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Kenya: The Kamba tribe, including its traditions and beliefs; the religion practised; and whether female genital mutilation is practised

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 1 December 1998
Citation / Document Symbol KEN30713.E
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Kenya: The Kamba tribe, including its traditions and beliefs; the religion practised; and whether female genital mutilation is practised, 1 December 1998, KEN30713.E, available at: [accessed 31 May 2023]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The information that follows is provided by KenyaWeb, a Nairobi-based Internet source of information on Kenya (1998).

The Kamba people number approximately 2.5 million. They are also referred to as Kikamba, Kekamba, Masaku, Ukamba, Kitui and Mumoni. Their ethnia is Central Bantu, and their main distribution areas are south-central Kenya, Machakos and Kitui Districts. Their languages are Kamba and Swahili. Their religious affiliation is approximately 60 percent Christian, 39 percent traditional religion, and one percent Muslim. Their main economic activities are agriculture (sorghum, millet, maize, beans, peas, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, sugar cane, bananas, tobacco) and animal husbandry (cattle, sheep, goats), trading and woodcarving. (More detailed information on the economic activities, population distribution and other aspects of some of these areas available upon further specific request.)

KenyaWeb provides an anthropological history of the Kamba, and adds:

The Kamba inhabit the regions of the Mbooni Hills (the place of the buffalo), in the Ukamba highlands. The path of whose migration into Kenya can be traced with relative precision from the region of Mount Kilimanjaro across the border in Tanzania to their present homeland, Ukamba. With the exception of one small Kamba group called the Mumoni, practically all Kamba agree in their oral traditions that the plains around Mount Kilimanjaro were the earliest known region of origin for them (the Mumoni claim the coast as the region of origin for themselves).

Cultural centres arose in Mbooni, in Kitui and in Machakos-Iveti areas. Long-distance trade, particularly with the coast, had superimposed new trappings on old traditions: blue calico worn as headgear became an emblem of warrior status; copper wire was worn around the necks of  women; beads and shells were objects of value in bridewealth negotiations, Importation altered cultural tastes in bodily ornamentation.

Agriculture and trade remain the primary economic pursuits, and cattle husbandry continues to be an important aspect of the mixed agriculture practised by the people. Although large settlements - towns and villages - have greatly increased in number and multiplied in population, a traditional pattern of family homesteads persists: the houses of the members - once round and thatched to the ground, now round or rectangular structures, often constructed of brick, and thatched only on top or roofed with corrugated metal -stand in the midst of the household's lands. Circumcision and clitoridectorny remain ritual operations among the majority [emphasis added].

Kamba crafts are evident not only in Kenya but overseas as well. The items most in evidence-woodcarvings are actually least traditional, but most remunerative. Spoons and ladles are an exception; they are more traditional than the animal figures. So are the three-legged stools, which can be as finely carved as any in Kenya. Woven baskets, pots, bows and arrows, metal chains, calabashes and other items are still much in demand and have a flourishing local trade.

Perhaps the most spectacular manifestation of Kamba culture is the traditional dance. It is characterized by some exceptional leaping, flinging dancers in the air and acrobatics of other kinds. Several of the dances have military themes, directly derived from the participation by Kamba in large numbers in the country's armed forces. Unfortunately, with the exception of official functions and of a few establishments which cater to visitors from overseas, traditional Kamba dancing may be seen only on rare occasions these days.

Country Reports 1997 provides additional information:

Numerous tribes--including Kisiis, Merus, Embus, Kambas, Kikuyus, Taitas, Kalenjins, Luhyas, Turkanas, Somalis, Maasai, Giriamas, and Luos--are represented in the President's Cabinet....

According to the 1989 government census released in May 1994, the Kikuyu are the largest ethnic community, comprising 21 percent of the population. Luhya, Luo, Kamba, and Kalenjin (an amalgamation of nine small tribes) follow, each with more than 11 percent of the population.

Several sources refer to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) taking place in Kenya (KenyaWeb 1998; Country Reports 1997 1998; FGM Research Homepage 1998; WHO 1996, 1998) but only KenyaWeb and FGM Research Homepage specifically mention the Kamba as one of the many groups practising FGM (1998; 1998).

FGM is classified by WHO on the basis of the complexity or extent of the procedure, with Type I being the least invasive and Type IV the most (1996). According to the 1998 WHO report, "Types I, II and III have all been reported in Kenya, where they are practised by several ethnic groups."

Although Country Reports 1997 and PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health), a Seattle-based international development organization, state that the government is opposed to FMG and supports its eradication, Country Reports 1997 says that it "remains widespread, particularly among nomadic people," adding that "it is usually performed at an early age" (1998; AfricaNews Online Nov. 1997). Information on the practice in Kenya is provided in 1996 and 1998 World Health Organization (WHO) reports which estimate the prevalence of FMG in all of Kenya at 50 per cent (the number of women as 7,050,000), although the percentage in four districts (Kisii, Meru, Narok and Samburu) was 89.6 per cent. These figures are based on a 1992 survey by Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, the largest women's organization in Kenya.

The WHO report indicates that the survey detailed only four regions, adding that type I and II FGM are commonly practised, while type III is practised by a few groups, with all decreasing in urban areas, but remaining strong in rural areas. The report states that the number of women cited in the report is an estimated projection based on 1994 population studies and that the totals are rounded off. A 1998 WHO report adds that

There are no surveys of other districts in Kenya. Given that female genital mutilation is not practised in some major districts and that it is being abandoned by the increasing urban population, prevalence is currently estimated at 50% for the country as a whole (1998).

In addition to the disparity between the urban and rural rates of FGM, "Religious affiliation can affect approval levels: A study in  Kenya and Sierra Leone revealed that most Protestants opposed FGM while a majority of Catholics and Muslims supported its continuation" (PATH 24 Aug. 1998). The Seventh Day Adventist Church in Kenya is cited as one of the organizations "involved in research and eradication campaigns" (ibid.).

PATH provides other reasons for the decline in FGM in Kenya:

... for example, secondary education is associated with a four-fold increase in disapproval of  FGM. Other reasons include: girls' refusal; greater access to health education; modernization with its resulting changes in lifestyle; fear of anti-FGM laws; public ridicule; and realization that FGM has no effect on girls' behavior (24 Aug. 1998).

PATH adds that:

People are choosing less severe forms of FGM. A 1991 study in Kenya showed that 62.3 percent of women over age 50 had Type II FGM, while only 38.9 percent of the 15-19 age group underwent the same type (most of the remainder underwent Type I) (ibid.).

A November 1997 report that refers to the work of PATH and MYWO in regards to FGM reports the initial success of a joint program to promote a non-mutilating alternative to FGM. The new rite, known as "Ntanira na Mugambo" or "Circumcision Through Words," is "a week-long program of counseling, capped by community celebration and affirmation" (AfricaNews Online 27 Nov. 1997). PATH reports that the first "alternative ceremony" took place in 1996 in Meru district, and that "recent successful experiences have encouraged other communities to request assistance in conducting alternative ceremonies for their daughters" (PATH 24 Aug. 1998). In December 1997, 13 villages in central Kenya were to "celebrate the fourth installment of this increasingly popular alternative rite of passage for young females" (AfricaNews Online 27 Nov. 1997).

The Africa News report states that:

... female circumcision encompasses more than the practice itself. It is often deeply entrenched in the culture, wrapped in a complex shroud of assumptions, taboos, and beliefs that impact a woman's social status and personal identity.

Indeed, it seems the central defining achievement of Circumcision Through Words is not that it saves young women from the dangers of FGM but that it captures the cultural significance of female circumcision while doing away with the dangerous practice itself.

... Circumcision Through Words brings the young candidates together for a week of seclusion during which they learn traditional teachings about their coming roles as women, parents, and adults in the community, as well as more modern messages about personal health, reproductive issues, hygiene, communications skills, self-esteem, and dealing with peer pressure.

The week is capped by a community celebration of song, dancing, and feasting which affirms the girls and their new place in the community.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Africa News Online [Durham, N. Carolina]. November 1997. Malik Stan Reaves. "Alternative Rite to Female Circumcision Spreading in Kenya." [Internet] [Accessed 8 Dec. 1998]

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1997. February 1998. [Internet] [Accessed 8 Dec. 1998]

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Research Homepage, NOCIRC FGM Awareness and Education Project, Albany, CA. 1998. "Female Genital Mutilation Around the World: Population Groups." [Internet] [Accessed 7 Dec. 1998]

KenyaWeb [Nairobi]. 1998. "The Kamba People." [Internet] [Accessed 7 Dec. 1998]

Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), Seattle. 24 August 1998. "Harmful Traditional Practices," "Modern Rites of Passage" and "Why Didn't You Tell Us Sooner." [Internet] [Accessed 8 Dec. 1998]

World Health Organization (WHO), Geneva. "Female Genital Mutilation: An Overview." [Internet] <> [Accessed 8 Dec. 1998]

_____. August 1996. "Female Genital Mutilation: Prevalence and Distribution."[Internet] < whd/FGM/ infopack/English/fgm_infopack.htm> [Accessed 8 Dec. 1998]

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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