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Know Your Tribe, Know Your Roots, The Luhya

The Luhya

The Luhya, Luyia, or Abaluhya, as they are interchangeably called, are the second-largest ethnic group in Kenya, after the Kikuyu. The Luhya belong to the larger linguistic stock known as the Bantu. The Luhya comprise several subgroups with different but mutually understood linguistic dialects. Some of these subgroups are Ababukusu, Abanyala, Abatachoni, Avalogoli, Abamarama, Abaidakho, Abaisukha, Abatiriki, Abakisa, Abamarachi, and Abasamia.

Migration to their present western Kenya location dates back to as early as the second half of the fifteenth century. Immigrants into present-day Luhyaland came mainly from eastern and western Uganda and trace their ancestry mainly to several Bantu groups, and to other non-Bantu groups such as the Kalenjin, Luo, and Maasai. Early migration was probably motivated by a search for more and better land, and to escape local conflicts, tsetse flies, and mosquitoes. By about 1850, migration into Luhyaland was largely complete, and only minor internal movements took place after that due to food shortages, disease, and domestic conflicts. Despite their diverse ethnic ancestry, the Luhya have a history of intermarriage, local trade, and shared social and cultural practices. Variations in dialects and customs reflect their diverse ancestry.


The Luhya people make their home mainly in the western part of Kenya. Administratively, they occupy mostly Western province, and the west-central part of Rift Valley province. Luhya migration into the Rift Valley is relatively recent, only dating back to the first few years after independence in 1963, when farms formerly occupied by colonial white settlers were bought by, or given back to, indigenous (native) Africans.

According to the last national population census conducted in 1989, the Luhya people number just over 3 million, making up over 10 percent of Kenya’s total population. The Luhya are the second-largest ethnic group in Kenya, after the Kikuyu. Although most Luhya live in western Kenya, especially in the rural areas, an increasingly large number of Luhya have migrated to major urban centers such as Nairobi in search of employment and educational opportunities. About 900,000 Luhya people live outside of Western province. This is about 30 percent of the total Luhya population.


There is no single Luhya language. Rather, there are several mutually understood dialects that are principally Bantu. Perhaps the most identifying linguistic feature of the various Luhya dialects is the use of the prefixaba-orava-,meaning “of” or “belonging to.” Thus, for example,AbalogoliorAvalogolimeans “people oflogoli.”

Luhya names have specific meanings. Children are named after climatic seasons, and also after their ancestors, often their deceased grandparents or great-grandparents. Among the Ababukusu, the name Wafula (for a boy) and Nafula (for a girl) would mean “born during heavy rains,” while Wekesa (for a boy) and Nekesa (for a girl) would mean “born in the harvest season.” With European contact and the introduction of Christianity at the turn of the twentieth century, Christian and Western European names began to be given as first names, followed by traditional Luhya names. Thus, for example, a boy might be named Joseph Wafula, and a girl, Grace Nekesa.


The Luhya people traditionally believed in and worshiped only one god,Were(also known asNyasaye).Werewas worshiped through intermediaries (go-betweens), usually the spirits of dead relatives. The spirits had considerable benevolent (positive) as well as malevolent (destructive) power and thus had to be appeased through animal sacrifices, such as goats, chickens, and cattle.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Christianity was introduced to Luhyaland and to the rest of Kenya. Christianity spread widely during the colonial period. The overwhelming majority of Luhya people now consider themselves Christians. Both Catholicism and Protestantism are practiced. Among the Abawanga, Islam is also practiced.

Despite conversion to Christianity, belief in spirits and witchcraft is still common. It is not unusual to find people offering prayers in church and at the same time consulting witch doctors or medicine men for assistance with problems.


Breakfast among the Luhya consists mainly of tea. The preferred tea is made with plenty of milk and sugar. For those who can afford it, wheat bread bought from the stores is eaten with tea. Tea and bread, however, are too expensive for many families to eat on a regular basis; consequently, porridge made of maize (corn), millet, or finger millet flour is consumed instead. Lunch and supper often consist ofovukima—maize flour added to boiling water and cooked into a thick paste similar to American grits.Ovukimais eaten with various vegetables such as kale and collard greens, and for those who can afford it, beef or chicken. Chicken is a delicacy and is prepared for important guests or for special occasions.

The main cooking utensils are pots made of steel or other metals. They are mass-manufactured in the country as well as imported. Clay pots are also still used by many families for preparing and storing traditional beer, and also for cooking traditional vegetables. Plates and cups are made of either metal, plastic, or china, and are bought from stores, as are spoons, knives, and forks.


Pottery and basket-weaving are quite common among the Luhya, especially in the rural areas. Baskets are made from the leaves of date palms (calledkamakhenduamong the Ababukusu) that grow on river banks. Increasingly, sisal is used. Body ornaments such as bangle bracelets, necklaces, and earrings are mass-produced commercially in Kenya or are imported, and are not in any way uniquely Luhya in form.


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