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ETHNONYMS: Abaluhya, Abaluyia, Baluyia, Bantu Kavirondo, Luhya


Identification. "Abaluyia" is the preferred name for the people once called the "Bantu Kavirondo" because of their proximity to Lake Victoria's Kavirondo Gulf. "Abaluyia" refers to the nation, tribe, or ethnic group, Omuluyia" to an individual, and "Luluyia" to the language they speak. There are seventeen Luluyia-speaking subnations in Western and Nyanza provinces of Kenya: Bakhayo (Abakhayo), Bukusu (Babukusu, Kitosh [derogatory], Vugusu), Banyala (Abanyala), Basonga (Abasonga), Banyore (Abanyore), Batsotso (Abatsotso), Idakho (Abetakho, Babetakho), Isukha (Abesukha, Babesukha), Kabras (Abakabras), Kisa (Abakisa, Bakisa), Logoli (Avalogoli, Maragoli), Marachi (Abamarachi, Bamaraki, Marach), Marama (Abamarama, Bamarama), Samia (Abasamia, Basamia), Tachoni (Abatachoni, Kitosh), Tiriki (Batiriki), and Wanga (Abawanga, Bawanga). Some Luluyia speakers are found in eastern Uganda: the Gisu (Abagisu, Bagisu, Bamasaba, Masaba), Gwe (Abagwe), Nyole (Abanyole, Abanyuli), and Samia. The ethnic label "Abaluyia" is Kenyan, however, and is not used by Ugandan Luluyia speakers. The label has been associated with this part of Kenya since the 1930s, and elders from the region accepted the designation during the 1960s.

Location. The Abaluyia region, which includes eastern Uganda, extends roughly from the equator to 1°10 N and from 34°00 to 35°15 E. It is bounded on the south by Nyanza Province and Lake Victoria (elevation 1,127 meters), on the north by Mount Elgon (elevation 4,296 meters), and on the east by the Rift Valley. The majority of the Abaluyia live in Western Province, Kenya, which consists of four districts: Bungoma, Busia, Kakamega, and Vihiga. Most of the region (90 percent) is highly suited for agriculture, but there are interspersed rocky and sandy areas. Temperatures range from about 32° C in the south to 5-10° C near Mount Elgon. There are two rainy seasons, the long rains from March to June or July and the short rains from August to October. Rainfall ranges from 76 centimeters per year in the southernmost region to 155 centimeters per year around the area of the Kakamega Foresta 315-square-kilometer, isolated primeval rain forest teeming with many unique plant, primate, bird, and insect species. Large carnivores (e.g., leopards), large mammals (e.g., elephants), and ruminants (e.g., gazelles) were once common throughout western Kenya, but they have been gone since at least the 1950s or 1960s. Although eucalyptuses and euphorbias are common, deforestation of the entire region, including the Kakamega Forest, poses a serious threat.

Demography. Wagner (1949) estimated that there were less than 350,000 Abaluyia in 1937. The Abaluyia, with a total population of 3.5 million, are now the second-largest ethnic group in Kenya. There are at least 1.5 million Luluyia speakers in Uganda, butunlike the Kenyan Abaluyiathey do not consider themselves a single ethnic group. Population densities range from more than 2,000 persons per square kilometer in the south (Vihiga District) to less than 200 persons per square kilometer near Mount Elgon. Although there is now some evidence of fertility decline, total fertility rates, until the late 1980s, exceeded nine and ten births per woman of childbearing age.

Linguistic Affiliation. Luluyia is a Western Bantu language. The Abaluyia subnations speak mutually understandable dialects, but subnations that border each other are more likely to understand one another's dialect. Some of the dialects (Lubukusu, Kisamia) are tonal. Many contemporary Luluyia speakers also know English, Kiswahili, Dholuo, and/or Luganda.

History and Cultural Relations

Luluyia-speaking groups have occupied the same East African region for up to 500 years; they displaced long-established foraging and herding peoples. The Abaluyia subnations, most of which probably originated from central Africa, were originally clans with diverse historical origins that grew large and then split into subclans. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were characterized by widespread warfare between Abaluyia subnations and neighboring ethnic groups, especially the Buganda, Luo, Nandi, Maasai, and Iteso. The Bagisu, Bakhayo, Bukusu, Banyala, Batsotso, Kabras, Nyole, Marachi, Marama, Samia, and Tachoni constructed fortressed settlements during this period. These were walled with thorns and surrounded by moats.

During the colonial period (1895-1963), the British, whose goal was to pacify the area and facilitate the completion of the Uganda Railway, made several unsuccessful attempts to unite politically the Luluyia-speaking subnations. In 1895 the Bukusu waged an unsuccessful war of resistance, the Chetambe War, against the British. The first train reached Kisumu in 1901. The Abaluyia region was split in two in 1902, when the British established the current boundary between Kenya and Uganda. As a result, the subnations in Kenya and Uganda have different colonial histories and different political economies. In 1909, in a futile attempt to unite the subnations, the British anointed Nobongo Mumia of the Wanga "kingdom" the "supreme" chief. The Abaluyia, however, never had a single paramount chief prior to British colonial rule. The Ugandan Nyole were dominated by the Baganda; various clan leaders in Kenya aligned themselves with or resisted the British. The Kenyan Abaluyia did not develop a unified ethnic identity until the 1930s, and the Ugandan Luluyia speakers have never had a single ethnic identity.

The Friends African Mission, the Mill Hill Mission, the Church of God, and the Church Missionary Society (Anglican) were all established in the region between 1902 and 1906; mission schools were established shortly thereafter. A brief gold rush (1929-1931) was followed by land confiscation and alienation. Today nearly all Abaluyia are Christians, although some Abaluyiaespecially around Mumias townpractice Islam. Universal primary education has been achieved in much of western Kenya.


Precolonial Abaluyia villages were loosely organized around single localized lineages (enyumba; pl. tsinyumba ). Abaluyia homesteads consisted of circular compounds surrounded by euphorbias, thorns, or clay walls. Structures within the compounds followed a prescribed layout, although there were variations. Houses were circular with thatched roofs. The first wife's house was directly opposite the gate, with the houses of junior wives organized to the left and right, according to seniority. The married sons' houses were near the gate and were arranged according to birth order. Because unmarried children who had reached puberty were not permitted to sleep under the same roof as their parents, unmarried sons slept in special houses called chisimba (sing, esimba ). Girls, and sometimes younger boys, slept with classificatory grandmothers in girls' houses (ekogono or eshibinze ). The compound usually had one or more elevated granaries, and animals were often kept in separate structures. Nowadays settlements are organized more like neighborhoods. Mud houses are usually square and often roofed with iron sheets. Modern block houses with tile roofs line the major roads. Compounds are often crowded and may be laid out less formally. They are surrounded by euphorbias, shrubs, rows of trees, or fences. In some places, girls' houses no longer exist: girls sleep in their mothers' kitchens, but older boys continue to sleep in separate dwellings. Granaries are still common in the Bukusu area but are rare in Maragoli and Banyore.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Abaluyia are now primarily farmers who keep cattle, but in precolonial times men hunted, and animal husbandry was even more important. The Banyala and the Samia were known for their expertise in fishing, and quail and insects were eaten throughout the region. Finger millet, sorghum, sesame, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, yams, beans, and bananas were the most important crops in precolonial times. Nowadays the main crop is maize intercropped with beans; millet and sorghum are less common. In addition to the traditional crops, other important contemporary crops include green beans, red beans, bananas, groundnuts (peanuts), sukuma wiki (kale), cabbages, potatoes, and cassava. The major cash crops are tea, coffee, sugarcane, cotton, and sunflower seeds. Farms are tilled entirely with iron hoes in the hillier, more densely populated areas, whereas hoes are commonly used with ox-drawn plows and tractors in the northern and western regions. Cattle (zebu, mixed, and grade), goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, and turkeys are common.

Industrial Arts. Formerly, the important crafts were blacksmithing, pottery, basketry, woodworking (particularly, the manufacture of drums), and weaving. Blacksmtthing had been passed down patrilineally in some clans. The Samia (especially the Abang'aale clan) were particularly well known for blacksmithing and mining of iron ore. Manufacture of pottery was more often a woman's than a man's taskalthough Bukusu women of childbearing age could not quarry clay. Pots, which were usually traded and owned by women, were considered utilitarian. There was not much specialization in the manufacture of everyday wood tools (e.g., hoe handles), but specialists still make drums, lyres, stools, and wood carvings.

Trade. The subnations of the Abaluyia traded among one another during the precolonial era. Iron hoes, spear points, and ivory, for example, could be traded for grains or animals. Precolonial trade covered a distance of no more than 72 kilometers, but there were three precolonial markets where Luo, Nandi, and Abaluyia came together to trade baskets, wooden tools, quail, and various foodstuffs for cattle, fish, tobacco, and so forth. During the colonial era, various weekly regional and local market centers developed, where local and European goods could be bought or bartered. Wagner counted sixty-four recognized markets in 1937. By 1990, in addition to dozens of rural, market, and local trading centers, there were at least ten urban centers in Western Province, Kenya, where one could buy everything from Diet Coke to Michael Jackson tapes.

Division of Labor. In precolonial times, hunting and warfare were important men's work. Horticulture was mainly women's work. Men cleared fields, but women usually prepared soil, planted, weeded, and harvested. Only men planted trees, although women cared for them. Large animals were the domain of men and unmarried boys. Traditionally, the men milked the cattle in most of the subnations, but nowadays women often do it. Women owned and cared for poultry. Both women and men were involved in marketing: the women sold pots, products grown in kitchen gardens, dried fish, fruits, and grains bought from farmers in other regions. Only men took animals to market. House building has many stages, each with a division of labor; however, women generally repaired walls and floors, whereas men prepared thatching materials. Children contributed to subsistence: girls mainly in the home and fields, boys mainly with the herds. Boys and girls helped out with other tasks, such as tending younger children, gathering wood, and fetching water. Girls helped their mothers in selling. Nowadays men's and women's roles are more varied. Although the sexual division of labor at home has not changed much, both men and women have a broader range of occupational opportunities. Schoolteacher, agricultural-extension worker, and sugar-factory worker are common occupations of rural Abaluyia. The sexual division of labor in agriculture has changed somewhat as agriculture has intensified. Modern Abaluyia children usually attend school and are less available to perform chores.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, land was inherited patrilineally. Among the Kenyan Abaluyia, families owned land, and this land was referred to as the omulimi gwa guga (lands of the grandfather). A man apportioned his land to sons as they married but could not alienate the omulimi gwa guga. Women had use rights on their husbands' farms but could not inherit land. Mothers could, however, hold land in trust for sons. When his mother died, the last-born son would inherit the land she farmed. Communal lands, such as surplus lands or those used for grazing, were under the control of the clan and administered by the luguru (headman). Women are permitted to inherit land in contemporary Kenya but more often acquire land by purchasing it themselves. Communal grazing lands are now rare because of population pressure. Most land is registered, and buying and selling of land are individual affairs. Land disputes are handled in courts or in sublocation meetings convened by assistant chiefs.


Kin Groups and Descent. The exogamous patrilineal clan (oluyia ) is the fundamental unit of Abaluyia social organization. Clans may also have several exogamous subclans. There were at least 750 Abaluyia clans by the mid-twentieth century. Each clan has an animal, plant, or bird totem, as well as an ancestor for whom the clan is usually named.

Kinship Terminology. The Abaluyia use an Iroquoian system that incorporates classificatory kinship terminology. Grandparents and grandchildren are called by the same kin termsguga for grandfathers, grandsons, and great-grandsons, guku for grandmothers, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters. Distinctions are made for the father's sister (senje ) and mother's brother (khotsa ), but clan relatives of the same generation (e.g., women and female in-laws) are called by the same term (in this case, mama ). Cousins are addressed by sibling terms, but, in some places, cross cousins are distinguished in reference.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditional Abaluyia marriage is patrilocal. Polygyny rates vary among the subnations, and bride-wealth, consisting of animals and money, is usually exchanged. Many types of exchange occurred during the marriage process, and male elders conducted the negotiations. Wives were chosen for their good character and the ability to work hard. Men were also chosen for these qualities, as well as soberness and ability to pay bride-wealth. After marriage, co-wives usually had separate dwellings but would often cook together. New wives were not permitted to cook in their own houses until their own cooking stones were set up in a brief ceremony. This was often after the birth of one or several children. Childlessness was usually blamed on the woman. In some subnations, a woman whose husband died lived in a state of ritual impurity until she was inherited by the dead husband's brother. Divorce may or may not have involved return of bride-wealth cattle. In the case of divorce or serious witchcraft accusations, the woman could return to her natal home without her children, who remained with their fathers.

Abaluyia women in contemporary Kenya choose among a variety of marriage options, including the traditional bride-wealth system, Christian marriage with or without bride-wealth, elopement, and single parenthood. Women with more education may command a higher bride-wealth. Bride-wealth in Bungoma remains stable, but in Maragoli and some other regions, bride-wealth may be declining or disappearing. Domestic Unit. A married man heads one or more households. A typical household consists of a husband, a wife, and their children. Other family members may join these households, including the wife's sisters, the husband's other children, and foster children. Since mature relatives of adjacent generations do not sleep in the same house, grandmothers and older children often occupy adjacent houses; however, all usually eat from the same pot. These rules have not changed much, although many rural households are now headed by women because of long-term male wage-labor migration. Inheritance. Land is inherited patrilineally (see "Land Tenure").

Socialization. Abaluyia communities are characterized by a high degree of sibling involvement in caretaking, under the general supervision of the mothers and grandmothers in the homestead. Although mothers play a primary role in child rearing, small children and infants may be left with older siblings while their mothers do other work. Although fathers play a minimal role, they are often the ones who take children for medical care. Grandparents and grandchildren have close relationships. Until the mid-to late twentieth century, girls learned about marriage and sexuality from their grandmothers. In the Abaluyia subnations that circumcise, boys are admonished by male elders and taught to endure the pain of circumcision without flinching, a sign that they have the strength of character to endure other hardships they may face. Contemporary Abaluyia grandparents play an even greater role in child rearing because they are thrust more and more into foster-parent roles.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Although some clans were known for particular roles and strengths during the eighteenth through early-twentieth centuries, leadership has come from a variety of clans and subnations over the years. The range of social stratification among the Abaluyia extends from the landless to poor, middle-level, and rich farmers, depending upon such factors as the size of the plot owned and the number of animals kept. There is a developing class system but no formal hierarchy.

Political Organization. Prior to the colonial period, the highest level of political integration was the clan, and the clan headman was the most powerful figure. In some of the subnations, patron-client relationships developed between powerful clan heads and landless men who would serve as warriors. These big-men later gained power through alliances with the British, but there were no precolonial chiefs among the Abaluyia. Nevertheless, some clans and individuals were viewed as having particularly good leadership abilities. In Kenya, the traditional headman system changed in 1926 with the institution of milango headmen (usually, they were also luguru headmen), then the ulogongo system in the 1950s. Currently, villages are headed by luguru, sublocations are headed by government-hired and -paid assistant chiefs, and a paid chief leads at the location level.

Social Control. Crimes, misdeeds, land disputes, and the like were originally handled by the clan. Nowadays, in Kenya, these matters proceed initially to the headmen and assistant chiefs, who deal with local disputes at a monthly baraza (community meeting). Unresolved cases may be taken up by the location chief, district officer, or district commissioner; final recourse may be sought in the Kenyan court system.

Conflict. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Abaluyia subnations and clans often raided and warred against each other and against their non-Abaluyia neighbors (see "History and Cultural Relations"). This warfare accelerated toward the end of the nineteenth century with the arrival of the British and the introduction of firearms. Pax Britannica was achieved in 1906, but feuds and rivalries continued within clans and subclans even into the postcolonial era. The Marachi and Wanga eventually formed military alliances with the British, but others, such as the Bukusu, waged wars of resistance. Conflicts are now rare, although political events in Kenya in the 1990s have resulted in some interethnic fighting at the margins of the Abaluyia region.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. There is a sharp distinction between precolonial religious beliefs and contemporary ones. Prior to missionization, the Abaluyia believed in a High God, Were, as well as in the concept of ancestral spirits. Some said that Were lived on Mount Elgon. Ancestral spirits had power in everyday life and could cause illness and death. After 1902, the first U.S. Quaker missionaries arrived in Kaimosi and began to convert the Tiriki and Maragoli with varying success (see "History and Cultural Relations"). Other missions followed, and the schooling and wage-labor opportunities available to the converted were very attractive to the ambitious. By the 1930s, at least six Christian missions were in place in western Kenya, boasting 50,000 converts. Nowadays, worshipers of ancestral spirits are rare; nearly everyone is a Christian, Muslim, or self-described "backslider." It is important to note, however, that missionary teachings have not abolished certain traditional practices; for example, beliefs in ancestral powers are still widespread.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional practitioners included garden magicians and rain magicians. Witchcraft, sorcery, and traditional healing continue to play a role in Abaluyia communities. Both men and women can be healers or practice witchcraft. A common witchcraft accusation is that a person is a night runnerthat is, he or she keeps a leopard in the house and runs naked at night rattling neighbors' doors and windows. Untimely deaths may be blamed on witchcraft and sorcery. Beliefs in poisoning or nonspecific causation of death, illness, or misfortune by witchcraft or sorcery are common. Traditional healers undergo a kind of ritual healing themselves and are indoctrinated by other healers. Healers may also have expertise with herbal medicines.

Ceremonies. Transitions from one life stage to the next are the most celebrated events. The important transitions for women are coming of age, marriage, and giving birth, whereas initiation is the most important event for men. In some subnations (Batsotso, Banyore, Kisa, Marama, and Wanga), six lower teeth were extracted in childhood; others extracted only one (Idakho, Isukha) or two (Bukusu). The extraction of teeth varied widely and was probably borrowed from neighboring ethnic groups. Men and women were often scarified at marriage, but now only the very old have any scarification. Male circumcision is important in the Bukusu, Banyore, Batsotso, Banyala of Kakamega District, Idakho, Isukha, Kabras, Kisa, Logoli, Marama, Tachoni, Tiriki, and Wanga subnations. The Gisu also circumcise. Some subnations neighboring the Luo do not circumcise, including the Bakhayo, Basonga, Gwe, Marachi, Samia and some Banyole. Circumcision ceremonies vary between subnations, although the stages usually consist of a period of preparation, the circumcision day, and a subsequent period of seclusion. The Bukusu and Tachoni have cyclical age-set systems with names that repeat about every one hundred years. Bukusu and Tachoni circumcise every two years. Some Abaluyia subnations are similar to the Logoli, who circumcise once every ten years and whose circumcision groups are named after a current event. Traditionally, boys were usually circumcised between ages 12 and 18 but could be circumcised earlier or later. A requirement of a traditional circumcision is demonstration of bravery. Even a flinch or change of expression can result in lifelong shame and disgrace. Nowadays circumcisions are done at younger ages, and boys may be circumcised in hospitals. Female circumcision was once practiced only by the Tachoni and the Bukusu, who probably adopted it from their Kalenjin neighbors.

Arts. There are few specialized arts in the Abaluyia region. Houses are sometimes painted on the outside, especially during the Christmas season.

Medicine. Contemporary Abaluyia seek medical assistance in a variety of settings, including hospitals and clinics, and from both community health workers and traditional healers (see "Religious Practitioners").

Death and Afterlife. Death may be attributed to both natural and supernatural causes. The deceased are usually buried on their own compounds. Abaluyia funerals typically involve a period of wailing immediately after the death, a time when the body of the deceased can be viewed, and the funeral itself. During the period after the funeral, animals are slaughtered, widows' roles are considered, and some family members shave their heads. In some Abaluyia subnations, the announcement of the death of an important man or woman may have been accompanied by a cattle drive. Funeral celebrations can involve great expense and last for several days and nights, often accompanied by dancing and drums. Widows are ritually unclean for a period after the death of their spouses and are subject to a number of prohibitions. Traditionally, the widow sometimes wore her dead husband's clothes until she was inherited by his brother. Musambwa were believed to have an active role in the world of the living, and, in former times, people would call upon them to change their fortunes. Illness and death were attributed to angry musambwa.


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