Kamba - Music and Dance

Example of a Mwali

These are the lyrics, complete with explanations, of one of four myali included in Mwikali Kieti and Peter Coughlin's excellent "Barking, You'll be Eaten! The Wisdom of Kamba Oral Literature" (1990: Phoenix Publishers Ltd., PO Box 18650 Nairobi). It was sung by an Ngui called Ndeti. No date is given, although it's clear from the subject matter that it comes from the colonial period, most likely the 1930s or 1940s. See the copyright notice for textual extracts.

Example of a Mwali

Song lyrics


During the white man's journey*,
I, Ndeti, was taken to Nairobi,
leaving behind Ngelema**,
Mbunge's daughter.

She is gorgeous
and exudes a pleasant smell. My cousin envies me.

* "White man's journey" denotes the journey to look for a job outside Ukambani. ** The ngui's girlfriend's wathi-name meaning, "as crystal clear as pure water".

It is dancing time,
and whoever lacks mavuo*
had better sell cows to buy some.

* Decorative beads for women

We will hold a competition*

* A myali-singing competition at the wathi

Before the next moon*,
everybody should be fully adorned
with kyombo**

* Before the next wathi
** The full regalia for wathi

Kavundi* is Ndeti's son

* Another renowned ngui

I, Ndeti from Kitondo,*
and other fools
will work for money
at this white man's farm.

* In Machakos. This is really a wider criticism of the migrant labour system.

Talking of bridges,*
we have one here at Makupa
and another at Mtongwe.**

* The ngui worked in Mombasa
** The Makupa causeway and Mtongwe are in Mombasa.

We worked from dawn to dusk,*
compelling a Sikh
to retie** his turban at work.

* While constructing the Mombasa-Nairobi-Kisumu railway.
** Working long hours, he had no time to retie it at home.

Telephone wires pass through
the governor's house.*

* "Wires" also mean the government's and the Kamba's spies and messengers.

The big man's house
where the flag flies.*

*The British flag symbolized the governor's power, though the Kamba could not fathom why a flag should be so respected.

I'll go there and see for myself
the white man's servants.*
Kyumbo's** laughter confuses me.***

* The servants in the governor's house had disdained the workers at the railways and elsewhere.
** Kyumbo is the ngui's wife.
*** Thinking about home distracts him.

A while back,
I told Mutangwa to tell Langi
about our journey.*

*The ngui's marriage to Ngelema never took place.

During the white man's journey
we were guarded* like indo**.

* newly-acquired workers were heavily guarded to prevent them from escaping.
** All domestic animals except chickens.

Choose new names!*
This fellow who went to work
at the white man's
will come with horns**
since the women have suffered.***

* New wathi-names would be needed after the ngui and his friends come home.
** The ngui's experiences will furnish good topics for his myali.
*** His voice is much missed in the villages.

Mukonyo's daughter, Syimbandu,*
looks like a white man. Your ndini** are scrubbed for you.

* A girl honoured by the ngui. This comment reflects how colonialism warped some people's perception of beauty. Unfortunately, such attitudes persist somewhat.
** Beads for decoration. being special, she deserves fine care.

The trumpet* blows while I sing
and Ndambuki's father tell me
about this slavery.**
When will we go home?***

* The horn used to assemble workers.
** The current state of the ngui.
*** people worked without knowing when their contracts would expire.

Has the land* ever wanted somebody
when the moon is high in the sky?

* Traditionally, journey or other important personal tasks (e.g., settling debts, giving daughters in marriage) were not done at the onset of a new moon. If out visiting, one only dared to return home after at least ten days after sighting the new moon.

the white man of the fruits,
resembles Mutangwa.

* Meneti was a fruit farmer. His skin colour reminded the ngui of his girlfriend, Mutangwa.

Come and see the governor's egg.*

* The governor's house was heavily guarded and cared for. To be handled carefully is to be treated like an egg.

As the chimney* cries,
smoke disappears into space,
as poverty found me
at Katunga's camp.**

* The train's smokestack.
** While building the governor's house at Nairobi.

I suffered while watering fruits
and scooping coal.*

* Working on a farm and the railway.

Kyende from Muloki's
and Kyende, Mutua's son,
I have mixed up my numbers*
where I was first recruited..

* Having worked in many places, the ngui kept "forgetting" his employee number for each job.

As for you, Seki,* Ndaka's son,
and Kineene, Mukonyo's sweetheart,
you will keep the asikalis busy.**

* One of these allegedly responsible for the ngui's arrest and forced labour.
** The ngui intends to avenge himself by manoeuvring to get the soldiers (asikali) to arrest those supposed traitors.

Muthunzu's and Kavatha's son,
Muthoka, women's lover,
I alighted at Luveta.*

* While constructing the railway, Muthoka reportedly leapt from a moving train near Taveta and disappeared.

When I come home,
the meeting* that betrayed me will suffer.

* A Kamba group, headed by the chief, proposed people's names to the district commissioner's soldiers. Later, those people were forced to work.

Red hat!*
We'll get to know each other well!

* A guard with a red fez.

You'll be locked up a thousand times
in the white man's jail
till you realize you don't have horns
to defend your case.*

* The ngui imagines his enemies languishing after their arrest.

Beside the million guns
the police always have,
you will also be "fed on" the cane.*

* With strokes and little food.

The council* that betrayed me
will be arrested with nga.**

* The meeting
** Thin but strong cowhide ropes used as handcuffs.

I'll dance with Munyange*,
who wears beads
and dances like a butterfly.

* An eminent dancer.

Though your beads are clean,
come to me for soap to cleanse them better. Greetings, Kivwau!*

* A friend.

I dreamt that I'm disrespected.*
The girls suffered due to the Englishman.**

* The ngui thinks he failed his society by going away to work. ** Once the colonialists came, men began to go off to work, leaving the women and children behind.

Tell us the news Munyanga:*
the ngui have been belittled and rejected,
though I'm the one known around.

* The ngui's girlfriend should observe the events at home well and inform him.

What I, Ndeti, hated most
at the white man's
was carrying a tin every evening.*

* Water can, slop bucket, or food plate?

At the white man's home,
food is not scarce.*

* As opposed to the situation in the villages.

Oh, Musyimi, son of Kilombe,
I, Ndeti, was released
and went to meet Ngelema,
who looks fresh
and walks like the settlers' guards.*

* Once back, the ngui hopes to marry Ngelema, who walks like a marching soldier.

I will go out to meet Ngumbi.
His shoes cry as he asks for hundreds.*

* His friend will be eagerly returning home in new, squeaky and painful shoes after earning much money from his employer.

Mativo's son,* Silingi, has nothing.

* An incompetent rival.

We should go meet the Phonogram,
Meli, at Ndolya's.*

* His rival is not rich, handsome, or a real ngui. The girl (Phonogram) they are competing for should choose Ndeti.

Is the train* hurried
before I light the coal?
If you please, go out and dance.

* Is the girl interested in the ngui or in other men? If she is faithful, she can still attend wathi, though waiting for the ngui.

Let's go and meet the owner's

* The ngui hopes to find his girlfriend still waiting for him.

visit bluegecko.org

Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle
Planosphere.com - fine art photography