Site logo

History of Embu County

The Land Of Opportunities


The Embu are a Bantu-speaking people who are closely related to the Gikuyu of Ndia and Gicugu to the west, the Mbeere and the Kamba to the southeast, and the Chuka and the Meru to the north. As the Embu proverb goes, Mwana ti wa muciari umwe—a child does not belong to one parent. These communities share common ancestry and origins. Despite speaking a Bantu language (Bantu came from central Africa), the agricultural Embu and Mbeere are one of the few Kenyan peoples whose oral traditions seem to locate their origins within Kenya, in fact very close to their present location to the southeast of Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya). Tradition also speaks of a time when they were hunter-gatherers and used to live in “caves,” meaning rock shelters or hollow trees in forests, much as the indigenous Kenyan groups of hunter-gathers such as the Okiek (“Ndorobo”) did until the 20th century. Tradition further states that the Ndorobo interacted with the Embu a long time ago before the Ndorobo were either displaced or left when the forests began to be converted to farmland.


The origin of the Embu is still unclear, but there are two explanations. From historical accounts, the Embu are believed to have migrated from the Congo Basin together with their close relatives, the Kikuyu and Meru People. This migration was perhaps due to conflicts like slavery. It is believed that they migrated as far as the Kenyan Coast, since the Meru elders refer to Mpwa (Pwani or Coast) as their origin. The conflicts there, perhaps slave trade by Arabs, forced them to retreat northeast to the interior of Kenya, and they settled by the slopes of Mt. Kenya. They refer to this location as the place of the Lord, the owner of the snow (“Nyaga”) or (“Njeru” meaning white)—hence the name “Mwenenyaga” or “Mwenenjeru.”

Oral history on the other hand traces the Embu to the Northeastern Bantu who came from a dispersed area in the Taita hills near Mount Kilimanjaro. From here, this Bantu group migrated to the coast, then turned northward to a mythical place called Shungwaya between the Tana and Juba rivers in Somalia. Shungwaya became the second dispersal area from which various Bantu groups started moving out about ad 1200-1300. One such group, known as the Nyika, migrated northeast and then southward to the region of Mount Kenya. During the migration, the Nyika broke up into other smaller groups that are now known as the Kamba, Gikuyu, Meru, Chuka, Embu, and Mbeere. It is likely that the Embu arrived in their present home by ad 1425. They fought and expelled a people known as the Gumba, who were the original inhabitants of the territory.

On the contrary, the Embu ancestral origin myth goes on to indicate that the Embu have been on their land since the beginning of time. Embu mythology claims that the Embu people originated from Mbue Njeru in the interior of Embu, close to Runyenjes town. The mythology claims that God (Ngai) created Mwenendega and gave him a beautiful wife by the famous Mbui Njeru waterfall—hence her name “Ciurunji.” The couple was blessed with wealth, and their descendants populated the rest of Embu. The Embu believe that they descended from Mwenendega who lived in a small grove, which now bears his name, near the present location of the town of Runyenjes. This grove is still protected as a sacred place. One day Mwenendega saw a very beautiful woman bathing in a stream nearby. Her name was Nveta, and it is said that she was not an earthly woman. After much persuasion and praises of her beauty, she agreed to live with him and not return to her people. They had many children. Their first two children were a boy called Kembu and a girl called Werimba. When Kembu impregnated Werimba, the two were expelled from home. They founded their new home elsewhere and bore children who also married each other and bore more children. All these children came to be known popularly as “children of Kembu,” and later, Embu, in short.


Since Mount Kenya lies within the lands of this cluster, these groups collectively are known as the Mount Kenya Bantu. Although over the years they have traded with each other, there are also many accounts of the wars that they have fought with each other either to capture livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats) or gain territory belonging to the other. Two of the more famous battles occurred around 1870 and 1890 when the celebrated war hero, Njeru Karuku, led the Embu successfully against the Chuka. In 1900 the Embu defeated the attacking Kamba and drove them back across the Tana River into their own territory. The Embu also fought with the Maasai, who came from the south to raid for cattle, and the British, who colonized Kenya in 1920.

The battles against the British were ideologically different from the previous ones. In 1900, the British built the first administrative post at Fort Hall to control the rebellious Gikuyu. By 1904, the Gikuyu of Ndia and Gicugu, Embu’s neighbors, had been conquered by the British. From here, the British organized military expeditions against the Embu who had refused to accept British rule peacefully. With the help of the Mbeere and the Gikuyu of Ndia, the British conquered the Embu around 1906. However, Embu resistance against foreign rule continued, more in the form of passive rather than armed resistance. To maintain order, Embu Station was established, first as a military station, and then as an administrative center. The last time the Embu fought against British rule was in the 1950s during the Mau Mau rebellion, which lasted for almost 10 years. This time the Embu and the Meru joined the Gikuyu to fight for Kenya’s independence, which came on 12 December 1963.

The Embu were traditionally organized into a patrilineal system through which descent was traced and inheritance handed down. Embu society was first divided into moieties (two major social groups), which consisted of numerous clans. In turn, each clan was made up of various lineages, with a lineage consisting of a number of minor lineages or extended families. Within this system of social organization, Embu males were also divided into age-groups which represented different levels of authority, status, and responsibility. Along with the age-group system existed an administrative ruling structure with the father as the senior authority within a household, above which came the ridge council serving as a minor lineage in a particular area. Above the ridge council were the clan council and the warrior leaders’ council. The warrior council executed the decisions or rules made by the clan council. The warrior leaders’ council also made and executed decisions regarding war, the protection of people and property, and the execution of justice. Above all was a council known as Kiama Kia Ngome, a type of supreme court which dealt with civil and criminal justice for the entire Embu country. It heard and made decisions on the most serious cases such as murder and sorcery. All of these (mostly judicial) councils were made up of elders who were highly regarded for their wisdom, fairness, and religious/medical knowledge. These elders, regardless of the council level, were known as athamaki (rulers), and they ruled the Embu. There were no chiefs in Embu until the British “invented” them.


Today, the Embu participate in the democratic political process. Initially, the Embu people never aligned themselves with a single political outfit. They spread out across the ruling party (for instance KANU) and even the opposition (for instance the Democratic Party and FORD-Asili) in the 1990s. Embu politics would not be complete without the mention of the Nyaga family that has dominated local politics since pre-colonial Kenya. However, in the 2000s the Embu have largely aligned with and overwhelmingly voted alongside their Agikuyu cousins in what is commonly known as the Mt. Kenya caucus or otherwise the Gikuyu, Embu, Meru Association (GEMA or MEGA). Most of the Embu as of 2008 belonged to the Party of National Unity (PNU) which was one of the partners in Kenya’s Grand Coalition government.


Embu is located on the southeastern slopes of Mount Kenya, where the altitude ranges from 1,100 m to 2,100 m (3,500-7,000 ft) above sea level. It is situated between longitudes 37°e and 38°e and latitudes 0°s. The most important geographical feature is Mount Kenya, which stands at 5,199 m (17,058 ft) above sea level. On a clear day, the permanent ice on the mountain shines very brightly, projecting unimaginable beauty and power, while the twin peaks, Lenana and Batian, stand out majestically. The total area is about 714 sq km (276 sq mi). Embu is part of the Eastern Province of Kenya. The capital town is also called Embu and serves as the district and provincial administrative center. To the south of Embu are to be found their cousins, the Mbeere people, in Mbeere District. Previously, the Embu and Mbeere were in one district, Embu District, and just referred to as the Embu people. To the west, Embu neighbors are the Kikuyu in Kirinyaga and Nyeri districts. The Meru people in Meru South District border Embu to the Southeast.


The numerically smaller Mbeere (around 100,000, as compared with an Embu population of around 450,000) live to the south of the Embu in the lower Kiangombe Hills. Despite their proximity to the British during the colonial period (Embu town was a major colonial center), the Mbeere have always kept themselves apart (and have been kept apart) from the Kenyan mainstream. The Kiangombe Hills are only barely fertile and poorly watered, dominated by thorn scrub and dust, which meant that the British had little interest in the area or the tribe, who were consequently left to themselves. As a result, some aspects of traditional culture lingered longer in Mbeere than they did in Embu, although nowadays they are both pretty much part of modern Kenya.

In 1918, the population of the Embu was estimated at 53,000 people. This population reached 85,177 people by 1962; 101,770 by 1969; and 180,400 by 1979. The Embu constitute roughly 2% of the Kenyan population. Some 17% of the Embu live in major urban centers like Nairobi, Mombasa, and Nakuru. By 1989, the population of Embu was projected to reach 228,144 people, increasing to 265,769 by 1993. In 2008 the Embu population was about 450,000. The population estimate may include Chuka and Mwimbi-Muthambi. Between 1969 and 1993, the Embu population growth rate ranged from 4.1% to 3.1% per year. This, coupled with a lack of employment opportunities in the rural areas, is causing many people, especially males, to migrate to the urban centers. However, most Embu, like many Africans, are culturally and economically tied to the land, and most of those who move to the cities maintain strong links to the rural homeland to which they eventually return, die, and are buried. The urban residents are also the ones who introduce elements of modernization to the rural areas.



Kiembu (the language of the Embu) belongs to a large cluster of languages known as Bantu. It is a language that is rich with proverbs and idioms. Although not emphasized today, mastery of proverbs and idioms once demonstrated intelligence and brought a person honor and respect. By using proverbs, people could talk about a particular subject or person without being specific or openly ridiculing a person, thereby avoiding social antagonism. But the greatest mastery in the use of proverbs and idioms was the choice of context in which the intended message was conveyed without ambiguity. For instance, the proverb, “Hungry stomachs have no ears,” can mean many things, but if it is invoked in the context of a case hearing, it means the council needs a fee from both parties, usually in the form of a goat, to be eaten by the elders as they continue to listen to the case. In the context of widespread civil disobedience, the meaning is that hungry people are poor listeners to the advice or rule of their rulers.

One can also learn a great deal about the Embu traditions, social norms, and individual behavior from the names given to people. Traditionally the Embu derived most of their names from animals, such as Njiru or Mbogo (buffalo), Nthia (antelope), Njoka (snake), Ndwiga (giraffe), Njuki (bee), Njogu (elephant), Nyaga or Kivuti (ostrich), Ngoroi (columbus monkey), or Munyi (rhinoceros). The reason for this is unclear, but one explanation is that Embu parents, who lost many children in infancy, wanted to ensure that their children would grow to maturity, just as the young of wild animals did, without much care. Other Embu names came from natural phenomena such as Mbura (rain), Riua (sun), Nduma (darkness), etc. Some other names were, and still are, derived from behaviors associated with certain well-known individuals. For instance, a mother might name her son Kinyua (one who drinks much) after a grandfather who drank too much porridge or beer. A daughter may be named Marigu after a female relative who had the habit of carrying food wherever she went, or Maitha if she were a cruel or harsh woman.


Kiembu or Kimbeere are dialects of the same language, with 85% lexical similarity between them. Also closely related are the languages of their geographical neighbors, the Kikuyu and Chuka (73% similarity), Kamba (66%), and Meru (63–65%). Up to 70% also speak Swahili.


To the Embu, the myth about their origins from Mwenendega and Nveta remains the most important of all their myths and folk tales. However, the most fascinating part of the myth, and one that draws fear and reverence, concerns Nveta’s real identity and clan membership. One day, as Nveta and Mwenendega were drinking beer, the latter asked her why no beer or any other gift had ever been sent to them from her people. Mwenendega also wanted to know who her people really were and where they resided. All of a sudden, Nveta became very angry and ordered the children into the house. She looked up to heaven as if she were praying and within a short moment there was lightning and thunder that had not been heard before in the land of the Embu. Very heavy rain fell that completely flooded their home, covering their house and their livestock. After that, Mwenendega and Nveta disappeared and could only be seen by good fortune.

Other heroes of the Embu include famous prophets, medicine men, and warriors. Ireri wa Irugi (wa stands for “son of”) was perhaps the most famous of all the prophets. It is said that he was able to communicate with Mwene Njeru (God), and that is why he was able to prophecy future events. One such event, and the most famous, was the coming of the white people. He warned people that he had seen strangers coming from the east towards Kirinyaga (Mt. Kenya). They had with them an iron-mouthed animal that would be used to collect all nations (ethnic groups) to one place where they would be helpless. The coming of the British soldiers from the eastern side of Embu land, and the subsequent conquest of the Embu, is seen as the fulfillment of the prophecy.


Gacogo wa Karaini was regarded as the highest religious leader of the Embu. He was also a skilled medicine man and circumciser. Being a religious leader, people from all over Embu and beyond sought his blessings and advice. His medicine and charms had the reputation of being very effective in curing various ailments and in protecting one from any harm, such as sorcery. He was so revered that people addressed him as Mutia, or “the respected one.”

Mwoca wa Minano is remembered as one of the greatest Embu warriors ever to live. His courage and skill in planning war tactics and raids won him much respect among all the people. He is credited for maintaining a very strong defense on the eastern border with the Gikuyu. He is most remembered for leading Embu warriors in a fierce battle against the British in about 1903. During this battle he killed a white soldier and took away his gun. When it was realized that the dead white soldier was uncircumcised, Mwoca was very disappointed because he thought all along he had fought with a “man,” and not a “child.”


The origins of the Embu religion are not known, but by the time the white people came, the Embu had a very well-established religion.

The Embu worshipped one God whom they called Mwene Njeru, meaning “the owner of the sun.” Despite the spread of Christianity, some people, particularly very old men and women, still believe in Mwene Njeru, who is omnipresent. When Mwene Njeru visits Embu, he has favorite places, of which the most important is Kirinyaga. From the mountaintop he can see the whole of Embu and what the people are doing. Other places include all the sacred groves, matiiri (sacred places of age-groups), and very big trees. Mwene Njeru is believed to be the source of all goodness, but he also punishes the people when they disobey him or do wrong to one another. People, led by the most sacred elders, sacrifice a goat that is all one color to Mwene Njeru to ask or thank him for his blessings, to end a catastrophe (e.g., drought, epidemics), and for his protection. The concern for long life is at the heart of the Embu religion. To live into very old age, and therefore to enjoy the respect and privileges accorded to the elders, is a clear demonstration of how much one is blessed by Mwene Njeru.


The Embu also believe in the spirits or ngoma. However, they distinguish between two kinds of spirits: the “evil spirits,” and the “ancestral spirits.” Evil spirits are malevolent—they bring misery to the people without provocation. Even when seen, they are not easily recognizable, and sometimes they may be heard singings but are not visible. They are not offered sacrifices but rather are bribed with some meat or animal blood. Ancestral spirits, on the other hand, are good spirits who protect people from evil spirits and other misfortune. But they also discipline people when they are disobedient. People appease them with sacrifices but do not worship them as they worship Mwene Njeru. When seen, they are easily recognizable as deceased relatives. It is believed that they form families, raise children, cultivate, and keep animals, just as they used to when they were alive.

The Embu have a saying that “no one dies a natural death.” Death is always attributed to some evil magic or sorcery. Events that are beyond human explanation are often attributed to the power of magic and sorcery. For instance, why should a tree fall and kill only one of the two people standing by it? To the Embu, this is not a question of chance but rather of somebody using magic to kill another person. There is also the belief that some people have the skill to use magic and sorcery to turn others into “fools,” cats, dogs, snakes, etc. Faced by such powerful forces, people turn to diviners and medicine men for protection.

No accurate figures are available on Embu subscription to the Christian and other foreign religions: a recent estimate was two-thirds traditional religion, one-third Christian, though it seems much more likely that the reverse is true, and that Christians are in the majority.



The only holidays that the Embu celebrate are the national holidays such as Independence DayLabor Day, Christmas Day, and New Year‘s Day. These holidays are marked by celebrations, which involve eating and beer-drinking, and of course, those formally employed do not have to show up for work. The most important national holiday is Independence Day, which is celebrated on December 12 every year. This is the day on which Kenya gained its independence from Britain in 1963, ending nearly 100 years of colonial rule. There are marches in major urban centers by school children, administrative police, and various other organized groups. In the capital city of Nairobi, celebrations include parades by various units of armed forces, an air show by the Kenyan Air Force, traditional dances by various ethnic groups, performances by school choirs, and lastly, a speech by the president of Kenya. Various dignitaries from overseas and from other African countries are also invited to attend.


In the old days among the Embu, the birth of a child was celebrated as a special event because a child was viewed as the “wealth” of a lineage or clan and also brought recognition and respect to both parents. Failure to bear a child was, and still is, viewed as a misfortune on both parents or as the result of a curse or sorcery. This could result in a man either marrying a second wife or the dissolution of the marriage. The birth of a boy was announced with five ululations (ngemi) and the birth of a girl with four. After ululations, the baby was given a name. Four days (for a girl) or five days (for a boy) after birth, a ritual known as kuumagarua, or “to be taken out” (to be introduced to the outside world), was performed. An older girl presented the baby girl with a tiny bundle of firewood, similar to that carried by adult women, and an older boy presented the baby boy with a small bow and arrow. This symbolized the lifetime chores, and the different worlds, of the two sexes. Today this ritual is not performed. Most children are born in hospitals and, instead of going through the ritual of being “taken out,” they are baptized in church in accordance with the teachings of the parents’ denomination. Immediately after birth, the mother gives the baby an Embu name and during baptism the baby receives a Christian name.


After birth, circumcision for boys and clitoridectomy for girls were the most crucial rituals in a person’s life-cycle. A boy’s first instruction in tribal knowledge came from his father around the homestead’s fireplace, but a man’s life as a full member of the tribe began in earnest at his circumcision shortly after puberty. His readiness to be circumcised was indicated by the payment of a goat called mburi ya nduo, the “goat of circumcision.” Another goat was paid when the time for circumcision came, which entitled him to get married. This goat was called mburi ya nthumbi (the “goat of the cap”), and was named after a cap made for him by recently circumcised men to indicate his newly acquired status. Traditionally, boys were circumcised between the ages of 18 and 22, while the girls underwent clitoridectomy between the ages of 14 and 18. The ritual initiated both girls and boys into adulthood. The girls had to be initiated before their first menstruation; otherwise, they could only marry a married man.

During the ceremony both boys and girls were expected to prove their courage, and thereby their readiness to accept adult responsibilities, by withstanding much pain without crying or moving. In Kenya, clitoridectomy is now illegal and the practice has almost disappeared. However, the circumcision of boys is still viewed as very important among the Embu. Currently, the circumcision ritual has been transformed from that of a public ceremony to a very private affair carried out in the hospital with the initiate under general anesthesia. But regardless, it is still associated with courage and responsibility. Today, one does not immediately assume the responsibilities of marriage but may go on with schooling, get a job, and then prepare to marry. Marriage, whether in the old days or at present, is considered very important and everybody is expected to marry and have children. It is by bearing children that the Embu think of a person as “complete.”


On matters of death, the Embu did not bury their dead before the 1920s. They believed that the burying of the dead body was like burying “fertility.” Rather, they left the dead bodies in the forest under a tree. Those who handled the dead body underwent a cleansing ritual to rid them of “pollution.” But most significantly, the Embu believed in life after death, that the body’s spirit did not die but lived on and, depending on the behavior of the living relatives, could be benevolent or malevolent. Today, the Embu inter their dead through a religious burial. There are no public cemeteries. A person is buried on the land owned by the family. Usually only the members of a family know where the grave is because it is marked with just a few stones or some planted flowers. The relatives of the deceased are exempted from work on the day of death, and this custom is still observed today. Death, as the last stage in the life cycle, is one event that the Embu do not celebrate.


Greetings, as a sign of politeness, well-wishing, and good behavior, constitute one of the most important aspects of Embu culture. Failing to greet somebody is always taken as an insult, immediately creates tension between the parties involved, and almost always results in a harsh criticism or rebuke by the person not greeted. The common and formal greeting begins by asking a person about his or her health. After the appropriate response, the two parties shake hands. One should not, under any circumstance, refuse to shake another person’s hand. People of generally the same age or status let their eyes meet as they greet each other and shake hands. Young people greeting elderly people usually avoid eye contact, as a sign of respect, by looking either down or sideways. Among the Embu there is no such thing as times for visiting or not visiting. A household not visited regularly is said to lack hospitality. A visitor is always offered food or something to drink, like tea. If it is during a mealtime, a visitor joins in sharing whatever food is available. There is an Embu saying that “a mother cooks more than her family can finish” so that there is always some for a visitor. Refusing an offer of food, without an appropriate explanation, is considered an insult to the person offering the food. More seriously, the refusal may be taken to imply that the food is poisoned or bewitched.

Dating practice has changed from a very strict code of behavior to a more relaxed and less culturally structured practice. When a boy meets a girl that he likes, he may straight away express his love for her, or send another boy or girl to convey his love message. He may also write to the girl asking her to be his girlfriend. If the girl’s response is favorable, then the two start seeing each other regularly and in public. The boy may also start visiting her in her home more openly. However, dating is not expected to lead to marriage until the boy’s father goes to visit (at the son’s request) the girl’s father to seek permission for marriage and to initiate marriage plans.

For a long time men from neighboring communities like the Gikuyu, Meru, and Kamba have come to get brides from the Embu, while the Embu men enjoy high regard from marriageable girls in the same tribes. With the advent of Kenya nationalism, this high regard has permeated to the entire nation, and now the Embu form one respected unit of the Kenyan social fabric.

Value is also attached to the extended family and Embu nomenclature enhances this relationship. Embu parents name each of their children after one of their relatives on either side, but never after themselves. Those relatives, to use Western terms, may be the child’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even distant relatives. The main significance of this naming practice is that: (1) it gives honor or recognition to the person after whom the child is named; (2) it creates a special relationship between the child and the person she or he is named after; and (3) creates a particular bond between the parents and the child and the person after whom the child is named. All this influences and dictates the behavior between all the individuals involved.

On intercommunity relations, the Mbeere are closely allied to the Embu, to whom they are related. In times of famine—which strikes the Mbeere more frequently than the Embu—the Embu would supply staple food like maize and beans in return for goats, skins, sorghum, and pigeon peas. Historically, the Embu also fought for the Mbeere, on a famous occasion in which the Kamba tried to oust the Mbeere from their land. The Embu and Mbeere jointly own sacred groves (matiiri) in Mwea, which is one of their traditional places of origin.

The Embu were fierce warriors who, although rarely raiding other tribes, always stood firm in defense of their territory and people. Many occasions are on record where the Embu had to fiercely repulse Kamba and even the dreaded Maasai invasions. They also rose against the British in the Mau Mau fight for Kenya’s independence. The fact that the tribe was and continues to be considerably small explains the relatively small impact on the history of Kenya.