Kamba - Colonial History

Parts of this page have been adapted from Richard Trillo's Rough Guide to Kenya (Rough Guides, 6th edition, 1999); reproduced by kind permission. The section on the Kamba and the British Army was adapted from Professor Tim Parson's essay in Ethnohistory 46.4 entitled "Wakamba Warriors Are Soldiers of the Queen: The Evolution of the Kamba as a Martial Race, 18901970" (The American Society for Ethnohistory, 1999). See also The Mau Mau Uprising & Independence, on this site.
In this page:
Mount Kenya
British colonization
The Kamba and the colonial army

Mount Kenya

Long the intermediaries between coast and up-country - acting as guides to Swahili and Arab caravans, leading their own expeditions and settling in small numbers in many parts of what is now Kenya - the Kamba were naturally enlisted by early European arrivals in East Africa as guides and porters, and later as soldiers and employees.
   The first Europeans to reach the interior of the area were the German missionaries Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann of the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS), in 1849. At that time, Kitui was the home of Kivoi, a celebrated Kamba trader who commanded a large following which included slaves, and it was he who met the missionaries in Mombasa, and guided them to Kitui where - on December 3, 1849 - they became the first Europeans to set eyes on Mount Kenya. Back in Europe, their reports of snow on the equatorial mountain were met with disbelief and ridicule for many years after...

Mount Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa, after Kilimanjaro just to the south. To the Kikuyu and Kamba viewing the mountain from a distance, the rocks and glaciers that form the peaks resembled the black and white plumage of a male ostrich, or its tail feathers, and gave the mountain its name: the Kikuyu knew the mountain as Kirinyaga (or Kere-Nyaga), variously translated as 'the area of the ostrich', the 'ostrich den', 'mountain of brightness', and 'it is glorious'. The Kamba knew it Kiinyaa (or Kinyaa), or Kima ja Kegnia, which Krapf translated as "mountain of whiteness."
   As the Kamba were the first people the European explorers encountered, it was the Kamba name for the mountain that stuck.

British colonization

Of course, colonization soon followed, although this affected the Kamba less than the neighbouring Kikuyu, as their land was much less productive, and hence less attractive to European settlers. Nonetheless, the inevitable conflict came late in the nineteenth century, when the British began work on the railway which was eventually to link Mombasa on the coast with Kampala, now the capital of Uganda. The railway meant the certain end of long-distance Kamba trade, and also involved the expropriation of Kamba land along the proposed line. Unsurprisingly, both the Kikuyu and the Kamba flatly opposed what appeared to them to be an unwarranted invasion of their territory, and in 1896 and 1897 small military expeditions were sent against them by the British, in the same way that ruthless "patrols" were used against the Giriama, Taita, Kisii, Nandi and Elgeyo. Suitably 'pacified', the Kamba were subsequently restricted to a couple of "Native Reserves", based around Machakos and Kitui, where they could more easily be controlled, and where they continue to live to this day.

The arrival of the "long snake" (railway) and the Europeans had been actually prophesied by a Kamba sage and chief called Masaku, and the thriving trading center of Machakos (a corruption of "Masaku's"), established in 1889, became the primary upcountry administrative centre for the British. The Kamba economy declined, however, with a huge loss of cattle to rinderpest in the 1880s, the arrival of the Europeans, and the subsequent ban on further expansion. With their poorly fertile land, natural erosion, lack of trading opportunities, and their unwillingness to cut their herds back to numbers the now restricted land could support, this led to periods of famine, which made the Kamba more dependent on the British.

In the early years of colonization, the Kamba were involved in occasional bloody incidents, the most famous of which blew up after an ignorant official at Machakos cut down a sacred ithembo tree to use as a flagpole. But on the whole, the Kamba's old trade links helped to ease their relations with the British. Together with the Kikuyu, the Kamba were quick to realize that western-style education, as provided by missionary schools, was the key to getting on in the new climate, with the inevitable result that the old traditions were rapidly lost.
   Colonialism subverted Kenya's cultures and indigenous educational, legal and political systems. For example, missionaries denounced and colonial authorities progressively restricted and banned wathi - the regular gatherings and celebrations held by the Kamba. The colonialists assailed the local religions, denying them any validity or usefulness, and maligning them as "heathen". Even medicine men were vilified as mere witch doctors. Converts to the new religions had to renounce fully their ancestors' religions and beliefs.

The Kamba and the colonial army

The First World War affected East Africa as much as it did Europe, as Germany also had colonial interests to preserve in the shape of Deutsch Ostafrika, which comprised much of modern-day Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. The border between the rival colonies followed the same frontier which today separates Kenya from Tanzania, and much fighting took place both along it, and deeper in Tanzania.
   Before the Native Poll Tax of 1910 came into being, the Kamba themselves had scant interest in military service for their colonial masters, and little need for money or wage labour, as even without long-distance trade, local trade in beeswax, honey, and iron goods was sufficient for survival, and much of the Kamba herds were still intact.
   So when the war came, the Kamba actively resisted conscription into the much hated and ill-fated Carrier Corps, a military labour unit in which Africans were used as little more than forced labour. When colonial officials resorted to conscription in 1916 to meet the army's growing demand for porters, entire Kamba villages "took to the bush" to escape recruiting parties. By 1917 desertion had become such a problem that some men were recaptured as many as three times and sent back into service. Nonetheless, by the end of the war in 1918, colonial officials in Machakos and Kitui estimated that roughly three-quarters of all eligible men in Ukambani had been conscripted.
   Needless to say, the war affected most Kamba families, both directly (and negatively) in the form of casualties and the famine of 1917-18 which was partly caused by a lack of cultivators (who had been conscripted), and more positively in the form of wages which found their way back to Ukambani and bought flour to relieve the worst of the famine. Living - and dying - with British soldiers also gave the Kamba insights into the ways of the Europeans who now ruled them, and in a sense made it easier to accept British rule. Better the devil you know than the one you don't...

Nonetheless, the inter-war years saw a huge influx of Kamba into the armed services and the Kenya police, especially into the King's African Rifles, which drew soldiers from all of Britain's African colonies. Between 1943 and 1946, nearly one-third of all employed Kamba males were in the military, and were represented in the King's African Rifles at a rate of three to four times their percentage of the overall Kenyan population.
   Why this sudden change? One of the primary reasons was the gradual economic transformation of the Kamba Reserves during the 1920s, which had started with the famine of 1917-18 and the decimation of herds. Throughout East Africa, new commercial opportunities and an appetite for material goods - coupled with rising bridewealth costs, the imposition of hut and poll taxes, and a growing land shortage - led to increased interest in (and a reliance on) money and wage labour. Equally important was that in addition to providing a reliable source of income - the colonial army offered the highest wages for unskilled African labour - military service also granted askaris an exemption from taxation and forced labour. A further reason was the collapse in the traditional trade of the Kamba, which was made impossible by the restrictive nature of the native reserve system.
   From 1928 through the mid-1930s, both Machakos and Kitui reserves experienced severe famine resulting from locust plagues and the interruption of established rainfall patterns. To make matters worse, the Depression stagnated trade and virtually eliminated the demand for beeswax, honey, and other locally produced commodities. As a result, the Kamba sold most of their remaining stock to buy food and pay taxes, which in turn led to a sharp plunge in the value of cattle. These climatic and economic disasters drove large numbers of Kamba into the labour market, a trend accelerated by a nearly 30 percent jump in Ukambani's population during the inter-war era (by 1937 there was almost no unclaimed land left in the district, and more and more young, unestablished men were forced to turn to paid employment and military service). By the mid-1930s, military service had emerged as the most popular form of waged labour in Ukambani, and when the King's African Rifles expanded after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the Kamba provided the largest number of recruits.
   Even during the Mau Mau uprising, the Kamba were described in a press release by the East Africa Command as loyal "soldiers of the Queen".


Kamba resistance to colonialism was widespread but mostly non-violent, though even as early as 1911 a movement of total European rejection had emerged. Led by a widow named Siotune wa Kathake, it channeled opposition to colonialism into frenetic dancing, during which teenage girls became "possessed" by an anti-European spirit and preached radical messages of non-compliance with the government.

By the 1930s, resistance had become more focused, and saw the formation of the Ukamba Members Association (UMA), one of whose leaders was Muindi Mbingu who became a hero in the struggle for independence. The association was founded by a number of wealthy Kamba cattle owners, to pre-empt efforts to settle Europeans in Ukambani and reduce Kamba herds by compulsory purchase ("destocking"), an unfair proposal which the Maasai similarly refused.
   Things came to a head in Iveti, when wealthy Kamba refused to accept payment for 2,500 seized cattle on the grounds that it constituted a mere quarter of the animals' true market value. When the government forced the sale of the cattle, between 1,500 and 5,000 men, women, and children marched to Kariokor ("Carrier Corps") Market in Nairobi to petition Governor Sir Robert Brooke-Popham to halt the auctions. Once there, they camped near the racecourse grounds for six weeks (standing as a group to salute the governor whenever he passed) until the governor held a public meeting in Machakos town to discuss their complaints. Not surprisingly, Kamba members of the police and army sympathized with the protesters - as comparatively wealthy members of Kamba society, senior askaris had large herds. The protest, from a people who had 'loyally' fought for the British King and country in the First World War, and who were now being unfairly treated, made front page news back in Europe, and the colonial authorities eventually relented, returning the stock.

But the campaign was just the first in a long fight that eventually led to independence. A few years later, the UMA joined forces with other popular anti-colonial organizations such as the Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation, the Kikuyu-dominated KAU, the Luhya North Kavirondo Central Association (NKCA) and Taita Hills Association in the struggle for freedom, and considerably weakened the colonial state.

The Second World War was crucial in galvanizing Kamba opinion against the British. Serving once more in the colonial army - this time as the vast majority - the Kamba veterans came back to bitter disappointment: instead of a hero's welcome, things remained exactly as they had been before the war: the Kamba were still hemmed in by the reserves, destocking was still on the agenda, the white man was still in power. As signaller Anakleti Mathuba wrote to a Captain F. O. B. Wilson, member of the "European Committee of Advice" in Machakos: "You Europeans of Ukambani land why do you like to curse us black people? Why do you call us apes? Why Bwana Wilson, are the wages which you pay your servants so small? In what, Effendi, are you helping the native?"
   In fact, the Effendi was helping the native in nothing. Among the whites in Kenya, things after the war were supposed to carry on exactly as they had before. Their privileges were to be preserved, and the 'native' was to remain loyal. But enough was enough. By the time the Kikuyu-dominated Mau Mau freedom fighters came into existence in the early 1950s, and began their guerilla war against the regime, they found widespread support among the Kamba. There was a Mau Mau "Central Committee" for the Kamba in Nairobi, and by 1954 the government estimated that at least two thousand people in Machakos had taken a Mau Mau oath.

So much for being "loyal soldiers of the Queen" - the Kamba finally became loyal to themselves.

For more on Mau Mau and the struggle for independence, see The Mau Mau Uprising in the Kikuyu section.

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