top of page
  • Writer's pictureStephen Osieyo


Updated: Aug 22, 2021


How do Luo people spell depression? And don’t say D… I… P… R… E… S… O… N.

First and foremost, what is depression in dholuo. We had a long deliberation in a popular face book wall to find out what is depression in dholuo. In fact, the best and universal definition that we settled on is vindicated by a popular song of Les Wanyika band (Simba Wanyika band trilogy) of yester years. Lately I have been thinking a lot about Simba Wanyika but that is just a coincidence. Maybe I should buy the book by the surviving member of the band, pretty face guitarist Abbu Omar.

The song had the following opening verse which late vocalist Issa Juma sung in that powerful tonal voice of his as follows:

Mambo ni pole; pole pole

Ukiona nime inama; nina mawazo,

Nafikiria kinacho nisumbua; roho yangu

Mambo ni pole pole wazee; pole pole

Mambo ni pole pole vijana: pole pole.

The above verse roughly translates in dholuo to

Weche ikawo mayot

Ka ineno ka a-kumo; to paro ema chanda,

Atemo mana kweyo gima chando chunya.

Weche ikawo mayot joma pon

Weche ikawo mayot jok ma dongo.

And in the above song by Issa Juma is the evidence from another African language that depression is kumo in dholuo.

So once again how did Luo people spell kumo? And once again it is not K… U… M… O. Rather how did Luo people ensure that depression did not set in their community or clan or family. How was snuffed in the bud?


I don’t pretend to be a medic or scientist but I know that the effects of depression are myriad. And to Luo people the aftermath is mysterious. And if there is one thing Luo people like many African people dreaded, then it was that which they do not know how to cure. Africans in general have a situation experiencing mind just like Zambian President Kaunda used to preach. Once a Luo knows the path to a river to fetch water they would never try a new path. They relied on the tested path. I used to take a circuitous path passing through the City centre on my way to my working place in the East of the city. By way of compass to go to East from South, you don’t have to go to the centre. I should have just taken the inexpensive and quicker South to East route thereby saving 30 minutes and 60% of the fare. But my African mind of 40 years was at work for 6 years until the day bomb disaster cut out the city centre and out of self preservation I tried the shorter route. And generally that is the thought process of my generation of Luo people. It is not a question of the comfort zone or fear of the unknown. And this thought process served them well in the tropical environment that had millions organisms competing for life even in the air they breathe. They left the unknown like deep forests, new diets, unexplored waters alone. But the world did not leave them alone.

Global impetus

African slave movement, colonialization, World Wars and new public governance changed all that and we found ourselves with new health order. However before that we had our own challenges with health issues like depression for example. The above historical happenings just increased it tenfold just like the current pandemic.

The after math of COVID 19 pandemic has not been fully examined. However, the increase in mental health challenges already being felt in the western world can partly be laid at the door step of COVID 19. And so is the increased incidences of depression and depression related illness that have further skewed the death rate lately.

Did the Luo people recognise depression as a serious mental health problem? One simple example is to look at how the Luo people treated death by suicide. The mourning was by whipping or caning the corpse and that made Luo custom the only law that punished suicide as opposed to modern laws that only punish attempted suicide. In other words if you succeed then well and good according to modern law but not according to rigid Luo customs. For the primitive Luo customs, there was no such reprieve. There was even a ban on naming any child after a such a person. And the clan and family did not get a pass either. That clan became a pariah as any prospective suitor would shun marrying from the clan as they had sinohonoho (generational trauma). So for 3 generations or more the clan would be ruthlessly punished for not having prevented that incident. So even though the suicide may have arisen from a family flare up for example, anything that may drive a family member like depression was very much abhorred and sometimes made a taboo. For example, using firewood from the type of tree that was used in committing suicide became a clan taboo. If the quarrel arose from a certain festivity, then that festivity is skipped in the clan. The Luo punishment and prescriptive taboo was brutal.

Prescriptive Taboos

Any Luo of my generation will tell you of taboos that did not make sense at all to our small brain constantly receiving daily overdose of warped western culture. In fact, with our little knowledge we thought our people were very stupid. What we did not know is that some of the prescriptive taboos were directed at the early warning signs of a possible disaster.

One such taboo directed at the early warning signs of depression was poor feeding habits. A wife for example would detect the mood of the husband by just eating habits. Hence the taboo that no matter how full a man is a man must eat at home. Naturally it can lead to obesity if the binge drinking and late nights are persistent. To date it is still strictly monitored by Luo wives including smelling your fingers when you have fallen asleep if you really had supper elsewhere (this may lead to mobile phone search). The other salacious meaning is obvious, but this was the real meaning that Luo people attached to feeding taboo. It was depression early warning sign that something deep is the matter if somebody did not feed well at home.

Closely related to this is a taboo we all came to witness as little kids and we really derided of how stupid our people were, kumo.


Kumo was indeed an early sign of depression in adults. So at a very young age the prescriptive taboo was “ka ikumo to ibiro nego mama ni”. In other words, your mother will die if you show signs of depression. Of course there was no such a sign that you can kill your mother, but it set you nicely to be the killer of the person you love most of all. And what is more is that your siblings became your chiders because you want to kill the person who they all love. The result is that not only do you stop kumo but deny tendencies that may hide depression as poor eating habits. And by extension being sullen, sulking will easily stand out since the taboo has eradicated any such habits. The early warning signs there stood out for the community to concertedly address it be they grandmother, aunties, cousins, the spouse of the person you are named after. The same monitoring system for early warning signs applied to adults.

Then there was the taboo against singing at night. Very similar to the one barring children from Kumo. It was said that a woman who likes humming loudly at night while cooking will “kill” the husband and there fore okech (she is bitter). This was a de facto kumo. Of course like Kumo there was no such a death. But like in the song of Simba Wanyika, if you hear her humming at night, it is not really humming but she is trying to calm the turbulence in her soul. It is that turbulence which is deep in her heart that the clan was after. It is what men sought to calm. So everybody in the clan put all stops to avoid the depression from creating a disaster which can become a sinohonoho.

Take away

What do we take from the Luo early warning system? One is that there were prescriptive taboos that made not only early warning detection easy but the deterrents to depression were in place. The second one is that the responsibility and punitive measures covered even a whole sub clan and not only the individual. Thirdly is that for the most tragic violation the punishment to the individual and clan could last 3 generations or forever to the individual. In other words, depression was never an individual’s business. This is how Luo people spelled Depression.


Now that the early warning systems are not there and the deterrents to stop depression setting in are dead, what has modern urban living replaced the old systems with. I am not sure. I am also not sure whether the high incidence of depression can be attributed to uprooting of the culturally inbuilt prescriptive taboos that spelled depression. Neither am I trying to judge which one is superior.

However, I stated that Luo people had systems not only to detect early warning but also to roll back depression. How much of this is transferable skills is left to us to hand pick. I worked for Geezers Community in east of the City about 12 years ago. And Geezers Community had various departments to keep the lonely occupied. On recollection I was today approached to try and twin such organisations with a sub county in Ugenya. I think it is possible to set up units at sub county level in Kenya as Geezers Community wanted to make this a world-wide set up to drive back mental health problems like depression.





Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page