ALTERNATE NAMES: Luyia, Abaluhya
LOCATION: Western Kenya
POPULATION: 5.3 million
LANGUAGE: Several Bantu dialects
RELIGION: Christianity (Catholicism, Protestantism); Islam; some indigenous beliefs
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Kenyans
The Luhya, Luyia, or Abaluhya, as they are interchangeably called, are the second-largest ethnic group in Kenya, after the Kikuyu. The Luhya belong to the larger linguistic stock known as the Bantu. The Luhya comprise several subgroups with different but mutually intelligible linguistic dialects. Some of these subgroups are Ababukusu, Abanyala, Abatachoni, Avalogoli, Abamarama, Abaidakho, Abaisukha, Abatiriki, Abakisa, Abamarachi, and Abasamia.
Migration into their present Western Kenya location goes back to as early as the second half of the 15th century ad. Immigrants into present-day Luhyaland came mainly from eastern and western Uganda and trace their ancestry mainly to several Bantu groups, and to other non-Bantu groups such as the Kalenjin, Luo, and Maasai. Early migration was probably due to the search for more and better land, and escape from local conflicts, tsetse flies, and mosquitoes. By about 1850, migration into Luhyaland was largely complete, and only minor internal movements took place after that due to food shortages, disease, and domestic conflicts. Despite their diverse ethnic ancestry, a history of intermarriage, local trade, and shared social and cultural practices have combined to form the present Luhya ethnic group, which still displays variations in dialects and customs reflecting this diverse ancestry.
The Luhya have been subjected to the political forces that have affected most of the other ethnic groups in Kenya. Colonization of Kenya by the British from the 1890s to 1963 forced many communities, including the Luhya, into migrant labor on settler plantations and in urban centers. Because of their numeric strength, the Luhya are considered a potent political force and have always been active in political activities in Kenya. For example, veteran politicians Michael Wamalwa Kijana and Musalia Mudavadi rose to become vice presidents of the Kenyan Government though for brief periods of time. Others have gone on to become influential members of the Kenyan society such as medical doctors, professors, educators, economists, lawyers and so on.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The Luhya people make their home mainly in the western part of Kenya. Administratively, they occupy mostly Western Province, and the west-central part of Rift Valley Province. Luhya migration into the Rift Valley is relatively recent, only dating back to the first few years after independence in 1963, when farms formerly occupied by colonial white settlers were bought by, or given back to, indigenous Africans.
According to the latest population estimates of Kenya, the Luhya people number 5.3 million people, making up 14% of Kenya's total population of 36.9 million people. The Luhya are the second-largest ethnic group in Kenya, after the Kikuyu. Whereas the majority of the Luhya live in western Kenya, especially in the rural areas, there is an increasingly large number of Luhya who have migrated into major urban centers such as Nairobi in search of employment and educational opportunities. About 1,500,000 Luhya people live outside of Western Province. This is about 28.3% of the total Luhya population.
There is no single Luhya language as such. Rather, there are several mutually intelligible dialects which are principally Bantu. Perhaps the most identifying linguistic feature of the different Luhya dialects is the use of the prefix aba- or ava-, meaning “of” or “belonging to.” Thus, for example, Abalogoli or Avalogoli means “people of logoli.”
Luhya names have specific meanings or connotations. Children are named after natural climatic seasons, and also after their ancestors, normally their deceased grandparents or great-grandparents. Among the Ababukusu, the name Wafula (for a boy) and Nafula (for a girl) would mean “born during heavy rains,” while Wekesa (for a boy) and Nekesa (for a girl) would mean “born in the harvest season.” With European contact and the introduction of Christianity at the turn of the 20th century, Christian and Western European names began to be given as first names, followed by traditional Luhya names. Thus, for example, a boy might be named Joseph Wafula, and a girl, Grace Nekesa.
One of the most common myths among the Luhya group is the one regarding the origin of the earth and human beings. The myth holds that Were (God) first created heaven, then earth. The earth created by Were had three types of soil: top soil, which was black; intermediate soil, which was red; and bottom soil, which was white. From the black soil, Were created a black man; from the red soil, he created a brown man; and from the white soil, he created a white man.
The Luhya people traditionally believed in and worshipped one God, Were (also known as Nyasaye). Were was worshipped through intermediaries, usually spirits of dead relatives. The spirits had a lot of benevolent as well as malevolent power and thus had to be appeased through animal sacrifices, such as goats, chickens, and cattle.
At the turn of the 20th century, Christianity was introduced to Luhyaland as it was to the rest of the country. An extensive spread of Christianity occurred during the colonial period. The overwhelming majority of Luhya people now consider themselves Christians. Both Catholicism and Protestantism are practiced. Among the Abawanga, Islam is also practiced.
Despite conversion to Christianity, belief in spirits and witchcraft is still common, and it is not unusual to find people offering prayers in church and at the same time consulting witch doctors or medicine men for the same or different problems.
There are no specific holidays that are uniquely Luhya, or that celebrate Luhya achievements or culture. Rather, the Luhya people celebrate the national holidays of Kenya with the rest of the nation. Among the Abalogoli and Abanyole, an annual cultural festival has recently been initiated, but it is not yet widely adopted. The festival is held on December 31.
RITES OF PASSAGE
As is true in many African societies, having many children is considered a virtue, and childlessness is a great misfortune. Many births take place in the home, but increasingly women are urged to give birth in hospitals or other health facilities. Deliveries that take place at home are managed by older neighboring women who have experience in assisting in deliveries. Men are normally not expected at the place of delivery. The placenta (engori) and the umbilical cord (olulera) are buried behind the hut at a secret spot so they will not be found and tampered with by a witch (omulogi). For births that take place in hospitals or other places outside of home, these rituals are not observed.
Until the last 10 to 20 years, initiation ceremonies to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood were elaborately performed for both boys and girls. Among other things, these rites included circumcision for boys. Uncircumcised boys (avasinde) would not be allowed to marry or join in many other adult activities. Nowadays circumcision still takes place, but only among the Ababukusu and the Abatiriki are the ceremonies still elaborate and largely public.
Death and funeral rites involve not only the bereaved family, but also the community and other kin. While it is known that many deaths occur through illnesses like malaria and tuberculosis, as well as road accidents, quite a few deaths are still believed to occur from witchcraft. Burial often takes place in the homestead of the deceased. Among the Luhya, funerals and burials are public and open events. Animals are slaughtered and food and drinks brought to feed the mourners. Because many people nowadays profess Christianity, many burial ceremonies, even though largely traditional in terms of observance of certain rites, do involve prayers in church and at the deceased's home. Music and dance also take place, mostly at night. Music and dance are a mixture of both traditional Luhya performances and contemporary Western-style music involving modern stereos and “boom boxes.”
Greetings among the Luhya take various forms. The essence of any form of greeting is not just to salute the person, but to inquire of their well-being and that of their families. People take a keen interest in one another's affairs, and people are often willing to share their concerns with others. Shaking hands is a very common form of greeting, and for people who are meeting for the first time in a long while, the handshake will involve not just the clasping of hands, but also a vigorous jerking of the arm. Shaking hands between a man and his mother-in-law is not allowed among some Luhya communities. Hugging is not very common. Women may hug each other, but cross-gender hugging is rare.
Women are expected to defer to men, especially to their husbands, fathers-in-law, and the older brothers of their husband. Thus, in a conversation with any of these men, women will tend (or are expected) to lower their heads, fold their hands, and look down.
Visits are very common among the Luhya people. Most visits are casual and unannounced. Families strive to provide food for their visitors, especially tea. Dating among the Luhya is informal and is often not publicly displayed, especially among teenagers. Unless a marriage is seriously intended and planned, a man or a woman may not formally invite their date to their parents' home and introduce him or her as such.
The living conditions of the Luhya are not much different from those of other communities in Kenya. Major health concerns among the Luhya include the prevalence of diseases such as scabies, diarrhea, malaria, malnutrition, and, lately, AIDS. These illnesses are prevalent mainly due to poor sanitation and inadequate access to clean water and health facilities, and also because they frequently do not practice safe sex.
In the rural areas, the Luhya live in homesteads called mugitsi by the Avalogoli, comprising an extended family. The houses are mostly made of grass-thatched roofs and mud walls, but increasingly people construct houses with corrugated iron roofs, and in some cases, walls made of concrete blocks. The houses tend to be round or square. Because of the general poverty in rural areas, people own very few material goods, and items such as transistor radios and bicycles are considered prime possessions. Items like cars and TVs are largely lacking among the majority of these people.
People rely on public transportation, consisting of buses and vans, but travel on foot and on bicycles is also very common. Roads in the rural hinterland are not paved and tend to be impassable during heavy rains.
In the rural areas among the Luhya, people live in homesteads or compounds, with each homestead comprising several houses. In one homestead may live an old man (the patriarch), his married sons and their wives and children, his unmarried sons and daughters, and sometimes other relatives. Even though each household may independently run its own affairs, there is a lot of obligatory sharing within the homestead. Family sizes tend to be large, with the average number of children per woman reaching eight.
Women are expected to defer to men in this patriarchal society. Acts of supposed lack of deference or insubordination by women towards their husbands, father-in-laws, or other senior male relatives can result in beatings from the male relatives, especially the husband. Women do most of the domestic chores such as fetching firewood, cooking, taking care of children, and also farm work.
Marriage among the Luhya is exogamous. One cannot marry those belonging to his or her parents' clans or lineages. Polygyny (the act of a man marrying more than one wife) is not as widely practiced these days among the Luhya, but it is still fairly common among the Ababukusu subgroup. Traditionally, a request for marriage is made between the parents of the man and the woman. If the marriage is agreed upon, bride-wealth of cattle and cash, called uvukwi among the Avalogoli subgroup, is paid. Nowadays, however, young people increasingly get married on their own accord with little parental input. Civil and church (Christian) marriages are also becoming common. Bride-wealth is still being paid, but amounts differ widely, and payment schedules are not strictly adhered to.
Pets are kept, especially dogs and cats. Often, however, these pets are kept for utilitarian purposes. Dogs provide security, while cats catch mice. Often the dogs will have their kennels outside of the house, but cats may sleep in the house.
Ordinarily the Luhya people wear clothes just like those of their fellow Kenyans—locally manufactured and imported dresses, pants, shirts, shoes, etc. Elementary and high school students wear uniforms to school as a national policy. Women almost never wear either short or long pants. Those who dare to do so are considered aberrant and may even be verbally assaulted by men. It is particularly inappropriate for a married woman to wear pants or a short skirt or dress in the presence of her father-in-law. Earrings, necklaces, and bangles are commonly worn by women. Men generally do not wear earrings.
Traditional clothing is worn mostly during specific occasions by certain people. In cultural dances, performers may put on feathered hats and skirts made of sisal strands. For the Luhya groups that still maintain the traditional circumcision rites (especially the Ababukusu), the initiates will often put on clothing made of skins and paint themselves with red ochre or ash.
The meal regime among the Luhya involves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast mainly consists of tea. The preferred tea is made with plenty of milk and sugar. However, milk may not be available all the time, and tea may very often be taken without it. Tea without milk is called itulungi. For those that can afford it, wheat bread bought from the stores is consumed with tea. Tea and bread, however, are too expensive for many families to eat on a regular basis, so porridge, made of maize, millet, or finger millet flour, is consumed instead. Lunch and supper often consist of ovukima—maize flour added to boiling water and thoroughly mixed until cooked into a thick paste more or less like grits in the US. Ovukima is eaten with various vegetables like kale and collard greens, and for those who can afford it, beef or chicken. Chicken is a delicacy and is the food prepared for important guests or on important occasions.
Other foods that are consumed include traditional vegetables like mrera and nderema. Many traditional food taboos have broken down. Women, for example, were not allowed to eat chicken and eggs in the past, but this taboo has largely been abandoned. The chicken gizzard, however, is still for the most part considered men's food (particularly the male head of the household), and in many homes women will not eat it.
The main cooking utensils are pots made of steel or other metals. These are mass-manufactured in the country, as well as imported, and are bought from the stores. Clay pots are also still used by many families for preparing and storing traditional beer, and also for cooking traditional vegetables. Plates and cups are made of either metals, plastic, or china, and are bought from the stores, as are spoons, knives, and forks.
The literacy level among the Luhya is close to that of the country as a whole. The literacy level for the total population of Western Province where the majority of the Luhya live is 67.3%. This is slightly lower than the national average of 69.4%. Literacy among women is slightly lower than among men. Typically, most people (about 75% of the population) drop out of school after primary school education, which (since the mid-1980s) lasts eight years. The main reasons for the high drop-out rates are the stringent qualifying examinations to enter high school, and the very expensive school fees required in high school.
Parents spend a large portion of their income on their children's education in school fees, uniforms, school supplies, transportation to and from school, and pocket money. Often the family will deny itself many of life's necessities and comforts, like better housing, food, and clothing, in order to put the children through school. Expectations are consequently placed on those going to school to finish and assist with the education of their younger siblings, and to care for their parents in old age. Because very few students are able to get a university education, parents and the community are very proud of those that manage to attain this level of education.
Music and dance are an integral part of the life of the Luhya people. There is a wide variety of songs and dances. Children sing songs and dance for play and (especially boys) when herding livestock. Occasions like weddings, funerals, and circumcision ceremonies all call for singing and dancing. Musical instruments include drums, jingles, flutes, and accordions. The Luhya are nationally renowned for their very energetic and vibrant isukuti dance, a celebratory performance involving rapid squatting and rising accompanied by thunderous, rhythmic drumbeats.
Proverbs, stories, and songs are commonly used not only for entertainment, but also for education (especially of the young), conflict resolution, and adding flavor or weight to conversations.
The majority of Luhya families are agriculturalists. Because of the high population density (about 900 people per sq km, or 2,450 people per sq mi) in Luhyaland, most families own only very small pieces of land of less than 0.4 hectares (1 acre) which are very intensively cultivated. Crops grown include various species of vegetables such as kale, collard greens, carrots, maize, beans, potatoes, bananas, and cassava. Beverage crops like tea, coffee, and sugarcane are grown in some parts of Luhyaland. Livestock, especially cattle and sheep, are also kept. Tending the farm is often a family affair. Because the family farm is rarely sufficient to meet all of the family's needs for food, school fees and supplies, clothing, and medical care, often some members of the family will seek employment opportunities in various urban centers in the country and remit money back to the rural homes.
There are numerous games and sports played by children among the Luhya. For girls, jumping rope is very common. The jumping is counted and sometimes accompanied by rhythmic songs. Hide-and-seek games are common among both boys and girls. Soccer is the most popular game with boys. Any open ground can serve as a playing field. Adult sports include soccer for men, and to a lesser extent, netball for women. Net-ball is somewhat like basketball, only the ball is not bounced on the ground. School-based sports also include track-and-field events.
The most popular spectator sport is soccer, and the Luhya are known for producing some of the best soccer players in the country. The AFC Leopards soccer team, largely comprised of Luhya players, is one of the best teams in the country. Bull-fighting is also a popular spectator sport.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Television sets are too expensive for the majority of Luhya families to afford, especially in the rural areas. This is further hampered by the lack of electricity in many of the rural areas. Radios and cassette players, however, are affordable, and these provide musical entertainment for many people. Local bars and shops also have radios, cassette players, juke boxes, and other music systems, and thus many men congregate in these places to drink, play games, and listen and dance to music. Music is mainly of local, Swahili, and Lingala (Democratic Republic of the Congo) origin, but western European and American music are also common.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Pottery and basket-weaving are quite common among the Luhya, especially in the rural areas. Most of these are either used in the home or sold in the markets for cash. Pots are often used for brewing local beer, cooking food, and storing water. The pots are made of clay. Baskets are made from the leaves of date palms (called kamakhendu among the Ababukusu) that grow on river banks. Increasingly, sisal is used. The baskets are sold and are also used at home for carrying and keeping foodstuffs. Body ornaments like bangles, necklaces, and earrings are commercially mass-produced in the country or imported, and thus are not in any way uniquely Luhya in form. Among the Ababukusu subgroup, however, parents of twins wear a traditional bangle called imwana.
There are no human and civil rights problems that are unique to the Luhya people. Violations of human rights and civil liberties that the Kenya government has been accused of generally apply across most ethnic groups. Problems of alcoholism exist among the Luhya, but problems that are considered particularly pressing are those to do with the high population density and high population growth rate. Health problems arising from diseases endemic in Luhya areas is also of concern. The drug problem has not caught up with the Luhya to any significant degree.
Among the Luhya gender roles are assigned to men and women culturally in ways which create, reinforce, and perpetuate relationships in which males are viewed as superior and women are in a subordinate position. As already noted earlier, women are supposed to be in deference to men. When talking to her husband or male in-laws, a wife is supposed to kneel down with her head bowed and arms folded on her chest in deference to the man. Luhya boys and girls are conditioned to behave in certain ways and to play different roles in society. For example, women are supposed to do most of the domestic chores such as fetching firewood, cooking, taking care of children, and also farm work. As such the Luhya people have distinct cultural practices, especially governing the gender division of labor, marriage and women's access to resources. Due to the high rate of male out-migration, an estimated 30– 60% of households are female-headed and they have to single-handedly farm their fields in the absence of men. Th us gender empowerment and equality constitute the major gender issues among the Luhya.
With reference to homosexuality, certain types of same-sex activity were tolerated in tribal tradition, but only as childish behaviors unworthy of an initiate. But in general homosexuality is not tolerated in Luhya society. In the larger Kenyan society, homosexuality continues to be illegal as a “crime against nature” under the Kenyan penal code inherited from the British colonial legal system. Homosexuality is regarded with disdain and disgust by the majority of the population, and persons arrested for homosexual activity are treated harshly by the police. In some ethnic groups of Kenya, homosexuality can be punished by death. All religious groups abhor homosexuality and condone its complete suppression. In spite of this suppression, Kenyan male prostitutes are readily available on the streets of Nairobi and Mombasa, usually catering to international tourists. They are well dressed in order to be able to enter international hotels. In most instances the prostitutes themselves are probably bisexual, many having girlfriends or wives, and consider themselves heterosexual.
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—revised by E. Kalipeni
"Luhya." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/luhya
"Luhya." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Retrieved January 12, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/luhya
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