The Luo people of Lake Victoria have their roots in neighbouring Uganda and Southern Sudan, in the region known as Bahr el Ghazal, where the waters of the Nile flow northwards from the Lake.
A gradual migration East began in the mid 16th century. This was not a sudden exodus, but a gradual process of various small groups shifting to the Eastern lakeshore. A hybrid culture formed among these various disparate peoples, and by the late 19th century a truly unique and independent society had developed.
Many of the migratory tribes were cattle herding nomads, but the abundant water supplies of the great lake, combined with physical restrictions of tribal lands and then colonial boundaries, led to a definite shift towards agriculture and fishing.
Even though nomadic behaviour was abandoned, the cultural importance of cattle was most definitely retained. Oxen and bulls played a major role in many Luo traditions and customs, and the size of a man's herd was a symbol of wealth power and strength.
Cattle provided more than just milk and meat. After slaughter, every part of a cow was used, from leather sleeping mats to small containers for herbal medicine made from hoofs and bird traps made of the hair of the tail.
A popular Luo legend tells the tale of Nyamgondho, a poor man living by the shores of lake, who prayed to the gods for help. A strange looking, one eyed woman emerged from the waters and became his wife. She was a hradworking woman who helped Nyamgondho become an extremely wealthy man, with a large herd of cattle. he quickly grew proud and arrogant, and one day lost his temper with his wife and slapped her. He told her that with considerable wealth in cattle he no longer needed such an ugly wife, and cursed her. She left the house and returned to the lake, and to his horror, every one of his cows followed her. one by one they walked into the water and drowned, leaving him bereft and impoverished.
This tale of prized oxen and the divine powers of the lake says much about the values of early Luo culture.
The Luo had two traditional deities, a supreme god called Nyasai and Chieng, the Sun. There was a great deal of emphasis on ancestors and ancestral spirits. Death and funerary rites were of paramount importance. Today, traditional funeral rites are still occasionally observed, including a protracted period of mourning, the shaving of the heads of male relatives and the running of herds of cattle through the family compound.
The Luo are divided into around 40 separate groups, bound by a cohesive network of clans. There was always great importance placed on the ownership of land, and traditional lands were clearly separated and demarcated by undeveloped border areas called rhim.
Clan lands were ruled by a prominent figure, chosen by his wealth in cattle, wives and children. Known as Ruoth, they were essentially landlords, protected by Thuondi (warriors) and spiritual leaders called Jabilo.
Luo warriors were renowned for their strength and fighting and hunting skills. The Luo were great hunters of hippo, who with their three tonne bulk and aggressive nature, make for formidable quarry. The large lower tusks of the hippos were removed and worked into elaborate head-dresses that framed the face and shoulders. The Luo built stone fortresses to repel Nandi raiding parties. The ruins of one such fort, the 500 year old Thimlich Ohinga still stands.
Luo folklore speaks of a mighty warrior known as Luanda Magere, who once walked the shores of the Lake. He was possessed of unearthly powers, and his flesh was made of stone. Arrows, spears and clubs simply deflected from his body, making him invincible during warfare.
Luanda Magere's eventual downfall came at the hands of his wife. One day she let slip in conversation his only weakness: that his shadow was made of flesh and was vulnerable to attack. The news quickly spread, and in his next battle, enemy warriors besieged his shadow and pinned it to the ground with a spear. His lifeblood poured out through this wound, and this mighty warrior was dead.
A Luo village was built in a customary style- with large hedge enclosed family homesteads (dala).
Today, Luo society around the lake has became increasingly dependent on fishing and the fishing trade as a means of revenue. While many traditions no longer exist, the Luo remain a close knit community. The widespread adoption of Christianity has been accompanied by the creation of many small sects that combine the Christian ethos with traditional beliefs.
In Seme, not far from Kisumu stands Kit Mikaye, a massive freestanding stone that was long considered sacred by the Luo. Legends abound regarding the origin of the stone, but the most popular is the tale of a man who badly mistreated his first wife. After her death she returned as powerful ghost and turned he and his homestead to stone.
The rock has always been regarded as having supernatural powers, and is believed to actually be a living creature that roamed the lakeshore at night and visited the Lake to drink. Traditionally the rock was visited by those seeking blessings, favour or divine intervention. Animal or token sacrifices were made beneath Kit Mikaye, and even today some believe that visting the site or leaving sacrifices will result in blessings and good luck.
Kit Mikaye is managed by the local community, and guided tours of the rock can be made with a resident elder. Visitors can climb through a central passage, to a sacred cave at the rock's heart.
During the 19th century, the Lake became the focus of much European attention as explorers struggled to solve the great riddle of the Nile. From the writings of Ptolemy, the ancient explorer, they knew of the existence of a large body of water at the Nile's beginning, but countless expedition, including Livingstone's to Lake Tanganyika, proved fruitless.
Success finally came with an expedition in 1858 by the renowned Anglo-Irish explorer Richard Burton. He was no ordinary geographer, but a remarkable scholar of the exotic, who spoke 28 languages and had travelled extensively through India and the Middle East. He translated the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra into English and in 1853 made the Haj or pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as an Arab.
He was the first European to reach the medieval city of Harar in Ethiopia, and on his return journey fought a protracted battle with Somali warriors in which he took the full blade of a spear through his face and continued fighting.
Burton was determined to find the source of the Nile and mounted a major expedition. He was accompanied by John Hanning Speke, an inexperienced officer from a wealthy and influential family. The men made an epic journey across East Africa, suffering terrible injuries along the way. Speke's eardrum was almost destroyed when a beetle burrowed into his ear, and Burton was crippled by an infection of both of his legs. While Burton was recovering with some Arab traders and planning to return to the coast, Speke made a last ditch effort to explore further north, and came upon the waters of the Nyanza.
Speke was dyslexic and unable to properly use geographical instruments, and failed to take any conclusive measurements. Regardless, he christened the lake Victoria in honour of his Queen, and then returned to the coast. Upon reaching Zanzibar, Burton, not fully recovered, stayed on to recuperate. He was later horrified to learn that Speke has returned to London and publicly declared that he had discovered the source of the Nile. Speke became a hero, and he and Burton became bitter enemies. Burton challenged him to a debate at the Royal Geographic Society. Speke was mortified at the prospect of presenting his poor evidence to the esteemed society, and on the morning of the debate, died in a mysterious 'shooting accident' in a field near his home.
Some years later, an expedition was to prove that Speke was correct, and that Victoria was the true source of the Nile.
The town of Kisumu was the final destination for the Great Ugandan Railway. This massive four and a half year enterprise involved building a railroad 900kms into the heart of Africa, from the Port of Mombasa to the Source of the Nile. It was at Kisumu that the railway finally reached Lake Victoria on 20th December 1901. The last spike of the railway was driven into the earth by Florence Preston, the wife of a Railway Engineer, at the spot that still bears her name, Port Florence.
For the full history of the railway, see Related Links above.
Today, the Lake is an important centre for fishing, and remains an interesting and little explored region for the traveller. The Kisumu Museum is an excellent place to learn even more about the history and culture of this region.