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The Kamba account for about 11% of Kenya's population. The Kamba and Kikuyu languages are mutually intelligible, with a little effort. The Kamba occupy a geographic region between the Kikuyu-populated central highlands and the coast, thus they came to play a key trading role linking these two regions.

The Bantu communities that eventually merged to form the Kamba appear to have been in the area of Mount Kilimanjaro about the fifteenth century, and they probably reached the Mbooni Hills, their ethnic heartland in present-day Machakos District, in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Initially hunters and gatherers, they turned to agriculture because of the fertility of the new territory. Population growth led to their expansion to areas less suitable for cultivation, including Kitui to the east, where they returned to hunting and readopted their earlier pastoralism.

Kamba hunting groups discovered the value of ivory as a trade item, beginning the systematic exploitation of elephants and eventually forming two-way trade caravans to the coast. From the late eighteenth century their trade increased greatly, and activities were eventually extended over a wide area stretching north to the Tana River, south into present-day Tanzania, and west to the forests of Mount Kenya and Kikuyu country.

At its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, Kamba trade was the mainstay of the prosperity of the coastal port of Mombasa, but other groups were by then beginning to contest their monopoly. Feuds among the Kamba clans also began to affect trading operations, as did efforts by peoples in the Kenya Highlands to exclude the Kamba from their territory in part because the Kamba had turned to raiding for slaves.

Depletion of elephants by the late nineteenth century had created a new problem, forcing Kamba hunters to go hundreds of miles for ivory. Moreover, a general state of unrest, which endangered caravan traffic, existed in the nyika, and caravans traveling safer routes farther south secured much of the interior trade. Kamba trade continued at a much reduced rate until competition from the Uganda railroad, which ran through their territory carrying goods between Mombasa and Kisumu, finally brought an end to well over a century of aggressive Kamba commercial activities.

Because of the former dominance and seniority of the Kamba and the Kalenjin in the armed forces, the Kikuyu for political reasons were never able to dominate the top ranks of the armed services. In the early 1970s tensions in the military stemmed from the efforts of the Kikuyu, President Kenyatta's fellow tribesmen, to gain a dominant position in the army, the only instrument of power they did not control. Kenyatta had recruited large numbers of Kikuyu into the army, pushed their assignment to officer training schools, and encouraged their rapid advancement. As a result, the number of officers and enlisted men from the rival Kamba tribe, which once made up the bulk of the army, decreased steadily in favor of the Kikuyu.

The Kamba still retained most of the top military positions, including the posts of army commander and deputy commander, but their control of these positions also was threatened by the Kikuyu. Kamba dissatisfaction appeared to have been limited to barracks grumbling. However, the situation was aggravated by Kikuyu allegations that the Kamba army commander was showing favoritism to his fellow tribesmen.

The Kamba are generally more well disposed toward the Kikuyu than other Kenyan communities, but have gone their own way politically at times, such as during the November 2005 referendum on the draft constitution when GEMA-populated Central province largely supported the Kibaki draft constitution while the Kamba (and nearly everyone else) opposed the government's draft.

Native son Kalonzo Musyoka, who polled higher nationwide than any other opposition presidential hopeful, was the most popular politician in Kambaland in 2006. Conventional wisdom predicted that if Musyoka did not win the presidential nomination of the opposition ODM-K party, then his Kamba supporters would line up behind Kibaki rather than support any of the other opposition leaders.

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Page last modified: 07-05-2015 19:09:07 ZULU