The Kamba tribe, also called the Akamba, is a Bantu ethnic group residing in the semi-arid Eastern Province of Kenya. Their homeland stretches east from Nairobi towards the Tsavo and Northeast to Embu.
As the fifth largest tribe, Kambas make up about 11 percent of Kenya’s total population. They speak the Kamba (or Kikamba) language.
Kamba people have special skills in woodcarving and basketry. In gift shops, open-air markets and art galleries in the major cities and towns of Kenya, you are bound to find beautiful handcrafts – woodcarvings, sisal baskets and well-decorated artifacts made by the Kambas. They are also involved in other activities such as hunting, farming, and pastoralism.
History of the Kamba people
Kambas were involved in the long-distance trade during the pre-colonial period. In the mid-eighteenth century, a large number of Akamba pastoral groups moved eastwards towards the Tsavo and Kibwezi areas along the coast. This migration was the result of extensive drought and a lack of pasture for their cattle. The Kambas settled in the Mariakani, Kisauni and Kinango areas of the coast of Kenya, creating the beginnings of urban settlement. They still reside in large numbers in these towns and have become absorbed into the cultural, economic and political life of the modern-day Coast Province.
Culture and lifestyle of the Kamba tribe
In Kamba culture, the family is central to the life of the community. Before marriage, a man must pay a bride price (known as dowry), made in the form of cattle, sheep, and goats, to the family of the bride. In a rural Kamba community, the man, who becomes the head of the family, undertakes an economic activity such as trading, hunting or cattle herding. He is known as Nau, Tata or Asa. The woman works on the land she is given when she joins 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, arrowroot, and cassava. Traditionally, it is the mother’s role to raise the children.
Very little distinction is made between an individual’s own children and the children of their sister or brother. Children address their uncle or aunt as tata (father) or mwaitu (mother). They often move from one household to another with ease and are made to feel at home by their parents’ siblings. Grandparents (Susu and Umau) help with the less strenuous chores around the home, such as rope making, tanning leather, cleaning calabashes and making arrows. Older women continue to work the land as their source of food, independence, and economic security.
Naming is an important aspect of Kamba culture. Traditionally, Akamba children were named after a time or events surrounding their birth. Children are often affectionately called Musumbi (King), and Mueni (visitor). Ndukuis a common name given to a baby girl born at night while Mutuku is given to a baby boy born at night. Children can also be named after a living or departed relative, depending on the parents’ relationship with the person.
The Kamba tribe is renowned for its exceptional woodcarving and basketry skills. Their unique sculptures and weaved sisal baskets are sold in curio shops, gift shops and art galleries in Kenya’s major cities and abroad. The men do the carving while Kamba women weave and decorate the fine work in baskets and pottery.
Kambas are also very active in the country’s leadership and political scene. Several notable leaders, politicians, businessmen, as well as professional men and women, are direct descendants of these humble pastoralists.
Popular Kamba men and women in politics and leadership include the Hon. Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya Dr. Willy Mutunga, Vice-President of Kenya Hon. Kalonzo Musyoka, politician Charity Ngilu, politician Nyiva Mwendwa among others.
Kamba religion, faith, and beliefs
Many Kamba people are Christians; however, some still practice the old traditional beliefs. The Akamba people believe in a monotheistic, invisible and transcendental god, Ngai or Mulungu, who lives in the sky (yayayani). This god is also referred to as Asa or the Father. He is perceived as the omnipotent creator of life on earth and as a merciful if distant, entity.
The Akamba people’s love of music and dance is evident in their impressive performances throughout their daily lives and during special occasions. In these dances, the Akamba display agility and athletic skill as they perform acrobatics and remarkable body movements. Dances are usually accompanied by songs composed for the occasion (marriage, birth, national holiday) and reflect the traditional structure of the Kikamba song, sung on a pentatonic scale. The singing is lively and melodic. Songs are composed of satirizing deviant behavior, anti-social activity or love. The Akamba also have famous work songs, such as Ngulu Mwalala, sung while they are digging. Herdsmen and boys have different songs, as do the young and old.
Kambas are farmers and their staple food is isyo also known as kitheli – maize mixed with beans or peas – as these can be dried, stored and consumed during the frequent droughts. Maize/corn is also ground to make ugali, a popular Kenyan food. During the rainy seasons and along the riverbeds, Kambas grow fruits and vegetables such as cabbage, collards, bananas, mangoes, oranges and other tropical edibles. Goat meat, chicken and beef are also popular food choices among the Kamba people.