Luo people

The Luo (also called Joluo or Jonagi/Onagi, singular Jaluo, Jaonagi or Joramogi/Nyikwaramogi, meaning "Ramogi's heirs") are an ethnic group in western Kenya, northern Uganda, and in Mara Region in northern Tanzania. They are part of a larger group of ethno-linguistically related Luo peoples who inhabit an area ranging from South Sudan, South-Western Ethiopia, Northern and Eastern Uganda, South-Western Kenya and North-Eastern Tanzania.

A traditional Luo village at the Bomas of Kenya museum.
Total population
8 million Kenya and Tanzania
Regions with significant populations
Western Kenya, northern and eastern Uganda, northern Tanzania
 Kenya6,190,046 (2017)
 Tanzania1,900,000 (2010)
Dholuo, Swahili, and English
Christianity, African Traditional Religion, Islam
Related ethnic groups
Other Luo peoples, other Nilotic peoples
PersonJaluo (m)/Nyaluo (f)
CountryPinj Luo/Lolwe

The Luo are the fourth largest ethnic group (11%) in Kenya, after the Kikuyu (18%), the Luhya (14%) and the Kalenjin (12%).[1] 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 2,185,000 in 1994 and 3.4 million in 2010 according to Government census. However the figure was disputed by many Luos as not scientific since a significant portion of people previously considered as Luo were now counted as Suba people (of Kenya and Tanzania). The Subas eventually numbered 300,000 but most are completely assimilated Luos by culture, name, language and political orientation and have more or less the same outlook of life. This is a result of heavy intermarriage and interaction. The Luos also feel that their overall population has always been downscaled by successive Kenyan regime census in an attempt to mute the strong Luo political voice. Sample census conducted by experts estimate the total Kenyan Luo population to be currently at around 5 million. The Tanzanian Luo population was estimated at 1.1 million in 2001 and 1.9 million in 2010.[2]

The main Luo livelihoods are fishing, farming and pastoral herding. Outside Luoland, the Luo comprise a significant fraction of East Africa's intellectual and skilled labour force in various professions. Others members 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 peoples, such as the Lango, Acholi, Adhola and Alur (all of Uganda and parts of South Sudan and Eastern Congo). The four waves of Luo migration were chiefly from the four Luo-speaking groups (Lwoo), especially Acholi and Padhola. Dholuo, spoken in Kenya, is considered to be proper and standard Luo because it contains elements from all other Lwoo languages. It is estimated that Dholuo has 90% lexical similarity with Lep Alur (Alur language); 83% with Lep Achol (Acholi language); 81% with Lango language, 93% with Dhopadhola (Padhola language), 74% with Anuak, and 69% with Jurchol (Luwo) and Dhi-Pari (Pari).

The Luo are the originators of a number of music styles, such as Benga, Ohangla, Dodo, Nyatiti, Orutu and Otenga.


The Luo of Kenya and Tanzania, even though related to other Luo groups linguistically, are classified as the only 'river lake Nilotes' having migrated and lived along the Nile river. They are indigenous to the Nile Valley and have been for thousands of years. Their cradle of civilization was the city-state of Napata or present-day Karima, Sudan in the 'Koch' kingdom (Kush kingdom). Arguably the first inhabitants of Sudan, they entered Kenya and Tanzania via Uganda from the Bahr al Gazzal or Bahr el-Ghazal region. The Luo were the founders of the Shilluk kingdom and descendants of the ancient Egyptians who were directly linked to the Kingdom of Shilluk. In the land of Shilluk, the Luo clans of Kenya and Tanzania were called 'Ororo', while among the Nuer they were called 'Liel'. In the Dinka tribe the Luo are called the 'Jur-Chol'.

Pre-colonial times

The present-day Kenya Luo traditionally consist of 27 tribes, each in turn composed of various clans and sub-clans[3] ("Jo-" indicates "people of").

Colonial times

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 alliances. In 1896 a punitive expedition was mounted in support of the Wanga ruler Mumia in Ugenya against the Kager clan led by Ochieng Ger III Otherwise known as Gero. Over 200 were quickly killed by a Maxim gun. 300 people in Uyoma resistance were killed by an expedition led by Sir Charles Horbley (Bwana Obila Muruayi) when they were confiscating Luo cattle to help feed the Coolies who were building the Uganda railway.

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 ruoth 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 ethnic groups inhabiting the Kenyan "White Highlands". Many Luo played significant roles in the struggle for Kenyan independence, but the people were relatively uninvolved in the Mau Mau Uprising (1952-60). 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, although they had attacked not only whites, but also the men of other ethnic groups.

Independent Kenya

After Kenya became independent on 12 December 1963, the prominent Luo leader Oginga Odinga declined the presidency of Kenya and agreed 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 Kenyatta caused Odinga 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.

In Tanzania, Mwalimu J.K. Nyerere had personally sought to work with Hellon Ang'iela Owino of Shirati, Tanzania, as a trusted and vibrant political aide who was never ashamed of eloquently speaking his mind whenever needed. Mr. Owino was well known among the front bench politicians who exchanged fists with the then Oscar Kambona and Bhoke Munanka, whom he claimed were betraying Nyerere behind his agreed official prayers. Owino (1930s – 1988) was frequently sent many times by Nyerere (through Oginga Odinga) to mend relations with Kenya and was in particular the one who passed information (from Odinga, who was his African strategic security hub so as to calm down their badly torn relations caused by the Mau Mau war.

Many years of marginalization and disastrous economic management in Kenya, particularly under the KANU party's administration of the nascent state, had tragic consequences for the people of Kenya. Despite the economic potential of nearby Lake Victoria, Kenya continues to struggle with poverty and AIDS today.[4]

More than 1,000 people were killed in Kenya's election violence amongst the Kikuyu, Luo, and several other ethnic groups following the controversial December 2007 presidential election.[5][6]

The most prominent Luo politician today is Raila Odinga, the son of Oginga Odinga and former Prime Minister of the republic of Kenya. He is widely credited with enabling Mwai Kibaki to win the 2002 presidential election through the support of his Liberal Democratic Party. Other prominent politicians include James Orengo, Professor Anyang' Nyong'o (father of the actress and film director Lupita Nyong'o), Peter Oloo-Aringo, Dalmas Otieno and Peter Ombija. Dr. PLO Lumumba who is the former Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission director is also a Luo. Prominent Luo doctors and scientists include the late Prof. David Peter Simon Wasawo, the first science professor in East and Central Africa and first black East African to study and lecture science courses at Makerere university; Prof. Henry Odera Oruka, philosopher; Dr. Joseph Aluoch, a chest physician; Professor Walter Jaoko, a Tropical Diseases Specialist and leading HIV researcher; Professor George Magoha, a consultant urologist and former Vice-Chancellor of University of Nairobi; Dr. Job Bodo, an orthopaedic surgeon; Brian Jaoko Odongo, a prominent environmental scientist; and Prof Richard Samson Odingo, vice-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which received the 2007 Nobel peace prize.

Another prominent member was the economist Barack Obama Sr., whose son, Barack Obama II, was the 44th President of the United States.

Culture and customs

Rites of passage

Traditionally, the names given to children often reflected the conditions of the mother's pregnancy or delivery (including, for example, the time or season).[7]

Traditionally the Luos practiced the removal of six lower teeth between the ages of twelve and sixteen.[7] This practice has now fallen largely out of use.


A popular Luo meal includes fish (rech) especially tilapia (ngege) and omena, usually accompanied with ugali (called kuon in Dholuo) and traditional vegetables like osuga and apoth. Many of the vegetables eaten by the Luo were shared after years of association with their Bantu neighbours, the Abaluhya and the Abagusii. Traditional Luo diet consisted of kuon made of sorghum or millet accompanied by fish, meat, or vegetable stews.

Religious customs

Like many ethnic communities in Uganda, including the Langi, Acholi, and Alur, the Luo do not practice the ritual circumcision of males as initiation.

Local churches include Legio Maria, Roho, Nomiya and Fweny among others.

Marriage customs

Historically, couples were introduced to each other by matchmakers, but this is not common now. Like many other communities in Kenya, marriage practices among the Luo have been changing and some people are moving away from the traditional way of doing things.

The Luo successfully expanded their culture through intermarriage with other groups in the region, and many Luo today continue to marry outside the Luo community.[7] 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 day or night, music would be made. Music was not played for its own sake. Music was functional, being used for ceremonial, religious, political, or incidental purposes. Music was performed during funerals (Tero buru), to praise the departed, to console the bereaved, to keep people awake at night, and to express pain and agony. It was also used 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 (Olengo), 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, or winnowing. Music was also used for ritual purposes like chasing away evil spirits (nyawawa), who visit the village at night, in rain making, and during divination 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 that 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 Luo music were lyrical, with a lot of vocal ornamentations. These ornaments came out clearly, especially when the music carried an important message. Their rhythms were characterized by a lot of syncopation and acrusic beginning. These songs were usually presented in solo-response style, although some were solo performances. The most common forms of solo performances were chants. These chants were recitatives with irregular rhythms and phrases, which carried serious messages. Most of the Luo dances were introduced by these chants. One example is 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. They 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 vigorously, 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 worn 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, and 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 (instrument)|tung' a horn,Asili, a flute, A bu-!, to a specific type of trumpet).

Currently the Luo are associated with the benga style of music. It is a lively style in which songs in Dholuo, Swahili, or English are sung to a lively guitar riff. It originated in the 1950s with Luo musicians trying to adapt their traditional 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 ethnicities 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.

Other Luo musical greats in various genres are Akothee, Suzanna Owiyo, Daniel Owino Misiani, Achieng' Abura, George Ramogi, Musa Juma, Tony Nyadundo, and Onyi Papa Jey.

Kinship, Family, and Inheritance

Ocholla Ayayo writes in "Traditional Ideology and Ethics among the southern Luo":

"When the time of the inheritance comes the ideology of seniority is respected: the elder son receives the largest share, followed in the order of seniority. If it is the land to be divided, for instance, the land of the old grandfather's homestead, the senior son gets the middle piece, the second the land to the right hand side of the homestead, and the third son takes the land on the left hand side. After the father's death the senior son takes over the responsibilities of leadership. These groups when considered in terms of genealogy, are people of the same grandfather, and are known in Dholuo as Jokakwaro. They share sacrifices under the leadership of the senior brother. If the brother is dead the next brother in seniority takes the leadership of senior brother. The responsibility and prestige position of leadership is that it puts one into the primary position in harvesting, cultivation, as well as in eating specified parts of the animal killed, usually the best parts. It is the senior brother, who is leading in the group, who can first own the fishing boat. Since it is he who will be communicating with the ancestors of their father or grandfather, it is he who will conduct or lead the sacrifices of religiousity of the boat, as we have noted earlier. [...] The system of the allocation of land by the father while he is still alive is important since it will coincide with the system of inheritance of land. The principle of the division of the land in monogamous families is rather simple and straightforward. [...] The senior son takes the centre portion of all the land of the homestead up to and beyond the gate or to the buffer zone; the second son then has the remainder of the land to divide with the other brothers. If the land is divided among the elder sons after they are married, and take to live in their lands, it often happens that a youngest son remains in the village of the father to care for him in his old age. His inheritance is the last property, called Mondo and the remaining gardens of his mother. [...] In the case of a polygamous village, the land is divided along the same lines, except that within the village, the sons claim the area contiguous to the houses of their mother. Each wife and her children are regarded as if the group constituted was the son of a single woman.By that I mean the children of the senior wife, Mikayi, are given that portion of the total area which could have been given to the senior son in a monogamous family. The sons of Nyachira, the second wife, and the sons of Reru, the third wife, lay claim to those portions which would have fallen to the second and third sons of Mikayi in a monogamous village".[8]

Paul Hebinck and Nelson Mango explain in detail the family and inheritance system of the Luo in their article "Land and embedded rights: An analysis of land conflicts in Luoland, Western Kenya."[9] Parker MacDonald Shipton also writes extensively about kinship, family and inheritance among the Luo in his book "Mortgaging the Ancestors: Ideologies of Attachment in Africa":

"Outside the homestead enclosure, or (where there is no more enclosure) beyond and before its houses, Luo people have favored a layout of fields that in some ways reflects placements of houses within. The following pattern, as described in Gordon Wilson’s work from the 1950s, is still discernable in our times—not just in informants’ sketches of their ideals, but also in the allocations of real lands where space has allowed following suit. If there is more than one son in a monogamous homestead, the eldest takes land in front of or to the right of the entrance, and the second son takes land on the left. The third receives land to the right and center again, but farther from the father's homestead. The fourth son, if there is one, goes to the left but farther from the paternal homestead than the second. Further sons alternate right and left. While elder sons might thus receive larger shares than the younger ones, the youngest takes over the personal garden (mondo) kept by the father for his own use—as if as a consolation prize".

See also

  • Legio Maria, a large religious group originating in Luoland
  • Arthur Carscallen, as superintendent of the Seventh Day Adventist Mission in British East Africa from 1906–1921, he compiled and published the first Dholuo grammar and dictionary.


  1. "2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census (2009 KPHC)". pp. 397 and 398. Archived from the original on 2018-03-28.
  2. Gordon, Jr., Raymond G. (editor) (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas, Texas, USA: SIL International. ISBN 978-1-55671-159-6. Archived from the original on 2007-11-24.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  3. Ogot, Bethwell A. (1967). History of the Southern Luo: Volume I, Migration and Settlement, (Series: Peoples of East Africa). East African Publishing House, Nairobi. p. assim.
  4. Energy Old – Renewable Energy for Development Archived 2007-07-13 at the Wayback Machine
  5. UN chief calls on Kenya rivals to stop violence Archived 2008-02-02 at the Wayback Machine, The Age, 31 January 2008
  6. As Kenya descends into anarchy, there's no sign of an end of the tribal bloodshed Archived 2008-02-20 at the Wayback Machine, Daily Mail, 4 February 2008
  7. Danver, Steven L. (2013). Native Peoples of the World: An Encyclopedia of Groups, Cultures and Contemporary Issues. M.E. Sharpe, Inc. p. 57. OCLC 1026939363.
  8. Traditional ideology and ethics among the southern Luo – DiVA "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-10-14. Retrieved 2013-10-13.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2013-10-19. Retrieved 2013-10-09.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

Suggested reading

  • Herbich, Ingrid. "The Luo." In Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement, C. Ember, M. Ember and I. Skoggard (eds.), pp. 189–194. New York: Macmillan Reference, 2002
  • Ogot, Bethwell A., History of the Southern Luo: Volume I, Migration and Settlement, 1500–1900, (Series: Peoples of East Africa), East African Publishing House, Nairobi, 1967
  • Senogazake, George, Folk Music of Kenya, ISBN 9966-855-56-4
  • Godfrey Mwakikagile, Ethnic Politics in Kenya and Nigeria, Nova Science Publishers, Inc., Huntington, New York, 2001; Godfrey Mwakikagile, Kenya: Identity of A Nation, New Africa Press, Pretoria, South Africa, 2008.
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