The Isukha Community of Kenya

Widely known for their Isukuti dance

Family (2003) by Anabelle WanjikuNational 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 Isukha community. 

Isukha MusicianNational Museums of Kenya

A look into the history and culture of the Isukha community

The Isukha (also commonly referred to as Abaisukha) are a sub-community of the larger Luhya (Abaluyia) community in Kenya. The Luhya are a western Bantu ethnic group, which comprises of eighteen sub-communities: Isukha, Bukusu, Maragoli, Banyala, Banyore, Batsotso, Gisu, Idakho, Kabras, Khayo, Kisa, Marachi, Marama, Masaaba, Samia, Tachoni, Tiriki and Wanga with different but mutually understood linguistic dialects. The Isukha people speak the Lwisukha dialect. They inhabit parts of Kakamega County, in western Kenya, border the Tiriki and Idakho sub-communities, and are closely related to the Idakho.

Today the Isukha inhabit parts of the Kakamega Forest.

BellowsNational Museums of Kenya

Origin of the Isukha

Mumwamu (also referred to as Mundu or Muluyia) was the ancestor of the Isukha. His son Mwisukha had nineteen sons, who form the nineteen clans of the Isukha.

Pot smoothersNational Museums of Kenya

Economic activities

The Isukha were farmers who kept livestock and cultivated sweet potatoes, maize, beans, bananas, millet and cassava. They also carried out trade and made handicrafts. 

SicklesNational Museums of Kenya

Farming

These ikhoni sickles were used by women for reaping ears of millet. A blacksmith made them by heating iron in fire and then hammering it into shape. The handle is made from wood of the musutso tree.

RopeNational Museums of Kenya

Keeping cattle

This rope (mukhoye) was made, by men, from likhrambi - a type of grass. It was used to tether cattle.

Bow and arrowsNational Museums of Kenya

Hunting

These arrows were made from wood of the mukonga tree. They were used for hunting, defence and fighting.

Pot standNational Museums of Kenya

Family roles

Traditionally the basic social structure or unit of the Isukha is the family. The father’s duty was to provide food, leadership and protection to the family, and the mother took care of the home. Children were trained at an early age to share the duties of daily life. At about age six, boys began to herd sheep, goats and cattle – a duty which they outgrew after being circumcised. The girls assisted their mothers with collecting firewood, fetching water and cooking. 

HoeNational Museums of Kenya

Farming

Both men and women played a significant role in farming. Men cleared virgin land and helped women plant crops while women weeded. The hoe (imoko) was made of a wooden haft cut from wood of the shisasaki tree and fitted with an iron blade, which was locally obtained from a blacksmith. It was used for cultivating.

Pestle and MortarNational Museums of Kenya

Food preparation

Mortar and pestle were essential household items. They were used for pounding grains to remove husks. The mortar was made using wood cut from the mukomari tree, and the pestle from the mukhandi tree.

RingNational Museums of Kenya

Transition from childhood to adulthood

The Isukha circumcised both boys and girls at puberty, and circumcision of boys is still an important cultural practice. Female circumcision is today outlawed in Kenya.

A day before circumcision, the initiates were taken to the river early in the morning, to be shaved and bathed. Song and dance accompanied the ceremonies, to encourage the initiates to stay strong and brave.

HoodNational Museums of Kenya

Seclusion period

After circumcision, the initiates were secluded for healing and training on community matters.

This grass-hood is a circumcision mask that would have been worn by initiates while in seclusion.

BindingNational Museums of Kenya

Marriage

Marriage is an important and highly respected institution for the Isukha. It raises one’s status in the society. and anyone who fails to marry is looked down upon.

In the past the Isukha were polygamous, and men were accorded respect depending on the number of wives they had. The bride wealth was paid in the form of cattle, sheep, or goats.

CapeNational Museums of Kenya

The Isukha socio-political structure

Historically the Isukha political structure was based on the clan system. Each clan was ruled and headed by a clan head ('Omwami'). He served to unify the community, and presided over sacrifices, rituals and the blessing of warriors. The Isukha also had a war leader, called 'Omusesia', who coordinated all the military activities of the community.

 

The weeping stone of IlesiNational Museums of Kenya

Traditional religious beliefs and practices

The Isukha believed in a supreme being, Mukoye (also referred to as 'Were' or 'Omwami We Mumbo'), to whom they offered prayers and sacrifices at selected places such as under trees (Mukhumi and Lusiola) or at the famous crying stone of Ilesi (ikongamurwe).

DrumNational Museums of Kenya

The Isukuti dance

The Isukuti dance is a traditional dance performed among the Isukha and Idakho. It is a rapid dance accompanied by drumming of the isukuti drums from which the dance drives its name. Both men and women participate in this dance, usually led by a soloist. The dance is now popular amongst the entire Luhya community, and is inscribed by UNESCO in the world heritage list.

FiddleNational Museums of Kenya

Shiriri

This one-stringed instrument (fiddle) is made of wood from the mukorani tree. The resonator is covered with cowhide. It was made and played by men to accompany singing.

SyphonNational Museums of Kenya

Rusashe

This is a straw made from bamboo and used by both men and women to drink busaa (local beer). Busaa is drunk from a communal pot during circumcision, marriage, dowry payment, and funerals, among other occasions. It is prepared from maize meal and finger millet fermented over a period of two weeks.

Lake TurkanaNational Museums of Kenya

Celebrating Kenya's communities today

Many of the cultural practices of the Isukha are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Isukha 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. 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: Barnabas Ngei, Brian Maina Kamau and Quinter Anduto.

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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