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Luo

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The Luo are an ethnic group, primarily found in Kenya, but also found in smaller numbers in Uganda and Tanzania. The Luo are the third largest ethnic group in Kenya (after the Kikuyu and the Luhya), making up about 12% of the nation's population.[1] The language of the Luo is Dholuo, a Nilotic language within the Nilo-Saharan family of languages. "Historians believe that the Luo and other Kenyan Nilotic tribes originally came from the Nile regions of Sudan, entering Kenya through Northern Uganda. Upon their arrival in Kenya, Luos settled in the present day Nyanza Province, where they are neighbors to the Kisii, Luhya and Kipsigis tribes."[1][2] Perhaps the most famous Luo is the father of President Barack Obama. As the Luo live near Lake Victoria, fishing is a mainstay for them.

Agriculture

Today, the staple crop among the Luo (and among many agricultural tribes of Kenya) is maize. However, in the past, the staples were sorghum and millet.

According to a 2009 study:

"Some of the crops that the Luos used to emphasize on such as sorghum and millet are also not so much produced by people like was the case in the past, in fact nowadays some people don’t like Ugali prepared from sorghum for example, they prefer maize but maize was not a very important crop to the Luo because at first it was not there and later on when the Mzungus [white people] introduced it, people accepted it and got used to it. These crops were important to the Luo because the harvest from them was good and they were also stored for use during the dry season."[3]

A 1989 book on the Luo of Siaya District includes a section entitled "Maize means hunger." It reads:

"The introduction of maize into the texture of Siaya life has been an ambiguous process. In the twentieth century, the consumption of white maize meal has been associated in Siaya with the process referred to as 'Westernization.' Maize first entered the local economy through the intervention of the colonial government, an intervention that involved pressure. Maize meal was consequently first referred to as kuon ongere, the white man's ugali, or white man's food. Those who went to school (josomo) planted maize almost as if it were part of their given curriculum. They valorized maize, identified with the esteem that they associated with it, and so maize acquired another identity: as kuon jonango, the ugali of the 'clothed' people. So, by a combination of pressure from colonial authorities and their agents in Siaya, and an appropriation of special value to it by those first coming to see themselves as a new elite, maize gradually seeped more broadly into the diet and the production of the people."[4]

For more information, see the article on The Adoption of Maize in Kenya.

Rituals

Rites of Passage

Within Kenya, the Luo are notable for not practicing circumcision in males as an initiation to manhood (as many other ethnic groups in Kenya do).[1]

Houses and Homes

To the Luo, establishing a home and building a house are not seen as the same thing.

"The difference between home establishment and construction of a house is that, a home means having a separate land and compound from your parents. A home has its boundaries and within it resides members of a nuclear family or where the man is polygynous, the home is where he lives with his wives and their children. A home also is identified by the name of either the husband or his wife. Where a man has several wives, some establish different homes for each of his wives and in such cases the homes are known to belong to the man, but for ease of identification they are called by the names of the woman for whom it was established. A home had houses in it. However, a house is a building which can be within your parent’s home or in your own home. In other words, a man established a home with houses in it, but one can also have a house without a home. The process and customs in establishing a home is therefore different from that of building a house, depending on whether the house is built in your own home or in your father’s home."[5]

However, some of the traditions are breaking down. In part this is because the building materials have changed. In the past, homes were made of wood, mud, and grass thatch and had to be periodically rebuilt. If left without repairs, the home would ultimately fall apart completely. Now, more permanent materials like bricks and metal are used to build houses. In the past, no one would live in the house of someone who had died. But now that homes are more permanent, some people do live in the house of someone who died.

Simbas

A Luo man traditionally builds several houses during his life. The first is a simba, a house built on his father's land while he is a teenager. A man marries while living in his simba, but then he must build a house for his wife. Inside the house of his wife, he must have sex with her inside of it to indicate that it is hers. Because the house is hers, he cannot sleep with any other women inside of it.

"It was believed that if he did that even without the knowledge of his wife, harm may befall his wife, and what was likely to happen was that his wife will not be able to conceive. Men therefore respected their wives houses and they would never bring other women to those houses and have sex.
"If a man wanted to have another wife he just organized to marry her and then build her a house. But he could not bring another woman into a house that already belonged to the wife he already had. Even if the wife leaves him, he just had to leave that house to stay in its place until the day it gets old and collapses on its own. The only thing he did was not to repair it and this is what would ensure it eventually collapsed."[6]

Nowadays, some of these traditions are breaking down. For example, a man might get married and continue to live in his simba with his wife.

Goyo Dala: Establishing a Home

Traditionally, a married couple with a son must establish a home (goyo dala). They must have a son because he would one day build his house in their homestead, whereas a daughter would eventually move in with her husband.

According to one account, the man's father would identify where his son was to build a home and tie grass together on that spot. Then, they would place three chicken eggs that had failed to hatch on that spot. "The reason for this was that it was believed some people would try to do witchcraft in that place ensure the establishment of the home would not be successful and even if people started to live there they would have a lot of sufferings. The three eggs were therefore meant to ward off such witchcraft attempts and it was believed that if anyone made such attempts, their efforts would fail to materialize in the same way the eggs failed to hatch."[7]

After three days, it was time to build the home. Early in the morning, the family would set off from the man's father's home. The man would walk in front, with his son behind him carrying a chicken, and his wife last carrying food. The man must have an axe, a chicken, and a machete. The chicken was to keep in the new homestead so the family can entertain visitors with a meal. The axe was for cutting down trees to build the home and to split wood for firewood. The machete was to clear brush.

Upon reaching the location of the new home, the man would cut down a tree "that would be used as the beacon of the house, he would then dig a hole on the ground and put the beacon in place." Then other men from the village would help him complete the building of his new home. The home would have a wooden frame and a grass roof. After this was established, women would help when it came time to smear the home with mud to complete it. The woman whose house was being constructed would begin and then other women would join in to help. "In most cases two houses would be built and completed on the same day." That night, the couple would sleep together in their new home. "It is by spending the night in that house and the husband and wife joining together (euphemism for having sex) that the home would be considered officially theirs."

However, today, this tradition is breaking down to some extent. Some people just pay someone to build a house for them and then move in when it's complete. For those who continue to fulfill all or part of this tradition, there is disagreement among the Luo over whether or not it is acceptable for the couple to use a condom to complete the ritual.

Even still, establishing a home is important among the Luo, even if the exact traditions of the past are not adhered to:

"If we examine the practices in the past and the present, there seems to be overriding emphasis on a couple having a house and a home of their own. This perhaps is rooted in the belief that a couple forms the foundation of the society and their stability is crucial to the stability of the society. The establishment of a home also underscores one’s sense of belonging to the community, as in establishing a home one stakes their claim to the land and affirms their belonging to the community."[8]

Funeral Rites

Wife Inheritance

"Another unique Luo custom is wife inheritance whereby, if a man dies, one of his brothers or close relatives inherits his widow and must meet all of her marital requirements. The Luo mourning ceremony, tero buru, is still widely practiced. This is a unique, elaborate and dramatic ceremony that symbolizes the departure of a loved one."[1]

For more information, see the article on Luo Wife Inheritance.

Agricultural Rituals

This tradition is not practiced by many anymore, particularly because many men work away from home in the cities to send money home to their families.

"In the past, before the commencement of the agriculture, initially the eldest man in a clan was to invite people he calls his brothers. These are the people we today would call cousins and they came with their hoes. A fire was lit and the tips of the hoes were placed in the fire while the men roasted a chicken and ate while sipping beer. They chatted until late and then went to sleep. The following day, in a polygamous home, the eldest wife left to start cultivating her land. On her return home, the husband that evening went to spend the night in her house. This was the customarily mandated practice. If on the day the woman went out to cultivate the land, her husband tried to go spend the night in another woman’s house, those other women would reject his advance as they believed that if they slept with him Chira would befall them. The day after the man had spent the night in the elder wife’s house, the following day the other women are free to go and prepare their land.
"When it was time to plant, the elder wife was the first who went to plant. That evening the husband went to spend the night in her house. From the day she went to plant, all the married children who lived in the same home with the parents were to refrain from sex until the day when the planted crops have germinated and have at least three or four leaves. This would normally take four to seven days. It is after the crops had germinated that they were free to resume their sexual activities.
"During the time of weeding, it was the first wife who initiated the weeding and on the evening when she went to start weeding the husband went to spend the night in her house. At harvesting it was the same. However, after harvesting it was the first wife and the husband who had to be the first to eat the newly harvested crops. Where a man had only one wife as opposed to being polygamous, then everything was done with just his sole wife."[9]

Pre-British Political Organization

"The Luo were divided in pre-European days into twelve or thirteen ogendini (or what Evans-Pritchard calls 'tribes') varying in size from about 10,000 to 70,000 persons. These independent units were generally composed of groupings of patrilineal clans or large lineages, which in turn were subdivided into smaller patrilineal segments. There was thus a close association of territorial grouping with lineage grouping.
"Each oganda (singular) was an independent economic, political and ritual unit. Each had its own Ruoth (chief). The Ruoth was the jural-political leader of the 'tribe'. In some tribes, he was also a prophet. Each Ruoth had a Council (Buch Piny), consisting of clan elders (Jodong Dhoot), the peace-maker (Ogaye), and the tribal war leader (Osumba Mirwayi). The Council dealt with matters affecting the whole 'tribe', such as famine, rain, war, tribal sacrifices and prayers, and peace. It also acted as the final court of appeal for the whole 'Ruothship'.
"Within the 'Ruothship', a hierarchy of chiefs had developed. Each gweng (county, or what Southall has called 'settlement') had a sub-chief,

appointed by the Ruoth. Such sub-chiefs had their own councils (doho), and their own peace-makers. The Doho dealt with local matters; and it also acted as a local law court. All cases, both civil and criminal, were brought first before the Doho. These included such cases as those of robbery, homicide, witchcraft, land, arson and adultery. Appeals could then be made to Buch Piny - the Council of the Ruoth. Doho was composed of the jodong gweng (county elders) and the local ogaye. These sub-chiefs had a police force (ogulmama),whose job was to enforce decisions reached at the Doho meetings.

"No political superstructure, such as a federation or a confederation, existed. But many of the famous prophets, who acted as counsellors to the chiefs, and whose main function was to look after the spiritual well-being of the tribe, and to prescribe moral standards against which the policies of individual chiefs had to be judged, were known and consulted all over Luoland. This tended to emphasize the unity of the Luo as a group."[10]

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch articles

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Luo Tribe, Accessed December 6, 2011.
  2. David William Cohen & E.S. Atieno Odhiambo, Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape, Ohio University Press, 1989, p. 13.
  3. Onyango Ochieng Wycliffe, "Cultural Practices in Sexuality and Reproductive Health Among the Luo in Kenya," A Thesis Submitted to: Amsterdam Masters in Medical Anthropology Universiteit Van Amsterdam, 7th August 2009, Supervised by Silke Heumann.
  4. David William Cohen & E.S. Atieno Odhiambo, Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape, Ohio University Press, 1989, p. 64.
  5. Onyango Ochieng Wycliffe, "Cultural Practices in Sexuality and Reproductive Health Among the Luo in Kenya," A Thesis Submitted to: Amsterdam Masters in Medical Anthropology Universiteit Van Amsterdam, 7th August 2009, Supervised by Silke Heumann.
  6. Onyango Ochieng Wycliffe, "Cultural Practices in Sexuality and Reproductive Health Among the Luo in Kenya," A Thesis Submitted to: Amsterdam Masters in Medical Anthropology Universiteit Van Amsterdam, 7th August 2009, Supervised by Silke Heumann.
  7. Onyango Ochieng Wycliffe, "Cultural Practices in Sexuality and Reproductive Health Among the Luo in Kenya," A Thesis Submitted to: Amsterdam Masters in Medical Anthropology Universiteit Van Amsterdam, 7th August 2009, Supervised by Silke Heumann.
  8. Onyango Ochieng Wycliffe, "Cultural Practices in Sexuality and Reproductive Health Among the Luo in Kenya," A Thesis Submitted to: Amsterdam Masters in Medical Anthropology Universiteit Van Amsterdam, 7th August 2009, Supervised by Silke Heumann.
  9. Onyango Ochieng Wycliffe, "Cultural Practices in Sexuality and Reproductive Health Among the Luo in Kenya," A Thesis Submitted to: Amsterdam Masters in Medical Anthropology Universiteit Van Amsterdam, 7th August 2009, Supervised by Silke Heumann.
  10. Bethwell A. Ogot, "British Administration in the Central Nyanza District of Kenya, 1900-60," The Journal of African History, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1963), pp. 249-273.

External Resources

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