Kenyans were shocked to see President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto draped in Nigerian attire – that is what people said it was – complete with a maroon cap and being duped that by wearing such attire, they became Akamba elders.
Since the event evoked much laughter and sympathy, we tried to find out the true traditional Kamba attire. It was not an easy task and for that reason we have even much more sympathy for the President and his deputy.
The reason why it is not easy is complex. And historical. According to our informants, the Akamba whose home is Machakos, Kitui and Makueni counties – and who presumably number some 4.5 million in these three counties – without counting those spread across the country, in Uganda, Tanzania and even in South America if we go by the reports of the Kamba Kue of Paraguay.
Traditionally, they were cattle keepers with a little farming in the high grounds. There were also traders with wide connections as can be seen by their spread.
In dress, the Akamba (also called Kamba, a colonial settler slur that has become standardized) made their clothes from tree barks. Remnants of their traditional decorative artworks, of which the dress was one, are the Kyondo (also spelt kiondo after Kikuyu language) and the Kamba traditional cloth. This cloth is more like the Miji Kenda, but the Kamba one is pure black or pure white with maroon lines near the edges.
Although not well known outside Ukamba (also known as Ukambani), this cloth is still very important in the Akamba culture, and, according to our informants, only few Kambas do not have it. Today it is produced in a factory in Mombasa, according to my informants and spread all over Ukambani. If you want the Kamba cloth just walk into any shop in the big towns such Machakos or Kitui and ask for Akamba cloth.
The nearest dress to the traditional Akamba dress (as against cloth) is that of the Pokot. Indeed, no one would have complained if the fellows duping the President and his deputy had picked the Pokot dress stock and barrel (or borrowed on from former Musalia Mudavadi’s running mate Jeremiah Kioni who has one that resembles the Kamba dress). The traditional dress is often worn by the famous Kilumi dance women.
You may ask, what happened to the Akamba dress? Why is it not so widely known or used? According to our informants, once upon a time – may be in 18th Century – the then powerful Maasai overran the so-called Bantu communities of the Akamba, the Agikuyu, Ameru and Aembu (also known as Mbeere). They acculturarized them into wearing skins (the Maasai traditional dress) and into worshipping the Maasai God known as Ngai instead of Mulungu (in Kamba language) and Murungu (in Kikuyu, Kimeru and Kiembu – or Kimbeere – languages). In Kiswahili, the name Mungu is from the same source.
Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto will be appeased to know many Kambas are ignorant in these matter and they dupe anyone – especially if they visit Makueni County. Tennis legend Serena Williams who sponsors a school in the County was also similarly duped.