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  • Writer's pictureStephen Osieyo


Updated: Apr 12, 2021

Luo customs are restrictive but not constrictive.


On the outskirts of Ugunja in Ugenya, Nyanza province lived a fine traditionalist with a harem of pretty belles of nyager Oloros (girls from Ugenya Kager clan). This old school martial Kager-man had a witty tactic of fighting culture revisionists. Legend has it and that legend may be true that when you took any of his daughters in marriage, he only required that you part with only four of the customary heads of cattle as a sign of good faith. Nothing more. And if after two years you disagree with his daughters and come back for the bride price, he does not object or make any attempt to arbitrate to make the union subsist. Instead he had a cunning tactic to deal with such culture revisionist who took Luo marriage to be like all these other marriages that have divorce traditions (there is no word for divorce in dholuo). I will illustrate with a very simple dialogue between Ger-man (the wife's father ) and the estranged son in law.

And I have found that such conversations are best told in the original dialect of delivery to get the full graphic effect.

Ger-man: I wacho ni Idwaro muandu ni?

(you are demanding the bride price you gave for my daughters).

Estranged son in law: Bula dak osetamore to nyari ero oduogo odak kodi

(Yes, I would like to take possession of the bride price I gave because your daughter is no longer living with me)

Ger-Man: Mano ber

(that is fair of you)

Then turning to a young school boy or child near by

Ger- Man: Mhia moro obi ye gi kalam wadwaro goyo kuan.

(Can one of you schooling younglings come with a pen and paper to assist us with some arithmetic)

Estranged son in law: to kendo kuan manadi Musee.

(What arithmetic, father in law?)

Ger-Man: Nyara ise dak go higni 3. Kose?

(You have lived with my daughter for 3 years. Right?)

Estranged son in-law: Adier wase dak higni adek.

(That is correct)

Ger-Man: bula koro wago kuan othieno ka othieno kuom higni adek en pesa adi.

(let us tabulate the value of the services during the marriage subsistence with my daughter every night for three years)

Estranged son- in law: Kuan manadi Musee?

(that is not customary sir?)

Ger-Man: Wonyo in ok idhiye Buore majengo?

(Did you ever visit the brothels of Eastland Nairobi?)

Estranged son In-law: An ok adhi dawe:

(No, I NEVER did)

Ger-Man: Bula othieno ka othieno didek kuom higni adek en elfu a chiel gi wiye. Kor goye ndalo gi didek I othieno. Aye I go gi nengo majengo ma ndalo nene en silingi abich sani to ang’eyo ni dollar oidho. Aye inyisa ni pesa adi ma imeda nikuop dhok ariyo to tin.

(Now tabulate three times a night for three hundred and so days per year for three years at the going rate of Nairobi Eastland brothel. In our time it was Shs 5 but I think the living index now is 1000. From your two heads of cattle, tell me how much you owe me?)

And that was the end of the matter. You either took his daughters for good as per Luo customs or send them away at your own loss. For Ger-man had no use for damaged goods if you thought his daughters were goods picked from the shelf. And that is how Ger-Man dealt with culture revisionists.

But Ger-Man need not have bothered to protect Luo customs because Luo customs are restrictive but not constrictive.

What is Nyombo.

Nyombo in dholuo can refer to the whole process of a Luo wedding and was traditionally commenced at the first stage of the Luo 4stage wedding when gifts are exchanged to thank the mother in law (originally).

Nyombo as a verb also means the event or activity of delivering the gifts to the in laws. IT IS NOT PAYING A BRIDE PRICE. The word paying a bride price is just as unpalatable to a Luo mouth like wife inheritance to mean tero (the tradition of remarrying a widow to one of the in-laws as caretaker for lack of better words).

Nyombo the activity normally takes place before marriage but can also take place after marriage has been consumed. It can also take place even if one of the spouses or both are not alive.

Nyombo also is not physical. The mere acknowledgement of the intention is considered sufficient like when due to geographical hindrances the two are indisposed overseas due to studies, or one of the parties is in a tour of duty like military service or culturally when there is bereavement in the home of one party. In the case of bereavement all wedding activities must wait for the next planting season

The Luo Nyombo has no prescribed value because since Jesus Christ was born it was never a commercial transaction and will never be a commercial. In the beginning bride room was to gift the parents, brothers and this worked to 4 heads of cattle but read that as 4 wrappings of packages of gifts. There was nothing like a graduate bride price is 1 million, then scaled down to a non-school leaver. But most importantly it was nyadhi time. Nyombo is not time bound and has no limit according to Luo traditions. It suffices to underscore that Luo traditions are restrictive but not constrictive.

Threats to Nyombo.

The first threats to Nyombo came from half-baked armchair evangelicals that was dispatched with the missionaries in East Africa because most of the missionaries were slave trade abolitionists who saw nyombo as a sly window of opportunity by the African slavers to persist with slave trade and slavery. And between the Catholics and protestants there was a marked degree of resistance to nyombo. Islam had zero resistance to nyombo. If anything Islam encouraged nyombo.

The other threat to Nyombo came from economic transition to cash based economy. So the bride price moved to cash. The transactional nature of cash brought a commercial connotation to the traditional Nyombo. And this is why Luos insist that there must be a traditional form of cows no matter what. And it does not matter if the cow is only worth a few hundred Kenya shillings. The local breed of cow is even preferable to European imported breed when it comes to Luo Nyombo.

The major threat to nyombo came from the vocational studies that removed the bridegroom’s ability to create wealth until age of 30 years whereas the traditional lifestyle meant that at the age of 16 a man was already on the path of creating wealth and would be in a position to gift his wife’s parents at 25 years of age. This readiness to gift the parents of the bride even before the bridegroom takes over the bride promptly facilitated the tradition as opposed to urban come-we-stay that delayed nyombo.

The latter threat to nyombo came from armchair Champaign socialists who resisted nyombo to mask their “false” and mirage of cultural shortcomings but when it came to their daughters turn to get married they scampered for biological uncles of the bride to come oversee the delivery of nyombo. On the contrary real feminists like real socialists understood the role of nyombo and have no problem with it.


Ironically the strongest proponents of Luo Nyombo comes from the most unlikely source. The very church that dismantled nyombo is the one that started demanding for that tradition to be re installed. And the argument from the Vatican and Canterbury was that if the bride groom cannot adhere to such a mundane matter as a one event of gifting the revered parents of the bride, how is he going to give the holy matrimony the reverence that is demanded from the church and the sacrament of matrimony.

It is now trending in Kenya as a condition that before a church wedding is sanctioned, the church will demand for proof that the traditional wedding customs have been duly observed including the actual Nyombo in Luo land. And the cultural revisionist are seething at the church.

The west African church's role is even more vicious. Not only does the church demands traditional due diligence, but the church sits to witness traditional wedding and blesses it with prayers before and after the ceremony. Then a year later the church wedding is diarised to take place as a celebration. I know that this is a "squeaky bum time" for any cultural revisionist who was planning to marry in West Africa to escape Luo traditions. Unfortunately that is the bad news from the west and many parts of Africa.

And the Rise of Nyombo

The state legal papers were perceived to be a more permanent proof of marital union. True but the state is also a more permanent and speedy divorce means. In fact, a mere absence from a marital home for 2 years dissolves a marriage based on the English common law. Not so with a Luo marriage. Even death does not nullify a Luo marriage. A wife traditionally is still married to the first husband and any children she has bears the name of the husband. And not even time or airless dungeon can separate a Luo marital union. This is the sort of attraction that makes Luos run to the shelter of traditional Nyombo and accounts for the rise and rise of the tradition.

The topic is wide but a simple elaboration is that in a polygamous Luo marriage, wife no 3 can never be promoted to no 1 even if a holocaust wipes out the first 2 wives. The position is guaranteed by Nyombo. Once again Luo customs are proven to be restrictive but not constrictive.

And still the Rise of Nyombo

If the overdose of Anglo Saxon brought about the threat of Nyombo, then the wind of change has come from the same direction. The first rise of Nyombo is that even those returnees from the diaspora find time to break away to fulfil Nyombo. This is in spite of the fool proof papers from the marriage authorities in the diaspora. It is not clear why the diaspora are even embracing nyombo. Let me rephrase. It is not clear why the Luo diaspora is clutching on to nyombo more desperately.

Some have arrogated it to jealousy from what they witness from our west African brethren. I personally place it on the footsteps of African novelty. That a European who marries a Luo woman for example goes for the novelty. The dark skin, the kinky hair, the African diet, the foods, the bright colours and the non-paper nyombo. The previously colonially overdosed Luo man seeing this will now desert the musungu common law brainwash and proudly embrace the Luo Nyombo and all that it involves.

And still more rise of Nyombo

The current impetus to Nyombo as driven by high prolife liberal women cannot be downplayed. As much as the Champaign feminists are maligned, they were the first to see wool being pulled in the Luo eyes and have gone for the nyombo. Some have done so because Luo traditions are more liberal than the church. As noticed in the Ger-man preamble above, Luo traditions reject that after 3 years of wealth creation in a marriage a woman can simply be reset to her premarital status as if she is an electrical appliance bought from some on line shopping site.

There are many reasons where nyombo facilitated marriage is coming back strongly like the proverbial sphinx. For example a blog like this is too narrow to walk the path of litigations such celebrated S M Otieno case laws, children and widow’s welfare protection laws, succession protection and other protections provided by nyombo facilitated marriage.

Suffice to say that the rise and the rise and still the rise of nyombo is because a Luo tradition is restrictive but not constrictive.

Like all Luo the traditions and customs, the Luo custom of Nyombo is restrictive but it does not constrict and may be that is the partial reason for the rise and the rise and still the rise of the Luo bride price (Nyombo).


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5 commentaires

Rashid Nzambu
Rashid Nzambu
12 avr. 2021

I must acknowledge this well researched and informative piece. As is the case with the other articles in this blog, the writing and general presentation is up there with best. Well done Stephen! Though specific to the luo traditional practices, it resonates with most African traditional practices. Divorce as practiced today is alien to the African traditional way of life. Whether this is good or bad is a good topic for discussion. Worldwide, the concept of divorce is historical a new phenomenon. Until very recently the Christian church did not allow divorce. Whereas the Protestant Church allows divorce, the Catholic Church still prohibits the practice of divorce. "Till death do us part" is ingrained in the Marriage vows. On dowry/bride price, I have first…


Tyson Otieno
Tyson Otieno
12 avr. 2021

I love this. It teaches me my traditions and their meanings

Stephen Osieyo
Stephen Osieyo
12 avr. 2021
En réponse à

Welcome Tyson. They were good. They just got corrupted like everything else.


Ruwa Mwero
Ruwa Mwero
11 avr. 2021

Excellent writing, brilliant.

Stephen Osieyo
Stephen Osieyo
11 avr. 2021
En réponse à

Ooooh thank you soo much. On the face book wall. Guys are getting lost between restrictive and destructive

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