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Just who are the Luhya?

Sunday March 23 2014

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Who are the Abaluhya? Is there such a community as the Luhya (also spelt Luyia)? The truth is that there isn’t a tribe in Kenya called the Luhya.

The word Luhya is simply a convenient tag that refers to a group of communities that speak different languages but which have a significant affinity to each other. This group is the subject of two books, Luyia Nation: Origins, Class and Taboos (2013) and Luyia of Kenya: A Cultural Profile by Shadrack Amakoye Bulimo.

These books provide a compelling story of who the people that we call the Luhya are.

To understand about the Luhya nation, one has to re-consider Bulimo’s words in the introduction to Luyia Nation: Origins, Class and Taboos when he writes, “The Luyia nation is relatively new by historical standards cobbled together as a political necessity a little less than three generations ago. The Luyia nation is still evolving in a slow process that seeks to harmonise the historico-cultural institutions that define the 18 subnations in Kenya alone. Available records indicate that geophysical spread of the Luyia-speaking people extends beyond the Kenyan frontier into Uganda and Tanzania with some Luyia clans having extant brethren in Rwanda, Congo, Zambia and Cameroon.”

18 sub-nations

But reading the book one feels that Bulimo is trying too hard to put into one basket different groups of communities.


What he calls the 18 subnations is a broad spectrum on which some “nations” are closer to each other than to others. A basic example is that when a Maragoli speaks, a Marachi may only understand 10 per cent of what is said. Whereas, when a Musamia speaks a Munyala may perfectly comprehend 90 per cent of the words.

So, who are the Luhya? Bulimo tells us that the name is derived from oluyia (also oluhya) which in its generic sense means the fireplace or hearth. Okhuyia is a word that means “to burn” or “cook” and generally since families sat around a hearth or bonfire in the evening to talk about what happened during the day or to transmit cultural values between generations, the word oluhya would easily translate into family/village/community that shared a fireplace.

But Bulimo says that the “name Abaluyia/Abaluhya did not come into existence until 1930s” and that “Abaluyia or simply Luyia generally means the people who speak any of the various closely related 18 dialects.

The territorial region is Buluyia, and the language they speak is Oluluyia (Oluluhya)”.

It all sounds confusing, this Luhya business. Indeed it can be baffling considering that a Bukusu, for example, may not hold a conversation lasting more than a few minutes with a Tiriki, which puts the lie to the invention of the Luhya nation.

Bulimo writes: “The word Luyia was first suggested by the local African Mutual Assistance Association around 1930 and adopted by the North Kavirondo Central Association in 1935.”

The name was generally used thereafter to describe the communities that lived in what was then known as North Kavirondo – later Bantu Kavirondo – (in South Kavirondo were the Luo – later Nilotic Kavirondo).

However, Bulimo says that in “1940, Abaluyia Welfare Association was formed which popularised the name, and later a Luyia language committee established to formulate an orthography.”

So, in the beginning was just a name; in the end we have a fractious tribe lumped together by everyone from scholars, journalists, politicians to “Luhyas” themselves.

In the two books, Bulimo offers a lot of information on the various cultural values among the 18 sub-nations: Abakhayo, Abanyala, Abanyala ba Ndombi, Abanyole, Abakabras, Abashisa, Abamarachi, Avalogooli, Abamarama, Abasamia, Abatachoni, Abatiriki, Abisukha, Abidakho, Abatsotso, Babukusu, Abawanga and Abasonga. And all these “nations” have their little subnations; what we call clans.

Members of one clan have a common ancestor. Often the men and women of these clans are found among the other sub-nations. The spread of the clans is due to intermarriage and dispersal of communities before the colonial administration imposed geographical boundaries in the greater Western Kenya region. This separation of families explains why the larger Awori family, from which former vice-president Moody Awori, comes, has a significant portion of its members in Uganda.

Demystify the community

There are several reasons why you should read the two books. The first is simply because they demystify the so-called Luhya people.

Depending on what you want to believe, at the least you will appreciate that there is no tribe called the Luhya — rather, there are people who may wish, for one reason or another, at one time or the other, in one place or another, to be called Luhya.

The second reason is that just as he attempts to clear the confusion about the Luyia, Bulimo ends up confirming the same claims that indeed the Luhya people exist. And all that this achieves is to show how difficult it is to live with the many colonial inventions, years after the mzungu left.

The third is because it honours the contribution of women and men from the several Luhya nations in the development of Kenya. The author lists prominent people, thus opening a small window into the personal histories of some Kenyans that we may never even have known were Luhya.

Fourth, they powerfully remind you of details of a people’s life, such as the importance of chicken (ingokho) among Luhyas; or why some sub-nations circumcise but the others don’t.

These details are absolutely refreshing, as a way of knowing about “others” in a country where ethno-nationalism has erased basic understanding of the differences between people and the shared values among us.  

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.