Kakamega Forest and its surrounding areas are mostly populated by the Luhya people.
The Luhya have their roots in Eastern Uganda, and came to Kenya as part of a period of major Bantu immigration that lasted from around 1570 to the middle 1600s. This migration appears to have been influenced by population pressure, tribal conflict and outbreaks of sleeping sickness.
The fertile lands known as Buluyha were ideal country for these newly arrived settlers, and their population and influence grew quickly. Luhya society is structured around an extremely complex system of clans and sub-clans. One survey has suggested that there may be as many as 750 clans in total. This clan system became a form of government, with powerful clan leaders called Omwami.
The clan system played an important role in familial and social life, and the sheer number of clans made for a great deal of diversity in culture and customs. There are many and varied Luyha traditions, some practiced by certain clans, some by others. All Luyha clans, for example, practice some form of male initiation, but the rites vary greatly by clan, ranging from traditional circumcision through to the removal of lower teeth. Ritual sacrifice of livestock is used to mark rites of passage including birth and marriage, while the ceremonial driving of cattle to funerals may have been adopted from the neighbouring Luo (see Lake Victoria).
One of the best known Luyha customs, which still thrives today, is bullfighting- which remains a popular local sport. See our Sport Safari section for more details.
The Luyha have long been known as expert builders and roof thatchers, and even construction was dictated by the clan system. Traditional villages or litala were incorporated within a larger clan association called the olukongo.
The Luhya remain well regarded for their building skills, and they also produce excellent pottery, thatching and weaving. They are also known for their spectacular traditional dances, known as the Sikuti. This energetic dance is performed by groups of paired men and women, to the accompaniment of a cacophony of bells and whistles, and is popularly performed at ceremonial events. The name 'Sikuti' is , suprisingly, comes from English. The response of many British colonials when witnessing this dance was "It's Good!", which was misinterpreted as Sikuti.
The bonds of clan loyalty still abide, and the Luhya remain a close knit people, proud of these cultural associations and the strength of their community.
Close relatives of the Luyha are the Kuria, who traditionally lived to the South near the Tanzanian border. Kuria folklore speaks of the tribe originating from a distant Northern land called Misr.
Interestingly, the only area to the North with such a name is in Southern Egypt. While the possibility of such a distant link makes for interesting contemplation, linguistic and geographical research now suggests that Misr many have been located somewhere in the foothills of Mount Elgon.
It is likely that the Kuria came to Kenya as part of the Luhya migrations. Yet the Kuria developed unique customs, and a highly ritualized community. They were known for spectacular body ornamentation and highly rhythmic music and dance. Mysticism played a large part in Kuria society, and they were known for skills of prophecy, and in particular, rainmaking.
Another related tribe were the Kisii, whose folklore speaks of shared ancestry with, not just the Kuria and Luhya, but the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru (see Related Links above for details).
The Kisii also most likely also migrated from Uganda, settling near Lake Victoria. But the coming of the Luo in the mid 16th Century, and later aggressive raids by Maasai and Kipsigis, led to the Kisii resettling in the highlands that are still considered their homeland. They became a highly agricultural community, who traded their produce with the Luo.
The Kisii still have a well deserved reputation as Master craftsmen. They quarry and carve fine soapstone, as well as wooden stools and items of furniture. See Shopping for details.