Luo people of Kenya and Tanzania

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Total population
(7 million Kenya & Tanzania)
Regions with significant populations
western Kenya, northern and eastern Uganda, northern Tanzania
Dholuo, Swahili, and English
Christianity, African Traditional Religion, Islam
Related ethnic groups
Other Luo peoples, other Nilotic peoples
Person Jaluo (m)/ Nyaluo (f)
People Joluo
Language Dholuo
Country Pinj Luo/ Lolwe

The Luo (also called Joluo, singular Jaluo) 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 Southern Sudan (South Sudan), South-Western Ethiopia, Northern and Eastern Uganda, South-Western Kenya and North-Eastern Tanzania.

The Luo are the third largest ethnic group (13%) in Kenya, after the Kikuyu (22%) and the Luhya (14%). 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 Govt 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 of 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 1.8 million in 2010.[1]

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 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) & Dhi-Pari (Pari).

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


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Pre-colonial times

The Luo of Kenya descend from early fishing, agricultural and herding communities from western Kenya's early pre-colonial history. The Luo people and dialects of their language have historic roots across the Lake Victoria region. The Luo, through intermarriages and wars, are part of the genetic admixture that includes all modern East African ethnic groups, as well as members of the Buganda, Bunyoro, and Toro kingdoms, and the Nubians of modern-day Sudan.

The Luo had many ethnic neighbours with whom they frequently inter-related, including the Nandi, Luhya, Kipsigis and the Kisii. As a result, treaties and intermarriages were accomplished, resulting in a mixture of inter-cultural ideals and practices. As is the case with all ethnic groups of modern-day East Africa, Luo history is intricately interwoven with the histories of their neighbours, attesting to the complexity of East African precolonial history.

The Luo probably originated at 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) comprise the JoKarachuonyo, JoKano, JoMumbo, JoNyakach, JoKabuoch, JoKadem, JoKisumo, JoSeme, JoAlego Seje, JoKajulu, among others
  2. Those migrating from Alur joined the Joka-Jok
  3. The Jo-K'Owiny (who migrated from Padhola) were the second wave and are dispersed mostly in Alego as Jokaruoth, Jokarapul, Kaugagi and Jokogelo and in Ugunja as Jokakeny,JoYimbo, together with their diaspora in Kisumu, and Homabay counties which include Jokanyakwar, Kano Kogelo and Seme Kagola.
  4. The Jok’Omolo (perhaps from Pawir) arrived later, including the JoAlego Boro, JoKanyada, JoUgenya, JoGem, and others who include JoSakwa, JoUyoma and JoAsembo, who first sojourned among the Wanga before moving to settle in Siaya County among others
  5. The Abasuba (a heterogeneous group in southern Nyanza, with Bantu from Buganda, Busoga, Tanzania Bantu groups and several other now extinct Bantu communities like Abakunta and Singa) were assimilated into groups such as JoSuna. JoWaswetta, JoMfangano, JoKaksingri, JoKaswanga, JoGwassi, JoWakula, JoMuhuru and JoKamasengre among others.

The present-day Kenya Luo traditionally consist of 27 sub-groups, each in turn composed of various clans and sub-clans[2] ( "Jo-" indicates "people of".):

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Clans in Tanzania are not included in the list due to lack of sufficient information, These include; Kiseru, Kowak, Kagwa, Bugire, Kamageta, Waturi, Wasweta, Shirati, Suba, Rieri, Buganjo, Utegi, kakienje, kamot etc.

By the 1840s, the Luo had a tight-knit society with leadership from Ruodhi, or Kings.

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 Umira Kager clan led by 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,[3] 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 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, although they had attacked not only whites, but also the men of other ethnic groups.

Independent Kenya

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.

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 Jaramogi Oginga A. Odinga) to mend relations with Kenya and was in particular the one who passed information (from Oginga, who was his friend) to Nyerere on Kenyatta's mission to take Zanzibar Isles. Kenyatta had planned to take and own Pemba isle as his private residence and Unguja could have been given to the British Government as their East 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, Peter Oloo-Aringo, Dalmas Otieno, Peter Ombija amongst others. Dr. PLO Lumumba who is the former Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission director is also a Luo.

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

Culture and customs

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Rite of passage

Traditionally the Luos don't practice circumcision and instead have some teeth removed, though the practise has fallen largely out of use as more males opt for circumcision.

Favourite Dishes

One of their favourite meals includes fish especially tilapia, usually accompanied with ugali (called kuon in Dholuo) and vegetables. 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. Instead, children formerly had their six lower front teeth removed at an initiation. This ritual has largely fallen out of use and many have come to the practice of circumcision at birth.[citation needed]

In 1907, Johanna Owalo formed the first African independent church in Kenya called Nomiya or "the mission i was given". Nomiya church is a mixture of Christian, Islam and traditional African religious doctrines. The church practices circumcision for male children at the age of 8 days and they pray facing north. The church currently has a following of 800,000 in the Nyanza region. Other local churches include Legio Maria, Roho and Fwenya 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 frequently marry outside their ethnic group. 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. If the husband should die during the marriage, it was customary (though now a largely unobserved custom) for the brother to act as a replacement.[citation needed]


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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 Suzanna Owiyo, Daniel Owino Misiani, Amolo Kong'o, Ouma Omore Ogwang' Lelo, Ogoya Nengo, Olith Ratego, Hellen-Akoth Mtawali, Achieng' Abura, Iddi Achieng', Hellon, Dan Chizi Aceda, Ricky Oyaro, JuaCali, Radikol - Kevin Okullo, Big Pin, George Ramogi, Collella Mazee, Musa Juma, John Junior, Osogo Winyo, Tony Nyadundo, Jack Nyadundo, Nina Ogot, Steve Nyabwa, Osito Kalle, Odongo Mayaka, Poxy Presha, Shirati Jazz band, Dolla Kabarry, Ochieng' Kabaselleh, Limpopo International Band, Onyi Papa Jey, Sal Davies, Atomy Sifa, Omollo K'Odingo, ((Lady Maureen)), Isaac Gem, Pete Odera, Juma Toto, and Gabriel Omolo (Omolo Gaby).

In a nutshell, Musical styles with Luo origin or dominance are Benga, Ohangla, Dudu, Nyatiti, Otenga, Afro-Fusion, Afro-house, Afro-jazz, Kenyan Gospel, Genge etc.

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"[7]

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."[8] 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"

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.


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  4. Energy Old - Renewable Energy for Development
  5. UN chief calls on Kenya rivals to stop violence, The Age, 31 January 2008
  6. As Kenya descends into anarchy, there's no sign of an end of the tribal bloodshed, Daily Mail, 4 February 2008
  7. Traditional ideology and ethics among the southern Luo - DiVA

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