The Luo Tribe make up around 12% of Kenya’s population, making it the 3rd largest ethnic group (after the Kikuyu and the Luhya). There are approximately 12 sub-groups within the tribe.
They are a very large tribe, with their territory spreading beyond Kenya, into Tanzania, Sudan and Uganda. The traditional occupation of the Luo is fishing, though many are also farmers or work jobs in the larger cities.
Ever since Oginga Odinga was vice-president with Jomo Kenyatta in a newly independent Kenya, the Luo people have been active in politics. They often hold positions in the opposition government against the majority Kikuyu.
The first Luo to migrate into Kenya likely came from the west, from Uganda. Historians feel that there were 5 distinct migration periods, starting in the 1500s.
Unlike many other Kenyan tribes, the Luo tribe were not particularly troubled by the arrival of the white Europeans and settlers. Given the location of their territory in western Kenya, they didn’t have their lives interrupted nor their land taken from them. They were not particularly involved in the Mau Mau rebellion, but helped create an independent Kenya through politics instead.
The Luo Language
The language of the Luo tribe is called Dholuo, and it is still commonly spoken among the people of this tribe. Even those who have come to live in the cities for work still speak their native tongue, along with English or Swahili. Other groups in Uganda also speak Dholuo, including the Lango and Acholi people.
Culture and Religion
Like most other tribes in Kenya, their religious beliefs have changed with the coming of the Europeans. Most Luo consider themselves to be Christians today. Even so, the spirits of their ancestors play an important role in spiritual beliefs. They still often refer to the Christian god by the Luo names they are familiar with, such as “Were” or “Nyasaye”.
Marriage is very important to the Luo, who traditionally practiced polygamy. Men were allowed to have up to 5 wives, though this is no longer a common arrangement. A bride price is negotiated, even among modern Luo couples. Money or cattle are paid by the groom to the bride’s parents. It is very unusual for a Luo to be unmarried.
The Luo are one of the few tribes in Kenya who don’t practice ritual circumcision among the males. Marriage and death are considered the more important rites of passage.
Another important part of Luo life is music. Songs are sung and music is played for many everyday events and occasions. Many musical instruments are used in Luo music, unlike tribes like the Masai who rely on their voices for music. The modern pop music style called “Benga”, is popular through all of Kenya, and is based on Luo musical themes. More on my Kenya music page.
Notable Members of the Luo Tribe
The father of United States senator, Barack Obama is a Luo (his mother was American). Not only is Obama a senator, but also one of the democratic candidates in the 2008 presidential election. Barack Obama is considered the first African-American candidate who has a serious chance of winning the election. All the details are at my page about Barack Obama and Kenya.
Another Luo politician is Raila Amolo Odinga, who was the big contestor to sitting President Mwai Kibaki in the December 2007 elections. After reports of election fraud by Kibaki and riots, the two agreed to form a peaceful broad coalition government.