Kamba - Introduction

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Facts & Figures


The Bantu-speaking Kamba are numerically Kenya's fourth-largest people, and live in the largely semi-arid hills of Ukambani north of the Nairobi-Mombasa road, between Nairobi and Mount Kenya and eastwards towards the Tsavo East National Park near the coast. They came originally from the region of Mount Kilimanjaro in the south, and are known in Kenya both for their skill at wood carving, and for the way in which they have successfully eked out an agricultural living from the marginal lands on which they live.

Kamba drummersLess westernized than the Kikuyu, the Kamba have nonetheless long been in contact with Europeans, ever since the missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf arrived in 1849. Their proximity to the coast, and the need to trade (especially in times of drought), meant that the Kamba were also traders, and became deeply involved in the Zanzibar-dominated ivory and slave trade. Their knowledge of much of the Kenyan interior was thus a great help to the early western explorers and missionaries.

Still, the poverty of their land ensured that the Kamba remained less affected by European colonisation than the related Kikuyu, as the British saw little value in settling in Ukambani.

The Kamba were much involved in the struggle for independence, and were included in the post-independence government. Many Kamba traditions have disappeared or adapted to modern economic and social realities over the last few decades, such as their religion, political and social structures. Their traditional music, especially drumming, has now all but gone. In its place is a vibrant Kamba pop music - part of the "benga blast" wave of the 1980s.

Facts & Figures

Also known as: Akamba, Ukamba, Masaku, Kitui, Mumoni.

Ethnic group: Central Bantu (Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Bantoid, Southern, Narrow Bantu, Kikuyu-Kamba). They are related to the neighbouring Kikuyu and Embu peoples.

Neighbouring tribes: Embu/Mbeere, Kikuyu, Maasai, Meru, Mijikenda (Giriama), Orma, Pokomo, Taita.

Language: Most Kamba are at least bilingual in Kikamba (Kekamba) and Kiswahili, and many also speak English. Dialects include Masaku, South Kitui, North Kitui and Mumoni. 67% lexical similarity with Gikuyu, 66% with Embu, 63% with Chuka, 57% to 59% with Meru. 25% to 50% literate (this is possibly an underestimate).

Population: 2,448,302 (1989 census), comprising roughly 11% or 11.5% of the Kenya's population. A more recent estimate (1995) puts the number of Kikamba-speakers at around three million.

Location: Machakos, Kitui and South Central Districts of Eastern Province, to the southeast of Mount Kenya, and north of the Nairobi-Mombasa road. The area is locally known as Ukambani (or the Ukamba Highlands), and consists mostly of the high cliffs and maize-covered slopes of the Mbooni Hills ("place of the buffalo"), ranging between 500 and 2100 metres in altitude. The main towns are Machakos and Kitui. There's a small emigrant population near Kwale in Coast Province, and elsewhere in Kenya.

Way of life: The Kamba were traditionally agriculturalists and traders, and have long been involved in the police and armed forces. Agriculture remains the primary activity; small herds of cattle, sheep, goats are also kept. They are known in Kenya for their excellence in wood carving.

Religion: 60% Christian, 39% traditional religion, 1% Muslim. Contact with Christianity began around 1850, and it seems likely that many more Kamba have now become Christian than the figure stated above.

References: This information has been gathered from a number of sources. The best general sources about Kenyan culture are Andrew Fedders & Cynthia Salvadori's excellent "Peoples and Cultures of Kenya" (1979: Transafrica, Nairobi), and the equally good series of booklets produced by the Consolata Fathers in Nairobi, sadly now out of print. Specific sources that have been of help in writing this site are credited where appropriate.

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