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Kamba Language, Names, Ladies, Religion, Culture and Tradition

Kamba Tribe

The region East of Nairobi towards Tsavo National Park is the traditional homeland of the Akamba people (Ukambani). Speaking Kamba Language  they migrated here from the south several centuries ago in search of food, mainly the fruit of the baobab tree which was accorded great nutritional value.

Origin and History of The Kamba People

The first group settled in present-day Mbooni Hills in the Machakos District of Kenya in the second half of the 17th century before spreading to the greater Machakos, Makueni and Kitui Districts.

Other authorities suggest that they arrived in their present lowlands east of Mount Kenya area of inhabitation from earlier settlements further to the north and east, while others argue that the Kamba, along with their closely related Eastern Bantu neighbors the Kikuyu, Embu, Mbeere and Meru moved into Kenya from points further south.It is believed that the Akamba bore a son ‘Kikuyu’ (boy named after the figtree) who married Mumbi(Creator) and together started the first Kikuyu family which is today the Kikuyu tribe.


History of the Kamba people

In colonial times the Akamba were highly regarded by the British for their intelligence and fighting ability and were drafted in large numbers into the British army. Thousands lost their lives in WWI. When it came to land, however, the British were not quite so respectful and tried to limit the number of cattle the Akamba could own (by confiscating them) and also settled more Europeans in Ukambani. The Akamba response was the formation of the Ukamba Members Association, which marched  to Nairobi and squatted peacefully at Kariokor Market in protest. After three weeks the administration gave way and the cattle were eventually returned to the people.

Kamba Tribe – Kamba Language

The Kamba speak the Kamba language (also known as Kikamba) as a mother tongue. It belongs to the Bantu branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Interesting, Kikamba has no letters “c”,”f”,”j”, ‘r’, ‘x’ and ‘q’ in its alphabet.

Kamba Language – Kamba Naming and Kamba Names

Naming of children is an important aspect of the Akamba people. In most but not all cases, the first four children, two boys and two girls, are named after the grandparents on both sides of the family. The first boy is named after the paternal grandfather and the second after the maternal grandfather. Girls are similarly named. Because of the respect that the Kamba people observe between the varied relationships, there are people with whom they cannot speak in “first name” terms.

The father and the mother in-law on the husband’s side, for instance, can never address their daughter in-law by her first name. Neither can she address them by their first names. Yet she has to name her children after them. To solve this problem, a system of naming is adopted that gave names which were descriptive of the quality or career of the grandparents. Therefore, when a woman is married into a family, she is given a family name (some sort of baptismal name), such as “Syomunyithya/ng’a Mutunga,” that is, “she who is to be the mother of Munyithya/Mutunga.”

Her first son is to be called by this name. This name Munyithya was descriptive of certain qualities of the paternal grandfather or of his career. Thus, when she is calling her son, she would indeed be calling her father in-law, but at the same time strictly observing the cultural law of never addressing her in-laws by their first names.

After these four children are named, whose names were more or less predetermined, other children could be given any other names, sometimes after other relatives and / or family friends on both sides of the family. Occasionally, children were given names that were descriptive of the circumstances under which they were born,

  • “Nduku” (girl) and “Mutuku” (boy) meaning born at night,
  • “Kioko” (boy) born in the morning,
  • “Mumbua/Syombua” (girl)and “Wambua” (boy) for the time of rain,
  • “Wayua” (girl) for the time of famine,
  • “Makau” (boy) for the time of war,
  • “Musyoka/Kasyuko/Musyoki” (boy) and “Kasyoka/Kasyoki” (girl) as a re-incarnation of a dead family member,
  • “Mutua” (boy) and “Mutuo/Mwikali” (girl)as indicative of the long duration the parents had waited for this child, or a lengthy period of gestation.
  • “Munyao”(boy) for the time of famine
  • “Waeni” (girl) for the time of visitors
  • ‘Maundu”(boy) for the time of multiple activities/things

Children were also given affectionate names as expressions of what their parents wished them to be in life. Such names would be like

  • “Mutongoi” (leader),
  • “Musili” (judge),
  • “Muthui” (the rich one),
  • “Ngumbau” (hero, the brave one).

Of course, some of these names could be simply expressive of the qualities displayed by the man or woman after whom they were named. Very rarely, a boy may be given the name “Musumbi” (meaning “king”). I say very rarely because the Kamba people did not speak much in terms of royalty; they did not have a definite monarchical system. They were ruled by a council of elders called kingole. There is a prophecy of a man, who traces his ancestry to where the sun sets (west) (in the present day county of Kitui) who will bear this name.

A girl could be called “Mumbe” meaning beautiful. Wild animal names like Nzoka (snake), Mbiti (hyena), Mbuku (hare), Munyambu (lion), or Mbiwa (fox); or domesticated animal names like Ngiti (dog), Ng’ombe (cow), or Nguku (chicken), were given to children born of mothers who started by giving stillbirths. This was done to wish away the bad omen and allow the new child to survive. Sometimes the names were used to preserve the good names for later children. There was a belief that a woman’s later children had a better chance of surviving than her first ones


Kamba Tribe – Culture

All adolescents go through initiation rites to adulthood at around the age of 12, and have the same age-set groups common to many of Kenya’s peoples. The various age-set rituals involve the men, and the women to a lesser extent, gaining seniority as they get older.

Young parents are known as ‘junior elders’ (mwanake for men, mwiitu for women) and are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the village. Once his children are old enough to become junior elders. Themselves, the mwanake goes through a ceremony to become a ‘medium elder’ (nthele), and later in life a ‘full elder’ (atumia ma kivalo) with the responsibility for death ceremonies and administering the law. The last stage of a person’s life is that of ‘senior elder’ (atumia ma kisuka) with responsibility for the holy places.

Akamba subgroups include Kitui, Masaku and Mumoni.

Kamba Tribe – Clothing and Costumery

The Akamba of the modern times, like most people in Kenya, dress rather conventionally in western / European clothing. The men wear trousers and shirts. Young boys will, as a rule, wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts, usually in cotton, or tee-shirts. Traditionally, Akamba men wore leather short kilts made from animal skins or tree bark. They wore copious jewellery, mainly of copper and brass. It consisted of neck-chains, bracelets, and anklets.

The women in modern Akamba society also dress in the European fashion, taking their pick from dresses, skirts, trousers, jeans and shorts, made from the wide range of fabrics available in Kenya. Primarily, however, skirts are the customary and respectable mode of dress. In the past, the women were attired in knee-length leather or bark skirts, embellished with bead work. They wore necklaces made of beads, these obtained from the Swahili and Arab traders. They shaved their heads clean, and wore a head band intensively decorated with beads. The various kilumi or dance groups wore similar colours and patterns on their bead work to distinguish themselves from other groups.

Traditionally, both men and women wore leather sandals especially when they ventured out of their neighborhood to go to the market or on visits. While at home or working in their fields, however, they remained barefoot.

School children, male and female, shave their heads to maintain the spirit of uniformity and equality. Currently the most popular Kamba artist include; Ken Wamaria, Kativui, Kitunguu etc. Ken Wamaria is rated as the top artist in Ukambani and the richest Kenyan artist (Kioko, 2012).

Kamba Language – Kikamba music

The Akamba people’s love of music and dance is evidenced in their spectacular performances at many events in their daily lives or on occasions of regional and national importance. In their dances they display agility and athletic skills as they perform acrobatics and body movements. The Akamba dance techniques and style resemble those of the Batutsi of Rwanda-Burundi and the Aembu of Kenya. The earliest, most famous and respected traditional Kamba soloist who can be documented was Mailu Mboo (Grand Father to Influx Swaggaa top Kenyan Artiste) and came from “Kwa Vara” Now mwingi.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Dances are usually accompanied by songs composed for the occasion (marriage, birth, nationally important occasion), and reflect the traditional structure of the Kikamba song, sung on a pentatonic scale. The singing is lively and tuneful. Songs are composed satirising deviant behaviour, anti-social activity, etc. The Akamba have famous work songs, such as Ngulu Mwelela, sung while work, such as digging, is going on. Herdsmen and boys have different songs, as do young people and old. During the Mbalya dances the dance leader will compose love songs and satirical numbers, to tease and entertain his / her dancers.

Some of the Kamba songs include

  • Mwali (plural Myali), a dance accompanying a song, the latter which is usually made to criticize anti-social behaviour.
  • Kilumi and Ngoma, religious dances, performed at healing and rain-making ceremonies;
  • Mwilu is a circumcision dance;
  • Mbalya or Ngutha is a dance for young people who meet to entertain themselves after the day’s chores are done.
  • Kamandiko, or the modern disco usually held after a wedding party.

Kamba Tribe – Economy

The Akamba were great traders and ranged all the way from the coast to Lake Victoria and up to Lake Turkana. Ivory was one of the main barter items but locally made products such as beer, honey, iron weapons and ornaments were also traded. They used to obtain food stocks from the neighbouring Maasai and Kikuyu, as their own low-altitude land was relatively poor and couldn’t sustain the increasing population which followed their arrival in the area.

Over time, the Akamba extended their commercial activity and wielded economic control across the central part of the land that was later to be known as Kenya (from the Kikamba, ‘Kiinyaa’, meaning ‘the Ostrich Country’ derived from the reference they made to Mount Kenya and its snow cap similar to the male Ostrich), from the Indian Ocean in the east to Lake Victoria in the west, and all the way up to Lake Turkana on the northern frontier. The Akamba traded in locally produced goods such as sugar cane wine, ivory, brass amulets, tools and weapons, millet, and cattle. The food obtained from trading helped offset shortages caused by droughts and famines experienced in their Kamba land.

In the mid-eighteenth century, a large number of Akamba pastoral groups moved eastwards from the Tsavo and Kibwezi areas to the coast. This migration was the result of extensive drought and lack of pasture for their cattle. They settled in the Mariakani, Kinango, Kwale, Mombasa West (Changamwe and Chaani) and Mombasa North (Kisauni) areas of the coast of Kenya, creating the beginnings of urban settlement. They are still found in large numbers in these towns, and have been absorbed into the cultural, economic and political life of the modern-day Coast Province. Several notable businessmen and women, politicians, as well as professional men and women are direct descendants of these itinerant pastoralists.