Skip to main content
Select Source:



ETHNONYMS: Joluo; also known in some early colonial documents and ethnographic texts as the "Nilotic Kavirondo" (not an indigenous term).


Identification and Location. The Luo homeland is an area of over 3,860 square miles (10,000 square kilometers) surrounding the Winam Gulf on the northeast end of Lake Victoria. Most of this area is in the Nyanza Province of Kenya, but a portion extends into northern Tanzania. A number of Luo also live in the urban centers of Nairobi and Mombassa. The Luo area is composed of three concentric climatic and vegetation zones that extend outward from the Winam Gulf. The first is an arid coastal plain from about 3,608 to 3,936 feet (1,100 to 1,200 meters) in elevation with an erratic annual rainfall of 20-40 inches (50-100 centimeters) and a savanna vegetation. The second is an intermediate savanna zone up to about 4,592 feet (1,400 meters) in elevation with more than 45 inches (115 centimeters) of annual rainfall. The third region is a foothill zone up to about 4,920 feet (1,500 meters) in elevation with 59 -69 inches (150-175 centimeters) of annual rainfall supporting a relatively lush vegetation. Periodic drought is common on the coastal plain, while the higher elevation zones generally receive enough precipitation during the "short rains" period to support a second cropping season.

Demography. Figures from the latest Kenyan census for which ethnic affiliation data are available (1989) indicate that there were 2,653,932 Luo at that time, or 12.38 percent of the total population of Kenya. More recent estimates are difficult given the uncertain demographic effects of AIDS and other factors over the last decade of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century; however, assuming a projected total Kenyan population of around 30 million people in 2001 and a constant ratio, the total Luo population in Kenya would be approximately 3.7 million. The Luo population in Tanzania has been estimated at approximately 223,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Dholuo is the language of the Luo. It is classified as a Nilotic language within the Western (or "River-Lake") Nilotic branch of the Chari-Nile family. The most closely related languages to Dholuo are those of the Padhola and Alur of Uganda. Among the Luo there are several internal regional variations in vocabulary and pronunciation, with the inhabitants of much of Siaya District (especially the JoAlego) considered significantly distinctive by inhabitants of the other Luo districts.

History and Cultural Relations

According to reconstructions based upon oral history, the various lineages that constitute the modern Luo settled their current homeland in Kenya in an extremely complex and lengthy series of migrations that began in the late fifteenth or sixteenth century and continued through the end of the nineteenth century. Nyanza was previously occupied by Bantu-speaking peoples who were both absorbed and displaced by the several streams of infiltrating Luo. The early Luo settlers first entered the portion of Nyanza that lies north of the Winam Gulf (the current Siaya District) from eastern Uganda as part of a series of migrations of Nilotic-speaking peoples (Padhola, Acholi, Alur, etc.) out of southern Sudan. By the mid-eighteenth century, several Luo groups expanded out of this area and spread over South Nyanza as well. This whole process involved sequential displacements of earlier Luo settlers and Bantu groups by later arrivals, as well as the assimilation of many Bantu groups. The nineteenth century witnessed the most aggressively militaristic phase of expansion, especially into lands held by Bantu (Luyia) groups to the north. These ongoing population movements were halted by the imposition of British colonial control at the end of the nineteenth century when the territories of the various Luo subgroups at that moment were cartographically inscribed as the boundaries of the administrative sub-districts.


The regional settlement pattern consists of individual patrilineal and patrilocal extended family homesteads scattered over the landscape without any larger traditional concentrations of population (although the multi-ethnic lake port city of Kisumu was established in Luo territory during the colonial period, as were a number of small administrative and market centers). Each homestead (dala; plural delni) is occupied by an extended (usually polygynous) family. A man must always marry in the homestead of his father, rather than that of his grandfather; consequently, when a man's eldest son is ready for marriage, he will move out from his father's dala and found a new one of his own. Thus, each homestead has a three-generation life cycle. When the last of the original inhabitants of a homestead has died, the settlement (now calledgunda; plural gundni) will be left fallow for a period and then used as farmland by the sons of the former head of the homestead. The landscape also shows traces of significantly larger gundni with earthen ramparts (gunda bur) dating to the nineteenth century and earlier. In South Nyanza, there is also evidence of large gundni surrounded by stone walls called ohinga. A gunda bur is identified by the name of an ancestor-inhabitant, and they frequently serve as anchors for lineage claims to territory.

Each dala is bounded by a euphorbia hedge-fence and the houses are arranged in a highly ordered pattern on the interior. The spatial and temporal organization of the Luo homestead is a complex symbolic representation of the genealogical structure and the relations of authority in both the homestead and society. Lines of structural opposition and alliance between co-wives, and within the broader kinship and political system, are correlated with house placement on alternating sides of the homestead. Relations of seniority and authority are also represented and naturalized through temporal sequences of house construction, repair, and a host of daily activities and rituals that take place in the homestead.


Subsistence. Luo subsistence depends upon a mixture of agriculture, animal husbandry, and fishing. Subsistence agriculture is performed almost exclusively by women in scattered multiple small plots in the general neighborhood of the homestead. Primary agricultural production to feed her family is considered the duty of every rural Luo wife, and there is little dependence on purchased food (aside from small-scale "target" selling and buying of foodstuffs at the local markets and the purchase of a few imported items such as tea, sugar, and salt). Hoe agriculture is predominant, but oxplows are found in some areas. The primary grain crops include sorghum, maize, and millet; cassava and sweet potatoes are major root crops. Sorghum and cassava are especially valued for their resistance to drought. These starches are complemented by various kinds of beans, lentils, and greens. In the higher elevation zone bananas are also grown. The early Luo settlers in Kenya had a pastoralist orientation, and cattle have remained very important as a symbol and unit of wealth; they have long been, for example, the central component of bride-wealth exchanges (now augmented or partially replaced with cash). The cattle are generally eaten only in the context of feasting rituals, but their milk forms an important part of the ordinary diet. Sheep, goats, and chickens are a less valuable and somewhat more commonly consumed source of meat. Fish of several types and sizes (tilapia, Nile perch, etc.) are also a much-appreciated source of protein. They are caught in the waters of the Winam Gulf and traded throughout the market system.

Commercial Activities. The Luo were forcibly drawn into a monetary economy at the beginning of the twentieth century by the colonial imposition of "hut" taxes designed to stimulate a supply of native workers for the farms of English colonists and for railroad construction. In fact, the most important source of cash has continued to be migratory wage labor by Luo men, such that about a third of middle-aged Luo men live outside the Luo area at any given time. The Luo have been notoriously resistant to cash cropping, especially in Siaya District. However, small-holder cash cropping of tobacco, cotton, sunflowers, coffee, peanuts, and a few other items is somewhat more prevalent in parts of southern Nyanza and the area around Kisumu. Large sugar plantations exist in the area north of Kisumu, but these are owned by outside agents who employ Luo workers. Other commercial activities oriented more toward a local market include such things as fishing, the sale of beer and chang'aa (an illegal distilled liquor), and motor-transportation services (especially the running of matatus, or "bush taxis").

Industrial Arts. Luo artisans make a wide variety of crafts that are largely consumed locally rather than directed toward a tourist market. Pottery is a thriving craft performed entirely by women. Less than 1 percent of all women are potters, yet they manage to supply nearly all Luo homes with a diverse range of forms to serve a common set of cooking, serving, and storage functions. Potters live in clusters of homesteads centered around clay sources scattered throughout the Luo area and they sell pots at local markets. Other local craft products sold at markets include baskets (for storage, food-processing, eating, and fishing, etc.), forged iron goods (agricultural tools, ornaments, etc.), and such things as ropes, brooms, reed mats, wooden tool handles, and oil lamps made from recycled cans.

Trade. A system of regular periodic markets exists throughout the Luo area and serves as a focus for both trading and social activities. This system developed in the early twentieth century out of the prior practice of sporadic famine markets under the influence of the developing cash economy. Markets serve as centers for the exchange of local crafts and foodstuffs as well as for the distribution of imported goods (e.g. clothing, kerosene, salt, plastic and metal containers). However, they do not usually serve as major collection points for large amounts of local produce flowing out to distant urban or international markets. The Luo do trade with neighboring peoples at border markets, and they are, for example, major suppliers of pottery to the Kisii/Gusii and some other non-Luo groups. Moreover, some of these products are distributed further afield by middleman traders.

Division of Labor. The primary division of labor is genderbased. Subsistence agriculture, childcare, cooking, and domestic maintenance are all female tasks. Women are also the primary or exclusive contributors to several kinds of craft production (especially pottery), although men contribute to some crafts (e.g. basketry) and are the exclusive producers of others (e.g. iron working). Men are the predominant ritual, political, and oral history specialists. In the pre-colonial era they were also the warriors. External wage labor and cash cropping also tend to be predominantly male activities. Market traders, on the other hand, are predominantly women, but men are also involved in the selling of some items, especially goods coming from outside the Luo area.

Land Tenure. The traditional system of land tenure was one in which land was corporately held by patrilineages and was not individually alienable. This included farmland, pasture, water, firewood, and clay sources. Women received usufruct rights to agricultural plots and other resources by virtue of their husband's membership in a patrilineage. These rights were distributed among the women of a homestead by the husband or senior co-wife (mikayi), and they depended upon various dimensions of seniority relations.

According to Achola Pala's ("Women's access to land.", 1983) calculations, the majority of women work between three and five small, scattered parcels of land totaling 4-11 acres (1.5-4.5 hectares) but spread over a wide area. However, this system has been subjected to various kinds of pressure from increasing population density (hence land shortage), and from land tenure reform programs implemented by the colonial and, especially, postcolonial states. The goal of the reform programs is primarily to consolidate land holdings and register individual title to land. The effect has been to transform land into an alienable commodity in a system of almost exclusively male individualized ownership with little concern for women's access to it. The sale of land for cash has created serious moral tensions as well as sometimes leaving aged mothers and widows landless.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship has a powerful role in structuring Luo social life, identity, and politics, as well as the landscape. Luo maximal lineages (dhoudi; singular dhoot), sometimes called "clans" in the anthropological literature, are exogamous land-holding units. Descent is patrilineal and women remain members of their father's lineage after marriage. A cluster of maximal lineages occupying a distinct territory (piny) is called oganda (plural ogendni). These clusters are often referred to as "sub-tribes," or even, by one source, Evans-Pritchard (1949), "tribes." All these groups claim descent from a common ancestor named Ramogi. Their genealogical relationship to each other is a product of a long and continuing history of fluid segmentation of lineages. Each cowife's house (ot) in a polygynous homestead is seen as the potential kernel of a future lineage. A person's identity is viewed as depending upon nested membership in the family of a particular father (jokawuoro) and grandfather (jokak-warn) within some distinct minimal lineage that is a segment of a given dhoot and oganda.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Luo are markedly polygynous in both ideology and practice. Post-marital residence is patrilocal in the strictest sense of the term: that is, the wife goes to live with the husband in the homestead of the husband's father. Marriage involves a protracted series of exchanges and ceremonies between the families of the bride and groom, and most crucially the payment of substantial bride-wealth to the bride's family. Formerly this involved cattle (and, in the pre-colonial era, iron hoes); now it involves cattle and cash. Once bride-wealth has been paid, the children produced by the marriage are considered to belong to the husband's lineage. Divorce necessitates a return of bride-wealth. Marriage is not simply an individual affair: it establishes an enduring relationship of mutual obligations between affines that can be invoked for aid in times of hunger or other need.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit is the polygynous household. Each co-wife must have her own house (ot) in the homestead (dala) occupied by the patrilineal polygynous extended family. The husband, considered the wuon dala (head of the homestead), rotates among the houses of his wives for eating and sleeping, although he often has a small independent house (duol) for entertaining other male guests. Each house, occupied by a woman and her children, also has its own granary and is responsible for raising its own subsistence, although there is often a great deal of cooperation among cowives or neighbors in labor of various kinds.

Inheritance. Inheritance is patrilineal. Sons inherit cattle and other forms of wealth, as well as rights to the land of the father's gunda, from their father. A woman generally does not inherit wealth from her father or husband: the property of the husband passes to his brothers. Women do sometimes inherit small household items from their mothers-in-law.

Socialization. Caring for young children is shared by mothers, grandmothers, and older siblings. By the end of the twentieth century, school also played an important role in socialization. From the time they reach the age of puberty until they marry, boys live together in a house called simba just inside the main gate of the homestead. For women, who typically marry young (traditionally before age sixteen), there is a great deal of post-marital resocialization in which the mother-in-law plays an authoritative role. The spatial organization of the settlement itself has an important part in channeling the flow of social relations and inculcating beliefs and attitudes about proper behavior, authority, and relationships. The Luo have no formal initiation rites to mark the transition to adulthood and they are not circumcised. However, until the 1970s it was a common practice to extract six lower front teeth at some point in the pre-adult phase of the life cycle.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Lineage membership is the primary structuring principle of social organization. The distant past is perceived as the history of successive segmentation of patrilineages from a common Luo ancestor (Ramogi) resulting in a dendritic system of connections among all Luo lineages. Membership in a lineage implies a specific social distance from all other Luo lineages which is calculated on the basis of the temporal distance of the segmentation event. This temporal and social distance has practical significance in structuring personal interaction, as it determines whom one can marry, where one can expect political allies, with whom one is expected to share, whose funerals one must attend, where one has rights to land, and other relations.

Generational time structures relationships between individuals within lineages or lineage segments. For example, two males of identical chronological age may stand in the relationship of either "brothers" or of "father" and "son," depending upon the temporal depth of their genealogical connection. This structural relationship will have a great deal to do with the behavior considered appropriate between the two and will have much more to do with determining seniority than the relative times of birth.

Political Organization. Although at the beginning of the twenty-first century they live with an administrative system of local "chiefs" imposed by the British colonial government and continued by the postcolonial Kenyan state, the Luo have traditionally had a strongly egalitarian political ethos and lacked centralized authority. They do, however, have an indigenous term, ruoth, that is used to refer to modern chiefs. In the precolonial era this term more likely meant something closer to "leader" or "man of influence" than to the institutionalized political role it has come to signify. However, oral histories indicate that the degree to which individuals in the past were able to transform their informal influence within councils of elders into naturalized positions of authority and power varied somewhat from region to region. Traditionally, there was no pan-Luo centralized political authority or formal political hierarchy. Rather, the Luo are considered to be a classic example of a segmentary lineage system with fluctuating ad hoc alliances among lineages structured by genealogical distance between the disputants. The modern administrative boundaries within Luo territory, which were defined during the colonial era, effectively froze into static form what had previously been a series of highly dynamic factional and territorial struggles between competing subgroups organized according to lineage affiliation and military expediency.

Social Control. Belief in witchcraft and the potentially lethal supernatural consequences of violating cultural codes has been a powerful traditional force for social control. In this strongly egalitarian society, ostentatious accumulation of riches and deviation from the obligation to share are thought to provoke jealousy and the attention of witches, resulting in sickness and death. Moreover, violation of a range of cultural practices (especially temporal sequences of ritual acts that emphasize relations of seniority and authority and codes of personal interaction between classes of kin and affines) is thought to result in a state of supernatural illness called chira, that can be fatal, sometimes for entire families, if not expiated through appropriate rituals.

In the precolonial period, the arbitration of disputes within the smallest local territorial unit, the gweng, was handled by a council of elders (jodongo). The possibility to become an influential leader in this context required the building of prestige and moral authority, and these qualities were acquired from several possible sources. The most immediate criteria were genealogical position and the strength of the lineage: the most genealogically senior member of the dominant lineage of the gweng had responsibilities to settle disputes within the gweng, and he met with other similar leaders to attempt to resolve disputes between gwenge. Disputes that could not be settled peacefully were resolved by fission and migration, or by armed conflict. Pragmatic alliances often formed in which strong lineages would secure the support of weaker jodak (tenant) lineage groups that had settled in their territory after being forced out or fissioning elsewhere. Chiefs appointed by the Kenyan state now fulfill many of these local conflict mediation roles and the law courts are the locus of higher level disputes.

Conflict. From the late fifteenth to the end of the nineteenth century, the Luo, in the course of their southward migration and intrusion into the territory of Bantu-speaking peoples, were frequently engaged in armed conflict. There was little to distinguish internal and external fighting since in the segmentary lineage system fighting could be directed at one time against other Luo lineages (such as the earlier settlers) and at other times it would be against Bantu speakers. Fighting mostly ceased with the imposition of British colonial rule. With the exception of occasional isolated skirmishes, territorial disputes have since been displaced into the court system and the legislature. A number of Luo men were also drawn into larger conflicts when they were conscripted into the British colonial army during World Wars I and II.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religion among the Luo exhibits a complex creative hybridity of traditional beliefs and practices and those imported by Christian missionaries of a wide range of competing sects. Both Catholic and Protestant missions of European and American origin have been active in the area since the end of the nineteenth century. Even more numerous are the independent African churches (of which over 220 are officially registered in Kenya) that have splintered off from the Euro American churches. Many of these independent churches actually originated among the Luo and they are extremely popular. Nearly 90 percent of Joluo are professed adherents of Christianity in one or another of these manifestations. The charismatic independent churches, such as Roho and Legio Maria, often incorporate traditional Luo beliefs in such things as spirit possession with Christian symbols and practices. However, even adherents of the more orthodox Euro American Christian churches often see no contradiction in maintaining or adapting traditional beliefs and practices. On the other hand, churches of both types sometimes target specific traditional elements (e.g. drinking) for prohibition as a way of positioning themselves as a force capable of, for example, liberating people from witchcraft. Traditional beliefs include various forces called juogi (spirits), tipo (shadows), and kwere (ancestors), which can act positively or negatively, as well as a creator or life force god (Nyasaye or Were).

Religious Practitioners. Traditional religious practitioners include several kinds of witches, sorcerers, or magicians and diviners. These go by various names depending upon their attributes. Those who use medicines are called jobilo. They are feared and respected for their powers of divination and their ability to use killing magic on enemies. Ajuoge is a more general term for witches or sorcerers, while jopuok is used for "nightrunners" and those (usually women) who have the power to cause sickness through the "evil eye" (sihoho). Witchcraft and magical powers can be inherited or learned, depending upon the circumstances and type of powers. The independent African churches have a range of parallel religious specialists (priests, bishops, popes, prophets, etc.) derived from the Christian tradition. Leadership roles in these churches tend to be predominantly male, while church membership is predominantly female.

Ceremonies. The largest and most ostentatious Luo ceremonies are funerals. These can last for several days, during which time the host family must supply a large gathering of kin and affines with a steady supply of food and beer. The ritual involves a parade of the cattle owned by the deceased and a great feast accompanied by dancing and praise songs. A person's prestige can be measured by the number of people who attend his or her funeral. There are a host of other important ceremonies that are less elaborate than funerals, including marriage, twin-birth rituals, rites for establishing a new homestead, and harvest festivals. These all involve feasts with beer (and often chang'aa).

Arts. Oratory is one of the most admired and highly developed arts among the Luo. This includes the ability to tell stories and proverbs, to engage in formal praise speeches, and to marshal eloquent skills of political persuasion. There are also professional musicians who play the nyatiti (a plucked string instrument) to accompany songs that include both praise and witty satire of patrons and other influential men. Dancing also plays an important part in most festivities and rituals. Among the plastic arts, potters and basket-weavers are notably skilled.

Medicine. The Luo have a rich lore of herbal and other natural medicines. Some plants and their uses are known by everyone. Others (especially those used for harmful magic) are the domain of specialists (jobilo). Much curing is also done, after divination of the causes, by rituals that are not based upon plant medicines.

Death and Afterlife. The ancestors are a strong force in the life of the living. The spirits of the dead can be very dangerous if they have died under troubled circumstances or if they have been offended by the behavior of the living. However, they can also be a positive force. Children are often renamed after an ancestor who appears in a dream or who is invoked by a diviner. Most Luo also hold views of death and the afterlife influenced by their participation in Christian religions. Adults are buried within the homestead, while infants and those who have died in some spiritually dangerous limnal state may be buried outside the settlement. It is imperative that even those Luo who live in distant cities be brought back to their homestead for burial out of their own house. The famous legal dispute following the death of S. M. Otieno in 1985 (in which his non-Luo wife objected to his being returned to his homeland for burial) is a dramatic demonstration of the force of this belief and of the potential conflict between traditional law based upon collective rights and the law of the state based upon individual rights.

For the original article on the Luo, see Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Blount, Ben G. (1975). "Agreeing to Agree on Genealogy: a Luo Sociology of Language." In Sociocultural Dimensions of Language Use, edited by Mary Sanches and Ben G. Blount. 117-135. New York: Academic Press.

Cohen, David W., and E. S. Atieno-Odhiambo (1988). Siaya, the Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape, London: J. Currey.

Dietler, Michael, and Ingrid Herbich (1993). "Living on Luo Time: Reckoning Sequence, Duration, History, and Biography in a Rural African Society," World Archaeology 25: 248-260.

Evans-Pritchard, Edward E. (1949). "Luo Tribes and Clans," Rhodes-Livingstone Journal 7: 24-40.

Hay, Margaret J. (1972). "Economic Change in Luoland: Kowe, 1890-1945." Ph.D. Dissertation: University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Herbich, Ingrid (1987). "Learning Patterns, Potter Interaction and Ceramic Style among the Luo of Kenya," The African Archaeological Review 5: 193-204.

Hoehler-Fatton, Cynthia (1996). Women of Fire and Spirit: History, Faith, and Gender in Roho Religion in Western Kenya. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ocholla-Ayayo, A. B. C. (1980). The Luo Culture: A Reconstruction of the Material Culture Patterns of a Traditional African Society. Wiesbadem: Franz Steiner Verlag.

Odinga, Oginga (1967). Not Yet Uhuru: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann.

Ogot, Bethwell A. (1967). History of the Southern Luo. Vol. 1: Migration and Settlement 1500-1900. Nairobi: East African Publishing House.

Okoth-Ogendo, H. W. O. (1978). "The Political Economy of Land Law: An Essay in the Legal Organization of Underdevelopment in Kenya, 1895-1974." D.S.L Thesis: Yale University.

Pala, Achola, O. (1983). "Women's Access to Land and Their Role in Agriculture and Decision-Making on the Farm: Experiences of the Joluo of Kenya," Journal of Eastern African Research and Development 13: 69-87.

Parkin, David (1978). The Cultural Definition of Political Response: Lineal Destiny among the Luo. New York: Academic Press.

Schwartz, Nancy (1989). "World Without End: The Meanings and Movements in the History, Narratives and 'Tongue-Speech' of Legio Maria of African Church Mission among the Luo of Kenya." Ph.D. dissertation: Princeton University.

Shipton, Parker (1989). Bitter Money: Cultural Economy and Some African Meanings of Forbidden Commodities. Washington, DC: American Ethnological Society.

Southall, Aidan (1952). "Lineage Formation among the Luo," International African Institute Memorandum 26. London: Oxford University Press.

Whisson, Michael (1964). Change and Challenge: A Study of the Social and Economic Changes among the Kenya Luo. Nairobi: Christian Council of Kenya.

Wilson, Gordon (1968). Luo Customary Law and Marriage Law Customs. Nairobi: Republic of Kenya.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Luo." Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Luo." Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement. . (December 11, 2017).

"Luo." Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from




LOCATION: Kenya; Tanzania

POPULATION: Over 3 million

LANGUAGE: Dholuo; English (official); KiSwahili

RELIGION: Christianity combined with indigenous practices (Anglican church [CPK], Roman Catholicism, and independent Christian churches)


Throughout the nineteenth century ad, the Luo migrated into the area they now occupy in Kenya. They left lower savanna grasslands for higher and cooler regions with reliable rainfall. As a result of this migration, their traditional emphasis on cattle was supplemented by farming and an increasing importance of crops in their economy. Bantu agriculturalists, with whom the Luo increasingly interacted, exchanged many customs with them.


According to the last national population census conducted in 1989, the Luo number over 3 million people, or about 13 percent of Kenya's total population. Along with the Luhya, the Luo are the second largest ethnic group in the country, behind the Gikuyu. Most Luo live in western Kenya in Western province or in the adjacent Nyanza province, two of the eight provinces in Kenya. Some Luo live to the south of Kenya in Tanzania. Many Luo also live in Nairobi. Most Luo maintain strong economic, cultural, and social links to western Kenya, which they consider home. Over the past 500 years, the Luo have migrated slowly from the Sudan to their present location around the eastern shore of Lake Victoria. This area changes from low, dry landscape around the lake to more lush, hilly areas to the east. The provincial capital of Kisumu is the third-largest city in Kenya and is a major cultural center for the Luo.


The Luo, like other Kenyans, are typically conversant in at least three languages. The two national languages of Kenya are English and KiSwahili. English, derived from the British colonial era before Kenya's independence in 1963, is the official language of government, international business, university instruction, banks, and commerce. It is taught throughout Kenya in primary and secondary schools. KiSwahili is the primary language of many coastal populations in Kenya and has spread from there throughout East Africa, including Luoland. Today, the KiSwahili language serves as a language of trade and commerce in urban markets and rural towns. Nowadays, KiSwahili is also taught in Kenyan primary and secondary schools. In addition, radio, television, and newspaper materials are available in these two languages.

Nevertheless, the indigenous language of the Luo, referred to as Dholuo, is for most people the language of preference in the home and in daily conversation. Dholuo is taught in primary schools throughout Luoland. Most Luo young people are fluent in English, KiSwahili, and Dholuo. This is particularly impressive because these languages are from three very distinct language families with drastically different grammatical principles and vocabulary.

Children enjoy playing language games in Dholuo. Among these is a tongue-twister game. For example, children try to say without difficulty, Atud tond atonga, tond atonga chodi, which means, "I tie the rope of the basket, the rope of the basket breaks." Acham tap chotna malando chotna cham tapa malando means, "I eat from the red dish of my lover and my lover eats from my red dish." Most Luo, irrespective of educational attainment and occupation, prefer to speak Dholuo at home and continue to teach this language to their children. Even young Luo teenagers, who nowadays live in Nairobi and rarely visit Luoland, nevertheless have learned to speak Dholuo fluently.

Children are given names that correspond to where they were born, the time of day, or the day of the week. Even the kind of weather that prevailed at the time of a child's birth is noted. For example, one born during a rain storm is called Akoth (male) or Okoth (female). Just about every Luo also has a pet name used among close friends.


Stories, legends, riddles, and proverbs are an important part of Luo culture. They are traditionally recited in the siwindhe, which is the home of a (widowed) grandmother. Luo boys and girls gather there in the evenings to be taught the traditions of their culture. In the evenings, after people have returned from their gardens, they gather to tell and listen to stories. In the siwindhe, however, grandmothers preside over storytelling and verbal games. Riddles take the form of competitive exchanges where winners are rewarded by "marrying" girls in a kind of mock (pretend) marriage situation. Friendly arguments often erupt over interpretations of riddles. One riddle, for example, asks the question, "My house has no door," which is answered by "an egg." Another riddle is, "What is a lake with reeds all around?" The answer is, "an eye." Clever answers are frequently given as alternatives to these standard answers. Proverbs are another part of the siwindhe discussions and are common in everyday use as well. Some examples are, "The eye you have treated will look at you contemptuously," "A hare is small but gives birth to twins," and "A cowardly hyena lives for many years."

Morality tales teach all listeners the proper way to cope with life's circumstances. Such questions as, Why do people die?, What is the value of a deformed child?, What qualities make an appropriate spouse?, What is friendship?, Who is responsible for a bad child?, Why do some people suffer?, and many others are the subject of folklore. For example, the story known as "Opondo's Children" is about a man called Opondo whose wife continuously gave birth to monitor lizards instead of human babies. These lizard babies were thrown away to die because they were hideous. Once, however, the parents decided to keep such a child and he grew to adolescence. As a teenager, this child loved to bathe alone in a river. Before swimming he would take off his monitor skin, and while swimming he mysteriously became a normal human being. His skin was, in fact, only a superficial covering. One day a passerby saw him swimming and told his parents that he was a normal human being. Secretly, his parents went to watch him swim and discovered that he was in fact normal. They destroyed his skin and thereafter, the boy became accepted and loved by all in his community. For this reason, Opondo and his wife deeply regretted that they had thrown away all of their many monitor children. This tale teaches that compassion should be displayed toward children with physical defects.

In an origin tale concerning death, it is told that humans and chameleons are responsible for this calamity. Were (God) wanted to put an end to death, which strikes "young and old, boys and girls, men and women, strangers and kinsmen, and the wise and the foolish." He requested that an offering be made to him of white fat from a goat. A chameleon was assigned to carry the offering up to the sky where Were lives. Along the way, the fat became dirty and was angrily rejected by Were. He declared that death would continue because of this insult. The chameleon became cursed by the Luo, and ever since it must always walk on all fours and take slow steps.


Christianity has had a major impact on Luo religious beliefs and practices. Today, religious communities draw on beliefs both from indigenous practices and from Christianity. The Anglican Church, known as the CPK, and the Roman Catholic Church are very significant among the Luo. Many people, however, do not draw sharp distinctions between religious practices with European origins and those with African origins. Mainstream churches draw on a rich Luo musical and dance tradition. For many Christians, the ancestors continue to play a significant role in their lives. In traditional belief, the ancestors reside in the sky or underground, from where they may be reincarnated in human or animal form. Ceremonies are sometimes performed when naming a baby to determine if a particular spirit has been reincarnated. The spirits of ancestors are believed to communicate with the living in their dreams.

In the Luo religion, troublesome spirits may cause misfortunes if they are not remembered or respected. Luo refer to spirits by the term juok, or "shadow." The Luo refer to God by many names that indicate his power. For example, Were means "one certain to grant requests"; Nyasaye, "he who is begged"; Ruoth, "the king"; Jachwech, "the molder"; Wuon koth, "the rain-giver"; and Nyakalaga, "the one who flows everywhere." Prayers and requests are addressed to God by those in need of his assistance.

Christianity has fused most notably with traditional religious beliefs and customs in "independent Christian churches," which have attracted large followings. For example, the Nomiya Luo Church, which started in 1912, was the first independent church in Kenya. The founder of this church, Johanwa Owalo, is believed to be a prophet similar to Jesus Christ and Muhammad. Owalo later teamed up with a Catholic priest and began teaching a new theology that rejected both the Pope and the doctrine of the trinity.


The Luo recognize the national holidays of Kenza and Tanzania, depending on the country where they reside. In addition, Luo celebrate the Christian religious holidays.


People are discouraged from noting when someone is pregnant for fear that problems might result from jealous ancestors or neighbors. Older women and midwives assist the woman throughout her pregnancy and in childbirth. The birth of twins, which is believed to be the result of evil spirits, is treated with special attention and requires taboos (prohibitions) on the part of the parents. Only if neighbors engage in obscene dancing and use foul language will the burden of giving birth to twins be lifted. The Luo, however, did not adopt circumcision for men, as practiced in some neighboring Bantu groups.

Adolescence is a time of preparation for marriage and family life. Traditionally, girls obtained tattoos on their backs and had their ears pierced. Girls spent time in peer groups where conversation centered on boys and their personal attributes. Sex education was in the hands of older women who gave advice in a communal sleeping hut used by teenage girls. Lovers sometimes made secret arrangements to meet near these huts, although premarital pregnancy was strictly forbidden. Nowadays, neighborhood and boarding schools have replaced communal sleeping huts and elders, although sex education is not taught in these schools.

Since there are no initiation ceremonies in earlier stages of the life cycle, the funeral serves as the most important symbol for family and community identity. Burials must take place in Luoland, regardless of where a person may have lived during his or her adult years.


Social relations among the Luo are governed by rules of kinship, gender, and age. Descent is patrilineal (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 Luoland 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. Attendance at funerals is a significant obligation for all Luo. At funerals, Luo consume large amounts of meat, beer, and soft drinks and socialize with friends and relatives. Funerals last for four days for a male and three days for a female. After the burial and expression of grief through speeches and viewing of the body, there is a period of feasting and celebration. After the funeral of a man, a rooster (which symbolizes masculinity to the Luo) is taken from his house and eaten by his relatives. This signifies the end of his homestead. (When a new homestead is founded, a man is given a rooster from his father's home.)

Visitors for funerals gather from far and wide and are housed around the compound of the dead person, which is where he or she will be buried. This location and the duration of the ritual is an excellent opportunity for young people to meet and observe members of the opposite sex, or for elders to discuss marriage alliances that they might wish to promote. Dating may well follow initial meetings or deliberations at the funeral.


There are several types of rural houses. A common house is made of mud and wattle (woven twigs) walls with a thatched roof. Another style includes mud and wattle walls, with a roof made of corrugated metal. A more elaborate, permanent house has brick walls and a roof covered with iron sheets or tiles. Bricks, iron sheets, and tiles are all items of prestige, and their ownership symbolizes success in farming, animal husbandry, or some modern occupation such as teaching, the ministry, or shopkeeping. Homes vary in shape as well as size. Some homes of the old variety made of wattle and mud are circular. Those with more permanent materials tend to be rectangular. A prosperous man who is the head of a large extended family may have several wives whose homes are situated by their rank within a large circular homestead.

Luo living in Kisumu, the regional capital, or in Nairobi have homes that vary according to their social status. Some Luo are numbered among the elite Kenyans whose homes are elaborate, with facilities for automobiles, sleeping accommodations for visiting relatives, and servants' quarters. Other less fortunate Luo live in Nairobi's crowded slums where homes are quite temporary, made of wattle and mud and short-lived materials such as tin, paper, and plastic.

Malaria is a major killer in Luoland. Children's diseases, such as kwashiorkor (a form of protein malnutrition), are a threat in those families without access to a balanced diet or knowledge about nutrition and health standards. In villages, there is an emphasis on preventive medicine; most rural communities have clinics with medical workers who emphasize sanitation, prenatal care, nutrition, and other practices known to reduce the risk of disease.


Marriage was traditionally considered to be the most significant event in the lives of both men and women. It was thought inappropriate for anyone to remain unmarried. Large families ensured adequate numbers of workers. The system of polygyny (multiple wives) guaranteed that all people married.

The significance of bride wealth is increasing, even among educated Luo. Members of the groom's family initiate a process of negotiation with the bride's family that may unfold over many years. Negotiations can be intense, and for this reason a "go-between," who is neutral to the interests of each family, is used. Luo believe that divorce cannot occur after bride wealth has been exchanged and children are born. Even if separation happens, the couple is still ideally considered to be married. Failure to have children, however, is thought to be the fault of the bride and, for this, she will be divorced or replaced by another wife. Cattle are the primary item given in bride wealth. In determining the value of a prospective bride, her family takes into account her health, appearance, and, nowadays, her level of formal education. Failure of men to raise a high bride wealth prompts many of them to propose elopement, a practice that is on the rise today.

Young people in Kenya still tend to marry within their own ethnic groups. Tribal elders frequently caution against "intertribal marriages." The more distant the ethnic group in space and customs from the Luo, the greater the cautionary warnings. For this reason, Luo intertribal marriage is most likely to occur with members from neighboring Baluya societies, which are Bantu. However, most Luo marry within their own ethnic group.


Traditionally, the Luo wore minimal clothing. Animal hides were used to cover private parts, but there was no stigma (shame) associated with nudity. Nowadays, clothing styles are largely Western in origin. They vary according to a person's social class and lifestyle preferences. It is not uncommon to see people in remote rural areas fashionably dressed according to some of the latest tastes. Luo living in Nairobi tend to wear clothing that is cosmopolitan by rural standards and similar to the clothing worn in New York or Paris.

In rural areas, most people dress according to their work routines. For example, women wear loose-fitting dresses made of solid or printed cotton fabric while farming or attending market. Wearing sandals or going barefoot are typical while working. Men wear jeans as work pants while farming. During the rainy season, the roads can become very muddy; consequently, boots and umbrellas are especially prized by both men and women. These days, there is a strong market in second-hand clothing, making slacks, dresses, coats, undergarments, sweaters, shoes, handbags, belts, and other items available to even poorer families. Luo enjoy dressing up for funerals and weddings and are considered throughout Kenya to be very fashionable.


The primary crops are maize (corn), millet, and sorghum. Coffee, tobacco, cotton, and sugarcane are important cash crops. Important animals include sheep, goats, chickens, and cattle, which are used for bride wealth. Fish from Lake Victoria and its streams are important, especially talapia. Many foods are purchased, including sugar, bread, and butter, which are consumed with tea on a daily basis, a custom known as "tea time" and derived from the British colonial era, which ended in 1963.

The staple food eaten several times a day is ugali. This is made from maize meal stirred in boiling water until it becomes a thick and smooth porridge. Ugali is always eaten with an accompaniment such as meat or stew. Greens (sukumawiki) are also frequently eaten with ugali. Maize, popular throughout Kenya, is frequently sold for money. This has led many families to sell their maize when financially pressed for money. For this reason, there is a periodic famine throughout Luoland that occurs every year during the long, dry season prior to harvest.


Kenya introduced a new system of education in the 1980s known as the "8-4-4 system," modeled after the American system. Luo now go to primary school for eight years, to secondary school for four years, and to college for four years. The previous system was modeled on the British educational system.

After completing high school, Luo attend technical, secretarial, nursing, computer, teacher training, and business schools as alternatives to the university. There is a new university at Maseno near Kisumu, which provides easy access for those Luo who want to attend a university. Education is highly valued among the Luo, and they are well represented in the professions. Nevertheless, there still remains a high level of illiteracy (inability to read and write), especially among females. In polygynous marriages there is a strong tendency for younger wives to be more educated than their older counterparts. More Luo are now recognizing the importance of sending girls to school.

The Luo success in academic pursuits may well be related to the value given to "wisdom" in their culture. Modern philosophers have applied the term "sage philosophy" to describe individuals among the Luo who, in the past and present, excel in teachings and reflections on the human condition. The Luo society is an open one. All individuals are encouraged to express themselves publicly. Truth (adier) is expressed through songs and folklore by respected elder men and women who are acknowledged as wise. Most respected, however, is the japaro, a term that translates into English as "thinker," who is consulted on all matters of interest to community welfare. The most famous sage until his death in the mid-1990s was Oginga Odinga, a widely respected elder and former vice-president of Kenya. He spoke out publicly during colonialism and in post-colonial politics against what he considered to be injustices. In his writings, he emphasized communal welfare and concern for preservation of traditional values.


The Luo consider their entire traditional way of life to be an important community resource. There is a great deal of disagreement over what should be preserved and what should change. Customs centering on marriage and gender relations are hotly debated.

Songs are popular today as in the past. Musicians praise and lament political, generational, economic, and cultural contradictions in contemporary life. Luo devote much time to listening to music, and regularly purchase records, tapes, and CDs. Christian church music is also a form of entertainment.

It is said that the short story was a well-developed art among the Luo in traditional times. Such stories were often accompanied by music. The most important short-story writer in Kenya today is a Luo woman, Grace Ogot. In her stories she includes traditional themes as well as modern dilemmas, such as an educated woman living in a polygynous arrangement. Some of her best-known stories are "The Other Woman," "The Fisherman," and "The Honorable Minister."


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 Luo participate in all of the major national sports currently played in Kenya. Soccer is a particularly popular sport. Secondary schools provide an assortment of sports for young people, giving them an opportunity to engage in competitive games such as track and field and soccer. Children enjoy games in the village, such as racing, wrestling, and soccer. Some boys enjoy swimming.


Childhood play activities for girls include grinding soil on a flattened stone in imitation of adults who grind grains. Girls play with dolls made from clay or maize (corn) cobs. Boys and girls play hide-and-seek and house. Girls play a game called kora using pieces of broken pottery or stones. In this game, stones are collected and then thrown into the air. The main purpose is to catch more than one stone on the back of the hand. Boys and girls between six and ten years of age play separately. Girls spend more time at home caring for younger siblings and helping with household duties and gardening. Boys have more freedom and combine play activities with herding and care of animals.

Children and adults both play a game called bao, a board game played widely throughout Africa. This game of strategy involves trying to place seeds on the opponent's side of the board and capture their seeds.

Radio and television are both available to most Luo. Radio programs are in KiSwahili, English, and Dholuo. Virtually all homes have radios, which are a significant source of both entertainment and education. Books and printed media have now largely replaced public speaking as a form of entertainment. Nevertheless, visiting family and friends continues to be a valued aspect of Luo culture. Visits are typically very lively with lots of animated discussion. The verbally skillful person is still widely admired.

Birthday parties are now much more important than they were in the past, when individuals did not reckon their age in years. Parents try to make their children's birthdays special with a cake, cards, and gifts. Weddings and funerals, as in the past, are still major forms of entertainment for old and young alike. Church groups, clubs, women's organizations, and schools are important organizations for their members' social calendars.


See the article on "Kenyans" in this chapter for information about crafts and hobbies.


During the colonial era and since independence, the Luo have been isolated from national leadership even though they are the second-largest ethnic group in the country. Specific social problems follow from this isolation. Economic development in western Kenya is poor, Luo roads are badly in need of repair, rates of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection are comparatively high, food shortages are frequent, and infant mortality is among the highest in the country. The municipal water supply is so badly treated that residents suffer from water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever, amoebic dysentery, common dysentery, and diarrhea. Tourism has bypassed Luoland and Lake Victoria, even though Lake Victoria has hippopotami, freshwater fish, and cultural attractions.

Teenage pregnancies are a major social problem in contemporary Luoland. Social responsibility for teenage pregnancy falls entirely on girls, who generally leave school if they become pregnant.


Arnold, Gay. Modern Kenya. New York: Longman, 1981.

Dinesen, Isak. Out of Africa. New York: Random House, 1972.

Kenya in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1988.

Liyong, Taban lo. Popular Culture of East Africa. Nairobi: Longman Kenya, 1972.

Stein, R. Kenya. Chicago: Children's Press, 1985.

Themes in Kenyan History. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990.

Webb, Lois Sinaiko. Holidays of the World Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx, 1995.


Embassy of Kenya, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. Kenya. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available, 1998.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Luo." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Luo." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (December 11, 2017).

"Luo." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from



ETHNONYMS: Dholuo, Nilotic Kavirondo

The Luo live primarily within the Kenyan province of Nyanza. In 1987 they numbered about 3.2 million, of whom about 200,000 lived in Tanzania and another 200,000 in other countries, outside Kenya. They belong to a larger grouping of Nilotic peoples of East and Central Africa. The Luo have migrated from the Bahr al-Ghazal region of Sudan over the past 500 years. Throughout the mid- and late twentieth century, they have lived in densely settled land of separated farmsteads, in three districts around Lake Victoria. The landscape varies from flat and dry by the lake to green and hilly in the eastern uplands. The Luo are homogeneous in language, and Luo communities are linked by marriage and other kin ties. Their neighbors include the Nandi, Gusii, Maasai, and Kuria, and they also have dealings with migrant Indian, Middle Eastern, and Somali traders in the towns.

Although the Luo farm the land in order to produce an adequate food supply, they are first and foremost cattle herders. Their love of herds is a fundamental social reality, and cattle herding is therefore a fundamental aspect of their social structure. In the latter half of the twentieth century, about a third of the middle-aged men have lived outside the Luo homeland while seeking wage labor in Kenya's plantations, towns, and cities. Within Nyanza Province, several large sugar plantations provide some manual jobs.

The Luo provide a classic example of a segmentary lineage society with kin-group formation based on patrilineal descent. Patriliny, bride-wealth, and polygyny all reinforce each other. The Luo are patronymic in naming and virilocal in postmarital residence; one-third of Luo families are polygynous.

Reproduction is a key underlying concern. It is a basis of the value system by which men judged exchanges in the past. Products of exchange progressed from cultivation to chickens, chickens to goats, goats to cows, and finally, cows to women. Fertility is at least as much a woman's concern as it is a man's. The success of marriages and the wives' social status both depend on their producing children.

Wives keep separate houses within the circular homesteads of the larger polygynous families; they farm separate fields and maintain separate granaries, but their husbands are normally considered the heads of the homesteads. Farmwork is assigned according to gender: women shoulder the time-consuming task of caring for the basic staple crops, whereas men are responsible for the cash cropsand generally do less of the farmwork.

Age is deeply respected in Luo culture. Elder men control the allocation of bride-wealth cattle, land, and, to some extent, labor and cash. According to Luo ideology, age, wealth, and respect come together, and it is considered natural that elders control family resources. Elder men are also the representatives of their families to the outside world.

Ancestor worship played a predominant role in the traditional religion of the Luo. Ancestral and other spirits were active forces in their world, and they are still evident within the belief system of many Luo. Since well before the twentieth century, however, British, American, and other Catholic and Protestant missions, as well as many independent African Christian churches, have all competed for converts in Luo territory. The organization of local independent churches reflects the segmentary lineage system that is so important in Luo life. Although the Luo are predominantly Christian, their religious beliefs and practices are a mixture of traditional indigenous elements and newer, exogenous elements.


Ocholla-Ayayo, A. B. C. (1980). The Luo Culture: A Reconstruction of a Traditional African Society. Wiesbaden: Steiner.

Shipton, Parker (1989). Bitter Money: Cultural Economy and Some African Meanings of Forbidden Commodities. American Ethnological Society Monograph Series, no. 1. Washington, D.C

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Luo." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Luo." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (December 11, 2017).

"Luo." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from


Luoduo, Luo

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Luo." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Luo." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 11, 2017).

"Luo." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from