Kamba - Agriculture
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The 'Machakos Miracle'
According to oral history, the Kamba were originally semi-nomadic cattle-herders, like the neighbouring Maasai, although they also practised hunting, gathering and limited cultivation. Once in Ukambani, however, agriculture took over as the primary means of subsistence, aided by the higher rainfall of the Mbooni Hills. At first shifting, agriculture soon encouraged the Kamba to settle, and when the population increased, they they spread out to cover the whole of their present territory.
Overcrowding and soil erosion in Ukambani have driven many to work in Nairobi and elsewhere, often in the armed forces, or as security guards or police. Nonetheless, agriculture and trade remain the primary economic pursuits, although the Kamba still keep considerable numbers of cattle, sheep, and goats.
The topography of the district is varied, consisting of the large and deeply eroded Yatta Plateau which slopes southeastwards from around 1700m to 700m above sea level. The Athi River flows through it, eventually joining the Galana River. Flanking both sides of the plateau are more fertile hill masses, of which the volcanic cone of Kiima Mbogo (Kilimambogo) in the northwest (also called Oldonyo Sabuk) is the highest, rising to 2146m. To the south, the land mainly consists of the semi-arid plain of the Yatta Plateau, which runs into Tsavo East National Park -from which all agricultural or pastoral activities are excluded.
In the relatively well-watered hill massifs of Iveti, Mua and Kangundo, coffee is grown, and comprises the Kamba's main cash crop. The main food staples are millet, sorghum, and corn (maize). The low-lying Kapiti Plains and Yatta plateau, with their much lower rainfall, are more suitable for livestock herding.
Adapted from a piece I wrote for Richard Trillo's Rough Guide to Kenya (Rough Guides, 6th edition, 1999)
Despite the presence of the Athi River, there are few permanent rivers or streams in Ukambani, and the land is frequently prone to drought. Its uneven topography makes soil erosion a serious problem, and rainfall is uneven and not particularly high - averaging 100-500mm annually in low-lying areas, and around 1000mm in the hills. Serious droughts occur roughly every six to ten years, and may be linked to the El Niño effect. Less damaging droughts are also common, and occur every four years or so.
In the 1930s, when the population was five times less than now, a British Colonial soil inspector condemned the Ukambani hills as "an appalling example" of environmental degradation in which "the inhabitants are rapidly shifting to a state of hopelessness and miserable poverty and their land to a parched desert of rocks, stones and sand."
According to conventional environmental wisdom, the farms and plots should have blown to dust long ago, especially under the ever-increasing population pressure.
Sixty years later, it would be unfair to paint the same picture. Instead of relying on cattle herding as they did in the past, many Akamba have shifted into small-scale agriculture as a means of survival, with surprising results: you'll even find apples offered for sale by the roadside, an "exotic" fruit otherwise confined to the perennially rain-soaked orchards of Kisii near Lake Victoria. The trick has been the clever use of the little rain which does fall, using small-scale terracing and irrigation techniques (such as using roads for catchments) learned by Kamba soldiers while serving in India during World War Two. So much for the hopelessness of the 1930s; the situation has been turned around so successfully that some have begun calling this the "Machakos Miracle".