Although speculation abounds about the origin of the Kamba people, it is generally agreed they stem from the Central Bantu. One theory claims they migrated northward to their present home from Kilimanjaro. Another asserts they branched off from the Coastal Bantus who were heading north. Yet another theory says they originated from an ancient dispersal centre among the Mijikenda.
Ancient mythology also offers its versions. One says the Kamba exist in their present location courtesy of mulungu (the supreme being). Mulungu projected the first Kamba man and woman onto Mount Nzaui.
This first couple was later joined by another from the centre of the earth. Mulungu, it is said, nourished the land they settled in with rain and it became fertile.
Regardless of their origin, historical records place their early settlement in a place called Mbooni, about 4 centuries ago. Initially, they were hunters who kept small livestock and cultivated the land a bit.
The higher rainfall and fertile soil in Mbooni might have allowed them to settle down and become agriculturally oriented. From here, they expanded like a bonfire.
Early trade interactions were mainly with the neighbouring Kikuyu, Embu, Tharaka, and Mijikenda. They involved trade in poisoned arrows and iron implements which were traded for glass beads, salt, cloth, and copper.
The arrival of ivory-laden caravans at the Kenya Coast signalled a second stage in the development of the Kamba economy. Long-distance traders like Kivoi Mwendwa, famously known as ‘Chief Kivoi’, emerged.
Chief Kivoi was born in the 1780s and lived in present-day Kitui. He is best remembered for guiding the first Europeans to the interior lands of present-day Kenya. It was these same Europeans who on December 3, 1849, became the first to set eyes on Mount Kenya.
Chief Kivoi also interacted with the Arabs at the coast. Voi town, one of his popular stopovers for his caravans before entering Mombasa, was named after him.
His descendants are not known but he was adversely mentioned by Dr Ludwig Krapf in his Mission to Africa. According to Dr Ludwig Krapf, Kivoi was killed when his caravan was attacked by robbers during an expedition in the Tana River near present-day Yatta.
Besides being long-distance traders, the Kamba are also famed for their spiritual leaders who were, oftentimes, able to predict the future with such amazing accuracy, it still puzzles many.
The arrival of the ‘long snake’ (railway) and the Europeans for instance, were prophesied by Masaku, a famous spiritual leader. When the British arrived in Masaku, they transformed it into a thriving trading centre which is today known by its corrupted name, Machakos.
The town became the primary upcountry administrative centre for the British. But as this foreign influence helped Kambaland, it was also the source of its downfall through curtailed expansion. The loss of cattle to Rinderpest was another big determinant.
With their land no longer fertile, natural erosion settling in and their unwillingness to cut down on their herds, the land finally gave in and triggered long spells of drought and famine that will be long remembered in Kambaland.
The Kamba are skilled craftsmen and make both practical tools and beautiful artwork. Iron and copper wire are used to make bracelets and arrowheads, as well as inlaid stools. Wood carving is a highly developed Kamba skill.
Many of the really high-quality carvings you will come across in Kenya are from Kamba craftsmen. Their women are also skilled in the art of basketry, especially using fibres from the baobab and wild fig trees.
The extended family (musyi) forms the basic unit of life among the Kamba. As with many other Kenyan people, political power originally resided with the elders (atumia) and in clan meetings (mbai). The British, however, ended this practice in the 19th century, imposing appointed leaders instead.
The Kamba are among the few tribes still practising clitoridectomy which the Kenyan government has been at the forefront of campaigning against.
In some parts, there are 2 separate stages: the ‘small’ ceremony (nzaikonini), which occurs when the child is between 4 and 5 years old and the ‘big’ ceremony (nzaikonene), which occurs when the child reaches puberty and is a more prolonged period of initiation. Scarring of the chest and abdomen for ornamental purposes is also common.
The Kamba, not surprisingly, valued bows and arrows as a primary weapon. Arrow tips were covered in lethal poison and kept moist by wrapping them in small pieces of leather which also prevented accidental injury. The long fighting sword (simi) and the throwing club completed the traditional Kamba arsenal.
In the mid-18th century, many Kamba pastoral groups moved eastwards towards the Tsavo and Kibwezi areas along the coast, away from the ensuing drought and a lack of pasture for their cattle. They settled in the Mariakani, Kisauni and Kinango areas of the Coast of Kenya, setting off the beginnings of urban settlement.
They still reside in large numbers in these towns and have become absorbed into the cultural, economic and political life of the modern-day Coast Region.
Most Kambas are Christians but some still practice old traditions. They believe in a monotheistic, invisible and transcendental god, ngai or mulungu, who lives in the sky (yayayani). This god is also referred to as Asa or the Father. He is perceived as the omnipotent creator of life on earth and as a merciful if distant, entity.