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 speech of the Bukusu, Nyore, Idakho-Isukha-Tiriki and Ragooli are classified as separate languages. The triple name Idakho-Isukha-Tiriki indicates that the speech of these three Luhya communities is so close that they are considered one language with three dialects. The speech of the Tachoni ethnic group, with a population of 47,000, is classified as one dialect of the Bukusu language.
There are Bible translations in Ragooli (Maragoli), Bukusu and a translation self-described as “Standard Luyia” language. The latter is actually in the Wanga language. However, linguists classify the speech of the Wanga as one of 10 dialects of “Central Luyia” or “Standard Luyia” in Kenya. Two of these (Saamia and Songa) are also spoken in Uganda. This language is listed in the Ethnologue as Luyia, with the language code luy.
Some list the Nyala people as one of the sub-groups of the Luhya. But there are two different Nyala peoples, whose speech is different. East Nyala is classified as a separate language in the Luyia cluster (language code nle), which the speech of the West Nyala people is a dialect of the Luyia language (luy). Many have trouble reading either of these three translations of the Bible. The common languages used among the sub-groups are Swahili and English. (In linguistic reference, the spelling Luhya normally refers to the people and Luyia refers to the language. But in practice the two spellings are interchanged in various sources.)
There is similarity between several of the Luyia languages and the Luganda language of the Ganda (Baganda) of Uganda.
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.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Having many children is considered a virtue, and childlessness is seen as a great misfortune. Many births take place in the home, but increasingly women are urged to give birth in hospitals or other health facilities. The placenta(engori)and the umbilical cord(olulera)are buried behind the hut at a secret spot so they will not be found and tampered with by a witch(omulogi).For births that take place in hospitals or other places outside of home, these rituals are not observed.
Until about fifteen years ago, elaborate initiation ceremonies to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood were performed for both boys and girls. Among other things, these rites included circumcision for boys. Uncircumcised boys(avasinde)were not allowed to marry or join in many other adult activities. Nowadays circumcision still takes place, but the ceremonies are still elaborate and public only among the Ababukusu and Abatiriki peoples.
Death and funeral rites involve not only the bereaved family, but also other relatives and the community. While it is known that many deaths occur through illnesses like malaria and tuberculosis, as well as road accidents, quite a few deaths are still believed to occur from witchcraft. Burial often takes place in the homestead of the deceased. Among the Luhya, funerals and burials are public and open events. Animals are slaughtered, and food and drinks are brought to feed the mourners. Because many people today are Christians, burial ceremonies often involve prayers in church and at the dead person’s home, even when traditional rituals are also practiced. Music and dance, both traditional Luhya and Western-style, take place, mostly at night.
Ordinarily, the Luhya dress just like their fellow Kenyans, wearing locally manufactured and imported dresses, pants, shirts, shoes, and so forth. Elementary and high school students wear uniforms to school. Women almost never wear pants. Those who dare to do so are considered abnormal and may even be verbally assaulted by men. It is particularly inappropriate for a married woman to wear pants or a short skirt or dress in the presence of her father-in-law. Earrings, necklaces, and bangle bracelets are commonly worn by women. Men generally do not wear earrings.
Traditional clothing is worn mostly during specific occasions and only by certain people. In cultural dances, performers may put on feathered hats and skirts made of sisal strands. For the Luhya groups that still maintain the traditional circumcision rites (especially the Ababukusu), the initiates will often put on clothing made of skins and paint themselves with red ochre (a pigment) or ash.
CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
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.