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The Luo (also called Jaluo and Joluo) are an ethnic group in Kenyamarker, eastern Uganda, and northern Tanzania. They are part of a larger group of ethnolinguistically related Luo peoples who inhabit an area including southern Sudanmarker, northern and eastern Uganda, western Kenya, and northern Tanzania.

The Luo are the third largest ethnic group (13%) in Kenya, after the Kikuyu (22%) and the Luhya (14%). The Luo and the Kikuyu inherited the bulk of political power in the first years following Kenya's independence in 1963. The Luo population in Kenya was estimated to be 3,185,000 in 1994 . The Tanzanian Luo population was estimated at 280,000 in 2001.

The main Luo livelihood is fishing. Outside Luoland, the Luo work in eastern Africa as tenant fishermen, small scale farmers, and urban workers. They speak the Dholuo language, which belongs to the Western Nilotic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family spoken by other Luo-speaking peoples such as the Lango, Acholi, Padhola and Alur (all of Uganda).


Pre-colonial times

The Luo of Kenya descend from early agricultural and herding communities from western Kenya's early pre-colonial history. The Luo people and dialects of their language have historic roots across the Lake Victoriamarker region. Chief among the powerful families to which the Luo trace their ancestry were the Sahkarias of Kano, the Jaramogis of Ugenya, and the Owuors of Kisumu, whose clans married several wives and had multitudes of grandchildren and heirs to various chieftainships. Leaders of these lineages typically had multiple wives and intermarried with their neighbours in Uganda and Sudanmarker. The Luo tribe, through intermarriages and wars, are part of the genetic admixture that includes all modern East African ethnic groups as well as members of Buganda Kingdom, the Toro Kingdom, and the Nubians of modern day Sudanmarker.

In recent times, the Luo have had many enemies with whom they fought for access to water, cattle, and land including the Nandi, Kipsigis and the Kisii. As a result of these wars peace treaties and intermarriages were accomplished resulting in a mixture of cultural ideals and practices. As with all so-called tribes of modern day East Africa, Luo history is intricately interwoven with the histories of their friends, enemies and neighbours and attest to the complexity of East African precolonial history.

The Luo probably originated at Waumarker in southern Sudan, near the confluence of the Meride and Sue Rivers. The Kenya Luo migrated into western Kenya via today's eastern Uganda, the first wave arriving sometime around 1500 AD. Arrivals came in at least five waves arriving at different times:
  1. The Joka-Jok (who migrated from Acholiland the first and largest migration)
  2. Those migrating from Alur
  3. The Owiny (who migrated from Padhola)
  4. The Jokā€™Omolo (perhaps from Pawir)
  5. The Abasuba (an heterogeneous group in southern Nyanza, with Bantu elements).

The present day Kenya Luo traditionally consist of 25 sub-tribes, each in turn composed of various clans and sub-clans ( "Jo-" indicates "people of".):

  1. Jo-Gem
  2. Jo-Yimbo
  3. Jo-Ugenya
  4. Jo-Seme
  5. Jo-Kajulu
  6. Jo-Karachuonyo
  7. Jo-Nyakach
  8. Jo-Kabondo
  9. Jo-Kisumo (Jo-Kisumu)
  10. Jo-Kano
  11. Jo-Asembo
  12. Jo-Alego
  13. Jo-Uyoma
  14. Jo-Sakwa
  15. Jo-Kanyamkago
  16. Jo-Kadem
  17. Jo-Kwabwai
  18. Jo-Karungu
  19. Abasuba(Jo-Suna,Jo-Gwassi, Kaksingri, etc)
  20. Jo-Kasgunga
  21. Jo-Kanyamwa
  22. Jo-Kanyada
  23. Jo-Kanyidoto
  24. Jo-Kamgundho
  25. Jo-Kamagambo

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

Colonial times

Early British contact with the Luo was indirect and sporadic. Relations intensified only when the completion of the Uganda Railway had confirmed British intentions and largely removed the need for local tribal alliances. In 1896 a punitive expedition was mounted in support of the Wanga ruler Mumia in Ugenya against the Umira Kager clan led by Gero. Over 200 were quickly killed by a Maxim gun. In 1899, C. W. Hobley led an expedition against Sakwa, Seme Uyoma locations in which 2,500 cattle and about 10,000 sheep and goats were captured.

By 1900, the Luo chief Odera was providing 1,500 porters for a British expedition against the Nandi.

In 1915 the Colonial Government sent Odera Akang'o, the ruoth of Gem, to Kampalamarker, Uganda. He was impressed by the British settlement there and upon his return home he initiated a forced process of adopting western styles of "schooling, dress and hygiene". This resulted in the rapid education of the Luo in the English language and English ways.

The Luo generally were not dispossessed of their land by the British, avoiding the fate that befell the pastoral tribes inhabiting the Kenyan "White Highlands". Many Luo played significant roles in the struggle for Kenyan independence, but the tribe was relatively uninvolved in the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s. Instead, some Luo used their education to advance the cause of independence peacefully. The lawyer C.M.G. Argwings-Kodhek, for example, used his expertise to defend Mau Mau suspects in court.

Independent Kenya

Kenya became independent on 12 December 1963. Oginga Odinga, a prominent Luo leader, declined the presidency of Kenya, preferring to assume the vice presidency with Jomo Kenyatta as the head of government. Their administration represented the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party. However, differences with Jomo Kenyatta caused Oginga to defect from the party and abandon the vice presidency in 1966. His departure caused the Luo to become politically marginalized under the Kenyatta, and subsequently the Moi, administrations.

In Tanzania Mwalimu J.K. Nyerere had personally sought to work with Hellon Ang'iela Owino of Shiratimarker, Tanzania, as a trusted and vibrant political aide who was never ashamed of eloquently speaking his mind whenever needed. Mr. Owino was well known among the front bench politicians who exchanged fists with the then Oscar Kambona and one Bhoke Munanka, who he said were betraying Nyerere behind his back. Owino (1930s-1988) was sent many times by Nyerere (through Oginga Odinga) to mend relations with Kenya and was the one who passed information (through Okello, who was his friend) to Nyerere on Kenya's mission to take Zanzibar.

Many years of poor leadership and disastrous economic management in Kenya, particularly under the KANU party's administration of the nascent state, had tragic consequences for the people of Kenya. Ravaged by AIDS and with little or no infrastructure, the Luo-populated regions remained poor and undeveloped, despite the economic potential of nearby Lake Victoriamarker. Kenya continues to struggle with poverty and AIDS today.

More than 1,000 people were killed in Kenya's election violence amongst the Kikuyu, Luo and several other ethnic groups following the controversial December 2007 presidential election.

The most prominent Luo politician today is Raila Odinga, the son of Oginga Odinga and former Minister of Roads and Public Works. He is widely credited with enabling Mwai Kibaki to win the 2002 presidential election through the support of his Liberal Democratic Party.

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

Political influence in the government

Since Oginga Odinga's 1966 resignation from the vice presidency, the Luo people have been regarded as opponents to the government. The struggle for independence did not feature any Luo elders as some claim; however, the Luo did peacefully participate.

Many remember their role in the late sixties, seventies and eighties. During the late 1980s through the 1990s, their participation provoked violent political events, for example the murder of Dr. Robert Ouko. The 1990s also saw the reintroduction of Section 2A where more Luos were involved, Oginga Odinga, Grace Onyango, Phoebe Asiyo, James Orengo, Raila Odinga, Achieng Oneko, and Anyang' Nyongo amongst others.

Culture and customs

Religious customs

The Luo traditionally believed in an afterlife and a supreme creator, whom they called Nyasaye, and had a strong ancestor cult. Today the vast majority of Kenya Luo are Christians, while a few are Muslim.

The first major ritual in a Luo person's life is called juogi, the naming ceremony. Any time between birth and age two, an ancestor might appear in a dream to an adult member of the family. It is generally believed that only people who did good things when alive appear in this way and are thus "reincarnated". The child is supposed to assume some of the mannerisms of the ancestor he or she is named after. If the ancestor was quiet, the child becomes a quiet person; if talkative, the same. The so named ancestor becomes the individual's "guardian angel" throughout life. Children are rarely named after bad people. It is believed that after death evil people are gone for good (sent to hell).

The Luo are in the minority of ethnic groups in east Africa in that they do not practice ritual circumcision of males as initiation. Instead, children formerly had their six lower front teeth removed at an initiation. This ritual has largely fallen out of use.

Marriage customs

Historically, couples were introduced to each other by matchmakers, but this is also not common now. The Luo frequently marry outside the tribe, although it is not recommended by the council of elders. The traditional marriage ceremony takes place in two parts, both involving the payment of a bride price by the groom. The first ceremony, the Ayie, involves a payment of money to the mother of the bride; the second stage involves giving cattle to her father. Often these two steps are carried out at the same time, and as many modern Luos are Christians, a church ceremony often follows.


Traditionally, music was the most widely practiced art in the Luo community. At any time of the day or night, some music was being made. Music was not made for its own sake. Music was functional. It was used for ceremonial, religious, political or incidental purposes. Music was performed during funerals (Tero buru) to praise the departed, to console the bereaved, to keep people awake at night, to express pain and agony and during cleansing and chasing away of spirits. Music was also played during ceremonies like beer parties (Dudu, ohangla dance), welcoming back the warriors from a war, during a wrestling match (Ramogi), during courtship, etc. Work songs also existed. These were performed both during communal work like building, weeding, etc. and individual work like pounding of cereals, winnowing. Music was also used for ritual purposes like chasing away of evil spirits (nyawawa), who visit the village at night, in rain making and during divinations and healing.

The Luo music was shaped by the total way of life, lifestyles, and life patterns of individuals of this community. Because of that, the music had characteristics which distinguished it from the music of other communities. This can be seen, heard and felt in their melodies, rhythms, mode of presentation and dancing styles, movements and formations.

The melodies in the Luo music were lyrical, with a lot of vocal ornamentations. These ornaments came out clearly especially when the music carried out an important message. Their rhythms were characterized by a lot of syncopation and acrusic beginning. These songs were usually presented in solo-response style although solo performances were there too. The most common forms of solo performances were chants. These chants were recitatives with irregular rhythms and phrases which carried serious messages in them. Most of the Luo dances were introduced by these chants. One example is the dudu dance.

Another unique characteristic in the Luo music is the introduction of yet another chant at the middle of a musical performance. The singing stops, the pitch of the musical instruments go down and the dance becomes less vigorous as an individual takes up the performance is self praise. This is referred to as Pakruok. There was also a unique kind of ululation, Sigalagala, that marked the climax of the musical performance. Sigalagala was mainly done by women.

The dance styles in the Luo folk music were elegant and graceful. It involved either the movement of one leg in the opposite direction with the waist in step with the syncopated beats of the music or the shaking of the shoulders vigorously, usually to the tune of the nyatiti, an eight stringed instrument.

Adamson (1967) commented that Luos clad in their traditional costumes and ornaments deserve their reputation as the most picturesque people in Kenya. During most of their performances the Luo wore costumes and decorated themselves not only to appear beautiful but also to enhance their movements. These costumes included sisal skirts (owalo), beads (Ombulu / tigo) worn around the neck and waist and red or white clay were used by the ladies. The men's costumes included kuodi or chieno a skin worn from the shoulders or from the waist respectively to cover their nakedness. Ligisa the headgear, shield and spear, reed hats, clubs among others. All these costumes and ornaments were made from locally available materials.

The Luo were also rich in musical instruments which ranged from percussion (drums, clappers, metal rings, ongeng'o or gara, shakers), strings (e.g., nyatiti, a type of lyre; orutu, a type of fiddle), wind (tung' a horn,Asilimarker, a flute, Abu-!, to a specific type of trumpet).

Currently the Luo are associated with the benga style of music. It is a lively style in which songs in Dholuo, Swahili, or English are sung to a lively guitar riff. It originated in the 1950s with Luo musicians' trying to adapt their traditional tribal dance rhythms to western instruments. The guitar (acoustic, later electric) replaced the nyatiti as the string instrument. Benga has become so popular that it is played by musicians of all tribes and is no longer considered a purely Luo style. It has become Kenya's characteristic pop sound.

Luo singer and nyatiti player Ayub Ogada received widespread exposure in 2005 when two of his songs were featured in Alberto Iglesias' Academy Award-nominated score for Fernando Mereilles' film adaptation of The Constant Gardener.


  1. Energy Old - Renewable Energy for Development
  2. UN chief calls on Kenya rivals to stop violence, The Age, 31 January 2008
  3. As Kenya descends into anarchy, there's no sign of an end of the tribal bloodshed, Daily Mail, 4 February 2008
  4. Luo By Awuor Ayodo, PH. D. Ayodo, Atieno Odhiambo, pg. 29
  • Ogot, Bethwell A., History of the Southern Luo: Volume I, Migration and Settlement, 1500-1900, (Series: Peoples of East Africa), East African Publishing House, Nairobi, 1967
  • Senogazake, George, Folk Music of Kenya, ISBN 9966855564
  • Godfrey Mwakikagile, Ethnic Politics in Kenya and Nigeria, Nova Science Publishers, Inc., Huntington, New York, 2001; Godfrey Mwakikagile, Kenya: Identity of A Nation, New Africa Press, Pretoria, South Africa, 2008.
  • Barack Obama -- The First 'LUO' President.

See also

  • Legio Maria, a large religious group originating in Luoland

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