Famine names in Luhya land

By Nanjinia Wamuswa

This country has experienced great famines at different times for the last 200 years. Different communities reacted differently to these famines depending on their severity. Communities like the Luhya of Western Kenya named their children after the famine.

“Famines had huge impacts on locals worth not forgetting easily. They thus named them for remembrance. As a result there are various famines with equally different names caused by different factors,” explains Dr Joseph Muleka, a sociologist at the University of Nairobi. And Joshua Aura Lutomia a?social scientist adds it was African culture to name people after events with a huge impact, whether good or bad.

“For those of us who know names such as Keya, Nasiche and Kilo remind us of the times of these famines. The names have passed to our younger generations and are still intact to date,” says Aura.

?Among the Luhyas there are several notable famines. Among them is, Inzala ya Odongo (Odongo’s famine), which took place in 1890. It was caused by arrival and forceful settlement of colonialist in Kenya. Citizens’ normal activities such as farming were disrupted and it took them a considerable time to settle and accept colonial settlement.

Aura says, “Colonialists had no time for diplomacy, to negotiate with locals. This startled local people.” Aura further says that Odongo whose famine is named after is believed to be an agent of colonialism.  It was followed by Inzala ya Keya (Keya’s famine), which took place between 1918 and 1919. This famine was caused by effects of the end of World War I. Local men who were recruited into Kenya African Rifles (KAR) to fight for the British neglected their farms and a great famine emerged.

Affected locals turned to hunting wild animals and gathering for food supply. Many people born at this time were named Keya — a localised version of KAR.

Nyapola’s famine

In 1930-1931 there was Inzala ya Nyapola (Nyapola’s famine), which was caused by serious outbreak of anthrax, resulting in the deaths of thousands of cattle.

“The death of animals caused uproar amongst the people, therefore, failing to prepare the farms for planting,” says Aura.

Nyapola is the dying of animals by anthrax. Various Nyapola names originate from this incidence. Inzala ya Panyako (Panyako famine) occurred between 1942 and 1943, and the beginning of World War II. A huge white man whom the locals called Warecha — a version of ‘Sergeant Major’ led others into raiding homes and seizing healthy livestock for recruited soldiers. Those who refused to be recruited into the British army were told to ‘pack and go’ a directive that became Panyako.

Bride for maize bags

This famine was also known as ‘famine of Maragoli’, who exchanged their daughters for food. Dr Muleka says people moved from different part of Western to exchange a bag of maize for a bride on the market.

?“The name Chavakali — which means ‘womens’ thing’ in Kimaragoli, must have replaced the market where brides were exchange for a bag of maize,” says Dr Muleka.

There was Inzala Ya Shikombe (Cup famine) in 1944, which came towards the end of World War II. People had not prepared farms due to effects of the war. In 1960 came Inzala ya Tsisiche (famine of locusts). Although locusts had been a common phenomenon in the past years, in 1960 was different. Many locusts came and cleared all the crops and any kind of vegetation subjecting locals to great hunger.

?According to Dr Muleka, “The locusts invaded the land then multiplied and ate up crops, tree leaves, bushes and grass leaving the ground bare. Those born during this time were called Nasiche.”

Inzala ya Mau Mau (Mau Mau famine) occurred in 1956 and extended to 1963, during the Mau Mau insurgence against British colonial rule. The colonial rulers had settled and forcefully grabbed and established large-scale plantations than local residents. They forced adult men to work on their farms for minor offences. Others went into hiding, therefore, leaving most of the land untilled. This resulted into little or no harvesting at all, and emerged great famine.

?Inzala ya Kilo (Kilo’s famine) in 1971 came as a result of the transformation from the British to Metric system of measure. They changed from pounds to kilograms. King George’s currency was replaced by Jomo Kenyatta’s currency.  Inzala ya Korokoro came in 1980s, where the smallest measure of purchase such as 2kg was introduced. Local established traders used 2kg tin (a container for cooking oil) as unit measure for maize and millet grain. Dr Muleka says maize was hard to come by at shops and markets and the US donated white and later yellow maize.

And the most recent and major famine Saba Lulala in 1997, meaning wash hands just once. Here people had meals once in a day, mostly evenings.

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