top of page
  • Writer's pictureStephen Osieyo


Updated: Nov 2, 2020


A young man once worked the formula for calculating the cost of a Luo burial. I have tried to reach him but I promise to append the formula here. First why do Luos attach so much importance to burials. Is this a custom predating the pyramids along the River Nile? I am made to understand that Southern Sudan has more pyramids than down the River Nile and that would probably explain because up to the East African exodus, Luos still buried in the house of the departed.


I am not an anthropologist but I remember when I narrated the story of a young girl who died in the musician boyfriends house in Nairobi Jericho in 1972 and the boyfriend claimed her body as a wife some of my non-Luo readers derided such customs. It is from that instance that I decided to blog and write only for Luos because there is every chance that I will encounter drift into customs that are so foreign to Kikuyus or Kambas that they will find the Luo custom unpalatable. For example, how do I explain to a non-Luo the following:

1. That if your girlfriend meets her death on the way to visit you or from visiting you then Luo customs construe that she died seeking you then it is proper that you take her body and bury as your wife.

2. That if a man dies and a girlfriend comes to the funeral and weeps touching or falling on the mound of the grave then Luo customs construe it that she has declared not to part from departed late boyfriend therefore must be settled as a Luo wife.

It is not easy to explain such beliefs to a non-Luo. In saying that even modern urban Luos turn their nose to such customs. It is only diaspora Luos that look at such Luos customs with respect. I think it is mostly because they see things that were being derided in Kenya and yet being practised by other groups. If White Anglo Saxon feast at funerals like Luos, why would they now malign the Luo feasting.

Customs like feeding at funerals in Luo are more prescriptive than just mere rituals. In life, Luos have invented prescriptive customs because we find it hard to accept that the existence of the universe is totally indifferent to our existence or suffering.

When events happen we assign meaning to them based on some subjective experience. We try to rationalise them as part of a plan belonging to God or cosmic energy or force.

If it is football, for example, we implore imagined concepts such as ‘luck’, fate’, ‘karma’ or ‘Alego tat yien’ to explain why a random wind, deviation, or cruel deflection decided to punish us so. About 10 years ago a Luo Benga maestro had a freak tragic accident near his late rival’s place of business, Luos refused to see it as one vehicle that had lost control and just rammed into another stationery vehicle near Kisumu one time unmissable revellers joint. Luos went back to their rivalry found daring words and added two plus two together. We find it hard to deal with a lack of meaning to such things. Consequentially we prescribe customs to deal with that grief. And there are many such prescriptive customs or taboos to deal with say a capsized boat or a death from a rough hippopotamus. I will cite such two prescriptive customs in my larger kinship to illustrate such a point.


My uncle Zachariah Omuga son of Othieno son of Omuga son of Osieyo was a military man and the military discipline gave him a good body and a long life. Longevity has its place in the society. For one he was a poor feeder probably arising from the military. Because we saw him the longest we had contact with him to explain issues to us. This is a person who served in the Second World War, then worked with the Public Woks department and out of pride quit working at 49! It is possible even now because at standard 5 he gave me a Readers Digest magazine that that had a true life story of how to retire at 40 by moving into Real Estate after standard 7. It is possible people.

Mzee serving in the military was not something new for my Luo clan. Luos have always been martial for centuries. And being from combative Kager Clan it comes with the territory. Or let me say that our Ger clan name gives us a reputation that precedes even the most docile of our daughters.

His service in the military gave me was one inspirational reply that I armed myself with against xenophobia that ‘I am in the UK to collect my uncles War dues. And until I collect every penny I am not going back’. I know for a fact the Germans did compensate the British and the Americans. The money never reached my uncle. So that was a good reply. Mzee Z was very methodical if you went to him with a question. On serious issues he would take a sombre tone, with well measured short sentences. Whenever he shifted to that tone then you better be all eyes and ears or you will miss so much.

I particularly liked him because he was one person who was so excited and proud of me when I blitzed past CPE examinations. Me and cuz Ouma still remember his military slang then, “hell, Ombanyo okalo penj manadi no!”. He had toned down in a flash to land that comment in a soft measured tone while stroking his bare chin. I can clearly see him.

I felt good then. I still do even if it was January 1973. I don’t remember any dramatic congratulations in my life. These days I get rebukes from people who don’t even know me. I even get rebukes from people who have not been congratulated in their own marriages. However, I want to write about how useful Z was in my life in explaining some things in oral literature.

In my bigger family it was a taboo to eat goat meat and every time we ate goat meat we would react badly get rashes, boils in whatever part of the body and all sorts of temporary ailments. We grew up knowing that we are not supposed to eat goat meat, unless one was from a been rogue from inherited widow. Otherwise goat meat was a no no for us. Until the time I was 35 years old I would never touch goat meet while my mother had a field day whenever she went to kaneya (her maiden home) in Boro Nango. And neither would my children. Even passing a goat meat smoke would set rushes and boils on the eyelids.

One day I asked uncle Zacharia Omuga why we don’t eat goat meet. It was one of those chats like the way you chat at Magenga bonfire (after burial). Most of folklore are passed at Luo Magenga. It is chat free zone for Luo oral literature. He explained to me of a bizarre incident that happened to one of my great ancestors who died after eating goat meat. I cannot remember his name but I think he was a Radido III and he died before getting married. This uncle of his died after eating the goat meat. Whether he chocked or died after stomach ache I don’t know and did not ask. We are drilled not to talk too much about tragedy. I think it is a way to deal with the trauma. His words were soft and brief but thunderous at the same time. “An Ok acham diel nikuom nene Onego Radido III won wa”.

I got the rest of the details that they were out either raiding or hunting. And also that he was unmarried. I think he was the 2nd Radido to die msinde and without simba which to a Luo is an abomination.

My Uncle Zacharia told me that tragedy is the reason why we don’t eat goat meat. Then he added “to agonyi, inyalo chamo diel ni wach tiji” (but I free you to eat goat meet if your NGO field trip work puts you in a situation where you would starve).

From that moment I armed myself with Panadol etc when going on field trip. Then I ate the next Okuyu roasted goat leg very carefully avoiding to chew hard lest my tooth broke. I swallowed small pieces listening to every peristalsis in my body. To make a long story short the Panadol were not necessary. Three years ago I graduated to eating goat tripe. I think I just need to eat goat cheese to complete the picture.

Another prescriptive taboo in my family is sending of children for errands. This one has stuck with me and I don’t think I will rid myself of it. In my family it was frowned upon to send children all the time. And a mother who likes sending children for errands at home was given a watchful eye. One of my uncles Otiende Aginga or Mzee Zacharia used to tell me, “ibiro bet ma ming’ ka iori seche duto” (you will be become stupid for being sent for errands you must learn to refuse these useless errands). But it was later revealed to me how that taboo has followed me.

The drill of taboo associated with errand boy is still subconsciously with me. At the onset of spring I was speaking to a friend in Canada. She interrupted the call to send the pre-teen child to the shops in the morning and I found it odd because as for me I would rather go to the shops myself than have children sent to the shops. So this friends talks me down and says the shop is across the road. That I still found it odd is because what I grew up with is that a mother who likes sending her children was frowned upon in our bigger home. Of course no woman ever attempted to do so anytime at dusk even in urban cities. Even my children, I would rather go than face things that I have no control over. I usually get up to go to the shop and people around me cannot understand this oddity.

At one of the magenga Oral literature sessions the source of this taboo was explained to us. And Mzee Z also repeated it much later. Long time ago when my father, Osieyo was about ten years old he was assigned to go and babysit for her auntie’s, Aluoch’s grandchild in the royal family of Ugenya paramount chief Muganda Okwako. Aluoch is the mother of paramount chief Muganda. In other words, Aluoch Omuga was the queen mother. This was normal even around my time. I babysat 3 of my elder sister children. Then last minute it was decided that the 12-year Uncle who my father followed should take up the assignment instead as my father was a bit too light for the role even if he had a girth. Then a few months after taking up the assignment tragedy struck.

In the homestead of the family of paramount Chief Muganda ka Okwako, the twelve-year-old older brother to my father met his death while delivering an errand at dusk. Ugenya by then was a very bushy part of lake basin and there were leopards everywhere that even herding cattle at mid-day one encountered leopards more than one encountered snakes. A playful leopard jumped out of the fencing bushes and grabbed the 12 year older elder of my father Osieyo by the neck. The screams alerted the other kids to scream and scare the predator away but it was too late. He was found lifeless with the neck broken. My family prescribed two things:

1. No sending of a child out of the homestead or within the homestead too early or too late in the afternoon.

2. No child to call the mother mama or mother. A child was tutored to call the mother with her name etc, Achieng’ NyaWir, Adikiny, Awino, Oduma, Adera, Mtanda, etc. I believe this was to remove the mother’s authority over the children so that children could defy the errand boy mentality without any emotional bullying.

I am just telling you about my family and the Luo way of dealing with grief through prescriptive taboo. I hear the cries of my sister in laws from Nairobi to Florida; From Austria to Lagos, From Manchester to Auckland how rude the children are. But there is no Magenga to tell them these folklores that what they see as rudeness from my nieces and nephews is just inherited grief management because these nieces and nephews are at the same time model children. I know uncle Z never told these nieces and nephews to defy their mothers when it comes to being sent on errands.


Then there is the Luo saying ‘kar chuny jatuo’ meaning as the ailing desires or else the ailing will haunt you. As Luos find it difficult to assign no meaning to the sickly person’s desires, we try to satisfy them as much as possible. This is the most expensive of the Luo beliefs much more than the Luo burials.

My first HIV confrontation was I believe 1989. This cuz of mine created havoc blaming the most harmless of my aunties for bewitching. I refused, saying this auntie cannot even poison a fly with an insecticide because the fly will call off her bluff. How can she bewitch a human being? I heard not seen HIV symptoms by then. As HIV became more normal the wishes of the terminally ill became more grandiose. And Luos complied to the letter even if they knew that this is terminal illness. Even plots were sold and families became destitute to appease the terminally ill. My point is that these things are not only in Luo burials. They pop out everywhere.


The prescriptive ritual associated with Luo rituals are even deeper than the above. Luos are generally reflective people. The problem with reflective people is that they find themselves removed from the realities of life. Terms like Not yet Uhuru, Kar chuny jatuo, Kibaki Tosha just remove us from the realities of life. And Luos in reflective prescription of taboos see funeral lavish spending as a way to deal with grief.

A story is told of a poet Antonio Machado. This school teacher had a beautiful young wife whom he loved dearly. But tragedy always wait for such relationships. The wife died. The poet would have given everything for just a moment with the young pretty wife. It is the same with Luo grief and lavish spending which has almost become a taboo not to do.

There is no rule of exchange here. As much as the lavish funeral spending is prescriptive to mitigate grief, it is not easy to measure that grief in terms of lavish spending. And a student of financial engineering can propound the same message. The reckless funeral spending pays for grief. Yet grief has no economic value. You cannot take grief to a vehicle showroom and pay for say a car.

It is the same with what you have bought with the funeral expenditure. Its value buys you nothing. If you refuse to bury your relative and use that money to say pay for your mortgage deposit instead of mitigating the grief, then it means the grief is there and waits for you. Luo lavish burial ceremonies is the taboo of dealing with grief because grief transcends economic value.

The burial expenditure is just equivalent to Uncle Z explanation for denial of goat meat or desisting from sending children from errands yet no Leopard has ever lived in the Tundra of the Canadian subcontinent.

It therefore does not make sense to lambast the Luo grandiose burials as expensive. That grief transcends any value. Just leave it alone.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page