TbT: Avandu Vosi - A Peek At Early Customs Of The Luhya

Not much has been recorded about the early history of the Abaluhya, who some early explorers refer as the Bantu Kavirondo.

But one thing is clear, the Abaluhya had diverse chiefdoms or Kingdoms that had distinct names. So it should not be a surprise that we have Bukusus, Tirikis, Maragolis, Isukhas and so on today.

And, to a large part, they are in the aggregate the washemeji of the Luo, considering these two communities have for many years shared cultural similarities, and intermarriage.

In this post, I will, except where practices of a particular sub tribe are cited, write about the Abaluhya collectively. All images here are of, or about, the Abaluhya.

A large part of the insights shared here comes from anthropological findings by Sir Harry H. Johnston, who spent weeks living among the Abaluhya in Western Kenya circa 1900.

Sir Johnston observed that different from some African communities, the Abaluhya buried their dead, and did not discard them in the bush to be devoured by hyenas and vultures.

The deceased’s sons and brothers or his wives dug the grave in the middle of his hut and the corpse was buried lying on its right side with the legs doubled up. The hut was not used afterwards.

Women were buried in the same way. A child was buried near the door of its mother’s hut.

Funerals of prominent people such as the Kakamega chief (pictured) that Sir Johnston photographed in 1900 (he didn’t name him, only stating that he was a chief of the “Aba Kumega”) were more elaborate.

Wrapped in the hide of a bull that had been killed for the funeral feast, a chief was buried in the floor of his own hut in a sitting position.

However, his head would be left to protrude above the surface of the ground. Thus the earth would be filled in up to the neck level and then beaten down.

Sir Johnston noted that the exposed head was “then covered with a large earthenware and kept over the head by the elder relations, who from time to time removed the pot to ascertain whether the flesh had disappeared…”

When the skull had been completely cleaned by ants, it was carefully removed from the rest of the skeleton and buried close to the hut.

Then the bones of the rest of the body were all dug up (having been cleansed of flesh by insects), and were reburied with great ceremony at a spot that the community considered sacred, such as atop hills where other famous individuals were also buried.

This is an early photo of Abaluhya warriors taken in 1902. It does appear that the Abaluhya were peaceable, and enjoyed good relations with their neighbors.

They referred to the people of Rusinga Island as the Awa-singa while the Abagusii were called the Aba-Kisii or Awa Kisingiri.

Then there were the Awa-wanga, who dwelt between the Yala River and Upper Sio, inhabiting mainly the Central Valley of the Nzoia. Mumia (pictured) was later King of the Wanga and had Mumias town named in his memory.

The eastern clan referred to themselves as the Aba Kumega and lived around present day Kakamega town. North East of the Awa Wanga were the Aba Kabrasi, whom Maasai in those days called “Ketosh”.

The Kabras country spread towards the eastern slopes of Mt. Elgon and could be close to, if not present-day Bukusu speakers.
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I am unable to tell why names given to some communities had an ‘Awa’ prefix, and why others had ‘Aba’. The Luo were however referred to as Ja Luo.

According to Sir Johnston, the Abaluhya people claimed to have an inability of telling the sex of an unborn child if the mother was pregnant for the first time.

If the child was going to be a girl, the mother was meant to become fat; if the prediction was that it was going to be a boy, she was required to get thin.

And if a married woman among the Abaluhya died, kinsmen were expected to visit her homestead at the earliest opportunity, the objective being to wail for the deceased.

What I found not strange but interesting is that the widower received her kinsmen with presents.

Women wailed every evening after the first two days for three days. This cry of sorrow continued at intervals for weeks afterwards.

If a prominent member of the community passed on, his death was mourned by wailing each morning and evening for many months.

As a sign of mourning, a cord of banana fibre was worn around the neck.

I also gather that the Abaluhya mourned nearly as hard as they welcomed new life.

Twin births, for example, were considered a blessing and were celebrated by much dance for days. Unlike a few African communities, Abaluhyas did not consider twin births a curse.

Girls were betrothed at age of six or seven and at that tender age, a prospective husband would make repeated small presents as dowry “installments”.

Once the girl approached womanhood, she was handed over to the husband’s family.

Chastity was strongly upheld and until the early 1900s, girls or young boys guilty of formication were usually condemned to death.

It was shameful if the girl was found not to be a virgin during the wedding day, which was when the remainder of the bride price was settled, barring opposition from the father-in-law.

If she was found not to be a virgin, the bride’s family repaid all bride price paid by installment, in duplicate, “as an acknowledgement of the disgrace brought on them by the misconduct of their daughter…”

The Abaluhya were among the most culture-rich community in the country. There’s too much of their traditions than can be summarized on this post. Some of their sub tribes had unique practices and traditions, too.

The Wanga, for instance, were experts in taming ostriches such as the ones pictured here, photographed somewhere in the Wanga kingdom in the early 1900s.

I wonder how far back the bull fighting tradition that the community is famous for began.

Thanks for the information. One of the dudes there resembles my uncle, kind of a copy and paste…

Na hii mambo ya kupenda momo… expound on it…


on a light note- na hii tabia ya kusalimiana abaluhya watoa wapi?

The 2 men with shields, waluhya tu. You can just tell.

Seems they come heavily built as the come. Ama niache @Mundu Mulosi