HOW LUO CULTURE MANAGED CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENT
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
I have a sweet tooth. One of the memories of my mother, Awino NyaBoro Bade Dongo is her observing me putting three spoonful of sugar in my tea cup then pouring cooked tea and commenting, “ka koro sukar ose pong’o okombe to chae to ang’ nodonj kure”. (If sugar has already filled the cup where is tea going to fit in). But I loved her like I loved my sugar and the love of both of them never stopped until three weeks ago when a Bajan (a person from Barbados islands) my neighbour listened to my helplessness at giving up sugar. He then asked, “How does the sugar get into your body”
I answered that it is when I take tea. He then said, “Give up the tea and let us see how sugar will creep into your body!”
Then looking me in the face and he told me, “Don’t you know that sugar was conceived with evil. That is why we Africans ended up in 600 years of pan American bondage doing sugar cane plantation work. It can never leave you easily because it is sinful”
And to date, neither tea nor sugar has passed through my lips. I have completely failed to miss tea or any such beverages three weeks and counting. Even the act of pouring tea in a cup seems a task nowadays.
True sugar, slavery, and environmental destruction are foreign to Africa. Dr David Livingstone, the British explorer and geographer had been sent to Africa on three expeditions. His expeditions which were funded by geographical societies turned evangelical while in Africa. However as discovered from his lost journals, later found and published in a recent book, Dr Livingstone’s fiercest attack in letters written back to Britain was against African Slave Trade that was rife in his exploration route. And excerpts of the journal proves that they were truly authentic. How dovetailed his now african faith with honesty. His revealing entry on the journals on his birthday when he first slept with a true African, a venus in black, is heart wrenching. And he did not even hide the fact that he had children and married in several kingdoms he went to. Apart from the usual pious stand and humanitarian reasons, Dr Livingstone's concern was that that reckless migration of people meant that a community moved into new habitat when least prepared to handle that habit or just neglect the poor habitat. And he predicted famines and droughts arising from poor environmental management of the new areas. He preferred eventuality rather than catastrophic exodus.
In Dr David Livingstone’s observation is one clear fact, that Africans had some in built curriculum on environment management. And he did not want the disturbance of this co-existence. And true if we look at Luo customs, rituals and taboos, it is clear to see which ones were natural environment management and which ones were deliberate Luo made environment management. Luo Folklore just like any folklore records a passage of time. And in Luo folklore we can discern various environmental management customs. Here are 10 such habitat management customs.
Big Trees were generally revered in Luo culture. Whether medicinal or not, trees like bondo, ng’owo, ochwa were not easily felled. And even the dead branches were untouchable. Where large trunks of wood were to be used to make equipments like boats, they were considered to have a human like status. In other words, a boat made of wood from such sacred trees will attract reverence, reference and certain rituals as if she was a woman.
Before the Kenyan land tenure system took place and communal land was still in existence, there were forests that could not be cut down. The community were not allowed to fetch firewood from such forests. Only spiritual leaders and rainmakers entered such forests. Even hunters were not allowed to seek an animal into such forests. And the animal that lived in those forests to keep the ecosystem balance were also untouchable.
This is a topic I find favour with because it was one of these activities with a lot of fun. As young pre-adolescents following older girls, I loved the singing and storytelling when collecting firewood by the adolescents. At post adolescents stage I enjoyed the mischief of rendezvous point. But fire wood fetching was not just that. The skill is all concealed in the saying jamoto opogore gi jachweko. Literally the firewood gatherer is different from a fire stoker. Firewood fetching was a skill. Apart from which woods not to bring home and which forests not to go to, the firewood gatherers never touched wood that is not dead and dry. This means that the act of firewood fetching merely kept the forest clean. No trees were cut down for the purposes of firewood and that means that if anyone part of the bush was exhausted they progressively migrate on wards until they will cyclically come back.
Not only wood was used for cooking as some cooking required slow cooking. As most of game meat foods were dried (aliya, mumi,) the slow cooking was needed. And in slow cooking other fuels apart from wood was used. Leading in the slow cooking fuels was owoyo (dry cow dung), osiki (dead tree trunks) covered with cow dung. The cooking took longer but in return less dead trees was consumed. And this practice led to more environment conservation.
Luo community of yester years had a diet of self-raised grain cereals, hunting and fishing.
Hunting and Fishing.
As a rule, it is a taboo to eat the flesh of any animal that eats flesh. And even herbivorous flesh is first dried and tested for anthrax and other poisonous impurities by dropping a piece of meat from the hunt on to the ground or on the roof to see if it catches grass. If there was no adhesion to dry grass or dust, then it meant the game has been infected by unnatural compounds hence the meat is poisonous. Still the safety requirement was that such game meat be sun-dried first in to aliya, then slow cooked. The same routine was required of fish, to be sun-dried first then slow cooked (fuel conservation).
Seasonal grain cooking during harvest time including nyoyo was also slow cooked by osiki and owoyo.
The traditional cooking implements of agulu, ohigla, oswaro conserved a lot of heat as less heat is lost to the environment. Even when not steamed the pots generated a constant supply of heat to the foodstuff being cooked. The shapes of the implements dictated how much fuel conservation was needed and hence environment management as no repeat food warming is required.
Apart from the normal fast foods that are recent arrivals most of Luo foods were open to preservation. Consider for a moment how long maize meal could survive and how long millet meal cooked with sour ingredients like ochwa could survive without any energy sapping refrigeration. Kuon chak, kuon anang'a and kuon mawach would last for weeks if made from traditional luo cereals like bel and kal. The same applies to infants’ porridge that once made needed no further environmental destruction to keep warm and healthy.
As observed elsewhere, our habitats accustomed us to intermittent fasting. Lunch was served at past midday and supper during daylight, before sunset. This implied a very short window period of burning fuel or wasted fuel energy to cook or light the day idly while people lazy about to dine in the dark at about 8.00pm. And families all ate at the same time with no late comers to re-warm the food for. Again this meant environmental saving as no wastages were met during food re-warming for late comers or to eat in the light after sunset.
Seasonal diets are more a natural or habitat dictate. But they all add to environmental conservation. The freshwater fish overfishing was a taboo only cleansed by rituals before one sets out to go fish, otherwise one risked the tragedy of a boat capsizing or something like aquatic wild animal encounter. Even if the tragedy was a fallacy, the risk of drowning alone while furtively fishing when the village had put a halt on fishing season is scientific as there are no comrades to come to a capsized boat.
The selective hunting of buffaloes or hippos was an environmental conservation and nothing more in my opinion. One could not just wake up to hunt go for fun without being cleared and cleansed to do so. The taboo not to kill a game animal that strayed into compound or nocturnal game animal sighted during day light were not just wild taboos but a control nature to protect an animal just about to birth or an animal whose habitat has been invaded by a predator.
Ligala is a new home. And naturally a person whose daughters are past puberty must set up ligala away from the parents’ home to avoid the dowry being received at the parents’ home. Of course nobody will die if the brides daughter dowry is received in the grandpas compound. But if you think of it. This migration was just to avoid zero grazing in one locality. Why do I say so? In ancient times it required crossing a river or water boundary. This ensured that one family does not over stretch the water sources, the fishing sources among other inelastic natural resources. There could be other reasons like military preparedness but the best military preparedness is food abandance and storage. That is why in Luo exodus they stuck close to the waters. Indeed, between the sons of Kuku Lubanga the river nilotes are the most populous and are spread in 7 countries.
Then there is the rain maker. The person who made it rain. For whatever reason you want to believe this person had the powers to stop people from cutting wood from a certain forest, from stopping farming water ponds and water sources, from disturbing the earth on certain periods. But why these controls if it was not environmental management
This is inexhaustible like Dr David Livingstone predicted but the damage caused by maize crop in Africa will be told for years to come. Most of these foods like maize require more acreage to farm than the finger millet or yams. At least by the physics of surface area the millet saves spaces. And most of these are only good for commercial farming like Sugar cane over ochwa. With large scale farming comes threats to the environments and vagaries to the weather. In any case the challenges of the economic cobweb theory is not helpful with these large scale farming.
Luo recreations used to be in the glare of the sunlight. Whether this led to their elaborate swag and dressing is beside the point. The point is that anything done in the dark was not very welcome.
No group of people in Kenya has so many dances. And beginning from malongo the dance for the twins to bul all the dances had physiological benefits. Take for example the erotic orutu and ohangla dances of the post puberty youth. It developed the youth’s pelvis and was only for a certain age group. Consider for a moment what the healthy lifestyle you gained in daylight recreation instead of sneaky recreation in dimly lit psychedelic corners recklessly warming the earth. In any case what is there to hide, the youth of today are more explicit and provocative than the yester years youth. At least that is what tik tok tells me.
YESTER YEARS' NOW
These habits die hard and Luos have developed ways to continue with some of these customs without realising that they are conserving the environment. We cannot go back to osiki cooking and owoyo fuel but we can pick on some of the adaptations that are still available to us.
1. The age old meal time for a start can help conserve the environment. Switching off deviants like mobile phones and tv and observing meal time saves a lot of in global energy.
2. Intermittent fasting is the in thing. It is cheaper then selective eating or going to the gym. Apart from the electrical energy it burns, think of the savings by reduced heating if we all had just a 4-hour window for feeding.
3. Scaling down of new foods. Luos in diaspora are busy scaling down on maize intake. Whether this is the influence of the populous Nigerians is irrelevant (1 in 7 Africans in the world is Nigerian). What is important is the scaling down on foreign foods like English tea (sugar intake) is not only good for our health but will introduce less energy sapping foods. Nobody said that we can export only Riftvalley produced beer, sweet potatoes to Britain but not boo, osuga, muto, apoth, nera muto to moneyed Kenya Diaspora with disposable income. A Ugandan Luo in South London is raking in money importing traditional Luo food stuff to his shop in Croydon South East London. The food stuffs have faster stock movement than political trendy curios.
4. Daylight pastime. Nothing says that recreations still need to be in the dark with these bright lights. Most of the Luo dances were during the day any way.
5. Zumba and Rumba are African. People pay for these exercises not realising that they are African dances. So why not energetic Ohangla and Orutu as gym exercise. Remember we invented Benga that is now drawing European performing arts research students to Central and Eastern provinces of Kenya as if that is the breeding ground of international benga. We can still dance to these beautiful Luo dances in daylight as a keep fit exercise and avoid global warming.
I am a believer in appropriate technology and all I am saying is that we were in control of our habitat and despite new way of life, we can still salvage some of the appropriate techniques before the INGOS burn more air miles to come and tell us what to do about our habitat as if we did not know. Not everything that flows out of Namlolwe is just water.