The Livestock Trade in Kisumu Region

The Declining Luo Ritual of Selling and Buying Livestock

The Luo, as well as many other ethnic groups in Kenya, have an extraordinary number of rituals, rites, and customs connected to livestock trade, one of the most important aspects of life in Kenya. Sadly, however, these rituals, customs, and rites are fading away, replaced by a more modern ways. These rituals, customs, and rites hold a lot of significance to the history of the Luo and their neighbors in Kenya, and should be studied with vigor, rather than forgotten.

It is a warm, dusty day at Luanda livestock market, situated about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Kisumu City on the Kisumu-Siaya-Busia highway. It is in fact a Thursday, one of the market days at Luanda when traders trek from near and far on foot and by other means to sell and buy goods. Livestock sellers and buyers line the livestock section of the market, mentally preparing for a hectic day of selling and buying all kinds of livestock: cows, goats, sheep. The livestock graze both outside and inside the marketplace, contently munching on grass and generally ignoring much of the clatter and chatter going on around them.

A potential buyer looks around carefully, mentally sizing up the crowd and the livestock on sale. He needs to purchase five cows and three goats today for his son who is scheduled to visit and pay bridewealth to his in-laws. He knows that his every move is being watched by livestock traders keen on attracting his attention and benefitting from his business. He knows that the traders must make sure that the cows and goats they brought to sell at the market are healthy and attractive. He notices that some of the traders are grazing their animals beforehand, hoping to calm down and improve the value of their animals. After all, the traders know that no buyer would be caught purchasing an emaciated animal with bones showing on their skins. He browses around and notices a particularly healthy, calm, strong heifer masticating on some grass. He makes his move. He wants to buy this heifer. Patting the money in his coat pocket and reassuring himself that it is still there, he approaches the owner of the heifer. The bargaining and the haggling begin.

Stretching out his right hand, he grabs the tips of the fingers of the traders' right hand, lifts them up, and then suddenly jerks them down. He asks the trader to name the price of the heifer. The trader looks back at him and smiles knowingly. He stretches out his right hand in turn, grabs the right hand of the buyer, lifts it up by the fingers, jerks it down, and says he will not part with his strong, beautiful heifer unless the buyer pays him Ksh. 10,000 (around 100 USD at today's exchange rate). The buyer shakes his head... gazes at the heifer... shakes his head again. He extends his right hand, grabs the seller's right hand, lifts it up, jerks it down, and tells him that while he appreciates how beautiful the heifer is, it is not beautiful enough to command a Ksh. 10,000 price. He is ready to pay Ksh. 5,000 for the heifer. The seller smiles and says that that is impossible. He stretches out his right hand, grabs the right hand of the buyer, and repeats the same motion he did earlier. The haggling continues in this way for several minutes: the grabbing of right hands and fingers, lifting them up and jerking them down, negotiating and bargaining, until they both agree on a price of Ksh. 8,000 for the heifer. The seller pockets his Ksh. 8,000, and the buyer escorts his newly bought heifer away.

This ritual of buying and selling livestock was once very common in the livestock markets of Luoland and their environs. This is a ritual that is unfortunately declining and disappearing right before our eyes. It is a ritual that livestock traders used to engage in whenever they wanted to buy and/or sell their livestock. Whenever a livestock trader wanted to buy or sell livestock, he would approach his counterpart, grab his right hand, as if in a greeting, lift it up by the fingers, and jerk it down suddenly. While doing this, he explains what he wants. If he is the seller, he mentions the virtues and qualities of his animal, hoping to command a hefty price. If he is the buyer, he must try to reduce the price he wants to pay by pointing out the flaws and shortcomings of the animal, comparing it to better animals he has seen at the marketplace that day. This ritual goes on as the two haggle with one another, performing gestures and motions steeped in traditional rituals among the Luo and their neighbors, until an agreement is made. After the rites and rituals have been performed, the seller and the buyer part ways and go about other business.

Such is the traditional way of “purchasing livestock” at markets in Luoland, a practice that is sadly being threatened in the region. Among the Luo, and their neighbors, you do not just buy an animal the way you buy a mere piece of merchandise like shoes, clothes, or even food in a store. You must haggle and bargain, engage in conversations replete with compliments and praises, deep with traditional knowledge, lore, and wisdom, given to the buyer, the seller, and the animals. You do not go to a marketplace and brazenly offer to the owner of the animal however much money you have; and the owner of the animal does not put a sticker with a price on his animal the way people do with merchandise today. That kind of behavior is considered rude, vulgar, unseemly, and uncivilized.

Livestock-keeping is one of the main economic activities of the Luo of Kenya and Tanzania. The Luo make up some 13% of the population of Kenya, inhabiting the region around Lake Victoria, a land that has terrain suitable for livestock-rearing. The Luo reportedly migrated down the Nile River from a mythical place they called "Misri" (perhaps Egypt or Sudan), before venturing down south and finally settling around Lake Victoria. As a result, the Luo eked a living doing many economic activities: fishing was one of the most important. The Luo also grew crops like sorghum, millet, cassava, beans, vegetables, and other products. They supplemented their economic activities with livestock-keeping. Their animals supplied them with beef, milk, hides, and other products. Livestock were important to the Luo not just as a source of milk and meat, but also because they could be traded for scarce products such as metal works.

Livestock were also used for paying bridewealth. If you wanted to marry a woman, you had to be ready to part with at least ten heads of cows, and some goats. Livestock also conferred status on livestock owners. The more livestock you owned, the richer you were considered to be. You earned respect and adoration from the community by virtue of owning a large number of livestock. It is therefore not surprising that the Luo created many customs and rituals around their livestock, making them economically, politically, and culturally important to the Luo community.

The significance of livestock among the Luo, while not as high as it was among some of their neighbors such as the Maasai, and the Kalenjin, was still profitable enough to encourage many Luos to try and specialize in livestock rearing and trade in the region. The Luo thus expended an incredible amount of investment in the art of rearing, keeping, buying, and selling livestock. In fact, even in modern Kenya, the Luo have continued to express an interest in livestock-keeping and trade. Livestock are still important especially as a source of food and as payment made to the family of your bride.

The Luo have tried to adopt modern methods of livestock-keeping and livestock-rearing to improve their herds. They have begun to use modern farming practices in animal husbandry, in protecting their animals from diseases, pests, and wild animals, and sustainable farming practices like the zero-grazing farming technique. They have tried to utilize and combine modern technology and traditional customs and skills in livestock-rearing to improve and produce better quality animals for their benefit.

Yet, modern Luo livestock keepers have not reared their animals without facing problems. The degradation of the environment means that there is a shortage of grass/pasture for the animals. The high population increase in the region has led to a stiff completion between man and animals over land. The price of livestock in Kenya as a whole has plummeted, reducing the attractiveness of the occupation. Colonialism and Westernization lured many young men away from home and their livestock. Young people today valorize modern jobs in "cool offices" in the urban centers and look down upon traditional occupations such as livestock-keeping. The status and stature of livestock-keeping among the Luo is therefore declining.

The most notable symbol of this decline is the loss of sacred rituals and rites associated with buying and selling animals in the livestock markets of Luoland. Although livestock-keeping as an occupation has been on the decline since colonialism made its appearance in Luoland and Kenya as a whole, it is perhaps the decline of the traditional practices and symbols associated with buying and selling livestock that are perhaps the most noticeable, disheartening, and saddening. Very few traders observe the traditional rituals of selling and buying animals any more. The rituals and rites that used to be observed during the process of selling and buying livestock are disappearing.

These traditional practices are fading away for two main reasons. The capitalist system with its emphasis on time and money has replaced the traditional gestures and mores. You want to buy a cow, you simply approach the seller, negotiate a bit, and that is it. No outstretched hands, no lifting of the hands, no jerking of the fingers. These kinds of rituals are considered a waste of time. The second factor is that the younger generations have not been taught the traditional ways, thereby losing sight of an important piece of heritage in the process. The younger generation are nowadays unware of these rituals and practices.

The rituals, rites, and the symbols associated with the livestock trade among the Luo are some of the last bastions of traditional culture of Kenyans, including the Luo. These rituals, rites, and cultural practices were very important to the Luo and other Kenyan people, and, thus, their erosion—due to the capitalist system with its emphasis on time and monetary gain—is suggestive of a trend that is far more dangerous to the overall customs of the Luo and the Kenyan people. While there are groups and associations that might still be trying to uphold the status of livestock-keeping in Kenya, sadly, such groups and associations tend only to focus on the economic importance of livestock at the expense of other equally important rituals, rites, and practices. The loss of these traditional practices is something that should push many of us to pause, think, and ask ourselves: is it really worth it?