as planted "by the father of the father of the father of my
grandfather. If the owner of the tree is Lubetaa, the tree would date back to the previous Gwantai
generation, or around 1875. I later learned to ask local farmers which generation planted the miraa growing
on their farms. Farmers usually responded to this query without hesitation.

102
In Central Province, the Gikuyu were joining the cash economy the same time
competition from the administration and increased pressure on the land restricted the
traditional bank: wealth in cattle, and its dividends, livestock supplies. The Somalis
responded to this market by bringing animals in large numbers from the north to trade with
the relatively affluent Gikuyu. The Somalis undersold the Maasai and the Kamba, and the
livestock trade became a prominent feature of both the Gikuyu economy and and that of
northern Kenya for the next three decades (Miracle 1974, 23-24). The miraa trade shifted
to Isiolo, a growing town that served as the "Gateway to the Northern Frontier District," as
profits from the cattle trade boosted the demand for miraa.
The Somali ascendancy in the cattle trade spurred the growth of Isiolo town, on the
interface of the highlands and arid regions to the north, making it a major commercial and
administrative center for the Meru's pastoral neighbors. The Somalis were relatively recent
arrivals in the area, but their appetite for miraa is longstanding and legendary. Isiolo thus
naturally became the major destination for Meru miraa, and became the major re-export
market for miraa sold in northern Kenya and beyond. Revenues from the municipal tax on
the re-export of miraa became so important to frontier towns like Isiolo and Garissa by the
1970s that when Somalia banned imports of miraa in 1981, they were described as "the
dying towns of the miraa trade" in the local press.
Miraa planting began on a larger scale for the economic rewards it promisedwith each
advance in the market. One must nevertheless keep in mind that the Igembe households
were essentially self-sufficient, and perhaps more so than the other Meru sections, they
were relatively isolated from the changes taking place in other areas of the Mount Kenya
region. The miraa trade for the old Miriti, Gwantai, Kiramunya, and Ithalie generations
was merely an income supplement, and not an occupation. The Michubu, and the Ratanaa
generations span the changing times from World War I to Mau Mau. The Second World
War stimulated price increases for both settler and African produce. Despite the drought
that affected large numbers of Africans in drier areas, it was a period of unprecedented
prosperity in the Mt. Kenya region and Nyanza (Anderson and Throup 1985, 341). The
local market grew, and was no doubt augmented by the quartering of Somali soldiers in
Nanyuki and Isiolo.
The developments that took place during the war period, however, put African and
European on a collision course that in due course culminated in Mau Mau. The experiment
allowing African coffee cultivation in Embu, Meru, and Kisii proved to be a success, and
pointed to the soundness of certain voices in the British administration who felt the
problems in the native reserves could be aided through the development of a landed middle
class which would adopt modern agriculture, boost production, and provide a labor market

103
for the growing number of landless peasants. Had coffee production been allowed in
Gikuyu country, where the pressures in the native reserve were the greatest, perhaps the
post-World War II Mau Mau conflict might have been avoided (Sorrenson 1967, 270).
Adequate land and the success of miraa as a cash crop created different conditions in the
Nyambenes, but a number of Igembe nevertheless came out in strong support of the Mau
Mau. The hidden Liburu crater behind Nkinyang'a was used as a meeting place for Meru
freedom fighters. Many households near the Nyambene forest in Kiegoi were relocated to
Gichanine and more centralized locations close to the Kangeta chiefs camp where they
could be better observed by the local administration. The British now viewed miraa with a
jaundiced eye (e.g. Greenway 1947). Although they did not declare miraa illegal in 1945
as Hjort (1974, 29) reports, they tried to restrict its export and considered placing a tax on
each tree. For the Igembe this was an alarming trend. Some people, especially those
whose fields were near roads, uprooted their trees; many felt taxation would eventually lead
to alienation of land as in other parts of the colony.
British opposition to miraa and the curfew imposed in the reserves frustrated trade and
forced smugglers to funnel exports through routes crossing the Northern Grazing Area
(NGA). This threat to their autonomy, and the mass detention of Embu and Meru along
with Gikuyu in urban areas when Mau Mau broke out, may at least partially explain the
strong solidarity with the forest fighters expressed in Igembe to this day, anti-Gikuyu
sentiment notwithstanding. Like the Gikuyu, the Igembe were resentful of government
programs that blocked their development (Throup 1985,427). Disaffected individuals
among the Igembe rose up in opposition. Some Igembe farmers lost cattle and land for
supporting the rebellion, and the period associated locally with the Ratanaa, was in general
one of non-growth.
One major development took place before the outbreak of Mau Mau During the late
1940s an Arab named Abdul Saleh started to export Meru miraa to Nairobi. Deliveries
were uneven at first, but it found a ready-made market, particularly among Muslims in
neighborhoods like Pumwani and Eastleigh. Urban miraa consumption increased despite
the curfew. Consumers eagerly awaited miraa making the long trip from Nyambene
markets by truck, sometimes skirting the sundown curfew to buy miraa when the truck was
late.
The earlier urban traders were often non-Igembe Meru, particularly Meru Muslims from
Meru town who could bridge the different worlds of rural Igembe and urban Nairobi. As
"de-tribalized" urban Africans, they enjoyed less restricted mobility. Daudi Mbogori, a
Meru from Imenti, is credited with being the first local trader to market miraa in the cities.
He was enormously successful, acquired property in Mombasa and Nairobi, and a beer

104
distributorship in Meru.12 When the curfew was lifted, the Meru, no longer bottled up in
the reserve, gradually became involved in the growing trade. Igembe entrepreneurs
followed in the steps of successful businessmen like Abdul Saleh and Daudi Bogoria, and
for the first time miraa became a major source of off-farm employment.
Infrastructure and automotive technology aided the spread of the trade by reducing
transport time. The other condition was the largely culturally determined market demand.
The existence of a Somali population completes the equation, as exports to Tanzania
illustrate. Somalis traders and ex-soldiers from British Somaliland Tanzanian formed the
Isakhia Welfare Association. Kenya's National Archives contain a series of letters
addressed to the Meru D.C. revolving around the procurement of miraa. The earnest tone
of this correspondence implies that supplying miraa was a major activity of the
organization, and the role of the Somali connection resurfaces at a number of junctures in
the expansion of the trade. The Somali demand was such that traders went straight to the
source, avoiding Nairobi middlemen, as indicated in the Isakhia Association's complaints
of abrogated contracts with Nyambene traders. This pattern repeated itself later when the
London trade began.
Igembe Control of the Urban Trade
By the late 1950s Meru entrepreneurs had carried the gomba flag to Mombasa and other
urban areas.13 The first truly urban Nyambene entrepreneurs included some Ratanaa,
although the majority were mainly members of the Lubetaa age-grade. The Lubetaa
generation had purchased their first vehicles by 1960, and they presided over another boom
in planting. Most non-Nyambene traders and drivers were squeezed out of the industry by
the influx of Lubetaa. In smaller urban markets local Swahili sell miraa alongside of Meru
traders. In NFD markets and Somali areas local traders, divorced women frequently form
the main body of retailers.
Consumption has grown steadily since independence, miraa planting anticipating the
growing market. Miraa dealers I spoke to say that by 1975 the volume was double that of
the early sixties. In 1975 consumers discovered "Big G," a kind of chewing gum that
neutralizes miraa's bitter taste while holding the cud of masticated miraa together in the
mouth. "Big G" sparked a major consumer revolution, and some dealers estimate that
12Daudi Mbogori is cited as the Meru who popularized European beer in Meru.
13As previously meentioned, miraa is wrapped in the leaves of the false banana (Ensete ventrilosum),
which is commonly called gomba due to its resemblance to banana trees. These leaves are hung everywhere
miraa is sold, and now can even be seen tied to door frames in areas of London where Africans live.

105
miraa consumption doubled again in the years following its discovery. Although Meru and
other miraa purists view it as adulteration, Big G popularized miraa chewing by making it
accessible to numbers of people formerly repelled by its bitter and astringent taste. The
gum became a standard item wherever miraa is sold.
The Lubetaa were the main beneficiaries of these developments. They achieved their
success by systematically and efficiently delivering quality miraa uniformly wrapped in
their fresh leaf wrappers at a fair price. Miraa, the Meru assert, is unstoppable, and miraa
has overcome all the various restraints and obstacles that have intervened between it and an
expanding regional market. The miraa network continued to expand to every comer of
Kenya and beyond its borders in the years following independence.
Meru miraa began going by air to places it couldn't reach by road, and major markets
developed in Somalia and briefly in Saudi Arabia (before "khat" possession was placed on
the same level as alcohol). Somalia represented the largest external market. During the
1960s, even the Shifta War failed to deter Somali smugglers who defied the miraa ban in
Northeastern Province, and the shifta bandits themselves to run miraa overland through dry
acacia bush in landrovers. Other miraa was shipped to Mogadishu by air until the President
of Somalia, Syaad Barre, banned it in 1972. The trade promptly switched back to overland
routes (Lawrence 1989).
The stigma of British disapproval remained, and the Kenya Government declared miraa
illegal at one point after independence. This prompted a delegation of Meru elders to visit
President Kenyatta. They presented him with a bundle of choice alele miraa, and told Mzee
that "miraa feeds us, clothes us, and pays our children's school fees." The ban was
promptly lifted. Subsequent bans enacted in Northeastern Province following the periodic
outbreak of shifta-type violence have also failed to obstruct the flow of miraa. Likewise
Somalia's ban of miraa in 1981, only limited imports temporarily, and susequent
developments uphold the Meru view of"miraa haipingiki (miraa cannot be blocked)."
During the 1970s, miraa began to receive official recognition as an earner of foreign
exchange. The Igembe date 1981 as the year when miraa finally received symbolic
government recognition for its important role in the local economy: the Forestry
Department began stocking miraa seedlings. By the 1990s ranking state administrators and
visiting delegations sometimes praised Igembe's miraa farmers, although they typically
inserted the caveat that farmers should not abandon food cultivation. The irony is that
traditional miraa cultivation is intertwined with food, forage, and fuelwood production.
Miraa is still subject to prejudicial treatment. Air freight rates for exported miraa, for
example, are charged at a much higher rate than other horticultural produce.

106
The new Miriti generation (initiated in 1975) found regional miraa markets largely
saturated. It was certainly more difficult for an individual to become quickly established as
a trader than it was for their Lubetaa predecessors. There were still some small niches and
crannies in urban markets to be filled, and limited opportunities in smaller towns for a
trader. In general, however, market involution increased as more petty dealers divided the
available profits into smaller parts. Miraa dealing became more of an exercise in satisficing
an urban existence than accumulating capital. The competition and supply kept the price of
miraa down even as the overall quantity of exports continued to expand.
Profits, under these conditions, are often expended on drinking and other forms of
urban recreation. The bare-bones existence of urban traders partially subsidizes consumers
by keeping overheads low. Miraa dealers erect small kiosks in African neighborhoods that
serve as small shops and the cramped quarters where traders sleep. Living in urban areas
does present other opportunities for the more enterprising entrepreneurs, but the limits of
local markets now represent a ceiling for Igembe traders.
The International Miraa Trade
The miraa market has undergone another major expansion during the 1980s as the
export of small quantities of miraa to western Europe began. The bulk of this miraa went
to England, smaller shipments were put on planes destined for West Germany, Italy, and
Scandinavian countries. By the mid-1980s Ethiopian chat could occasionally be found in
New York, Washington D.C., and Toronto. By the early 1990s Meru miraa also began
finding its way to North America. Like the earlier expansions, small populations of
traditional consumers, mainly Somalis augmented by Ethiopians and Yemeni Arabs, were
the primary consumers.
Previously Somalis had been active in exporting miraa to Somalia, and perhaps the
small amounts smuggled into Saudia Arabia, where it carries a large criminal penalty. The
collapse of the Somali state dispersed Somalis literally across the world as Western
governments as far away as Australia admitted refugees. The number of Somalis in
London and the United Kingdom, hosts to a small Somali population from former British
Somaliland and other East African territories, increased substantially.14
This export market is almost totally controlled by Somali miraa exporters who travel to
Laare and other Ntonyiri markets to purchase their shipments directly from farmers and
^Somalis in London consistently assess their population in London as around 20,000. There could be
considerably more than that as the registration of Somali refugees continues.

107
agents. Somali dealers in London re-export smaller quantities to Canada and the United
States, where it fetches a much higher price because Customs agents will confiscate it if it
is detected.15 The Somali diaspora presents opportunities insofar as the large number of
refugees in Kenya benefits Nyambene producers and traders, but the internationalization of
the miraa trade has cut the Igembe out of the most profitable link in the industry, at least for
the time being.
The Economic Organization of the Miraa Economy
The foundation of the miraa enterprise is a core of small-holder farmers who live within
the nine by nine kilometer "miraa triangle" that connects the towns of Kangeta, Laare, and
Maua. Kangeta, which lent its name to the most famous kind of Meru miraa, was the
traditional Igembe miraa market. The market was shifted to Muringene, at that time a small
cluster of shops, chosen for its central location in the traditional growing area. Laare, now
administrative headquarters for Ntonyiri Division, became an important miraa market as
commercial plantings spread northwards and down the length of the Nyambenes during the
post-Mau Mau period. Miraa marketed at Muringene earns a substantially higher price than
Ntonyiri miraa. Ntonyiri makes up in quantity what Igembe produces in quality.
Maua, on the edge of the traditional miraa zone, developed as the main commercial
center of the Nyambene Range. In 1980 the town was one wide boulevard of shops,
restaurants, and butcheries. There is a Methodist church, a hospital, and a miniature
Barclays Bank symbolizing the rural prosperity of the area. Electricity reached the town by
1987, followed by an automated telephone exchange in 1992. In 1993 it became
headquarters for the newly created Nyambene District. Maua's expansion is now
threatening to fill the small valley the town is located in. It has become a residential center
where it was formerly exclusively a market and administrative center housing a small
number of business people and civil servants.
Official records of miraa exports are spotty and extremely hard to rely on as the
quantities are regularly underestimated to avoid paying the higher tax exacted from each
vehicle of miraa, and to conceal the actual value of miraa exports. The value of these
exports are even harder to estimate due to the effect fine gradations of quality have on
consumer prices, and the daily price fluctuations that result from market conditions, the
season, and climatic factors. The Muringene market is generally more consistent in
15In 1991 U.S. Customs made cathine a Schedule Four (equivalent to drugs available by prescription only)
controlled substance. Italy banned imports, according to Somali sources, because of the fights and other
nuisances caused by Somalis at airports.

108
quantity and price than Lare, where the market is occasionally glutted with lower quality
miraa, leading to wild fluctuations in both the wholesale and retail markets. The statistics
are further complicated by a major shift in the packaging system in 1965.
Formerly, miraa was packaged in roughly uniform "bundles" exported in units of five.
The current system was the brainchild of the famous miraa dealer Samwel, who invented
the new packaging under the influence of the metric system, which was being promulgated
at that time. Samwel popularized the "kilo," which became the main unit of consumption.
One kilo consists of two halves, each half consisting of ten small bundles of ten sticks
each. The measure has nothing to do with weight; also the growing popularity of the
shorter, "giza" variety of miraa led to variations in which fewer but larger bunches of the
twigs make up a kilo. The average consumer purchases one kilo, a light chewer one half a
kilo, a heavy chewer, two kilos or more. The original twenty small bundles in two halves,
however, is still the sign of high quality miraa, both for giza and kangeta. Ten kilos are
packaged in one bunda, which is the standard unit of wholesale trade (it was at this point
that the term "bunda" replaced the English term bundle, or marduf in Swahili). Usually
eight bunda are sewn into one "gunia," or gunny sack, for transport to retail markets.
Samwel's innovation represents a marketing revolution which created a uniform standard
of packaging and quantity for the first time.
The chart below represents an attempt to estimate the quantities and approximate value
of miraa exported from the two Nyambene markets in 1985. Muringene market, the
traditional miraa market, exports mainly high quality miraa for domestic Kenya
consumption. Laare market is the source of much young commercial miraa exported to
domestic and international markets. Some Laare miraa is directly purchased by exporters,
and is especially hard to estimate production and value.
Table 4.3: 1985 Miraa Exports from Muringene and Laare
Muringene Market
4 vehicles: 1 vehicle carries approx, between 70-100 gunia of miraa.
Daily export of 300 to 400 gunia daily = 2,400 to 3,200 bunda.
Price:
1 bunda mbaine =140-160 ksh.
1 bunda muthairo=70-100 ksh.
Lare Market
8-12 vehicles
Daily export=600 to 1200 gunia daily, 4,200 to 9,600 bunda.
Price:
1 bunda= 30 to 100 ksh.

109
If we conservatively estimate the average value of one bunda at sh. 100 over the year,
the 1985 daily wholesale value of exports fluctuates between 240,000 and 320,000 ksh.,
or some sh. 80m annually (at 250,000 per day). Likewise, if we estimate the value of
Laare miraa at sh. 50 per bunda, the estimated daily value of exports fluctuates between
210,000-480,000 ksh., also ksh. 80m annually. These "ballpark figures indicate that
miraa production was an at least 160m ksh. a year industry (very likely much more), not
counting the miraa that is exported at alternative depots such as the Kaelo location which is
the center of Somalia-bound miraa.
The vehicles heading for the major urban markets arrive in Nairobi no later than eight
pm., and arrive in Mombasa shortly before sunrise. In 1992, approximately eight vehicles
(some carrying the low quality mizuzu, as the miraa tree prunings are called, to the NFD)
were departing from Muringene, and at least twice as many from Ntonyiri/Laare area. It is
difficult to estimate exports from Ntonyiri Division because now many exports are shipped
out at night, and leave from a variety of local markets other than Laare.
The Nairobi miraa terminal is in Majengo, a cramped mass of mud and corrugated iron
houses lined by open gutters whose ankle deep water is disguised by a film of dust and
garbage that collects on the surface. The miraa is unloaded in darkness, and quickly finds
its way to the correct owners who share cramped quarters and a gaaru-like communal
existence. The outward appearance of poverty in Majengo, however, is a facade hiding the
large amounts of cash that these migrating entrepreneurs handle. A pile of trash has
marked the middle of the main intersection for years.16 The neighborhood is equally
famous as a den of thieves: on several occasions more professional criminals have pulled
off major heists, stealing the cash receipts of an entire vehicle.
Informality also dominates the operation of successful miraa trading organizations. The
Meru refer to the fundamental miraa marketing group as "kampuni," or a company. They
are usually limited to several members, although older, diversified operations may own
vehicles and several shops, usually forming a small chain on one miraa route. They are not
officially registered or incorporated as a formal "company" by law, but arise around a
successful businessman, usually a Lubetaa trader. Originally these small firms were
kinship oriented, but dependence on one's kin soon gave way to qualifications based on
reliability, integrity, and friendship. Members of kampuni are usually Igembe Meru,
although client retailers may be from any ethnic group. In the city and towns, kampuni
members usually operate shops where they retail and wholesale miraa in addition to other
1^This Majengo landmark was cleaned up in 1991 and vehicles are now able to pass through the
intersection.

110
basic items and provisions. Often these shops employ individuals who use the job as an
apprenticeship to learn the trade before striking out on their own (Hjort 1974).
Kampuni are representative of the social and economic organization of the miraa trade
where deals are based on a person's word. Trust, rather than a contract, is the essential
nexus of miraa transactions from field to consumer. Despite the high volume and value of
miraa, most dealings are in cash, and there is a minimum of written records. "Shipping
papers" from Nyambene markets usually consist of numbers and messages tallied on the
standardized form provided by the papered back of cigarette package foils. The standard
lined ledger is sometimes used for larger day to day records. Otherwise, the miraa trade
creates little paperwork.
The informal basis of both the kampuni solo operator allows for miraa traders to return
back to their Nyambene homes on a periodic basis. Despite the attractions of modern urban
life, most Igembe traders rarely prefer the outside existence to the ambience of kin and
friends, good food, and invigorating climate of the Nyambenes. This partially explains the
great lengths traders go to minimize their overhead by sharing food and shelter gaaru-style
in towns and cities, always a source of wonderment to their urban clients who cannot
understand why men engaged in a seemingly lucrative business "utterly lack any sense of
self-improvement." Urbanites seldom understand how miraa traders working abroad go to
great lengths to minimize their expenses in order to earn the capital to reinvest back home in
land and other enterprises. Successful traders usually acquire enough capital to invest in
new land, and leave the management of the rural enterprise to their wife, while they return
to the city, rotating with their associates between city and country on a regular basis.
Miraa traders, who often lack formal education, see their outside existence as an
educational and broadening experience, and as a step towards establishing themselves back
home.17 Ideally this means getting married and acquiring land. Consistency and
persistence is the real key to success in the fluctuating market. Traders provide for each
other, and if one doesn't receive miraa one day, someone will share their consignment with
him. Individuals do attempt various schemes at times, and sometimes thefts can end up in
the hands of police although internally-arbitrated settlements are more common.
The miraa business entails long hours, hard work, and personal discipline to maintain a
daily clientele. Because the work is so demanding, everyone hopes to eventually exit from
the export domain to set himself up managing a farm or small business. Since now many
17This characteristic is rapidly changing as the new generation of miraa dealers enter the market with at
least several years of primary education. Also, often secondary school leavers and even university graduates
sometimes find themselves at least temporarily involved in the marketing system in order to generate
income.

Ill
Ratanaa and Lubetaa dealers are turning over their responsibilities to younger men, the
market continues to resist strong monopolies. The rise of the international miraa export
market is changing the local trade. Muringene miraa has become too expensive for many
long-time consumers, opening up a niche in Majengo for the rough mugoka miraa from
Mbere in Embu District. In 1993 an average of eight pick-up trucks were delivering
Somali-bound miraa to Nairobi's Wilson Airport for regional export; several more carry the
London-bound miraa. Ironically, famine, the collapse of the state, and theft of international
food relief and UN property is pushing local miraa prices beyond the financial means of
many local consumers in Kenya.
Miraa And Rural Development
The success of Kenya's smallholder agriculture, especially as represented by the large-
scale adoption of export crops, is deceptive. Njonjo equates the rapid expansion of
agricultural production during the 1960s and 1970s with a rapid deterioration in the real
income of farmers, and describes peasant agriculturalists in adjacent Central Province as
proletariats on patches of land (Njonjo 1981). To the south of Meru in Embu, Haugerud
has shown the consequences of commercialized agriculture and land reform in a coffee and
cotton based rural economy as retarding agrarian enterprise, encouraging investment in land
for speculation rather than production, and says "in brief, peasant agriculture, even in
Kenya's relatively prosperous central highlands, provides a meager living for those with
very modest material and educational expectations (1983, 83)."
At this point in time, the local Nyambene economy appears to differ from these
assessments in important ways. Material prosperity has increased within the setting of
social continuity. Differences in wealth resulting from the structural inequality of the
market are partially redistributed via the social structure, the ecology has been protected by
the traditional intercropping system that incorporates food, miraa, and tree crops, and even
more importantly, the local community takes the initiative in setting out their own
development priorities.
Through the 1970s low producer prices mirrored the high level of household self-
sufficiency and the low demand for consumer goods and services. Before the 1984
drought, cattle still symbolized wealth and status for many. Some farmers awash in money
bought television sets even though there was no local reception or electricity. The clearest
indication of economic integration is the rapid ideological shift to an emphasis on "cash
money," to use the local designation. Rural economic differentiation within the miraa
economy is mediated by patron-client ties. Patrons are usually men who exercise control

112
over the local Nyambene wholesale markets to the extent that the perishable nature of miraa
often creates markets favoring large-scale wholesale buyers, and dealers with capital are
positioned to enter into short-term agreements with client growers. Wealthy dealers now
rent miraa farms (i.e. the produce of the miraa trees alone), adding to their normal profit by
serving as a bank for local farmers. This new practice is criticized for reducing farmers
incomes.
While true, it can also be observed that much local economic diversification, though still
in the mold of what Chamber's (1983) once called "roadside capitalism," i.e. bars,
lodgings, butcheries, and the like, has only come about recently. The position of the
patrons anchored in the miraa economy contrasts markedly with that of other wealthy
individuals based in the formal economy and the state. These rural patrons inherit a host of
reciprocal expectations and a wider range of community obligations with their position.
Involved in the labor intensive, day to day cycle of miraa production and marketing
exposes them to a constant barrage of social demands from petty loans, sharing hospitality,
and becoming involved in other's personal problems.
The most successful Miriti generation dealer in the Muringene area described his work
as combining the demands made on a campaigning politician and religious minister: "You
constantly have to smile, hold babies, reach into your pocket, and never allow yourself to
become angry." He developed an ulcer. When 1 showed a picture of a monoculture coffee
and tea landscape taken on the Tigania side of the Nyambenes, he remarked "now this
looks like a civilized country," not knowing the picture was taken on the other side of the
forest above us.
A large number of Igembe's successful businessmen refrain from drinking, and the
social obligations that come with it. A view commonly expressed by people involved in the
miraa industry is that miraa is lucrative but the profits have a tendency to evaporate quickly.
The most successful dealer in Ntonyiri mentioned to me that miraa profits never bring
progress unless reinvested in other enterprises. The relatively few individuals who
amassed wealth through their position in the state, on the other hand, remain largely aloof
of local society and its ideological leveling mechanisms.
Cash-Crops in Comparative Perspective
The three-fold expansion of coffee holdings that took place in Meru District during the
1960s largely bypassed the Nyambenes, and farmers who did plant coffee received half of
what their Mt. Kenya counterparts received during the same period (Bernard 1972,123).
After a slow start, smallholder tea production began at a later date and took off during the

113
1970s. Miraa farmers began planting other cash crops on a large scale only after the shift
to the cash economy was accompanied by the shift of the comparative advantage of coffee
and tea over food (despite price fluctuations).
Miraa income is continuous throughout the year, while tea and coffee payments are
disbursed in two large payments a year. From the viewpoint of household management,
these crops function as a bank in a way similar to the traditional role of cattle, which they
have replaced on a practical level at least to some degree. Some households formerly able
to exist comfortably within the cycle of miraa cash flow experienced problems managing
income to provide for the annual lump expenditures demanded by the educational system.18
This, more than anything else, supports the practice of renting farms.
This highly decentralized local industry, utterly free of committees, boards of directors,
and appointed staff or officers is grafted onto the social and ideational structures of Igembe
internal organization. The miraa farmers' brief experience with cooperative marketing
during the short life of the Meru Traders Society between 1969 and 1971 highlights the
problems of centralization on a small scale. The cooperative was the project of the local
Parliament Minister, Joseph Muturi, who was a miraa dealer himself before he was elected
to parliament. The cooperative was designed to control prices and protect producer's
profits. Because miraa is such a perishable commodity, the Nyambene markets are de facto
buyer's markets much of the time. The Society, however, could not organize marketing on
an efficient basis. Miraa spoiled in the Society's depot in Meru town, farmers rebelled, the
cooperative collapsed, and Muturi was voted out of office. Since this fiasco, farmers have
learned to play the market to their advantage, and higher prices due to increased demand
has long since exceeded the theoretical benefits of cooperative marketing. The problems of
the coop were minor in comparison to the problems afflicting small scale coffee
cooperatives, many of which have also been disbanded by their members.
The commercialization of miraa echoes Riesman's essay exploring the relationship
between the person and the life cycle in African social life and thought when he states that
"in Africa social life the self is experienced as connected with, even integral with, other
persons, and that in African thought the person is imagined to be sustained and to live
through his [and hers] relations with other people and forces (1985, 114)." In Meru,
internal social organization replaces formal organizations associated with other
commodities, and provides an commercial analog of Riesman's observation.
^Previously, a family would restrict the number of children or the duration of time children spent in
school according to their finances. This is less acceptable now, although the practice remains in effect,
particularly in the lower zones.

CHAPTER 5
NYAMBENE AGRICULTURE AND AGRO-ECOLOGICAL ZONES
The People upon the mountains we learned were called Embe. Judging from the appearance
of their clearings in the forest and their plantations, they are industrious and have a fair
knowledge of agriculture. They grow beans, cassava, bananas, a little millet, and indian
com. We saw no large cattle, but many flocks of sheep and goats. The portion of the range
to which we paid this brief visit seemed very thickly inhabited. (Chanler, 1896, 105)
Coming from an explorer accustomed to refering to the natives as children, lazy,
savages, and in general inferior, the observations of the Igembe farming system at the turn
of the century quoted above are laudatory. Igembe agriculture does indeed warrant
recognition: the Igembe saw out the two major droughts of this century (1918-19, 1983-
84) relatively unaffected compared to other Meru administrative divisions.1 Igembe farms
generate some of the highest agricultural incomes per acre in the region. They have
preserved the local botanical biodiversity by incorporating a wide variety of plants and trees
into their agriculture, and by maintaining local forests. The Igembe have accommodated a
growing population without subjecting the proximate lower zones to undo environmental
stress-up to this point. The local system has coevolved as a blend of traditional and
modem, indigenous and exotic, and covers a highly varied ecological spectrum.
Earlier chapters covered historical, economic, and cultural aspects influencing
development and change in Igembe. The main concern of this chapter is to present the
various spatial, agronomic, and sundry other technical, household-related aspects of the
Nyambene farming system in Mem district as it developed in relation to the environmental
variation occurring across ecological zones. We try to locate this data in the overall scheme
of enhancing small-scale agriculture, which has always been approached from a Western
perspective. The information on the Igembe farming system represents the output, or result
of social and ecological evolutionary processes which is to some degree emblematic of
African developmental processes in general.
Western models of agricultural production assume an individual-centered model of
optimization and self interest. Production sciences are often conceived in terms of factors
of production, inputs and outputs, production functions, and the underlying basis of
^ote the following figures for famine relief deliveries in Meru District during 1984. The Igembe further
claim that those few cases of households requiring relief food were among Thaichu and new settlers in the
division, and not ethnic Igembe themselves-an assertion that also reflects their independent character.
114

115
management decisions. An approach located more from within the subject must contend
with the complexities of African small scale production in its wider evolutionary context of
adaptive fitness. Social systems and cultural endowments arise out of infrastructural
conditions, adapt to shifting parameters and extrinsic constraints, and are therefore the
product of natural selection (Smith and Winterhalder 1992).
Social learning is a cultural corollary of the Darwinian adaptation. We have come to
predominantly associate adaptation and selection with biological phenomena when it may
be, perhaps, even more effectively applied to culture adaptation than it can be applied to the
genetic system of inheritance (Boyd and Richerson 1992,62). The Meru zonal
environment over time selected for cultural traits, not ethnic identities. These traits became
integrated within the Meru polity, which is in cultural terms a synthesis of a number of
group adaptations.
Environmental variation acted as a primary (although not the only) selective device, or a
force determining the cultural rules that are successfully transmitted from one generation to
the next. Forces of guided variation produce cultural mies, and a chain of cultural rules
will often end up mirroring certain genetically acquired traits over the long run. The other
method of transmission of traits, refered to as biased transmission, represents the outcome
of culling behaviors for their beneficial effects over time (ibid: 64-67). In northern Mem
the acquisition of traits derived from both these cultural processes and genetic transmission.
The transmission of cultural traits is often discussed in the optimizing, adaptive sense.
Theorists tend to remain close to the historical-biological record which presrves selection
for adaptive cultural behaviors better than evidence of maladaptive traits. An adaptive trait
may quickly become maladaptive, as events connected with the imposition of colonialism,
so poignantly chronicled in many works of African fiction, have demonstrated.2 The
distortionary effect of the state's role in the economy is one example of how inherited
policies and practices became maladaptive for mral development.3 Longer, cross-
generational processes of cultural adaptation naturally respond faster than processes of
genotype adaptation based on mutation and selection. Because individual behaviors are
embedded in cultural systems, group dynamics and the patterns they generate are essential
for understanding agrarian change.
Due to a complex of spatial, environmental, and internal cultural factors, the Igembe
agricultural system developed relatively free of many state and externally induced
2The classic example here is Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart," where the successful man in the
traditional order is suddenly left behind by rapid changes taking place around him.
3A broad list of distortional phenomena would probably include not only exchange rates and poor producer
prices but donor-assisted projects, certain IFI policies, revolutionary ideologies, and whatever well-meaning
developmental interventions that have hindered as much as enhanced African problem solving.

116
"distortions." As a consequence, its developmental pattern retains something of an
uninterrupted quality, sensitive to regional and cultural conditions and influences dating
back to pre-colonial times. Due to spatial and historical factors, the full force of whatever
progressive forces came with the Western presence exerted a delayed and indirect influence
on the system (Bernard 1979, Goldsmith 1988). As commercialization draws the Igembe
squarely into the center of modern developments, the Igembe cultural orientation continues
to select for some modem "traits" while ignoring others. The concepts of social learning
and cultural selection expand our theoretical approach. Both indigenous and Western
scientific knowledge are, in the end, knowledge. Ideally, a local system can optimize the
positive contribution of both of these cultural domains. In agricultural terms, this appears
to be the case in the Igembe system.
It is abundantly clear that agronomic science and related disciplines must go beyond the
focus on commercial crops and its monocultural orientation if an optimum synthesis of
Western and indigenous knowledge and management is ever to evolve. We can expect little
overall progress until food crops, including neglected traditional grains, tubers, and
livestock components of African farming systems, receive the attention they warrant
(Lipton 1988). The research on individual crops and inputs must encompass the study of
small scale systems synergistic properties. Western agricultural science was by virtue of its
own training, research traditions, and professional culture resistant to the implications of
Africa's growing agricultural malaise until it became a widespread disaster (Gibbon 1987).
Internal household dynamics, variation in environmental adaptation, erratic influences of
climate and market, historical patterns and current policy frameworks all add to the
complexity of African small holder agriculture. It is exceedingly difficult to accurately
measure on-farm production, internal consumption, and the multiple currencies,
reciprocities, and loci of exchange in local economies. Figures on the formal economy
seldom account for the "real," i.e. informal, parallel, and illicit economies (MacGaffey
1991).
It is simpler to understand adaptations, technological innovations, and other forms of
change as the outcomes of evolutionary processes than it is to account for the causal
determinants by specifying a regressed model of change linking responses to matrices of
the relative influence of individual variables. The intrinsic problems of African data also
distort the on-the-ground reality (Eele 1989). The analysis of the system in the next two
chapters will nevertheless proceed in terms of conventional analytical categories, organized
according to the following scheme (figure 5.1). The aim is to provide an overall picture of
the farming system's components and indicate the trajectory of change as it reflects both the
systems internal organization and external influences.

117
Table 5.1: Small Farm System Variables
I. Land-Related Components II. Production and Technology III. Household
Ecozone Cultivare
Farm size; number of plots Constraints
Spatial factors Input use
(vis a vis services, Livestock
markets, schools, etc.) Trees
Time under cultivation
Household Demography
Income Sources
Production Levels
Consumption Patterns
Investment Priorities
Education Levels
Because the data covers a wide span of the Nyambene ecological gradient, and because
we will look at the idea of ecozone symbiosis and linkages, the data from on-farm surveys
is presented in a form that reflects the zonation of the agricultural system. This chapter
focuses on farming system differentials across zones in order to establish a foundation for
analysis of symbiotic linkages. Data presented in the preceding chapters examined the
system from different historical, cultural, and economic perspectives. Here we will try to
outline some of the agricultural characteristics of the system, and present statistical data
descriptive of the commercial and demographic forces driving contemporary ecozone
symbiosis. The ecozone dynamics of the agricultural system is the subject of the next
chapter.
The Resilience of the Igembe System
The Nyambene system, governed more by its own internal cultural logic than that of
Kenya's Western cultural endowment, has always suffered from an image problem. Those
unacquainted with the multi-cropping tree system describe local farms as unkept jungles;
Nyambene farmers are seen as unredeemed yeomen, traditionalists resistant to modem
progress, and potentially violent hillbillies armed with machetes. The bias towards things
local and indigenous originates on the regional level. The Mt. Kenya Mem pejoratively
lump the Igembe with their Nyambene cousins, indiscriminately referring to both of these
Meru sections as "Tigania."
In the 1980s the economic tables began to turn. The vitality of commercial miraa
production contrasted with the decline of the small-scale coffee industry as thousands of
small holder farmers were saddled with a crop they not only could not legally uproot or
replace, but were bound by Kenyan law to maintain as a monocrop on their farms. World

118
prices plummted with the dissolution of the International Coffee Organization quota
system. In Kenya, endemic organizational corruption and inefficiency from the national
level to that of local cooperatives eroded farmer profits even further. Many farmers
surreptiously uprooted their coffee, or cut its roots so it would die on its own. In Igembe,
the administration chief in Antubetwe Kiongo openly cut his coffee down, and throughout
the Nyambene's farmers openly planted food crops in their coffee fields. A boom in
French beans and horticultural crops offered some respite for Mt. Kenya farmers, but
vegatable exports could not easily replace the role of coffee, Kenya's "black gold," in the
small holder economy. Mem District's economy, and other areas of Kenya's eastern
highlands, sagged visibly as large tracts of the country's best land under coffee effectively
went out of production.
The Igembe economy rambled along when modem sector and state-led developmental
processes began to slow and the provision of services deteriorated. Nyambene society
faced problems linked to the general economic down-turn in Kenya, but the Igembe
predilection for self-sufficiency and their general independent nature insulated them from
the more severe effects of recession. The miraa economy was buoyant; tea, the major state-
marketed cash crop in the Nyambenes was holding its own, food was plentiful, and most
Igembe relied on private medical services and their own herbal remedies rather than state-
run hospitals and clinics in the first place. Unlike the situation in many pails of Imenti,
households had enough fuelwood to cook more than one meal a day.4
Although livestock officers required an "inducement' to treat sick cattle, the trend
towards adoption of grade cattle requiring modem pharmaceutical treatment in the first
place is not much older than this unofficial privatization of extension services. That is,
many farmers never expected free treatment for livestock in the first place. Because the
Igembe agricultural sector remained relatively undifferentiated in the face of
commercialization, and since miraa-system holdings fell outside the knowledge and training
of the agricultural staff, there never arose the rich-farmer bias that infected the extension
service in other areas (Leonard 1985).5
Thus as Kenya entered a"crunch time" of economic crisis and decline of the state sector,
the strengths of the indigenous system became more evident. Local Mem on Mt. Kenya,
especially those of the younger generation, began to concede a grudging envy of Igembe
4During 19901 accompanied a local merchant on a mango buying trip through portions of south and central
Imenti division. On several, occasions people mentioned during informal conversations that they could
only afford to cook one meal a day because their income was limited, and mono-cropped coffee limited on-
farm fuelwood production.
5The official policy of the Igembe Division staff is neither to encourage nor to interfere with miraa
production (personal communication, Michael Kijana, Igembe Divisional Office, Ministry of Agriculture).

119
prosperity and resilience I had not witnessed during the 1980s. The replication of the
farming system as populations settle in lower zones is one way we can evaluate the
agricultural system's sustainability.
There is no universally applied taxonomic scheme or uniform evaluation instrument for
small holder agriculture, despite the now de facto importance of sustainability.6 Relating
the unique or unusual aspects of a farming system depends mainly on descriptive data
without comparative criteria, and for a variety of reasons, it is difficult to convey the more
synergistic aspects of the system.7 The Igembe system is not the outcome of some
conscious, cultural intentionality. It was not planned by the Njuri Ncheke, "designed" by
indigenous scientists from the different Thagana, Mwoko, and Aathi clans, or implemented
by the succession of age-groups beginning with the first Mbaine and Ntangi generations
according to a long term "Development Plan." The Igembe farming system does, however,
reflect a distinct cultural ideology mirrored throughout the system's internal organization,
social structures, and cross-generational practices.
Ultimately the "indigenous" appellation is irrelevant to the question of whether or not the
local cultural-agricultural complex will be able to support expansion and change as
intensification increases in the higher zones and the lower zones undergo permanent
settlement. Resilience and the ability to adapt, synthesize, and innovate are its main claim
to sustainability. If retention of its cultural trappings represents a temporary phase in the
greater transformation of regional production, the principles of Igembe agriculture that have
worked well during its pre-peasant phase and carried it into the capitalist sector, are likely
to survive into the post-peasant phase as well.
Northern Mem society is undergoing the changes and diversification characteristic of
developmental processes everywhere. It is now apparent that such changes have actually
underscored many of the strengths of the indigenous cultural and agricultural system.
Mem pharmo-botanical knowledge counters the breakdown of other medicinal and
veterinary services, and local aproaches to conflict resolution remain the most effective
6 Kerkhof (1990) presents a survey of agroforestry projects in Africa. ICRAFT published a bibliography of
agroforestry evaluation literature in 1991. Neither of these volumes present a uniform set of guidelines for
assessing small farm sustainability. The on-farm interview-survey used here was developed with such a
function in mind. Even so, it represents only a very preliminary instrument although, at this point, it has
been subjected to testing in the field. A copy appears in the appendix.
7An example of this would be conveying the role of botanical biodiversity. The Igembe system
incorporates a wide number of plant and tree species for different productive, medicinal, and
cultural/aesthetic reasons while similar systems are discussed in terms of "innovative models" encouraging
farmers to plant exotic fuelwood trees (c.f 1991). Not to discount the latter, it is hard to convey the fact
that external interventions would be superfluous in another situation without spotlighting the fact. Yet to
do so can smack of bias and even atavistic patronizing things indigenous.

120
means of settling disputes. This pattern provides useful data that can be evaluated and
critiqued for its merits and applicability in other contexts.
Agronomic Aspects of Miraa Production
The Nyambene farming system displays a number of distinctive features: the unique
qualities of miraa as a commercial agricultural commodity, a high level of biodiversity
incorporated into the farming system,8 and a traditional agroforestry system which
maintains high levels of organic input recycling, the zonal characteristics of production, and
explicit corresponding ideological components such as the "kuria" concept of multi-
generational resource management and the "ideology of trees.
While recognizing specific qualities associated with specific agricultural commodities, a
variable like miraa or coffee or sugar does not explain all the variance or unique qualities of
a farming system. Miraa's role in the farming system can be analyzed in terms of its
similarity to other commodities: labor, management, household dynamics, and marketing
requirements.9 Miraa production has also preserved many aspects of the system that the
adoption of other commercial crops, if other areas of Mt. Kenya are any indication,
displace. Miraa production emerged out of the configuration of indigenous crops, and the
highland yam-banana agroforestry complex in particular. By virtue of its commercial
value, it in turn preserved the indigenous agroforestry tradition, and delineated a pathway
for integrating new cultivars, tree species, and other components in an incremental manner.
The livestock component of the high zone farms presents an example of such a
pathway. Traditional pen-raised or "zero-grazed" goats provided a niche within the
farming system for the modem innovation of zero-grazed, grade cattle. The high levels of
milk produced by such animals boosts household income, manure aids the nutrient
recycling system already functioning within the local permaculture, while feedback for
boosting the quality of forage encourages the addition of napier grass and greater utilization
of crop wastes (banana and maize stalks, sweet potato vines and leaves, etc.).
In the same manner, the incorporation of exotic trees follows the design of the already
existing system, and not according to the "designs" of agroforestry projects and evaluations
of potential returns to small holder systems (Hoekstra 1987). The success of tea emulates a
8 The importance of biodiversity, agroforestry, and notions of environmental sustainability only gained
serious recognition when the limits of Western monoculture become painfully apparent. A list of tree and
plant species are itemized in an index accompanying the text.
9Since the focus of the research is more on the system than the specific role of the household in it, and
although the household is an important unit of analysis unto itself, the rigorous demands of analyzing
internal household dynamics necessitated that this aspect of the system was not central to the study. We
will assume various insights including gender issues highlighted by other work in this important domain
generally hold true for the Nyambene system (Moock 1978), except where evidence indicates otherwise.

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similar dynamic. The pattern of small farm tea management, including harvesting at
periodic intervals, and the critical importance of rapidly delivering leaves for processing,
parallels many aspects of miraa production.
The emphasis on social dimensions and Western biases towards the cultural dimension
of Catha edulis act to obscure the specifics of miraa production wherever it is cultivated.
Weir makes little mention of production in her 1985 book on Yemen. Kennedy (1987)
gives production more attention, but still leaves many basic questions concerning its
agronomic properties and wider contribution to small-scale production systems
unanswered. Poschen's (1986) article about agroforestry in Haraghe, a traditional chat
producing area in Ethiopia, does its best to pretend the tree is not there or is of only
marginal importance.10
Controversy over miraa consumption should not obscure the agronomic qualities of
growing miraa. Because it is part of a production system, other tree cultivare are potential
substitutes for miraa in other circumstances. In the commercial context, economic value is
the critical variable. Still, there is little in the literature to suggest other traditional producers
in Ethiopia and Yemen approach miraa on the same level of complex intercropping as is the
case in Igembe. Ethiopian and Yemeni miraa is either cultivated together with fruit trees
(Kennedy 1987), grown interspersed with field crops (Poschen 1986), or intensively
cultivated as a monocrop (Weir 1985). None of these variations on miraa cultivation
reveals the sophistication contained within the permaculture approach of the Nyambene
system.11
Miraa cultivation began in Meru as a respected element of local ceremony and social
milieu, and its newer role as a high value agricultural commodity is a relatively recent
development.12 Traditional miraa production was confined mainly to Njia location and
parts of Mutuati in the northern end of the range. Njia miraa production is concentrated
along the stretch along the Meru-Maua road passing Nturubaa, Mwiyo, Muringene, and
Thuuru, straddling the middle area between two ecotones on opposite ends of the middle,
highland zone. The drier side, associated with Kangeta market, produced mainly field
crops such as grains and legumes; the humid end of the zone, associated with Maua
market, provided roots, tubers, and bananas. Muringene market sits in the middle of this
10This myopia is odd considering the treatment given tobacco, the production of barley and hops for beer,
and other non-food consumption crops used in the West.
11This may reflect deficiencies in the literature, and not in the systems mentioned here.
12A local wholesaler cogently argued that miraa has been undervalued for years, and farmers only began to
understand its relative value during the last ten years. To the extent that this is true, it formerly contributed
to middlemen profits. Miraa markets are complex and fluctuate on a daily basis, although the current
potential for profit on each level of this system is apparently not what it was in the past.

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miraa zone, and although the occasional mbaine miraa tree can be found throughout the
older agricultural areas, commercial miraa cultivation only recently spread to Laare and
beyond to the Mutuati area.
Actual agricultural trajectories from one end of the range to the other alters the idealized,
three stage progression of miraa agriculture presented in Chapter Three. The progression
of a plot from field crops to mixed holding to a mainly tree-dominated holding still holds
true, but miraa is not essential to this progression, as evidenced in many areas where miraa
has been introduced to mature, stage two agroforestry plots.13 A non-miraa holding
instead develops from a mixed stage 2 food-tree plot to a yam-mwenjela agro-forest in
stage 3. Farmers in the northern Nyambenes, now Ntonyiri Division, added miraa to these
traditional agroforestry plots in some cases but more often established it on land used for
pasture and field crops. A greater propensity toward monocultural production accompanied
the later adoption of miraa in Ntonyiri. In economic terms, the progression follows
patterns associated with tree agriculture in other world regions (Barlow and Jaysurija
1986).
Table 5.2: Stages of Miraa Tree Agriculture
Stage 1 (Year 1 to 10): Land clearance retaining compatible forest tree species. Production of field crops
with young miraa, mwenjela, etc.
Stage 2 (Years 10-50): Expansion of miraa/tree canopy. Replacement of field crops with bananas, yams,
and other root and tuber species.
Stage 3 (50>Years): Reduction of non-miraa tree species. Understory planting of food and horticultural
crops.
Even in the traditional miraa growing areas, miraa was usually not cultivated on the best
land. Farmers often established trees on rocky plots in order to save the best land for food
production. The two sub-systems have merged as a consequence of the miraa expansion
during the second half of this century. One can still see new examples of miraa planted as a
form of land reclamation. Over the course of time other trees are added, and eventually a
13When I began the on-farm research in the Kangeta to Muringene area, miraa appeared to occupy a central
role in the three stage progression. Later, while doing research in the Mutuati area, I saw that older farms
in stage 2 had young miraa added to the configuration. Miraa was not the independent variable it originally
appeared to be.

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new micro-environment is created as root growth breaks down rocks and tree litter and
leaf-fail adds organic material to the soil.
The choice of variety is important; most farmers plant a mixture of the high quality miraa
miiru and the commercial miraa meru. The fast growing strong kithaara14 is popular in
Ntonyiri, where much of the miraa finds its ways to Somali markets. Farmers in the more
densely populated traditional growing region rely on producing superior quality where
Ntonyiri farmers, whose holdings run larger, usually maximize on quantity.
Trees are established from root suckers and the most experienced farmers take into
account the parentage of individual trees when choosing their planting materials. The
young miraa requires constant management. The appropriate spacing of intercrops and the
pruning of the canopy are important considerations. The biomass of the tree is regulated to
maximize sunlight interception, the penetration of radiation to lower story crops, and the
production of new shoots issuing mainly from the internodes of branches. These young
shoots are then picked, from once a month to once every forty five days depending upon
rainfall and soil moisture. The period can be longer during extended dry spells. The trees
are trained, pruned, and manicured resulting in the twisted and winding effect of tree
canopies refered to in the introductory chapter. Sometimes strings and pegs and even large
stones weighted on branches are used to direct the growth of the canopy or even entire trees
when young.
The complementary integration of other tree and crop species according to local
conditions of slope, soil characteristics, spacing, and gradients in the moisture regime gives
each farm a unique form. Traditional farmers rely upon a largely unarticulated body of
local knowledge. New farmers in Ntonyiri and formal sector farmers developing new
miraa holdings often appear to lack or ignore much of this specialized knowledge, which
runs counter to the principles they are taught in school agricultural courses.
Soil and water conservation officers on the extension staff inoculated in the Western
monocultural tradition through their coursework at institutions like Egerton and the Kabete
agricultural campus of Nairobi University, are biased toward monocropping and rotations.
Naturally, they tend to see their knowledge as superior to that of unlettered peasants, and
while agroforestry principles are rapidly becoming the new vogue, it is unfortunate that
some well meaning agricultural staff are once again being caught in the trap created by
"paradigm shifts" in Western dominated science.15 As a result, monocultural miraa
14The Meru avoid this variety due to its strong side effects, including its more "nervous' effect and
sleepless.
15Even those sensitized by training or through their own common sense to the virtues of agroforestry and
intercropping tend to see agroforestry as the planting of fast-growing exotics like Grevillea robusta and
lucerna.

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cultivation is becoming more common, especially in Ntonyiri where farmers have told me
"miraa haipendi miti mingine (miraa doesn't like other trees)!"
Miraa inputs are limited to manure, ashes, and periodic firing to control insects.
Farmers claim fertilization affects the taste of harvested miraa adversely, taste being a major
indication of quality in local markets, less so in the growing Somali miraa trade where the
main criteria is strength and the size of the kilo retail bundles. In the areas of traditional
cultivation even manure is measured out carefully as to not overly effect the natural
sweetness of the product. This sweetness and fineness in texture and consistency is the
goal of the good farmer, who also understands the proper use of miraa is in chewing twigs
that are equivalent to a fine wine or cognac in a different tradition.
Miraa, like most indigenous cultivars, is disease resistant. The scourge of uura,
(Aspirilla melea), refered to earlier, is especially a problem for the valuable mbaine trees.
This bacterial disease effects many forest species as well as bananas, tea, mwenjela, and
other components of the indigenous agroforestry system, and is most common in formerly
forested areas. The only chemical treatment for infected trees is the application of methyl
bromide, a chemical used for sterilizing greenhouse soil so toxic that the sale of it to local
farmers is out of the question. The specialized arboreal surgery described earlier thus
promises to remain the main method of dealing with the infection.
The practice of excavating root systems is also employed to ferret out moles, the most
troublesome agricultural pest in the area. Moles attack the roots of trees and the important
understory food root crops such as potatoes, yams, cassava, and taro. In 1990 the bounty
for moles caught in this way was Ksh. 100/-. The high premium on the mole's head is an
indication of their potential for destruction. Trapping is the other technique employed to
control their numbers. The unrelated mole rat poses problems similar to those of moles in
the humid lower zones.
The arts of pollarding, trimming and pruning miraa trees extends to other trees. Many
common on-farm trees assume a different appearance in the Nyambenes as farmers shape
them into different forms to maximize sunlight penetration while harvesting poles and
firewood.16 This is another art largely unrecognized by the formal agroforestry
establishment, and greatly increases a farmer's ability to utilize different trees according to
on-farm conditions, in addition to optimizing fuelwood production in many cases.
The destruction caused by the spread of the cypress aphid in Kenya provides another
interesting example of the Igembe approach to tree management. The aphid spread from
16On two occasions I was embarrassed by asking about the identity of certain trees only to learn that they
were the common Jacaranda minsofolia and Cordia africana pruned by farmers until they presented different
profiles than those of free-growing specimens.

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Europe to Malawi where it quickly attacked the exotic Cypress lusitanica and the
indigenous African cedar, Juniperus procera. Trees infected by the aphid quickly turn
brown and dry. In Kenya, both trees are monocropped in state-managed forests, and
cypress abounds in urban and rural settings where it is often trimmed into a hedge or
allowed to grow as a border tree. Within a year the aphid had spread to Tanzania, and by
December of 1989 Nairobi hedges and trees were succumbing to the aphid. The damage to
wood resources in Kenya where cypresses are monocropped in many state forestry
schemes was assessed as billions of shillings.17 The aphid arrived in the environs of
Meru town by October 1990 and appeared in the Nyambenes during the next rainy season
beginning in April 1991.
The Igembe actively tried to preempt the aphids. Observing that the leaves and branches
were the first part of the tree showing signs of infection, they climbed the trees to prune
their branches, leaving only a leafy top to minimize exposure to the pest. While it is far
from clear whether or not this solution helped in the case of surviving trees, the manner in
which local agroforesters tried to avert the disaster-climbing a large cypress tree is in itself
an athletic feat-set them apart from farmers in other areas.
The Land Variables in Nvambene Small farm Production
Specialized exploitation of distinct ecozones on the periphery of the traditional core of
the system spreads risk and promotes a healthy regional economy. Cassava, sorghums and
millets cultivated in the lower zones are drought resistant, require less labor, and provide
strategic reserves when crops fail in the higher zones. Keeping grade cattle in the
highlands, for example, does not negate the wisdom of grazing hardy indigenous breeds in
the lowlands.
Although in Kenya attention is usually focused on crop failure caused by poor rains,
excess rainfall, overly damp conditions, and flooding leads to various crop diseases,
molds, and root problems that also limit food production in the highlands. Over abundant
rainfall that lower harvests at higher elevations often produce bumper harvests in the
corresponding lower ecozones. Livestock were grazed in the arid lower zones and in the
forest zone, and cattle movements followed a seasonal cycle. In addition to crop and
17Insecticides marketed to counteract the epidemic were expensive and of limited effectiveness. Some
government scientists stated that their use could do more harm than good. The head of a special
Presidential Commission for Resource Conservation blamed the scourge on the advocates of multi-party
democracy.

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animal production, these unsettled fringe areas yielded a number of important resources a