The Kamba People


The Kamba, Akamba, or Wakamba (in plu-ral) are one of the largest ethnic groups in Kenya, numbering 2.5 million people or 11 percent of the total population of the country. Their language is called Kakamba, and it belongs to the Bantu group. The Kamba and other Bantu peoples of the region absorbed earlier Cushitic people, who have left influences in loanword to the language as well as in oral traditions and irrigation works.The Kamba originated with the Bantu peoples who pushed into Kenya in the fifth century CE and subsequently expanded, especially where they were able to grow crops such as bananas.

Sometime in the 16th century, the Kamba encountered the Maa, a Nilotic people and ancestors of the modern Maasai/Masai, who recently arrived. Some Kamba sought refuge with the Chagga on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, while others moved south-ward into tsetse fly–infested regions, where the cattle-breeding Maa did not want to go. By the late 17th century, most Kamba relocated to the arid woodlands in the Chyulu Hills, where they were able to succeed by using the various farming skills such as irrigation methods and terracing. By the 18th century, the Kamba had become middlemen between the Swa-hili and Arab merchants on the coast and those people who lived further inland.

In the late 18th century, they lost control over part of the trade to the Doe in what is today known as Tanzania. The Kamba became expert traders in much of Kenya, as well as farmers and cattlemen.Today most Kamba are Christian, but their traditional religion was very similar to that of their neighbors, the Kikuyu. They believed in a single, powerful creator god as well as number of other spirits who could be contacted through mediums.The Kamba were organized into a num-ber of patrilineal clan territories called utui governed by councils of elders.

Soci-ety was divided into age grades, but they generally did not go through the elaborate age grade ceremonies such as those of the various Nilotic peoples or the Kikuyu. Nonetheless, the Kamba are one of the few peoples in Kenya who still practice female circumcision.The Kamba were among the first people encountered by European explorers to East Africa, and their name of Mount Kenya (Kinyaa) was recorded for the mountain and subsequently, became the name of the country. Due to their experi-ence as traders, they had a vast knowledge of the country, and Europeans hired Kamba to be both guides and porters for their explorations inland.

Kamba lands were not of interest to most Europeans, at least not initially, because they were gen-erally arid and not as productive as other areas.Kamba resisted the railway the British intended to build since it would seriously damage their trade with more distant people, and in 1896 to 1897, a mili-tary expedition was sent to defeat them and place them on native reserves.The Kamba were quick to recognize the value of education brought by mission-aries and, because of their own reliance on trade, they were able to reconcile eco-nomically. The British tried to ban tradi-tional religion. The Kamba traditional gathering, called a wathi, was forbidden, and the British chopped down a number of the Kamba’s sacred trees in their attempt to stop traditional practices.

During World War I, the Kamba did not want to serve in the British army’s Carrier Corps, and various means were used to try to avoid service, including abandoning entire villages; but by the end of the war, over three-fourths of all Kamba men had served in the army. Following the war, the Kamba did serve in both the police and in the King’s African Rifles, but poor treatment of Africans, especially when white colonists tried to have their herds reduced, brought about fast response. The Kamba mobilized a large group of people who eventually got the attention of the colonial governor, who backed down on the plan to force them to give up large numbers of their herds.

Following World War II, Kamba saw no improvement of their condition, and when in the 1950s the Mau Mau Rebellion began, many Kamba joined. It was esti-mated that in one of the main Kamba towns, Machakos, as many as 2,000 peo-ple had taken the Mau Mau oath. The oath was taken in the name of the traditional god, and each person who took the oath vowedonpainofdeathtoneverreveal anyone else who was part of the move-ment. Many of the Kamba who joined the movement worked for the railway and controlled the railway men, and many others were members of the King’s Afri-can Rifles. Despite their ability to shut rail service with strikes, few strikes were ever called during the conflict. The rebellion was defeated by 1956, but it did result in Kenya’s independence in 1963. Kenya became a republic in 1964. The Kamba have generally prospered as urban profes-sionals and merchants.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa:A History to 1800. Charlottesville: Univer-sity Press of Virginia, 2002.

Sobania, N. W. Culture and Customs of Kenya.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003. June 1, 2010). (accessedJune 1, 2010). June 1, 2010).