There is a question that has been going around social media, whether the name for God in Luo, “Nyasaye/Nyasae” denoted that God is conceptualized as a woman, given the “Nya” part of the “Nya-saye” name. Let us break it down.
First, it is not clear where the word “Nyasaye” came from. The main hypothesis is that the Luo (in Kenya) borrowed it from the Luhya. Okot P’Bitek was of the position that the Luo did not have a conception of one high God, in pre-missionary history, and that the idea of a single God is missionary propaganda.
This position is true when you look at the nature of conceptualization among Luos in other countries. According to the Acholi, God is referred to as ‘Jok’, as something that breaks people’s back. God, for the Acholi, was a mystical force, or something with vital powers. The Japathola, another Luo group, refer to God as ‘Were’, and just like the Luo in Kenya, who use ‘Nyasaye’ – they share the name with their Bantu neighbors.
The Luo came from Sudan and the Bantus from West Africa, 500 years ago, hence they had distinct origins. Their sharing of the word for God only means that one borrowed from the other, and since other Luo groups have different names for God, it only means that the Luo in Kenya borrowed the word from their Bantu neighbors.
The name for God among the Luo in Kenya, which is not used in Christian circles is Obong’o Nyakalaga. Obong’o means “one”, “one son”, or an aspect that is unique and singular. Nyakalaga means a force that creeps. Creeping in Luo is “lak”, hence Obong’o Nyakalaga is a life force that creeps in the universe or in human bodies, or a singular thing that flows everywhere.
The Acholi and Lango (Luo groups in Uganda) word for God, ‘Jok’ is related to the Luo of Kenya’s word ‘juok’, which can be translated to mean witchcraft, but a more accurate translation should come from its plural form, ‘juogi’ which means spirits linked with ancestors. In fact, among the Dinka (Luo group in Southern Sudan), “Jok” refers to a group of ancestral spirits.
A witchcraft in Luo land is called “ajuoga” but “ajuoga” is also the word for a healer, a doctor, a medicine man. “Jajuok” can also refer to a nightrunner – which is essentially a witch who runs around at night naked, threatening people by rattling their windows or throwing stones at their walls and roofs. Among the Shilluk, juok is “spirit”. In general, among the Luo in Kenya, juok is a spirit force, relating to the Acholi’s (Luo in Uganda) jok which is a vital force.
The Nuer of South Sudan venerate Kwoth, which translates to “spirit”, and which is translated in most English texts as God. However, Kwoth is conceptualized as an invisible and omnipresent spirit that can manifest in multiple forms and entities, each of which can be described independently of the general term for spirits, aka kwoth.
To think of Nyasaye as originating from two words, “Nya” and “Saye”, as a portmanteau, or to think of the “Nya” in “Nyasaye” as representative of the gender of God needs a different kind of argument. The argument on Luhya origin of Nyasaye can be supported by the fact that the Luhya word for prayer is khusaya (verb). But if the word the word was a portmanteau, among the Luo, “saye” is related to “sayo”, which means to plead or beseech. I beseech you is “Asayi”, I beseech her/him is “asaye”, and we bessech him/her is “wasaye”. “Sayo” can also mean begging. In this sense, Nyasaye is an entity that is begged, beseeched, or pleaded to.
In Luo “Nyar” is used to refer to a daughter of somebody or some place. When terms such as “Nyar Dimo”, shortened as “NyaDimo”, is used, it means, daughter of Dimo, Nyar Ugenya or NyaUgenya, is daughter of Ugenya, Nyar Siaya or NyaSiaya is daughter of Siaya. Dimo is a person but Siaya is a place, so it’s a reference of origin or genealogy. Ja Siaya or JaSiaya would imply the same, son/man of/from Siaya. Using the same logic, NyaSaye would mean that Saye is a marker of origin or genealogy of a daughter/woman. Nyar Saye would be a daughter of Saye and that would not make much sense. What makes sense is simply accepting that Luos borrowed the word, “Nyasaye” from their bantu neighbours such as the Luhya and Kisii, in which case, it would mean entity that is prayed to.
If it was a case of “Nya” in Nyasaye means that God, as conceptualized among the Luo was a woman, then other words for God such as “Jachwech” meaning “creator” would have been “Nyachwech” especially since “chwech”/”chweyo” is the creating and “Ja” in that sense simply means the person who is creating. Another angle is to look at how the word “Nyasaye” is used in conversations. “Nyasacha” means “my god”, “Nyasache” means “his/her god”, “Nyasachi” means “your God”, and “Nyasachwa” means “our God”. “Nyasache ber” means “his/her” God is good. These usages imply that, away from the genderisation of the God in the Bible of God as Man, the word itself is not genderised if we look at its Luhya origins.
Whether the Luhya had this word as the conceptualization of God, before the missionaries came, is another matter altogether. What is certain is that it was co-opted during Biblical translations to local languages to represent the God in the Abrahamic religions.
The Bible, in its use of Nyasaye, when the English Bible was being translated into Luo, carried with it the West’s implicit assumptions of the nature of God, hence as opposed to the Luo conception of God as a vital force, the Bible use the same term to present this vital force as the God of Abraham and Jacob, the God of Israelites. These implicit assumptions have helped to erase the actual conceptualization of God among African people. The Bible, as a propaganda tool against indigenous religions or as a scandal of translation, has achieved greatly the erasure it set out to do, thanks to the work of African Christians.
Perhaps the bigger question should be: what is/was the place of gender in indigenous religious systems? I tend to agree with the notion that the Luo did not have a conception of a single supreme being, and that conceptions of God, were in essence, an acknowledgment of the existence spirits with various capacities. These spirits could take different forms and could be used or could use humans to achieve ends which could be negative (causing harm to the greatest number of individuals) or positive (having benefits for the greatest number of individuals) in the community.
African religions and spirituality and associated beliefs and practices focused more on reality, were more organic, and informed various aspects of human life. There was an appreciable element of ancestral worship. Among the Luos, most of the rules in the bigger body of work like Luo Kitgi gi Timbegi (Customes, Beliefs and Practices of the Luo) are akin to the myriad of rules in various books in the Old Testament, and can, to a large extent, be said to have been not only a political governance system (constitution) but also an indigenous belief system. Gender relations in this system were, to a large extent, patriarchal.