The traditional Kamba dance
|3,893,157 (2009 Census)|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Kikamba, Swahili, English|
|Christianity, African Traditional Religion|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Kikuyu, Embu, Meru, Mbeere, other Bantu peoples|
The Kamba or Akamba people are a Bantu ethnic group - or tribe - who live in the eastern and south eastern areas of Kenya, formerly Eastern Province of Kenya stretching east from Nairobi to Tsavo and north up to Embu, Kenya. This land is called Ukambani and constitutes Makueni County, Kitui County and Machakos County. They are also found in coastal Counties of Kwale, Mombasa, Kilifi and parts of Tana River County.
Sources vary on whether Kambas are the third, fourth or fifth largest ethnic group in Kenya. They make up to 11 percent of Kenya's population. They speak the Bantu Kikamba language as a mother tongue. The Kamba are predominantly based in Machakos, Kitui and Makueni Counties of Kenya. The total population of the Kamba stands at approximately 4.1 million. The Kamba are also called Akamba or Wakamba.
The Kamba are of Bantu origin. They are closely related in language and culture to the Kikuyu, Embu, Mbeere and Meru, and to some extent relates closely to Digos and Giriama people of the Kenyan coast. Kambas are concentrated in the lowlands of Southeast Kenya from the vicinity of Mount Kenya to the Coast.
The first group of Kamba people settled in the present-day Mbooni Hills in the Machakos District of Kenya in the second half of the 17th century, before spreading to the greater Machakos, Makueni and Kitui Districts.
Other authorities suggest that they arrived in their present lowlands east of the Mount Kenya area of habitation from earlier settlements further to the north and east, while others argue that the Kamba, along with their closely related Eastern Bantu neighbours the Kikuyu, Embu, Mbeere and Meru moved into Kenya from points further south.
According to Ethnologue, there are approximately 3,960,000 Kamba speakers, with the number increasing. Most of them live in Kenya, and are concentrated in the Machakos, Kitui, Makueni counties and Mbeere region in Embu county of the former Eastern Province, North Eastern parts of the Kajiado county, Eastern parts of Muranga and Kiambu counties, Mwea region of Kirinyaga county, Taita -Taveta county and Kwale County of the former Coast Province. The Kamba people also form the second largest demographics in each of the urban city - counties of Nairobi and Mombasa. The Akamba share borders with the Maasai people and are literally separated by the Kenya-Uganda railway from Athi to Kibwezi. Up until late 20th Century the Maasai and the Akamba communities were involved in persistent cattle-rustling and pasture conflicts especially on the pasture-rich Konza plains. This attracted the interest of colonial government who created Cooperative Society and the later the establishment of Konza, Potha and Malili Ranches where the proposed Konza Technology City sits.
Apart from Kenya, Kamba people can also be found in Uganda, Tanzania and in Paraguay. The population of Akamba in Uganda is about 8,280, 110,000 in Tanzania and about 10,000 in Paraguay.
The Kamba people in the South American country of Paraguay form two groups: Kamba Cuá and Kamba Kokue with the former being the most famous. They arrived in Paraguay as members of a regiment of 250 spearmen ('lanceros de Artigas'), men and women, who accompanied General Jose Gervasio Artigas, in his exile in Paraguay in 1820. Their population is now estimated to be 10,000 people. The Kamba Cuá are famous for their African traditional ballet that is described as the "central cultural identity of the Afro-Paraguayan community".
The Kamba speak the Kamba language (also known as Kikamba) as a mother tongue. It belongs to the Bantu branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Kikamba has no letters c, f, j, r, x, q and p in its alphabet. The Swahili language reveals closer ties to the Akamba mother tongue, this being due to the various interactions of the Akamba people with Arab traders for centuries.
Like many Bantus the Akamba were originally hunters and gatherers, became long distance traders because of their knowledge of the expansive area they inhabited and good relations with neighbouring communities as well as excellent communication skills, later adopted subsitence farming and pastoralism due to the availability of the new land that they came to occupy.
Today, the Akamba are often found engaged in different professions: some are agriculturalists, others are traders, while others have taken up formal jobs. Barter trade with the Kikuyu, Maasai, Meru and Embu people in the interior and the Mijikenda and Arab people of the coast was also practised by the Akamba who straddled the eastern plains of Kenya.
Over time, the Akamba extended their commercial activity and wielded economic control across the central part of the land that was later to be known as Kenya (from the Kikamba, 'Ki'nyaa', meaning 'the Ostrich Country' derived from the reference they made to Mount Kenya and its snow cap similar to the male Ostrich), from the Indian Ocean in the east to Lake Victoria in the west, and all the way up to Lake Turkana on the northern frontier. The Akamba traded in locally produced goods such as sugar cane wine, ivory, brass amulets, tools and weapons, millet, and cattle. The food obtained from trading helped offset shortages caused by droughts and famines experienced in their Kamba land.
They also traded in medicinal products known as 'Miti' (literally: plants), made from various parts of the numerous medicinal plants found on the Southeast African plains. Maingi Ndonye Mbithi, commonly referred by his peers and locals as Kanyi, from Kimutwa village in Machakos was best known for his concoction of herbs mixed with locally fermented brew (kaluvu) with the ability to heal cancerous boils (Mi'imu). The Akamba are still known for their fine work in wood carving, basketry and pottery and the products . Their artistic inclination is evidenced in the sculpture work that is on display in many craft shops and galleries in the major cities and towns of Kenya.
In the mid-eighteenth century, a large number of Akamba pastoral groups moved eastwards from the Tsavo and Kibwezi areas to the coast. This migration was the result of extensive drought and lack of pasture for their cattle. They settled in the Mariakani, Kinango, Kwale, Mombasa West (Changamwe and Chaani) and Mombasa North (Kisauni) areas of the coast of Kenya, creating the beginnings of urban settlement. They are still found in large numbers in these towns, and have been absorbed into the cultural, economic and political life of the modern-day Coast Province. Several notable businessmen and women, politicians, as well as professional men and women are direct descendants of these itinerant pastoralists.
Much of documented pre colonial history about the Kamba people revolves around Kivoi Mwendwa famously known as 'Chief Kivoi' (born in the 1780s). He was a Kamba long Distance trader who lived in the present day Kitui. He is best known for guiding first Europeans to reach the interior of the area of present-day Kenya where the German missionaries Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann of the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS), in 1849, "discovered" Mount Kenya.
At that time, Kitui was the home of Kivoi and he had several other possessions along his caravan route. Kivoi commanded a large following, and it was he who met the missionaries in Mombasa, and guided them to Kitui where - on 3 December 1849 - they became the first Europeans to set eyes on Mount Kenya. Back in Europe, their reports of snow on the equatorial mountain were met with disbelief and ridicule for many years after.
Chief Kivoi interacted with Arabs at the coast and Voi town was named after him because that was one of his stop overs towns where caravans settled before entered into the coastal town of Mombasa. According locals of Voi Town, Kivoi settled along Voi River in the mid 1800s. His actual birth date is unknown as is not recorded but he is believed to have lived between 1780s to 19 August 1852. His descendants are not known in historical context but he was adversely mentioned by Dr. Ludwig Krapf in his Mission to Africa. According to Dr. Ludwig Krapf, he was killed together with his immediate followers after his caravan was attacked by robbers during an expedition in Tana River 2 miles from present day Yatta . According to his diary entry Ludwig Krapf says, 'This expedition proved most calamitous, and, as already mentioned, Krapf's "escape with life was a marvel." When within a mile or two of the Dana, the party was suddenly attacked by robbers. The greater part of the caravan was instantly dispersed, Kivoi's people flying in all directions; Kivoi himself was killed with his immediate followers; Krapf fired his gun twice, but into the air, "for," said he, "I could not bring myself to shed the blood of man;" and then he found himself in the bash, separated from both friend and foe, and flying in what he supposed to be the best direction.' After the death of Chief Kivoi, Ludwig Krapf was accused of causing his death and the Akamba condemned him to die also. At midnight he managed to escape, and fled in the direction of Yata. His perils were now greater than before, as he was in an inhabited country, and feared to travel by day lest he should be detected and murdered, while at night he frequently missed his way, and in the dense darkness of the forests his compass was of little use.
In the latter part of the 19th century the Arabs took over the coastal trade from the Akamba, who then acted as middlemen between the Arab and Swahili traders and the tribes further upcountry. Their trade and travel made them ideal guides for the caravans gathering elephant tusks, precious stones and some slaves for the Middle Eastern, Indian, and Chinese markets. Early European explorers also used them as guides in their expeditions to explore Southeast Africa due to their wide knowledge of the land and neutral standing with many of the other societies they traded with.
During the colonial era, British colonial officials considered the Kamba to be the premier martial race and sharp-shooters of Africa. The Kamba themselves appeared to embrace this label by enlisting in the colonial army in large numbers. After confidently describing the Kamba serving in the King's African Rifles (the KAR, Britain's East African colonial army) as loyal "soldiers of the Queen" during the Mau Mau Emergency, a press release by the East Africa Command went on to characterize the Kamba as a "fighting race." These sentiments were echoed by other colonial observers in the early 1950s who deemed the Kamba a hardy, virile, courageous, and "mechanically-minded tribe." Considered by many officers to be the "best [soldierly] material in Africa," the Kamba supplied the KAR with askaris (soldiers) at a rate that was three to four times their percentage of the overall Kenyan population.' The Kamba people were also very brave and successfully resisted an attempt by the British colonialists to seize their livestock in an obnoxious livestock control legislation in 1938. They peacefully fought the British until the law was repealed. Among the Akamba people, lack of rain is considered an event requiring ritual intervention. As a result, they perform a ritual rain making dance called Kilumi. It is a healing rite designed to restore environmental balance through spiritual blessings, movement, offering, and prayers. According to Akamba, Kilumi has been present since the very beginning of Kamba existence. This ritual emphasizes symbolic dance movements as a key force in achieving the goal of the ceremony. The heart of the dance ritual is its spiritual essence; in fact, it is the spiritual aspect that distinguishes the dances of Africans and their descendants worldwide. For this reason, it is important to understand the nature of rituals. Dance rituals take participants on a journey; they are designed to foster a transformation moving them to different states, with the ultimate goal of invoking spiritual intervention to resolve the problem at hand.
Akamba resistance to colonial "pacification" was mostly non-violent in nature. Some of the best known Akamba resistance leaders to colonialism were: Syokimau, Syotune wa Kathukye, Muindi Mbingu, and later Paul Ngei, JD Kali, and Malu of Kilungu. Ngei and Kali were imprisoned by the colonial government for their anti-colonial protests. Syotune wa Kathukye led a peaceful protest to recover cattle confiscated by the British colonial government during one of their raiding expeditions on the local populations.
Muindi Mbingu was arrested for leading another protest march to recover stolen land and cattle around the Mua Hills in Masaku district, which the British settlers eventually appropriated for themselves. JD Kali, along with Paul Ngei, joined the Mau Mau movement to recover Kenya for the Kenyan people. This movement took place between 1952-1960. He was imprisoned in Kapenguria during the fighting between the then government and the freedom fighters.
Mythology (Creation Story) Like all other Bantu, communities, the Akamba have a story of origin that differs greatly from that of the Kikuyu. It goes like: "In the beginning, Mulungu created a man and a woman. This was the couple from heaven and he proceeded to place them on a rock at Nzaui where their foot prints, including those of their livestock can be seen to this day. Mulungu then caused a great rainfall. From the many anthills around, a man and a woman came out. These were the initiators of the ‘spirits clan’- the Aimo. It so happened that the couple from heaven had only sons while the couple from the anthill had only daughters. Naturally, the couple from heaven paid dowry for the daughters of the couple from the anthill. The family and their cattle greatly increased in numbers. With this prosperity, they forgot to give thanks to their creator. Mulungu punished them with a great famine. This led to dispersal as the family scattered in search of food. Some became the Kikuyu, others the Meru while some remained as the original people, the Akamba." The Akamba are not specific about the number of children that each couple had initially borne.
The Akamba believe in a monotheistic, invisible and transcendental God, Ngai or Mulungu, who lives in the sky (yayayani or ituni). Another venerable name for God is Asa, or the Father. He is also known as Ngai Mumbi (God the Creator) na Mwatuangi (God the finger-divider). He is perceived as the omnipotent creator of life on earth and as a merciful, if distant, entity. The traditional Akamba perceive the spirits of their departed ones, the Aimu or Maimu, as the intercessors between themselves and Ngai Mulungu. They are remembered in family rituals and offerings / libations at individual altars.
In Akamba culture, the family (Musyi) plays a central role in the community. The Akamba extended family or clan is called mbai. The man, who is the head of the family, is usually engaged in an economic activity popular among the community like trading, hunting, cattle-herding or farming. He is known as Nau, Tata, or Asa.
The woman, whatever her husband's occupation, works on her plot of land, which she is given upon joining her husband's household. She supplies the bulk of the food consumed by her family. She grows maize, millet, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, beans, pigeon peas, greens, arrow root, cassava, and yam in cooler regions like Kangundo, Kilungu and Mbooni. It is the mother's role to bring up the children. Even children that have grown up into adults are expected to never contradict the mother's wishes. The mother is known as Mwaitu ('our One').
Very little distinction is made between one's children and nieces and nephews. They address their maternal uncle as inaimiwa and maternal aunts as mwendya and for their paternal uncle and aunt as mwendw'au. They address their paternal cousins as wa-asa or wa'ia (for men is mwanaasa or mwanaa'ia, and for women is mwiitu wa'asa or mwiitu wa'ia), and the maternal cousins (mother's side) as wa mwendya (for men mwanaa mwendya; for women mwiitu wa mwendya). Children often move from one household to another with ease, and are made to feel at home by their aunts and uncles who, while in charge of their nephews/nieces, are their de facto parents.
Grandparents (Susu or Usua (grandmother), Umau or Umaa (grandfather)) help with the less strenuous chores around the home, such as rope-making, tanning leather, carving of beehives, three-legged wooden stools, cleaning and decorating calabashes, making bows and arrows, etc. Older women continue to work the land, as this is seen as a source of independence and economic security. They also carry out trade in the local markets, though not exclusively. In the modern Akamba family, the women, especially in the urban regions, practice professions such as teaching, law, medicine, nursing, secretarial work, management, tailoring and other duties in accordance with Kenya's socioeconomic evolution. The Kamba clans are: Anzauni, Aombe, Akitondo, Amwei (Angwina), Atwii, Amumui, Aethanga, Atangwa, Amutei, Aewani, Akitutu, Ambua, Aiini, Asii, Akiimi.
Naming of children is an important aspect of the Akamba people. In most but not all cases, the first four children, two boys and two girls, are named after the grandparents on both sides of the family. The first boy is named after the paternal grandfather and the second after the maternal grandfather. Girls are similarly named. Because of the respect that the Kamba people observe between the varied relationships, there are people with whom they cannot speak in "first name" terms.
The father and the mother in-law on the husband's side, for instance, can never address their daughter in-law by her first name. Neither can she address them by their first names. Yet she has to name her children after them. To solve this problem, a system of naming is adopted that gave names which were descriptive of the quality or career of the grandparents. Therefore, when a woman is married into a family, she is given a family name (some sort of baptismal name), such as "Syomunyithya/ng'a Mutunga," that is, "she who is to be the mother of Munyithya/Mutunga."
Her first son is to be called by this name. This name Munyithya was descriptive of certain qualities of the paternal grandfather or of his career. Thus, when she is calling her son, she would indeed be calling her father in-law, but at the same time strictly observing the cultural law of never addressing her in-laws by their first names.
After these four children are named, whose names were more or less predetermined, other children could be given any other names, sometimes after other relatives and / or family friends on both sides of the family. Occasionally, children were given names that were descriptive of the circumstances under which they were born:
Children were also given affectionate names as expressions of what their parents wished them to be in life. Such names would be like
Of course, some of these names could be simply expressive of the qualities displayed by the man or woman after whom they were named. Very rarely, a boy may be given the name "Musumbi" (meaning "king"). I say very rarely because the Kamba people did not speak much in terms of royalty; they did not have a definite monarchical system. They were ruled by a council of elders called kingole. There is a prophecy of a man, who traces his ancestry to where the sun sets (west) (in the present day county of Kitui) who will bear this name.
A girl could be called "Mumbe" meaning beautiful one or "Mwende" (beloved); Wild animal names like Nzoka (snake), Mbiti (hyena), Mbuku (hare), Munyambu (lion), or Mbiwa (fox); or domesticated animal names like Ngiti (dog), Ng'ombe (cow), or Nguku (chicken), were given to children born of mothers who started by giving stillbirths. This was done to wish away the bad omen and allow the new child to survive. Sometimes the names were used to preserve the good names for later children. There was a belief that a woman's later children had a better chance of surviving than her first ones.
The Akamba people's love of music and dance is evidenced in their spectacular performances at many events in their daily lives or on occasions of regional and national importance. In their dances they display agility and athletic skills as they perform acrobatics and body movements. The Akamba dance techniques and style resemble those of the Batutsi of Rwanda-Burundi and the Aembu of Kenya. The earliest, most famous and respected traditional Kamba soloist who can be documented was Mailu Mboo (Grand Father to Influx Swaggaa top Kenyan Artiste) and came from "Kwa Vara" Now mwingi.
The following are some of the varieties of traditional dance styles of the Akamba community:
Dances are usually accompanied by songs composed for the occasion (marriage, birth, nationally important occasion), and reflect the traditional structure of the Kikamba song, sung on a pentatonic scale. The singing is lively and tuneful. Songs are composed satirising deviant behaviour, anti-social activity, etc. The Akamba have famous work songs, such as Ngulu Mwelela, sung while work, such as digging, is going on. Herdsmen and boys have different songs, as do young people and old. During the Mbalya dances the dance leader will compose love songs and satirical numbers, to tease and entertain his/her dancers.
The Akamba of the modern times, like most people in Kenya, dress rather conventionally in western / European clothing. The men wear trousers and shirts. Young boys will, as a rule, wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts, usually in cotton, or tee-shirts. Traditionally, Akamba men wore leather short kilts made from animal skins or tree bark. They wore copious jewellery, mainly of copper and brass. It consisted of neck-chains, bracelets, and anklets.
The women in modern Akamba society also dress in the European fashion, taking their pick from dresses, skirts, trousers, jeans and shorts, made from the wide range of fabrics available in Kenya. Primarily, however, skirts are the customary and respectable mode of dress. In the past, the women were attired in knee-length leather or bark skirts, embellished with bead work. They wore necklaces made of beads, these obtained from the Swahili and Arab traders. They shaved their heads clean, and wore a head band intensively decorated with beads. The various kilumi or dance groups wore similar colours and patterns on their bead work to distinguish themselves from other groups.
Traditionally, both men and women wore leather sandals especially when they ventured out of their neighbourhoods to go to the market or on visits. While at home or working in their fields, however, they remained barefoot.
School children, male and female, shave their heads to maintain the spirit of uniformity and equality. Currently the most popular Kamba artist include; Ken Wamaria, Kativui, Kitunguu,Katombi,Maima,Vuusya Ungu etc. Ken Wamaria is rated as the top artist in Ukambani and the richest Kenyan artist (Kioko, 2012).
Media related to Kamba people at Wikimedia Commons