The Luo Community of Kenya

From the legend of Lwanda Magere to the magical sound of the Nyatiti

By National Museums of Kenya

Pendant by Rosebella OmogaNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating our shared past, present, and future

Dating back centuries, the stories and traditions of the peoples of Kenya are some of the most fascinating in the world. They have enriched the country through social, economic, political and cultural activities, each with their own unique stories. Today, 44 communities are officially recognized by the government, and are classified into three linguistic groups: the Bantu, the Nilotic and the Cushitic speakers. The National Museums of Kenya holds objects telling the stories of the communities, which represent the country's ethnic diversity and vibrant cultures. Many of the cultural practices are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. This exhibit celebrates the country’s rich heritage through the Luo community. 

Luo Witchdoctor by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

A look into the history and culture of the Luo

The Luo are the fourth largest ethnic group in Kenya. They speak 'Dholuo' which is part of the Nilotic language group. Known as 'Ramogi's descendants,' the Luo community are in particular known for their musical skills and instruments. Notable Luos include: the former Prime Minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga; the former president of the United States of America, Barack Obama; and the environmental scientist and Nobel Prize winner, Professor Sam Odingo.

Takawiri IslandNational Museums of Kenya

From Sudan to Lake Victoria

The Luo are a Nilotic-speaking group, who are believed to have originated from Sudan, and are now settled around the Lake Victoria basin in Kenya and Tanzania. Other Luo groups are found in Uganda, Congo, Ethiopia and Sudan.

CloakNational Museums of Kenya

Nyasaye and the supernatural

The Luo believed in God the creator, Nyasaye, whom they worshiped in sacred places (hembko or hembho). The sacred shrines, trees, huge rocks, hills, and Lake Victoria were associated with the supernatural.

Luo Diviner (1986) by Carol Beckwith & Angela FisherAfrican Ceremonies

Incredible Luos: Luanda Magere and Gor Mahia

Luanda Magere was a famous warrior in Kano village while Gor Mahia was a magician and chief of Kanyamua. One of the most famous football clubs in Kenya is named after Gor Mahia.

HeaddressNational Museums of Kenya

The legend Luanda Magere

A long time ago a story is told of a Luo legend who was a mighty warrior from Kano. He was called Luanda Magere from the Sidho clan. It was believed that his body was made of hard rock and nothing could harm him. During this time, the Luo were in constant conflict with the Nandi people and raids were common and every time the two communities met, the Nandi warriors would be crushed by Luanda. The Luo always triumphed in the war as many enemies fell by Luanda’s spear.

HeaddressNational Museums of Kenya

A time came when, during Luanda’s first wife’s absence, he fell seriously ill. The local medicine-man prescribed some herbs that had to be rubbed on Luanda's body. Since his first wife was absent, the second wife had to undertake that task.

To her surprise, Luanda asked her to cut his shadow and administer the herbs. At first she thought that her dear husband had plunged into the pool of insanity, but little did she know that that was where his strength lay. After cutting his shadow she was filled with disbelief when blood trickled from his shadow.

Ostrich feathersNational Museums of Kenya

On this discovery, Lwanda’s second wife crept out in the night, ran to her people and relayed the information. The Nandi strategized and attacked the Luo once again. During the attack, Lwanda's shadow was struck by a spear and he fell lifeless on the battlefield. The Nandi were ecstatic about their victory, whereas the Luo were filled with great dismay following the loss of a great warrior.

A rock stands at the spot where Luanda Magere allegedly fell, and locals believe that sharpening your hunting tool on that rock guaranteed one of a successful hunt.

ArmletNational Museums of Kenya

Growing up, Gor gave many prophesies that came true including a prophecy where 'baby-like' creatures were manifested, who were unstoppable as locusts. He warned the courageous warriors not to kill them because they had sticks that spat fire-guns.

he extent of his magic was so powerful that herbalists visit his graveyard to partake of his powers

Subaa (1997) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya

Clans and supreme chiefs

Traditionally, the Luo were organized into exogamous clans consisting of several families and headed by a clan elder. A council of elders were under a supreme chief ('Ruoth') and played the role of advisors to the supreme elder. All Luo leaders wore special regalia and had special items which portrayed their status including headdresses, a spear, special robes, a fly-whisk and a stool.

EarringsNational Museums of Kenya

Initiation

The Luo initiation was done by removing six front teeth from the lower jaw. The significance of this rite was to test courage and endurance of both men and women, and also to administer medicine in case of diseases such as lockjaw.

LuoNational Museums of Kenya

The long way to marriage

A Luo marriage process happened in phases. When a man spotted the girl he wanted to marry, he sent a few men from his clan to the girl's parents, and they would express his interest. The two families would investigate if there was any blood relation or ancestral connection between the two families, as it is the Luo custom that a man and a woman from the same clan should not marry.

After that, a "go between" (Jagam) would investigate the reputation of both families: if they practised witchcraft or sorcery, or had cases of madness, murder and diseases. Leprosy, epilepsy, sleeping sickness were considered hereditary and were possible grounds to stop a marriage.

The groom and his family would then proceed to pay the first bride wealth payment (Angea), which could be money or other gifts, but not cattle. Angea was paid to the mother of the girl, and she would cook a special meal of chicken for the guests. The actual bride price involved an agreed number of cattle.

The man would would then plan to 'abduct' the girl, either from the market or when she was fetching water. The 'abduction' was of symbol of status and everyone would know the girl was taken.

ShieldNational Museums of Kenya

Protecting the clan

Shields had three major socio-cultural applications: as defensive tools against attacks, used in mock fights (when village boys scrambled to take the initiates home) and in song and dance during traditional funeral ceremonies.

PotNational Museums of Kenya

The great Luo women

Luo women played a great role in the family. Traditionally, they carried out most of the domestic chores, took care of the children, and taught them their language and traditions. The women wore goat skin and elaborate headdresses decorated with feathers and beads.

Luo Funeral Mask by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The afterlife and funeral dress

The Luo believed that the dead joined the spirit world where they still had influence on living relatives. They could either be happy, or sad evil spirits who would cause calamities until they were appeased. Hence, the living accorded them a decent send off and prepared them to be ancestors. The burial ceremony included rites of mourning, dancing and slaughtering of animals.

This mask was worn during funerals, and is made of hide and cow's teeth. The crown is a cape decorated with cowrie shells and cow horns.

MedicineNational Museums of Kenya

Cobra bone and healing

Witch doctors or medicine men were important in the Luo community. Cobra bones were used for healing effects. The back bones of a cobra were arranged in a chain form and sold by a witch doctor as medicine for a sick person. The pieces were sold one by one, burnt, and the ash was used to relieve pain. The area where one was experiencing pain would be cut with a blade and rubbed with this ash.

Cobra bones were also tied around the waist when traveling in the bush for protection against being attacked by a cobra. The witch doctor would go into the bush to search for cobra bones, and if he could not find any he ordered the hunters to kill one and sell it to him.

Lagoon triggerfish by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

From pastoralism to fishing

The Luo were originally a pastoralist and fishing people. Men and women would go fishing along the rivers and Nam Lolwe (Lake Victoria). They created fishing traps from the "Modhno" plant (a type of grass) which is found abundantly in the lowland region. Today, the Luo have adopted agriculture due to the fertile soils and abundant rainfall around the Lake region.

Fish trapNational Museums of Kenya

Fishing trap

The fishing trap is described as a trap that 'never goes without catching fish'. When fishing, about three to four strings are tied to a long stick, then baited and immersed into the water. As the fish rush into the trap, it is pulled out of the water, catching the fish.

Granary (1974)National Museums of Kenya

Agriculture: grain stores

There were two types of Luo grain stores. One was made from wickerwork and the other from papyrus reeds. They were sometimes plastered with clay and cow dung. A short ladder from a forked branch was placed against the body of the basket and accessed through an opening at the top of the basket, immediately under the roof. Such granaries are fast disappearing from modern Luo homesteads.

This granary was made from millet sticks at the base of the conical shaped roof, which was thatched and covered a large container. The basket-like container was made by continuous twisting of the soft twigs, and held by crossed branches on the base and two sides.

Goat skinNational Museums of Kenya

Hunting animals and collecting honey

Using spears, arrows and knives, the Luo hunted birds and small animals including deer, antelope, rabbits, guinea fowl, porcupine among others for food, skins and horns. They got feathers from birds to decorate their headdresses, horns as musical instruments, and made clothes from the animal skins to cover their bodies.

The Luo also harvested honey from trunks of large trees. They smoked the bees out by burning sticks, and collect the honey in containers by hand, which was then carried home.

Musical InstrumentNational Museums of Kenya

Recreation: music, games, and enjoyment

The Luo have unique traditional music that plays a functional role in their lives. Traditional musical instruments include drums, rattles, horns, the Abu and stringed instruments like the Nyatiti. They play music at all important events. During funerals, Luo music is played to pay tribute to the deceased as well as consoling the family. Traditionally, diviners and medicine men also used music to invoke rain, chase away evil spirits and heal the sick.

AbuNational Museums of Kenya

The Abu

The Abu is a traditional musical instrument used by the Luo. It was made by several gourds stuck together using beeswax, and tied with the bark of the 'powo' (a grewia) tree. The Abu was traditionally made and blown by men, producing a deep, loud sound during important ceremonies for entertainment.

Musical InstrumentNational Museums of Kenya

The Nyatiti

The eight stringed musical instrument is locally known as 'Nyatiti'. It is a plucked bowl yoke lute, which was played for entertainment.

Fly whiskNational Museums of Kenya

Fly whisk

This fly whisk was made from an animal's tail and fitted with a wooden handle. It was used by women during traditional song and dance ceremonies. It was also used by diviners to send off bad spirits, and in other instances it was used to bless people.

FiddleNational Museums of Kenya

The Fiddle

The Fiddle is a musical instrument made from a tin covered with leather skin and tied with a wire. It was played by men to produce melodic sounds.

Lake TurkanaNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating Kenya's communities today

Many of the cultural practices of the Luo are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Luo community, along with the more than 44 communities in Kenya, continues to fascinate and inspire. The National Museums of Kenya invites everyone to celebrate the intangible cultural heritage of all communities which makes up this great nation. 

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.


Exhibit Curator: Philemon Nyamanga, Cultural Heritage Department. pnyamanga@museums.or.ke


Bibliography and research
1. 1. Andersen, K. B. African Traditional Architecture. Nairobi: Oxford University Press. 1977
2. Fedders A, Salvadori C. Peoples and cultures of Kenya. Nairobi: Transafrica and London: Rex Collings, 1980.


Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography


Exhibit Layout: Agnes Mbaika Kisyanga and Barnabas Ngei.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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