The Kamba or Akamba people are a Bantu ethnic group - or tribe - who predominantly live in the area of Kenya stretching from Nairobi to Tsavo and north to Embu, in the southern part of the former Eastern Province. This land is called Ukambani and constitutes Makueni County, Kitui County and Machakos County. They are also found in the coastal Kwale County, Mombasa and Kilifi County as well as parts of Tana River County.
Sources vary on whether Kambas are the third-, fourth- or fifth-largest ethnic group in Kenya. They comprise up to 11 percent of Kenya's population. They speak the Bantu Kikamba language as a mother tongue. The total population of the Kamba stands at approximately 4.1 million. They are also called Akamba or Wakamba.
The Kamba are of Bantu origin. They are closely related in language and culture to the Kikuyu, the Embu, the Mbeere and the Meru, and to some extent relate closely to the Digo and the Giriama 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, the Embu, the Mbeere and the Meru, moved into Kenya from points further south.
Most of the Akamba people live in Kenya, and are concentrated in the lower eastern counties of Machakos, Kitui, and Makueni.
According to Ethnologue, there are approximately 3,960,000 Kamba speakers, with the number increasing. According to the national census of 2019, there were 4,663,910 Akamba people in Kenya, being the fifth-most populous tribe in the country. Machakos is the most populous of the three Ukambani counties, with 1,421,932 residents. This is followed by Kitui (1,136,187 residents) then Makueni (987,653 residents). There are also Akamba people living in the Mbeere region of Embu county which was also part of the former Eastern Province. Other Akamba people live in the 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.
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 a man and a woman came ou. 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. Molungu punished them with a great famine. This lead 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.
The Kamba people speak Kikamba or Kekamba language which is a Bantu language belonging to the larger Niger-Congo language phylum. It is currently spoken by over 6 million people. In Kenya, Kamba is generally spoken in four (4) out of the forty-seven (47) Counties of Kenya. These counties are Machakos, Kitui and Makueni. The Machakos variety is considered the standard variety of the three dialects and has been used in the translation of the Bible and in basic level education.
About 5000 people speak Kikemba or (Thaisu) in Tanzania`s Tanga Region, Muheza district, east Usambara mountains north base, Bwiti and Magati villages.
The Kamba language has lexical similarities to other Bantu languages such as Kikuyu, Meru, and Embu.
Its dialects are Masaku, Mumoni, North Kitui, South Kitui. Lexical similarity: 67% with Gikuyu [kik], 66% with Embu [ebu], 63% with Chuka [cuh], 57%–59% with Kimîîru [mer].
Tanga Region, Muheza district, east Usambara mountains north base, Bwiti and Magati villages.
The ancestors of the Kamba can be said with some certainty to have come from the North, from the region beyond the Nyambene Hills to the northeast of Mount Kenya (Kirinyaga), which was the original if not exclusive homeland of all of central Kenya’s Bantu-speaking peoples, viz. the Kikuyu, Meru, Embu, Chuka, and possibly Mbeere. The people are believed to have arrived in the hills as early as the 1200s.
It is generally accepted that starting from around the 1500s, the ancestors of the Kamba, Kikuyu, Meru (including the Igembe and Tigania), Embu and Chuka, began moving south into the richer foothills of Mount Kenya. By the early 1600s, they were concentrated at Ithanga, 80km southeast of the mountain’s peaks at the confluence of the Thika and Sagana rivers.
Some also argue that the Kamba are a relatively new ethnic group, having developed from the merger of various Eastern Bantu communities in the vicinity of Mount Kilimanjaro around the 15th century. They are believed to have reached their present Mbooni Hills stronghold in the Machakos District of Kenya in the second half of the 17th century.
In fact, as late as 1840, the Akamba were still migrating from what is present day Tanzania where many Akamba are said to have been arbsorbed by the Pare people. Al Masoudi, the Arab chronicler writing in AD 943, noted that the Zindj whom he encountered at the coast elected a king whom they called Falime. He also noted that, "there were among them (Zindj) with very sharp teeth." Sharpening teeth was a practice of the Akamba until very recently and it is likely that they were still trading with the coast as early as AD 943.
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 businessmen and women, politicians, as well as professional men and women are direct descendants of these itinerant pastoralists.
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 markets 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.
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 are a very diverse group. Some groups claim that it takes a while to understand the dialects of other groups. Below is a selection of terms employed by the Akamba people to refer to others within the ethnic group.
i) The Akamba of Usu call the kitui Akamba - A -Thaishu
(ii) The Akamba of ulu call the A-kamba near Rabai, A-Tumwa and ma-philambua
(iii) The Akamba of kilungu call other Akamba – Evaao
The Maasai call the Akamba - Lungnu and the coastal people call the Akamba – Waumanguo due to their scanty dress.
Hobley, a colonial administrator thought that “The Akamba are probably the purest Bantu race in British East Africa.” Since it is known today that the Akamba wondered far and wide in what is present day Tanzania, intermingling with the Wanyamwezi and the Wapare, Hobleys view may be taken with a pinch of salt.
Krapf who was the first white man to see the Mt. Kenya, courtesy of the Akamba, was the first European to interact and study their language and culture from within. He noted that the Akamba slaughtered a cow in a manner that was alien to him. He reported that:
“In the evening Kitetu slaughtered a cow to entertain the villagers; first the feet, then the mouth of the beast, were bound; the nostrils were stopped up, and so the poor animal was suffocated. I had not known that this was the usual way in which the Wakamba slaughtered their cattle.” (Wakamba is plural in Kiswahili. They would refer to themselves as Akamba and a single one as Mukamba).
The Akamba were skilled metal workers and one of the foremost Bantu group that introduced iron technology into East Africa. Krapf stated "The more precious metals have not yet been found in Ukambani; but there is an abundance of iron of excellent quality, which is preferred by the people of Mombaz to that which comes from India."
It should also be noted that recently, large iron ore reserves were discovered in the land of the Akamba. It is no wonder then the Akamba who all along had knowledge of these reserves settled in an area they named Kitui – place of iron working and had the best iron for miles.
It common knowledge today that the Akamba are gifted craftsmen. It has been theorised and many scholars accept that they learned their curving trade from the Makonde. But the fact is, the Akamba had been curving for Millenia and may have contributed to some the sculptures and figurines in Ancient Egypt. Here is an observation by Lindlblom, another colonial period scholar of the Akamba. “ Every head of a house makes the wooden articles that are needed such as beehives, stools, spoons, snuffbottles, handles of axes and knives...”
Lindblom also explained that while most stools are coarsely made three -legged “the same type as among the Akikuyu --” the ones meant for atumia are called ‘mumbo’ and as a special privilege they are’---neat and comfortable often real works of art. Great pains are taken in making them and they are usually adorned with copper or brass fittings.”
Atumia were revered Kamba elders. Every male ultimately reached this age-grade upon paying fees to the current Atumia, after he attained age 45 to 50.
The Akamba were originally Long distance traders s, but later adopted agriculture due to the arability 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, '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 Southeast African plains. The Akamba are still known for their fine work in wood carving, 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.
Although a large part of Kamba culture has become westernized, and the large towns and villages have greatly increased in number (the Kamba population itself is now five times larger than it was in the 1930s), the traditional pattern of family homesteads persists, and is one of the few traditional social structures to have survived the twentieth century. Other forms of social and political structures - such as clans, councils of elders, and age-sets - now appear to be primarily historical, and are no longer in use.
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 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'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 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.
Schoolchildren, 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).
Individuals were organized in age-sets, but unlike the Kikuyu, Embu, Mbeere and Chuka, these were not based on initiation.
Men and women of the grade of elders (atumia) formed political district councils that governed several utui. They also performed the function of priests, acting as ceremonial intermediaries between the living and God or the spirit-ancestors.
The Kamba were originally grouped into some 25 dispersed patrilineal clans (utui) of varying size, which were often mutually hostile. The Akamba have 14 major clans and 11 minor clans. This makes a total of 25 clans. When a family grows into a clan, it is natural that the clan grows and separates into several clans. This did happen to the Akamba.
Their social and territorial boundaries were flexible, and the system seems more to have been a response to fluid geographical groupings rather than strictly determined by ancestry or tradition. There seem to have been few if any institutions of centralized political authority, although in times of external threat, military action could be coordinated across the whole tribe.
Clan meetings were called mbai, and through them political matters that affected the whole tribe were decided. The British abolished the system in the nineteenth century, imposing appointed leaders instead. Nowadays, elections and modern politics are the usual source of political power.
Below is a list of the twenty-five clans of the Akamba.
The 14 Major Clans include: Akanga, Aketdini, Aketutu, Ambuane, Amoei, Amoieni, Amotei – trappers, Anzaone, Anzio, Asii, Atangoa, Atui – blacksmiths, Eembe and Ethanga.
The 11 Minor Clans are: Adine, Akeimei, Akuu, Amena, Amokabu, Amomone, Amooi, Amouti, Anilo, Aoani, Athonzo
The Akmaba have deep-rooted traditions, which are practiced especially in their marriage customs. Under the Kamba customs, during a Kamba wedding, a man must show his respect for the bride’s family by first acknowledging that their girl has been brought up well and is therefore of great worth.
Before a marriage ceremony is conducted, the groom (with his kin) must throw an important party popularly referred to as Ntheo. Ntheo is actually the minimum requirement that demonstrates the bride officially belongs to the man she is engaged to.
In case the couples are in a "come-we-stay" arrangement, meaning there was no advance ceremony before they began living as husband and wife, the entire marriage is deemed null and void under the Kamba customary law.
As a result, the woman in the marriage is considered an illegitimate wife and the man illegitimate husband. If, and God forbid, a woman whose husband is yet to throw the ntheo party to her (bride`€™s) kin dies, she cannot be buried by her husband no matter how long she had stayed with him. And if the husband finds it important to bury the remains of his wife at his home, he has to carry out the ntheo ceremony before the burial.
An ordinary ntheo ceremony involve at least three goats, one of which must be a he-goat that is un-castrated. However, you may have more than three goats but the rule is that the number of the animals to be presented to the bride`s family for the purpose of ntheo must add up to an odd number. This means the goats may be five, seven, nine and so on but not four or six!
During this ceremony, only a handful close relatives of both sides of families are involved. The he-goat is then slaughtered by the groom, or alternatively a brother to the groom. It is believed that as soon as blood of the he-goat spills on the ground, the bride becomes "officially owned" by the groom that very moment. But it does not end there. A piece of soft meat popularly known as kikonde, extracted from the slaughtered goat is given to both the bride and groom, who must eat at least a piece each as "an oath" that they will keep the covenant of their marriage.
In case ntheo ceremony is carried out before a marriage ceremony like it is the case in most Christian marriages, the bride is deemed to already "lawfully" belong to her fiance under Kamba customary law. And even if there is no church ceremony the two are deemed married.
Once food is served to those present at the ceremony, women and children are issued with soft drinks while men who are considered mature are served with Kaluvu, the Kamba traditional beer. It is important to note it is the groom`s responsibility to ensure both types of drinks are made available in acceptable quality and quantity. Once the ntheo ceremony is done, the process of "buying a wife" begins there and then. The bride`s kin are to present the numerous items the bride`s family will require as dowry.
However, these items may be paid through installments that are usually negotiated at friendly basis by the two sides of the families. Dowry is what is popularly referred to as ngasya. Coming on the top of the list of items for ngasya are 48 goats, which must eventually be delivered to the brideâ€™s family. This means, for instance, if the groom used three goats for the ntheo ceremony, he is left with an outstanding balance of 45 goats.
Also in the list of dowry items are two drums of honey referred to as Ithembe, two blankets as well as two bed sheets. These may be issued physically or monetary compensation offered against each item. Another interesting item that features prominently in the list of dowry items is a big goat called ndua itaa brought to the bride`s parents. This one is supposed to signify that the bed that belonged to the bride while at her parents`€™ home has now been bought by the groom`s family. To crown the marriage, the groom is also expected to throw yet another mega party to the in-laws, and this time the entire village is invited to feast. A huge, castrated bull is slaughtered and friends and neighbours are invited for a ceremony dubbed ilute. During this ceremony, the bride is showered with gifts by members of her kin and friends alike, which she may take to her matrimonial home.
But what if the worst happens and the groom intends to divorce his wife? The groom will have to incur another cost again! Under Kamba tradition, the groom (together with his parents) must take two goats, one male and another female called mbui sya maleo (goats of divorce) to the bride`s family. The groom`s family may opt to claim all what they incurred in dowry payments after "deporting" the bride to her parents` home, or just forget about it altogether!
During the last three months of her pregnancy, the expectant mother was also forbidden to eat fat, beans, and the meat of animals killed with poisoned arrows. In addition, she ate a special kind of earth found on termite hills (termitariums) or on trees. This earth is first chewed by termites, then deposited on trees and grass, or piled up to form a mound. When eaten, such 'earth' strengthens the body of the child.
Before giving birth, all weapons and iron articles were removed from the house of the expectant mother, as it was believed that iron articles attracted lightning (both, one might presume, physical and 'spiritual', the latter in the form of evil spirits).
When a child is born, the parents slaughter a goat or bull on the third day. Many people come to feast and rejoice with the family, and women who have borne children get together to give a name to the child. This is known as 'the name of ngima', ngima being the main dish prepared for the occasion.
On the fourth day, the father hangs an iron necklace on the child's neck, after which it is regarded as a full human being and as having lost contact with the spirit world. Before that, a child is regarded as an 'object' belonging to the spirits (kiimu), and if it should die before the naming ceremony, the mother becomes ritually unclean and must be cleansed.
During the night following the naming, the parents perform ritual sexual intercourse, which is the seal of the child's separation from the spirits and the living-dead, and its integration into the company of human beings.
Circumcision and clitoridectomy remain important among the Kamba, and through them a child attains adulthood. In some parts there are two separate stages: the "small" ceremony (nzaikonini), which occurs when the child is between four and five years old and the "big" ceremony (nzaikoneni), which occurs when the child reaches puberty and is a more prolonged period of initiation.
Female circumcision, which was officially banned by the Kenyan government in 1981, is still widely practised.
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
*"Muthui" (the rich one),
*"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 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. 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 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 (the strong Lord or the Father). He is also known as Ngai Mumbi (God the creator, fashioner or maker), na Mwatuangi (God the 'distributor' or 'cleaver', from the human act of slicing meat with a knife or splitting wood with an axe), and Mlungu ('creator'), which is the name most commonly used in East Africa for the creator God, and exists as far south as the Zambesi of Zambia.
Ngai or Mlungu is perceived as the omnipotent Creator of life on earth, Protector and as a merciful, if distant, entity. The Kamba say that God does to them only what is good, so they have no reason to complain. He protects people, and is known as both 'the God of comfort' and 'the Rain Giver' (rain is sometimes called the 'saliva of God', and for this reason to spit on something (such as a child) is a symbol of great blessing).
At planting time, the Kamba ask God to bless their seeds and their work on the fields, and as a God of consolation and sustenance, He intervenes when human help is slow or ineffective.
The Kamba consider the heavens and the earth to be the Father's 'equal-sized bowls': they are his property both by creation and rights of ownership; and they contain his belongings, including livestock, which he lowered from the sky and gave (perhaps 'lent' is more correct) to the Kamba.
The traditional Akamba perceive the spirits (kiimu) and 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.
Spirits (Kiimu): It is said that some spirits were created as such by God, whilst others were once human beings: the spirits of deceased ancestors, who are also known as the 'living-dead'. God controls them and sometimes sends them as his messengers. Some are friendly and benevolent, others are malevolent, but the majority are 'neutral' or both 'good and evil', like human beings.
Nonetheless, in traditional life, families are careful to make libation of beer (uki), milk or water, and to give bits of food to the living-dead, in order to appease the ones that may wish to do harm to the living.
Some diviners and medicine-men receive instruction through dreams or appearance of the spirits and the living-dead, concerning diagnosis, treatment and prevention of diseases, although when healing comes, it is often attributed to God, even if medical agents (or spirits) may have played a part in the healing process. After recovery from a serious illness, the Kamba say 'Ah, if it were not for God's help, I/he would be dead by now!'.
Spirit possession by both the spirits and the living-dead is commonly reported, though less now than in previous years. Around the turn of this century, there was an 'outbreak' of spirit possession in the southern part of the country, when the phenomenon 'swept through the communities like an epidemic'. It is believed that some women have spirit 'husbands' who cause them to become pregnant.
A considerable number of people still report seeing spirits and the living-dead, both alone as individuals and in groups with other men or women. They are usually spotted along hillsides or in river beds. In such places, their lights are seen at night, their cattle heard mooing or their children crying. Mbiti, the great African traditional religious scholar mentions two such experiences, as recounted by two pastor friends of his:
"One of them was walking home from school with a fellow schoolboy in the evening. They had to cross a stream, on the other side of which was a hill. As they approached this stream, they saw lights on the hill in front of them, where otherwise nobody lived. My friend asked his companion what that was, and he told him not to fear but that it was a fire from the spirits. They had to go on the side of the hill, and my friend was getting frightened. His companion told him that he had seen such fires before, and that both of them had only to sing Christian hymns and there would be no danger to them. So they walked on singing, and as they went by the hill, the spirits began tossing stones at them. Some of the stones went rolling up to where the two boys were walking, but did not hit them.
As the young men were leaving this hill, they saw a fire round which were shadowy figures which my friend's companion told him were the spirits themselves.
Some of the spirits were striking others with whips and asking them, 'Why did you not hit those boys?', 'Why did you not hit them?' The two young men could hear some of the spirits crying from the beating which they received, but did not hear what reason they gave for not hitting the boys with stones."
He cited another example:
"The other pastor told me that when he was about twenty, he went with several other young men into a forest to collect honey from the bark of a withered tree. The honey was made by small insects which do not sting, and which are found in different parts of the country. The place was far away from the villages. When they reached the tree, he climbed up in order to cut open the barks and the trunk of the tree. While up on the tree, he suddenly heard whistling as if from shepherds and herdsmen. He stopped hitting the tree. The group listened in silence. They heard clearly the whistling and the sound of cattle, sheep and goats, coming from the forest towards where they were collecting honey. The sound and voice grew louder as the spirits drew nearer, and the young men realized that soon the spirits would reach them. Since people do not graze animals in forests but only in plains, and since the place was too far from the villages for men to drive cattle through here, the young men decided that only the spirits could possibly be approaching them. They looked in the direction from which the sound came, but saw nobody, yet whatever made that sound was getting nearer and nearer to them. So the men decided to abandon their honey and flee for their lives. They never returned to that area again."
The Kamba make sacrifices on great occasions, such as at the rites of passage, planting time, before crops ripen, at the harvest of the first fruits, at the ceremony of purifying a village after an epidemic, and most of all when the rains fail or delay. They use oxen, sheep or goats of one colour, and in the case of severe drought they formerly sacrificed a child which they buried alive in a shrine.
The shrines themselves are unobtrusive, traditionally being forest clearings containing either a large or otherwise sacred tree (such as the fig tree), or other notable natural objects, such as unusually smooth or polished bounders. The trees may not be cut down, and the shrines are regarded as a sanctuary for animals and humans alike (including criminals, if they dare enter them - the fear of reprisal from spirits is great). The idea is similar to the sacred kayas of the Mijikenda, and the sacred groves of the Embu and Mbeere.
Undoubtedly the most spectacular manifestation of traditional Kamba culture was their dancing, performed to throbbing polyrhythmic drum beats. It was characterised by exceptionally acrobatic leaps and somersaults, which flung dancers into the air. The style of playing was similar to that of the equally disappeared traditions of the Embu and Chuka: the drummers would hold the long drums between their legs, and would also dance. The Kambas of Paraguay in South America still perform this traditional dance.
From the 1960s, groups like Kilimambogo Brothers of the late Kakai Kilonzo, Mateo Festos of Muema Brothers and Peter Mwambi of Kyanyanga Boys Band have composed hit songs that captivated not just Ukambani but the entire country.
Unfortunately, with the exception of official functions and music festivals (where professional cultural troupes perform), Kamba dancing is now almost if not completely extinct. With the exception of one commercially available tape ("Akamba Drums", Tamasha), I failed to find any tapes of drum music, nor any reference to existing groups. The only live 'Akamba' drumming I heard was a pale imitation by a touristic multi-tribal ensemble on the coast, whose authenticity was inevitably suspect.
Several of the dances had military themes, directly derived from the participation by Kamba in large numbers in the country's armed forces, starting with the First World War when they served under the British in India and the Middle East.
The Musical Bow - Uta wa mundu mue: The Kamba musical bow is similar to those of other peoples, consisting of a tautly-strung bow, to which is attached a gourd resonator. The playing technique is, however, unusual: whilst beating the string with a stick to produce a single note, the performer sings into the hollow gourd. The instrument was played by medicine men while treating patients, and the Kamba name for the instrument - uta wa mundu mue - literally means 'the bow of the medicine man.'
Drums - Ngoma: Ngoma served three main purposes in Kamba life, and each purpose could be determined by the beat (the following is adapted from the sleeve notes to "Akamba Drums"):
1. Three heavy drum beats and a two- to three-minute break sounded a warning to the village of an approaching enemy.
2. A single continuous beat was meant to remind villagers that it was time to meet somewhere, from where all would go and help cultivate the shamba (farm) for a colleague of theirs.
3. A heavy single stroke of the drum, followed by a continuous whistling was a call from help from the neighbours when for instance a hut was on fire or cattle rustlers had raided a cattle boma (enclosure).
Whenever the Ngoma drum was used in celebrations, it was first warmed in the sun to attain the correct timbre. During the dance a number of them could be used.
Drum dances - Kilumi: Kilumi (pl. milumi) drum songs and dances were traditionally performed by women and comprised of two kilumi drums accompanying the ululations and singing of a lead singer backed by two other women vocalists. Usually, the drummers compose and sing too.
Formerly for old women, kilumi is now danced to even by men, and kilumi is one of the few songs and dances that traditionalists still perform in Ukambani. One session of the kilumi dance could last about half an hour, and the entire performance for something like eight hours.
Other drum dances:
The following is adapted from the sleeve notes to "Akamba Drums".
Mbeni: This dance is for young unmarried people and because of its tiring pace, it has the shortest sessions. One session lasts less than ten minutes. Its instruments are a set of four drums and three whistles. Danced in pairs as it gets to the climax, when the male dancer (Anake) jumps about four feet into the air and somersaults.
Nduli: The most popular dance among Kamba teenagers. It is a condition that any boy attending an Nduli session must be circumcised, for it is in the Nduli dance that one may choose a partner for life.
Kisanga: This is a thanks-giving dance for all ages, both young and old. It is performed only when the village has had a good harvest. During the celebration a white goat is slaughtered, its blood poured under the Kitutu Tree, and its meat left near the tree for Mulungu (God).
Mwasa: The Mwasa dance involved two drums, one small and one large, and was found in northern Kitui. While not primarily used for dancing, Mwasa served as an accompaniment while elders enjoyed uki beer. Mwasa is a relatively new drum beat, which comes from a combination of Nzumari from the Giriama (one of the 'Nine Tribes' of the Mijikenda) and original Kamba Ngoma. It came into existence during the Second World War, when Giriama and Kamba soldiers served together in the colonial army.
The Kamba have many kinds of songs; and each type has a name. The songs included: mbathi sya kivalo; myali (general social commentary and scathing attacks [nzeo] against miscreants); lullabies; and songs for circumcisions, marriages, work, and hunts (uthiani). Circumcision songs had many names: ngakali (or kakali) and undiu. Unmarried girls sang maio ("mourning" songs) at a newly married girl's home to "mourn" losing their colleague. While thatching, threshing or digging, people commonly worked to the rhythms of songs.