The Luo (also called Jaluo and Joluo) are an ethnic group found in Kenya, eastern Uganda, and northern Tanzania. They are part of a larger group of ethno-linguistically related Luo peoples who inhabit an area including southern Sudan, northern and eastern Uganda, western Kenya, and northern Tanzania.
Some accounts trace the Luo origin to Bahr al Gazal in Sudan where it is largely thought they were probably the first inhabitants of Sudan. Other versions think they probably originated at Wau in Southern Sudan, near the confluence of the Meride and Sue Rivers. Both accounts agree that they came from South Sudan.
While in Sudan, as descendants of ancient Egyptians, they founded the Shilluk kingdom. These Egyptians were directly linked to the Kingdom of Shilluk.
The Shilluk kingdom was located along the banks of the White Nile in modern South Sudan. Its capital and royal residence were in the town of Fashoda. According to folk history there and neighbouring accounts, the kingdom was founded during the mid-fifteenth century CE by its first ruler, the demigod Nyikang.
During the 19th century, the Shilluk were affected by military assaults from the Ottoman Empire and later British colonisation in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Today the Shilluk king is not an independent political leader, but a traditional chieftain within the governments of South Sudan and Sudan.
In Bahr al Gazal, in the land of Shilluk, the Luo were known as Ororo. Among the Dinka and Nuer in present South Sudan, they were called Liel.
The first wave of their migration into western Kenya via today’s eastern Uganda is thought to have occurred sometime around 1500 AD. Arrivals came in at least 5 waves at different times as below.
- The Joka-Jok (who migrated from Acholiland, the first and largest migration).
- Those migrating from Alur.
- The Owiny (who migrated from Padhola).
- The Jok’Omolo (perhaps from Pawir).
- The Abasuba (a heterogeneous group in southern Nyanza, with Bantu elements).
The main Luo livelihood is fishing. Outside Luoland, the Luo work in eastern Africa as tenant fishermen, small-scale farmers, and urban workers.
They speak the Dholuo language, which belongs to the Western Nilotic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family spoken by other Luo-speaking peoples such as the Lango, Acholi, Padhola and Alur, all of Uganda.
The Luo people of Kenya descend from early agricultural and herding communities from western Kenya’s early pre-colonial history. The people and dialects of their language have historic roots across the Lake Victoria region.
Chief among the powerful families to which the Luo trace their ancestry were the Sahkarias of Kano. The Jaramogis of Ugenya, and the Owuors of Kisumu are the other families. These families had clans that married several wives and had multitudes of grandchildren and heirs to various chieftainships.
Leaders of these lineages typically had multiple wives and intermarried with their neighbours in Uganda and Sudan. The Luo tribe, through intermarriages and wars, form part of the genetic admixture that includes all modern East African ethnic groups. Members of the Buganda Kingdom, the Toro Kingdom, and the Nubians of modern-day Sudan find themselves here as well.
The Luo had many ethnic enemies with whom they fought for access to water, cattle, and land. The Nandi, Luhya, Kipsigis and Kisii occupied the top positions. As a result of these wars, peace treaties and intermarriages were accomplished. The result was a mixture of cultural ideals and practices.
Like all modern-day East African tribes, Luo history is intricately interwoven with the history of its friends, enemies and neighbours. A testimony to the complexity of East African pre-colonial history.
The present-day Kenya Luo traditionally consists of 25 sub-tribes, each in turn composed of various clans and subclans. By the 1840s, the Luo had a tight-knit society with leadership from Ruodh, or regional chiefs.