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25.02.2013 Opinion

Barack Obama's Luo People

By Dr. Leonard Madu
US President Barack ObamaUS President Barack Obama
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Since Barack Obama became President of the United States, interest has increased about the Luo people of Kenya and the other Luo speaking nationalities in general. So, who are the Luo people?

Of the over 42 ethnic groups that make up Kenya, the Luo are one of the most important. The Luo ethnic group is the third largest community in Kenya and makes up to 14% of the entire population. Also found in Uganda, Tanzania and Sudan, they are part of a larger group of ethnolinguistically related Luo peoples from South Sudan to Tanzania. They speak the Dholuo language.

Luo speaking peoples include the Acholi of Uganda and South Sudan, and the Langi, Padhola and Alur of Uganda. There are about 12 sub groups within the Luo ethnic group. Although originally cattle herders, they have adopted fishing and subsistence agriculture.

Culturally, the Luo are one of the few ethnic groups that do not circumcise their males as an initiation to manhood. Instead in Luo traditions, initiation involves the removal of six teeth from the lower jaw. Marriage is important to the Luo who traditionally practiced have polygamy.

Men are allowed to marry up to five wives, though this is not common anymore. Bride price is negotiated and money and cattle are paid by the groom to the bridal parents. Also among the Luo, wife inheritance used to be common.

If a man dies, one of his brothers or close relatives inherits his widow and must meet all of her marital inheritance. In the modern era, wife inheritance is slowly fading away. The incidence of HIV/AIDS has led to the promotion of circumcision among the Luo.

Like most ethnic groups in Kenya and Africa, the coming of the Europeans changed their religious beliefs. Most Luo consider themselves as Christians. Nevertheless, the spirits of of their ancestors play an important role in their spiritual beliefs.

The Luo traditionally believe in after life and a supreme creator, whom they called Nyasaye. The first ritual in a Luo person's life is called Juogi, the naming ceremony.

The child is supposed to assume some of the mannerisms of the ancestor he or she is named after. If the ancestor is quiet or talkative, he or she is supposed to acquire the same mannerisms.

The Luo ethnic group have been a major player in Kenyan political life since pre-colonial times. Unlike many other Kenyan ethnic groups, they did not have their land taken by the European settlers. Though they were not particularly prominent in the Mau Mau rebellion, they played an active part in Kenyan independence.

At independence, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a Luo, became the first Vice President of Kenya, before falling out with President Jomo Kenyatta. Despite their prominence, the Luos have always felt marginalized and disenfranchised by the more numerous Kikuyu.

In 1969, a prominent Luo politician, Tom Mboya was assassinated. Most Luos believe he was assassinated on the orders of President Kenyatta, who saw him as a potential presidential challenger. In the 1980's another prominent Luo personality Robert Ouko, was also assassinated.

Ouko was Foreign Minister of Kenya before he fell out with then President Daniel Arap Moi. Again, fingers were pointed at President Moi. The riots that broke out 2007 after the election of Nwai Kibaki(Kikuyu) over Raila Odinga (Luo), was part of the Luo frustration at feeling marginalized politically.

Some prominent Luo politicians include former Vice President,Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, former Minister of Economic Planning and Development,Tom Mboya, former Minister of Defence, Achieng Oneko, former Foreign Minister, Robert Ouko, current Prime Minister, Raila Odinga and Barack Obama, Sr.

***Dr. Leonard Madu is President of the African Caribbean Institute of Nashville and African Chamber of Commerce. He is also a Fox TV foreign affairs analyst and writes from Nashville, TN.***

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