FACES OF LUO LIBERALISM
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Celebrity tv man Trevor Ombija’s choice of vernacular tv station shocked many Luos, liberalised and conservative who felt they knew the man. The traditionalists were just stunned that how can a perceived liberal Luo embrace a language that is not trendy and dissimilar to Swahili and English.
For the liberal Luo I am not sure why they were irritated because it was more than just shocked. Maybe it is the realisation that they may be they are parading naked without aa grounded base when they relegate African languages beneath contempt. And some of the Luo liberals did not take Trevor Ombija decision lying down, going as far as claiming that it was a career setback.
And that is the interesting thing about most Luo liberals that they can swear to how much they loathe Luo customs and yet they are living Luo customs. They vilify Luo customs and at the same time are living every bit of it. In fact, from another prism it can be asserted that there is nothing like a Luo liberal. All Luos are conservative or traditionalist to some degree.
In my own sampling there are several faces of Luo liberalism. They are many and they all co-exist in the Luo community. It is only the realisation that another strand of liberal exists that shocks the other. Take for example what I will baptise the Trevor Ombija Luo liberal.
Trevor Ombija Luo liberalism.
Who is Trevor Ombija? Trevor is a 30year Plus Tv anchor in Kenya from Nyanza's Luo community- I believe the plateau people. Why have I picked on him? Because right now after switching jobs from what was seen as a middle of the road Kenyan urban audience to a Luo speaking audience, he has broken barriers and the profile of what is considered as fashionable and trendy or fashionable versus Luo Lakeside will never be the same again. He has done what Muhammad Ali did to the black race mantra of I am black and proud and black is beautiful of the 1960s. As much as black people said it some still went back to straightening their curly hair and buying skin lightening creams (Why? When you are black, stay back; when you are brown, stick around). And this happened until Muhammad Ali practically chnged the word Africa to mean pride in being one self. And this is not surprising because the world over from biblical times the revolutionaries are always that age group of early 30s. Trevor Ombija has pricked the Luo conscience with that career change the way Muhammad Ali woke up black people by changing his faith and name. That is why I have named this group as Trevor Ombija liberals. Who are the Trevor Ombija liberals?
These are the liberals that included the likes of Tom Mboya. Journalist Philip Ochieng. A major characteristic of the Trevor Ombija liberals is that they live a lifestyle that suits their professionalism. They can live in the tundra, outer Mongolia, Timbuktu or in the Appalachian comfortably but they are never ready to shed of Luo culture unless it gets into the way of the profession. They will even try to bend the professional rules as much as possible to contain the Luo in them. They will live in Zurich and unashamedly hold a Luo Ramogi night.
The Trevor Ombija lot are somewhat akin to what you find in the Nigerian liberals. They are ready to attend catholic mass and practice Catholicism as long as the Nigerian traditional wedding and burials precedes the catholic Christian wedding and burial. They don’t want to change their accent just because they have 6 Phd degrees. Their best dish is still Egusu soup and cow foot. If you visit these Nigerians in any part of London and ask for tea, you will be a laughing stock because they don’t have tea served in their houses. And with persistence they have forced the world to dance to their music and have forced Netflix to create a section for their films.
The Trevor Ombija liberalism does not get in your way but keeps to his lane strictly. That is why when Trevor Ombija took the new job at Ramogi TV everybody wanted to listen to hear if he can really speak Luo. And everybody became an expert to correct Ramogi presenters including those who know Nairobi Kaloleni Dholuo. And it was not in bad taste. It is just everybody wanted to own Trevor Ombija, a piece of this revolutionary. I was there when Trevor Ombija came home to roost. Like late Bishop Okullu said in the famous SM Otieno funeral saga, even the fiercest bull is tethered at the owners kraal. Trevor Ombija is still ours and we want to tether him ourselves in our home. Earlier I also noticed this that when I did the series of Who is Who in Luo clans, many people were shocked that the Luo liberals who came to correct my clan placement were actually liberal Luos who knew so much of their own family trees but were assumed to be afraid afraid to come in the open and own up to being Luos or just did not see the need to come out in the open and own their people but were comfortable being Kenyans. And they came from all over the world to correct their family trees and clan lines. Some as outback Australia(Kabuoch), the pampas of Argentina (Kajulu). Some were even sending corrections from frigate deep in the Pacific Ocean. And the breed of the Trevor Ombija liberals are just saying that there is nothing wrong with multiculturalism in Kenya or Kenyan diversity. It does not stop you from being a good professional Kenyan and citizen.
The Champaign Luo liberals
Then there is the Champaign Luo liberals who loathe everything Luo and embraces everything foreign. If you introduce the same Luo culture and tell them, it is foreign then they will quickly embrace it. Why?
Because somewhere in their psyche they have an overdose that being a Luo is restrictive and constrictive and the language is far removed from being progressive. Yet the same Champaign liberal married to a Nigerian will undergo a Nigerian traditional wedding, eat similar Nigerian traditional foods and dance to Nigerian dances that are so similar to Luo dances in speed and intensity. And one married to a Japanese will do the same while never missing an opportunity to bash Luo ways of doing things.
The same Champaign liberal will even shun Luo music and struggle to learn Lingala of the Congo empire and lay false claims to superiority of Lingala over Dholuo when Lingala has a vocabulary of some 200 words only tops. The Champaign liberal is even unaware that the Nile Valley people were the first to arrive in the Congo Basin in 4 AD and the Bantu people arrived from the west a whole 700 years later and that is why some words like Mba in Rumba and Zumba are still traced to Nile Valley Mbi. And some of the Congo Empire rituals must definitely originated from the Nile Valley.
But that is the tragedy of the whimsical and nonsensical Champaign Luo liberal. They have a readiness to vilify and malign anything Luo to convince themselves that they are now progressive.
In the heat of President Obama’s charge to the presidency, I locked horns with an English liberal who asked me, “You are tribalist and a racist. You claim to be democrat and a liberal. You know you are not”
I protested and claimed I was a true liberal and a believer in democracy. Then he asked what would I do if my son came home and said he was gay. Would I congratulate him on the spot? Then he pointed to other features of a Diasporan. I sadly realised that I far from being a liberal per se and maybe I am a Champaign liberal. It is the same with Luo liberals.
Most of the Luo Champaign liberals who vilify Luo customs wholesale have no idea that they are comfortable to live Luo customs and rituals every day and every minute. And I don’t blame them because like me they are typical of armchair practitioners.
About a month ago a lady came to my blog and scathingly attacked Luo customs. Being the person who likes decorum I went to her inbox and shared with her the national flag, the coat of arms and asked her if she knew how much of symbols of Luo rituals are in those two national emblems. And she denied that it is not possible and our interaction ended in a sour note that there is nothing Luo about the national emblem, the elevation of chicken and poultry as a staple diet. She even denied the vowelized intonation of Lakeside people and the music that is now a national pride.
And that really is the predicament of the Champaign liberalised Luo. Last week when a Lakeside legislator appeared to smuggle Luo customs on inheritance to lock out what is not marriage in Luo customs, only one Kisii reader noticed and commented that, “this law was unnecessary if we had stuck to customs”. And that is the blind faith of Champaign liberalised Luo who will gladly accept food from a British funeral wake after burial but with the food stuffed in the mouth condemn a Luo burial customs of feasting at burial.
The Unapologetic Liberal.
I chose this term to describe the practising conservative Luo who practises Luo traditions as far as the present circumstances allows. They are not a dying breed and I will cite a few examples to illustrate.
On the outskirts Ugunja city in Ugenya there was a very interesting case. The Luo norm is that to set a new home the whole process of chicken, cock and conjugal rights must take place. Now this woman with well tutored daughters in 3 western continents in the diaspora wanted to set a new home even though she was a practising church member in a community that considered such rituals archaic. In fact, if the daughters got wind of what the mom was about to do they would shudder and maybe abandon the home uplift.
On the eve of the ground breaking by a singing church choir and head of the church with prayers etc., this widow visited the site of the new home with a lesso in ungodly hours. Had it not been for a local house breaker who saw her being joined by a distant in law for a 3-minute engagement nobody would have known that this unapologetic widow consumed her tradition the nightfall before the church ground breaking. I must confess the home built of the English Elizabethan style complete with a swimming pool, basket court and tennis court for the visiting mixed race grandchildren is majestic as if it in Surrey, South East England.
In the South east of London, we have another case of unapologetic practitioner. In Kenya they don’t hail from far from Ugunja. The husband of the estranged in highly successful family of achievers in disciplines in Financial engineering/wealth management, aero insurance experts and naval engineer all in mixed race marriages buried their father husband in a public cemetery. Five years later the siblings buried their mother in the same grave. Not that they did not have means to buy another grave site. This is a wealthy family and their action was inexplicable until it was revealed that the widow being from Umira Kager had put it in her will that she wanted to be buried in the same grave as the husband and in that way she has been inherited with the husband according to Luo tradition. And the children dutifully obliged to her adoption of Luo rituals in England.
Then there was the case of the most powerful and westernised son of the Lake in Mzee Kenyatta's government. Struggling with several miscarriages with star songstress from South Africa he decided to take matters to Luo customs and visited a medicine woman who cured turbulent miscarriages by way of known Luo rituals. I never believed the story until I was told first hand by the expert woman specialist from the lakeside, that she was indeed the last resort to this westernised all powerful cabinet minister.
So what is it the unapologetic liberal is trying to say. I think the unapologetic liberal is just telling the rigid conservative and progressive Luo that they will keep on practising what they can and don’t crucify them when it is not practical to practise the customs.
So what does the future hold. The future points to a two-way fight between Trevor Ombija Luo liberalism and the Unapologetic liberalism. Champaign liberalism will come a distant 5th in a 3-horse race and rightly so.