Spanish conquistadores colonised Paraguay in 1524 and the first African slaves arrived there in 1556. The majority of the slaves were from the west coast of Africa like many others in South American countries.
According to Argentine historian José Ignazio Telesca, the slaves that entered Paraguay legally came through the esclavistas ports of Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Córdoba, while those who gained access illegally came from Brazil. Telesca claims that the population of Paraguay continued to increase and by 1811, 50 percent comprised people of African descent, whether enslaved or free.
Several towns including Aregua, Emboscada and Guarambare were established as black communities. Unfortunately, many of these black people died in the ensuing wars of liberation from the Spanish imperial powers.
When the neighbouring Uruguay gained independence, General Jose Gervasio Artigas was exiled to Paraguay in 1820, entering through the Itapúa area, accompanied by 400 free Kamba people comprising 250 spearmen (soldiers) and their women and children. The Kamba people from Kenya had already been recognised for their agility and military skills with spears, bows and arrows.
Upon arrival in the newly independent Paraguay under the dictator José Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, General Artigas was given 100 hectares of land in Campamento Loma, a suburb of the capital city, Asuncion where the Kamba people were settled. This area came to be known as Kamba Cua and the people there became farmers and kept dairy cattle.
The community thrived and remained true to their cultural roots in Kenya, but when General Higinio Morinigi came to power in 1940, the Kamba Cua were stripped of their land, remaining with only three of the original 100 hectares. A new policy of defining Paraguay as completely “white” had been adopted and interracial marriage was encouraged to dilute the presence of black people who were now the minority. Black people were thus disenfranchised and marginalised.
How did the Kamba people end up in South America as one cohesive community? In the mid-18th century, a large number of Kamba pastoral groups moved eastward from the Tsavo and Kibwezi areas to the coast. This migration resulted from extensive drought and lack of pasture for their cattle. Various groups settled in Mariakani, Kinango, Kwale, Mombasa West (Changamwe and Chaani), Mombasa North (Kisauni)- all areas along the Kenyan coast, creating the beginnings of urban settlements. Some groups later migrated to parts of Tanzania.
It must be at this point in time that they came to be in touch with the slave trade. Although most of the slaves captured on the East African coast were destined for the Middle East, India and China some did find their way to South America after the British took control of the Cape of Good Hope in 1792.
In the latter part of the 19th century, the Arabs took over the coastal trade from the Kamba, who then acted as middlemen between the Arab and Swahili traders and the tribes further upcountry. Their trade and travel made them ideal guides for the caravans gathering elephant tusks, precious stones and slaves.
Early European explorers also used them as guides in their expeditions to explore Southeast Africa due to their wide knowledge of the land and neutral standing with many of the communities they traded with.
Returning to the Kamba Cua, official reports estimate that there are about 300 families (between 1,200 and 2,500 people) living in this community. However, a recent census indicates that there are only 422 Kamba people in Paraguay. This is no doubt part of the policy to deny the Afro-Paraguayan their rights.
Notwithstanding, the Kamba Cua are well respected for their staunch loyalty to their unique identity and culture which they have jealously guarded for close to 200 years. They still practice dairy and agriculture on their small plots of land in addition to being assimilated into other nation building activities.
Costumes and drums
The Kamba Cua often perform Kamba style dances, complete with decorated yellow costumes and drums with an unmistakable Kamba shape and rhythm which attract a lot of spectators and buzz across South America. Dances which resemble Ndelekeni, Mbenio, Ngulumange and Kilumi are quite common.
Polyrhythmic drumbeats are often spiced with dramatic leaps and somersaults in typical Kamba fashion. The drums themselves are shaped and coloured very much like the traditional Kamba units.
Today, the Kamba Cua are using their dances and cultural practices to draw attention to their plight in public performances claiming equal economic and social rights while building an African identity. A group known as Ballet Kamba Cua has won several awards at international festivals.