Cultural Overview

Bantu-speaking Abaluyia ancestors, migrating from what is now Uganda, entered the area roughly 500 years ago. Long-range and local migrations of Bantu and Nilotic (Kalenjin, Luo, Nandi, Teso) peoples continued well into the 19th century, making Luyia history a story of many migrations and numerous cross-cultural contacts and exchanges. Among Abaluyia there are uniformities and diversities, beginning with the Bantu dialects, some mutually intelligible only with difficulty, that unite the subgroups. There are widespread similarities (though not uniformity) regarding clans and kinship, ancestor spirits, religious beliefs, economic activities including labor migration, architecture and technology, land tenure, patriarchy and the subordinate position of women, gender roles, patrilocal residence, behavioral propriety, and child socialization—and marked differences in some areas such as male circumcision, tooth removal, and the age group system of the Tiriki. Along with many changes, there is much cultural persistence.

The precolonial Luyia economy was agropastoral, with intensive food crop cultivation and grazing of cattle and goats. People made everything they needed, from tools and weapons to houses. Goods and services were bartered or purchased with livestock, Samia-made hoes, and baskets of grain. It was a sustainable subsistence economy, integrated with the sociopolitical-religious-moral system in which it was embedded. Patrilineal exogamous clans (groups of persons descended from a common male ancestor) were the basic unit of social organization. Marriage outside one's own clan and the clans of one's mother for two generations up (clan exogamy) encouraged alliances across clans, with women residing patrilocally (in their husbands' homes) after marriage. The belief system of most Abaluyia included a creator god, Were or Wele, and spirits that inhabited rocks, trees, and other objects. In each homestead, shrines were constructed for ancestral spirits who could be approached for help with words and gifts (food and beer). There were no organized churches or priests.

Status differences among individuals were based on gender, age and seniority, kinship status, wealth (especially cattle), special abilities, and personal qualities. Land, held communally, was readily available for farming and collecting water, fuelwood, and wild foods. Elders allocated plots to men, who in turn allocated plots to their wives. Men were warriors, rulers in homes and clans, with superior access to resources (including women's labor) and therefore power. Women, though subordinate to men, had their own spheres of agency and decision-making. They controlled their farm plots and crops and the kitchen, that is, the preparation and distribution of food, and they had their own social hierarchy, with senior wives, mothers, and mothers-in-law at the top. Ritual and craft specialties enabled individuals to gain wealth and prestige. Only men could follow the most prestigious and lucrative specialties of ironworking, woodcarving, and rainmaking, but in many groups women were potters and also herbalists, tooth removers, healers and midwives, diviners, and spirit mediums.

In mid-19th-century Abaluyia took to fortifying their homesteads or living in small fortified villages because of cattle raids and land grabs by new Luyia immigrants and groups such as Baganda, Maasai, Nandi, and Teso. The walled villages constituted basic sociopolitical and defensive units, though with no centralized authority. At times some villages were united under the vigorous leadership of a particular man (omwami, in many Luyia dialects) who was likely to strengthen alliances through marriage (polygyny being common practice), but these affiliations were loose and shifting.

British explorers, missionaries, doctors, and soldiers arrived in the late 19th century. By about 1910 the British were firmly in control, appointing local men as chiefs in the colonial administrative system, introducing money and taxes, cash crops and wage labor, Christianity, formal education, and medical services. In western Kenya land was not alienated to Europeans, but Abaluyia were under great pressures to produce cash crops, work on colonial projects and in wage labor for colonists, and accept Christianity, Europeanized life-styles, and a standardized Luyia orthography. In response to such pressures, Abaluyia emerged as an ethnic and political identity in the 1930s. (Closely related Bantu speakers in Uganda, including many Abasamia, do not identify themselves as Luyia and are not included in this discussion.)

Many changes occurred in Kenya during the 20th century with transformations from a colonial to a modern independent state and from a kin-corporate mode of production promoting interdependence and reciprocity to a globally connected capitalist economy encouraging individual accumulation rather than collective well-being. Elementary education is now nearly universal, though more males than females continue beyond eighth grade. Many imported ideas and ideologies have become dominant—for example, most Abaluyia today are Christians. With the commodification of work and other aspects of life, the agropastoral subsistence economy has yielded to a dual system in which family survival depends on having members in the rural home raising food and cash crops (still using hoes and other hand tools) and other members away from home in wage employment, each supporting the other. Residence after marriage remains patrilocal—the wife goes to live in her husband's home. However, more and more women are going to other rural areas and to cities, accompanying husbands and themselves seeking employment. Land has been registered to individual owners, mostly to men, with no legal provisions for women's rights to land. Cattle retain their cultural significance as visible wealth, and indigenous views persist in other ways, for example, in explanations of events, the division of labor, the ways work defines the self and an individual's social status, and the complex ways in which gender is implicated in social and economic relationships across the life course. Overall, indigenous patriarchy melded with imposed British patriarchy, making women invisible and favoring men in access to productive resources, education, employment, and political power.

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