Culture and History

A guest blog by Gemma Burford MSc, environmental anthropologist

Arusha is a culturally diverse city, but the mountain itself is home to two specific ethnic groups: the WaArusha and the WaMeru. The Swahili prefix ‘wa-‘ means ‘people of’.

The WaArusha are thought to have moved into the area in the 1830s as refugees from the war between the Maasai pastoralists of the Kisongo plains and the WaChagga farmers of Mount Kilimanjaro.  They founded a community on the south-western side of Mount Meru, where they found fertile land for farming. The community expanded greatly in the 1890s when diseases, droughts and famines drove many Maasai herders to join their WaArusha neighbours.

The WaArusha people speak a language called Ki-Arusha, which is a variant of the Maa language, and are culturally very similar to the Maasai. (The prefix ‘ki-‘ means ‘language of’).  However, while the Maasai are famous as “people of cattle” who live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving their livestock from one place to another to find water and grazing during the dry season, the WaArusha are settled in villages.  They focus on small-scale farming, usually growing crops for their own families, but sometimes also for sale.  The streams that begin as mountain springs provide water for irrigation, so Meru is a fertile land which yields a harvest even when the rains fail – unlike many places in Tanzania.

Most WaArusha think of themselves as Maasai: they consult the same spiritual leaders (iloibonok), perform the same rituals, and take part in the same age-set ceremonies.  Young men, for example, are usually circumcised and may be referred to as ‘warriors’.  Unlike the Maasai of the plains, though, they are not expected to defend their livestock against lions and leopards – you’ll probably be relieved to know that there are no big cats on Mount Meru!

Christianity and formal education are more strongly established among the WaArusha than in many pastoral Maasai communities.  The younger generations usually speak Swahili as a first language, and most of them attend church regularly.

The WaMeru have lived on the south-eastern slopes of the mountain for even longer than the WaArusha – around 300 years.  They grow a variety of different crops including bananas, plantains, maize, millet and cassava. There are also many medicinal plants, which can be used to treat a variety of different diseases including fevers, malaria, bacterial and fungal infections, worms, stomach pain and even diabetes.  Like the WaChagga people of Mount Kilimanjaro, most WaMeru homesteads also own at least one or two stall-fed cattle. They speak a language called KiMeru