ETHNONYMS: Dholuo, Nilotic Kavirondo
The Luo live primarily within the Kenyan province of Nyanza. In 1987 they numbered about 3.2 million, of whom about 200,000 lived in Tanzania and another 200,000 in other countries, outside Kenya. They belong to a larger grouping of Nilotic peoples of East and Central Africa. The Luo have migrated from the Bahr al-Ghazal region of Sudan over the past 500 years. Throughout the mid- and late twentieth century, they have lived in densely settled land of separated farmsteads, in three districts around Lake Victoria. The landscape varies from flat and dry by the lake to green and hilly in the eastern uplands. The Luo are homogeneous in language, and Luo communities are linked by marriage and other kin ties. Their neighbors include the Nandi, Gusii, Maasai, and Kuria, and they also have dealings with migrant Indian, Middle Eastern, and Somali traders in the towns.
Although the Luo farm the land in order to produce an adequate food supply, they are first and foremost cattle herders. Their love of herds is a fundamental social reality, and cattle herding is therefore a fundamental aspect of their social structure. In the latter half of the twentieth century, about a third of the middle-aged men have lived outside the Luo homeland while seeking wage labor in Kenya's plantations, towns, and cities. Within Nyanza Province, several large sugar plantations provide some manual jobs.
The Luo provide a classic example of a segmentary lineage society with kin-group formation based on patrilineal descent. Patriliny, bride-wealth, and polygyny all reinforce each other. The Luo are patronymic in naming and virilocal in postmarital residence; one-third of Luo families are polygynous.
Reproduction is a key underlying concern. It is a basis of the value system by which men judged exchanges in the past. Products of exchange progressed from cultivation to chickens, chickens to goats, goats to cows, and finally, cows to women. Fertility is at least as much a woman's concern as it is a man's. The success of marriages and the wives' social status both depend on their producing children.
Wives keep separate houses within the circular homesteads of the larger polygynous families; they farm separate fields and maintain separate granaries, but their husbands are normally considered the heads of the homesteads. Farmwork is assigned according to gender: women shoulder the time-consuming task of caring for the basic staple crops, whereas men are responsible for the cash crops—and generally do less of the farmwork.
Age is deeply respected in Luo culture. Elder men control the allocation of bride-wealth cattle, land, and, to some extent, labor and cash. According to Luo ideology, age, wealth, and respect come together, and it is considered natural that elders control family resources. Elder men are also the representatives of their families to the outside world.
Ancestor worship played a predominant role in the traditional religion of the Luo. Ancestral and other spirits were active forces in their world, and they are still evident within the belief system of many Luo. Since well before the twentieth century, however, British, American, and other Catholic and Protestant missions, as well as many independent African Christian churches, have all competed for converts in Luo territory. The organization of local independent churches reflects the segmentary lineage system that is so important in Luo life. Although the Luo are predominantly Christian, their religious beliefs and practices are a mixture of traditional indigenous elements and newer, exogenous elements.
Ocholla-Ayayo, A. B. C. (1980). The Luo Culture: A Reconstruction of a Traditional African Society. Wiesbaden: Steiner.
Shipton, Parker (1989). Bitter Money: Cultural Economy and Some African Meanings of Forbidden Commodities. American Ethnological Society Monograph Series, no. 1. Washington, D.C