The pride of a people: Barack Obama, the Luo

Saturday January 17 2009

On Tuesday, a “Luo” individual will become the most powerful man in the world. A Luo? Of course. Why else would Kenya’s lakeland community which goes by that name be so electrified by Barack Obama’s impending anointment as the commander-in-chief of the world’s only superpower?

Yet the question is stark: Is Obama a Luo? To answer “yes” or “no”, one would first have to define a Luo. There are at least two possibilities. There is, first, what the Luo themselves may imagine as their blood heritage.

There is, secondly, what Paul Mboya called Luo Kitgi Gi Timbegi, a book in Dholuo which describes the character and customs of “Jokowiny”. For the character and customs of a tribal community need not coincide with its blood composition.

Language and culture

We should stress the term ‘‘Jokowiny’’ because, although it is almost forgotten now, that is the correct name of the Luo of Kenya and Tanzania, a people whose language and culture are almost uniform from the Luhya border to Tanzania’s Mara.

The attitude by Jokowiny that we are the Luo alienates many pedigree Luo communities, such as the Padhola, Lang’o, Kumam, Acholi and Karamojong of Uganda, the Alur of Congo, and the Nuer, Anuak Nuer, Dinka and Shilluk of the Sudan.

Indeed, the Sudanese and northern Ugandan Luo are more genuinely Luo than we because they are less removed from the original home of dispersal and, therefore, less influenced by non-Nilotic elements.

But yes, by a certain definition, the 44th President of the United States is JAKOWINY – JAKOWINY (with an “A”) being the singular form of JOKOWINY (with an “O”). It means “descendant of Owiny”.

Owiny was a brother of Adhola, the eponymous ancestor of Charles Onyango Obbo’s Jopadhola. The PA in “JOPADHOLA” and in other Ugandan and Sudanese Luo languages is their equivalent of KA among Jokowiny (and means “of”, or “offspring of” or “homestead of”).

The celebrated name OKOT P’BITEK is really “Okot PA Bitek” (“Okot of Bitek” or “Okot son of Bitek”). In both pronunciation and writing, the “a” in PA and KA is usually dropped when the next word begins with a vowel. That is why we say JAKOWINY, and not JA-KA-OWINY.

The PA in Padhola means the same thing as the KA in such Kowiny place names as KARACHUONYO (“home of Rachuonyo”), KAMAGAMBO (“land of Magambo”) and KANYIDOTO (“where the daughters of Doto are married”).

The word element KA was common to all Nilotes, including the ancient Egyptians. The word “EGYPT” itself is only a European corruption of HEKAPTAH (“home of the god Ptah”). The KAPTAH part of HEKAPTAH is what has come down to us as “COPT”.

The same word appears in such place-names among the Kalenjin – a Nilotic people – as Kabartonjo (“land of Bartonjo”), Kabianga (“dwelling place of Bianga”) and Kabarnet (“Barnet’s base” – named after a colonial Anglo-Saxon missionary).

For the Luo belong to the culturo-linguistic super-community that anthropologists call Nilotic or Nilo-Saharan – which includes the Maasai, Kalenjin and Teso – and who now spread from Tanzania to Egypt and from Ethiopia and Eritrea to Darfur and Nigeria.

Barack Obama Senior belonged to KOGELO (“homestead of Ogelo”). He was Jakogelo (“offspring of Ogelo’s home”). Jokogelo (“people of Ogelo”) are a clan of the Alego. That is significant.

In his book History of the Southern Luo, B.A. Ogot – the eminent Luo historian – suggests that the Alego (and the professor’s own Gem people) are the quintessence of Jokowiny.

They were the first to arrive in what is now Kenya. Adhola and Owiny were leaders of an advance detachment of the Luo as they drifted along the Nile – fish being their staple. On hitting Lake Victoria, they exchanged words, and Owiny was forced to move ahead.

It was after wandering through what are now Manyala, Samia, Imbo and Sakwa – driving the autochthonous Luhya (a Bantu cluster) from their homes – that Owiny and his followers finally settled in what we now call Alego.

It was from Alego that Jokowiny spread out, northwards to Gem and Ugenya, eastwards to Seme, Kisumu and Winam and southwards to Asembo, Uyoma and across the string of water – Nyanza Gulf — which intrudes into and divides Kowiny-land into two parts.

Yet it is appropriate that the term “Jokowiny” is now in disuse, except among Adhola’s people. They retain in folk memory the bitter quarrel that forced their brother Owiny eastwards. So they know all the Luo to the east of them as Jokowiny.

Completely swallowed

But since then other Luo and even non-Luo branches have arrived to commingle with Jokowiny. Among these are my own group – Abasuba – who, although completely swallowed by the Luo, were originally not even Nilo-Saharan, but a composite of Bantu refugees, mostly from Buganda.

A culturally imperious community, its ethnic arrogance has been heightened manifold by the colonially created ethnic rivalry that characterises Kenya’s politics. But I repeat that the arrogance cannot be explained by any “ethnic purity”.

The Kenya Luo are so influenced by other communities that they are a mind-boggling heterogeneity of blood, culture and language. One reason is that they adopted exogamy (the taking of wives from other tribes) very early in their Southward Ho.

They shared with the ancient Hellenes the habit of waylaying foreign women and literally pulling them into bed as wives. So for Senior to grab wives from as far away as Hawaii and Massachusetts – and Caucasian ones to boot – was no big deal.

Given time, he might even have grabbed an Afghan, a Cherokee, an Eskimo, a Fijian, an Iraqi, a Lithuanian, a Mongolian, a Pole, a Shona, a Vietnamese, a Wolof, a Yoruba and a Zaramo – not to mention hundreds from Luoland, apart from Kezia.

The Luo would have noted his “he-man-ship” with complete approval. That is what makes them such a “bloody” heterogeneity. But that, too, is why, in their view, Senior’s son, the 44th President of the United States, cannot be anything but a Luo.

They are fiercely patriarchal, thus the offspring belong strictly to the father’s tribe, clan or what the Luo call THUR and DHOOT. THUR refers to the ridge that rises between two streams and is often identified with a clan.

DHOOT (the two “o”s pronounced separately) is the word for “door”. It literally means “mouth of the house” – from DHOK, “mouth”, and OT, “house”. The “mouth” element can be seen also in the term DHOLUO, the name of Jokowiny’s language, literally: “mouth of the Luo”.

Jokowiny assume that people speak with their mouths. But not all Luo communities think so. The Acholi know their language as LEPLUO (“tongue of the Luo”). However, used away from real doors, the word DHOOT refers to the immediate genealogical “house”, namely, the gentile clan.

Person of my house

All Nilotes had the habit of calling a spouse a “house”. In polite society, a Luo speaks of JAODA (“my wife” or “my husband”), a word which translates literally as “person of my house”. When, in Genesis, Joseph says he has found favour in “Pharaoh’s house”, he is resorting to the Nilotic euphemism for “wife”, here the queen.

Barack Obama is 50 per cent Caucasian, but as far as the Luo are concerned, only a Luo is capable of deeds as heroic as Barack’s. In tradition, the Luo divided humanity into three categories – Joluo (the noblest), Jolang’o and Jomwa. The rest of mankind were Mwa, worse than useless.

But, of course, a shameless Mwa people called Britons punctured gaping holes into this bloated arrogance just by hurling a magical spear known as the gun.

Nevertheless, because he has done those deeds a whole continent away from Luoland, Barack outshines Adhola, Aeneas, Ausonius, Cadmus, Cain, Danaos, Delphos, Hesy, Imhotep, Luanda Magere, Gor Mahia, Tom Mboya, Memnon, Menes, Nyikang’o, Jaramogi Odinga, Owiny and Pelasgus among other Nilotic heroes.

In short, his mother does not enter into the equation, even though she contributed 50 per cent of his biological make-up and almost 100 per cent of his cultural upbringing.

As far as the Luo are concerned, Barack Obama is 200 per cent Luo.

That is the point you miss by dismissing Barack Obama as a mere American who will not give priority to Kenya, Luoland and Nyangoma-Kogelo. A people does not live by bread alone. By pulling off a feat like that and boosting their pride to the utmost, Barack has already delivered.