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
The Masai men and women began to crowd into camp, and we mutually surveyed each other with equal interest. The women had all the style of the men. With slender, well-shaped figures, they had brilliant dark eyes, Mongolian in type, narrow, and with an upward slant. Obviously they felt that they were a superior race, and that all others were but as slaves before them….
Joseph Thomson, ‘Through Masailand’
Perhaps the most visually striking and best known of the colourful tribes of Kenya, the Nilo-Hamitic Maasai are a nomadic people whose style of life reflects a constant quest for water and grazing land that has remained unchanged for centuries. Thought to have migrated to Kenya from the lower valleys of the Nile, the Maasai encountered a troubled history in their adopted home. Firstly their people were decimated by famine and disease, secondly they lost many of their cattle herds to the scourge of ‘Rinderpest’ (a tick-borne disease), thirdly their development was affected by the arrival of the European explorers and finally they lost much of their land to the influx of British colonialist settlers. Nor did their dispossession end there, because in recent years they have also had to face the steady shrinkage of their ancestral lands due not only to the inexorable march of urban settlement, but also to the establishment of the National Parks and Reserves.
Called ‘Maasai ‘after their form of speech, which is known as ‘Maa’, the Maasai are distinguished by their complex character, good manners, impressive presence and almost mystical love of their cattle. The latter is based on the Maasai belief that the sky god, ‘Enkai’, was once at one with the earth but when the earth and the sky were separated he was forced to send all the world’s cattle into the safekeeping of the Maasai.
These days ‘I hope your cattle are well’ is still the most common form of Maasai greeting, whilst milk and blood feed the people, cowhides provide their mattresses, sandals and mats, live cattle establish their marriage bonds and a complex system of cattle-fines maintain their social harmony.
After deep reflection on my people and culture, I have painfully come to accept that the Maasai must change to protect themselves, if not their culture. They must adapt to the realities of the modern world for the sake of their own survival. It is better to meet an enemy out in the open and to be prepared for him than for him to come upon you at home unawares.
Tepilit Ole Saitoti, Maasai (Elm Tree Books)
The Maasai and the early explorers
In March 1883 the Scottish explorer, Joseph Thomson, set off from Mombasa with a caravan of 140 porters, to explore East Africa for the Royal Geographical Society. The journey, to Lake Victoria and back, took him considerably longer than expected however, due to his continual confrontations with the fearsome Maasai. Indeed judging from his book, Journey through Masailand, it is doubtful whether he would have survived at all, but for his selection of ‘magic tricks’ (to include such horrors frothing at the mouth with the help of Eno’s Fruit Salts and removing two of his false teeth) all of which served to convince the Maasai that he was ‘a wizard of the north’ and best left alone. Thomson was fortunate, not many explorers emerged unscathed from an encounter with the Maasai and he was the only man the Royal Geographical Society could persuade to undertake the expedition – no one else was willing to approach the Maasai with anything short of an artillery regiment. ‘Take a thousand men’ advised the famous explorer Henry Stanley, ‘or write your will’.
A Maasai proverb
The elephant never tires of his tusks.
Translation: One must carry ones burden without flinching
Our children are like the bright moon
Translation: Our children bring light into the home
A Maasai riddle
Question: I have an ox that lives in the midst of enemies – what is it?
Answer: My tongue.
To the west of the Taita in the forests and swampy plains that lie around Lakes Jipe and Chala live the small ‘tribelet’ known as the Taveta, the 37th largest group in Kenya who, though linguistically related to the Taita, claim no historical relations.
In the midst of the bleak wastes of the Taru Desert rise the lush slopes of the Taita Hills, inhabited by the Bantu-speaking Taita people, the fifteenth largest group in Kenya. Like many Kenyan people, they derive from time-shrouded and varied origins, some having migrated to the region from the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro to avoid the unwelcome attentions of the warlike Maasai and others claiming ties with the Giriama, Kamba, Kikuyu, Maasai and Pokomo. Whatever their origins, the steep flanks of the Taita Hills provided both a refuge and a fortress for the newcomers who rapidly merged with the indigenous population, including the legendary ‘long bow hunters’ of the Waliangulu.
The name ‘Taita’ is said to derive from the time of the Swahili slave caravans whose members, hearing the region described as ‘Teta’ meaning aggressive, corrupted the word and applied it to both region and people alike. Originally the Taita lived by hunting and trading ivory and rhino horn with the passing slave caravans. With the abolition of slavery, however, they were forced to turn increasingly to agriculture and animal husbandry as a means of survival. The building of the Uganda Railway,the so called ‘Lunatic Express’, linking Mombasa to Kampala, also affected their livelihood, since the British demanded both the land on which to build the track and the acquiescence of the people through which it ran, neither of which the Taita were inclined to provide and the punitive British ‘patrols’ cost them dear in human life and herding stock. With the railway too came the missionaries and the Taita were amongst the first to be converted to Christianity, the first Catholic Mission being established in the region in 1892. Despite their long history of so-called ‘westernisation’ however, the Taita remain both homogenous and renowned for their respect for their ancestors. Indeed many groups still preserve their sacred sites and ancestral caves where the skulls of their exhumed ancestors are kept in niches as reminders of the obligation owed by the living to the dead.