The singing ‘Abaluhya nation’
By David G. Maillu
There are double spellings of “Luhya”, perhaps, depending on where you come from. One spelling is “Luhya” and the other is “Luhyia”. The Luhya community, occupying the western part of Kenya, is the second Kenya’s largest traditional “nation.” Its population is about five million, by far and away larger than the population of Libya and the loud Israel. The Libyan population is above three million and the Israelis are about four million. This comparison may boost the ego of the Luhya to engage in a reminiscence of the loss of their old Nabongo kingdom, which, so goes the claim, extended up to the Rift Valley region.
Perhaps the confusing double spelling of the community holds the psychological key to the personality of the Abaluhya nation that, sometimes, is symbolized by their sukuti dance. There is a claim that, while dealing with a Luhya person, sometimes you can’t be sure whether he is serious in what he says or “just dancing the sukuti.” That claim puts it to you that this is a community that psychologically has two faces; perhaps one face spelt Luhya and the other spelt Luhyia. It is a community heavily armed with the art of social interactions.
From the outside the community appears to be one, but from within it is a composition of 18 diverse groups, call them clans namely: Bukusu, Maragoli, Kabras, Tachoni Banyala of Kakamega and Banyala of Busia, Batsotso, Isukha, Tiriki, Banyore, Samia, Abakhayo, Marachi, Abawanga, Abitakho, Samia, Kisa and Marama.
Some of these mini-Luhyas within the mega Abaluhya speak dialects which cannot be understood by the others. That, in itself, tells a bigger story that the Abaluhya are culturally diverse. It may explain why the Abaluhya are sometimes accused of being quarrelsome within themselves because they see things from many angles. On a more positive note, it is a community which an ambitious politician cannot put into one basket like the Luos then swing the basket in whichever direction the politicians want. In other words, the Abaluhya form one of the most democratically balanced communities in Kenya.
There British colonial psychology took advantage of two powerful but opposing groups in Abaluhya land. These were the Bukusu and the Maragoli clans. In 1895 when the British declared Kenya their own colony, the British realized that they hadn’t got away with the grab yet because they fought a fierce battle with the belligerent Bukusu who resisted the colonial rule or the destruction of their Nabongo kingdom. Of course, the British smashed them, but they brought them on board of the colonial boat the Bukusu as an unruly people. In order to contain the Bukusus, the British set the Maragoli against the Bukusu by giving the Maragoli prominence. They declared the Maragoli language as the official Abaluhya language, hence angering the Bukusu who felt abused by that imposed supremacy over the Maragolis. The stage was now set for the Maragoli versus the Bukusu, “Kitosh” – enemy.
In other words, the British used the Maragoli to supress the Bukusu. But the Bukusu blood being naturally aggressive, resisted the oppression and, over the years up to now, they proved “unbwagable.” As of today, the Bukusu clan leads in producing the top Abaluhya brains. As adventure and aggression appear to be deeply ingrained in the Bukusu culture, that may explain why that clan has been relatively more progressive than all the other groups. One time the late Professor Osak Odak, a Bukusu, sounded a stereotype accusation saying, “A Bukusu can go to borrow money from the bank in order to pay bride price for an extra wife.” There is a claim that the Abaluhya are highly sexed lot. How true that is stands to be proved by scientific research.
The Abaluyha community is one of the most culturally deeply rooted Kenyan traditional nations. They take pride in their culture, which the colonial culture left them intact. In as far as cultural development is concerned, the Abaluhya take a leading role in preservation of their cultural values. They are trying their best to interpret those roots to support their present world. When colonial interpretation of Christianity landed in the Abaluhya land, the Abaluhya gave it also a traditional interpretation in which Elijah Masinde synthesized Christianity with traditional worship and came up with the Dini ya Musambwa – the Religion of the Spirit. “Musambwa” means spirit.
The controversial religion had a great impact on the Abaluhya. It has raised its founder to the position of Saint. There is no documentation up to now describing the actual difference between Masinde’s religion and Christianity. Perhaps scholars have not thought it worth their effort which, by all means, should be perceived as unfortunate.
From the present Abaluhya spirit to the spirit of their Nabongo kingdom is not far. The Abaluhya have been caught up in a dilemma of modernity and tradition. Even up to the present time, a big fraction of the community is still held up in the traditional woods, with another big fraction confused by which way to go.
The conflict of many languages and dialects within the same community has been a great hindrance in publishing the people’s thoughts in mother tongues. For that reason, the Abaluhya aesthetics may finally be buried by the storm of modernity that is being addressed aggressively in English and Kiswahili.
Today the Abaluhya traditional clan antagonism or wars are symbolized by opposing groups which, each group brings its best bull to engage in a fighting competition. The defeat of one bull by the other is a great shame to the group. They also engage cock fighting similar to the bull fight, each cock brought by a certain group.
The Abaluhya unquestionably takes a clear and defined lead in music composing in Kenya, I even dare say a lead in East Africa. Surprisingly, most of the musicians are born to the Bukusu homestead. The Abaluhya musicians have done Kenyans proud in entertainment. Some of the leading musicians “guitarists” have been: Daudi Kabaka, Daudi Amunga, George Mukabi, George Agade, Jacob Luseno, and John Nzenze. Some of these great men are not alive. Behind these names, of course, are other unpopularized names and other potential composers, some of them who never made it to the front because of the too-many frustrations that plague the world of artists in African countries.
Sing and dance out your spirit and you’ll hypnotize the Abaluhya. During the last General Election, perhaps people can remember one Luhya, Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, now the Minister for Industry, engaging the audience by putting music as his signature tune to his campaign, singing out a Luhya composition, I think by George Mukabi, before he began to address the political party. What this means is that the Abaluhya community is a great nation specially gifted in music. All the past musicians the community produced reached their height without any government aid.
Where would the Abaluhya composers have reached in the world if the Kenyan nation took its musicians preciously and did whatever is possible to help them? Ironically, although those composers have done the Kenyan nation proud, the government has not been concerned about their fate at all. At this stage I am not talking only about the Abaluhya composers, but about the other composers in the nation. Most of these musicians die a quiet and miserable death although their music outlives them in hearts of men.
How does the Abaluhya community fare on in adjusting itself to the demands of modern Kenya? How progressive are the Abaluhya compared to other communities? Where does the Kenyan economy pinch Abaluhya most?
In spite of their big population, the Abaluhya people are ill-equipped for facing the modern demands. Much as they love eating the chicken, they are destined to being forced to eat less and less children by the other Kenyan communities which are overtaking them in the competitive business world. The present world expects the Abaluhya to come out of the woods and be aggressive entrepreneurs for their survival. Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, the minister for industry, may be very ashamed by the snail speed at which the Abaluhya are going into business.
Many Abaluhya feel satisfied in having a service job somewhere. The Abaluhyas and the Akamba communities produce the biggest number of domestic servants in Kenya. Some nasty remarks have been thrown at the Abaluhya saying, “Your people know nothing else but being employed as cooks and shambaboys.” Why do Abaluhya love being domestic servants? Psychologically because they accept subordination; secondly because of a wish to join the modern world but without good education.
One would expect that the second largest community in Kenya has second position in the economy of Kenya. That is not been the case with the Abaluhya. In fact, a small community like the Kisii is industrially miles ahead of the populous Abaluhya. Why? Because too many Abaluhya are still in the bondage of traditional values which are outdated or have very little commercial value in the modern world ruled by money economy. Outsiders, unfortunately, are snatching business opportunities in the Abaluhya land, which should be taken by the community. The Abaluhya population is increasing fast to occupy the same land. That spells doom to the future of the community, and one smells danger.
Poverty, a lot of which is self-manufactured, is the plague devouring the Abaluhya community today. There are too many people who are poor in simply because they are too lazy to work or they don’t want to be creative. Laziness, some people have claimed, is a rampant disease in the Abaluhya land. If the community has to succeed in the twenty-first century money-economy culture, it has to edit out many of the Nabongo kingdom values, take less interest in bull and cock fights, dance less sukuti and cut down the appetite of eating chicken utill their poultry farms have developed to match that appetite.
The Abaluhya would produce the top quality breed for the cultural development of the nation. Irrespective of whatever spurs the Abaluhya to be leading music composers in the nation, the talent of the community should be given a national foundation and promotion. Music is a commodity that can be exported to any part of the world. Kenyan nation should establish a fund to act as social security and promotion for honouring great performing and retired musicians. Take financial burden from the best music composers and the music industry would sprout miraculously to do the Kenyan nation proud.