From the Cooking Pot to the Table
An Examination of Food and Eating in Kisumu during the Pre-Colonial Period

Throughout the continent of Africa, the process of preparing and storing foods changes dependent upon the region you live in. These processes also differs according to the economy of the society you live. The accessibility of the food gathered through marketplaces or through your own harvesting relies heavily upon the culture of you region. For example, fish will be greater depended upon if you live near or on coastal regions along with other items harvested from water than it would be if you are further inland. Beef, chicken, fruits and vegetables are more inland but are exported to other regions for economy survival. Many countries, many cultures, many traditions all make up how the traditional foods of Africa varies but are all equally important.

Foods and lifestyles connected to them have increasingly become an important topic of discussion among people all over the world. Whether one is snacking on a light meal on a couch at home, devouring his way through a four-course meal at a trendy restaurant, watching a food critic railing against a hapless, sweating chef trying to make a mark on TV, attending a mouth-watering lecture on food in a class at a college, or trying to sweat out some of that weight at a health spa or gym, and gain some fitness or good health, it seems that wherever one turns today, there is bound to be some food or something connected to it. The reason is simple. Food is required for human beings to sustain life. More than ever before, food is one of our most significant necessities of life.

Beyond sustaining life, different types of food are also served for many other purposes. People use food for many occasions: festivals, ceremonies, marriages, funerals, burials, sacrifices, libations etc. The Luo of Kenya used different types of food for many different occasions and this essay intends to examine the several uses of food and types of food among members of the community. What were these types of food, and what were they used for among the Luo? The primary focus of this essay is on food among the Luo. It examines the impact and influence of food on the cultural, gender, and economic dynamics of the Luo people of Kenya.

Food can, in many ways, affect the life of an entire society and how the people in that society behave. Gender and social roles that men and women take part in vary from house to house, city to city, and society to society. Status and economic resources that weigh on a society can affect the way social and cultural practices are carried out in that society. Climate, weather, soil, and other factors can also dictate which foods are most common in a specific region. Climate, in particular, plays a major role in what type of foods are easily available within a society. For example, when you look at Africa, you see different countries and regions with different traditions, cultures, languages, religions, and food preferences. This is because of the climate, weather, and other factors.

Coastal regions are able to have seafood diets consisting of different varieties of fish. Other areas with soils that receive less water rely on livestock especially camels and goats and also trade with other groups that are close by so that they can obtain foods that they cannot produce in their own areas. Accessibility to markets and trade routes are also important to one’s ability to acquire food (Nyabundi, 2017). Many Luos lived, just like today, around Kisumu, Kenya, which borders Lake Victoria, the same way that Cleveland borders Lake Erie, and so fishing is a major source of food. Because of proximity to Lake Victoria and others rivers such as Nzoia, Yala, and Nyando, fish was and still is very important to the Luo as food. There were also other sources and types of food among the Luo, but fish was the most common food on their dinner tables.

Gender played an important role in allocating duties and responsibilities when it came to procuring food, preparing, and eating it among the Luo. Both men and women played a role in procuring food. The men did the herding of the livestock, the fishing, clearing of the land before cultivation, and trading to support their families. Men also generally handling the milking of the cows and slaughtering and skinning of the animals that were served during mealtime. Women’s primary role was preparing food such as grinding sorghum or millet on grinding stones, cooking the food, and serving it to the members of the families. Women were also the ones who harvested the crops from the field. It was also the responsibility of the women to go to the market and buy the food, in a sense, harvest the necessary foods that could not be grown by the family so that a full course meal could be made. Women and children also fetched water and firewood that were necessary for preparing food.

Luo traditional foods had many unique names. These names had been around for thousands of years while others were more modern and contemporary. Vegetables such as “a lot,” “dek,” “apoth,” “mito,” and “osuga,” were a more common dietary staple because they were easier to grow and harvest. Some of these vegetables were available in the wild, especially mushrooms [“obuolo”]. The major crops grown in the region were sorghum, millet, beans, sweet potatoes, and, later on, maize [corn] and cassava also became popular. These crops were some of the main ingredients to most of the staple dishes that the Luo ate during mealtime. There were also different types of wild fruits –mapera, maembe, ochuoga, etch –that served as food and provided people with nutrients.

The most important dish among the Luo was kuon [ugali in Kiswahili; a sort of stiff porridge]. Kuon was usually prepared by mixing boiling water with sorghum or cassava or maize meal. It could also be prepared by mixing boiling water with sorghum and cassava meal, or mixing boiling water with maize, sorghum, and cassava meal. The kuon could be served with multitude of side dishes consisting of vegetables, fish, beef, chicken, sour milk, and others. Nyuka was another common meal. Nyuka was porridge made of millet or maize flour, or a mixture of millet, sorghum, and cassava flour, and could be served for breakfast in the morning or at any time during the day. The more popular type of nyuka was made by mixing water and flour and leaving it overnight to acquire a sour taste. Nyoyo [a mixture of boiled maize and beans or peas] was another common type of food. This was usually eaten as snack. The Lou also made and drank an alcoholic beverage called “busaa” which was made from maize, sorghum and flour. It was fermented for four days and drank out of straws called “oseke.” The Luo used broken pieces of pot, called “balatago” to deep fry it with cream of milk called “mo bora” but it’s called “mo moleny” when cooked.

The Luo believed in sharing their food. You had to share your food with your relatives and friends. The Luo proverb “Chiem Gi Wadu” (Pascal, 2012) translates into “eat with your brother” and illustrates the communal sense of responsibility and togetherness that is shared among the Luo. It means that food was only significant when shared with others.

There were etiquettes governing eating among the Luo. First and foremost, during mealtime, the Luo were required to sit according to their social ranks in the family. People did not just sit haphazardly during mealtime. The order and ways that they eat all signified something in their culture. The cultural and traditional practices that revolved around the food of the people reflected their standing and status in society.

Second, people were required to eat the main dish, the kuon, and sometimes, even the side dishes, from a common plate. Thus, during meal-time, each dish was served on one main plate and this would be passed around and everyone would eat off of it instead of having individual proportions made for each person.

Gender and age also played an important role in eating etiquette among the Luo. Women and girls generally ate from their own plate alone on one side of the hut where they lived, while men and other male members of the household ate at their own table on their own side of the hut. Men and male members of the household usually ate in a special hut that the senior male member of the household had built for himself in his homestead. This hut was known as “duol.” The senior male head of the household usually ate his meals with his sons and grandsons in this hut.

The eating etiquette also extended to the types of food that the people ate. Although men and women among the Luo people usually ate the same types of food, women, especially the elderly ones, were not supposed to eat chickens and eggs. Women and children were also barred from eating certain types of food, for example, the “oguro” [the back of the chicken]. The male head of the household was the only one allowed to eat the “oguro.” Children were also not allowed to drink alcohol.

The male head of the household was usually the one allowed to start the eating before everybody else joined. The men eating at the table with him would also follow suit in the order of birth, the older ones joining in before the younger ones. Once the male head started eating, everybody else could also begin eating. The men and the women would eat while watching and making sure that everybody ate and followed the rules of eating. Nobody was allowed to eat more than others. You ate while watching carefully to ensure that everybody also had their fill.

While the male head of the household was required to begin the eating session before everybody else, he was also required to finish before everybody else especially the younger males and the children. It would be shameful for him to compete for the last morsel of food with his children. The same rule extended to other adults in the family. As the size of food remaining on the table dwindled, the older adults gave way until the youngest person was the only one remaining, eating at the table. The last morsels and the soups would be cleared by the youngest members of the family.

There were different types of food served during different times among the Luo. There were ordinary meals that were eating during ordinary, regular meal times, and special meals that could only be eaten during festive occasions. Nyuka was the common early morning meal. Nyoyo [a mixture of boiled beans and corn] served as a snack and could be eaten at any time. Kuon and other side dishes were served during lunch and dinner times.

There were special occasions when feasts could be organized among the Luo. There was the “Blessing Feast” and the “Harvest Feast,” which were held in October and December each year respectively (Pascal, 2012). Both feasts involved slaughtering animals and brewing sorghum beer. These ceremonies involved preparing mature boys and girls for marriage, and also thanking God for providing the community with food. Special sacrificial meals could also be organized whenever there was a calamity such as drought and people wanted to appease their gods to bring them rain. The elders and religious leaders of the community led in organizing such meals that usually included the slaughtering of animals and shedding of blood to propitiate the gods. Special meals could also be prepared during birth of a child, marriage of a member of the community, and also during funerals. Such meals usually also involved slaughtering animals and shedding blood.

Special feasts could also be organized during important occasions such as socialization and initiation of the youth not adulthood. During such occasions, the boys were taught how to procure the best foods as hunters or herders, while girls were educated on nutrition and how to prepare the best dishes for their families. There were also many other celebrations that were commemorated for important times of the year with special meals. There were also traditional meals that could also be prepared and served during others occasions because such occasions had deep cultural significance to the community.

We hope that this essay has given some insights into the food and eating traditions and culture of the Luo people of Kenya. We have discussed and given examples of the different hypes of food among the Luo, and their functions and significance in the culture and lives of the Luo people. Food says a lot about a people. It speaks to the structure of the society, and to the status, gender, ethnicity, and religion of the people in that society. But food can also bring nations together, prevent wars, and heal the sick.

Images

Grinding Stone and Other Paraphernalia

Grinding Stone and Other Paraphernalia: These were items used for preparing food among the Luo. Notice a grinding stone for grinding millet or sorghum. ~ Photo by Meshack Owino at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Mausoleum and Museum, January 7, 2018

Kitchen Utensils

Kitchen Utensils: Kitchen utensils on display at Odinga Museum near Bondo. ~ Photo by Meshack Owino at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Mausoleum and Museum, January 7, 2018 | Kisumu Archive, https://archive.macleki.org/items/show/3282

The Ohigla Pot

The Ohigla Pot: This pot was specifically used for storing leftover food. ~ Photo by Meshack Owino at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Mausoleum and Museum, January 7, 2018

Grass Sieve for Cooking Fish, Luo Community, Late 20th Century, Kisumu Museum

Grass Sieve for Cooking Fish, Luo Community, Late 20th Century, Kisumu Museum: This item was used to safely handle fish during the cooking process. | Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 7, 2018 | Kisumu Archive, archive.macleki.org/items/show/2546

Traditional Luo Fish Traps

Traditional Luo Fish Traps: Fish traps such as these have long been used to catch fish along the edges of Lake Victoria. These traps are displayed at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Mausoleum and Museum near Bondo. | Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 7, 2018 | Kisumu Archive, archive.macleki.org/items/show/3050

Omena (Sardines)

Omena (Sardines): This was an important source of nutrients among the Luo

Fresh Tilapia on Rack at Lwang'ni Beach

Fresh Tilapia on Rack at Lwang'ni Beach: Hotels (as small restaurants are often called in Kenya) specialize in serving freshly caught fish. | Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 9, 2018 | Kisumu Archive, archive.macleki.org/items/show/2527

A meal of fried tilapia and kuon--very popular among the Luo

A meal of fried tilapia and kuon--very popular among the Luo: Different types of food especially fish and corn-meal are two very popular meal choices among the Luo of Kenya. This meal consists of fried tilapia, kuon [cornmeal, and cooked vegetables. It is prepared in a more modern way, but gives an idea of what traditional meals consisted of among the Luo. ~ Photo by Napendakukula, April 7, 2012, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fried_Tilapia,_Ugali,_Sukuma_Wiki_and_Kachumbari_(From_Kisumu).JPG, accessed August 16, 2018

This meal of matoke and chicken was not common among the Luo traditionally, but is increasingly popular with the Luo today

This meal of matoke and chicken was not common among the Luo traditionally, but is increasingly popular with the Luo today: Matoke was not a common Luo dish, but has become increasingly popular with Luos living near the border of Kenya and Uganda where matoke is a staple food among the Baganda of Uganda. Matoke is made from plantains. This photo shows the changing diet among the Luo ~ Photo by Krugen, November 8, 2014 | CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Matoke_and_Chicken.jpg

Early morning fishing at Lake Victoria

Early morning fishing at Lake Victoria: Fishermen on Lake Victoria in the early morning gathering their catch after laying out their fish nets the previous night. Fish is an important food among the Luo. ~ Photo by Franklin Amulyoto, April 14, 2017 | CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Early_morning_fishing_at_Lake_Victoria.jpg, accessed August 16, 2018

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