An ‘irresistible, awful, marvellous people’: The portrait of the Luos of East Africa

Friday November 07 2008
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A Nyatiti player at Kogelo. Historians speak of the “immense impact” that the Luo migration had on the societies they passed through. Photo/DAN OBIERO

A whitewashed set of commemorative rings erected at the spot where, on September 22, 1877, the European explorer Emin Pasha met Omukama Kabalega, the king of Bunyoro-Kitara in Uganda, is all that remains of the latter’s palace.

Behind it is the humped, grass-thatched tomb of Kabalega, whose death in 1923 marked the end of the pre-eminence of the ancient Babito dynasty.

Named Mpaaro, this area just outside the western Ugandan town of Hoima is nevertheless still a place of solemn potency.

The keeper of the tomb, Andrea, told me in April 2008: “People come here on their knees to pray. We pray for Obama to win the elections. If he wins, we will be very happy.”

Obama’s name is unavoidable anywhere, but when pronounced at Mpaaro, thereis an added urgency to its sound…

It is not altogether fanciful to say that, some 628 years ago, a time barely thought of now, the seeds of Obama’s ascendancy to the world stage were sown here.


Dates and facts are hard to pin down, details are much disputed. But it was here that a Luo man, perhaps one of Obama ancestors, changed for good the world of his time.

The scale was smaller, distances were not so great, but the assumption of power, in the year 1380, over the lands that now comprise Uganda by one Rukidi Isingoma-Mpuga Labongo, son of Olum, leader of the migrating Luo who entered Uganda from Sudan towards the last decades of the 14th century, set in motion cultural-political changes whose impact echoes in many of the conflicts still taking place in northern Uganda and the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

For Andrea, as indeed for scholars and guardians of the traditions of Bunyoro-Kitara, the emergence of Obama was marked by a polish, drive and determination that had not been seen before in this part of the world.

“These were men of substance,” Andrea says of the Luo aristocracy that invaded and occupied Bunyoro. “They were very, very intelligent. They were generous. The people liked them.”

Historians speak of the “immense impact” that the Luo migration had on the societies they passed through.

Historian and Catholic priest, J.P. Crazzolara in his foundational study, The Lwoo (1950), writes hyperbolically, “They marched on and came upon people who trembled at their sudden appearance. The Lwoo were at sight the absolute arbiters of this population, who had no time left to think and try to repel such an unexpected mass of invaders.”

He describes them as an “irresistible, awful, marvellous people” that “spread (their) shadow” over the older areas of western and southern Uganda.

The displacement of former rulers and inhabitants by this “appearance” is said to be partly responsible for the ethnic pressures and traumas afflicting eastern Congo, for those who lost out in those years were never to regain their footing and continue to be landless, stateless peoples to this day.

Crazzolara’s heraldic language over-privileges Luo achievements, yet 2008, emerging as a hyperbolic year for Africans, is on a scale Obama’s Luo ancestors would never have dreamt of scaling on the plains of Sudan, Uganda and Kenya.

The year started on a bad, but well-publicised note. With the horribly botched Kenyan election, the word “Luo” started to circulate internationally.

Barrack Obama’s candidature would bring in the phrase “son of a Luo father.”

On a smaller scale, outside Kenya, President Yoweri Museveni, in the middle of a face-off with the kingdom of Buganda, sought to reduce the Kabaka’s standing by publicly stating that the latter was a Luo.

Much of the descriptions made of the Luo are stereotypes like those applied to any other ethnic group, but unlike other ethnic groups in the region, the Luo are spread across five countries, forming a continuous chain that runs 1,200km from Sudan to the southern shores of Lake Victoria.

Crozzolara’s contradictory label “awful and marvellous” points to a central Luo paradox: Their descendants’ occupation of Uganda’s thrones contrasts with the depths of their suffering in wars in northern Uganda, southern Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia. The pendulum of Luo history has swang dizzyingly from immense success to immense failure.

However, to traverse this 1,200km is to be overcome by the similarities in the physical, cultural and personal characteristics of the Dinka, Nuer, Anuak, Shilluk, Wau, Acholi, Lango, Alur, Padhola and Kenyan Luo.

The numerous elders along the trail keep track of their kith and kin.

It is an identity with real cohesive power that can break out in a visceral possessiveness on discovering each other.

It grips, whether felt at the entrance of a tomb in one country, or in victory jigs on the streets of Kisumu.

Spread across centuries and continents, similar descriptions are made of their leaders as “intelligent,” “socialist,” “generous,” “driven,” “aggressive…”

Indeed, putting aside for the moment the adjective-defying import of Obama’s achievement, the weird thing is that his oratorical skills, penchant for the extravagant and appeal to the crowd are right out of the standard caricature of a Luo politician.

Descriptions of Obama sound like a recycling of phrases used of men like the Odingas, Tom Mboya, Apollo Milton Obote, Kabalega and Labongo before him.

For East Africans, seeing Obama reduce crowds to tears is oddly reminiscent of Ugandan independence leader Obote, a man said to be devastating with a microphone.

Indeed, Obama, who rose to fame through his “mobilisation skills,” was himself literally the (accidental) product of the mobilisation skills of a man with whom he shares his ancestry, Tom Mboya. It was Mboya who sent Obama Sr to the US.

There are many barroom jokes in Nairobi now. The funnier one is that when McCain elected to deliver his nomination acceptance speech to a modest, indoor audience, and Obama went for a mammoth event, it was typical of the “outsized” egos of Luo politicians.

“When I see Obama, I see a typical Luo man,” says Kenyan anthropologist Othieno Aluoka.

These wry observations belie the immense suffering undergone by the Luo peoples. Colonialism occasioned a decline in Luo societies. Bunyoro refused to surrender to British imperial forces, which as a result decimated its population on a genocidal scale.

Persecution was their lot under Amin, Kenyatta and Moi. They are by and large the poorest of East Africans, a people of whom the majority do not expect to know peace and prosperity in their lifetimes.

While Kenya has never been actively at war, the Luo experience remains a painful one.

Nearly all their prominent leaders have died violently — from the assassinations of Tom Mboya and Robert Ouko to the killings of the lawyer Argwings Kodhek, Prof Mbai Odhiambo and Otieno Oyo.

In Ethiopia, the Anuak, under their leader Ato Okello Nyegilo, charge that the Ethiopian government is fomenting genocide against them, claims also made in northern Uganda.

They are a people in tatters, with the lowest life expectancies and highest morbidity rates.

Yet again, Luo names grace the royal houses of Uganda and not just the US White House.

The current kings of both Toro and Bunyoro are called Oyo. There have been kings over the centuries named Olimi, Ocaki, Cwa. Names like Okwir (“elector”), are common along these lineages.

Former diplomat, actress and model Mubito Mugo (Princess) Elizabeth Bagaya carries the full name of her distant, Luo forefather, as does Princess Elizabeth Rukidi Nyabongo Bagaya — the Ba prefixing Gaya, said to be one of the earlier Luo groups in the area.

The word Babito itself originates from an area about 10 km north of Bunyoro, across the River Nile, in Acholi.

Because they came from the place called Te-Bito (2.25 degrees north and 31.4 degrees East) the Bantu referred to them as BaBito. The word was to acquire potency above and beyond this Western Rift Valley area, now part of a game park.

Cwa (prefixed also as AbaCwa) is a kingly title linkable to Chua (also county in Acholi) as in Omukama Cwa II Kabalega; also titular for Kabaka Mutebi’s grandfather named Daudi Cwa.

In a recurrent trajectory, these are Luo names from decrepit places that emerged to immense heights. In October 2005, the world-famous Obote was buried in a sorghum garden. Such was the poverty of his people.

Buganda’s distance from the Luo heritage is more sensitive (Bunyoro still maintains spiritual-cultural links with Lango and Acholi) but there are countless, ancient Luo words and practices now taken as being Baganda.

The Nilotic practice of burying men in their huts (kings in their palaces) in our times became the Kasubi tombs.

There are words too, like the term for lady, Nyabbo, which researchers say can be deconstructed to a Luo root – from Nyar-Bor (the exalted daughter).

Contestation of these pasts arises post-colonially, from the deliberate poisoning of African societies by the British practice of divide and rule.

The Luo-Bantu hybridisation in modern day southern Uganda, particularly of the Banyoro, Baganda and Basoga, means they are neither purely Luo nor purely Bantu. The terms may themselves be arcane.

Secondly, any talk of “immense impact” must contend with the influence of Bantu culture and language as well as intermarriage on the Luo.

The Acholi and Lango word for God, Lubanga (Lango Obanga), and presumably theology, comes from the Bantu word for God, Ruhanga while the more appealing social etiquette of the Ugandan Luo is mostly Buganda in origin.

But the dislocating contradictions have left Luo scholars and leaders puzzled.

Says Aluoka: “They tend not to give up on what is theirs, innately theirs. It’s why they suffered in Sudan and in Uganda.

If I see the rise and fall of Obote, a man who was not serving the British interest, I see the typical action of a Luo whose self-righteousness and public good was seen as socialist.

“In their own self-identities, what made them leaders in the past became their undoing.”

“The problem with the Luo is that they trust others so much they think the way they think is the way things ought to be,” explains Kenyan Luo Council of Elders Chairman Ker Riaga Ogallo. “If you look into history, without Odinga (Sr), Kenyatta could have died in jail. But he insisted that without him, there would be no Kenya. He made Kenyatta a gift of Kenya. But when Kenyatta became president, his first plan was to eliminate the Luo from power.”

Aluoka accounts for this apparent contradiction in two broad explanations, the first being that colonialism came as such an affront to Luo pride that they have never stopped trying to drive out its politics, structures, culture and impact.

“It’s like an itch,” he explains. “The colonial experience has been responsible for that jigger in the Luo foot. In every coup attempt in Kenya, there has been a Luo involved. In the 1971 coup attempt, Luo were indicted; in 1982, Luo attempted to overthrow the government; in 2007 it was the Luo who started the protest against vote-rigging.

“In Uganda, I see the same drive in Cecilia Ogwal (opposition politician from Lira). They will stand up for what they believe in, no matter how big the odds are against them.

“The Luo is the one who comes out barechested to stop a tank with a stone in his hand. Of course, many are killed.”

But there are darker traits too. Writes Crazzolara: “In their more than a thousand miles march they had played havoc on a large scale and it is unlikely that they would know much of the peoples whom they had trampled down and whose languages they did not understand.”

The actions of Joseph Kony and Alice Lakwena have led people, including the Luo, to question to what extent defiance should be carried.

Yet historically, they won by refusing to surrender, grinding their enemies down in logic-defying, self-depleting wars that over the ages demoralised vastly superior forces into giving up.
At its core seems to be a pride that switches off compromise, as Crazzolara puts it in a telling description.

“He [the Luo] clings to his freedom and independence with his whole nature; and if his personal tastes and instincts were in question, he would rather live quietly in a small group of close relations, ready at any moment to offer bravely his life in their defence.”

It is beguiling. The now notorious 20-year wars waged by the Dinka and an insular group of Acholi have frequently escalated at the merest hint of disrespect.

But the leadership of these militaries as well as their political units deserves wider attention: At core sacerdotal, it combines politics with military and spiritual power to attain maximum hypnotic command.

Generals as warrior-priests are indeed not the exception in Luo history, a phenomenon notoriously displayed in our times by LRA leader Joseph Kony and the late prophetess, Alice Auma, “the messenger” (LaKwena).

As imperial ideology, this combination was crushingly imperious in Uganda and still ensures the BaBito cushy places in the upper echelons of Ugandan society.

To witness commoners in Western Uganda turn to jelly in the presence of the BaBito can be eerily unsettling.

On the lighter side, general stereotype describes the Luo as flashy, exuberant extroverts given to self-aggrandisement.

Kisumu FM radio producer David Odira (Radio Osienala) makes the common self-deprecating joke: “When you see the latest model car, it is likely to belong to a Luo. But he lives in a shack. He does not have furniture.”