THE LUO: Know Your Tribe – Know Your Roots
Posted by African Press International on September 25, 2008
The Luo (also called Jaluo and Joluo) are an ethnic group in Kenya, eastern Uganda, and northern Tanzania. They are part of a larger group of ethno linguistically related Luo peoples who inhabit an area including southern Sudan, northern and eastern Uganda, western Kenya, and northern Tanzania.
The Luo are the third largest ethnic group in Kenya, after the Kikuyu and the Luhya. The Luo and the Kikuyu inherited the bulk of political power in the first years following Kenya’s independence in 1963. The Luo population in Kenya was estimated to be 3,185,000 in 1994 . In Tanzanian population was estimated at 280,000 in 2001.The main Luo livelihood is fishing. Outside Luoland, the Luo work in eastern Africa as tenant fishermen, small-scale farmers, and urban workers. They speak the Dholuo language, which belongs to the Western Nilotic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family spoken by other Luo-speaking people such as the Lango, Acholi, Padhola and Alur (all of Uganda).
The Luo probably originated from Wau in southern Sudan, near the confluence of the Meride and Sue Rivers. The Kenya Luo migrated into western Kenya via today’s eastern Uganda, the first wave arriving sometime around 1500 AD. Arrivals came in at least five waves arriving at different times: (1) the Joka-Jok (who migrated from Acholiland, the first and largest migration); (2) those migrating from Alur; (3) the Owiny (who migrated from Padhola); (4) the Jok Omolo (perhaps from Pawir); and (5) The Abasuba (a heterogeneous group in southern Nyanza, with Bantu elements).
The present day Kenya Luo traditionally consist of 23 sub-tribes, each in turn composed of various clans and sub-clans: (1) Jo-Gem, (2) Jo-Ugenya, (3) Jo-Seme, (4) Jo-Kajulu, (5) Jo-Karachuonyo, (6) Jo-Nyakach, (7) Jo-Kabondo, (8) Jo-Kisumo (Jo-Kisumu), (9) Jo-Kano, (10) Jo-Asembo, (11) Jo-Uyoma, (12) and Jo-Sakwa, (13) Jo-Kanyamkago,(14) Jo-Kadem, (15) Jo-Kwabwai, (16) (17)Jo-Karungu, (18) Abasuba(Jo-Suna, Jo-Gwassi, Kaksingri, etc), (19) Jo-Kasgunga, (20)Jo-Kanyamwa,(21) Jo-Kanyada, (22)Jo-Kanyadoto, (23)Jo-Kamgundho . (Jo- indicates people of.)
By the 1840s, the Luo had a tight-knit society with ruodhi or regional chiefs.
Early British contact with the Luo was indirect and sporadic. Relations intensified only when the completion of the Uganda Railway had confirmed British intentions and largely removed the need for local tribal alliances. In 1896 a punitive expedition was mounted in support of the Wanga ruler Mumia in Ugenya against the Umira Kager clan led by Gero. Over 200 were quickly killed by a Maxim gun. In 1899, C. W. Hobley led an expedition against Sakwa, Seme and Uyoma locations in which 2,500 cattle and about 10,000 sheep and goats were captured.
By 1900, the Luo chief Odera was providing 1,500 porters for a British expedition against the Nandi.
In 1915 the Colonial Government sent Odera Akang’o, the ruodhi of Gem, to Kampala, Uganda. He was impressed by the British settlement there and upon his return home he initiated a forced process of adopting western styles of schooling, dress and hygiene. This resulted in the rapid education of the Luo in the English language and English ways.
The Luo generally were not dispossessed of their land by the British, avoiding the fate that befell the pastoral tribes inhabiting the Kenyan White Highlands. Many Luo played significant roles in the struggle for Kenyan independence, but the tribe was relatively uninvolved in the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s. Instead, some Luo used their education to advance the cause of independence peacefully. The lawyer C.M.G. Argwings-Kodhek, for example, used his expertise to defend Mau Mau suspects in court.
Kenya became independent on 12 December 1963. Oginga Odinga, a prominent Luo leader, declined the presidency of Kenya, preferring to assume the vice presidency with Jomo Kenyatta as the head of government. Their administration represented the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party. However, differences with Jomo Kenyatta caused Oginga to defect from the party and abandon the vice presidency in 1966. His departure caused the Luo to become politically marginalized under the Kenyatta, and subsequently the Moi, administrations.
Since Oginga Odinga’s 1966 resignation from the vice presidency, the Luo people have been regarded as opponents to the government. The struggle for independence did not feature any Luo elders. As some claim however, the Luo did peacefully participate. Many remember their role in the late sixties, seventies and eighties. During the late 1980s through the 1990s, their participation provoked violent political events, for example the murder of Dr. Robert Ouko.
Culture and customs
(Latin, Legion of Mary) is a new religious movement among the Luo people of western Kenya which incorporates traditional Luo religious customs into a Christian framework. It is a kind of syncretic Animist/Christian cult originally prevailing only in Luoland, but ultimately spreading widely in East Africa. It originated in the early 1960s as a breakaway of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), declared a pope (anti-pope to conventional Catholics), and asserted that it has replaced the Church in Rome as the true Catholic Church.
The Legio Maria of African Church Mission was founded by a former catechist of the RCC among the Luo people in Kisii Diocese of western Kenya. In 1962, Blasio Simeo Malkio Ondetto known as Baba Messiah by Legio Maria followers and as the Black Messiah or Black Jesus by others split from the RCC taking 90,000 adherents with him.
His second in command was a woman known as Mother Maria and today revered as the true Mother of God. Both were excommunicated by the RCC in the 1960s. By 1980 the church numbered 248,000 adherents.
In the 21st century, total church membership has been estimated at over three million.
The Legio Maria headquarters and center is the village of Got Kwer, a community that the devout refer to as Jerusalem. This village of about 600 is approximately 15 km west of the south-western Kenya town of Migori. Here is Simeos old family homestead and the tomb of the Messiah himself which is viewable as a long, cloth-covered plinth with numerous devotional objects scattered around. Both are lovingly maintained by the devout.
Baba Messiah, although sometimes referred to as a pope, was technically considered a god. He has been followed by a succession of three popes to date:
Pope Timothy Blasio Ahitler (19??-1998).
Pope Maria Pius Lawrence Chiaji Adera (1998-2004)
Pope Raphael Titus Otieno (2004 date)
Traditional Religious believes
The Luo traditionally believed in an afterlife and a supreme creator, whom they called Nyasaye, and had a strong ancestor cult. Today most of the Kenya Luo are Christians.
The first major ritual in a Luo person’s life is called Juogi, the naming ceremony. Any time between birth and age two, an ancestor might appear in a dream to an adult member of the family. It is generally believed that only people who did good things when alive appear in this way and are thus reincarnated. The child is supposed to assume some of the mannerisms of the ancestor he or she is named after. If the ancestor was quiet, the child becomes a quiet person; if talkative, same. The so named ancestor becomes the individual’s guardian angel throughout life. Children are rarely named after bad people. It is believed that after death evil people are gone for good (sent to hell).
The Luo are in the minority of ethnic groups in east Africa in that they do not practice ritual circumcision of males as initiation. Instead, children formerly had their six lower front teeth carefully removed at an initiation. This ritual has largely fallen out of use.
Luo Marriage Customs
The Luo traditionally practiced polygamy, though this has fallen out of favor with young adults today, though many still practice it (it is undocumented) as it is only the first wife who is recognized by the law. (In the former times, men could marry up to five wives.)
Historically, couples were introduced to each other by matchmakers, but this is also not common now. The Luo frequently marry outside the tribe, although it is not recommended by the council of elders. The traditional marriage ceremony takes place in two parts, both involving the payment of a bride price by the groom. The first ceremony, the Ayie, involves a payment of money to the mother of the bride; the second stage involves giving cattle to her father. Often these two steps are carried out at the same time, and as many modern Luos are Christians, a church ceremony often follows.
Traditionally, music was the most widely practiced art in the Luo community. At any time of the day or night, some music was being made. Music was not made for its own sake. Music was functional. It was used for ceremonial, religious, political or incidental purposes. Music was performed during funerals (Tero buru) to praise the departed, to console the bereaved, keep people awake at night, express pain and agony and during cleansing and chasing away of spirits. Music was also played during ceremonies like beer parties (Dudu, ohangla dance), welcoming back the warriors from a war, during a wrestling match (Ramogi), during courtship, etc. Work songs also existed. These were performed both during communal work like building, weeding, etc. and individual work like pounding of cereals, winnowing. Music was also used for ritual purposes like chasing away of evil spirits (nyawawa), who visit the village at night, in rain making and during divinations and healing.
The Luo music was shaped by the total way of life, lifestyles, and life patterns of individuals of this community. Because of that, the music had characteristics which distinguished it from the music of other communities. This can be seen, heard and felt in their melodies, rhythms, mode of presentation and dancing styles, movements and formations.
The melodies in the Luo music were lyrical, with a lot of vocal ornamentations. These ornaments came out clearly especially when the music carried out an important message.
Their rhythms were characterized by a lot of syncopation and acrusic beginning. These songs were usually presented in solo-response style though solo performances were there too. The most common forms of solo performances were chants. These chants were recitatives with irregular rhythms and phrases which carried serious messages in them. Most of the Luo dances were introduced by these chants. For example the dudu dance.
Another unique characteristic in the Luo music is the introduction of yet another chant at the middle of a musical performance. The singing stops, the pitch of the musical instruments go down and the dance becomes less vigorous as an individual takes up the performance is self praise. This is referred to as Pakruok. There was also a unique kind of ululation, Sigalagala, that marked the climax of the musical performance. Sigalagala was mainly done by women.
The dance styles in the Luo folk music were elegant and graceful. It involved either the movement of one leg in the opposite direction with the waist in step with the syncopated beats of the music or the shaking of the shoulders vigorous usually to the tune of the nyatiti an eight stringed instrument.
Adamson (1967) commented that Luos clad in their traditional costumes and ornaments deserve their reputation as the most picturesque people in Kenya. During most of their performances the Luo wore costumes and decorated themselves not only to appear beautiful but also to enhance their movements. These costumes included sisal skirts (owalo), beads (Ombulu / tigo) worn around the neck and waist and red or white clay were used by the ladies.
The men’s costumes included kuodi or chieno a skin worn from the shoulders or from the waist respectively to cover their nakedness. Ligisa the headgear, shield and spear, reed hats, clubs among others. All these costumes and ornaments were made from locally available materials.
The Luo were also rich in musical instruments which ranged from, percussion (drums, clappers, metal rings, ongeng’o or gara, shakers), strings (e.g., nyatiti, a type of lyre; orutu, a type of fiddle), wind (tung a horn,Asili, a flute, Abu-!, a trumpet).
Currently the Luo are associated with the benga style of music. It is a lively style in which songs in Dholuo, Swahili, English are sung to a lively guitar riff. It originated in the 1950s with Luo musicians trying to adapt their traditional tribal dance rhythms to western instruments. The guitar (acoustic, later electric) replaced the nyatiti as the string instrument.
Benga has become so popular that it is played by musicians of all tribes and is no longer considered a purely Luo style. It has become Kenya’s characteristic pop sound.
Luo singer and nyatiti player Ayub Ogada received widespread exposure in 2005 when two of his songs were featured in Alberto Iglesias Academy Award-nominated score for Fernando Mereilles film adaptation of The Constant Gardener.