Profiles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home

The Luhya of Kenya

Population:     5,300,600 (Wikipedia)
Religion:        Christianity and Animism

Registry of Peoples codes:    Registry of Languages codes (Ethnologue):
Bukusu:  101720                    Bukusu:  bxk
Idakho:  114847                      Idakho-Isukha-Tiriki:  ida
Isukha:  114848                      Idakho-Isukha-Tiriki:  ida
Luhya:  105913                 Luyia (10 dialects in Kenya, 2 more in Uganda):  luy
                                                 Luyia (Wanga dialect, major 1 of 10):  luy
Maragoli:  114427                  Ragoli:  rag
Nyala, East:  107531              Nyala, East:  nle
Nyore:  107566                       Nyore:  nyd
Saamia:  114849                     Luyia (Saamia dialect):  luy
Tiriki:  114849                        Idakho-Isukha-Tiriki:  ida

The ethnic homeland of the Luhya (or with a Bantu grammatical marker for "people" in some of their languages, they are sometimes referred to as Abaluyia) is located in western Kenya north of Lake Victoria from Kisumu to Webuye going north and south, and from Kapsabet on the east to the Uganda border on the west.  This area of Kenya has been described as the most densely populated area of the world, exceeding even India in population density.  There are also large pockets of Luhya in Nairobi and the surrounding area.

There are various migration traditions among the different Luhya groups.  Some believe they migrated from Egypt.  Other Bantu peoples as well as Nilotic peoples, have a tradition of origin in "Egypt." This is taken to mean an area along the Nile, in the Sudan or Ethiopia.

The first "white man" the Luhya had contact with was probably H. M. Stanley as he voyaged around Lake Victoria.  In 1883 Joseph Thomson was the first European known to pass through on foot, and was influential in opening the region to Europeans after his meeting with King Nabongo Mumia.  Afterwards, there were bloody skirmishes mostly with the Bukusu people (one of the Luhya groups), which came to be known as the War of Chetambe.

The Wanga kingdom was very similar to the Ganda kingdom and other monarchies in Uganda, an unusual form of government for Bantu peoples.  Mumia was actually the last king in this line and was acknowledged by the British as a "chief."

The UNHCR provides an excellent Time Line of Kenya History focussing on the Luhya in recent decades.

There are 18 "peoples" of the Luhya in Kenya and 4 in Uganda.  Some sources make reference to one Luhya people in northern Tanzania, but I have not been able to determine what that refers to.  None of the sources which mention this have given a name or explanation.  The Luhya call these groups "houses" of the Luhya.  The Luhya are culturally and linguistically related to neighboring Bantu peoples, but exhibit differences.

Despite the tradition of origin in "Egypt," the Luhya culture and language show relationship to the Ganda and similar Bantu in Uganda, whose traditions indicate they came from Central Africa.  Two commonly proposed points of "dispersion" of the Bantu forms of speech are Southern Congo (Zaire) and the Cameroons.  An email correspondent named Osundwa Wanjera also mentions the Cameroons as a point of origin of Bantu language.*  Osundwa kindly commented on various points we mention in this profile.

These contradictory traditions are indicative of the mixed origin of the group of peoples now called Luhya.  Osundwa supports this multiple origin, citing their diversity as we refer to here, and as we also find attested in numerous published works.  He also notes that the Luhya groups claiming origin in Egypt are certain clans which retain their identity today.

Other Kenyan peoples speaking Bantu languages, such as the Kikuyu and Meru, also have multiple origin traditions, indicating groups of their ancestors came from different places.  This is a common feature among African peoples, as indeed in Europe and most parts of the world.

The Luhya are classified as a Bantu people, based on their language.  The name Bantu means "human beings." It appears that over a period of centuries, successive waves of Bantu speakers migrated into the area.  There was thus a common underlying origin and language-culture base, but with diversity over the years.

Tradition and linguistic characteristics of the various Luhya sub-groups indicate that various small groups of Bantu-speaking peoples settled over a period in these areas, in addition to various non-Bantu who came to adopt Bantu speech.  The area north of Lake Victoria has been a path of migration for many peoples of various ethnicities, including Nilotic peoples, some of whom have also become part of the Luhya peoples.  They developed a political unity during the latter stages of the colonial period.

Throughout the early years of living in this region, they were at war with their Nilotic neighbors, the Teso, Nandi, Maasai and Luo.  Records of these wars date back to the 1750s.  Despite this enmity, many Luhya families have intermarried over long periods with the neighboring Luo, a Nilotic people.  It is common to find Luo names among Luhya, particularly the Ragooli (Maragoli).

Osundwa rightly points out what has been mentioned in detail in more technical published sources, that some peoples now associated and identified as Luhya originated from these Nilotic groups.  In this short cultural profile on the Luhya cluster we cannot probe all the complex details of the whole Luhya Federation's history.  But for example, we know that the name Tiriki derives from the Kalenjin ethnic name Terik.  Details of these and other intricacies in Luhya heritage may be found in the sources cited at the end of this profile.

The western Kenya area is rich, fertile highland soil.  The Luhya are agricultural people living mostly off the land.  In recent years many of the youth have gone to the cities in search of work and a better life.  But these youth are extremely tied to tribal traditions and superstitions.

The Luhya groups do not all speak the same language.  However, systematic analysis of the continuum of Luyia speech does not find that there is a unique speech form for every "house" of the Luhya.  Linguists identify the speech of most of the the Luhya groups as closely related dialects of one language, which they group together under the name of Luyia, or Central Luyia.  Some Luhya communities speak varieties of this Luyia language ("Oluluyia" in the language itself).

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.

Political Situation:
The Luhya peoples became a politico-cultural bloc during the colonial period moving toward independence.  They are at peace with their neighbors at the present time, although during the last elections there were disturbances and open conflict with the Kalenjin.  Many of the Luhya peoples had already been incorpoorated into a unified political structure and identity under the Wanga kingdom of Nabongo Mumia.

Being one of the largest three ethnic groups in Kenya, the Luhya federation (called "nation" by some) influence politics greatly, especially in larger cities such as Nairobi.  The Encyclopedia Britannica states that the actual name Luhya did not come into use until about 1930, when "was first suggested by a local African mutual-assistance association."**  Many resources report that the term Luhya means "those of the same hearth."

Another Luhya source has suggested an explanation I have not heard from any other Luhya source in exactly this way.  Correspondent Roy Mahugu proposes a different meaning, not related to the hearth of a home, but a public gathering place.  Mahugu points out that "in most of the dialects spoken by the group referred to as Luhyas the word 'luhya' means a market place or a meeting place, a place where people meet on specific days or after attending to their daily chores."

Roy expands on this concept as a source for the common name "Luhya" or "Luyia:"

In this regard any where people would meet there eventually would be some commercial activities that's how it comes to refer to a market place.
However the purpose of people meeting was to sort out social as well as moral issues, for instance if a member of society felt aggrieved by another member it was in order for the aggrieved party to forward his case to elders within the society for redress and as such there had to be an appointed venue where such meetings took place, hence the name luhya.
The people who presided over such meetings were obviously respected members of society who were refer to collectively as Aba Luhya literally translated as the owners of the meeting venue.
That's the actual origin of the word luhya, subsequently Abaluhya.

The boys are given the responsibility of seeing after the herds and keeping the fire burning at night.  The girls help their mothers in the fields and in food preparation.  Circumcision for males and females is practiced.  There was once a period of training for adult responsibilities for the youth.  Circumcision is often done in hospitals now and the traditional training has basically died out.

They have extensive customs surrounding death.  There is a great celebration at the home place of the deceased hosting dozens to hundreds of people for a period of 40 days.  Nowadays, there is often a shorter (1 week or so) celebration at the time of burial, then a single closing ceremony again to end the 40 days.  This had developed because so many Luhya working in Nairobi must return to jobs rather than staying at the home place for 40 days.

Being agricultural people, the children are taught how to care for animals and plant the fields.  The educational standards are average for Kenya.

The traditional religion is animism and spiritism.  Today they continue to give honor to the ancestral spirits.  The funeral is very important as a custom to please the ancestral spirits.  There are some key holidays such as Lisaabo which is a remembrance of dead ancestors and the spiritual realm.  Sacrifices are made to please the spirits.  There is great fear of the witch-doctors (bafumo) and wizards (amalose).  These are often referred to as the "night-runners" who prowl in the nude running from one house to another casting spells.

Christianity was first introduced among the Luhya around 1902 by the Friends Church (Quakers), who opened a mission at Kaimosi.   That same year the Catholic order Mill Hill Brothers came to the area of Mumias.  The Church of God of Anderson, Indiana, USA, arrived in 1905 and began work in Kima.  Other Christian groups such as the Anglicans (CMS) came in 1906.  In 1924 the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada began their work in Nyan'gore.  The Salvation Army came to Malakisi in 1936.  The Baptists came to western Kenya in the early 1960s.

The first Bible translation in a Luyia language was produced by Nicholas Stamp in the Wanga language.  Osundwa says he did this translation in Mumias, the former capital of the Wanga kingdom of Mumia.  There has been a strong Christian witness among the Luhya in the twentieth century.  All of the Luhya peoples have been evangelized and profess Christianity.  Yet many mix Christianity with traditional religion.

An example of syncretism is a group known as Dini ya Msambwa founded by Elijah Masinde in 1948.  They worship "Were," the God of Mt. Elgon, while at the same time using portions of the Bible to teach their converts.  They also practice traditional witchcraft.  This movement originally arose as part of an anti-colonial resistance.  It is interesting that the Luhya name used for the Creator God of Christian faith is Nyasaye, a name borrowed from the Nilotic Luo.

In many ways it can be said that Christianity is not well understood among the Luhya people.  Many Luhya are church members, but it does not seem to make a great difference in their lives.  This may be partially due to the colonial hangover and early missionary influences.

Various sources estimate that Luhya are 75-90% professing Christians.   Recent observers suggest that fewer than 2% have a personal commitment to Christ.

*Personal email from Osundwa Frederick Wanjera to Orville B Jenkins, March 2007
**"Luhya," Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1997, Electronic.
***Personal email from Roy Mahugu to Orville B Jenkins, February 2006

For more on the Luhya Peoples

Bantu Peoples of Kenya – BlueGecko
Luhya – Encyclopędia Britannica Online
Luhya – Wikipedia
Luhya Clans and Culture – Abeingo Community Network
Luyia in Webuye (Haploid DNA Study) – Cornell University
Luyia Language Group – Ethnologue
Mumias Economic Woes
Time Line of Luhya History
Widow Inheritance Amongst the Kisa Luhya – UNHCR

Ayot, Henry Okello.  History Texts of the Lake Region of East Africa.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Kenya Literature Bureau, 1977.

Barker, Eric E.  The Short History of Nyanza.  Nairobi, Kenya:  East African Literature Bureau, 1975.

Makila, F.  E.  An Outline History of Babukusu of Western Kenya.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Kenya Literature Bureau, 1978.

Ogot, B. A. ed.  Kenya Before 1900: Eight Regional Studies. Nairobi:  East African Publishing House, 1978.

----- and J. A. Kieran.  Zamani: A Survey of East African History. Nairobi:  East African Publishing House and Longmans, 1968

Were, Gideon S.  A History of the Abaluyia of Western Kenya: c.  1500-1930.  Nairobi, Kenya: East African Publishing House, 1967.

-----.  Western Kenya Historical Texts.  Nairobi, Kenya:  East African Literature Bureau, 1967.

Based on an original profile written by Orville Boyd Jenkins and Gene R. Roach August 1996
Revised and first posted 14 March 2003
Rewritten 22 September 2008
Last edited 23 April 2009

Copyright © 1996, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Profiles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home