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Why they call us the ‘Poverty stricken Luos’

By Okeyo Benards | August 20th 2015

I write this short piece as response to a tweet by one Mutahi Ngunyi, he of the famous ‘tyranny of numbers’. Mutahi Nguyi is a well-known Kenyan political analyst and currently serves as one of the advisers in the Ministry of Devolution and Internal Affairs of the Kenyan Executive. I am not fazed by his description of the Luos as poverty stricken – for this has been on the national dialogue for several years now.

Time and again, politicians from areas that are well endowed with natural resources, state support and infrastructural facilities mostly done out of state grants and bilateral support programs, have projected their ‘development consciousness’s as the epitome of political maturity. It is the sorrowfulness of raping a victim only to turn around and accuse them of lose morals!

I also think there is something terribly wrong – when a whole community becomes depicted as being ‘stricken by poverty’. Do we have a nation state or conglomerates of the state in form of communities? If a single community is such depicted, what then is the general description of the nation state as one or as a whole? It is in this light that I am persuaded that whereas we have done much with ourselves as far as education is concerned – more needs to be done to understand each individual community that integrates to form the Kenyan state. Below, I offer some short insight into the Luo community.

The Luo nation

The Kenyan Luo community is a subgroup of a much larger Luo community that spans across Uganda, Tanzania, Sourthern Sudan and Ethiopia. Members of the Luo are equally widely distributed in the world with some pockets in the USA giving forth to the current president of the USA. In Kenya, the Luos have been overtaken by other groups in number to become the fourth largest community in Kenya. Originally they are traced from the River Nile in Sudan and made their way into Kenya about 500 hundred years ago. During their initial forays into Kenya, they settled along the shores of the Africa’s biggest lake – they called nam Lolwe – which latter was renamed by the British as Lake Victoria.

Uniqueness of the Luos

Like any other human community – there are specific traits and attributes that are unique to the Luos. These traits and attributes, may help understand their behavior, character and socio-economic choices of course also as influenced by the environmental factors. One of the original traditions of the Luos that differentiated them from most of their bantu neighbors is that they did not circumcise their males but initiated their youths into adulthood through removal of six teeth from the lower jaw. This has since changed and there are numerous programs by several NGOs in the current Luo nation advocating and undertaking circumcision also as a way of minimizing contraction of HIV/AIDS. The removal of the six teeth of the lower jaw has equally been abandoned by Luos – a clear indication that they are one of the most dynamic communities in East Africa.

One of the most common ‘street’ attributes of the Luos and which is quite noticeable is their flamboyant character and sense of style. This has attracted love and hate in equal measure. Severally, I have argued before that one of the reasons why Luos have remained an enigma in the Kenyan state is this flamboyant nature. It is an external expression of unique internal urge to be the best. This urge – constitutes their internal pace setter – in the midst of want, frustration and sometimes right abuse of their rights – there has always been this internal drive within them that pushed their ego and urged them to do more, really, to do better! Stories and several testimonies abound of young Luo men who learnt mechanics informally in the streets and currently outshine many well trained others in well-to-do garages.  While others have argued that this attribute is responsible for their lack of political ascendency – I beg to disagree. There has been so many odds against the political dominancy of the Luos that were it not for this spirit – I doubt if they would have been a group worthy of current discussion. Other attributes of the Luo is a topic for another day.

 Economy of the Luos

Majority of the Luos live in what used to be called the Nyanza province or currently Nyanza region. Their main economic activities has been fishing and agriculture. Some of the main cash crops for the Luos have been sugar cane and cotton. Overtime, the cotton farming died and sugar cane is its deathbed – the current national discussion on whether cheap sugar from Uganda should be allowed into the county is an important component that is appreciating the foes afflicting this sector. The fishing industry is perhaps one of the most forgotten sectors in the country and current attempts to boost fish production through aquaculture has seen more of these developments concentrated in the central regions of the country.

Vast areas of the Luo nation, most parts of Nyanza, are actually semi - arid and there small-scale livestock production is practiced. There has never been any serious attempt to support, leave alone upgrade this sector. The case of Lambwe valley where thousand cattle were eliminated by tse tse flies is worthy of mention especially since no meaningful compensation was undertaken by the state or any other government agency as is usually the practice in other areas.

Due to the dwindling economic fortunes in the Luo Nyanza region, many of the young Luos moved to urban centers to search for opportunities. Many of them ill-prepared, empty handed with no or little access to start-up capital, not exposed and merely armed with their strong will and desire to make a living settled in urban informal settlements. These settlements, namely: Kibera, Mathare, Korogocho among others, have lately become synonymous with the Luo diaspora in Nairobi. Similar situation pervades in many other urban areas – where one is bound to find Kisumu ndogos. Were the innocent young Luo souls to be blamed for this scenario? Faced with sometimes outright state rejection, harassment and derogatory remarks from those who have benefited most from state resources (poverty stricken is just one among many of such derogatory remarks), it is easy to understand why majority of the Luos have rebelled from the state.

This understanding of the unfortunate economic situation of many Luos puts such arrogant claims and remarks in their place. It scores the Luos sick belly but equally it gives them a potent weapon to do more for themselves. While it is unreasonable and unapologetic – it is no reason to cow to the whims of people who have had it easy, people who have benefitted unduly from common resources and find it just too easy to undertake a ‘street’ analysis to uphold their ego.


The writer is a Lecturer of Environmental and Community Science at Pwani University.

Email: [email protected]


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