How is it that, in general terms, the term ‘Nilote’ is not used by the Luo, the very people to whom it is supposed to be referring? The appellation was coined by certain colonial European anthropologists to refer to a people, including the Luo of Kenya’s Nyanza Province, who had emerged from Africa’s north following the Nile to settle around the water system that the British colonialists later called ‘Lake Victoria’.
But ‘Victoria’ is a European name that the English Britons imposed on the East Africans when the ruling class of that Western Euro-Germanic tribe invaded and colonised our country during Britain’s world hegemony, headed by a royal woman called Victoria.
But because I am a Luo, I am also ipso facto a Nilote. However, my personal blood can also be traced to the Baganda and the Basoga of Uganda and the Baluhya of Kenya, all three of whom belong to what European anthropologists used to call ‘Older Bantu’. That, however, raises one question. How can I, an Ochieng, be Bantu?
It is not unthinkable. I know a great number of Kisii, Kuria and Luhya individuals known by the Luo name Ochieng (just as I know a great number of Luo individuals with Bantu names). The answer is very simple. Although I was born on the mainland, at my birth, my parents had just migrated from Rusinga, a major island on Kenya’s side of Nam Lolwe, ‘Lolwe’ being the Luo term for the lake later known worldwide as Victoria, renamed after the queen of the Britons who colonially ruled Kenya.
Yet the Luo word ‘Lolwe’ does not at all mean ‘lake’. In fact, ‘Lolwe’ is adjectival and means ‘as far as my eyes can see’. ‘Lolwe’ was the term by which the Luo stressed the greatness of the greatest water expanse that a generation of those Nilotic immigrants into East Africa had ever seen.
The Luo term ‘Nam’ refers to any large standing water system, ‘Lolwe’ being only a Luo adjective that describes the fact that this water system seemed to extend much farther (in all directions) than any human eye can see simultaneously.
'Z' AND 'SH'
Yet Nyanza itself – the term by which Kenyans of all culturo-linguistic identities now know Kenya’s Luoland – cannot be a Luo or Nilotic word either. Why not? For one thing only: Although the ‘z’ sound is prominent in the word Nyanza, that sound does not exist at all in any language associated at root with any of the Luo tongues now spread all over Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, the Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
For the ‘z’ and ‘sh’ sounds do not exist at all in the Luo language. Thus, even the most highly educated Luo individual frequently has amusing oral difficulties with all words, including in Kiswahili and English, which, in writing, contain either a ‘z’ and an ‘sh’. That is because those consonants do not exist in Dholuo – a term to be translated literally as ‘mouth of the Luo’ -- the language into which I was born and through which I grew up.
That raises one question for those studying East Africa’s cultures and languages. How was it that the Nilotes, being a major African culturo-linguistic super-community, found and still find it supremely difficult to pronounce words -- European or Bantu -- containing a ‘z’ or an ‘sh’ sound?
In practice, even some of the most highly educated Luo individuals often evince those embarrassing difficulties in pronouncing certain English words. The answer is that such sounds do not exist in Dholuo, my mother tongue.
Mr Ochieng is a veteran journalist; [email protected]