Luo people

Tanzania Kenya Uganda
A traditional Luo village at the Bomas of Kenya museum.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Western Kenya and northern Tanzania
 Kenya5,066,966 (2019)[1]
 Tanzania1,980,000 (2010)[1]
Dholuo, Swahili, and English
Christianity, African Traditional Religion, Islam
Related ethnic groups
Other Luo peoples, other Nilotic peoples
PersonJaluo (m)/Nyaluo (f)
CountryPinj Luo/Lolwe

The Luo (also called Joluo or Jonagi/Onagi, singular Jaluo, Jaonagi or Joramogi/Nyikwaramogi, meaning "Ramogi's heirs") are a Nilotic ethnic group in western Kenya and the Mara Region of northern Tanzania. They are part of a larger group of ethno-linguistically related Luo peoples who inhabit an area ranging from South Sudan, South-Western Ethiopia, Northern and Eastern Uganda, Northeastern DRC, South-Western Kenya and Northern Tanzania.[citation needed]

The Luo are the fourth largest ethnic group (10.65%) in Kenya, after the Kikuyu (17.13%), the Luhya (14.35%) and the Kalenjin (13.37%).[1] 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 2,185,000 in 1994 and 3.4 million in 2010 according to Government census. However the figure was disputed by many Luos as not scientific since a significant portion of people previously considered as Luo were now counted as Suba people (of Kenya and Tanzania). The Subas eventually numbered 300,000 but most are completely assimilated Luos by culture, name, language and political orientation and have more or less the same outlook of life.[citation needed] This is a result of heavy intermarriage and interaction. The Luos also feel that their overall population has always been downscaled by successive Kenyan regime census in an attempt to mute the strong Luo political voice. Sample census conducted by experts estimate the total Kenyan Luo population to be currently at around 5 million. The Tanzanian Luo population was estimated at 1.1 million in 2001 and 1.9 million in 2010.[2]

The main Luo livelihoods are fishing, farming and pastoral herding. Outside Luoland, the Luo comprise a significant fraction of East Africa's intellectual and skilled labour force in various professions. Others members work in eastern Africa as tenant fishermen, small-scale farmers, and urban workers.[3]

They speak the Dholuo language, which belongs to the Western Nilotic branch of the Nilotic language family spoken by other Luo-speaking peoples, such as the Lango, Acholi, Adhola and Alur (all of Uganda and parts of South Sudan and Eastern Congo). The four waves of Luo migration were chiefly from the four Luo-speaking groups (Lwoo), especially Acholi and Padhola. Dholuo, spoken in Kenya, is considered to be proper and standard Luo because it contains elements from all other Lwoo languages. It is estimated that Dholuo has 90% lexical similarity with Lep Alur (Alur language); 83% with Lep Achol (Acholi language); 81% with Lango language, 93% with Dhopadhola (Padhola language), 74% with Anuak, and 69% with Jurchol (Luwo) and Dhi-Pari (Pari).

The Luo are the originators of a number of music styles, such as Benga, Ohangla, Dodo, Nyatiti, Orutu and Otenga.


The Luo of Kenya and Tanzania, even though related to other Luo groups linguistically, are classified as the only 'river lake Nilotes' having migrated and lived along the Nile river. They are indigenous to the Nile Valley and have been for thousands of years. They entered Kenya and Tanzania via Uganda from the Bahr el-Ghazal region in South Sudan. The Luo clans of Kenya and Tanzania were called 'Ororo', while among the Nuer they were called 'Liel'. In the Dinka tribe the Luo are called the 'Jur-Chol'.[4]

Pre-colonial times

The present-day Kenya Luo traditionally consist of 27 tribes, each in turn composed of various clans and sub-clans[5] ("Jo-" indicates "people of").

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 alliances. In 1896 a punitive expedition was mounted in support of the Wanga ruler Mumia in Ugenya against the Kager clan led by Ochieng Ger III Otherwise known as Gero. Over 200 were quickly killed by a Maxim gun. 300 people in Uyoma resistance were killed by an expedition led by Sir Charles Horbley (Bwana Obila Muruayi) when they were confiscating Luo cattle to help feed the Coolies who were building the Uganda railway.

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 Kampala, 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 ethnic groups inhabiting the Kenyan "White Highlands". Many Luo played significant roles in the struggle for Kenyan independence, but the people were relatively uninvolved in the Mau Mau Uprising (1952–60). 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, although they had attacked not only whites, but also the men of other ethnic groups.

Independent Kenya

After Kenya became independent on 12 December 1963, the prominent Luo leader Oginga Odinga declined the presidency of Kenya and agreed 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 Kenyatta caused Odinga 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.[6]

In Tanzania, Mwalimu J.K. Nyerere had personally sought to work with Hellon Ang'iela Owino of Shirati, 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 Bhoke Munanka, whom he claimed were betraying Nyerere behind his agreed official prayers.[clarification needed] Owino (1930s – 1988) was frequently sent many times by Nyerere (through Oginga Odinga) to mend relations with Kenya and was in particular the one who passed information (from Odinga, who was his African strategic security hub so as to calm down their badly torn relations caused by the Mau Mau war.

Many years of marginalization 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. Despite the economic potential of nearby Lake Victoria, Kenya continues to struggle with poverty and AIDS today.[7]

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.[8]

The most prominent Luo politician today is Raila Odinga, the son of Oginga Odinga and former Prime Minister of the republic of Kenya. He is widely credited with enabling Mwai Kibaki to win the 2002 presidential election through the support of his Liberal Democratic Party. Other prominent politicians include James Orengo, Professor Anyang' Nyong'o (father of the actress and film director Lupita Nyong'o), Peter Oloo-Aringo, Dalmas Otieno and Peter Ombija. Dr. PLO Lumumba who is the former Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission director is also a Luo. Prominent Luo doctors and scientists include the late Prof. David Peter Simon Wasawo, the first science professor in East and Central Africa and first black East African to study and lecture science courses at Makerere university; Prof. Henry Odera Oruka, philosopher; Dr. Joseph Aluoch, a chest physician; Professor Walter Jaoko, a Tropical Diseases Specialist and leading HIV researcher; Professor George Magoha, a consultant urologist and former Vice-Chancellor of University of Nairobi; Dr. Job Bodo, an orthopaedic surgeon; Brian Jaoko Odongo, a prominent environmental scientist; Nixon Ojijo a prominent sales and marketing practitioner in the East African Region, and Prof Richard Samson Odingo, vice-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which received the 2007 Nobel peace prize.

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

Culture and customs

Traditional system of government

Traditionally, the Luo people were a patriarchal society with a decentralized government system.[9] The family was headed by the father or the first wife mikayi or son in the absence of the father. Many families came together through a traced relations by blood to form a clan, anyuola, which mostly brought together the heads of different families together as people of the same descent, jokang'ato. Many clans came together to form a village called gwengwhich was headed by a village elder titled dodo or jaduong' gweng' who ruled with the assistance of elders who were traditionally men of status gained through commerce, wealth, war, or eloquence. Many villages came together to form a sub-tribe which was headed by a hereditary chieftaincy by the eldest son Ruoth. The Luo government structure was stronger at the sub-tribe level under Ruoth who had a council of elders, galamoro mar jodongo or jodong gweng', from all the villages in their territory. The Luos organized their defense and security at the sub-tribe level which was headed by a commander, Osumba Mrwayi, who was part of the council of elders. The council also had a spokesperson who talked on behalf of the council in official matters in village market meetings, religious, and cultural ceremonies that Ruoth presided over. Sub-tribe relations with each other was ad-hoc as there was no single ruler of the Luo people. Sub-tribes came together during calamities, war, and natural disasters like drought, famines, and floods to help each other. Sumo, the act of sharing produce with people who were struck by famine was a common tradition with Kisumo being one of the renowned marketplaces where those who were struck by famine never missed the generosity of their Luo counterparts. The concept of a Luo ruler ker was coined by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga during the formation of the Luo Union in 1947 that was aimed at uniting all people of Luo descent in East Africa. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was the first Luo Ker. As part of distinguishing a tribal leader from a national leader, part of the conditions was that a Luo Ker would not go into national politics and when Jaramogi Oginga Odinga went into national politics in 1957, he had to quit being a Ker.

In recent years, the Luo Ker seat has been claimed by different factions of Luo council of elders that started with the appointment of Willis Opiyo Otondi by Raila Odinga in 2010 to replace Ker Riaga Ogalo. Traditionally, the Ker was elected by a Council of Elders and was not appointed as it happened with Opondo Otondi, and a Luo Ker could only leave office under two conditions, resignation or death. Ker Riaga Ogalo argued that he had not resigned nor died to warrant the appointment of another Ker while Opiyo Otondi argued that he was the duly elected Ker of the Luo people. Ker Riaga Ogalo represented Raila in numerous political forums and helped build Raila Odinga's political career contrary to the requirements of the council during the days they were in good talking terms.

Ker Riaga Ogalo is credited for having progressive ideas of all modern Luo Kers by championing for circumcision of the Luo men to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Circumcision was alien to the Luo tradition but his leadership made many hearts to accept the new changes. Ker Riaga Ogalo also served as the Vice-Chairman of the National Council of Elders. During the last years of his reign, he argued that Raila was deterring the Luo People to grow democratically and economically with his style of polictics.Ker Riaga Ogalo died in 2015 after a kidney infection at the Kenyatta National Hospital. The Council's wrangles continued after his demise with today Willis Opiyo Otondi still claiming to be the legitimate ker rivalled by Ker Nyandiko Ong'adi who was elected by the Luo Council of Elders in 2015 to replace ker Riaga Ogalo. The attempt to centralize the Luo people under one authority have not been easy given their history with a decentralized government structure.

Rites of passage

Traditionally, the names given to children often reflected the conditions of the mother's pregnancy or delivery (including, for example, the time or season).[10]

Further, the Luos have traditionally practiced the removal of six lower teeth between the ages of twelve and sixteen.[10] This practice has now fallen largely out of use.


A popular Luo meal includes fish (rech) especially tilapia (ngege) and omena, usually accompanied with ugali (called kuon in Dholuo) and traditional vegetables like osuga and apoth. Many of the vegetables eaten by the Luo were shared after years of association with their Bantu neighbours, the Abaluhya and the Abagusii. Traditional Luo diet consisted of kuon made of sorghum or millet accompanied by fish, meat, or vegetable stews.

Religious customs

Like many ethnic communities in Uganda, including the Langi, Acholi, and Alur, the Luo do not practice the ritual circumcision of males as initiation.

Local churches include Legio Maria, Roho, Nomiya and Fweny among others.[11]

Marriage customs

Historically, couples were introduced to each other by matchmakers, but this is not common now. Like many other communities in Kenya, marriage practices among the Luo have been changing and some people are moving away from the traditional way of doing things.

The Luo successfully expanded their culture through intermarriage with other groups in the region, and many Luo today continue to marry outside the Luo community.[10] 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.


Luo dancers in Eldoret, Kenya

Traditionally, music was the most widely practiced art in the Luo community. At any time of day or night, music would be made. Music was not played for its own sake. Music was functional, being 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, and to express pain and agony. It was also used 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 (Olengo), 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, or winnowing. Music was also used for ritual purposes like chasing away evil spirits (nyawawa), who visit the village at night, in rain making, and during divination 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 that 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 Luo music were lyrical, with a lot of vocal ornamentations. These ornaments came out clearly, especially when the music carried 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 some were solo performances. The most common forms of solo performances were chants. These chants were recitatives with irregular rhythms and phrases, which carried serious messages. Most of the Luo dances were introduced by these chants. One example is the dudu dance.[12]

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. They 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 worn 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, and 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 (instrument)|tung' a horn,Asili, a flute, A bu-!, 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 like George Ramogi and Ochieng' Kabaselle trying to adapt their traditional 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 ethnicities like mugithi among the Kikuyu, and it is no longer considered a purely Luo style. It has become Kenya's characteristic pop sound.[13]

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.

Other Luo musicians, in various genres, are Akothee, Suzanna Owiyo, Daniel Owino Misiani, Achieng' Abura, George Ramogi, Musa Juma, Tony Nyadundo and Onyi Papa Jey.

Kinship, Family, and Inheritance

Ocholla Ayayo writes in "Traditional Ideology and Ethics among the southern Luo":[14]

"When the time of the inheritance comes the ideology of seniority is respected: the elder son receives the largest share, followed in the order of seniority. If it is the land to be divided, for instance, the land of the old grandfather's homestead, the senior son gets the middle piece, the second the land to the right hand side of the homestead, and the third son takes the land on the left hand side. After the father's death the senior son takes over the responsibilities of leadership. These groups when considered in terms of genealogy, are people of the same grandfather, and are known in Dholuo as Jokakwaro. They share sacrifices under the leadership of the senior brother. If the brother is dead the next brother in seniority takes the leadership of senior brother. The responsibility and prestige position of leadership is that it puts one into the primary position in harvesting, cultivation, as well as in eating specified parts of the animal killed, usually the best parts. It is the senior brother, who is leading in the group, who can first own the fishing boat. Since it is he who will be communicating with the ancestors of their father or grandfather, it is he who will conduct or lead the sacrifices of religiousity of the boat, as we have noted earlier. [...] The system of the allocation of land by the father while he is still alive is important since it will coincide with the system of inheritance of land. The principle of the division of the land in monogamous families is rather simple and straightforward. [...] The senior son takes the centre portion of all the land of the homestead up to and beyond the gate or to the buffer zone; the second son then has the remainder of the land to divide with the other brothers. If the land is divided among the elder sons after they are married, and take to live in their lands, it often happens that a youngest son remains in the village of the father to care for him in his old age. His inheritance is the last property, called Mondo and the remaining gardens of his mother. [...] In the case of a polygamous village, the land is divided along the same lines, except that within the village, the sons claim the area contiguous to the houses of their mother. Each wife and her children are regarded as if the group constituted was the son of a single woman.By that I mean the children of the senior wife, Mikayi, are given that portion of the total area which could have been given to the senior son in a monogamous family. The sons of Nyachira, the second wife, and the sons of Reru, the third wife, lay claim to those portions which would have fallen to the second and third sons of Mikayi in a monogamous village".[15]

Paul Hebinck and Nelson Mango explain in detail the family and inheritance system of the Luo in their article "Land and embedded rights: An analysis of land conflicts in Luoland, Western Kenya."[16] Parker MacDonald Shipton also writes extensively about kinship, family and inheritance among the Luo in his book "Mortgaging the Ancestors: Ideologies of Attachment in Africa":

"Outside the homestead enclosure, or (where there is no more enclosure) beyond and before its houses, Luo people have favored a layout of fields that in some ways reflects placements of houses within. The following pattern, as described in Gordon Wilson’s work from the 1950s, is still discernable in our times—not just in informants’ sketches of their ideals, but also in the allocations of real lands where space has allowed following suit. If there is more than one son in a monogamous homestead, the eldest takes land in front of or to the right of the entrance, and the second son takes land on the left. The third receives land to the right and center again, but farther from the father's homestead. The fourth son, if there is one, goes to the left but farther from the paternal homestead than the second. Further sons alternate right and left. While elder sons might thus receive larger shares than the younger ones, the youngest takes over the personal garden (mondo) kept by the father for his own use—as if as a consolation prize".

See also


  1. ^ a b "2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census Volume IV: Distribution of Population by Socio-Economic Characteristics". Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved 24 March 2020.
  2. ^ Gordon, Jr., Raymond G. (editor) (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas, Texas, USA: SIL International. ISBN 978-1-55671-159-6. Archived from the original on 2007-11-24.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  3. ^ Odede, Fredrick Argwenge; Hayombe, Dr. Patrick O.; G. Agong’, Prof. Stephen (2017-07-24). "Exploration of Food Culture in Kisumu: A Socio-Cultural Perspective". Journal of Arts and Humanities. 6 (7): 74. doi:10.18533/journal.v6i7.1162. ISSN 2167-9053.
  4. ^ Odhiambo, Atieno. (1989). Siaya : the Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape. J. Currey. OCLC 1096480559.
  5. ^ Ogot, Bethwell A. (1967). History of the Southern Luo: Volume I, Migration and Settlement, (Series: Peoples of East Africa). East African Publishing House, Nairobi. p. assim.
  6. ^ Odinga, Oginga. (1977). Not yet Uhuru : the autobiography of Oginga Odinga. Heinemann. ISBN 0-435-90038-2. OCLC 264794347.
  7. ^ Energy Old – Renewable Energy for Development Archived 2007-07-13 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ UN chief calls on Kenya rivals to stop violence Archived 2008-02-02 at the Wayback Machine, The Age, 31 January 2008
  9. ^ Grigorenko, Elena L. (2001). The organisation of Luo conceptions of intelligence : a study of implicit theories in a Kenyan village. The International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development. OCLC 842972252.
  10. ^ a b c Danver, Steven L. (2013). Native Peoples of the World: An Encyclopedia of Groups, Cultures and Contemporary Issues. M.E. Sharpe, Inc. p. 57. OCLC 1026939363.
  11. ^ Kustenbauder, Matthew (2009-08-01). "Believing in the Black Messiah: The Legio Maria Church in an African Christian Landscape". Nova Religio. 13 (1): 11–40. doi:10.1525/nr.2009.13.1.11. ISSN 1092-6690.
  12. ^ Jones, A.M. (1973). "Luo music and its rhythm". African Music: Journal of the African Music Society. 5 (3): 43–54. doi:10.21504/amj.v5i3.1658.
  13. ^ Rateng' Ramogi Dichol Dimo II, His Majesty. "The Luo Nation-History, Origin and Culture of Luo People of Kenya". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. ^ Welbourn, F. B.; Ocholla-Ayayo, A. B. C. (1978). "Traditional Ideology and Ethics among the Southern Luo". Journal of Religion in Africa. 9 (2): 159. doi:10.2307/1581402. ISSN 0022-4200. JSTOR 1581402.
  15. ^ Traditional ideology and ethics among the southern Luo – DiVA "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-10-14. Retrieved 2013-10-13.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  16. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2013-10-19. Retrieved 2013-10-09.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)