Luyia of Kenya: A Cultural Profile

Luyia of Kenya: A Cultural Profile

by Shadrack Amakoye Bulimo


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The Luyia, like other Africans subsumed by imperialist conquest, are groping in the dark to find new meaning to their lives. By emigrating from tribal territory to towns, Luyia tribesmen lost strong communal links that bonded traditional society in which security of the individual was assured. The real danger, however, is the infiltration of neo-capitalism in the remotest villages, sweeping away what little is left of the culture of a bygone era. The need to preserve our cultural resources for future generations is critical. Colonial institutions radically altered traditional governance, economic and magico-religious structures. Clan elders, hitherto the pseudo-legal centers of political authority, were either conscripted into colonial administration as chiefs or simply shunted aside. Supplication to cult of the ancestor was replaced by Christianity where clergy rather than sacrificial priests became principal representatives of the deity. And where men spent the day hunting to secure a family meal, they now had to seek waged employment and pay taxes. Although these forces of Western acculturation introduced positive benefits to traditional technological processes, they were largely responsible for uprooting a people from an environment they had lived for generations and adapted to suit their needs to one driven largely by opportunism and uncertainty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466983328
Publisher: Trafford Publishing
Publication date: 04/04/2013
Pages: 698
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.53(d)

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Luyia of Kenya

A Cultural Profile

By Shadrack Amakoye Bulimo

Trafford Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Shadrack Amakoye Bulimo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4669-8332-8


Mysticism and The Occult


Despite penetration of Christianity in Luyialand (Luhyaland), a large percentage of Abaluyia still believe in cult of the ancestor and occultism. Early Christian missionaries condemned these belief systems as heathen and therefore inconsistent with the Christian faith. They set out to eradicate aboriginal faith systems; and by 1912, a decade after setting up the first mission at Kaimosi, less than 10 percent of Luyia had converted to Christianity. The missionaries soon realized that success in Christian evangelism in Buluyia lay in condoning, incorporating, or modifying some of these traditional customs. In Tiriki, for instance, Christianity was antagonist to the people's way of life and was resisted at every opportunity often leading to bloody scuffles. It did not make any headway until 1930s despite Tiriki being the epicenter of Quakerism in western Kenya. In contrast, Catholics, although catechist, adopted a more syncretic approach condoning practices like polygamy, dance, and drinking in Isukha, Idakho, Wanga, Samia, and other parts of Luyialand.

Belief in the supernatural permeates most spheres of traditional lifestyle with certain events attributed to mystical agents especially magic, witchcraft, curses, spirits, and sorcery. This belief is not confined to just ordinary folk; even Christians (Abakristayo), the clergy (abakambi), and the educated elite (abasomi) find themselves lapsing under its gripping spell. The forces of darkness often produce emotional effects that defy reason and natural abilities of man so that any misfortune (eshibi; variation: esibi), illness (obulwaye), or death (olufu) in the family is attributed to an act of evil magic or angry spirits (ebisieno). To determine the cause of such maleficent visitation, a victim's family consults, in the first instance, a mystic known as omufumu (diviner) to diagnose the meaning or symptoms and prescribe appropriate magical prophylaxis.

Witchcraft is neither esoterically Luyia nor Kenyan nor African; it has existed among all races since prehistoric times. Anthropological artifacts like the Code of Hammurabi show that ancient Egyptians and Babylonians believed in witchcraft as the following text illustrates: "If a man has laid a charge of witchcraft and has not justified it, he upon whom the witchcraft is laid shall go to the holy river; he shall plunge into the holy river and if the holy river overcomes him, he who accused him shall take to himself his house."

The Bible (King James) acknowledges witchcraft as a satanic force in the ancient world as the following five scriptures bear testimony:

Deuteronomy 18:11-12: "Or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you."

Exodus 22:18: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

1 Samuel 28:5-9 regarding Apostle Saul's visit to the witch of Endor: "When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him. Then Saul said to his servants, 'Find me a woman who is a medium that I may go to her and inquire of her.'"

Leviticus 20:27: "A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them."

Revelation 21:8: "But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone."

The Qur'an (Islamic holy book) too condemns witchcraft as a satanic craft. The belief in jinn (genie) and use of talismans is quite prevalent in predominantly Muslim areas like Mombasa in Kenya. In Saudi Arabia, which observes one of the world's strictest codes of Islamic conduct, witches are often sentenced to death. In 2008, a Saudia woman, Fawza Falih, was accused of bewitching a man to be impotent. She was arrested by religious police (Mutaween), tried, and convicted of witchcraft. Another case involved a Lebanese journalist, Ali Sibat, who was convicted of witchcraft in 2009 for making predictions on satellite television.

Fear of the occult was very strong in the Dark and Middle Ages Europe, reaching a crescendo in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries during the infamous witchcraft trials. Suspects, usually old women, were hunted down, persecuted, and executed often with evidence that cannot stand judicial scrutiny in modern times. Anyone seen using herbs and plants even for curative purposes risked being accused of practicing witchcraft and put on trial. An estimated five hundred thousand witches were tortured and burned alive for the crime of "flying on a broomstick," considered as work of a witch in the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe. Both the Catholic Church and imperial governments saw witches as being in league with the devil and unanimously reprobated them. The first official witchcraft trials took place after Pope John XXII sanctioned them in 1320.

Raison d'être of witchcraft

The power of the occult is so deep it permeates all departments of human endeavor playing on the dichotomy of good versus evil, lucky versus unlucky, and godly versus satanic. It takes various forms ranging from a diabolical pact with satanic forces and supplication to ancestral spirits to handling charms, talismans, and using evil eyes. In the case of Luyia, jealousy (imbalikha; variation: imbotokha) is often the major motive for seeking paranormal intervention, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the institution of polygamy where several wives compete for love and attention of one husband. Other motives for indulging witchcraft include love and hatred. If an individual has strong emotions of love about someone who is beyond his reach, the temptation to use charms is great while a man who is boisterous and keeps humiliating others puts himself in the path of revenge. Wealthy and educated individuals are also targets of witchcraft primarily because of imbalikha (jealousy), but also due to their impetuous attitudes.

In this chapter, I have grouped supernatural powers into four components: human mystics, unusual occurrences, ancestral spirits, and Luyia concept of God.


The primary source of mystical power is the individual out of which three groups can be distinguished—ordinary people uttering curses (esilamo) or applying certain medicines (emisala; variations: kimisala) and charms, people in a state of ritual impurity (oluswa), and those practicing evil magic (sorcerers and witches). The first group is generally not thought to be life-threatening while people who have become ritually contaminated by breaching taboos can be restored to normalcy through lustration rites. The mystical power wielded by the first two groups is of temporal nature and does not provoke strong emotions. However, it is the third category of abafila (sorcerers) and abalosi (witches) that creates owe and fear among tribesmen because their power is lethal, esoteric, and permanent. We shall now examine the magic power exercised by each of these three groups in detail.

(i) Ordinary people

a. Protective medicine

Ordinary people who are normally not associated with any evil designs occasionally purchase herbs or certain objects from magicians (abakanga) to cast spells, curses, or blessings. The motive for choice and application of these objects varies but is usually driven by protective, promotive, or therapeutic reasons. An example of use of promotive magical ritual is found among ancient Babukusu and Abatachoni. During the planting season, women sought the blessings of ancestral spirits before sowing sorghum through a special ritual (Wagner 1970, 98). First they brewed alcohol (kamalwa in Lubukusu) which they drank sitting in a circle round the king post (isiro) of the house. A day before planting, they placed their baskets containing seeds (chimbeku) at the base of isiro, putting a harvesting knife, a raw chicken egg, and some tobacco on top of the chimbeku where they stayed overnight to be consecrated. The harvesting knife symbolized a good crop while the egg represented the original owner of the garden. As the sowing progressed, the egg remained in the basket showering blessings to the seeds after which it was cast in a nearby bush by current owner of the fields. The lump of tobacco was put in a pipe which the woman owner of the crop smoked as she seeded, making sure the smoke drifted upward in a ritual meant to attract rains. The neighboring Abatachoni observed a similar ritual except they did not leave the seed basket overnight at isiro. Instead, they placed it with accompanying paraphernalia at the main entrance of their house at sunrise until they went out planting a few hours later.

It is customary across Luyia subnations for the land owner (mwenye omukunda))to sow the first seeds to reaffirm ownership even in cases where he has subdivided his farm among his wives or conferred usufruct rights to his sons.

No preplanting rituals are known among other Luyia except that in Maragoli, a specialist known as omukingi womulimi (garden protector), went round the gardens in his neighborhood sprinkling herbal medicine on young crops. Even though he was uninvited, no one stopped him; the promotive ritual believed to yield bumper harvest in the milimi (gardens in Logooli) in which he has sprinkled his magical substance. Although he did not ask for payment, it was customary to render him small gifts of grain during harvest.

Love charms

It is in the emotionally charged domain of love that we find an elaborate use of charms and talismans as fetishes to induce a favorable disposition to one's object of desire. The urge to be loved or gain advantage in distribution of material things or in disputes is the principal factor that drives the application of promotive magic. Although assorted charms exist, the most common method is wearing talismans tied to necklaces, wristlets, or suspended from a belt, roots of omukombera (mondia whytei) being the most prevalent. Omukombera (variation: mukombela), which has a nice scent, is chewed by young men out on a date and is said to possess the sexual potency of Viagra. In most cases, the various talismans are not directed at a particular individual but are thought to promote good luck in love, hospitality, or even general likeability among strangers.

If someone fears witchcraft or sorcery attack, he will seek to protect himself and his family. He will procure certain medicines (emisala; kimisala in Lubukusu) from magicians or herbalists, and like promotive magic, they have to be worn or planted at strategic points around the homestead. To protect the home from robbers, he plants in the thick of darkness poisonous medicines at the gate and around the hut. If the medicines are so potent, the herbalist would normally come and perform the planting. In other cases, the medicines are tied in a small bundle and hang round the neck or waist. Although protective magic is positive, one has to take care not to display its use lest he is suspected of practicing evil magic.

b. Curses and blessings

In addition to herbs and talismans, another form of mystical influence is exercised through the power of a curse (esilamo) to offenders and blessings (okhutakasa) to benefactors. A curse can be directed at definite persons or unknown offenders. Theoretically, anyone can utter curses or blessings; but these are efficacious if, owing to the principle of seniority, they come from seniors. The principle of seniority accords certain powers and privileges to the elderly (Bulimo 2013, 184). The power of a curse is not linked to social status, wealth, or political authority; it is mainly a weapon of people who are unable to enforce their will either because they are poor, old, or physically challenged. Some of the most feared curses are from poor old women (abashiere abatakha) and the disabled (ebilema).

A curse from an elderly person is a serious social matter whose consequences can last a lifetime. As a weapon of punishment, it is used sparingly especially where there is social justification for it and the individual is known. Often, it is used as a threat and an expression of anger to unknown persons. If the conscience of the anathematized person is pricked, it befalls on him to confess and seek atonement. The main offenses which give rise to malediction are theft, sexual indiscretions including incest, and neglect or disobedience of parents by their offspring. Whether the offender is present or absent, a curse technically carries equal potency although, when uttered to unknown offenders, the curser must make sure there are witnesses to relay details to suspects; otherwise, it amounts to a little more than a hollow threat. Direct curses to specific individuals are usually leveled against members of one's own clan. For example, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles may curse their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, respectively, while a direct imprecation from a random individual is often ignored without fearing any ritual consequences.

The cursing process differs according to whether the subject is known or unknown. A curse directed at a known individual is often accompanied by a violent outburst of angry emotions and gestures such as holding up of the palm, pointing index fingers, and mooning (okhufulama). There is no standard script, and words don't always have to be uttered. In fact, gestures achieve the same magic effect as the spoken word whether administered in tandem or independently. On the other hand, a curse against unknown persons follows a definite ritual procedure depending upon the kind of punishment sought for the culprit. For instance, if someone steals a chicken, the owner digs grooves along paths leading to his homestead. Having done so, he takes isikuti (traditional Luyia drum), and beating it, he utters a hexing spell to the thief. In due course, the condemned thief's feet will begin to swell while the grooves send a message that any trespassers will suffer a similar fate or die.

The misfortunes (esibi) wished upon culprits are more or less of a standard type. The thief is punished by the curse of swollen feet or sometimes the stolen object is invoked to bring misfortune to whoever handles it. If a child has committed a serious offense so that a parental curse is inevitable, the cursing parent usually wishes the offspring poverty, illness, and sexual impotence (barrenness in case of a daughter) or to become cretinous. However hurting the offense might be, a parent as a rule cannot curse his child to die. It is socially unjustifiable to do so, and even if they did, such anathematization lacks the magical potency to kill unless it is reinforced by obufila (sorcery) and obulosi (witchcraft).

To avoid the ritual consequences of esilamo, a cursed person must immediately start the process of atonement by appealing for forgiveness or returning the stolen property. In case of a thief, a curse is automatically rendered void once the stolen object is returned while other curses are lifted if the curser forgives the offender by joining him in a reconciliation ritual. While maledictions are dished out to punish offenders, good deeds or acts of bravery are rewarded through blessings (amatakaso) by elders. Often, these are limited to clan members and are uttered on naming occasions (likulikha), boy's initiation (eshisebo), dedication of a new house (okhwalikha), and weddings (shiselelo).

c. Jealousy

Ordinary people who have not achieved much in their lives—e.g., bearing many children or acquiring riches (emiandu)—are often consumed by the vice of imbalikha (jealousy; variations: imbotokha, eshikhalikhali). They harbor ill feelings against those who are better off in wealth, wives, children, or cattle; and if an opportunity arises to cause harm to superior clansmen, they gladly play along. Another fertile ground amenable to the growth of imbalikha is the institution of polygamy where jealousy between different wives and siblings is often discernible. These sentient individuals may be approached by a mystical agent to collect certain objects associated with their target. If such accomplices are given gifts or money directly by their target, they turn this over to the mystical agent to apply evil magic to kill the victim or make him lose his job. Sons in polygamous families are often forewarned never to give money or objects directly to their stepmothers for fear that an iniquitous stepmother will tie (okhuboha) the money or apply magic to rendered gifts to ensorcel the benefactor.

Excerpted from Luyia of Kenya by Shadrack Amakoye Bulimo. Copyright © 2013 Shadrack Amakoye Bulimo. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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Table of Contents


List of Tables....................     xiii     

Foreword....................     xv     

Preface....................     xxi     

Acknowledgment....................     xxvii     

Abbreviations....................     xxix     

Prologue....................     xxxi     

Chapter 1: Mysticism and the Occult....................     1     

Chapter 2: Antiwitchcraft Measures....................     86     

Chapter 3: Birth....................     201     

Chapter 4: Circumcision....................     265     

Chapter 5: Marriage....................     366     

Chapter 6: Death....................     453     

Chapter 7: Arts and Crafts....................     568     

Chapter 8: Traditional Leisure Activities....................     612     

References....................     639     

Index....................     645     

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