Mirembeh! Get to know the Luhya language and culture

By Valtteri Nurminen, COCO volunteer

This is the first part of our blog series celebrating the International Year of Indigenous Languages. This time we will introduce the Luhya language and culture! This blog would not be possible without our project partner, Isaac Lidaywa who contributed some of his prestigious time and provided translations to words and sayings in Luhya.

The Luhya tribe is Kenya’s second largest ethnic tribe numbering a little over 5 million people and making around 15% out of Kenya’s population. In Kenya, Luhya people are known as very friendly and peaceful people who greet each other in various different ways.

The Luhya tribe is also known as Abaluyia, Abaluhya, Baluhya and Luyia. Indeed, Luhya is a short form for “Abaluhya”, which means roughly “those of the same hearth”. The Luhya tribe is part of the bigger Bantu tribe and includes many sub-groups. These are mostly situated in Western Kenya, north of Lake Victoria but some in Eastern Uganda as well. Also, nowadays many Luhya people live in Nairobi.

The Luhya tribes have many interesting folklores, for example, one that explains the difference between zebras and donkeys and answers why zebras have striped skins. Apparently, donkeys wanted to escape the heavy workload they were asked to do by humans and thus invented to paint stripes to their own skin so that the humans would mistake them to not be donkeys. However, one poor donkey accidentally spilt all the paint and because of that, only some donkeys were able to paint themselves into zebras.

The Luhya tribe has many traditional Luhya names that are not used in other ethnic groups. For example, Wekesa – a boy born during harvest time and Nafula – a girl born during the rainy season. Also, Simiyu and Nasimiyu – a boy and a girl respectively born during a dry season.

The Luhya people are also very big on sports and they have produced some of the best athletes in Kenya’s history. For example, McDonald Mariga was the first East African to win the UEFA Champions League; Joe Kadenge is arguably the best Kenyan footballer ever; Robert Wangila is the only Kenyan to win Olympic gold medal in something else than athletics; and the Tikolo brothers, David, Steve and Tom are the best Kenyan cricketers.

However, it is important to distinguish between Luhya as an ethnic group of over 5 million people and Luhya as a language – the exact number of speakers is very hard to estimate. This is because not all Luhya people speak Luhya language, for example, Bukusu, Nyore, Idakho-Isukha-Tiriki and Ragooli tribes have their own distinctive languages.

Furthermore, the Luhya language is more correctly said, a collection of different dialects that are understood by people speaking other dialects. However, the level of understanding between different sub-groups varies heavily: for example, Maragoli tribe understands approximately 10% of Bukusu dialect, Kabras and Marama tribes understand around 50% of Wanga dialect, and Munyala can understand over 90% of Abasamia. There are also big differences between the sub-tribes in talking speed and word choices.

I think it has already been enough of history and facts… And that it is now a perfect time to learn some words and sayings in Luhya!

Hello – Mirembeh