The Luo (also called Joluo or Jonagi/Onagi, singular Jaluo, Jaonagi or Joramogi/Nyikwaramogi, meaning "Ramogi's heirs") are a Nilotic ethnic group in western Kenya and the Mara Region of 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, Northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, South-Western Kenya and Northern Tanzania.
The Luo are the fourth largest ethnic group (10.65%) in Kenya, after the Kikuyu (17.13%), the Luhya (14.35%) and the Kalenjin (13.37%). 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.
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 Nilotic 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 people speak the Dholuo language, which belongs to the Western Nilotic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family. it is spoken by other Luo-speaking peoples, such as the Lango, Acholi, Adhola and Alur (all of Uganda and parts of 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 LepAchol (Acholi language); 81% with Lango language, 93% with Dhopadhola (Padhola language), 74% with Anuak, and 69% with Jurchol(Luwo) & Dhi-Pari (Pari).
This includes peoples who share Luo ancestry and/or speak a Luo language.
According to Okot (1971, 2), the term Luo is the name of the mythical founder or leader of the Luo peoples. He further observes that although the name is widespread it does not appear in the founding myths of those who call themselves Luo. For example, the Shilluck say that their original home was Luo and the other people merely mentions Luo as the first man.
These myths being about the foundation of the existing political institution and groups are dominated by who the founder was; for example, in Sudan, among the Northern Luo, Nyikang‘o, Gilo, Dak and Dimo; among the Acholi, Alur and Chope Labong‘o, Nyipir and their mother Nyikal; the Padhola and Kenyan and Tanzania Luo by Labong‘o, and Gipir but speak more so of Owiny, Podho and Ramogi.
The name Jo-pa-Luo then means people, followers or descendants of Luo. Although it is possible to reconstruct histories of the Luo groups separately, it is not possible to trace the history of the Luo people to the first Luo man. However, a comparative study of different Luo myths reveals striking similarities; many of them about quarrels over beads or spears. The people call themselves Luo, their language dho or lep Luo (Luo tongue) and their customs kit Luo. They are conscious of their Luo-ness. When shrines are built for ancestors, two are built; one called tipu Luo and the other tipu Jomiru/kimirwa. The first one refers to those of sociologically pure ethnic stock, who are all agnatically descendants of chiefs and Jumiru /kimirwa refers to all other clans who are regarded as subjects of the Luo. The Kenyan Luo refers to the Kalenjin: Nandi, Suk, Maasai, etc., as the Jo-Lang’o. The Central Luo also calls their eastern neighbours Lang’o.
Luo Origins in Sudan
The Luo are part of the Nilotic group of people. The Nilotes themselves had separated from the other members of the East Sudanic family by about the 3rd millennium BC. Within Nilotic, Luo forms part of the Western group. The Luo languages forms one branch of this Western Nilotic group, the other being Dinka-Nuer (named for the Dinka people and the Nuer people).
The separation of the Luo group from Dinka-Nuer presumably took place in South Sudan at some point in the first millennium AD. Within Luo, a Northern and a Southern group is distinguished. "Luo proper" or Dholuo is part of the Southern Luo group. Northern Luo is mostly spoken in South Sudan, while Southern Luo groups migrated south from the Bahr el Ghazal area in the early centuries of the second millennium AD (about eight hundred years ago). This migration was presumably triggered by the medieval Muslim conquest of Sudan.
A further division within the Northern Luo is recorded in a "widespread tradition" in Luo oral history: the foundational figure of the Shilluk (or Chollo) nation was a chief named Nyikango, dated to about the mid-15th century, who after a quarrel with his brother moved northward along the Nile and established a feudal society, while the Pari people descend from the group which rejected Nyikango.
Luo origins in Ethiopia
The Anuak are a Luo people whose villages are scattered along the banks and rivers of the southwestern area of Ethiopia, with others living directly across the border in southern Sudan. The name of this people is also spelled Anyuak, Agnwak, and Anywaa.
The Anuak who live in the lowlands of Gambela are distinguished by the color of their skin and considered to be black Africans. The Ethiopian peoples of the highlands are of different ethnicities, and distinguish themselves most simply by lighter skin color.
The Anuak have alleged that the current Ethiopian government and dominant highlands people have discriminated against them. This has affected the Anuak access to education, health care and other basic services, as well as limiting opportunities for development of the area.
The Anuak of Sudan live in a grassy region that is flat and virtually treeless. During the rainy season, this area floods, so that much of it becomes swampland with various channels of deep water running through it.
The Acholi, another Luo people in South Sudan, occupy what is now called Magwi County in Eastern Equatorial State. They border the Uganda Acholi of Northern Uganda. The South Sudan Acholi numbered about ten thousand on the 2008 population Census.
Luo origins in Uganda
Around 1500, a small group of Luo known as the Biito-Luo led by a Chief called Labongo whose full title became Isingoma Labongo Rukidi (sometimes named as Mpuga Rukidi), encountered Bantu-speaking peoples living in the area of Bunyoro. These Luo settled with the Bantu and established the Babiito dynasty, replacing the Bachwezi dynasty of the Empire of Kitara. Labongo, the first in the line of the Babiito kings of Bunyoro-Kitara, was according to Bunyoro legend the twin brother of Kato Kimera, the first king of Buganda. These Luo were assimilated by the Bantu, and they lost their language and culture.
Later in the 16th century, other Luo-speaking people moved to the area that encompasses present day Southern Sudan, Northern Uganda and North-Eastern Congo (DRC) – forming the Alur, Jonam and Acholi. Conflicts developed when they encountered the Lango who had been living in the area north of Lake Kyoga. Lango also speak a Luo language. According to Driberg (1923), Lango reached eastern province of Uganda (Otuke Hills) having traveled southeasterly from the Shilluk area, and that Lango language is similar with that of the Shilluk language. It is however in some dispute whether the Lango share ancestry with the luo (with whom they share a common language), or if they have closer kinship with their easterly Ateker neighbours, with whom they share many cultural traits.
Between the middle of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, some Luo groups proceeded eastwards. One group called Padhola (or Jopadhola - people of Adhola), led by a chief called Adhola, settled in Budama in Eastern Uganda. They settled in a thickly forested area as a defence against attacks from Bantu neighbours who had already settled there. This self-imposed isolation helped them maintain their language and culture amidst Bantu and Ateker communities. Those who went further a field were the joka jok and joka owiny.the jok luo moved deeper into the kaviirondo gulf and are the present day jo kisumo and jo Rachuonyo amongst others.Jo owiny occupied an area near got ramogi or ramogi hill in alego of siaya district.the owiny's ruins are still identifiable to this day at bungu owiny near lake kanyaboli.The other notable luo group is the omolo luo who inhabited ugenya and gem areas of siaya district.The last immigrants were the jo Kager who are related to the omollo luo and their leader was ochieng waljak ger a formidable leader who with advanced military skill drove a way the omiya or Bantu groups who were then living in present day ugenya around 1750AD
Luo origins in Kenya and Tanzania
Between about 1500 and 1800, other Luo groups crossed into present-day Kenya and eventually into present-day Tanzania. They inhabited the area on the banks of Lake Victoria. According to the Joluo, a warrior chief named Ramogi Ajwang led them into present-day Kenya about 500 years ago.
As in Uganda, some non-Luo people in Kenya have adopted Luo languages. A majority of the Bantu Suba people in Kenya speak Dholuo (albeit mostly as a second language).
The Luo in Kenya, who call themselves Joluo (aka Jaluo, "people of Luo"), are the fourth largest community in Kenya after the Kikuyu, Kalenjin and Luhya. In 1994 their population was estimated to be 2,185,000. In Tanzania they numbered (in 2001) an estimated 980,000. The Luo in Kenya and Tanzania call their language Dholuo, which is mutually intelligible (to varying degrees) with the languages of the Lango, Kumam and Padhola of Uganda, Acholi of Uganda and Sudan and Alur of Uganda and Congo.
The Luo (or Joluo) are traditional fishermen and practice fishing as their main economic activity. Other cultural activities included wrestling (yii or dhao) kwath for the young boys aged 13-18 in their age sets. Their main rivals in the 18th century were the Lango, the Highland Nilotes, who were traditionally engaged them in fierce bloody battles, most of which emanated from the stealing of their livestock.
The Luo are said to have practiced a dual economy, with both farming and cattle-keeping being important. Both cattle, sheep and goats were kept and were used for both food, marriage payment and also for ritual activities such as sacrifice. Both sorghum (bel ) and finger millet (kal ) were important crops.
In some parts of Luoland, their economic activities are mostly influenced by the fresh water of Lake Victoria. They are mostly involved in fishing. The fish are consumed locally while some, especially the Nile perch, are exported to Europe and other countries. Fish and ugali are the staple foods of the Luo tribe. They also practice sugarcane and cotton farming, in other areas where they (Luos) live.
Social relations among the Luo are governed by rules of kinship, gender, and age. Descent is patrilineal which is traced through the male line to determine kinship. Kin align themselves for purposes of exchange of goods, marriage, and political alliance.
Names are received through the male line, and after marriage women reside in the homesteads of their husbands. A married woman builds up alliances for her husband's family by maintaining strong relationships with her brothers and sisters who live at her birthplace or elsewhere. It is expected that after marriage a woman will bear children for her husband's lineage. Bride wealth, given by her husband and his family, contributes to the woman's ability to maintain ties with her own family throughout her life. By having children, a woman greatly enhances her power and influence within the lineage of her husband. As the children grow, they take special care of her interests. Perhaps as many as 30 percent of Luo homesteads are polygynous; in which a man has more than one wife. This contributes to solidarity between a mother and her children, and between children born of the same mother. Polygyny is commonly accepted by both men and women, provided traditional ideas and regulations are maintained. These include, for example, a special recognition for the first wife or "great wife," whose house and granary are located prominently at the back of the homestead opposite the main gate.
Subsequent wives have homes alternatively to her right and left in the order of their marriage. Sons are provided with homes adjacent to the main gate of the compound in the order of their birth. The husband maintains a homestead for himself near the center of the compound, his own brothers, if they have not yet formed their own homesteads; reside on the edge of the compound near its center. As Luo become wealthy in Luo land or elsewhere, it is common for them to build a large house for their mother. This is especially necessary if she is a "great wife," as it is considered improper for younger wives to have larger homes than wives more senior to themselves. Visiting and being visited is the major source of pleasure for the Luo. The social principles regarding age, kinship, and gender impose a heavy schedule of ritual obligations on Luo, regardless of their place of residence.
Age is important factor in the Luo society. Age is divided into two which are age-grating and age set; age is the stages one passes from infancy through adolescence, adulthood to death. Age-set is group of persons of the same sex, age, going through the same life circle at the same step and same time. A Luo have roles in age grade one is expected to behave certain way according to his or her age, they also believe in ancestral spirit which is the last stage in age grading. Politics is played according to one’s age: children and young adults are not expected to lead meetings of were adults and senior adults are, in most cases any leader of the Luo like the Craftsman, Traditional chiefs, or medicine men are either adult male or senior adult male. The age set also plays an important role in the Luo society people who are of the same age or have just a slight variation, have grown and matured together in the same manner have obligations to do certain things together or are expected to behave in certain ways; people of the same age are expected to grow and mature in the same manner and if one tends to delay it is questioned by the society and the elders advice the victim to try and catch up with the age-set. However the age is not very important in the modern world since some of the roles of an upper age grade can be taken by the lower age grade therefore age does not reflect that much as in the past.
This factor is the very social organization in the Luo society, it defined the obligation of the members of the Luo society it also defined privileges of members, kinship has two levels; the nuclear and the extended family, the nuclear family in made of the male head who has unchallenged power, his wife or wives, their children and the unmarried daughters of the male head. The nuclear served many functions and it was important in the Luo society; it is the centre of education where parents teach their children values common practices and customs , it is also the survival of the Luo society and it has a role to protect the children. The extended family comprises the parents, children, relatives, aunts and uncles this formed a clan. The clans where identified by totems. Kinship therefore still plays an important role in the Luo society up to date even though some believes and values have been eroded by the modern world like the unchallenged power of the male head. Politics, economy, and education is therefore played from the male down to the siblings, the male head is the decision maker when it comes to the running of business within the nuclear family and the leadership goes down to the wives then to the male sons from the eldest to the youngest. Education is done in gender basis the female are educated by their mothers and aunties while the male are educated by their father and uncles.
In the traditional Luo society sex is a very important factor in term of advantage in the social structure, the female is termed as the second sex, when it comes to food the male has the advantage over the female because the belief says that the male has to take care of the Kinship and the clans as a whole and therefore he has to be strong and eat good food. The male also have an advantage over the women, they are always the beneficiary in division of wealth. In the division of labor men are advantaged, since women are the laborers and this led to men marrying many wives who will provide more labor when it comes to house work and food production. Sex also plays a big role in religion and leadership within the Luo society, the leadership is that of hierarchal and patriarchal, the women have a low status when it comes to leadership even though this element of sex is not important in the modern world due human rights, and the upraised civil societies. The most notable fact about the Luo economy is that women play the primary role in farming. Before the introduction of the modern money economy, the garden was the centerpiece of the women's world of work. Industrious women could earn considerable wealth by exchanging their garden produce for animals, handicrafts, pots, and baskets. A young girl is expected to help her mother and her mother's co-wives in farming land owned by her father, brothers, and paternal uncles. Even though a girl may go to school and rise to a prominent position in society, there is often still a strong association with the land and digging. Men are preoccupied with livestock and spend a great deal of time in "social labor" concerned with placing their cattle in good contexts, such as bride wealth exchanges, trading partnerships, and commercial sales. In the modern economy, cattle and goats have a monetary value as well. Men have control over animals and cash crops.
The woman cannot build a house on her own there has to be a man, in case of death of her husband she has to be inherited by one of the male in that community since customs indicate that there is no house without a male head to make decisions.
Luo name their children after their ancestors. They therefore get the name of spirits (Nying-Juogi). The basic principle upon which the Luo acquire these Nying-Juogi is directly from the sun`s different positions in relations to the earth. If a child is born at sunrise, its name is Okinyi for male and Akinyi for female. To a great extent luo names are based on the principle of sun`s position during the day and its corresponding positions by the night. Thus, a child born between 5 a.m and 7 a.m is named Okinyi for a boy and Akinyi for a girl. A child born between 7:00 a.m and 9:00 a.m or 10:00 a.m is named Onyango for a boy and Anyango for a girl; a male child born between 11:00 a.m and 1:00 p.m is named Ochieng and Achieng for a female, and a male child born between 2:00 p.m and 5:00 p.m is named Odhiambo and Adhiambo for a female, a male child born after sunset is named Otieno, and Atieno or Athieno if female. A child born midnight is named Odiwuor for a male and Awuor for a female; the one born after midnight to 4:00 a.m is named Ogweno for a male and Agwena for a female.
The Luo people believe in a Supreme being and creator God known as Jok. Driberg in Okot (1971:50) explains that the idea of the word Jok to a Lang‘o (Luo) is "The sum total of the long departed souls merged into one pre-existing deity called Jok, a plurality of spirits merged into one person of a single godhead, a spiritual force composed of innumerable spirits, any of which may be temporarily detached without diminishing the oneness of the force."
Ogot 1961 noted that the word Jok was found in various forms in all Nilotic languages and that for the Shilluck Juok and Nyikang are the most general explanatory concepts. Jok accounting for the existence of nature or reality and Nyikang for the way in which it is ordered and interpreted. Jok mal created and maintains the world, while Juok piny determines how and for what purpose the God‘s gift should be utilized by man. For the idea of Jok among the Lang‘o and Acholi (Hayley1947), it was a neutral power permeating the universe, neither well nor badly disposed towards mankind, unless made use of by man. Lang‘o religion was the conception of this Jok power, and their magic was the practice by which man uses jok power. The world to Acholi (Wright) was one vast plain enclosed by the vault of the sky, charged throughout with magical force. The force is released by change from its static condition which then becomes fluid and powerful as seen in lightning, whirlwind, curious mountains and rocks. The Lang‘o (Harley) attributes anything of an unusual nature and unusual occurrences to some aspect of jok power. This included abnormal births, peculiarly shaped stones, hills, rain, hail, lightning, locusts and earthquakes. They (Hayley and Wright) noted that it was not the hills or forests that formed the objects of worship; these were mere shrines, the abode of Jok.
When lightning struck a house in a village, or when rain failed or hail, locust destroyed crops, prayers were offered to jok and sacrifices made to ancestral ghosts, just as other troubles occurred. But they were not sparks of jok power. Whirlwinds were regarded as jok in transit. Twins were regarded as jok. The spiritual part of man, the only part which survives death, is jok. Hence, to the Nilotes Jok is not an impartial universal power; it is the essence of everything, the force which makes everything what it is, and God Himself. The Greatest Jok is life force in itself. Above all force is God, Juok of Jok mal which is followed by the famous chiefs of the old such as Nyikang’ among the Shilluck and Podho among the Kenyan Luo. Next to come are the dead followed by specialists like ajwaka (ajuoga), medicine men and prophets who are believed to have special jok power. The specialists are followed by ordinary mortals, then animals, plants and finally, inanimate objects (Okot, ibid.:55).
The ajwaka/Ajuoga may be possessed by a spirit which helps him or her to divine; the witch la-jok also has jok power in him. And to have more jok power meant to be a more dangerous witch. The dead among the Luo are mostly forgotten, except those that believed to be troublesome. Such are referred to as cen, vengeance ghosts. The ghosts of certain animals such as elephant, lion and leopard are feared. Certain inanimate objects used by sorcerers to harm their victims such as lugaga (gagi). But, these are not considered as bits of jok power.
Outstanding feature of the religious activity of the Luo was the annual feast at the chiefdom shrines. Each chiefdom had a shrine on a hill, in a dark forest or by a riverside. Some of the shrines were unusual natural phenomena or outstanding landmarks in the landscape. Some of the larger chiefdoms had more than one shrine at which they offered sacrifices. Among the lowland Alur the jok possessed one of the chief‘s wives in each reign; she then had duties in the service of the jok. Jok Lokka of Koc in Acholi possessed the priest who was also the medium. Jok Langol of Padibe caused the person possessed to become barren. Jok Lamwoci of the Payira caused barrenness in men, and insanity in women. Jok Lalangabi of Palaro made the possessed person hate members of the opposite sex, so that he or she remained a bachelor or spinster for life, or if married, divorce followed soon after Lalangabi had fallen on one of the couple. Few shrines were founded by chiefs. In fact, most of the chiefdom shrines and Jok originally belonged to commoner clans who continued to provide the line of priests. When chiefs visit or go to the village of priests they lose their normal prerogatives.
Moreover the chiefdom Jok that possessed persons did not possess members of the chief‘s clan. Almost every force which can affect human beings may be and has been spiritualized. The elemental power of nature, sun, moon, rain, thunder and lightning, lakes and rivers and forests and deserts, all have been conceived of as spirit and have become objects of worship and sacrifice. The Luo did not offer sacrifices to the rocks or forests or rivers, they did not worship the spirit of the hills or forests or rivers, but Jok whom they believed lived in the caves or in the middle of the dark forest or by the riverside. Areas around these places were sacred grounds. No one might urinate, defecate, drive the blade or the butt of his spear into the earth. The duties of a priest were burdensome, dangerous and profitless. Ibaana (Crazzolara) means a person chosen and at times possessed by Jok. The Lang‘o put the phenomena of possession by ghosts in the province of Jok Nam which is contrasted with Jok Lang’o. Nam refers to riverine peoples: Pa-Luo, Nyoro and those bordering the Nile and Lake Kyoga. Ajwaka (Driberg) who dealt with diseases caused by Jok Nam were abanwa or abani (plural) who were men or women possessed by Jok Nam.
When according to the diviner, ajwaka, ill-health or misfortune was due to certain spirits other than ancestral or chiefdom jok, the situation was dealt with by inducing the offending spirit to possess the victim, and then depending on whether the particular spirit was friendly or hostile, it was allowed to stay in the victim or sent to where it belonged, or killed and destroyed. The preliminary examination of the patient usually took place at the home of the ajwaka, but the spirit possession ceremony, yeng’ng’o jok, shaking jok, was held at the home of the patient.
The Luo elders use proverbs intensively for the education of their children and grandchildren. Every child in turn is expected to learn these proverbs, even though some of them are quite difficult to understand. Examples of some Luo proverbs and their meanings:
1. "Jarakni jamuod nyoyo gi kuoyo" (Don`t go shares in the flesh before the buffalo is dead, since he fights in the bush). This means one should not be rushing in life. Patience is everything.
2. "Alot muchayo ema tieko kuom" (The hen begins as an egg, man as blood). It means even an insignificant work is still of a value done nothing at all.
3. "wadu en wadu" (Blood is thicker than water
4. "Kik nyany nyang kapod in epige" (Do not abuse crocodile while you are still in its water). It means one should reflect on the consequences of his action whilst still indebted to somebody or under authority.
5. "Yath achiel ok los bungu" (One tree has never made a forest). It means it is always good to be united.
6. "Kik iwe ngowo man piny to odhi ni man malo" (He who stands on the ground sees the fruit better than the man up in the tree). It means we should respect everyone`s point of view.
Among the Luo, it is believe that when a person dies his or her spirit or soul goes to the underworld after few days or weeks. The underworld is determined to be the centre of the Earth, at the bottom of the sea, and at a distant steppe down below the mountains.
Luo people believe that death comes from God and He alone has control over life and death. When someone dies Luo people just say ""Ekaka nose wacho" (It is how He has decided), "Ekaka nose kor" (That was what was predicted) or "Nyasaye okowe" (God has taken him).
Some deaths are considered to be abnormal death of persons whose body houses Jachien (troublesome spirits). A person who commits suicide is feared that he may become a ghost. The body of Ngamodere ( suicide man) had to be punished by whoever comes to his funeral. Because it is a taboo to commit suicide. The body of Ngamodere is slashed by a twig from the Powo tree. This is done to remind its Tipo (spirit) that it was the fault of his own man, and not someone else. If a person commit suicide on a tree, that tree is immediately cut down and burned. On Ngamotho e Pi (Death on sea), it is considered that ones Juok had preferred to live in the water. It is therefore proper to bury the one who died at sea closer to the sea. It is also necessary to bury the body of one who dies in water, Japi, must be buried by the Lake or waterside.
Luo, a Western Nilotic people, perform a series of rituals and many feasts for the dead because of their strong fear and respect for the dead. The Luo attitude towards their burial place evidently shows how they fear and respect the deceased ancestors.
Luo people perform a total of about fourteen rituals for one deceased. All rituals are performed only when elderly men died, and a certain number of rituals are omitted depending upon age, sex, and marital status of the deceased. First, I will provide a list of a series of rituals in successive order of their occurrence, and then explain each ritual.
1) Death announcement
2) Vigil (budho)
3) Grave digging (kunyo)
4) Burial (iko)
5) Accompanying the spirit of the deceased to the former battleground (tero buru matin)
6) Shaving (liedo)
7) Mourners’ departure for their houses (kee)
8) Serving a meal to the deceased and its family by married women (yaodhoot)
9) Serving a meal to the deceased and its family by married women (tedo)
10) Going to the former battleground with the spirit of the deceased (tero buru maduong’)
11) Visiting the widow’s natal home (tero cholla)
12) Dividing articles left by the deceased (keyo nyinyo)
13) Remembrance (rapar)
14) Serving a meal to the family of the deceased by affines (budho)
I. Death and Its Announcement
People come to know of a death by hearing the women’s long, quivering wail, followed by the sound of drums. The death is always announced in the early morning or in the evening. Never have I heard this wail in broad daylight.
There are rules prescribing the time of announcement. The time varies with the dead person’s age, sex, and occupation. If a baby died in the morning, its death is announced immediately, and its body is buried the following morning. If old men or diviners died, their death must be announced after sunset, that is, women must wait for the right time to start wailing.
II. Vigil (budho)
The close relatives of the deceased such as the spouse(s), parents, step-mothers, brothers and sisters, and first and second patrilineal cousins, must stay within the compound of the deceased throughout several nights until the burial day. Two to four days pass before the burial, because relatives living in cities have to return to their rural homeland. A lamp is lit through the vigil. Inside the house of the decreased, stools are placed for as many relatives and church members as possible. Whenever new visitors arrive for condolence, some must step outside to make room.
Men and women form separate groups within the compound. Especially on the day of the death, they continue to cry and sing their lamentations and war songs throughout the night. Christian songs are sung if the dead person and his/her close kin are Catholics or followers of overseas-based Protestant Churches. People who belong to the Roho, an African Independent Church, pray, while they dance and play drums and metal instruments.
Most of the vigil visitors follow either Catholic or Protestant ways of expressing condolence. However, as they step slowly inside the house, older women and men may start crying and call out the name of the dead person as if talking to the body. Outside the house, some sit on stools and others sleep on the African mats under the eaves. Men make fire called magenga near the house for warmth, because it becomes very cold at night, about 10 °C. They say that this fire is made also for the departed to warm him/herself. The vigil continues up to the burial.
From the day following the death, the surviving family and relatives of the deceased busy themselves to prepare for the burial service: building the shade, cooking for visitors, and preparing the coffin and cloth. They must take a day off to fulfill their share of such obligations.
Neighbours start turning up to bid farewell to the deceased for the last time. Married women raise a strange voice before entering the compound to announce their arrival. Men enter the compound playing their whistles and singing their own elegies. These visitors go straight into the house where the body is laid without greeting other people, and then they pray, sing, or cry in their own ways. After a while they come out of the house, greet other people and join them. The relatives stay within the deceased’s compound during the mourning hours, which is called padho, meaning ‘sitting without doing anything.’ Most of the neighbours usually leave the compound in twos and threes after spending two or three hours. Some old people in particular, stay in the compound during the daytime. Most who come to pay condolence on the burial day are either married or marriageable.
III. Grave Digging (kunyo)
According to some old men, people used to dig a grave in the daytime in the old times. These days, people prepare the grave in midnight before the burial day, because, they say, it is too exhausting to dig under the strong sun. Digging begins around 9 p.m. and is completed about 3 to 4 a.m. of the burial day. Sometimes it takes many hours because of the rocks in the soil. Young and middle-aged male relatives and several neighbours join forces in digging.
The right place for the grave is decided by a church member or any of the deceased’s male kin, including the father and the father’s brother. Men with pregpregnant wives are not allowed to participate in grave digging. If they did, their wives would give premature birth. Nor are twins allowed to participate in digging the grave.
IV. Burial (iko)
For deceased adults, the burial ritual normally starts at 2 o’clock p.m. The father or one of brothers of the deceased presides over the proceeding of the ritual. The program of the ritual includes: speeches about the memories of the deceased by parents, brothers and sisters, children, and friends, etc.; a harambee asking for donations to cover expenses for lamp oil, food, and other items which are consumed for this occasion; and several political speeches by politicians. Then, burying the body ensues.
Because these speeches and the harambee take a long time, the surviving family are sometimes forced to serve a meal to their affines before the burial takes place. Other mourners are served a meal after the burial. The surviving family and other relatives eat and sleep inside the compound of the deceased for one full week, which is followed by the buru.
V. Accompanying the Spirit of the Deceased to the Former Battleground (tero buru matin)
This performance marks the beginning of cholla (mourning period). It can be done one or two weeks after the burial. To begin this ritual, several relatives take their cattle to the deceased’s compound early in the morning around seven o’clock.
This ritual is performed only for a man, and participants are also basically men. Men and boys who include neighbours and relatives of the deceased take their own cattle and goats to the former battlefield located along the boundary between the clans. The cattle of the deceased are also taken there by the relatives. They kill a cock without using a knife, and divide and eat pieces of the meat. Sometimes a hen is substituted for the cock. Then, they return to the home of the deceased. Men and cattle form a cheerful procession. Men blow horns of buffaloes and rhinoceroses (oporro), and play drums (bul).
On their way home, the procession swells, as more men and women join them. The procession becomes longer and noisier as people sing and play the instruments more and more loudly. Women hold up leafy branches, some men raise their spears, and other men wearing traditional hats and mantles of animal skins, hold up shields and clubs.
Returning near the home of the deceased, people become extremely excited. They shout, cry, and run with tree branches, spears, and shields in their hands. Some blow whistles and others play drums and metal instruments (ongeng’). There are also many people waiting at the deceased’s compound. People in the procession struggle to rush into the compound through the main gate, taking their cattle with them. Upon entering the compound, they start running about, crying and shouting. Some cry loud and throw their body on to the grave. Others continue to repeat entering the house and the main gate, while crying. This spectacular scene continues for 20 to 30 minutes. Later, the participants and visitors are served a meal. While all this take place, other relatives slaughter one of a few heads of cattle for this ritual. Sometimes a group of musicians are invited. They play traditional music and people dance until dawn.
This ritual reminds the people of the time when forefathers engaged in inter-clan wars. When one member lost his life in a battle, the forefathers worried that their fighting power might diminish. Thus, an idea was born that the loss of one member should be compensated by killing one of their enemies.
According to the old men, people went for the buru early in the morning before burial in the old days. Later, they went two days after burial. And nowadays, two kinds of the buru, major and minor, are conducted.
The burial was formerly done on the day following the death. People other than those participating in the buru were in charge of preparing the grave. After the participants in the buru returned, the burial was held at noon. Participants of the buru was divided into two groups. The first one had their own special function to practice divination on whether they had a good chance of winning if they tried to kill one enemy to compensate for the life of the deceased. This was the reason why the first group included some fighters and a diviner, together with a cock and cattle. When they reached the boundary, the diviner killed the cock and conducted divination by examining its intestines. With bad omen, they returned home. With good omen, the
second group consisting of fighters and cattle were called, and the two groups joined for a battle.
People give following reasons for performing the buru:
1) To chase away the evil spirits,
2) To have the many spirits of war heroes of yore and new spirits join them for this occasion. Eating chicken killed on the battlefield symbolized such solidarity,
3) To remove the shadow (spirit) of the deceased. The buru must be done by the river, because they believe that the shadow will go away through the river. The shadow must be taken away from the home, otherwise it lingers,
4) To drive the evil spirits to the bush or to the enemies,
5) To identify who may make a good leader and who is brave and skillful in war tactics.
6) To demonstrate that they have lost a member of their community. The Roho people conduct ‘buru for women,’ which was not strictly a Luo tradition and therefore not always performed. This buru is called suda among the Roho.
VI. Shaving (liedo)
Four days after the burial, people shave their heads. A razor blade is usually used. The first shave is supposed to mark the beginning of the mourning period. At the end of mourning, those who were shaven are shaven again, which marks the beginning of their new life.
There are three types of shaving. The first one is for the spouse(s) of the deceased and children of the deceased, conducted one or two weeks after the burial. It marks the beginning of the mourning taboos. In the old days, people were shaven soon after the buru matin before the relatives departed for their home.
The second one is for children, between two weeks and one month after the burial. After shaving, the children are free to step out of the compound. This leaves the widow(s) to follow the mourning taboos.
The third is done to free the widow(s) from the mourning taboos. After this, a widow can choose a man who inherits her in the tero cholla, explained later. The shaving used to be conducted at the keyo nyinyo when the articles of the deceased were distributed.
The first and second shaving must be performed soon after death, but the third can take place one month, one year, or even two years after the burial. Nowadays, however, most people do not heed the above-mentioned three types of shaving, which must be done at different times. They perform all the shaving once and for all, and shave only a little on the back of their head in a symbolic manner.
VII. Mourners’ Departure for Home (kee)
The kee refers to the members of surviving family and other relatives returning to their respective home in order of age. The first-born departs first, followed by the second, then the third, and finally they all depart. This whole process may take place in just one day, a few days, or even one week depending on the number of sons and daughters in the family of the deceased. It is because only one person a day departs. The relatives who do not have to be shaven may stay for a while and go home only after they made sure that the shaving (liedo) was done early in the morning, following the day of the tero buru matin. The kee is normally completed one week after the shaving.
The period between the death and the kee is called budho, which actually refers to the mourning period, and literally means ‘sitting without doing anything,’ because people are supposed to stay within the deceased person’s compound without doing any worthwhile work.
VIII. Serving a Meal to the Deceased (yaodhoot)
The relatives return to the deceased’s home once again soon after returning home. Married women (wagoguni) bring food and cook to comfort those who remained, such as children and spouse(s) of the dead person. They invite neighbours to share the meal. They think that eating together with the deceased pleases him/her. They celebrate the occasion by dancing, playing music, drinking local beer to try their best to forget the sad event.
Literally, yaodhoot means ‘opening the door,’ which implies that the survivors start their new life. Some explain that wagoguni return to open the door, which has been shut since the person died. After the door is opened, the surviving family start a new life. Others say, “we do not do this for bachelors, because they don’t have their own family. For whose sake the married women must open the door? They don’t have a wife or children who should live in his home after he died.” At present, people perform the yaodhoot for every death of an adult. If the surviving family have many domestic animals, they slaughter some of them for their guests. Otherwise they buy fish and meat in the market.
IX. Serving a Meal to the Deceased (tedo)
The tedo, which literally means cooking, follows the yaodhoot. On the day of the tedo the sons and daughters return to their natal home to cook for the dead mother or father. Children contribute a certain amount of various kinds of food according to their income.
The first-born, son or daughter, is the first person to open the fireplace, and the food he/she contributed should be cooked first. The food include meat, fish, and sugar, and depend on what the family like to eat. The relatives should be informed of the day of the tedo in advance. They come that day to celebrate the occasion with the children of the dead person. It is just like a get-together party for the children and their relatives.
X. Going to the Former Battleground with the Spirit of the Deceased (tero buru maduong’)
This ritual is performed only for the death of elderly men. This buru is performed on a much larger scale than the previous buru: buru maduong’ means ‘big buru’ while the previous buru matin means ‘small buru.’ The family and relatives of the dead man take their cattle to the former battlefield in the same way as they did in the small buru. This time, however, they do not kill a cock in the field. Returning to the compound, they find a lot more people and far more abundant food than in the small buru. The relatives slaughter many heads of cattle, called dher buru, and goats, and serve local alcoholic beverage including changa, busa, and mbare. They invite traditional musicians and dancers.
The people must prepare a huge amount of food and much money for this occasion. This is why they must set the day of the big buru to come right after harvesting with much of maize and sorghum for preparing food and drinks.
XI. Visiting the Widow’s Natal Home (tero cholla)
This is the ritual which ends the mourning. Right after this ritual, the surviving family members start their new life, and the surviving spouse starts his/her life with a new partner. Widows, in particular, must have a man in her mind as her prospective inheritor before the day of the tero cholla. If a husband died, the widow and her eldest son pay a visit to the home of the widow’s parents. They spend only one night there. The following day, before departure, a goat called cholla is slaughtered. Part of its meat is eaten by the widow’s parents and the rest is taken by the widow to her home.
The widow’s prospective inheritor (sing. jater, pl. joter) sleeps in the widow’s house while she is visiting her natal home. When the widow returns, she cooks the meat she brought back. The widow and her inheritor eat the meat. They engage in sexual intercourse that night, and the man must prove that he is a real inheritor.
Then, the inheritor starts building their new house, helped by the widow. A widow too old to have sex selects a man who is about her age. When she returns from her natal home, her inheritor prepares a fireplace for cooking. She cooks and they eat together. They spend the night without sex. But the inheritor must keep inside the house his belongings. This is done so that visitors may know that the old man and woman stay together and love each other. With a young widow, it is practically impossible for any man to inherit her and not have sex. If a wife died, the widower follows the mourning taboos only when she was the first wife. In that event, the husband takes his children to the deceased’s parents. They stay one night and return the following day. The children are given meat or a hen by their grandparents.
The parents of the dead wife sometimes give one of their unmarried daughters to the husband as his new wife. The daughter normally comes over to the husband’s home on the day of the tero cholla. She begins to live in the house and inherit whatever her sister had. If the husband marries some other woman, he should build a new house for her.
XII. Dividing the Articles Left by the Deceased (keyo nyinyo)
This is the occasion when the family and relatives divide between themselves articles left by the deceased, such as clothes, furniture, dishes, calabashes, and cooking pots. Land and animals are divided among surviving sons not that day, but some other day.
Women leave behind many things or few things largely depending upon how old they were when they died. Old women may leave behind many cooking pots, water pots, and dishes. Old men would leave clothes, three-legged stool (komnya luo), spear, shield, mantle, animal skins, and horns of animals he hunted.
XIII. Remembrance (rapar)
This is the ritual in which the relatives get together in the dead person’s home to remember, comfort, and please the dead person. The parents, children, brothers and sisters, and affines of the deceased come and enjoy a lot of food together. The host invites his neighbours and arrange a dance which continues through the night of the rapar.
The relatives may build a small temporary hut (akumba) if the original hut is gone. The first thing the married daughters (wagoguni) of the dead person should do upon their arrival is to enter the hut and put their luggages and clothes inside as a sign of greeting the dead person. They then start cooking in the small space inside the hut and cut the meat of the animal, slaughtered for the dead person. People surround the hut and eat together. The spouse of the deceased must sleep inside the hut during the night of the rapar. The following day, the spouse pulls down the hut. Because this ritual requires heavy expenses, it depends on the relatives’ finances how many times they hold the rapar for the dead person.
XIV. Serving a Meal to the Family of the Deceased by Affines (budho)
This is a ritual feast organized by affines. The purposes of this feast are to make sure the relationship between affines even after the death of the mediator and to consort the remaining family. The affines set the day after preparing enough money and food for the feast. So the budho may take place before the rapar. On the day, the affines come with maize flours and animals for slaughter. Since affines have the relationship called luor, which means respect and fear, they are expected to reach the compound of the dead after sunset (agi an’gich welo) and to stay only for one night without sleeping. Following morning, they return home.