The Burden of Being a Luo in Kenya
June 20, 2012
A Luo man dressed like a witch doctor
Being a member of any ethnic group in Kenya carries with it a burden. Whether you are a Luo, a Kikuyu, a Luhya, a Kalenjin, a Kamba, a Mjikenda or a member of any of the forty two ethinc groups that form the Kenyan nation, there is usually a distinct stereotyping of any of the ethnic groups, a situation that can create what I call “a burden”. It is a burden because the stereotyping may not apply for many Kenyans although, in many cases, the victims have to live with them. Under this circumstance, what is the burden of being a Luo? The following points could be true or false depending on how you look at them. This is not a blue-print but a rough guide of what it takes to be a Luo in Kenya.
In politics, you are always accused of supporting or being loyal to the political family of the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga whose son, Raila Odinga, is currently the centre of gravity in Kenyan politics.
In football, you are likely to be accused of supporting Gor Mahia Football Club named after the legendry Luo fighter, Gor Mahia. Legend has it that Gor Mahia turned into a stone after his shadow was speared in battle following betrayal by a woman he was given to marry by the enemy. According to the legend, Gor Mahia’s humanity lay on his shadow, a secret that was discovered by the woman.
As a Luo, you are likely to be accused of being boisterous, proud and exhibitionistic especially if you purchase a Benz car, a plasma TV or a leather sofa set. As a Luo, you have to be prepared for accusations of being materialistic and showy even if you are not. The story goes that a Luo would rather secure a bank loan to purchase a comfortable sofa set even if such a move would interfere with the kitchen budget. The saying goes that a Luo would rather sit comfortably on such a sofa set, even on an empty stomach, rather than have plenty of food but sitting on a mat on the floor or a wooden stool.
As a Luo, you have to be prepared for accusations of being lazy especially on work related issues. Even if you break your back daily to earn a living, you will still have to face the accusation of laziness and the justification is that because of this laziness, there is constant shortage of tapped water in Kisumu city despite the city being home to the largest fresh water lake in Africa, Lake Victoria. Interestingly, the explanation behind the apparent laziness of Luos is borne out of the assumption that since all Luos are supposedly borne along the shores of Lake Victoria, they are more used to getting free fish from the lake daily than digging the soil then waiting for months for food to grow so that the harvesting season can come before people can eat. For a Luo (according to this school of thought), if there is no food in the morning, the Luo goes out into the lake and returns with plenty of fish. No planting or weeding or, sometimes, waiting for the rain to fall before planted seeds can begin to grow.
Loving the dead “too much”
Politically, a Luo will always face the accusation of “wanting to be in the opposition”. This accusation was born out of decades of political marginalization by the Kenyatta, the Moi and, now, the Kibaki government. With Luos playing no big role in government, they have always been forced into the opposition. Since February 2008, this accusation has reduced somewhat because Raila Odinga, a Luo, has been the Prime Minister thereby “removing the Luos from the opposition”. Many Luos must have been relieved of this burden as Raila continued to play his game in the Coalition government.
If you are a Luo, you have to be prepared for being accused of always “being power hungry”. The explanation is that Oginga Odinga, the first Vice President of Kenya, was power hungry and that this thirst for power is what drove him to part ways with Uhuru Kenyatta’s father, the late Mzee jomo Kenyatta. In the early 70s, some Kenyans tried to stage a coup against the Kenyatta government and a Luo was said to have led the coup before he was arrested. The reason was because Luos are always “power hungry”.
Then, in 1982, the government of former dictator Daniel arap moi was actually overthrown for some hours and the coup leader happened to have been Hezekia Ochuka, a Luo. For some Kenyans, this confirmed the perception that Luos were actually power hungry for how else could a Luo have led the coup? Ochuka was subsequently executed by Moi. Raila Odinga has had to face a lot of accusations of having been a key member of the 1982 coup plotters and it was not until after the 2007 elections that propaganda that Raila’s participation in the coup was due to thirst for power ended. The late Dr. Robert Ouko was allegedly killed by the Moi government because he was “power hungry”. At the time of his death, the explanation was that Western powers were grooming him to take over the leadership of Kenya and that when Moi heard about the plot, he killed Dr. Ouko.
Any Luo walking in town is usually seen as a fish monger. If you are a Luo born abroad and you have never tasted fish, you only need to say that your name is “Otieno” before you are awarded a “fish-monger’s” certificate.
If you are a Luo, then you just love the dead too much. You have too many rituals for the dead for no apparent reason. Tero buru, a ritual performed after burial, but which is increasingly becoming obsolete, remains a permanent mark of the Luo person even for those who do not know how Tero buru is usually conducted. In Kenya, Luos are routinely accused of turning funerals into feasting camps, in the process, draining the bereaved family which, sometimes, has to slaughter bulls to feed the mourners. I don’t have to go into the burden linked to accusations of Luo men always seeking to inherit the wives of the dead. According to one unproven theory, the sole reason why HIV/Aids is prevalent in Luo Nyanza is because wife inheritance is rampant in the province. This accusation has always been levelled despite lack of research to back it up.
Another burden of being a Luo is that you are always accused of thinking that Luos are the most learned, intelligent, smart and civilized people in Kenya. The saying goes that because of this intelligence, Luo leaders led by Oginga Odinga, decided to negotiate Kenya’s independence with the British colonialists as Kikuyus were being killed in the bush during the Mau Mau war. There is no validity in these accusations but then, if you are a Luo, then you may just have to face them or will, in a matter of time, face them in the future.
Because of these stereotyping, being a Kenyan Luo is not easy. What is the burden of being your tribe? Let us know.