Kamba - Religion and Beliefs

Much of the information about spirits is from John S. Mbiti's "African Religions and Philosophy", East African Educational Publishers, Nairobi, 1969. Read the copyright notice.
   As most Kamba have now become Christian, the following is mainly historical. However, some traditional beliefs may yet survive outside the larger villages and towns. Any further information would, as ever, be most welcome.
In this page:
Spirits - Kiimu


Traditional Kamba religion resembles that of many Bantu-speaking peoples, such as the Kikuyu, in that there is one supreme god, usually conceived of as male and who can be prayed or sacrificed to, and the existence of spirits.
   There are various names for God: Ngai is most common in literature, although the term seems to have been borrowed from the Kikuyu. Local names are Asa ('the strong lord'), Mumbi ('fashioner', 'creator' or 'maker'), Mwatuangi ('distributor' or 'cleaver', from the human act of slicing meat with a knife or splitting wood with an axe), and Mulungu or 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.
   Essentially a merciful Creator and Protector, 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.

Spirits - Kiimu

If the welter of God's different names gave Christian missionaries the impression that the Kamba were polytheistic; the existence of spirits (kiimu) only convinced them further. The thing they didn't understand was that God was a completely different concept to the spirits, and his omnipotence was seen in terms of his ability to control them, for the spirits were more powerful than men.

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 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.

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.


In common with many other Kenyan people, the Kamba have various legends that say that the first men had the gift of either immortality or of rising again after dying. God one day decided to make this permanent, so he called for a messenger. The people sent a very slow but careful animal, such as a chameleon or mole, to receive and deliver the message. As it was God's message, once it was delivered, it could not be taken back. Alas, on his way back down to earth, the animal either forgot the message, or foolishly blurted it out to an envious animal, such as jackal, who then ran to tell the people the opposite of what God had commanded. Henceforth, people were condemned to die and never rise again. As you can perhaps tell, I don't have a Kamba example of the tale, so have a look at the Kikuyu tale of the Origin of Death, which is similar. I have two versions: click here for the first tale, and here for the second tale (press the 'Back' button on your browser to return here).

The Kamba have various metaphorical phrases for death: to follow the company of one's grandfathers, to go home, to stop snoring, to be fetched or summoned, to empty out the soul, to sleep for ever and ever, to dry up, wither or evaporate, to pass away, to be called, to reject the people, to reject food, to be received or taken away, to return or go back, to terminate, to be finished or end, to have one's breath come to an end, to depart or go, to go where other people have gone, to leave, forsake or abandon, to collapse, come to ruins, to become God's property.

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