By Jayne Rose Gacheri
Often billed as Africa's first truly democratic society, the Ameru are traditionally governed by an elected council of elders, from clan level right up to the supreme arbiters - the Njuri Ncheke, the most revered and respected Council of Elders. The council draws membership from Ameru elite. Governor Kiraitu Murungi, for instance, is a member of the Council, a fact he does not shy away from even when addressing his County Assembly.
The headquarters of Governing Council of Elders is the Njuri Ncheke Shrine located in Nchiru, Tigania West. It is near the Meru University along Meru-Maua road and occupies a 20-acre piece of land, which is considered sacred ground. It is a heritage site under the care of the National Museums of Kenya and acts as the Supreme Court and the Ameru Parliament.
From my host, Lilian of Karimba Lodge, I learn that Njuri Ncheke Shrine is not a “walk in, walk out” sort of place. We will need a special guide, known to the Njuri Ncheke to get a “hearing”. Lilian makes a few calls and a qualified Ayub Manyara obliges.
According to the guide Ayub, there are certain things we need to put into perspective before we can venture into the Shrine. Part of which is the code of conduct. We must be respectful and humble. During the interview, we must show self-restraint to what is public information and that, which is not. We too must not venture inside the Shrine unless under special permission from the elders, which includes a ritual.
Brief complete, we take off for the Njuri Ncheke Shrine, about four kilometers from Karimba Lodge, and about 15 kilometres from Meru town. At the gate, Ayub makes a few calls here and there and in 20 minutes we are joined by two Njuri Ncheke elders – Julius Kobia (chairman) and Douglas Ntioiti (secretary), Uringo location. I am almost certain that we will be forced to ululate “igwee, igwee, igweeeeeeee, but sigh with relief as this is not the case.
The story session
We proceed to the Shrine. A few buildings are in the compound but standing out is an imposing dome-shaped building – the Nchiru Njuri Ncheke Shrine. Currently the shrine is being renovated by the National Museum at a cost of Sh3 million to be a national monument.
We are guided to a canopy of trees, under which sessions such as ours take place. Here, we are joined by John Koome, Caretaker, Njuri Ncheke Museum and Silas Rumuli a security officer. The chairman starts with an explanation that every location has a mini Njuri Ncheke shrine.
Nchiru shrine serves as headquarters for the Njuri Ncheke and is significant to the Meru community. It is seat of the Njuri Supreme Court and Parliament. Records indicate that this system of Governance through a Council of Elders has been with the Ameru (also known as Ngaa people) for 800 years. The site was chosen because of its centrality and serenity. The design of the oval-shaped building was influenced by the Ameru traditional elder’s house.
Njuri Ncheke means “thinned out” or select committee with a definite social role. It is derived from a sacred and secret ritual oath that was taken by all the members of the traditional council. As early as the 17th Century, Njuri Ncheke has always adjudicated community issues in Meru and Tharaka Nithi counties, acted as “judiciary of the Ameru, arbitrating and settling disputes while also imposing fines on those it considers to have gone against the social norms. The elders meet on location to discuss serious matters that involve Ameru community as well as settle serious disputes. Interestingly, these matters include environmental conservation.
The Council of Elders is no respecter of personalities. Anyone who is brought or comes to it on an arbitration matter is treated the same. Most of the conflicts are resolved at Njuri Ncheke “houses” (nyumba ya njuri), found at sub location levels. Only intra Njuri Ncheke disputes and appeals are handled by the Supreme Council. The conflict resolution methods used by the Council of Elders include determination of cases, oath-taking, counselling, peace crusades, dialogue and instilling discipline among community members.
“Select elders from each region of the Ameru meet to endorse various resolutions on socio-economic issues affecting the community. The last major declaration made at the shrine was banning of female genital mutilation and the tradition of redeeming sold land using goats.
The Council of Elders word is law. Even the courts respect the Njuri Ncheke Supreme Council of Elders. The fines they impose go unchallenged. “When the elders issue a decree, the message reverberates from Thuci River, which marks the boarder of Embu and Tharaka Nithi counties and the entry point of the greater Meru, to Ntonyiri – the last point of the vast Meru community land.
Mbogori explains that each case brought to Njuri is unique and requires different approach and handling. “Many people see us as witchdoctors or corrupt, but this is not the case,” explains Ntoiti. “Sisi hatukuli nyama ya watu, tunakula nyama ya mbuzi ama ngombe (Njuri Ncheke elders do not partake in human sacrifices. We only partake livestock meat,” intones Mbogori.
Appointment of the elders
Njuri Ncheke has a membership of approximately 5, 000 elders spread across Meru and Tharaka Nithi conties. For centuries, the revered Council of Elders was a preserve of elderly men, but not anymore. During the last few years, young men have also been admitted to the Council. Ntoiti is one of them. “God picks people like Moses who have what it takes to lead his people and so does Njuri Ncheke,” says Ntoiti.
Initiation into Njuri Ncheke is a men’s only affair. One has to be a mzee and must have undergone all the Meru cultural rites that make a man. These include: circumcision, marriage and the initiation into an elder. One must also belong to a rika (age group). Some of the rikas include: Miriti, Kobia, Guantai and Gichungi, meaning that anyone called by these names belongs to that age group.
Election of elders happens after every ten years. Mini elections are conducted at sub-location level where desired elders are elected through a non-balloting process. These are then presented to the national governing council and representatives are vetted. The candidates do not necessarily make applications, and once picked, one cannot decline to be a Njuri Ncheke elder.
“One has to have a valid reason to decline and once appointed, you cannot opt out of this appointment – it is lifetime appointment”, says Mbogori. He also notes that the Njuri Ncheke is not a group of elders and no one knows who they actually are “apart from themselves” and God of course.
Oath and curses
According to Ntoiti, Uthi is the worst curse that the elders can invoke and is irreversible. “It is worse than the Kithiri curse which can be cleansed and reversed after paying a fine of three white bulls,” explains the elder. There are documented cases where Uthi has had full effect, and cases where Kithiri has been reversed and the culprit cleansed after the culprit, his relatives or an interested person (including a child) have repented on behalf of the “accused”. Ntoiti says that in most cases, the Council of Elders will use all means possible to arbitrate cases before administering a curse. “We do not wish anyone misfortune and the Council will do everything possible to arbitrate a case before we administer the curse, clarifies Mbogori. He discloses that the elders pray in earnest before administering an oath.
Standing the test of time
The system of governance has had its fair time of challenges – turmoil, uncertainty, political interference, division and neglect, among others. This has often times affected the smooth running of the Council of Elders. For instance, after independence, Njuri Ncheke experienced a let-up which saw the shrine abandoned, vandalised and construction material stolen.
The Council, however, has weathered these storms to perform its role to the Ameru community. It has always been used as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism and has played a supportive role to the Judiciary. It remains a powerful organ in settling disputes and setting the pace for political and social development in various sectors in Meru over the years.
A bright future
The County Government is making plans to establish a cultural centre, a home for the aged and a hospitality facility at the shrine. This is to preserve the cultural heritage of the Ameru, attract more visitors and provide research services for local and international personalities.
I know you are curious as to what is inside the Nchiru Shrine and why it it is kept secret. While I might know, I am not brave enough to let the cat out lest I face the full wrath of the council! You just might have to make the journey for answers.