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The Akamba Tribe: Their Mythical Origins and Resilient Settlement in Kenya’s Arid Lands

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The Kamba, also known as Akamba or Wakamba, are a Bantu ethnic group that primarily resides in the southern part of the former Eastern Province in Kenya, stretching from Nairobi to Tsavo and north to Embu.

This region, known as Ukambani, comprises Makueni, Kitui, and Machakos counties. They also make up the second largest ethnic group in eight counties including Nairobi and Mombasa. The Kamba people have a rich history and culture that is closely linked to their Bantu origins.

The Kamba people have linguistic and cultural similarities with their neighbouring ethnic groups, such as the Kikuyu, Embu, Mbeere, and Meru.

They also have cultural ties to the Digo and Giriama communities along the Kenyan coast. The Kamba people have inhabited the lowlands of southeast Kenya, stretching from the vicinity of Mount Kenya to the coast, for centuries.

The first group of Kamba people settled in the 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.

However, some experts argue that the Kamba people arrived in their current lowland settlements east of Mount Kenya from earlier settlements further north and east.

Others suggest that the Kamba, along with their closely related Eastern Bantu neighbors, migrated into Kenya from points further south.

Today, the majority of the Kamba people reside in Kenya, with a large concentration in the lower eastern counties of Machakos, Kitui, and Makueni.

According to the national census of 2019, there were 4,663,910 Akamba people in Kenya, making them the fifth-most populous tribe in the country.

Machakos is the most populous of the three Ukambani counties, with 1,421,932 residents, followed by Kitui with 1,136,187 residents, and Makueni with 987,653 residents.

Interestingly, the Kamba people form the second largest ethnic group in each of the urban city-counties of Nairobi and Mombasa, as well as in Taita–Taveta, Kiambu, Muranga, Kirinyaga, Kwale, and Kilifi counties.

They also constitute the third largest ethnic group in Embu, Garissa, Meru, and Kajiado counties. In Embu County, the Kamba people live in the Mbeere South region, while in Taita–Taveta County, they are mainly concentrated in the Taveta region.

Historically, the Kamba people shared a border with the Maasai community and were literally separated by the Kenya-Uganda railway from Athi-River to Kibwezi.

Up until the late 20th century, the Maasai and the Kamba communities were involved in persistent cattle rustling and pasture conflicts, especially on the pasture-rich Konza plains.

This situation prompted the colonial government to create cooperative societies, and later, the establishment of Konza, Potha, and Malili Ranches where the proposed Konza Technology City sits today.

Language of Akamba People

The Kamba people have a unique language known as Kikamba, which they speak as a mother tongue.

Kikamba is a Bantu language belonging to the Niger-Congo language family. Interestingly, this language does not have several letters in its alphabet, such as c, f, j, r, x, q, and p.

Over the centuries, the Kamba people have had significant interactions with Arab traders who settled along the Kenyan coast.

As a result, the Swahili language, which has strong Arabic influence, has had a significant impact on the Kamba language.

This influence is evident in various aspects of Kamba culture, such as their music, dance, and clothing styles, which have adopted some Swahili elements.

Also read: The Antemoro People of Madagascar -Culture, Religion & Language

Despite the influence of Swahili on their language, the Kamba people have maintained their unique cultural identity.

Their language and traditional practices have played a crucial role in preserving their rich cultural heritage. Kamba language is also taught in schools in the areas where Kamba people live, which helps to promote their culture and preserve their language for future generations.

In addition to their language, the Kamba people have a vibrant cultural identity that is reflected in their music, dance, art, and traditional clothing.

Their music, known as “Kyambya,” is a blend of various styles and is often accompanied by traditional instruments such as drums, horns, and flutes. The dance styles are also unique, with some dances featuring acrobatic moves that showcase the dancers’ strength and agility.

Clothing

The Kamba people’s traditional clothing is also distinctive, with women often wearing brightly colored wraparound skirts known as “kanga” or “lesos.”

These skirts are decorated with various patterns and designs that reflect Kamba culture and tradition. Men, on the other hand, often wear loose-fitting pants and shirts made from traditional materials such as animal skins and woven fabrics.

The Kamba people are a unique ethnic group with a rich cultural heritage. Their language, Kikamba, is an essential part of their identity and has influenced their culture over the centuries.

Despite the influence of other languages, the Kamba people have maintained their unique identity, which is reflected in their music, dance, art, and traditional clothing.

Economy

The Akamba people, who belong to the Bantu ethnic group, were originally hunters and gatherers, but due to their vast knowledge of the expansive area they inhabited and good relations with neighboring communities, they eventually became long-distance traders with excellent communication skills.

As they moved around and settled in new areas, they adopted subsistence farming and pastoralism, which led to the availability of new lands.

In modern times, the Akamba engage in a variety of professions, including agriculture, trade, and formal jobs.

They have a long history of bartering with neighboring communities such as the Kikuyu, Maasai, Meru, Embu, Mijikenda, and Arab people.

Their economic influence extended 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 of what is now Kenya.

The Akamba traded in locally produced goods, including sugar cane wine, ivory, brass amulets, tools, weapons, millet, and cattle.

This trading helped offset shortages caused by droughts and famines experienced in their homeland. They also traded in medicinal products made from various parts of the numerous medicinal plants found on the Southeast African plains.

Despite their commercial activity, the Akamba are known for their artistic inclination, particularly in wood carving, basketry, and pottery. Their sculpture work is showcased in many craft shops and galleries in major cities and towns across Kenya.

In the mid-eighteenth century, a significant number of Akamba pastoral groups migrated eastwards from the Tsavo and Kibwezi areas to the coast due to extensive drought and lack of pasture for their cattle.

This migration resulted in the beginnings of urban settlements in Mariakani, Kinango, Kwale, Mombasa West (Changamwe and Chaani), and Mombasa North (Kisauni) areas of the coast of Kenya.

Today, they continue to be a significant population in these towns and have integrated into the cultural, economic, and political life of the modern-day Coast Province.

Many notable businessmen and women, politicians, as well as professional men and women are direct descendants of these itinerant pastoralists.

Belief

The Akamba community, like many other Bantu communities, has a rich mythology that includes a creation story. According to their beliefs, Mulungu, the supreme being, created a man and a woman who were the first couple from heaven.

They were placed on a rock at Nzaui, where their footprints and those of their livestock can still be seen today.

Mulungu then caused a great rainfall, which brought forth a man and a woman from the many anthills around. These individuals were the creators of the ‘spirits clan’ – the Aimo.

The couple from heaven had only sons, while the couple from the anthill had only daughters.

As a result, the couple from heaven paid dowry for the daughters of the couple from the anthill. The family and their cattle grew in numbers, but with prosperity came forgetfulness.

They forgot to give thanks to their creator, and Mulungu punished them with a great famine. This led to dispersal as the family scattered in search of food.

The Akamba believe in a monotheistic, mystical God named Ngai or Mulungu, who lives in the sky Ituni. Another name for God is Asa, or the Father. They perceive God as the omnipotent creator of life on earth and a merciful, if distant, entity.

The traditional Akamba also believe in the spirits of their departed loved ones, the Aimu, who act as mediators between themselves and Ngai Mulungu. The Aimu are remembered in family rituals and offerings at individual altars.

Despite facing conflicts and challenges, they have persisted and are currently one of the most populous ethnic groups in Kenya, with a strong presence in both rural and urban areas.

In conclusion, the Akamba people have a rich history and culture, from their origins as hunters and traders to their current engagement in various professions, including agriculture, trade, and formal employment.

Their mythology and religious beliefs centered around the supreme being Ngai or Mulungu, the creator of life on earth and the aimu spirits, mediators between the living and the divine.

The Akamba people are also renowned for their artistic inclination, particularly in wood carving, basketry, and pottery. As one of the nine major ethnic groups in Kenya, the Akamba continue to play a significant role in the social, economic, and political life of the country

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