Kamba - Society


In this page:
Introduction
Clans
Age-sets
Families
Circumcision and clitoridectomy
Marriage
Childbirth


Introduction

Although a large part of Kamba culture has become westernized, and the large towns and villages have greatly increased in number (the Kamba population itself is now five times larger than it was in the 1930s), the traditional pattern of family homesteads persists, and is one of the few traditional social structures to have survived the twentieth century. Other forms of social and political structures - such as clans, councils of elders, and age-sets - now appear to be primarily historical, and are no longer in use.


Clans

The Kamba were originally grouped into some 25 dispersed patrilineal clans (utui) of varying size, which were often mutually hostile. Their social and territorial boundaries were flexible, and the system seems more to have been a response to fluid geographical groupings rather than strictly determined by ancestry or tradition. There seem to have been few if any institutions of centralized political authority, although in times of external threat, military action could be coordinated across the whole tribe.
   Clan meetings were called mbai, and through them political matters that affected the whole tribe were decided. The British abolished the system in the nineteenth century, imposing appointed leaders instead. Nowadays, elections and modern politics are the usual source of political power.


Age-sets

Individuals were organized in age-sets, but unlike the Kikuyu, Embu, Mbeere and Chuka, these were not based on initiation.
   Men and women of the grade of elders (atumia) formed political district councils that governed several utui. They also performed the function of priests, acting as ceremonial intermediaries between the living and God or the spirit-ancestors.
   I'm not sure whether this system still exists. As ever, if anyone has any more information, please get in touch.


Families

The extended family (musyi) forms the basic unit of life among the Kamba, as they share the same lands. The houses are built within the lands, and were traditionally round and thatched to the ground. Nowadays, they're more likely to be rectangular structures built of bricks and breeze blocks, topped with corrugated metal roofs.


Circumcision and clitoridectomy

Circumcision and clitoridectomy remain important among the Kamba, and through them a child attains adulthood. In some parts there are two separate stages: the "small" ceremony (nzaikonini), which occurs when the child is between four and five years old and the "big" ceremony (nzaikoneni), which occurs when the child reaches puberty and is a more prolonged period of initiation.
   Female circumcision, which was officially banned by the Kenyan government in 1981, is still widely practised.


Marriage

See also the lyrics to a wedding song, in the section on Music & Dance

As in many sedentary pastoralist societies, Kamba marriage practices included the exchange of cattle as a form of bridewealth payment. In most cases, the high value of cattle reinforced the authority of older men, as sons usually needed help from their fathers to acquire enough cattle to marry, and inheritance only occurred upon the father's death.
   The authority of elders was progressively undermined when the Kamba started dominating the colonial King's African Rifles, where wages were often sufficient to pay the soldiers' own bridewealth without needing fathers to support them.

I've come across one comment that "among the Kamba, women were ritually deflowered by elder men from whom they received sexual teachings." I've no more information about this or its veracity.


Childbirth

See also the lullaby, in the section on Music & Dance

During the last three months of her pregnancy, the expectant mother was also forbidden to eat fat, beans, and the meat of animals killed with poisoned arrows. In addition, she ate a special kind of earth found on termite hills (termitaries) or on trees. This earth is first chewed by termites, then deposited on trees and grass, or piled up to form a mound. When eaten, such 'earth' strengthens the body of the child.
   Before giving birth, all weapons and iron articles were removed from the house of the expectant mother, as it was believed that iron articles attracted lightning (both, one might presume, physical and 'spiritual', the latter in the form of evil spirits).

When a child is born, the parents slaughter a goat or bull on the third day. Many people come to feast and rejoice with the family, and women who have borne children get together to give a name to the child. This is known as 'the name of ngima', ngima being the main dish prepared for the occasion.
   On the fourth day, the father hangs an iron necklace on the child's neck, after which it is regarded as a full human being and as having lost contact with the spirit world. Before that, a child is regarded as an 'object' belonging to the spirits (kiimu), and if it should die before the naming ceremony, the mother becomes ritually unclean and must be cleansed.
   During the night following the naming, the parents perform ritual sexual intercourse, which is the seal of the child's separation from the spirits and the living-dead, and its integration into the company of human beings.


 
 
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