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The Kamba (Akamba in the plural) are a Bantu ethnic group who live in the semi-arid Eastern Provincemarker of Kenyamarker stretching east from Nairobimarker to Tsavomarker and north up to Embu, Kenyamarker. 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 Embumarker 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 Indianmarker 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 tribes they traded with.

Akamba resistance to colonialism 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 punitive expeditions on the local populations. Muindi Mbingu was arrested for leading another protest march to recover stolen land 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 Kikamba family

In Kikamba 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 in the cooler regions such as [Kangundo,Kilungu, Mbooni], yam. 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 'ma-ma'or naimiwa and maternal aunts as mwendya and for their paternal uncle and aunt as 'mwendwau'. They address their paternal cousins as 'waasa'(for men is mwanaasa and for women is mwiituasa), 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, Umau or Umaa) 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 calabashes and making bows and arrows. 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 Kikamba family, the women, especially in the urban regions, practice professions such as teaching, medical nursing, secretarial work, management, tailoring etc in accordance with Kenya's socioeconomic evolution.

Culture and beliefs

Naming is an important aspect of the Akamba people. Children are often affectionately called Musumbi (meaning "king"), and Muthoki/Nthoki (meaning "long awaited one"). Akamba children are named for/after time or events surrounding their birth. For example, Nduku is a name given to a baby girl born at night and Mutuku to a baby boy born at night. Children born when it is raining may be named Mumbua (feminine) or Wambua (masculine). Wild animal names like Nzoka (snake), Mbiti (hyena) were used on special 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.

Traditionally the Akamba did not name after living ancestors. This tradition has been heavily diluted in contemporary times due to inter ethnic marriages, most commonly those with the Kikuyu who insist on naming after living relatives in a systematic order. Historically, however, the Akamba were a very superstitious people, and to name after a living relative was thought to be a curse upon the living namesake to wish them dead and was heavily frowned upon.

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 na Mwatuangi(God the creator). 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 Mwanzwii is liked with royalty or 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, spiritual or ceremonial functions. They refrained from any involvement in electoral politics or the actual governance of their people. Some royal families have lost their "royalty" through social changes over a long period of time.

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', (Irish or Scottish Ceilidh) 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



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