If you strolled through Buembu village in Wasimbete, Suna West Sub-county and said ‘bwakire’ to a random passerby, it is likely you would not get a response.
If you do get a reply, you will probably be regarded as a member of the Abagusii community in an area inhabited by the Abasuba community.
‘Bwakire’ is an Abasuba word that means ‘good morning’. It is also shared by the two communities.
Abasuba Council of Elders chairman Japheth Riogi tells The Standard he is a worried man as he has witnessed his Abasuba culture slowly fade away.
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The 75-year-old resident of Buembu in Migori County says his own children can barely speak their mother tongue, which means they communicate using Dholuo.
“When we were born, we knew we were Abasuba and we held onto our culture dearly. It is difficult to tell when the rain started beating us,” he says.
Riogi admits that his position in the council may be rendered untenable if they fail to deliver on their key mandate of preserving their culture.
“Many young people have moved to the towns and turned their backs on their culture. Modernisation has made the situation worse. This will make its revitalisation a big task,” he says.
The Luo, a Nilotic group, migrated from South Sudan through Uganda, into Kenya and settled along the Lake Victoria region. The Abasuba, a Bantu group, came from central Congo and settled in the southern parts of Nyanza.
After a long interaction, the larger Luo community assimilated the Abasuba, who at one point were known as Luo-Abasuba.
But in the 1970s, the Abasuba sought autonomy and they were declared a separate community. Members, however, had lost their identity and are yet to revive their culture nearly five decades later.
Riogi, who has 11 children, says there are pockets of Abasuba speakers in Suna East, Suna West, Gwasi and Suba. He says their current predicament was caused by intermarriage, which made members of his community to abandon their main initiation practice of circumcision.
“The Luo culture required that initiation into adulthood meant removal of six lower teeth. So many of our boys missed opportunities to marry Luo girls and then went into a frenzy of removing their teeth,” says Riogi.
“After marrying the Luo women, it is natural that children would learn language from their mothers. So many children learnt Dholuo,” he adds.
With time, the smaller community was almost completely assimilated. But Riogi says he believes their cultural practices can be revived.
Last month, the council secured a Sh400,000 grant, which Riogi said would go towards setting up a museum to house their cultural artifacts as well as help them put together initiatives to bring the tribe’s members together.
“Part of our plan is to have our language back, even if it means developing a curriculum to be taught in schools. We have elders who can lead the initiative,” he now says.
Former Suna West MP Joseph Ndiege says the cultural erosion has affected the community politically, leading to lack of a common vision.
“When there is no cultural unity, it is difficult to forge a political direction. There is even no language to use in convening community meetings,” says Mr Ndiege.
He adds that political leaders have discussed financing the council of elders to assist in the establishment of a Suba cultural centre.
Riogi says his team have previously visited their Luo, Luyha and Gema counterparts with the aim of borrowing structures and modalities to revitalise their culture.
“We must reclaim our identity, and we can only begin by having our language back,” he says.
According to Oscar Kambona, a senior lecturer in the Department of Ecotourism, Hotel and Institutional Management at Maseno University, the Suba community has reasons to worry.
Dr Kambona, a member of the Suba community, says the loss of language is the worst thing to happen to the Abasuba.
“We acknowledge that cultural diversity is real, and with globalisation, people adopt and shed off some cultures. But language should not disappear in this process because it is the main form of cultural identity,” says Kambona.
He adds: “Several cultures such as the Maasai’s, which is considered rich, are facing transformation. But this does not mean the Maasais have to continue living in shanties and wearing shukas.”
Kambona says many Abasuba, some born in the 1960s, cannot speak their language. The blame, he argues, lie with elders because “a child speaks a language in his or her environment.”
“The only way to bring the language back is to have a Suba radio station, books and forums to teach the language, including in lower primary schools in Suba localities.”
Easier to lose
According to Emukule Emojong, a lecturer in Maseno University’s Media and Communication Department, it is easier to lose a culture than to regain it.
Dr Emukule said the Abasuba voluntarily adopted the Luo culture at their expense due to a number of factors.
“The Abasuba, in a bid to seek recognition, had to align with their Luo neighbours. For them to abandon their culture, they may have realised that being Abasuba was not beneficial to them,” he says.
Emukule remains optimistic that the community can still regain its culture if members take deliberate actions.
“They must first document the remaining aspects of their culture. They must also create structures from the grassroots level and, through the council of elders, use every forum to promote the culture.
“A vernacular radio station broadcasting in Suba will be their best option, even as they seek to have the language embedded in the curriculum,” he says.