THE LUHYA COMMUNITY - HISTORY AND CULTURE
The Luhya (also known as Abaluyia or Luyia) are a Bantu ethnic group that originated in western Kenya. They are split into 20 tribes based on their cultural and linguistic similarities. Luhya refers to the 20 Luhya sub-tribes and their various languages, which are referred to as Luhya languages combined. The Luhya are divided into 20 sub-tribes (and 21, according to some sources, when the Suba are added). Each has its own dialect.In some dialects, the word Luhya or Luyia means “north,” thus Abaluhya (Abaluyia) consequently means “those from the north.” “Those of the same hearth,” for example, is another translation.
The seventeen sub-tribes are the Bukusu (Aba-Bukusu), Idakho (Av-Idakho), Isukha (Av-Isukha), Kabras (Aba-Kabras), Khayo (Aba-Khayo), Kisa (Aba-Kisa), Marachi (Aba-Marachi), Maragoli (Aba-Logoli), Marama (Aba-Marama), Nyala (Aba-Nyala), Nyole (Aba-Nyole), Samia (Aba-Samia), Tachoni (Aba-Tachoni), Tiriki (Aba-Tiriki), Tsotso (Abatsotso), Wanga (Aba-Wanga), and Batura (Abatura). They are closely related to the Masaba (or Gisu), whose language is mutually intelligible with Luhya. The Bukusu and the Maragoli are the two largest Luhya sub-tribes.
In what was originally the Western province, the Luhya’s traditional settlement area is located. A large number of people made permanent homes in the erstwhile Rift Valley provinces of Kitale and Kapsabet. Western Kenya is one of Kenya’s densestly populated regions. Migration to their current Luhyaland (a term of affection referring to the Luhya’s major location of habitation in Kenya following the Bantu expansion) began around 7 BC. Several Bantu and Cushitic groupings, as well as peoples including the Kalenjin, Luo, and Maasai, can be traced back to immigrants in modern-day Luhyaland. Migration into Luhyaland was mostly complete by 1850, with only minor internal movements occurring after that owing to sickness, droughts, domestic strife and the effects of British colonialism
Before the advent of colonialism, the Luhya, just as most other ethnic groups in Africa, defined their boundaries based on occupation of territory by a community of peoples with similar language, cultural traditions or under leadership of a particular ruler or king. Their territory neighboured the Baganda, Basoga and Bagisu of present-day Uganda, and the Luo, Teso, and Nandi of present-day Kenya. The territory occupied by the Bantu around Lake Victoria and to the north of Lake Victoria was known as Kavirondo. When the British came into the area, they coined the term Bantu Kavirondo to refer to the Luhya and other Bantu communities in the area while Nilotic Kavirondo was used to refer to the AbaLuo. On the onset of colonialism in Kenya, the Wanga were ruled by Nabongo Mumia. The Wanga kingdom was and is a derivative of the Baganda. It was the most powerful and centralized kingdom in the region. Other leaders among the Luhya were known as Baami (singular Mwami), a title translating to ‘Kings’ or ‘Lords.’
The British explorer Henry Morton Stanley made a voyage around Lake Victoria, and Joseph Thomson, the Scottish geologist, passed through Luhya territory around 1883. Thomson met Nabongo Mumia and influenced British relations with the Wanga Kingdom in the region. The construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway beginning from 1898 further opened opportunities for European interaction with the Luhya and other communities in the western part of Kenya. Nabongo Mumia’s dominion extended to other Luhya subgroups such as the Kabras and the Tsotso. In the late 1800s, when European nations began their Scramble for Africa, they mapped African boundaries to suit their interests in the continent. With the lion’s share of colonies going to the British, in 1895, the region of East Africa was declared to be a British Protectorate. It was further divided into British East Africa, (present-day Kenya) and the Uganda Protectorate (present-day Uganda). As all the land in Kenya, west of Naivasha was mapped within the Uganda Protectorate, the Luhya people and other Kenyan communities were included in the Ugandan territory. In 1902, the boundaries were remapped and the Luhya peoples including the Wanga kingdom and their neighbouring communities which were on the eastern part of Uganda, were annexed to Kenya.
The first European the Luhya had contact with was probably Henry Morton Stanley as he voyaged around Lake Victoria. In 1883, Joseph Thomson was the first European known to pass through Luhya territory on foot, and was influential in opening the region to Europeans after his meeting with King Mumia of the Wanga Kingdom. The Wanga Kingdom was very similar to the Baganda kingdom and other monarchies in Uganda, a unique form of government among the Luhya. Mumia was the last sovereign king of the Wanga, and because of ethnocentric British beliefs, was called a chief. The Bukusu strongly resisted British incursions into their territory in the 1890s. In 1895, they fought the British from a stronghold near Bungoma on the lower slopes of Mount Elgon called “Chetambe’s Fort“. The British had machine guns and massacred over a hundred Bukusu warriors in the stronghold, who were armed with spears, hide shields, bows and quivers of arrows.
In the 1940s and 1950s the Bukusu resisted the British under the leadership of Elijah Masinde, a religious sect leader and prophet who demanded the return of their lands. Masinde was imprisoned during the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, but was released to his home area at independence in 1963. The Kabras and the Wanga collaborated peacefully with the British. Most Luhyas from the Kabras subgroup joined the colonial-era police forces. Nabongo Mumia, was forced to sign treaties with the British after being defeated, this allowed the colonial authorities to subject his people to British rule. Significant numbers of the Luhya fought for the British in the Second World War, many as volunteers in the Kenya African Rifles (KAR). As with many African societies, the Luhya also named their children after significant events. Consequently, many Luhya people born around the time of the Second World War were named “Keyah”, a transliteration of “KAR”, the acronym for the King’s African Rifles. Other famous chiefs during the colonial time included Ndombi wa Namusia, Sudi Namachanja, Namutala and Ongoma Laurende.
Luhya culture is comparable to most Bantu cultural practices. Polygamy was a common practice in the past but today, it is only practiced by few people, usually, if the man marries under traditional African law or Muslim law. Civil marriages (conducted by government authorities) and Christian marriages preclude the possibility of polygamy.
About 10 to 15 families traditionally made up a village, headed by a village headman (Omukasa). Oweliguru is a post-colonial title for a village leader coined from the English word “Crew.” Within a family, the man of the home was the ultimate authority, followed by his first-born son. In a polygamous family, the first wife held the most prestigious position among women. The first-born son of the first wife was usually the main heir to his father, even if he happened to be younger than his half-brothers from his father’s other wives. Daughters had no permanent position in Luhya families as they would eventually become other men’s wives. They did not inherit property and were excluded from decision-making meetings within the family. Today, girls are allowed to inherit property, in accordance with Kenyan law.
Children are named after the clan’s ancestors, after their grandparents, after events, or the weather. The paternal grandparents take precedence, so that the first-born son will usually be named after his paternal grandfather (Kuka or ‘Guga’ in Maragoli) while the first-born daughter will be named after her paternal grandmother (‘Kukhu’ or ‘Guku’ in Maragoli.) Subsequent children may be named after maternal grandparents, after significant events, such as weather, seasons, etc. The name Wafula, for example, is given to a boy born during the rainy season (ifula). Wanjala is given to one born during famine (injala). Traditionally, they practiced arranged marriages. The parents of a boy would approach the parents of a girl to ask for her hand in marriage. If the girl agreed, negotiations for dowry would begin. Typically, this would be 12 cattle and similar numbers of sheep or goats, to be paid by the groom’s parents to the bride’s family. Once the dowry was delivered, the girl was fetched by the groom’s sisters to begin her new life as a wife.
Instances of eloping were and are still common. Young men would elope with willing girls, with negotiations for a dowry to be conducted later. In such cases, the young man would also pay a fine to the parents of the girl. In rare cases abductions were normal, but the young man had to pay a fine. As polygamy was allowed, a middle-age man would typically have two to three wives. When a man got very old and handed over the running of his homestead to his sons, the sons would sometimes find a young woman for the old man to marry. Such girls were normally those who could not find men to marry them, usually because they had children out of wedlock. Wife inheritance was and is also practiced. A widow would normally be inherited by her husband’s brother or cousin. In some cases, the eldest son would inherit his father’s widows (though not his own mother). Modern-day Luhyas do not practice some of the traditional customs as most have adopted a Christian way of life. Many Luhyas live in towns and cities for most of their lives and only return to settle in the rural areas after retirement or the death of parents there.
They had extensive customs surrounding death. There would be a great celebration at the home of the deceased, with mourning lasting up to forty days. If the deceased was a wealthy or influential man, a big tree would be uprooted and the deceased would be buried there. After the burial, another tree Mutoto, Mukhuyu or Mukumu would be planted. (This was a sacred tree and is found along most Luhya migration paths it could only be planted by a righteous lady mostly a virgin or a very old lady.) Nowadays, mourning takes less time (about one week) and the celebrations are held at the time of burial. “Obukoko” and “Lisabo” are post-burial ceremonies held to complete mourning rites. Animal sacrifices were traditionally practiced. There was great fear of the “Abalosi” or “Avaloji” (witches) and “Babini” (wizards). These were “night-runners” who prowled in the nude running from one house to another casting spells.
Most modern-day Luhyas are Christians; for some (if not all) the word for God is Nyasaye or Nyasae (Were Khakaba). The word Nyasae when translated into English roughly corresponds with Nya (of) and Asae/ Asaye/ Sae/ Saye (Prayer). The Luhya traditionally worshiped an ancient ‘god’ of the same name (commonly known as Isis, or Were Khakaba. When Christianity was re-introduced to the Luhya in the early 1900s by Christian missionaries from Europe and America, the Luhya peoples took the name of their traditional god, Nyasae, and gave that name to the Living Abrahamic God.
The first Luhyas who were converted to Christianity took words, names, their perceptions of what Christian missionaries told them about the Christian God, and other aspects of their indigenous religious traditions, and applied them to their interpretations of Christ and God. The Friends Church (Quakers) opened a mission at Kaimosi and the Church of God took over the mission in Bunyore. During the same period, the Catholic order Mill Hill Brothers came to the area of Mumias. The Church of God of Anderson, Indiana, US, arrived in 1905 and began work at Kima in Bunyore. Other Christian groups such as the Anglicans (CMS) came in 1906. In 1924 the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada began their work in Nyan’gori. The Salvation Army came to Malakisi in 1936. The Baptists came to western Kenya in the early 1960s.
The first Bible translation in a Luyia language was produced by Nicholas Stamp in the Wanga language. Osundwa says he did this translation in Mumias, the former capital of the Wanga kingdom of Mumia. A religious sect known as Dini ya Msambwa was founded by Elijah Masinde in 1948. They worship “Were,” the Bukusu god of Mt. Elgon, while at the same time using portions of the Bible to teach their converts. They also practice traditional arts referred to by some as witchcraft. This movement originally arose as part of an anti-colonial resistance. Various sources estimate that 75%-90% profess Christianity
With the smugglers of the Marama and Saamia, male circumcision was practised. A few sub-ethnic groups practiced clitoridectomy but, even in those, it was limited to a few instances and was not as widespread as it was among the Agikuyu. The Maragoli did not practice it at all. Outlawing of the practice by the government led to its end, even though it can occur among the Tachoni. Traditionally, circumcision was part of a period of training for adult responsibilities for the youth. Among those in Kakamega, the initiation was carried out every four or five years, depending on the clan. This resulted in various age sets notably, Kolongolo, Kananachi, Kikwameti, Kinyikeu, Nyange, Maina, and Sawa in that order.
The Abanyala in Navakholo initiate boys every other year and notably on even years. The initiates are about 8 to 13 years old, and the ceremony was followed by a period of seclusion for the initiates. On their coming out of seclusion, there would be a feast in the village, followed by a period of counselling by a group of elders. The newly initiated youths would then build bachelor-huts for each other, where they would stay until they were old enough to become warriors. This kind of initiation is no longer practiced among the Kakamega Luhya, with the exception of the Tiriki. Nowadays, the initiates are usually circumcised in hospital, and there is no seclusion period. On healing, a party is held for the initiate — who then usually goes back to school to continue with his studies. Among the Bukusu, the Tachoni and (to a much lesser extent) the Nyala and the Kabras, the traditional methods of initiation persist. Circumcision is held every even year in August and December (the latter only among the Tachoni and the Kabras), and the initiates are typically 11 to 15 years old.
Food and agriculture
The main food for the Luhya people like most Kenyans is ugali (made from maize flour/cornmeal) served with vegetables and meat of cattle, goat, fish or chicken; hence food production in the region is targeted to meet this need. The lower counties of Vihiga, Kakamega and Busia grow substance crops of maize on their low acreage plots, they raise chicken and keep cattle. The Upper parts of Bungoma and the Kitale grow large scale maize and produce milk from dairy cows. Fish farming is becoming very prevalent thus producing farm-raised tilapia for consumption. Busia, Mumias and lower Bungoma produce cassava and millet. There is normally a maize supply deficit in the production seasons of the year and a surplus supply during the harvest months resulting in much lower prices to producers during harvest and very high prices to consumers during production months. The producer and consumer may be the same person in different months. The largest sugar production facilities in Kenya are located in the western region where the Luhya people predominantly live. Mumias Sugar Company, Kabras Sugar Company and Nzoia Sugar Company have their contract production zones in the Luhya peoples region, hence sugarcane production is a key commercial enterprise. In Vihiga and some areas of Kakamega, tea bushes are very visible, making tea another key commercial crop grown in this region.
Chicken is a delicacy among the Luhya people, and it is a small leap from raising subsistence chickens to commercial chicken. While everyone speaks their language, food and commercial farming are very unifying endeavors, the language or dialect people speak do not define what they grow or raise – economics and proximity to market determine that