The Friday Five: Surprising Practices of the Luo Tribe

I have spent several years visiting various tribes and cultures across Africa. The one people group that James and I are most familiar with are the Luo tribe of western Kenya.

Here are five surprising practices of the Luo.

1. Luo names describe the circumstance of your birth. Were you born in the morning? You will be named Onyango (for a boy) and Anyango (for a girl). Born at night = Otieno/Atieno. Born when it was raining = Okoth/Akoth. Born in a prostrate position facing down = Ouma/Auma. Born with the umbilical cord around your neck = Owino/Awino. And it keeps going - born in a time of abundance, born as a twin, born in famine, born while it was cloudy...

2. Polygamy is a common practice. A predominantly Christian tribe, the Luo have continued to follow the practices of the Old Testament of keeping multiple wives. Co-wives share in the household and child rearing responsibilities of the home. Polygamy is not practiced by everyone - many more progressive Luos have denounced it and have committed to a monogamous marriage.

3. There is a specific role of a twin in a funeral. It turns out that if your identical twin dies, you are not permitted to attend his or her the funeral. It brings too much pain to everyone who is reminded of your twin by your common appearance. 

4. Punctuality is not practiced, except for times of honoring the dead. The Luo, and most of African culture, do not carry a concept of time like Americans do. In fact, the saying is The Americans have all of the watches, but the Africans have all the time. Which is why I am shocked to see community members arrive promptly on time (if not early) in circumstances of funerals and events of remembering those who have passed. I asked my Luo friend, Robert, about it and he said that people believe that the spirits of the dead are as powerful, if not more powerful than God. So they make sure they come on time.

5. Once a young couple is married, the in-laws must never stay the night in the couple's home. Taking seriously the Biblical role of a child leaving their parents and the man and wife cleaving to one another, this Luo practice protects the complications of parent and adult child relationships. Robert told a story about how he was getting so tired of finding alternate places for his parents to stay when they visited, that he finally just pulled out a mattress in their main room and told them to stay there. Robert walked out at 2am and his dad was just sitting on the mattress refusing to sleep. Robert's parents stayed for five days, so eventually his father gave in, but it was not for lack of trying!

A Reason to Hold on to Hope

It has been so sweet to be back in Lwala. Of all the places that I travel, this is the one that feels the most like home. They affectionately call me Anyango Nyalwala - which means born in the morning, daughter of Lwala. It is the rare and beautiful place where my work, marriage and calling intersect with one another. I first stumbled upon this western Kenyan village in 2005 when two brothers lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, and I accompanied a friend of theirs to pay our respects. They shared with me their late father's dream for a clinic to be built in their home community. I looked across the plot of land where they hoped to someday build. This village was several miles away from any main road, without electricity or running water. I could not have imagined then, that I (and eventually my future husband) would get to be a participant in actualizing such a dream.

In the beginning years at Blood:Water Mission, we took a risk to seed fund the opening of the Lwala clinic and drill its first borehole. It was a bare-bones start, but the Lwala community pressed forward amidst a 24% HIV prevalence rate and one of the highest maternal and child death rates in the country. In 2009, they recruited James to serve as Lwala Community Alliance's Executive Director. Today, there are four American staff and nearly 100 Kenyan staff working to break down the barriers of extreme poverty and HIV/AIDS in this community. And slowly by slowly, what was once an empty lot of ambitious dreams is now occupied with a hospital, public health outreach, educational programs, a women's sewing co-op and demonstration plots for agriculture and nutrition for HIV positive people.


Today, James and I hopped on the back of a motorbike to make some home visits into the communities. As we rode slowly along the uneven dirt road, we passed familiar faces and homes that have woven their stories into ours.

We collected stories of families whose lives have been changed since the hospital and outreach programs began. We held babies whose lives would never have been possible without the medical intervention and safe delivery in the year-old maternity ward. We met mothers who have been supported and encouraged by the LCA's community health workers. We met children whose diarrheal diseases have disappeared since the rain tanks, latrines and health clubs graced their schools.


It has been my joy to return to this place over and over again for the last seven years - and to see the beautiful work of the staff and community here. This one community has become the heartbeat of our vocation and calling in Africa, and I am so thankful that we have a place in Africa that we know and love deeply, and are known and loved in return. There will continue to be the unbearable stories that will break our hearts, but side by side, they are accompanied by the ones that give us reason to hold on to hope.

Scrub, Rinse, Wring, Repeat

This morning, I awoke with a simple chore ahead of me: laundry. I have been traveling through the desert of northern Kenya and the volcanic hills of Rwanda, and have arrived in western Kenya with a pile of dirty clothes. Contrary to the ease with which we wash our clothes in the US, doing laundry in Africa is more time consuming and labor-intensive. Instead of Tide, washing machines and dryers, we use rain water, home-made soap, two basins, two hands and the equatorial sun.

The best time for washing clothes is in the early morning while the air is still cool and the clothes can dry in the mid-day sun. I filled a basin with rain water collected from a tank (thanks to Blood:Water Mission) and added a liquid soap made for washing hands, dishes and clothes. (Some of the women who had been trained by Blood:Water Mission in water, sanitation and hygiene were the ones who now make and sell the liquid soap to the community!)

I soaked the clothes in the soapy water and did my best to scrub the dirt out of them. From clinics to schools and churches to homes, remnants of the places I have traveled released themselves from the fabrics of my journey into the basin. I spent a good hour and a half with my hands to my clothes - soaking, scrubbing, rinsing, wringing, and hanging to dry.

I felt gratitude for the access to water and to soap. I felt admiration for the women beside me who do this on a regular basis with competence and strength. And I felt conflicted about the drastic differences between life here and in the US. I wondered who I felt more sorry for: the women here who are bound to the slow and heavy labor of life's necessities or Americans whose fancy machines have developed efficiencies and expectations that leave little room for the slow and connected life.