A Story From Kar Geno
By Raphine Muga
Kar Geno (Center For Hope) is located in Asembo, a community in Siaya County, which is in the western part of Kenya. The population is predominantly from the Luo ethnic group. Immigrants from other ethnic groups have also settled in this area. In the entire country of Kenya, the Luo constitute the fourth largest group, with estimates in 2020 of approximately five million.
One member of the Luo people whose name will be familiar to residents of the United States is Barack Obama, Senior. He was born in 1936 and raised in the Siaya District on the shore of Lake Victoria, not too far from the border with Uganda.
The Luo ethnic group migrated to Siaya County from Sudan before the 16th century. They are said to be descended from the largest group of people in Acholiland (northern Uganda), with their original home at the foot of the Agoro ranges in Sudan. Legend says that they followed Ramogi, a great warrior chief, into Kenya approximately 500 years ago. Factors influencing the Luo migration from Sudan included overpopulation, competition with neighbors, interclan/interfamily conflicts, drought, and famine.
The Luo language is the most widely spoken dialect in this part of Kenya. However, you will be comfortable speaking Kiswahili, the national language, and even English. The population is approximately 90 percent Christian with a few Islamic faithful. Their religious traditions include belief in a god called Nyasaye. Worship extends to elements of nature like the mountains and lakes.
The water from Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, covers a large part of the district. Lake Victoria’s surface area is 68,800 square kilometers , and it holds 2,750 cubic kilometers of water. By volume, it is the ninth largest lake in the world.
Lake Victoria has great potential for irrigation and fishing activities. At the southernmost end of the district lies the Uyoma peninsula, which juts out into the lake, creating a natural bay that leads you to Kisumu. This port city is the third most populous in Kenya — 409,928 in the 2009 census.
The beauty of the Siaya district is enhanced by a few scattered elevations amongst which are the Naya hills found in the Madiany division. The Nyanzian System of sedimentary rock found east of Lake Victoria forms the oldest in the country. You can see exposed rocks that are thought to be at least 2,500 million years old. They were formed at the same time that plants developed photosynthesis! These rocks understandably serve as a tourist attraction, especially the big ones lying one on top of the other, a sight that cannot go unnoticed.
Agriculture and Fishing
Areas with high altitude have enough rainfall to be suitable for crop and livestock production. Lake Victoria, for example, lies 3,720 feet above sea level. The main livestock reared in Asembo are indigenous cattle breeds. They are kept as signs of wealth, for payment of bride price, as well as for milk.
The recent shift in importance from cattle to crops is attributable to a number of factors, such as migration of men to urban centers looking for employment. Women have followed their husbands to town, so livestock are left behind. Increase in population has necessitated the cultivation of more land, thus leaving few acres available for grazing.
The community also engages in subsistence agriculture as their mainstay. The main food crops include maize, sorghum, beans, cowpeas, cassava, sweet potatoes, kale, bananas, and mangoes. Finger millet is another important crop that provides 7.6 grams of protein per 100 grams. This ancient grain has been cultivated in Africa for at least 3,000 years.
Fishing is the livelihood of most people living around the lakeshore. It provides a quick and easy source of income. The most prevalent species are the following:
- ngege (tilapia) — the most favored due to its delicious flavor
- omena — a smaller species, nutritious, cheap
- Nile perch — an invasive species that dominates the ecosystem, largest specimen ever caught weighed 184 kilograms or 406 pounds
In the rich culture of the Luo, a child is raised in his or her family until a nago lak (“rite of passage”) begins the transition to adulthood. During childhood, boys and girls work to support their families, although their responsibilities vary by gender.
- Boys tend the cattle, milk the cows, and farm. They are not allowed in the kitchen because it is believed that if they spend most of their time there they will not be good husbands in the future.
- Girls fetch water and firewood. They also help their mothers in the kitchen with food preparation.
The father is the head of the family, and he assumes the responsibility of provider. He also guards the family against any attack.
The mother does all the household chores. While the woman’s place is still in the kitchen in Kenya’s rural areas, they have somewhat greater freedom in the cities.
Marriage and raising a family are considered basic requirements for the community. After initiation, the boys and girls are considered to be grownups, and until they are married all boys live together in a simba (a house for bachelors). To prepare for marriage, men build homes on their father’s land. A traditional home takes one day to construct with stick-and-mud walls and a thatched roof.
Girls usually marry before age 16. The marriage is organized by a jawang’ yo, an intermediary between the prospective bride and groom. After the jawang’ yo identifies the possible couple, the groom’s family makes the acquaintance of the bride’s family.
Once the families are familiar with each other, next comes a dowry-paying ceremony called a nyombo. The dowry is paid in terms of heads of cattle. One cow can be worth US$200, which is a large amount of money for rural Luo families. When the cattle cross through the gate to their new homestead, the marriage is considered completed. While the cattle belong to the bride’s parents, the house belongs to the bride.
There are several components to a Luo homestead:
- granary for storage
- cattle shed (kul)
- males-only private hut (dual) for the head of the household
- large fire pit in the center, typically built of cow dung by the head of the homestead
- one to two acres of land for growing food
Guests Are Welcome
If you are ever fortunate to visit a Luo community, you will find lots of entertainment. The Luo enjoy dancing since music is part of their life. You will enjoy several games accompanied by music.
You will also notice the respect and generosity accorded to the visitors. Everybody from the village will want to say amosi (“hello”) and shake your hand, and all the children will follow you. You will be the honored guest and will be invited to share a meal of ugali (staple food made of maize flour) with either fish or traditional vegetables and porridge.
Have a change to suggest for this story? We’d love for you to submit it!
- Look up the current population of Kenya. If there are approximately 4 million Luo, what percentage of the country does that make?
- What is the world’s largest freshwater lake, using surface area? How do you explain why Lake Victoria has the second largest surface area but only the ninth largest volume?
- What do you think you would see if you could travel back in time 2,500 million years ago when the Nyanzian rocks were being formed?
- Look up information on Kenya’s unit of currency. What is the exchange rate with US dollars? Calculate how much a US$200 cow costs in Kenya.
Social Justice Question
Kenya gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. It has since rewritten its constitution twice, in 1969 and 2010. What human rights would you place at the top of your list if you were writing a country’s constitution for the first time?
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