The Luhya cultivate the fertile highlands of Western Kenya, between Lake Victoria to the south, the Nandi Escarpment to the East, Uganda to the West and Mt. Elgon to the north. The area they live in is the most densely populated in Kenya and indeed, in the world. Luhyas are one of the most culturally, politically and economically active ethnic groups in Kenya.
Luhya refers both to the people and the Luhya languages, a group of closely related languages spoken by Luhya sub-groups. The Luhya are made up of about 16 sub-ethnic groups in Kenya, the most dominant groups being the: Bukhusu, Maragoli, Wanga, Ava-Nyore (who ruled the Bunyoro Kingdom in present day Uganda), Marama, Idakho, Khisa, Isukha, Tsotso, Tiriki, Khabras, Ava-Nyala, Tachoni, Khayo, Marachi and Samia. One sub-ethnic group is in northern Tanzania and four are in Uganda.
Sometimes, the Maragoli are considered to be linguistically and migratorially related to the Kisii (also known as Abagusii), who are separated from the rest of the Luhyas by the chasm of Lake Victoria, Kano plains and Luo Nyanza to the South and the Nandi Escarpment and Kipsigis to the South East. The relationship between the Maragoli and the Kisii or Abagusii is mainly from their oral history (where both claim to have migrated from Misri (Egypt) via Mount Elgon, and also in linguistic similarity of their phonemes and certain key words in the languages. However, the Abagusii also have linguistic relationships with some tribes in Tanzania, and this similarity may be due to acquisition of words from these tribes due to more recent contact after the main migration from Misri. It is also noteworthy that the sound forms of Maragoli and Tiriki languages is slightly different from the other Luhya dialects and closer to the Kisii Language.
Note that the prefix 'Ava' or 'Aba' which when translated into English would mean 'the people/children of ...' (for example 'Ava-Logoli' would mean 'the children of Maragoli') is placed before all the Luhya sub-ethnic groups when referring to one's ethnicity, by a different person describing another person's ethnicity. if one is discribing himself or his/her ethnicity, he/she will use the prefix 'Omu-@ as in 'Omubukusu'.
Many Luhyas today are remnants of several federations (divided along the sub-ethnic lines of the Luhya), of the most powerful centralised kingdom that ever existed in Kenya's entire history before the advent of British colonialism in the early 1900s - the Wanga kingdom. The Wanga, themselves a Luhya people, incorporated most of the other sub-ethnic groups of the Luhya, as well as much of the areas inhabited by the Luo, the Kipsigis, the Nandi and the Masai territories as far east as the popular tourist town and flower capital of Kenya, Naivasha in Central Kenya.
Luhyas travelled south along the Nile river, as they fled Egypt, before settling in the area of what is now Northern Kenya, Southern Ethiopia, Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda. Their ruler at the time was Kitanga. The Turkana later came to occupy this place and called it Lok-Kitang meaning the place of Kitang ((Lokitaung) is a modern Northern Kenyan town).
Several reasons have been posited as to why Luhyas fled Ancient Egypt (Misri): famine, droughts, repeated attacks from foreign invaders, Egypt's own civil wars, disease and over taxation by Romans. We will get into each reason in detail later.
From here they moved on to what is now Central Uganda. They then claim to have migrated further east, first settling around the Mount Elgon area before displacing a forest people akin to the Khoisan of southern Africa before settling in their current homeland of what is now Western Kenya.
Other sources report that the Luhya, and some ethnic groups of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa like those of Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mozambique, Congo, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and South Africa, like the Zulu, Baganda, Nyarwanda of Rwanda, and the Rundi of Burundi amongst other peoples of Kenya eg. the Kikuyu,were all native inhabitants of Misri (Egypt) before migrating southwards into the interior of Africa over the course of several hundreds or even thousands of years.
Many anthropologists believe that the progenitors of the Luhya were part of the great Bantu migration out of East-Central Africa around 1000 BC. However, there are some who suggest that the Bantu speakers were part of a larger migration from Egypt (commonly known as Misri in Africa that approximately occurred between the years 500 BC and 1000 AD, after the Persian, Greek, Roman, and Arab invasions into Egypt).
Such evidence is based on linguistic, historical, scientific and cultural studies by such Egyptologists as Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese, Wilberforce Obenga, a Kenyan, and Moustafa Gadalla an Egyptian, but are not mainstream or widely accepted especially among American and European historians.
During the height of Rome's power, Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman world. Egyptian families were required to provide a portion of their harvest to the Romans. "Romans who used these foreign bases to govern the Egyptian population and to collect taxes. That led the Romans to reinforce foreign settlements, by bringing in more foreigners, mostly Jews and Syrian," writes Moustafa Gadalla in his widely-acclaimed book 'Exiled Egyptians.'
Over-taxation led Ancient Egyptians to vacate their land for lands further south. With no people to till the land, droughts and famines hit the kingdom. These crises, along with Barbarian invasions from Northern Europe eventually led to the demise of the Roman empire.
Such were some of the main reasons that led to the flight of the people who eventually became the different sub-ethnic groups of the Luhya from their land of origin. It must be noted that the exodus did not happen overnight, but rather, it was a gradual exit. One family here, two families there, and so on and so forth. Some African Egyptians settled in what is now Sudan, others in what is now Ethiopia, while others followed the Nile further into what is now known as Uganda, among other countries within the continent of Africa. While some descendants of Ancient Egyptians settled here, population expansion caused others to move East into what is now Kenya. Some of the ones who ended up in Kenya include the Luhya.
However, some Luhya sub-ethnic groups claim that they have always inhabited the areas around Mt. Elgon. Such varieties of histories reveal how Luhyas are probably a mixture of several Eastern African peoples combining to form a single major ethnic group which is further sub-divded into smaller sub-groups. Most Luhyas exhibit marked physical differences from one another, even within nuclear families. Some Luhyas also practised polygamy just like their forebears in Egypt.
The Nabongo (a Wanga title for king) ancestors came from Egypt. Mutesa emigrated from Egypt with his three sons, Mwanga, Mukoya, and Kaminyi and settled in Kampala, in what is now Uganda where he died. Mutesa was the ruler of his people in Egypt and after his death; he was succeeded by his son Mwanga who adopted the title of “Kabaka”. His other son Kaminyi migrated, due to the cruelty and inhumanity of Mwanga, to Tiriki area where he became the ruler of his people with the title of Nabongo. Kaminyi had 14 wives and six children including Mwanga. Mwanga had 8 sons: Wanga I, Murono, Khabiakala, Wanga II, Muniafu, Namakwa, Mbatsa, and Wabala.
The Kabras and the Wanga collaborated peacefully with the British: the Kabras formed the main Luhya ethnic group in the colonial-era police forces within the Luhya homeland. Nabongo Mumia, the King of the Luhya, was forced to sign treaties with the British after being defeated, this allowed the colonial authorities to subject his people to British rule.
Significant numbers of the Luhya fought for the British in the Second World War, many as conscripts in the Kenya African Rifles. As with many African societies, the Luhya named their children after ancestors, the weather, or significant events. Consequently, many Luhya people born around the time of the Second World War were named "Keyah", a transliteration of "KAR", the acronym for the King's African Rifles. Other famous Chiefs during the colonial time included, Ndombi wa Namusia, Sudi Namachanja, and Namutala.
Within a family, hierarchy was strictly enforced. Among the men, the man of the home was the ultimate authority, followed by his first-born son. In a polygamous family, the first wife held the most prestigious position among women. The first-born son of the first wife was usually the main heir to his father, even if he happened to be younger than his half-brothers from his father's other wives. Daughters had virtually no permanent position in Luhya families: they were viewed as other men's future wives, and were brought up to fulfil this role. They did not inherit property, and were excluded from decision-making meetings within the family. Today, girls are allowed to inherit property, in accordance with Kenyan law.
Children are named after the clan's ancestors, or after their grandparents, or after events or the weather. The paternal grandparents take predence, so that the first-born son will usually be named after his paternal grandfather (kuka), while the first-born daughter will be named after her paternal grandmother (kukhu). Subsequent children may be named after maternal grandparents, after significant events, or even after the weather (for example, the name "Wafula" among the Bukusu is given to a boy born during the rainy season — this comes from the Bukusu word for rain, "efula"; and Simiyu among the Banyala was the name given to the child born during the dry season).
Significant overlaps exist between these sub-groups, with mini-dialects that are composed of two or more dialects. The Tachoni of Lugari area, for example, speak a dialect that is mixture of the Kabras and Tachoni dialects. The sub-groups of the Luhya are Babukusu, Abatirichi (Tiriki), Maragoli (Balogoli), Abanyole (Banyore), Abakhayo (Khayo), Abanyala (Nyala), Abasamia, Abisukha, Abidakho, Abashisa, Abamarachi, Abatsotso, Abakabarasi (Kabras), Abatachoni (Tachoni), Abawanga (Wanga), and Abamarama (Marama), Khanye, Haya.
Abanyala is a Luhya sub-group which resides in two districts, Busia and Kakamega, Kenya in East Africa. It is believed that the Banyala of Kakamega originated from Busia with Mukhamba considered as their ancestral father. They are closely related with the Abanyala residing in Busia as they speak the same dialect, save for minor differences in pronunciation. The Banyala in Kakamega reside in Navakholo Division North of Kakamega forest. They are mostly known by their one time powerful colonial chief: Ndombi wa Namusia who was succeeded by his son Andrea Ndombi. Then came Paulo Udoto, Mukopi, Wanjala, Barasa Ongeti, Matayo Oyalo and Muterwa (the most recent) in that order.
Interestingly the Abanyala are a very diverse people with about thirty different clans which have intermarried forming a whole complicated network of relationships popularly called "Olwikho". The Abanyala clans include: Abaafu, Ababenge, Abachimba, Abadavani, Abaengere, Abakangala, Abakhubichi, Abakoye, Abakwangwachi, Abalanda, Abalecha, Abalindo, Abamani, Abamisoho, Abamuchuu, Abamugi, Abamwaya, Abaokho, Abasaacha, Abasakwa, Abasaya, Abasenya, Abasia, Abasiloli, Basonge (also found among Kabras, Abasumba, Abasuu, Abatecho (also found among Bukusu, Abaucha, Abauma, Abaumwo, Abayaya, Abayirifuma (also found among Tachoni, Abayisa, Abayundo, Abasiondo. One is not allowed to marry from his/her own clan.
The name "Kabras" comes from "Avalasi" which refers to warriors or Mighty Hunters as that's what the Kabras were. They were fierce warriors who fought with the neighbouring Nandi for cattle and were known to be fearless. This explains why generally they are few as compared to other sub-groups such as the Maragoli and Bukusu .
They claim to be descendants of Nangwiro associated with the Biblical Nimrod. The Kabras dialect sounds close to Tachoni though to the experienced ear, someone can detect some differences. Plus in all Luhya, there are different names for different things depending on the sub-dialect, so to speak.
Originally, the Kabras were few families which ended up as the head of the clans. The names of the fathers of the families also ended up as the names of the clans. The clans are Abamutama, Basonje, Abakhusia, Bamachina, Abashu, Abamutsembi, Baluu, Batobo, Bachetsi, Bamakangala and several others.
The Kabras were under Chief Nabongo Mumia of the Wanga and produced an elder in his council of elders. This was Soita Libukana Samaramarami of Lwichi village in Central Kabras, near Chegulo market.
The first church to spread to Kabras was the Friends Church (Quakers). This was through Arthur Chilson a quaker missionary, who had started the church in Kaimosi, Tiriki. He earned local name, Shikanga, and his children learned the language as they lived and interacted with the local children. Therefore Friends church still has a strong following among the Kabras though other churches have spread to the area.
Among the Bukusu, the custom was slightly different. Young men were allowed to elope with willing (or, sometimes, unwilling) girls, with negotiations for dowry to be conducted later. In such cases, the young man would also pay a fine to the parents of the girl.
As polygamy was allowed, a middle-aged man would typically have 2 to 3 wives. When a man got very old and handed over the running of his homestead to his sons, the sons would sometimes find a young girl for the old man to marry. Such girls were normally those who could not find men to marry them, usually because they had children out of wedlock.
Wife inheritance was common: a widow would normally be inherited by her husband's brother or cousin. In some cases, the eldest son would also inherit his father's widows (though not his own mother).
With the rapid modernisation of Kenya, many young Luhya people have emigrated to Nairobi and other towns in search of work, and many of them are to be found residing in the south-western Nairobi areas of Kangemi and Kawangware.