Social, Political and economic organization of the Kamba

Social, Political and economic organization of the Kamba


HIST 100



The Kamba, Akamba in plural, are a Bantu ethnic group who speak Kikamba language and reside in the semi-arid Eastern province of Kenya called Ukambani stretching east from Nairobi to Tsavo and north up to Embu. This land is called Ukambani. This group is believed to be the fourth largest community following the Gikuyu, Luhya and Luo as the first, second and third respectively.

The Kamba have intermarried with their neighbors and the new generation is believed to be a product mixture of this intermarriages. The most sited intermarriages between the Kamba has brought offspring who bear traits of the Bantu farmers like the Kikuyu and the Taita, the Nilotic pastoralists, like the Maasai, Borana and Kalenjin as well as the Cushite communities like the Somali with whom they share borders, to the east of Tsavo. 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 (Lindblom 2006). They settled in the Mariakani, Kinango, Kwale, Mombasa West (Changamwe and Chaani) 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 politicians, businessmen and women, as well as professional men and women are direct descendants of these itinerant pastoralists.

Major economic activities of the Kamba include engaging in agriculture planting maize, millet and sorghum. Trade, barter trade in the ancient times with their neighbors mentioned above as well with other communities in the country. The barter trade was done mainly between the Kamba and the Kikuyu, Meru, Maasai, Embu in the interior while at the coast they traded in caravans, large organized There are others who have taken up formal jobs in local towns like Mwingi and machakos as well as other major towns in the country including Mombasa and the capital city Nairobi.

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’), 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 cane beer, ivory, brass amulets, tools and weapons, millet, and cattle. The food obtained from trading helped offset shortages caused by droughts and famines. They also traded in medicinal products known as ‘Miti’ (literally: plants), made from various parts of the numerous medicinal plants found on the East African plains. The Akamba are still known for their fine work in basketry and pottery (Kabwegyere & Mbula 2008). Their artistic inclination is evidenced in the sculpture work that is on display in many craft shops and galleries in the major cities and towns of Kenya (Kennel 2002).

In the late 19th century the Kamba were forced to be middle men between the Arabs and the Swahili traders and the other upcountry tribes after the former took over the dominance of the coastal trade. Their trade and travel made them ideal guides for the caravans gathering slaves for the Middle East and Indian market. Early European explorers also used them as guides in their expeditions to explore East Africa due to their wide knowledge of the land and neutral standing with many of the other tribes they traded with.

The political organization of the Akamba during the colonial period that culminated to a non-violent resistance to British rule was led by a number of popular figures. Some of the best known Akamba resistance leaders to colonialism were: Syokimau, Syotune wa Kathukye, Muindi Mbingu and later Paul Ngei, JD Kali, and Malu of Kilungu. Ngei and Kali were imprisoned by the colonial government for their anti-colonial protests. Syotune wa Kathukye led a peaceful protest to recover cattle confiscated by the British colonial government during one of their punitive expeditions on the local populations (Kennel 2002).

Socially, the family (Musyi) plays a significant role in the community and their culture. The Akamba extended family or clan is called ‘mbai’. The man, who is the head of the family, is usually engaged in an economic activity popular among the community like trading, hunting, cattle-herding or farming. He is known as ‘Nau’, ‘Tata’ or ‘Asa’. Very little distinction is made between one’s children and nieces and nephews. They address their maternal uncle as ‘ma-ma’or naimiwa and maternal aunts as mwendya and for their paternal uncle and aunt as ‘mwendwau’. They address their paternal cousins as ‘waasa'(for men is mwanaasa and for women is mwiituasa), and the maternal cousins (aunt’s side) as ‘wa mwendya’ (for men is mwanaa mwendya and mwiitu wa mwendya for women). Children often move from one household to another with ease, and are made to feel at home by their aunts and uncles who, while in charge of their nephews/nieces, are their de facto parents (Kabwegyere & Mbula 2008).

The woman, whatever her husband’s occupation, works on her plot of land, which she is given upon joining her husband’s household. She supplies the bulk of the food consumed by her family. She grows maize, millet, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, beans, pigeon peas, greens, arrow root, cassava, and in the cooler regions such as [Kangundo, Kilungu, Mbooni], yam. It is the mother’s role to bring up the children. Even children that have grown up into adults are expected to never contradict the mother’s-Mwaitu’s-wishes (Lindblom 2006).

Grandparents (Susu or Usua, Umau or Umaa) help with the less strenuous chores around the home, such as rope-making, tanning leather, carving of bee hives, three-leged wooden stools, etc, cleaning calabashes and making bows and arrows. Older women continue to work the land, as this is seen as a source of independence and economic security. They also carry out trade in the local markets, though not exclusively. In the modern Kikamba family, the women, especially in the urban regions, practice professions such as teaching, medical nursing, secretarial work, management, tailoring etc in accordance with Kenya’s socioeconomic evolution.


Kabwegyere T. & Mbula J. (2008). “A case of the Akamba of eastern Kenya,” University of Michigan: Michigan.

Kennel J. (2002). “An ethno historical study of the oral traditions of the Akamba of Kenya,” University of California: California.

Lindblom G. (2006). “The Akamba: in British East Africa, Volume 1,” Appelbergs Boktryckeri Aktiebolag: Berlin.

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