The Luo or Lwo People


The Luo or Lwo are a Nilotic people and are the third-largest ethnicity in Kenya, making up 13 percent of Kenya’s popula-tion. The Luo number over 3 million and are found in western Kenya, near Lake Victoria, as well in Tanzania, Uganda, and southern Sudan. The Luo language, Dholou, belongs to the same Nilotic group of languages as the Acholi of Uganda and the Shilluk of Sudan.

The Luo originated in the southern part of Sudan, south of the Sinnar Kingdom and along the Bahr al-Ghazal watershed. The Ocholo Kingdom united a number of Luo-speaking people in the 14th century with a sacred ruler. The Luo lived along the Nile and had a varied diet from crop cultivation as well as raising cattle. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Jyang or Dinka (Nilotic) began to expand into the Ocholo Kingdom about the same time as the southern Luo began to migrate south into what is today Uganda.

The Luo migration from Sudan to Kenya lasted over the past 400 to 500 years. Their migration was prompted by the redistribu-tion of grazing lands in southern Sudan by the Dinka and Nuer (Nilotic). The Luo began a slow movement with their cattle “setting up temporary camps among the way” (Newman, 164). The Luo were well organized and established several kingdoms along their migration route, both among Bantu farmers and other Sudanic peoples who had migrated earlier.

The Bito clan of the Luo established control over the Bantu Nyoro, the Hinda clan did much the same over Bantu speakers on the western side of Lake Victoria, and the Hima clan, pushing further south, founded the Tutsi kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi. There is some dis-pute among scholars about the influence of the Luo and the royal traditions of the inter-lacustrine or Lakes Region, which stretches from Lake Turkana in the north to Lake Malawi in the south. Some have postulated that the Luo brought many of the concepts with them, while others note that pre-Luo Bantu peoples had many of the same cus-toms and symbols of royalty.

The Luo are patrilineal, and many fami-lies are polygamous. In fact, around 30 per-cent of households are polygamous today. The practice of multiple wives seems to have grown with the need to have all adults married. Husbands pay a bride price, and the woman does not sever connections with her own lineage, but maintains close rela-tions with her brothers. The bride price goes to the woman and is a means by which she can maintain her own kin ties and her own sources of wealth.The Luo do not practice circumcision as a means of noting the rite of passage for either a boy or girl.

Instead, Luo mark the passing from childhood into adulthood by knocking out the bottom six front teeth. Some have speculated the practice made them less attractive to slavers. Tradition-ally, girls spent their teen years in the companyofothergirlsmindedbyelder women in separate sleeping huts.Both the Anglican and the Roman Catholic churches have missions in Ken-ya’s Luoland, and a large number of peo-ple have converted. Nonetheless, the Christianity practiced by the Luo includes a good deal of their pre-Christian belief system.

In 1912, the first independent church, the Nomiya Luo Church, was founded. The traditional belief system does have a supreme being who is referred to by a number of names that indicate his powers, including ruoth or “the king,” which helped Christian missionaries iden-tify the Christian god, and especially Christ as king of Heaven, with that of the Luo. In addition to a supreme god, the Luo believe in a number of other spirits or jouk, which means shadow. Most of these spirits cause mischief or harm if they are not properly respected and/or remem-bered.

Luo expansion continued until the late 19th century, when they encountered the British. The Luo, like other “natives” in Kenya, suffered loss of lands to white farmers and ranchers. During the colonial period and after independence, the Luo have remained isolated from national poli-tics. Their area of country is generally less developed than others, and a good portion of women are illiterate. A disproportionate number of Luo suffer from HIV, and infant mortality and food shortages are, unfortu-nately, all too common.

The water supply is contaminated with a number of water-borne diseases in much of Kenya’s Luo-land. In addition, tourism and tourist dollars are funneled to Lake Victoria and generally bypass the Luo. Anger over these problems bubbled to the surface with elections in 2007 and 2008 between Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki. Odinga was sup-ported by Luo and Kalenjin, while Kibaki was supported mainly by Kikuyu. Violence erupted after Kibaki was declared the win-ner in the election for president and, in the end, international mediation was needed to calm the situation. A unity government was formed with Kibaki as president and Odinga as prime minister.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Ayodo, Awuor, and Atieno Odhiambo. Luo.New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1996.

Collins, Robert O. A History of Modern Sudan.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Countries and Their Cultures. “Luo.” (accessed June 10, 2010).

Miller, Frederic, Agnes Vandome, and John McBrewster. Luo. Beau Bassin, Mauritius: Alphascript Publishing, 2010.