Echoes: How Kamba drums still beat, 200 years later

Kamba girls, 1906. [File]

Long before Chief Kivoi Mwendwa made a name for himself and his country, which he introduced as Kinyaa before it was corrupted to Kenya by missionaries around 1849, his kinsmen had established themselves as master jungle trackers and porters. 

Mwendwa was a Kamba long-distance trader who lived in present-day Kitui County. Those were the days an Arab trader, armed with a gun, a roll of calico sheets and a fistful of beads could buy a license to capture able-bodied men to be sold overseas as slaves.

During such ventures, villages were burnt. Men and women were subdued, chained and shipped to be slaves away in sugarcane and cotton plantations. Many perished, during the perilous journeys, from communicable diseases and starvation.

It has since been described by scientists as natural selection, for only the strongest survived these perils and a lifetime of slavery. Remnants carried in their hearts and blood their traditions, songs and rhythms.

Two centuries later, it is pleasantly shocking that some descendants and remnants of these porters, or Kua, who survived the turbulent journeys, decades of backbreaking work under a cracking whip. Today, they dance to the rhythm of their ancestors, although singing in Paraguay tongues.

This is the predicament of about 400 families whose forefathers were abducted in Ukambani, Kenya, and sold to slave masters in Europe and America, and ended up fighting as spearmen for Uruguayan General José Gervasio Artigas. When Artigas’ forces were defeated, he was forced to flee Uruguay to Paraguay, where he and his Kamba loyalists were to live in exile.

Historians explain that the Kamba community arrived in Paraguay in 1820 and have since lived there. Although Artigas was regarded as a revolutionary hero, his soldiers, the Kamba Kua, complain of being discriminated against and are sometimes mistaken for Brazilians.

The years may have eroded their colour, genes given them Central American features while memories of Yatta plateau have faded.

Still, these long-distance transporters who preceded train and trucks believe the African music and culture are in their blood and babies learn how to dance when they are in their mothers’ bellies.

When they dance to the thrumming of African drums, their yellow and red skirts swirl around their waists, the trembling of shoulders and the choreographed acrobatic jigs thrill their patron saints.

But the captivating colours and elaborate dance moves transport the audience into the heartland of Ukambani, where the dancers’ collective umbilical cord was buried aeons ago.