The Luo are the second-largest ethnic group and one of the most cohesive “tribes” in Kenya. Their distinctive language, Dholuo, closely resembles the Nuer and Dinka languages of southern Sudan, from where their ancestors migrated south at the end of the fifteenth century. They found the shore and hinterland of Lake Victoria only sparsely populated by hunter-gatherers, scattered with occasional clearings where Bantu-speaking farmers had settled over the previous few centuries. Otherwise, the region was wild: untouched grassland and tropical forest, dense with heavy concentrations of wildlife.
The Luo were swift invaders, driving their herds before them, from water point to water point, always on the move, restless and acquisitive. They raided other groups’ cattle incessantly and, within a few decades, had forced the Bantu-speakers away from the lakeshore. Despite the conflict, intermarriage (essentially the buying of wives) was common and the pastoral nomads were greatly influenced by their Bantu-speaking in-laws and neighbours, ancestors of the present-day Luhya and Gusii.
The Luo today are best known as fishermen, a lifestyle that had sustained them while migrating along the rivers, but they also cultivate widely and still keep livestock. Culturally, they have remained surprisingly independent, and are one of the few Kenyan peoples who don’t perform circumcision. Traditionally, children had six teeth knocked out from the lower jaw to mark their initiation into adulthood, but the operation is hardly ever carried out these days. Christianity has made spectacular inroads among the Luo, with an estimated ninety percent being believers, but it does not seem to have destroyed their traditional culture quite as thoroughly as it has elsewhere. Despite the ubiquity of Gospel singing, traditional music, especially the playing of the nyatiti lyre, is still very much alive and well worth listening out for.