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Superstitions and taboos observed among the Luhya

The Luhya believed that the outcome of an undertaking or important event that will happen in the near future could be foretold by omens or portents. These omens are either auspicious and inspire confidence in the person or persons engaged in the activity or inauspicious and serve as a warning to either abandon the activity or take precautionary measures to ward off evil forces. Omens are, however, distinct from oracles which are consulted to find out the causes of events that have already happened or are in the process of happening. They are never made to happen by man as a result of ritual manipulation but occur on their own account. The following are some of the common presages:

night owldik dik
In Luhya tradition, the sighting of a night owl signals that the death of a family member is imminent while among the Maragoli, it is considered lucky if one meets a small antelope while going on an important journey.

  1. If somebody sets out to see someone over an important matter and while on the way he hers a certain bird singing on his left, that is regarded as ominous and he must return home and postpone the journey. Conversely if the bird sings on the right side of the road, the omens are good and auspicious and the outcome of his journey will be a success.
  2. Among the Bukusu and Wanga, if someone sets off on a journey he must ask the first person he meets if his first born is a boy or girl. If it is of the same sex as the questioner, that is seen as positive and negative if they are of opposite sex. In that case the questioner must return home and do nothing of importance that day. If the business is very urgent and cannot be postponed, i.e. must pass the person questioned at a considerable distance to minimize the inauspiciousness of having met the wrong person. The traveller does not put the question straight but metaphorically.  Hence he would ask: “Olila lukendo sina?”  (What journey do you eat?). The other one replies: “Ndila lukendo lusacha” (I eat the male journey) if his first born is male or “Ndila lukendo lukhasi” (I eat the female journey) if a girl. If the answer is auspicious (i.e. if the traveller’s first born is the same sex as the first born of the stranger) he salutes him emphatically with outbursts of mulembe, mulembe, bulahi, bulahi. Khulira lukendo lulala (we eat of the same journey). One may also say: “My arm is up” if the first born is a boy or “my arm is down” if a girl. Accordingly, if both arms are up it is equally good and if down it is a bad omen. Among the Maragoli, it is also considered a good omen if when staring out on a journey a man whose first born is a son meets two boys walking together or in rapid succession, or two girls if the first born was a daughter. He says in that case “ I have met my arm”; but if he returns home because the omen was bad and people ask him why he has come back he tells them: “sinoye omukono gwange mba” (I did not find my arm)
  3. Stumbling is a bad omen among the Maragoli but it is worse to stumble with one’s left foot than with the right. In the latter case on returns home only if it happens twice in succession. If one stumbles with both feet in quick succession it means two different troubles lie ahead. Among the Wanga, however, it is considered lucky to stumble with the left foot when going out on a journey but unlucky to stumble with the right. But when returning home from a journey the opposite prevails i.e. lucky to stumble with the right foot and unlucky for the left foot.
  4. In Maragoli if one meets a certain rat called elivengi, it is considered a bad omen generally.
  5. Meeting a small antelope (ekisunu) is considered a very good sign among the Maragoli and so is a silver squirrel with a long bushy tail.
  6. Meeting esimindwa (red hawk) is a bad omen among the Maragoli and Wanga.
  7. Among the Maragoli, if the enyiru bird crosses a person’s path twice just in front of him and whistles, he must return home at once.
  8. If an owl (elikuli) cries near a homestead, this is a sign that someone from that home will soon die. To avert the danger which the owl portents, he is driven away with a firebrand.
  9. If one hears a big fox called ekivwi crying, this means that someone important in the tribe or clan is about to die.
  10. Among the Bukusu, if one comes across certain ants called nafusi, this is taken to mean one will receive good hospitality if he is visiting or something pleasant is in store for him.
  11. Sneezing is generally considered a bad omen and if a person sneezes repeatedly before taking up an important assignment, he puts it off for some time if possible. However, among the Wanga, if someone sets off to visit a friend who is sick and dying and starts sneezing before he starts the journey, this is an indication that friend will recover from his illness.
  12. If two people while working in their gardens collide their hoes by accident, this is considered a bad omen indicating they will quarrel over their land. They must therefore stop working and go home for the day. By paying heed to the omen, they forestall a fight.
  13. If in succession one sees two fig trees (emikuyu), the leaves of which are hanging down, the harvest of one’s crops will be plentiful.
  14. If an antelope crosses the road from either side in front of the marriage cattle while being driven from the bridegroom’s father to the bride’s father, it is a bad omen indicating that the cattle will die.
  15. It is a taboo to cut nails (both finger and toe nails) at night because it is believed evil spirits will haunt you.
  16. It is taboo to sweep the house at night or take rubbish out at night. It is said that by doing so, you are throwing your luck (of getting wealthy) out.
  17. It is taboo to kill a python (evaka) among the Maragoli while the Wanga may not kill a bushbuck as it is considered sacred and a tribal totem.
    Taboos associated with pottery among Babukusu: CLICK HERE
Number 7 is unlucky for Babukusu | Taboo to kill python in Maragoli

Bukusu number sevenEvaka python
Among the Bukusu, the Number 7 is regarded unlucky while in other parts of Luhyaland, it is taboo to kill a python. Special lustration rites must be performed if the diviner detects that an illness which has befallen someone has been caused by that person having killed a python even if it is many years ago.

Apart from these presages which happen by chance, people also believe in lucky or unlucky events and objects over which they can partly or fully control. Thus among the Bukusu, number seven is considered unlucky the same way Europeans consider 13 an unlucky number and the Japanese number four and nine because of their pronunciation. Four is pronounced "shi" which is the same pronunciation as death. Nine is pronounced "ku" which has the same pronunciation as agony or torture. There are many hospitals that don't have these numbers as the room number or even the floor number. The Japanese also dislike Friday the13th and there are no seats with numbers 4, 9 and 13 on passenger planes of the All Nippon Airways. On the other hand, the number 8 is considered a lucky number.  If a person has seven children, he never admits the fact and prefers to say he has six or eight. Similarly a person would avoid possessing seven cows, seven goats or seven objects of any sort. When they have to refer to number seven, they avoid mentioning the proper numerical and instead babandu musafu mubi (the bad luck number of people).

Similarly the right side of anything is considered the lucky side and the left the unlucky one. Hence the right side of the body is considered the strong one and the left one the weak and so is the left and right arm or leg. Hence it is considered anti social for an inferior person to stand on the right hand side of a strong fellow because that is deemed as wanting to take his strength away. It is considered impolite to pass anyone on their right side. When doing things with one hand the right one should be used as the left hand is unlucky. When shaking hands to show deep appreciation, both hands are used and when accepting a gift, however small, it is good manners to stretch out both hands. There is a proverb which runs: “If you are given with one hand take with both. It also brings bad luck to a person if one passes behind his back instead of in front of him as this is likewise thought to sap his strength.

To ensure good luck in an enterprise one must get up quickly in the morning for if one rises slowly everything will go slow that day. When leaving home to visit a person, one ties a knot in a blade of grass that grows by the side of his path. This ‘ties’ the people to stay at home or keeps them from consuming food or beer before the visitor arrives.

State of ritual contamination: the case of luswa and kiragi

Traditionallly, the Luhya believed in the dichotomy of good and evil forces. Across most sub tribes, the occurrence of a phenomenon outside the established social and natural norm was regarded as a manifestation of evil forces and therefore dangerous to their well being. Among the Maragoli this phenomenon is classed under two types luswa and kiragi, the former referring to persons and the latter to animals (from Gunter Wagner: The Bantu of Western Kenya). When a person falls luswa or an animal falls kiragi, they are said to be ritually contaminated or in a state of ritual impurity and must be avoided until lustration rites have been performed to cleanse them and exorcise the demons. The following are some examples of luswa and kiragi:

  1. If an infant cuts its upper teeth first
  2. If a child cries excessively without any obvious reason, the child’s behaviour is regarded as an expression of its desire to kill its parents
  3. If at a boy’s circumcision his blood gushes out of his wound as if under pressure
  4. If a circumcised boy rides on the back of an ox or a cow. To do so before circumcision is quite normal but afterwards it is a sign of having fallen luswa
  5. If a woman climbs on the roof of the hut this is interpreted as her desire to kill he husband
  6. All forms of ritually prohibited and incestuous sexual intercourse are regarded as manifestations of luswa. In the approximate order of their gravity such offences are: sexual relations between mother and son, father and daughter, a husband and his mother in law, a wife and her father in law and a brother and his sister
  7. If a man sees a widow or his mother in law nude e.g. while taking a bath
  8. if a person indecently exposes himself in the presence of a person of opposite sex e.g. If a husband points his buttocks at his wife while they are quarrelling..
  9. if a beard grows on a woman’s chin
  10. if either men or women indulge in homosexual practices
  11. if a man has sexual intercourse with a cow, sheep, goat or chicken
  12. if a hen crows like a cock or alights on the roof of a hut or granary is regarded as kiragi
  13. if a certain bird called efurusi drops its excreta upon a person the bird become kiragi
  14. if a cow twists its tail round the trunk of a tree the cow become kiragi
  15. In Maragoli if a person eats of the crops of a stranger without asking the owner and it happens that the owner has not yet eaten of the crop.
  16. If a woman has borne twins, the ashes of the fire on which her first meal was cooked after delivery are dangerous. If she throws these ashes in a stream and a man bathes in the water thus polluted he becomes luswa
  17. if a bull calf jumps on the back of a person

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