A fascinating tale of Luo legends

Luo Clans and Legends

Luo Clans and Legends by Felix O. Okatch.

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

Title: Luo Clans and Legends

Author: Felix O. Okatch

Reviewed by: Khakhudu Agunda

Sometimes, blessings come from unexpected quarters. They include this rich historical account of the Luo community of western Kenya by a professional, who would have been more comfortable doing something else.

The back-breaking research that went into this project has yielded a book that is certainly a major contribution to understanding a community that has played a pivotal role in the country’s cultural, socio-economic and political development.

As often happens in works of this kind, there are a few shortcomings but which are minimal, considering the great value on the menu. These weaknesses should be fixed in a revised edition. This often happens in historical accounts as new evidence emerges that compels the author to make those additions.

The 12 broad Luo clan groups covered here are Alego, Asembo, Gem, Kadimo (Yimbo), Kajulu, Kano, Kisumo, Nyakach, Sakwa, Seme, Ugenya, and Uyoma, to which the author, Felix O. Okatch, has devoted a chapter each. A glaring minus that the author acknowledges is the omission of the Luo clans of southern Nyanza. The Luo are immensely proud of their clan names. At rural trading centres and even in towns, including Nairobi, many mechanics, carpenters and traders are better known by their clan names.

According to the December 2019 national census and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), about six million people speak Luo, with the majority being in Kenya. Luo speakers elsewhere in East Africa, especially Uganda, are about 1 million. Alongside the stories of how the Luo clans came to be where they live today, the battles their ancestors fought and the sheer struggle to eke out a living after arriving in a new place is an interesting semi-autobiographical account. Okatch, who is from Gem, was born in 1954 at the King George Hospital in Nairobi that after independence became the Kenyatta National Hospital.

He was the son of a prominent trade unionist, Peter Okatch, who worked in Nairobi and Kampala. As a child, Felix lived in Kampala with his parents but would later go to primary school in Gem, Siaya, and join Sawagongo High School before proceeding to Kisii School for his Advanced Levels.

Okatch graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in marketing from the University of Nairobi. He also holds an MBA and several other post-graduate qualifications and has held senior positions in the private sector. There are nice old photos of him, his parents and his family. But there are also many other excellent black and white pictures that enrich the story of the development of the Nyanza region, including the missionaries, and other pioneer religious leaders. There are also pictures of colonial administrators, including the last British Governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Baring, and African chiefs.

Okatch has two other books, Marketing Management Systems (2002) and Marketing Management Integrated Perspective (2017), published by Kenya Literature Bureau (KLB). The Luo Clans and Legends is a 300-page tome. In this book, he returns to his favourite secondary school subject. Interestingly, the foreword is by his former history teacher, Lawrence O. Moya, who went on to become a professor. This is befitting honour for his old teacher.

The author has done extensive research and acknowledges the contributions of such great people as Paul Mbuya, and Professors Bethwel Allan Ogot and Atieno Odhiambo, both accomplished historians. He gives insights into the naming of Luo children and provides a glossary of words.

A welcome innovation is linking the book to YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEAV8jSlpWE , which is an apt response to the digital era and internet of things.

A nice anecdote is the “Luonisation” of the name of English colonial administrator C.W. Hobley (1867-1947), as Obilo, and which gained usage also in the neighbouring Samia in Luhyaland that was part of central Nyanza in the colonial times. There are other Englishmen whose names similarly live on but in their corrupted forms. Traveller Simon Grant gave the name Kalande to the Luhya.

Within the tale of the Luo clans, the author also highlights interactions with neighbouring Luhya sub-tribes, especially Wanga, through control by King Mumia Nabongo Shiundu, Abanyole and Kisa. The neighbours fought battles over land but also intermarried as girls would often be kidnapped.

One of the Luo legends is Ambrose M. Ofafa of Alego Kalkada, after whom two residential estates in Nairobi’s Eastlands, Ofafa Maringo and Ofafa Jericho, were named. Ofafa, Tom Mboya, Argwings Kodhek and other luminaries went to St Mary’s School at Yala, which was started by Catholic missionaries. Kodhek later became the first African lawyer and the first MP for Gem in 1963

Ofafa taught briefly at his alma mater before joining East African Railways and Harbours. He later became the national treasurer of KAU, the precursor to KANU, and worked at the Nairobi City Council as the chairman of the Finance and General Purposes Committee. On November 24, 1953, Ofafa was shot dead by a lone gunman near today’s City Stadium in Nairobi.

Ofafa had worked with former schoolmate Peter Okatch, who was transferred to Kampala in 1956, and later became the secretary-general of the Railways African Union, Uganda.

The book contains treasured memories of characters, stories, folklore and myths recited from generation to generation. The Luo name children based on the time of birth, such as Odhiambo, male, and Adhiambo, female, born in the evening. Some are named after heroes, or heroines. Knowledge was passed on through oral tales by grandmothers in the evenings in their houses, siwindhie, where the grandchildren, both young boys and girls, slept.

Education in the United States

The Luo legends include Gor Mahia, after whom the famous football club was named, Odera Akang’o, the chief credited with promoting education and building of roads in Gem, Paul Mbuya, author and historian, and the trade unionist and politician Tom Mboya, whose airlifts enabled many Kenyans to gain university education in the United States.

Tales of witchcraft and medicine men, jabilo, believed to have supernatural powers, run through this book. It is the power to hyptonise and also harm others. The mysterious Gor was immensely feared. It was believed that he could transform people and cause their disappearance, hence Gor Kogalo, the name of the football team.

Odera Akang’o was a disciplinarian who had a Whiteman flogged for visiting Gem without a letter of introduction from his boss in Kisumu. It is also a tragic story of the chief, who would later be accused of rape and jailed in Kismayu, Somalia. He was later transferred to a prison in Nairobi, where died shortly before his release in 1918.

There is also the legend of Luanda Magere a fearless warrior renowned for bravery. He came from Kano. The founding in 1906 of Maseno School by an Englishman, the Rev James Jamieson Willis, is also a milestone. The most prominent son of Sakwa was Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the first Vice-President of independent Kenya in 1963. His son, Raila Amolo Odinga, played a key role in the second liberation in the 1980s to restore multiparty rule. He was a former long-serving detainee, the MP for Lang’ata in Nairobi and Prime Minister. He narrowly and controversially lost his bids for President in 2007, 2017 and 2022. Achieng Oneko, one of the Kapenguria Six tried with Jomo Kenyatta and jailed over Mau Mau, who later became a Cabinet minister is also a legend. So is Walter Odede, who was also detained over Mau Mau. He was the father of Pamela Mboya, the wife of mercurial Cabinet minister Mboya, who was assassinated in 1969.

Two Luos served the colonial administration as District Commissioners. Ezekiel Otieno Josiah was the DC for Central Nyanza. He was the father of retired Judge Joyce Aluoch. Isaac Okwiri, who came from Gem, was the DC for Bondo in 1962. Barack Obama Senior of Kogelo in Alego was a Harvard University-trained economist. His son with an American woman, Barack Obama, who also went to Harvard and studied law, became the 44th President of the United States.

Another legend was pioneer evangelist in Kavirondo, Luo Nyanza, Alfayo Odongo Mango, who broke away from the Church Missionary Society (now Anglican Church) to found his own Roho Church in 1920. He attracted members from CMS and Catholics in Luoland and neighbouring Luhyaland. Following differences between the Luo and Abakolwe of Wanga in the Musanda area, he was burnt to death by raiders in his church in January 1934.

The founder of the Nomiya indigenous church is another legend. Pioneer evangelist Johanna Owalo, broke away from the Catholic Church and formed his own church in 1907. It became Nomiya Church in 1912. Prophet Owalo embraced circumcision, which put him on a collision course with Luo traditionalists. Conspicuously missing among the Luo legends are Gaudencia Aoko, who cofounded the Legio Maria, the largest independent church in Africa that broke away from the Catholic Church, Grace Ogot, the writer and wife of historian Prof B.A. Ogot, and former MP and Assistant Minister, and Grace Onyango, the first woman mayor of Kisumu.

Grace, who was born in Sakwa, was also the first woman to be elected to Parliament in Kenya. This book is a historical gem on the place of the Luo community of Kenya in the country’s socio-economic and political development. It is available in bookshops in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.