The largely dry stretch of central Kenya from Nairobi to Tsavo and north as far as Embu has been the homeland of the Kamba people for at least five centuries. Also called the Akamba or Wakamba, they moved here from the regions to the south in a series of vague migrations, in search, according to legend, of the life-saving baobab tree, whose fruit can stave off the worst famines, and whose trunks hold large quantities of water.

With a diverse economy in better years, including mixed farming and herding as well as hunting and gathering, the Kamba slowly coalesced into a distinct tribe with one (Bantu) language. As they settled in the hilly parts, the population increased. But drier areas at lower altitudes couldn’t sustain the expansion, so trade for food with the Kikuyu peoples in the more fertile highlands region became a solution to the vagaries of their generally implacable environment.

In return for farm produce, the Kamba bartered their own manufactured goods: medicinal charms, extra-strong beer, honey, iron tools, arrowheads and a lethal and much-sought-after hunting poison. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as the Swahili on the coast strengthened their ties inland, ivory became the most important commodity in the trade network. With it, the Kamba obtained goods from overseas to exchange for food stocks with the highland tribes.

Long the intermediaries between coast and upcountry, the Kamba acted as guides to Swahili and Arab caravans, and led their own expeditions. Settling in small numbers in many parts of what is now Kenya, they were naturally enlisted by the early European arrivals in East Africa. Their broad cultural base and lack of provincialism made them confident travellers and employees, and willing porters and soldiers. Serving alongside British troops during World War I gave them insights into the ways of the Europeans who now ruled them. Together with the Luo and Kikuyu, they suffered tens of thousands of casualties in the white men’s wars. Even today, the Kenyan army has a disproportionately high Kamba contingent, while many others work in the police and as private security guards.

In the early years of colonialism, the Kamba were involved in occasional bloody incidents, but these were usually more the result of misunderstandings than any concerted rebellion. Although there was a major ruckus after an ignorant official at Machakos cut down a sacred ithembo tree to use as a flagpole, on the whole their trade networks and diplomatic skills helped to ease their relations with the British. As early as 1911, however, a Kamba movement rejecting European ways had emerged. Led by a widow named Siotune wa Kathake, it channelled opposition to colonialism into frenetic dancing, during which teenage girls became “possessed” by an anti-European spirit and preached radical messages of non-compliance with the government. Later, in the 1930s, the Ukamba Members Association (one of whose leaders was Muindi Mbingu) was formed in order to pre-empt efforts to settle Europeans in Ukambani and reduce Kamba cattle herds by compulsory purchase. Five thousand Kamba marched in peaceful protest to Kariokor market in Nairobi – a show of collective political will that succeeded in getting their cattle returned – and the settlers never came to Ukambani in any numbers.

Wamunyu, midway between Machakos and Kitui, was the birthplace of the modern Kamba woodcarving industry. Kamba men who served in World War I were introduced to the techniques of wood sculpture by the Makonde ebony carvers of the Tanganyikan coast. Today, the vast majority of woodcarvings in Kenya are still produced by Kamba artists, often in workshops far from Ukambani.

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