Kamba people

Kamba people
Mukamba, pre 1923

The Kamba (Akamba in the plural) are a Bantu ethnic group who live in the semi-arid Eastern Province of Kenya stretching east from Nairobi to Tsavo and north up to Embu, Kenya. This land is called Ukambani. Sources vary on whether they are the third, fourth or the fifth largest ethnic group in Kenya. They speak the Kikamba language.

Anthropologists believe that the Akamba are a mixture of several East African people, and bear traits of the Bantu farmers (Kikuyu, Taita) as well as those of the Nilotic pastoralists (Maasai, Kalenjin, Borana, etc.) and the cushite communities with whom they share borders, to the east of Tsavo. 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 practiced 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, 'Kiinyaa', meaning 'the Ostrich Country'), 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 cane beer, ivory, brass amulets, tools and weapons, millet, and cattle. The food obtained from trading helped offset shortages caused by droughts and famines. They also traded in medicinal products known as 'Miti' (literally: plants), made from various parts of the numerous medicinal plants found on the East African plains. The Akamba are still known for their fine work in basketry and pottery. 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 ) 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 politicians, businessmen and women, as well as professional men and women are direct descendants of these itinerant pastoralists.


Colonialism and the 19th century

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 slaves for the Middle Eastern and Indian markets. Early European explorers also used them as guides in their expeditions to explore East Africa due to their wide knowledge of the land and neutral standing with many of the other societies they traded with.

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. He was imprisoned in Kapenguria during the fighting between the then government and the freedom fighters.

The Akamba family

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','ithe' 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 naimiwa 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'asaor mwiitu wa'ia), and the maternal cousins (aunt's side) as 'wa mwendya' (for men is mwanaa mwendya and mwiitu wa mwendya for women). 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 bee hives, three-leged wooden stools, etc, 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.

Culture and beliefs

Origins: In the Akamba cration myths, Ngai Mulungu ('the All-Powerful God'),Ngai Mwatuangi wa nzaa (finger-divider), made the first pair of husband and wife, and brought them out of a hole in the ground or from the sky according to a second version . Man was originally made to live forever, but the chameleon, which God 'mulungu' sent to announce this news, lingered on the way and stammered in delivering the message. Meanwhile, 'mulungu' sent a weaverbird, which flew swiftly and told the people that they would henceforth die and disappear like the roots of the aloe tree. Then man began to die. But death is not the master of man, since he reproduces and thus counteracts the effect of death. Furthermore more, upon death the person is not annihilated, but moves on into the world of spirits 'aimu'. In that other world, he can still die, but death is temporary for him and he can return to life as often as he dies. Finally, he disappears into the unknown past 'tene', as far as human beings are concerned. Physical death does not sever people; it acts like an initiatory door through which one passes from the world of the living to the invisible world. Nevertheless, death is dreaded and considered unnatural. Every possible effort is made to prevent it, or to delay it. When it strikes a person, his relatives and neighbors have to accept the bereavement with all its agony. But they believe that the departed continues to live in another world, which resembles the physical one, although he has more access to the governing force of nature. He joins the relatives and friends who have gone before him. The entire nation is therefore made up of human beings who are alive here and those who have died but live on in the beyond, known as 'yayayani'. It is these latter who are known as spirits 'aimu'.

There are two kinds of 'aimu'. The first are the departed dead. These are believed to show interest in their families who still survive, and to frequent their former homesteads. They are said to appear to their relatives, especially older members, and are recognized by name. People perform rituals, offer libations and food to them from time to time. These 'aimu' I would call the living-dead to distinguish them from the other 'aimu'. They are rarely mentioned in stories, although in ordinary life, people are very much aware of their presence. They strengthen family ties, and to some extent they are the guardians of the family. So revered were the dead ancestors that their memory was kept in the clan by keeping at least 10 generations in the genealogical chart. Children were taught to count from one to ten by memorizing the names of these ancestors. Such coaching would follow this pattern. "Mwana wakya!" (Child, how are you!) The child would answer, "Aaa!" (similar to 'I am fine'). Next the child would be asked,"Witawa ata?" (What is your name?"). That was the cue for the child to repeat the genealogy (to count one to ten) starting from the child's name. The child would then answer in the following fashion: "My name is so and so, son/daughter of so and so, son of so and so," and so on, until the tenth generation. The last name in this genealogy was that of the founder of that particular clan. So, the ninth link would be called, for instance, "wa mbaa Kanyaa" (that is, son of the founder of the Kanyaa clan). These genealogies were important in establishing consanguinity in order to observe the boundaries of marriage.

The aimu in the stories and myths belong to the second category. These are the 'aimu' who frequently appear in the stories and myths. They inhabit a spirit world 'aimu-land’(uimuni), with mountains, rivers, fields, and cattle. They cultivate fields, keep cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens, and have families and propagate their race.

Ritual belief in witchcraft and magic is very prevalent. Anti-therapy ritual that harms a person is attributed to some form of magic, and another person is nearly always blamed for it. But magic is not used for harmful purposes only; it has its beneficial uses as well. Harmful magic can be bought, learnt from one another person, or handed on from parent to child. Certain charms and magical instrumentals are used, and it is believed that one can send magical powers through the air to another person to be injured, or one can place these powers in the path or gate through which the other person is to pass. Direct poisoning of one’s food is feared; it is also believed that a witch can harm a person by bewitching his possessions like nails, hair, hoe, etc.

Of the useful magic, the commonest is that used to counteract the effect of harmful witchcraft. People wear fetishes and amulets, or other articles like 'mbingu, ithitu, muthea' in their possession, believe that they will protect them from harmful powers of magic. Similar articles are used to prevent diseases, which are considered to come from people who hate or have a grudge against another person. There are also charms used to bring success in hunting, in making, in making love, in undertaking a journey, or in examinations. Certain men have the power to handle snakes without being bitten, and others to keep locusts and wild animals from eating their crops.

Sickness is very common in 'Ukambani' that's kamba-land. Malaria, pneumonia, colds, and coughs, worm diseases, stomach ailments, eye diseases, wounds and scores, and tuberculosis are among most prevalent. Diseases used to be often and still are attributed to the power of black magic. Akamba doctors,are known as 'andu-awe' (medicine-men,or herbalists). They prescribe cures for many of the diseases that are common in Ukamba using herbs and roots, tand sometimes charms and rituals. Such doctors are highly respected, and people go to them for consultation of every type. Their profession has been overshadowed but not altogether replaced by western-trained doctors and nurses. They perform invaluable services for local communities by treating the sick, counteracting the power of witchcraft, and providing people with fetishes, charms, and amulets. Their combined physical and psychological approach to sickness and suffering is something, which may well be a key to medical work in Africa.

There are also diviners, whose tasks are to foretell the future for someone, to uncover the cause of trouble if someone is sick or has been meeting misfortunes, to give useful charms or treatment, and sometimes to cure diseases like regular doctors, the office of the diviner and the doctor does not always necessarily belong to the same person. Diviners also deal with 'aimu' spirit possession, and often, as in the case of the doctors, they acquire some of their knowledge from the 'aimu'.

The 'aimu' possession is real, and it is necessary to perform exorcism. Although in real life people are not brought back to life by the power of 'aimu', it is said that medicine men receive their instruction about diagnosing and curing diseases through rituals from the 'aimu'. Certain spots in 'ukambani' that were thought as chief dwelling places of the 'aimu', but people now don’t regard these places in the same way, and some of them have been built upon. These myths show the people 'akamba' awareness of the spirit world and its nearness to that of human beings. The 'aimu', whether real or imaginary, act as an outlet for people’s concern with problem and mystery of ‘EVIL’

Like the Maasai and the Agikuyu, the Akamba believe in a monotheistic, invisible and transcendental God, Ngai or Mulungu, who lives up 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'/'Maimu', as the intercessors between themselves and Ngai Mulungu. They are remembered in family rituals and offerings / libations at individual altars.

The kamba royalty was often not talked about and the history behind the royalty is not well known although the name Musumbi is linked with royalty, social grace & leadership. Not much is known about this Family or mentioned in any available documentation. Royalty may not be the best term to describe these people. Their role was more of leadership and performance of certain public, social (resolution of disputes), spiritual or ceremonial functions. They refrained from any involvement in electoral politics or the actual governance of their people.

Naming and Kamba names

Naming of children is an important aspect of the Akamba people. 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, "Nduku" (girl) and "Mutuku" (boy) meaning born at night,"Kioko" (boy) born in the morning, "Mumbua/Syombua" (girl)and "Wambua" (boy) for the time of rain, "Wayua" (girl) for the time of famine, "Makau" (boy) for the time of war, "Musyoka/Kasyuko/Musyoki" (boy) and "Kasyoka/Kasyoki" (girl) as a re-incarnation of a dead family member, "Mutua" (boy) and "Mutuo/Mwikali" (girl)as indicative of the long duration the parents had waited for this child, or a lengthy period of gestation. Children were also given affectionate names as expressions of what their parents wished them to be in life. Such names would be like "Mutongoi" (leader), "Musili" (judge), or "Muthui" (the rich one), or "Ngumbau" (hero, the brave one). 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 weree ruled by a council of elderscalled kinyole. 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 and who through the realization of the law of attraction liberate himself and others from social conditioning while creating a new global consciousness. Wild animal names like Nzoka (snake), Mbiti (hyena), Mbuku (hare), Munyambu (lion), Mbiwa (fox) or domesticated animal names like Ngiti (dog), Ng'ombe (cow), or Nguku (chicken) were given, on unusual circumstances, to children born of mothers who started by giving stillbirths. This was done to wish away the bad omen for the child to survive otherwise it would die like the preceding ones. Sometimes the names were used in order 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.

Kikamba music

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 following are some of the varieties of traditional dance styles of the Akamba community:

  • Mwali (pl: Myali) which is a dance accompanying a song, the latter which is usually made to criticize anti-social behaviour.
  • Kilumi and Ngoma, religious dances, performed at healing and rain-making ceremonies;
  • Mwilu is a circumcision dance;
  • Mbalya, or Ngutha is a dance for young people who meet to entertain themselves after the day's chores are done.
  • Kamandiko', or the modern disco usually held after a wedding party.

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 satirizing deviant behavior, 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.

Clothing and costumery

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 jewelry, 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 colors 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 neighborhoods 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.

List of Prominent Akamba

See List of Notable Akamba

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Ethnology of A-Kamba and Other Cb Author;C. W. Hobley

Kenyan Parliament

Hitoshi Ueda (1971), Witchcraft and sorcery in Kitui of Kamba tribe, [Nairobi]: University of Nairobi, Institute of African Studies, http://openlibrary.org/books/OL4762533M/Witchcraft_and_sorcery_in_Kitui_of_Kamba_tribe 

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