The Abaluhya are the Oldest Centralized Community in Kenya
By Maurice N. Amutabi
Book writing is not for everyone, and book reviews need to be truthful so that readers are adequately informed and advised before investing in a book. On February 20, 2014, I received an e-mail message from Shadrack Amakoye Bulimo, inviting me to look at two books that he had recently authored. I acquired the two, ready to review them, only to discover that they were pamphlets doing everything to unmake the history of the Abaluyia as presented by professional historians. The two pamphlets titled Luyia Nation: Origins, Clans and Taboos and another titled Luyia of Kenya: A Cultural Profile have attracted some attention due to what one can only explain as short-sighted enthusiasm, but miss by a large margin the meta narrative of the Abaluyia nation.
I have been going through the two journalistic pamphlets and I must say that I have been deeply disappointed by Bulimo’s unsuccessful attempt at legitimizing some of the wild claims that have been made about the Abaluyia nation (Kenya’s second largest ethnic group) by politicians, all and sundry. Painfully reading the pamphlets justified my worst fears. The manner in which facts and speculation are conflated confirmed my initial suspicion and ambivalence about the books’ lack of authenticity, depth and historical facts. I was shocked when I saw some of the reviews done by literary scholars and other non-historians who did not notice glaring factual mistakes the author makes. Authentic voices and agency were clearly lacking, without any attempt at revisiting some of the known oral, archival and secondary sources on the Abaluyia.
How can a scholar write two history texts on the history of the Abaluyia and not refer to previous texts in the area by Gideon Were, John Osogo, Daniel Wako, among others? It did not take me long to discover that we were looking at a poor amateurish attempt at re-enacting the history of the Abaluyia. In short the books do not break any new ground in understanding the history of the Abaluyia. If these were essays submitted to my PhD class for grading, they would get D, mainly for effort. The problems in these booklets begin with the meaning given to the word Abaluyia. You immediately realize that you are dealing with fiction, a storybook and not a serious work of history.
The etymology of the word Abaluyia is well documented. It is derived from Oluyia or Olwibulo which means family or clan. Those who belong to the family or clan are known as AbaOluyia (meaning, of the clan or family). It also refers to Oluyia, which is an open ground or field or plain. Those who converge on the open fields or plains are known as Abaluyia or those belonging to the open field or plains. Khuluyia refers to the open field or plain. The Abaluyia were the only centralized ethnic group in pre-colonial Kenya, governed under a kingdom for 600 years before Europeans arrived. The Wanga kingdom under Nabongos (kings) of Wanga ruled the entire Western Kenya and parts of Uganda and Tanzania under various Obwamiships (smaller kingdoms, single – Omwami). Bulimo should have looked this up in any textbook on the history of Kenya.
The Abaluyia clans which have spilled into neighbouring countries such as the Bagishu, Basamia and Banyuli of Uganda, and the Basingila, Balinga, Bakolwe and Bachita of Tanzania speak Luhya that is understood by the rest of the Luhya such as Babukusu or Balagoli or Banyole. There are also Luhya clans in far away countries such as Burundi, Congo, Rwanda and Zambia. The over 20 Abaluyia clans in Kenya such as Abanyole, Abetakho, Abesukha, Abatsotso, Abanyala, Abakabras, Abatachoni, Abamarama, Abashisa, Abatirichi, Abakhayo, Abamarachi, Abasamia, were governed by vassal kings answerable to the Nabongo. It was largely due to the unitary strength and dominance of the Abaluyia and Nabongos position that missionaries and colonial officials schemed to invent divisions, arguing that the Abaluyia were not a single ethnic group. It is therefore surprising for Bulimo to accept this colonial aberration and lie, hook, line and sinker.
The most authoritative works on the history of the Abaluyia are the two books by Prof. Gideon S. Were entitled A history of the Abaluyia of western Kenya: c. 1500-1930 and Western Kenya Historical Texts: Abaluyia, Teso, and Elgon Kalenjin. Outside Prof. Were’s two books, the book that comes close in terms of facts and accuracy is that of John. N. B Osogo entitled A History of the Baluyia. All these books suggest that the history of the Abaluyia is not a recent phenomenon as some amateur historians have tried to suggest. On the contrary the Abaluyia have been conscious of their collective, cultural and linguistic past reflected in their settling pattern from the 12th Century when they moved in their present habitation in Western Kenya, to the present.
There are over 20 clans that make the Luhya and there is nothing unusual about the distinctions in various dialects of the Luhya language, because all ethnic groups such as Luo, Kikuyu, Kisii, Kamba, etc have such variations. The Luo of South Nyanza and those from Siaya have some minor differences in the way they speak and intone, the same to the Kikuyu of Kirinyaga compared to those from Kiambu. The Kirinyaga Kikuyu speak a different variant of Gikuyu, with almost 40% of words that differ from the rest of the Agikuyu but this does not make them less Kikuyu. Kiswahili speakers from Zanzibar, Pemba or Mombasa have no problems understanding what Makokha, Onyango or Kamu are saying, for they understand differences in lahaja (accent) and lafudhi. In the USA, the Southern drawl is so different from the Chicago or Boston intonation, but they are both variations of American English.
To suggest that the political union of the Abaluyia has been pitiful is to misrepresent the true history of these versatile Omulembe-loving people. Scottish explorer, Joseph Thompson documented his great impressions of the Abaluyia in 1883 and compared them with the kingdoms of Uganda such as Buganda and Bunyoro. Thompson met, with Nabongo Mumia, the Wanga king, at Elureko and uses great superlatives in describing the unity and strength of the Abaluyia. Even after the split of the kingdom between Nabongo Osundwa at Elureko and Nabongo Kweyu of Wanga Mukulu, the unity of the Abaluyia was stronger than any ethnic group in Kenya.
History cannot be produced by our imagination, however fertile, but rather rendered by clear articulation of facts on what really happened. The two pamphlets are authored by a non professional historian and suffer from factual and interpretative inadequacy, no wonder they have only attracted the attention of non historians. As a professional historian, I would not recommend any serious scholar of history to read and believe statements made by Shadrack Amakove Bulimo because the books are thin on historical facts and lack authenticity in actualities and true events that took place from 1200 to the present. They rely on anecdotal items, polemics and statements made by ignorant non-Luhya politicians who have tried to undermine the historicity of Luhya unity in order to gain for the supposed disunity. It is not surprising that Bulimo is a journalist and not a professional historian. Gideon Were’s book, A history of the Abaluyia of Western Kenya is still the most authoritative book on the history of the Abaluyia.
Prof. Amutabi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and Student Affairs), Kisii University