History Kenya: The Kavirondo Of The 1890s

4 min


Kavirondo is the former name of the region surrounding Kavirondo Gulf (now Winam Gulf) as well as of two native peoples living there under the regime of British East Africa (The “Nilotic Kavirondo” and the “Bantu Kavirondo“). Broadly, this was defined as those who dwelt in the valley of the Nzoia River, on the western slopes of Mount Elgon, and along the northeast coast of Victoria Nyanza.

Suggested etiologies of the name “Kavirondo” include

  • From local young warriors, armed with spears, bows, arrows, & clubs, who were observed to sit on their heels, which in Swahili is kaa virondo. Thus the region became Kavirondo, the inhabitants pejoratively called wa-Kavirondo: “people who sit on their heels”
  • From kaba-londo: In Buganda two unusual words related to royalty were combined, kabaka, the king & namu-londo, the stool used as throne on which the king is crowned.

(Both putative origins may be doubtful).

This is an undated photo of a Kavirondo/Luo “medicineman” (foreground).

According to 1898 recordings of early colonial administrator Charles William Hobley – the man Luos called Obili, a medicineman was usually summoned to bless the future of a newborn Luo child.

Six days after a boy was born, he wrote on, the mother took the newborn to a spot along a path not far from the homestead and left it there.

Then another woman from the same village approached the spot and picked up the child, for which action the woman automatically became the child’s godmother. The same was done for girls, only that it happened four days after birth.

There was much dance and celebration when twins were born. And when the kids grew old enough to speak their mother tongue fluently, some teeth from their lower jaw were removed as part of an initiation. It is likely the community waited until permanent teeth were formed to carry out the excision.

The Luhya from Mumias did this, too, only that they removed four teeth. Luos principally undertook cattle rearing and cultivation work, although the latter was mostly undertaken by womenfolk. The men were nearly as good at drinking as they were in war.

Hobley noted that they consumed copious amounts of beer made out of wimbi or millet. Their Ketosh (Bukusu) neighbours made wine out of a mixture of bananas and millet.

Beer was consumed by an assembly of men, who sat around a pot, from which they drew the liquid using long tubes. Hobley also noted that the community engaged in smoking of tobacco and what he called “Indian hemp”, which I learnt is an extract of cannabis.

I have found that Luos applied clever ideas on combat matters. For example, their shields were nearly circular and bent to provide a larger surface area protection for its bearer.

Moreover, they had a pair of small-bladed and lighter spears, one for throwing and the other for close quarter combat. The Luo homesteads were also well fortified by a sturdy mesh of strong twigged fences.

The jury may still be out on when the Luos adopted a sword (spot one here?). It may not be unreasonable to infer that they adopted it from their Maasai neighbours. The Luo sword however was a bit different from that of the Maasai, and featured a spatulate (broad, round) finish.

One of the most famous combat victories of the Luo was against their Nandi warriors in 1890. Ordered to war by their Chief Kimnyole, the Nandi did not expect they would suffer the ignominy of a near complete rout. You may have read that story from my archives.

Finally, here’s a photo from back-in-the-day of a Luo woman pipe- smoking.

Religion and beliefs

They appears to practice a vague ancestor worship, but the northern tribes have two gods, Awafwa and Ishishemi, the spirits of good and evil. To the former, cattle and goats are sacrificed.

The Kavirondo have great faith in divination from the entrails of a sheep. Nearly everybody and everything are ominous of good or evil to the Kavirondo.

They have few myths or traditions; the antbear is the chief figure in their beast-legends.

They believe in witchcraft and practise trial by ordeal.


The Kavirondo are essentially an agricultural people: both men and women work in the fields with large iron hoes. In addition to sorghumEleusine and maize, tobacco and hemp are both cultivated and smoked. Both sexes smoke, but the use of hemp is restricted to men and unmarried women, as it is thought to injure child-bearing women. Hemp is smoked in a hubble-bubble. The Kavirondo cultivate sesamum and make an oil from its seeds which they burn in little clay lamps of the ancient saucer type, the pattern being, in Hobley’s opinion, introduced into the country by the coast people.

The Kavirondo keep cattle, sheep, goats, fowls and a few dogs. Women do not eat sheep, fowls or eggs, and are not allowed to drink milk except when mixed with other things. The flesh of the wild cat and leopard is esteemed by most of the tribes. Among the Bantu Kavirondo goats and sheep are suffocated, the snout being held until the animal dies. From Eleusine a beer is made.

The Kavirondo are plucky hunters, capturing the hippopotamus with ropes and traps, and attacking with spears the largest elephants. Fish, of which they are very fond, are caught by line and rod or in traps. Bee-keeping is common, and where trees are scarce the hives are placed on the roof of the hut.

Traditional Kavirondo industries are salt-making, effected by burning reeds and water-plants and passing water through the ashes; the smelting of iron ore (confined to the Bantu tribes); pottery and basket-work.

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