“Nyadhi” – A Luo Philosophy of Self-love, Self-virtue, Achievement and Honour


A friend, defined the Luo concept of “Nyadhi” the amalgam of pride, style, and confidence. I found the definition a little light, not meaty enough. I also remembered the definition of nyadhi and its translation into English, which in most cases takes the form of a combination of pride, style, confidence, arrogance etc often left something out. It is a question we’ve struggled to tackle many times with another friend. The definition of nyadhi as pride + style + confidence, feels light. I differ with the idea that nyadhi was universal to the Luo Nation’s DNA and everybody, by virtue of being a Luo, had it. I argue that it was an ideal that was pursued and could be achieved. I attempt to bring broaden the understanding and illustrate its definitions among the Luo.

When we approach nyadhi philosophically, we find that it relates more to self-love and self-virtue. It is akin to what Aristotle called Philautia (in Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics) – “to love yourself” or “regard for one’s own happiness or advantage”. Philautia, understood as self-love, can be positive or negative/ healthy or unhealthy.

Healthy self-love is closer to what grows from what the psychologists call high self-esteem, that is, a high cognitive and emotional appraisal of selfworth. It is a matrix through which one thinks, feels, acts and reflects on one’s relation to oneself and to the world. High self-esteem should not be used interchangeably with self-confidence, because self-esteem encompasses how one evaluates all the other emotional states such as triumph, adversity, despair, pride, shame and many others.

Unhealthy self-love is akin to hubris. This is the self-obsessed love. It is an inflated sense of one’s status, abilities, and accomplishments, accompanied by haughtiness or arrogance. While healthy self-love dedicates oneself to the search of truth, wisdom, justice and beauty; unhealthy self-love is not in accord with truth and promotes injustice, conflict and enmity. Unhealthy self-love, is what the Buddhists expressed as desires of the self, which is the root of all evil, unless it is balanced with karuṇā (self-compassion).

Healthy self-love must pair “the love of oneself” with self-virtue. This, I believe, is the same foundational philosophy of nyadhi among the Luo. It is for this reason that ‘Nyadhi’ as a philosophical concept is found alongside others like Pakruok, which is an incantation of one’s own or another person’s praises by members of the audience in turns between songs. Pakruok is not just about self-praise but an expression of social and personal relations through poetic talk or in storytelling (“gano” – tell a story, “sigana” – story). Pakruok is also referred to as “chamo nyadhi” which is a display of virtue or simply “virtue boasting” or “self-laudation.”

Professor Bethwel Ogot, in “Kenya: The Making of a Nation: A Hundred Years of Kenya’s History, 1895-1995″ refers to nyadhi as “virtue boastingbut also adds that “or just plain Luo arrogance.” I don’t agree with the second part, but it is understandable, in the context it was used, because he was describing Hezron Gumbe who used to emphasize to his youthful children that “odak ka ja nanga” to imply that he was a civilized being, putting on clothes, an elite who lived like a white man, complete with bicycles, table manners and serviettes, and mandatory piano lessons at the British Council Conservatoire of Music for the children of elites in the 1950s.

Nyathi was an ideal people aspired to and some achieved. It was not something you are born with simply because one was a Luo. Luoness was only a path one could travel to achieve nyadhi. Nyadhi is virtuous, and dressed in solid achievement. It is not over-confidence or vain boastfulness.

When David Parkin in The Cultural Definition of Political Response: Lineal Destiny Among the Luo” (1978) 
explained that “the recognition among the Luo that socioeconomic status is most easily observed and measured through the achievements of an individual rather than a group is expressed in the concept ‘sunga’ (a proud person)”, Dr.Benjamin M. O. Odhoji – who has written abundantly about the Luo – was quick to point out that “sunga” does not accurately translate to a “proud person” but simply pride aka “a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements.”

In Dholuo Grammar for Beginners, Peter Onyango Onyoyo uses nyadhi and pride interchangeably, but goes ahead and specifies that nyadhi is pride usually in a positive sense. This definition does not take into account the virtue component in nyadhi simply because of the lack of equivalent word in English. Niemeier-Dirven and René Dirven in “The Language of Emotions: Conceptualization, Expression, and Theoretical Foundation” clarify that while “sunga” and “nyadhi” are virtually some form of proud, nyandhi has positive while sunga has negative connotations.

Style in nyadhi should be understood in the context of how Odoch Pido defines it in “Jaber: Reflections on a Luo Aesthetic Expression” defines nyashi as befitting finesse. I’m tempted to believe he refers to high taste as it was understood before Kant’s publication of a Critique of Judgement severed the concept of taste from its moral sense and reduced it merely to an aesthetic one.

If you read Margaret Ogola’s “The River and the Source” you’ll see that the sentence “He rose beautifully to the occasion. After all style had to be met with style, nyadhi with nyadhi” shows a clear difference in meaning between the two concepts. In another section she defines Owuor Kembo, a young single chief, as a person of “great nyadhi, that is full of style and presence”, denoting that style is an important element, but only in the presence of honor and achievement (a young chief).

In the old days, a young man could become ja nyadhi when his father gave him a ceremonial shield (okumba), which was a source of pride and he could brag to his age-mates and peers, or showing his shield (kuot), an indication that his father loved him. Paul Mboya’s “Luo Kitgi gi Timbegi” (p. 157) explains that while okumba was made from buffalo skin, kuot was made from cow skin. Okumba was bigger and heavier in size and was carried by senior warriors in war, or was simply held as a ceremonial shield. I’m illustrating this so that the idea of honor and achievement becomes very clear. In those days, hundreds of years ago, elephants and buffalos and most of the big game used to roam Luoland.

If we borrow from the understanding thatPhilautiacan either be positive or negative, then we can understand why Peter Onyango Onyoyo stresses that pride in nyadhi must be of the positive sense, which when we add to the conceptualizations of Ogot and Odhoji which incorporate a virtue sense, then despite the lack of an equivalent in English, we can conclude that the Luo concept of nyadhi is healthy self-love and self-virtue, and since, as Aristotle taught that virtue is the highest good, so was nyadhi, self-love and self-virtue which manifested as high and positive levels of achievement, at the personal level, and at the societal level.

This is the definition that is captured in “African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry”, which defines nyadhi as “the practice of displaying one’s worth, which can comprise of possessions, moral qualities, intellectual abilities, or some coveted social or professional role. What is displayed need not be actually possessed, for it is sometimes enough that a person only identifies with such publicly coveted qualities and achievements as a way of playfully enhancing and displaying one’s perception of publicly recognized values” (p. 97).

It is in the element of Pakruok that this display of perceived possession is allowed, that a person may make claims for him/herself which both the person and his/her audience know to be false in real life. In this sense, nyadhi and pakruok are close to each other as playful social norms. This Pakruok, in the sense of chamo nyadhi, can manifest, in meetings and discussions, when people’s socioeconomic status are expressed as initially lavish displays of prestige competition through cash donations.

Another central element of Pakruok is humour, which is used in nearly the same way Marcus Tullius Cicero argued for wit and humour in oratory. Cicero noted that knowledge of very many matters was important, “without which oratory is an empty and ridiculous swirl of verbiage (volubilitas inanis atque irridenda est)”, but “to this there should be added a certain humour, flashes of wit, the culture befitting a gentleman, and readiness and terseness alike in repelling and in delivering the attack, the whole being combined with a delicate charm and urbanity.”

Pakruok generously employs wit and humour.

On the whole, Nyadhi ought to be understood as part of the Luo philosophy of self-love, self-virtue, achievement and societal honour – all ingredients of a well-lived life.

Our cultures and languages are rich, and our philosophies are complex and beautiful. We should study them more and integrate the most beneficial elements in our daily lives.

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