The Bantu-speaking Kamba, numerically Kenya’s fourth-largest people, live in the largely semi-arid hills of Ukambani north of the Nairobi-Mombasa road, between Nairobi and Mount Kenya and eastwards towards the Tsavo National Park, areas which have been their homelands for at least five centuries. Originating from the Mount Kilimanjaro region, they are famed both for their woodcarving and for their tenacity in extracting a livelihood from the marginal lands on which they live.
Traditionally the Kamba were hunters, famed for their pursuit of elephant as well as for their skills in arrow working and poison-making. Their need to trade, more especially in times of drought, also brought them into close contact with the ivory and slave trade of the Swahili caravans – the Kamba exchanging ivory for trade beads, salt, cloth and copper which they then exchanged for food with the highland peoples. Their knowledge of the Kenyan interior was also of great help to the early explorers and missionaries who used them as porters, middlemen and guides. The poverty of their land, however, ensured that the Kamba were less affected by colonialism than many of their neighbours, whose land was more attractive to the British. It also resulted in many Kamba seeking employment in the police and armed forces.
These days many of the religious, political and social structures of the Kamba have either disappeared or adapted to modern economic and social realities and although agriculture remains the primary activity; small herds of cattle, sheep, and goats are also kept. The Kamba are also famous for their ingeniously irrigated terraced fields, which have enabled them to grow cereal crops such as sorghum and millet.
The Kamba ‘Ngoma’ drums
Perhaps the most colourful feature of the Kamba culture is the wild flamboyance of their traditional dance, which features acrobatic leaps and somersaults that fling the dancers high into the air. The dance is traditionally performed to the throbbing beat of the famous ‘Ngoma’ drums which are first warmed by the sun until they attain the correct timbre before being held between the legs to be played. The varied beat of the Ngoma drums has directed the rhythm of Kamba village for centuries. Here are some examples:
Three heavy drumbeats followed by a 2-3 minute silence sounded a warning of approaching enemy. A single, continuous beat called the villagers to communal cultivation. A heavy, single stroke followed by a continuous whistle signified an urgent call for help, in the case of fire, cattle rustling or injury.
The oldest form of Kamba artistic expression is the embellishment of calabashes (or gourds) so as to imbue them with both beauty and spiritual meaning. Kamba artisans are also skilled in metal extraction and working, as is evident from the intricately wrought armlets and bracelets worn by women and the fighting swords and arrowheads used by the men. Nowadays though, the Kamba are more famous for their wide range of African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) carvings, ranging from tiny animals to larger-than-life warriors. A relatively recent art form, the skill of wood carving was introduced to the Kamba by one man, Mutisya Munge, who learnt it from the famous Tanzanian ‘Makonde’ carvers whilst serving in the Carrier Corps in Tanzania during World War I. From his innovative lead a booming carving trade has been established amongst Kamba men whilst the weaving of circular, leather-strapped baskets (vyondo) from the fibres of baobab and wild fig trees has become a major source of income for the Kamba women.
Despite your bark, you’ll be eaten
Translation: A cowardly dog may bark a lot, but the prowling leopard will still catch it and eat it.
Those in the woodpile should not laugh at those in the fire
Translation: Watch out! It could be you next.
Question: It is in space and you cannot touch it. It is an eagle-eater, what is it?
Answer: A star
Question: She is a small woman who cooks better than your mother – who is she?
Answer: A bee