The Lulya or Luhya People


The Lulya or Luhya (Buluhyia, Abaluyia plural) are a Bantu people and are the second largest population in Kenya after the Kikuyu, numbering 5.3 million or 14 per-cent of the population of Kenya. Their language, called oluLuhya, is shared by 16 to 18 subdivisions in Kenya and another 4 in Uganda, including the Isukka, Idakhos, Kabra, Nyala, Tsotso, Wanga, Marama, Kisas, Nyore, Margoli, Tirilis, Bakhayo, Tachoni, Marach, Samia, and Bukusus. A minority of Luhya live in Uganda and Tanzania, but the majority live in Kenya.

The Luhya have a number of different origins and migrated to their current location in the 15th century. They seem to be descendants of Bantu peoples from around the Lakes Region, but also have Kalenjin and Maasai ancestors. Their own legends state that they migrated from Misir or Egypt. They remained a decentralized group and did not develop a collective identity until recently. However, it is believed that the different ethnicities coa-lesced into a single group in the 17th cen-tury, with the language serving as the main means of group identity.

OluLuhya has been spoken for some 500 years, and the different dialects are all mutually intel-ligible. Most Luhya are Christians today, but many of their traditional beliefs, such as in witches, remain. The Wanga sub-group of the Luhya, unlike most of the other Luhya groups, did develop into a kingdom influenced greatly by the nearby Ganda. In 1883, the first European passed through their land and met with the Wanga king Nabongo Mumia.The Luhya live in an arid area, and generally those in more arid areas raised cattle, while those in better-watered southern areas raised crops such as millet and maize.

The importance of livestock to their culture is evidenced in the mar-riage bride price, which is paid in cattle, sheep, and goats. Marriage must be from a clan not related to the groom’s clan, and even today, out-of-clan marriages are a necessity. Even though most marriages are still arranged by families, both men and women are allowed to take lovers.

Families are patriarchal, and men are allowed to take a number of wives. The first wife is respon-sible for managing the various members including any subsequent wife the head of household may marry.The Luhya also practice male circumci-sion, which marks a boy’s entry into adult life. Boys are circumcised between the ages of 8 and 15 during an event that takes place once a year.

It can be delayed up to five years; afterwards, the boys are then put into age sets. Traditional bullfights are still held once a year and have become a major tourist attraction. Another aspect of tourism is the making of “Wanga dolls” and “Wanga packets” (often spelled pak-ets), which are supposed to have charms or help in a person’s life. Both the dolls and packets seem to be a cross between West African voodoo and the Wanga belief in witches and have become popular with North American clients.

It is possible to purchase both the dolls and the packets online.Luhya lands were expropriated for colonial farms, and the Bukusus in par-ticular resisted engaging in numerous bat-tles to regain their lands. However, the Wanga and Kabra collaborated with the British and worked on colonial farms. In 1902, the British split Luhya lands in half when the boundary between Kenya and Uganda was agreed upon.

Following colonization, sugar cane was introduced as a cash crop, and today the Luhya produce nearly all of Kenya’s sugar. Along with sugar, crops of wheat and maize are also produced. A good number of Luhya still live in their traditional home region, and the Bukussus have been able to retain much of the precolonial life, but more and more young people are moving to Kenya’s major cities for work.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

“The Luhya of Kenya.” (accessed June 10, 2010).

“Luhya Tribe.” _safari/people/luhya (accessed June 10, 2010).

“The Luhya Tribe.” (accessed June 10, 2010.

“The Luhya Tribe.” (acc-essed June 10, 2010).

Sobania, N. W. Culture and Customs of Kenya.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Stokes, Jamie. “Luyia.” In Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East.New York: Facts on File, 2009.