This article discusses the ways that the Luo of Kenya organized meetings to deal with problems and challenges during the pre-colonial period. The essay examines the nature and structure of traditional meetings, where they were held, the issues discussed, how issues were resolved and executed. These meetings were important for the stability and well-being of the Luo and their neighbors
The Luo who are the subject of this essay settled in the Western part of Kenya somewhere around 1400-1500 C.E. The Luo are about 4 million in population, and make up a large portion of the western Kenyan population today. This leads us to an important question – how were the Luo so successful in migrating, settling, and expanding in the area where they are found today? While there may be many answers to this question, we believe that part of the answer to the question was due largely to the organizational ability and efficiency of the Luo leaders and elders. The objective of this essay is to examine how the Luo and their elders and leaders organized themselves enabling the community to be so successful. More particularly, we are interested in how the Luo used to organize and hold public meetings because this was how they dealt with issues, problems, and challenges and ultimately enabled them to present a united front in the face of their adversaries.
During the pre-colonial period, there were two different types of political organizations and which influenced how the Luo organized public meetings and dealt with problems and challenges. The majority of the Luo were an acephalous people, but, there was one instance where a kingdom emerged the Alego-Karwoth [literally, Alego, the place of kings]. The acephalous communities, which the majority of the Luo were, did not follow a single leader or ruler. Instead, the various sub-groups of the Luo consisted of large clans which were governed by the oldest, highest ranking members, or elders, of the communities. Elders that had more wealth might have been heard more frequently during meeting sessions, but they did not necessarily have any more influence on the decisions made. Other elders were respected because they had large families or were reputed for their wisdom. Other elders drew their reputation from courage they displayed during war during their youth. These Elders and leaders were believed to have the ability, sagacity, and sense of commitment to make good decisions on behalf of the community. Other elders were said to have the ability to communicate with the ancestral spirits and could make decisions based on what their ancestors were telling them, or what they thought would make their ancestors happy. This point is important because the Luo generally viewed their ancestors as almighty, in an almost god-like manner.
The majority of the Luo such as Sakwa, Yimbo, Gem, Seme, Kano, Nyakach, Ugenya, Kajulu, Karachuonyo, Kabondo, Asembo, Uyoma, and Suba, among many others, were led by such elders. But, as we have already mentioned, there was one specific group among the Luo that did have a kingdom, and this was the Alego-Korwoth. Such kingdoms were rare among the Luo. Wherever they existed, such as in Alego, the kingdom operated as a monarchy-styled government that was headed by one ruler, King (Rwoth). The kingdom seemed to have a kind of class structure, but this was based not just on the control of land and property, but also on lineage connections to the ruling elite. Age and gender also seemed to play great roles in the political system.
Whether one was an acephalous society or a kingdom, leaders of such societies among the Luo seemed to have been adult or senior males. The leaders governed through regularly organizing and holding public meetings [“bura”]. Women, young adults, and children were often barred from speaking at meetings. They could attend but not speak at such meetings. Elderly women, regarded as senior, could sometimes speak at meetings.
Traditionally, these meetings [the “buras”] were held outside near different large, natural structures such as large rocks. The Luo were monotheistic people, and they associated God with these natural structures. They associated having meetings at these large rock structures with being in the presence of the gods which was very important to them and to how they made decisions. Many political and social issues such as disease outbreak were addressed at such meetings. Elders believed that anything bad happening to the community was because the people in the community upset the gods. Diseases–-such as epilepsy-–were thought to strike when the gods were angry with the evils being committed by those in the community. The elders would therefore meet in order to discuss how to overcome such disease outbreaks. Elders would also meet to discuss prolonged drought, flooding, and lightning storms, because they believed the gods were punishing them, so the elders met to discuss a solution to such problems. Given the belief that these events came about due to bad spirits and bad energy with the gods, the elders would organize for sacrifices to be made to the spirits, as well as for libations to be made to console the departed souls.
A meeting could also be called if there were conflicts or attacks between different groups. These conflicts could be caused by issues ranging from land disputes to cattle rustling and to fighting over grazing places. The purpose of such meetings was to come to a peaceful resolution for a peaceful coexistence of the people. However, when peaceful resolutions failed and war seemed to be inevitable, the elders would convene a meeting to bless the warriors before they ventured out on their mission.
Other reasons for holding meetings were marriages and deaths. When somebody died, the elders would hold a meeting to discuss the cause of death, funeral rites, burial arrangements, and who would take care of the family in the absence of the deceased. Every little aspect of the funeral and burial were important to the community. If the deceased was killed in a drowning, by lightning, or by some other traumatic event, decisions were made by the elders to carry the body of the deceased directly to the grave site. The people of the community could not risk the “bad spirits” coming back to haunt them.
Elders could also call a meeting for other reasons. For example, a meeting might be called when a marriage was proposed. The elders met to discuss the eligibility and legitimacy of the marriage, and also to provide any advice needed for the couple. If a married man died, the elders would discuss who would finish paying the dowry for the wife. Elders could also meet when someone was planning on building a new homestead. They were often invited to provide advise on the process of putting up the homestead. Many such meetings were formal, but there were also informal types of meetings which would occur at “refreshment places” or during recreational activities. No agenda was required for these meetings.
All of these meetings were organized by “word of mouth” and traveled to the rest of the members of the community that way. There were instances where people could also prepare a “brew” and place it in the middle of the place where all the elders were meeting. The elders could share the brew. They could also smoke cannabis or tobacco during meetings. The men would sit on traditional wooden stools during meetings, and the women would sit on the ground.
There was no written set of rules or “laws” governing the meetings. Instead, there were oral taboos or rules forbidding certain things or actions, passed down orally from generation to generation, that governed the way people talked and behaved during meetings. The elders relied on these taboos and regular norms to guide them on the decisions they made on issues that were presented to them. Since most such taboos were passed by word of mouth from generation to generation, enabling members to remember and keep them, these taboos were developed through time and were observed by the elders of the communities from the past to the present generations. Whenever a taboo was broken, the elders would automatically convene a mandatory meeting. They met to ensure that people followed all the taboos and the norms strictly, and to punish anybody who violated the taboos.
The elders, unlike today, did not vote when making decisions. Decisions were made through speaking, discussion, and articulation of one’s convictions. Decisions were usually arrived at unanimously. The elders made decisions that usually revolved around offering solutions to problems. In some cases, they would order for compensations as a solution. In others they would order a cleansing ceremony. The elders could also impose a fine on those who did wrong, and they could also organize for a sacrifice to take place to cleanse those in need.
In the more extreme cases such as murder or incest or violation of taboos, the elders could excommunicate the offenders from the community. Excommunication was a lifelong punishment that did not allow the offender to see his family or community members again. It was an extreme form of punishment and was therefore rarely imposed. This was one of the reasons why there were low murder rates among the Luo during the pre-colonial period. Thus, although these kinds of punishments seemed harsh, the elders believed that by imposing them on people, they were taking a commonsense approach to accomplishing what they thought was in the best interest of the community.
The more common form of punishment was usually a curse being placed on the offender. In other cases, the elders would call upon a disease to afflict a taboo breaker. This form of punishment was also harsh and could not only affect the offender but also his family and the community as a whole.
The cultural beliefs, practices, and taboos were heavily imbedded in the community. Community members often lived in fear of one offender damaging their community and this was one of the reasons many people often visited the elders and hoping for their intervention before the offender’s action brought about a curse on the rest of the community members. Community members could also seek guidance from the elders in cases of problems occurring within the community.
The architecture of most of the meetings was similar to most of our political meetings today in that, once a meeting was summoned and everybody would be given a chance to express themselves. All of the facts would be laid out, and the litigants would be given a chance to articulate their views. The elders would then talk and render a decision or “sentence” as determined by the group. Once a decision was made, it was final. The architecture of such meetings shows a sophistication of the time period as well as a logical approach to determining a punishment that fit the crime.
It does appear that the everybody believed that the community was the most important part of of their lives and that if one member failed to follow the laws or violated a taboo, everybody could be affected. These beliefs instilled fear among members of the community, but, at the same time, they ensured that everybody respected their laws, heritage, taboos, and ancestors leading to the wellbeing and stability of the community. The elders had a major influence over the people. What they said was law and people either abided by them or suffered the consequences. This kept people in order for the most part, and that is why these communities were so successful and thriving even today. As new elders and new leaders took over, they too applied the laws and the taboos strictly and justly just as their forefathers had done. They consistently upheld the law and held meetings where necessary, just as it is in the modern society today. These elders are still very important in today’s Luoland, but, admittedly, more leaders such as government chiefs and political leaders have also become very influential among the Luo today. Since the colonial period, the role of lders among the Luo has gradually given way to colonial chiefs such as Chief Ogada, Chief Owuor, Chief Ogola, and political leaders such as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
But, the Luo are led by traditional elders or modern chiefs and politicians, and meetings are still important to the people and their leaders. Meetings are there to stay. The leaders must always strive to hold open public meetings with the people to know how the people feel and to offer solutions to their problems.
Outside a Luo Village: The Luo village section at the Bomas of Kenya museum, Nairobi, Kenya ~ Photo by SteveRwanda, April 17, 2007 | Wikipedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BomasLuoVillage.JPG
Site of Chief Ogola's Place of Meeting with His People: The place where Chief Ogola called for his baraza meeting on matters concerning the community. ~ Photo by Caroline Muchangi, October 9, 2017 | MaCleKi, http://macleki.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Baraza-Meeting-Place.jpg
Chief Ismail Owuor Molo: “A portrait of Chief Ismail Owuor Molo in the uniform of a colonial chief, although without his helmet (known in Luo as ogut simba). Owuor (1901-1968) was chief of Asembo from 1931, and is here photographed with four of the apparently eight wives he had married by 1936, all wearing expensive European dresses. Since he was a colonial chief and thereby relatively wealthy, he could afford to marry a number of wives, and in fact he married more than 10 before his death.” ~ Photo by Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, 1936 | Pitt Rivers Museum--Luo Visual History
Luo Chief Ogada: The famous Luo leader Chief Ogada is pictured here seated in front of the colonial administration building in Kisumu. This photo was taken by Charles William Hobley, an anthropologist who was curious about Ogada’s ornamental dress. Ogada’s beads, bracelets, and totems were commemorative heirlooms or served medical purposes. ~ Photo by Charles William Hobley, 1902 | Pitt Rivers Museum–Luo Visual History
Jaramogi Ajuma Oginga Odinga: Odinga was a prominent figure in the Luo community who advocated for Kenya’s independence. He later served as Kenya’s first Vice-President under Kenyatta from 1963 to 1966. ~ Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Mausoleum and Museum, Bondo, Kenya, via Kisumu Archive, accessed August 16, 2018, https://archive.macleki.org/items/show/3181
Maseno on the Kisumu-Maseno-Busia Road ~ We have decided to use Chief Ogola Ayieke's meeting place as the site for this essay. Chief Ogola Ayieke lived in Nyawita near Siriba in Karateng’ in the present-day Kisumu County. This is the general Maseno area.