Kamba - Pre-Colonial History
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The northward migrations
The ivory and slave trade
Ukambani has been the traditional homeland of the Kamba people for at least the last four or five centuries. Although oral history acknowledges that the Kamba came from the south, in the region of Mount Kilimanjaro, the creation myth which is most popularly cited places their origins in the heart of Ukambani: Mulungu (God), who created the universe, also created the first Kamba man and woman, and placed them on top of Mount Nzaui in the fertile Mbooni Hills (roughly 20km north of Emali).
Another version of the tale says that they were not placed on top of the mountain, but were pulled out from the centre of the earth via a hole or a cave on the mountain. They were the first man and wife, and became the ancestors of the Kamba. They and their descendants spread out around the mountain where, helped by Mulungu who brought rain to make the land fertile and gave then domestic animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and dogs, they remained.
This myth seems to be completely odds with other oral traditions, which state - pretty conclusively - that the Kamba were in fact not always in Ukambani, but migrated there around five centuries ago. The majority of them came from the plains around Kilimanjaro in the south, probably in several vague migrations (this oral history was first recorded in writing by the missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf in 1849). The exception is the group called the Mumoni, who say they came from the coast, and are probably related to the Mijikenda.
The reason for the main migration was most likely a search for water during prolonged drought, as there is no oral history that mentions early wars or conflicts with neighbours. The baobab tree, which grows naturally throughout Ukambani, is often cited in this context, for its hollow or porous trunk can hold vast quantities of rainwater even during droughts, and its fruit staves off the worst of hunger.
According to their oral history, the Kamba were originally semi-nomadic, and possessed large herds of cattle, like the neighbouring Maasai. Unlike the Maasai, however, they did not rely exclusively on cattle, but also practised limited cultivation, gathered edible plants and roots, and hunted using traps.
Once in Ukambani, 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 from there they spread out to cover the whole of their present territory.
Nowadays, the Kamba are famous for their ingeniously irrigated terraced fields, although this only came about relatively recently (from the beginning of the eighteenth century, until as late as the Second World War). Irrigation enabled them to grow cereal crops such as sorghum and millet.
During this time, the forested hills were also explored and exploited: iron was extracted from riverbed soils and worked, riverside reeds were used as arrow shafts; the bark of certain trees contained a poison for tipping the arrows; edible herbs, roots and seeds were utilised, plants with medicinal attributes were discovered and experts prescribed them according to need.
As the Kamba population increased, living space in the fertile hills became scarce, forcing some to move to drier locations at lower altitudes. The drier climate and poorer soil obliged these people to rely more on livestock, and they also began to trade - a necessity during times of drought and locust invasions, which struck Ukambani on average every six years or so (some estimates quote "seventy extended periods of drought" since the 1890s), and which caused frequent famines until the early part of the nineteenth century.
Trade was primarily conducted with the Kikuyu at first, who occupied the richly fertile central highlands of Kenya. In return for farm produce (millet, sorghum, yams, beans, other crops and cattle), the Akamba bartered their own manufactured goods: medicinal charms, beer, honey, iron tools, ivory and brass armlets, brass chains, beaded clothes, digging tools, snuff containers, arrowheads and a lethal and infamous hunting poison. Trade was also conducted with the coastal people, and as far away as the Tanzanian highlands.
As the Kikuyu and others had less need to trade (the Kamba called this trade kuthuua, meaning 'search for food'), it was the Kamba who had to go to them, and so over time they acquired in-depth knowledge about the areas and peoples surrounding Ukambani.
Trade began to take on a more profound cultural importance towards the end of the eighteenth century, when a succession of particularly bad famines swept through Ukambani. This period coincided with the boom in the ivory and slave trade, which was controlled by Arab and Swahili traders centred on the island of Zanzibar, off the Tanzanian coast. With their knowledge of the Kenyan interior, the Kamba were the ideal middlemen, and by the early part of the nineteenth century were regularly moving between the Rift Valley and the coast, dealing not only with the Kikuyu and Swahili, but the Embu, Mbere, the Chuka, Tharaka, Samburu, Taita, and even the Gusii, close to Lake Victoria in the far west of Kenya. By the middle of the nineteenth century, they held a virtual monopoly over the supply of ivory.
The ivory was obtained by the Kamba themselves - especially by those from Kitui - by hunting elephants from Nzou, east of the Athi River. In return, they obtained trade goods from the coast (such as glass beads, salt, cloth, and copper), which they then exchanged for food with the highland tribes. This economic pursuit created a proficient class of hunters with highly developed techniques for pursuing and killing elephants, in which their traditional skills of arrow-working and poison-making came into their own.
Trade altered more than the Kamba economy, as goods from the coast began to be used by the Kamba themselves: blue calico cloth, worn as headgear, became an emblem of warrior status; copper wire was worn around the necks of women; and beads and shells became objects of value in bridewealth negotiations.
However, their success at the trade, as witnessed by Swahili and Arab traders in the form of ivory-laden Kamba caravans arriving at the coast, soon aroused envy.
The Arabs had already made several unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the interior of the region in the eighteenth century in order to take over control of the slave trade, but only in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Seyyid Said established himself in Zanzibar, did their efforts finally pay off. He circumvented the Kamba by the simple expedient of moving further west, and by the 1880s, traders from Zanzibar and Mombasa were operating both in the Mount Kenya region and around Winam Bay on Lake Victoria, and were even reaching north toward Lake Turkana (archaeological discoveries of trading beads on its shores point to early, albeit indirect, contacts with the coast).