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THE LUO: Know Your Tribe – Know Your Roots

Posted by African Press International on September 25, 2008

The Luo (also called Jaluo and Joluo) are an ethnic group in Kenya, eastern Uganda, and northern Tanzania. They are part of a larger group of ethno linguistically related Luo peoples who inhabit an area including southern Sudan, northern and eastern Uganda, western Kenya, and northern Tanzania.

The Luo are the third largest ethnic group in Kenya, after the Kikuyu and the Luhya. The Luo and the Kikuyu inherited the bulk of political power in the first years following Kenya’s independence in 1963. The Luo population in Kenya was estimated to be 3,185,000 in 1994 . In Tanzanian population was estimated at 280,000 in 2001.The main Luo livelihood is fishing. Outside Luoland, the Luo work in eastern Africa as tenant fishermen, small-scale farmers, and urban workers. They speak the Dholuo language, which belongs to the Western Nilotic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family spoken by other Luo-speaking people such as the Lango, Acholi, Padhola and Alur (all of Uganda).

Luo History

Pre-Colonial Times

The Luo probably originated from Wau in southern Sudan, near the confluence of the Meride and Sue Rivers. The Kenya Luo migrated into western Kenya via today’s eastern Uganda, the first wave arriving sometime around 1500 AD. Arrivals came in at least five waves arriving at different times: (1) the Joka-Jok (who migrated from Acholiland, the first and largest migration); (2) those migrating from Alur; (3) the Owiny (who migrated from Padhola); (4) the Jok Omolo (perhaps from Pawir); and (5) The Abasuba (a heterogeneous group in southern Nyanza, with Bantu elements).

The present day Kenya Luo traditionally consist of 23 sub-tribes, each in turn composed of various clans and sub-clans: (1) Jo-Gem, (2) Jo-Ugenya, (3) Jo-Seme, (4) Jo-Kajulu, (5) Jo-Karachuonyo, (6) Jo-Nyakach, (7) Jo-Kabondo, (8) Jo-Kisumo (Jo-Kisumu), (9) Jo-Kano, (10) Jo-Asembo, (11) Jo-Uyoma, (12) and Jo-Sakwa, (13) Jo-Kanyamkago,(14) Jo-Kadem, (15) Jo-Kwabwai, (16) (17)Jo-Karungu, (18) Abasuba(Jo-Suna, Jo-Gwassi, Kaksingri, etc), (19) Jo-Kasgunga, (20)Jo-Kanyamwa,(21) Jo-Kanyada, (22)Jo-Kanyadoto, (23)Jo-Kamgundho . (Jo- indicates people of.)

By the 1840s, the Luo had a tight-knit society with ruodhi or regional chiefs.

Colonial Times

Early British contact with the Luo was indirect and sporadic. Relations intensified only when the completion of the Uganda Railway had confirmed British intentions and largely removed the need for local tribal alliances. In 1896 a punitive expedition was mounted in support of the Wanga ruler Mumia in Ugenya against the Umira Kager clan led by Gero. Over 200 were quickly killed by a Maxim gun. In 1899, C. W. Hobley led an expedition against Sakwa, Seme and Uyoma locations in which 2,500 cattle and about 10,000 sheep and goats were captured.

By 1900, the Luo chief Odera was providing 1,500 porters for a British expedition against the Nandi.

In 1915 the Colonial Government sent Odera Akang’o, the ruodhi of Gem, to Kampala, Uganda. He was impressed by the British settlement there and upon his return home he initiated a forced process of adopting western styles of schooling, dress and hygiene. This resulted in the rapid education of the Luo in the English language and English ways.

The Luo generally were not dispossessed of their land by the British, avoiding the fate that befell the pastoral tribes inhabiting the Kenyan White Highlands. Many Luo played significant roles in the struggle for Kenyan independence, but the tribe was relatively uninvolved in the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s. Instead, some Luo used their education to advance the cause of independence peacefully. The lawyer C.M.G. Argwings-Kodhek, for example, used his expertise to defend Mau Mau suspects in court.

Independent Kenya

Kenya became independent on 12 December 1963. Oginga Odinga, a prominent Luo leader, declined the presidency of Kenya, preferring to assume the vice presidency with Jomo Kenyatta as the head of government. Their administration represented the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party. However, differences with Jomo Kenyatta caused Oginga to defect from the party and abandon the vice presidency in 1966. His departure caused the Luo to become politically marginalized under the Kenyatta, and subsequently the Moi, administrations.

Since Oginga Odinga’s 1966 resignation from the vice presidency, the Luo people have been regarded as opponents to the government. The struggle for independence did not feature any Luo elders. As some claim however, the Luo did peacefully participate. Many remember their role in the late sixties, seventies and eighties. During the late 1980s through the 1990s, their participation provoked violent political events, for example the murder of Dr. Robert Ouko.

Culture and customs

Legio Maria

(Latin, Legion of Mary) is a new religious movement among the Luo people of western Kenya which incorporates traditional Luo religious customs into a Christian framework. It is a kind of syncretic Animist/Christian cult originally prevailing only in Luoland, but ultimately spreading widely in East Africa. It originated in the early 1960s as a breakaway of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), declared a pope (anti-pope to conventional Catholics), and asserted that it has replaced the Church in Rome as the true Catholic Church.

The Legio Maria of African Church Mission was founded by a former catechist of the RCC among the Luo people in Kisii Diocese of western Kenya. In 1962, Blasio Simeo Malkio Ondetto  known as Baba Messiah by Legio Maria followers and as the Black Messiah or Black Jesus by others  split from the RCC taking 90,000 adherents with him.

His second in command was a woman known as Mother Maria and today revered as the true Mother of God. Both were excommunicated by the RCC in the 1960s. By 1980 the church numbered 248,000 adherents.

In the 21st century, total church membership has been estimated at over three million.
The Legio Maria headquarters and center is the village of Got Kwer, a community that the devout refer to as Jerusalem. This village of about 600 is approximately 15 km west of the south-western Kenya town of Migori. Here is Simeos old family homestead and the tomb of the Messiah himself which is viewable as a long, cloth-covered plinth with numerous devotional objects scattered around. Both are lovingly maintained by the devout.


Baba Messiah, although sometimes referred to as a pope, was technically considered a god. He has been followed by a succession of three popes to date:
Pope Timothy Blasio Ahitler (19??-1998).
Pope Maria Pius Lawrence Chiaji Adera (1998-2004)
Pope Raphael Titus Otieno (2004 date)

Traditional Religious believes

The Luo traditionally believed in an afterlife and a supreme creator, whom they called Nyasaye, and had a strong ancestor cult. Today most of the Kenya Luo are Christians.

The first major ritual in a Luo person’s life is called Juogi, the naming ceremony. Any time between birth and age two, an ancestor might appear in a dream to an adult member of the family. It is generally believed that only people who did good things when alive appear in this way and are thus reincarnated. The child is supposed to assume some of the mannerisms of the ancestor he or she is named after. If the ancestor was quiet, the child becomes a quiet person; if talkative, same. The so named ancestor becomes the individual’s guardian angel throughout life. Children are rarely named after bad people. It is believed that after death evil people are gone for good (sent to hell).

The Luo are in the minority of ethnic groups in east Africa in that they do not practice ritual circumcision of males as initiation. Instead, children formerly had their six lower front teeth carefully removed at an initiation. This ritual has largely fallen out of use.

Luo Marriage Customs

The Luo traditionally practiced polygamy, though this has fallen out of favor with young adults today, though many still practice it (it is undocumented) as it is only the first wife who is recognized by the law. (In the former times, men could marry up to five wives.)

Historically, couples were introduced to each other by matchmakers, but this is also not common now. The Luo frequently marry outside the tribe, although it is not recommended by the council of elders. The traditional marriage ceremony takes place in two parts, both involving the payment of a bride price by the groom. The first ceremony, the Ayie, involves a payment of money to the mother of the bride; the second stage involves giving cattle to her father. Often these two steps are carried out at the same time, and as many modern Luos are Christians, a church ceremony often follows.

Luo Music

Traditionally, music was the most widely practiced art in the Luo community. At any time of the day or night, some music was being made. Music was not made for its own sake. Music was functional. It was used for ceremonial, religious, political or incidental purposes. Music was performed during funerals (Tero buru) to praise the departed, to console the bereaved, keep people awake at night, express pain and agony and during cleansing and chasing away of spirits. Music was also played during ceremonies like beer parties (Dudu, ohangla dance), welcoming back the warriors from a war, during a wrestling match (Ramogi), during courtship, etc. Work songs also existed. These were performed both during communal work like building, weeding, etc. and individual work like pounding of cereals, winnowing. Music was also used for ritual purposes like chasing away of evil spirits (nyawawa), who visit the village at night, in rain making and during divinations and healing.

The Luo music was shaped by the total way of life, lifestyles, and life patterns of individuals of this community. Because of that, the music had characteristics which distinguished it from the music of other communities. This can be seen, heard and felt in their melodies, rhythms, mode of presentation and dancing styles, movements and formations.

The melodies in the Luo music were lyrical, with a lot of vocal ornamentations. These ornaments came out clearly especially when the music carried out an important message.

Their rhythms were characterized by a lot of syncopation and acrusic beginning. These songs were usually presented in solo-response style though solo performances were there too. The most common forms of solo performances were chants. These chants were recitatives with irregular rhythms and phrases which carried serious messages in them. Most of the Luo dances were introduced by these chants. For example the dudu dance.

Another unique characteristic in the Luo music is the introduction of yet another chant at the middle of a musical performance. The singing stops, the pitch of the musical instruments go down and the dance becomes less vigorous as an individual takes up the performance is self praise. This is referred to as Pakruok. There was also a unique kind of ululation, Sigalagala, that marked the climax of the musical performance. Sigalagala was mainly done by women.

The dance styles in the Luo folk music were elegant and graceful. It involved either the movement of one leg in the opposite direction with the waist in step with the syncopated beats of the music or the shaking of the shoulders vigorous usually to the tune of the nyatiti an eight stringed instrument.

Adamson (1967) commented that Luos clad in their traditional costumes and ornaments deserve their reputation as the most picturesque people in Kenya. During most of their performances the Luo wore costumes and decorated themselves not only to appear beautiful but also to enhance their movements. These costumes included sisal skirts (owalo), beads (Ombulu / tigo) worn around the neck and waist and red or white clay were used by the ladies.

The men’s costumes included kuodi or chieno a skin worn from the shoulders or from the waist respectively to cover their nakedness. Ligisa the headgear, shield and spear, reed hats, clubs among others. All these costumes and ornaments were made from locally available materials.

The Luo were also rich in musical instruments which ranged from, percussion (drums, clappers, metal rings, ongeng’o or gara, shakers), strings (e.g., nyatiti, a type of lyre; orutu, a type of fiddle), wind (tung a horn,Asili, a flute, Abu-!, a trumpet).

Currently the Luo are associated with the benga style of music. It is a lively style in which songs in Dholuo, Swahili, English are sung to a lively guitar riff. It originated in the 1950s with Luo musicians trying to adapt their traditional tribal dance rhythms to western instruments. The guitar (acoustic, later electric) replaced the nyatiti as the string instrument.
Benga has become so popular that it is played by musicians of all tribes and is no longer considered a purely Luo style. It has become Kenya’s characteristic pop sound.

Luo singer and nyatiti player Ayub Ogada received widespread exposure in 2005 when two of his songs were featured in Alberto Iglesias Academy Award-nominated score for Fernando Mereilles film adaptation of The Constant Gardener.



14 Responses to “THE LUO: Know Your Tribe – Know Your Roots”

  1. Odoch Ray said

    praise gods of our proud to be lwo{acholi}.we really have rich history.



    Am Aluo from Jonam Most Known As Pakwach Nebbi Am Very Very Proud Of Being Alou Caz We Are The Only Group Of People Who Are Friendly And Honest Alove All My Lou People


  3. I welcome you to my website (
    I am also researching on my roots. I hope you will find something of interest.


  4. moses omieri said

    hello, I’m A luo from Kenya I have been searching for the actual place luos originated from.Now I’m beginning to understand why some people moved westward and others moved south. Was it because we were too weak fight the Arab



    I am proud to be a Luo


  6. Obie Kombe said

    What a rich history!


  7. Obie Kombe said

    This is a rich history of the Luo. I stumbled into this blog as I was searching Ayub Ogada’s cd which has “Koth Biro”. Does anyone have any information as where to purchase “Luo Kitgi Gi Timbegi”. My dad had a copy way back when we were young and it disappeared. I never took the time to really read and absorb the material narrated by Ker Paul Mboya, due to the fact that those days we were busy immersed in Ebony and Jet magazines, we were not much enthused by our roots.

    Greta reading the perspective from the Uganda Lwo by Rt. Hon. Prince Wathum Edwin Djalkwiyu (Alur Kingdom).


  8. debowow said

    Attractive section of content. I just stumbled upon your site and in accession capital to assert that I get actually enjoyed account your blog posts. Any way I will be subscribing to your feeds and even I achievement you access consistently rapidly.


    • moses omieri said

      It was very interesting to read your blog when i was searching luo migration from south sudan. If anybody has more information post so my young kids understand our rich history.Meanwhile keep up the good work.


  9. wathum edwin said


    By Rt. Hon. Prince Wathum Edwin Djalkwiyu (Alur Kingdom)

    Allow me send my greetings to all of you great Lwo people out there. I am a Lwo Atyak-‘Alur’ (a nick-name rarely associated with) by tribe , a Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Kyambogo University- Uganda & a Prime Minister of Alur Kingdom (by birth), which King Nyipir founded in 1390 A.D; King Nyipir a brother to Prince Nyabongo(Labongo)who was his prime minister then and the later a founder of Ker Kwaro Acholi of Uganda today. Iam also an addicted reader of the Lwo history and above all maintainer of the Lwo culture which is my role in the Kingdom. Alur Kingdom is one of the sixth constitutionally recognized Kingdoms in Uganda: Alur, Buganda, Bunyoro, Busoga, Tooro & Rwenzoruru. The Chiefdoms are:Acholi, Lango, Buruli, Teso, Adhola and Kooki.

    However, so many authors have been advancing their theories about the Lwo people in general and majority of them even would bet their precious heads that theirs are Gospel truth of the great Lwo Atyak people. Indeed there are some notable scholars from the West and our own indigenous bright fellows who have done researches on the Lwo poeples and may be right somewhere and wrong too. You don’t write a history by setelite but through contact with the community with whom there is sharing of a common goal. You can’t complete history of the Lwo with ease since it is a complete nexus. When I read all of them, I get perturbed about the arroneous distortion of historical facts especially by overzealous writers. who should be believed? All African histories starts first from grounded oral narratives and then transcends to write ups. So who is mandated to tell truth about the Lwo and their historiography? In my wisdom it is the keepers of the Lwo culture:- the Kings, Chiefs, elders and researchers not the post Obama’s election Lwo maniacs who iconise that this great leader is a Lwo and surmise history of his people starts with him. Imagine how many distorted histories of Lwo has been flooded in the social domain. Hope mine is not!! I like the populirization of the Lwo but should be factual. The cultural leaders are the ones so powerful in transmitting traditional facts through oral history and sometimes textual sourses and not piecing up materials from internet albeit remote from the authentic Lwo pple embeded deep in villages thinking that we shall be convinced.

    Every community allover the world have leaders or rulers and their coming or ceasing to exist is very important here. One should ask a question ,why is it that some Lwo ethnic groups have no Kings or Paramount chiefs but clan heads? The answer is that there was a curse by King Ulwo Atyak meant to live with us about anybody grabbing or starting a parallel kingdom and secondly that there is a prevailing respect for the ancestoral royal spear head whereever it could be. The Lwo are very good at ancestor worship upto today and fear spirits of the living dead most.The elders know about the curse through oral history and make sure there don’t do the contrary as rulership is concerned. There are reasons for that..and having a ruler or not having is only a content in our oral history that can tell why.

    In a nut shell, the Lwo political structure is guided by what we call the ROYAL SPEAR HEAD which is handed down to the right heir of the throne & that is why there is always one holder of the royal spearhead. The leadership structure should be as follows: King (Ubumu), Paramount Chief/chief elder of elders (rwoth ma dit), Chief (wroth),clan head (jagoo)and family head.

    Only the Choope (Palwo) of northern Uganda have been proved without doubt for being naturally gifted in orating the Lwo royal genelogy without distortion because traditionally that was their role. They are the followers of prince Nyangan of the Lwo Atyak before a major separation at Karuma- Uganda which yielded the Kenyan Lwo.

    So all is said about Bahrelghazal too but in reality, where did the Lwo settle before Arab invasion of Europe and northern Africa? Proven, the first area of settlement was in Aswan under King Ngur I who started the Nuer Kingdom (Rev. Fr. Crazzolara Paskwale- 1950). His book ‘The Lwo Tradition’ is a must read. Another book to read is by Aiden 1956 on Alur Society. All these writers are renowned anthropologists.

    Actually before King Ngur I established himself in Aswan area, oral history has it that the Nuer who yielded the Lwo came from Aran, a place in the Middle, East majorly under King Kwac. The Arabs invaded the Nuer under king Rubanga in around 970 AD and converted many north Africans to islam. It was King Rubanga, a Nuer then who moved with his people to Wau, Barhelgazal southern Sudan. His son Ulwo Atyak who inherited the throne in about 1010 AD occupied the entire region. This is where most writers starts their theories because retrospective histories bacome flimsy.

    In the Lwo royal history, there were two powerful queens; Angom (890-930 AD) and Nyilak 1365-390.

    It is also a hidden fact that most Lwo ethnic stock know that their ROYAL SPEAR HEAD is in Uganda and obviously in Alur Kingdom. How it changed course to them is so dubious.It was actually to be for prince Rukidi who ran to Bunyoro in fear of his murderous step-brother Kyabambi who became king of the Lwo Atyak by force.

    The name Lwo/Luo came from King Uluo Atyak who had many descendants almost allover southern Sudan. When they were again attacked by the Arabs, moved south eastward to Gondokoro under leadership of King Utike. (The name Okoro from Gondokoro and Atyak from king Ulwo Atyak are henceforth very common to the Lwo spiritual places).

    Again the Arabs followed them there, forcing them to dispersed in all direction. This was during the reign of king Cimvor in about 1170-1210 AD. After their defeat by Arabs, Cimvor cursed that no Lwo muslem person in future would be in the throne and hold the royal spear head as King and upto today its being followed. Gondokoro Probably is where the Anuak got a chance to move eastward to Ethiopia because of Arab invasion. Others went back via Wau to Central Africa, Cameroon and probably to Nigeria. Like in Kenya, the Lwo in Nigeria are sid to have also maintained their culture, esp. naming that starts with letter ‘O’ (further research is needed). The first King to arrive in northern Uganda was Atira who for the first time encountered a bush of vegetation. He liked what he saw and his followers named the place Bunga-Atira (THE BUSH OF ATIRA) which is in Acholiland today. So far, three Lwo kings were buried there: Atira- 1250, Chuwa-1290 (influenced the banyoro and Baganda most)and Ulei- 1332 AD.

    The second last king of the Lwo Atyak people was Kyabambi Ulum 1332-1390. He grabbed the royal spear head by force from his step brother Rikiidi whose mother was a munyoro. His father king Ulei had the following sons who ran away with followers from Kyabambi; prince Ukumu who led the Kumam,prince Owiny Ramogi started the Kenyan Lwo, prince Onongor Adhola of Jupadhola, prince Kadhirondi (sold as a slave to a TZ master) of the now Kavirondo and Rukiidi whose daughter Nyathwol married Kyomya of a Bunyoro clan. Few historians know this is were history of the Lwo disintergration took place around Karuma falls. King Kyabambi killed most of his brothers and the Lwo kingdom disintergrated but not with the royal spear head. After King Kyabambi came his daughter princess Nyilak 1365-1390. She gave birth to triplets: Nyipir, Nyabongo (Labongo)and Thiful. After the separation at Pakwach Nyabongo went and formed the Acholi chiefdom, Nyipir crossed the Nile westward and with the Lwo royal spearhead handed to him by his mother Queen Nyilak formed the Alur Kingdom and Prince Thiful went towards Arua (terego) and crossed to Congo. His descendants are the Nyiganda and Angal. The Junam are also descendants of Kyabambi (Kwonga & chuwa) who went and settled in Bunyoroland. They were repelled by the Bunyoro-Bacwezi revolution against the Lwo in 17th century. Many of them crossed to DRCongo and got assimilated by the Alur of Nyipir, for example the Mukambu, Jukoth etc. West Nile region of became part of Uganda in 1914. I find the history of the Kenyan Lwo being very accurate except that mention of which clan is the leader of all the mentioned. There should be a leading royal clan among the Jalwos.

    This is my brief Lwo history of the royal lineage that readers may not know. Had it not been because of King Kyabambi, the Lwo today would be having an Empire like that of West Africa not a Kingdom. This is a non contestable fact.

    The lineage goes as follows:

    -King Ngur I: Aswan Egypt- 850-890
    -Queen Angom: Aswan Egypt -890-930
    -King Ngur II: Aswan Egypt -930-970
    King Rubanga:
    Wau -970-1010
    King Ulwo Atyak :
    Wau -1010-1050
    King Komrach:
    Wau -1050-1090

    King Utike:
    King Alu: = Gondokoro-1130-1170
    King Cimvor: = Gondokoro-1170-1210
    King Atira:
    Patiko -1210-1250
    King Chuwa:
    Patiko -1250-1290
    King Ulei:
    Pajau -1290-1330
    King Kyabambi:
    Pajau -1330-1370
    Queen Nyilak:
    Pajule -1365- 1390

    kING Nyipir: Locjudongo-1390-1490
    kING OmyerAmor:
    King Okwir: Locjudongo-1510-1550
    King Ngira I: Locjudongo-1550-1590
    King OmyerDhyang: Nebbi 1590-1630
    King Ngira II:
    Atyak 1630-1670
    King Keeno:
    Mahagi(DRC) 1670-1700
    King Awaza:
    King Songa:
    Atyak 1705-1735
    King Ucweda:
    Atyak 1735-1775
    King Oledhire:
    Atyak 1775-1780
    King Aryem:
    Atyak 1780-1720
    King Ogena: Owilo (DRC) 1820- 1825
    King Nziri: Atyak 1825-1865
    King Alworonga:
    Agyermac 1865-1890
    King Amula: Atyak 1890-1941
    King Jalusiga: Atyak 1941-1978
    King Jobi Valente: Atyak 1978-2000
    King Philip Olarker: Current 2000



    • Angelique said

      Hello , I’m African American and I and here researching the Lwo Tribe a friend of mine who is from Kenya. When she first met me told me that I resemble people from the tribe Lwo. When she said this I was kind of puzzled but now I want to know a little bit more about the tribe. I cant say where my ancestors are from. I was born and raised here in the States. But I’m interested in knowing more.


    • aketchkevin said

      Hi, am a Lwo/Luo from kenya and loved reading though that rich history. I was also doing my own research and found out that there was a kingdom called Shilluk, that had king Reth and demigods “Nyikang” is this true…


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