“Nyasaye” – God for the Luo People

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.

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#Suicide in African Cultures – The Igbo People of Nigeria

The Igbo people of modern day Nigeria conceptualized the idea and act of suicide much the same way as the Luo people of modern day Kenya. The Igbo have a concept known as Nso ani – a religious offence of a kind abhorred by everyone. Nso ani is a sin so grave that it is not only abhorrent to anyone, but it is a sin against the earth itself. Suicide is one of these sins. If we can borrow Chinua Achebe’s exploration of this concept through Things Fall Apart, we learn that a person who commits suicide has committed an evil act, has accepted a bad death, and bad deaths disrupt the normal cycles of life.

As a result, there were harsh consequences for those who committed suicide. First, the very land on which they did this was considered polluted. Such a land could only be cleansed through elaborate rituals. If one hanged themselves on a tree, the tree would be cut down. If one hanged themselves inside the house, say on a rafter, the house would be burned down to prevent another person from committing suicide in the same house. If it was carried in the yam barn, the yams would be burnt down together with the barn. The bodies of those who committed suicide, just like among the Luo, did not receive a decent burial. They were buried in the evil forest. If a person hanged themselves on a farmland, a grave would be dug directly under the hanging body so that when the rope is cut the corpse would fall directly into the grave and be buried. If a person drowned themselves in a well, such a well would be condemned, declared unusable, and it would be destroyed.

In a paper by Norbert Oparaji “A Theological Evaluation of Suicide in Igbo Traditional Culture”, the author notes that the ethno-theological phenomenon of suicide in the Igbo traditional culture pertained to principles such as the character of sin, the common good, the Imago Dei, sanctity of life and atonement. Imago Dei is the theological conception of the “Image of God” and within Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2281) suicide is forbidden by the fifth commandment (“thou shall not kill”) and is considered “gravely contrary to the love of self”. In a sense, traditional Igbo philosophical view of suicide was to a large extent similar to the Christian view, which would be forced onto the people later by the colonialists.

According to Igbo philosophy, the life of a person is circumscribed within Uwa (the world), which is composed of the physical and spiritual, the abode of humans and spirits. The human is composed of ahu(body), mkpuruobi(heart) and nmuo(spirit), and the basic unity of these is mmadu(person). This is different from Greek philosophy, in which Plato held that the spirit of a person is assumed as a separate living entity inhabiting a body, or Aristotle, in which spirit is a form of the body. In Igbo, ahu, nmuo, and mmadu are inseperable, and is expressed as one entity, nmuo, the person.

This inseparability informs the ontological goodness of the human person which is held as immensely significant among the Igbo. Therefore, in pursuit of the ultimate good (summum bonun), the person is guided by the desire for ndu life and its preservation, and that despite the nsogu (difficulties and frustrations), this pursuit should not transgress the moral order. It is not uncommon, therefore, among the Igbo, for prominence given to concepts such as ndubisi (meaning, life is of prime value and should be preserved), ndukaku (life is greater than wealth, hence wealth must not be pursued at the expense of life), or nduamaka (life is good).

The prominence given to ontological goodness of the person in Igbo philosophy informs the harsh view of suicide. Suicide is onwu ojoo (a bad death) and dreaded or regarded as nso ani (taboo or grave sin against natural order). A “good death” will cause the deceased to reincarnate; but “bad deaths” disrupt this cycle – they are unable to join their ancestors or reincarnate.

#Suicide in African Cultures – The Luo Peoples (Kenya)

Among the Luo Peoples suicide was a taboo. People were not allowed to commit suicide. In the old days, in Luo Kitgi gi Timbegi, it was an absolute taboo to commit suicide. The Luo believed that if a person committed suicide, they had become a ghost and would punish people who spoke at their funeral. To prevent this, if a person committed suicide, say hanged themselves on a tree, they’d immediately be cut down from the noose and caned thoroughly. The Luo believed that the caning would stop the ghost of the person or evil spirits from roaming back home and prompting other people to kill themselves.

A person who committed suicide was not mourned, lest evil spirits haunt mourners. Such a person was not given the respect of being buried during the day. They were buried at night. They were not even given the dignity of being buried at home. They were buried outside the fence of the homestead, or e gunda. They were declared outcasts in the community and their stories told in hushed tones. People were warned not to name a child after such deviants. Victims of suicide were publicly shamed.

The Luo people understood suicide as self-murder. If murder is “the unlawful killing of one human by another, especially with premeditated malice”, then “self-murder” is a “crime”, which involves the unlawful killing of oneself with premeditated malice. There was absolutely no justification for suicide, hence the punishment, and the victims were treated the same way as people who committed murder in the community. Even today, it is not uncommon, for a murderer in the village to be murdered, and even if they are jailed, it is not uncommon for their homes will be destroyed and razed down, almost to erase them and their deeds from communal memory. The Luo did not take issues of self-murder kindly. You had to pay for your act, though dead, before being buried. Those who attempted suicide also received maximum flogging. This was to discourage other people from committing suicide. The punishment was to serve the purposes of deterrence.

In a sense, the Luo conceptualization of suicide in ancient times was similar to the Penal code that Kenya inherited from the British colonial system. In Kenya, today, the Penal Code Cap 63, on Offenses Connected with Murder and Suicide, particularly those sections that deal with aiding suicide (Section 225) and attempting suicide (Section 226), states that “Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanor”.

#Suicide in African Cultures – The Kalenjin (Kenya)

20 kilometers West of Eldoret, along the Sosiani River, there is a waterfall, a 70-metre cliff separating a flat land from the rocky escarpment. They call it Koromosho or Chepkit Waterfalls. Old men and women would gather here, convinced that they had become a burden to the community, that they had become too dependent, they would gather here to sing their last songs. It was a ritual, known to many as Sheu.

On these banks, the old of the old, people who felt they had outlived their expectations gathered here voluntarily, sometimes in groups, to hold hands and hurtle down the cliff to their deaths. Their bodies would then be washed by the river downstream and be eaten by wild animals. This was their way of dying in peace without putting undue demand on the community to perform funeral rites, of having complete autonomy of their own lives. This was a common practice among the people we call today as the Kalenjin.

I hear that in Kapsimotwa, located on the Nandi Escarpment in the Great Rift Valley, there is another rocky cliff where old men performed the Sheu Morobi – meaning “there we go forever” in Nandi – jumping 450-metres to their ends.

They did this after ritualistic celebration, of delicacies, honey, and milk, and ceremonies with relatives, who’d feed them with a last delicious meal. They did this to relieve their loved ones from the pain of caring for their old dying bodies. It was an honourable act for an elder to jump off Sheu Morobi.

This ritual, Sheu/ Sheu Morobi, is what we call euthanasia in modern times, practiced here tens and hundreds of years ago.

Is Majimboism the Answer to Kenya’s Political Problems

In the 1960s, US writer, Paul Theroux, described Kenya as a “querulous republic”, as simply an assortment of ethnic communities fiercely competing for control of the centre. Did he see something in us, something that we have been unable to see ourselves, or maybe we have just refused to accept?

I have argued in the past against secession, as pushed by David Ndii, and argued instead for autonomous regions like the Majimbo Constitution one that was supported by Masinde Muliro and Ronald Ngala.

We need to go back to something like the Majimbo Constitution of 1963, the short-lived quasi federal experiment that divided legislative and executive powers between the central government and seven regions. Not only did it seek to create a framework for a just distribution of political power, but it aimed to safeguard the interests of the smaller ethnic groups from marginalization and domination by larger ethnic groups.

At independence, the Kikuyu-Luo alliance was the threat to smaller ethnic groups, and Masinde Muliro argued that federalism would protect the interests of the Kalenjin, Baluhya, and the coastal tribes. The African Kenya Democratic Union (KADU) was founded to defend the interests of the smaller tribes, the so called KAMATUSA (Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana, and Samburu) against the dominance of Kikuyus and Luos in KANU.

Masinde Muliro argued that majimboism was ideal because it provided for “free association” and prevented “imposed unity”.

The Kikuyu-Luo alliance didn’t last long, and has often reappeared with more promises in our short history, but today, the fear is Kikuyu-Kalenjin alliance and the problems foresaw in 1963 are everywhere for everybody to see.

One would think Masinde Muliro foresaw the “tyranny of numbers” ideology.

That is history for you. What you support vehemently today will whip your ass tomorrow. The super brilliant KANU Secretary General, and then Minister for Constitutional Affairs, Tom Mboya, taunted Masinde Muliro’s ideas as “an experiment that [was full of] unworkable and unfair provisions”.

In his book, Not Yet Uhuru, Jaramogi Odinga wrote “the [majimbo] constitution was based on artificially engendered fears, for it is obvious that the European settlers and the British Government helped KADU and accorded it an importance out of proportion to its popular support.”

If Jaramogi was alive today, would he call them “artificially engendered fears”? He added that the a majimbo system was too expensive, in terms of money and personnel, and that it prevented the growth of nationhood and retarded economic development. That it was too legalistic and cumbersome, literally requiring a battery of legal experts and clerks at the Centre and Regions to interpret the dos and the don’ts hidden in the myriad legally worded clauses if it was ever to work.

Ha. Ha. Yet it is the failure of majimbo that opened the door to and strengthened Kenyatta’s Kikuyu-dominated oligarchy, and and Mboya and Odinga were the first victims.

There is a paper, “Is Majimbo Federalism? Constitutional Debate in a Tribal Shark Tank” published by Willy Mutunga and Peter Kagwanja on May 20, 2001. By then, Willy Mutunga was the Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission. Mr. Kagwanja, a doctoral candidate, is a Programme Associate at the Commission. It has a good number of arguments against Majimboism.

The original Bomas drafts had this 1963 vision but the Kibaki government mutilated it and if you are not a child, you can probably remember the anti-Raila propaganda about his talks on Majimboism. You can remember the talks that Raila wanted people to obtain visas while traveling to Mombasa and Kisumu bla bla. The kila mtu atarudi kwao.

In the end, the consensus was a watered down document, that preserved some core parts of the status quo – devolution and the county governments. Still, I have always viewed the 47 counties as an attempt to go back to that lost vision, especially if you look at how the counties are regrouping into economic blocks.

This is what Kenya needs. I believe this is what we lost when Jomo Kenyatta began centralizing the state and killing those who disagreed with his idea of turning the nation-state into his Kingdom.

Maybe we need to reread Masinde Muliro and Ronald Ngala, put KANU aside and relook at KADU’s ideas.

Maybe all we need to accept is that we are “a querulous republic”, now that we have evidence in our 50+ post-independence period, something that the Mboyas and Odingas did not have (they believed too much in Kenyatta’s ‘honesty’), and maybe go back to where we began and start again, on the right path.

Notes On the Secession Debates in Kenya

There is no need for secession, at least in Kenya now. Even if different regions were to secede, say, Kenya ends up divided into two, it would just be the start of a long disintegration process, where every region, loosely based on the semi-autonomous regions (provinces) at independence, will want to be a state. Even if Kikuyuland is joined with Kalenjinland in these debates, there is really no long term justification for the two groups to remain tied in the hip forever, even though they are dominating Kenya’s state infrastructure now. The same applies to the Luos and the other smaller or marginalized ethnic groups. Wandia Njoya also recently wrote a very important analysis of how our ‘tribe’ classifications have been fluid and have changed so much if you look at the classifications in the censuses in pre and post-colonial Kenya.

A recent example is the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. From the 80s to the 90s, SFR Yugoslavia was engulfed in political crisis and inter-ethnic wars due to unresolved issues. In the end, a country that was made up of six republics drawn along ethnic and historical lines: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Add World War II to the mix, add Tito and Slobodan Milošević, add the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, and in 1990 you have the dissolution of the SFR Yugoslavia. From 1990, each of those regions went their separate ways. So from the SFR Yugoslavia which was created in 1943, the breakup which started in the 1990s, led to the independence of Croatia in 1991, Slovenia in 1991, Republic of Serbian Krajina tried between q991 to 1995 and ended up being part of Croatia, Republic of Macedona in 1991, Bosnia and Herzegovina 1995, etc etc. It is contestable whether they have become better states. Also look at the continuing disintegration of the USSR.

The constitution presents secession as a clean deal, signature on a paper, backed by an ideological understanding of self-determination, but in reality, it is a long and painful process, and the benefits are not always guaranteed, especially in Africa. Secession is not always a solution. In most cases, it is a consequence of the weak glues holding the constituent parts of a nation-state melting away. But even if its pursuit is fairly peaceful, say like the referendum for Scottish independence, we also have to look at the history of neighbouring states. In the process of disintegration, what will prevent Somalia from coming for the Northern Frontier District that Kenya stole from them? What will prevent Uganda from laying a stake on the western region of Kenya and the Rift Valley? How about Ethiopia grabbing Turkanaland? Afterall they have been eyeing it since forever. And in that process, Tanzania would simply carter away Kenya’s Coast region. You will find yourself seceding from Kenya only to end up in Uganda or Somalia. LOL.

It is for this reason that for a region to secede, in a volatile region such as ours, it must have a semblance of a standing army to protect itself, not only from the old cruel state it is breaking away from, but also the new neighbours who see it as small potatoes that can be whipped into the bellies with groundnut soup. The police and the army are the state’s tools for enacting the monopoly of violence, at home and abroad. I’m only seeing, say for example Luos throwing stones. I’m not seeing them having machine guns under their beds.

I have written here, a lot about the economic viability of small states, with the exception of a few. If I was to make decisions, Africa itself should have been say 10 huge federal republics, instead of 54+ countries. Populations and market sizes are important factors when looking at the economic viability of a state. Huge nation-states with huge populations, if managed well, become the strongest players in international relations. There is a correlation between population growth and urbanization, and a close correlation with economic development, this is because urban centres are melting pots for innovation and provide environments for increasing economies of scale, if managed well. Look at all the rich countries in the world. They are urban countries. This is why I always find it contradictory when population control, in sparsely populated Africa, is promoted. Just like in every region in the world, the biggest and powerful countries in Africa, will be those with huge populations hence huge markets. Imagine the wealth a company can generate selling nipple rings to 200 million Nigerians compared to 4 million Luos in Kenya.

The nature of the nation-state is also changing. We should be careful not to be stuck on Westphalian sovereignty or the nationalistic impulses of the 19th and 20th centuries. We are now in the age of state captures and corporatocracies and I want to go and live in Mars. Like I always say, even in the midst of political persecution, we should also try to outthink some of these entrenched models of imagining nation-states, , in addition to championing for increased autonomy of counties while killing imperial presidency by changing the structure of government so that a president is not elected through popular vote but through elected representatives from each county.

It is also important not add that the fact that different regions, have at one point entertained the idea, from the North Eastern, to the Coast, to Central at one point, to the loud ethnonationalism in Rift Valley at one time, and the seething sentiment in the Nyanza and Western regions for sometime now, shows that, while some tribes have been bloodied more than others in post-independent Kenya, the cause of this oppression and injustice, has not been tribal groups, but rather the elite group capturing the state, which for a long time has been the group Jomo Kenyatta created to leech the nation. So many people, including Uhuru Kenyatta, are beneficiaries of this system that continues to hold Kenya captive.

Once a while, one one tribe is played against another through propaganda for political expediency, and then state infrastructure is used to profile and persecute certain tribes. The tribes enjoying the privilege of safety at that point are programmed to celebrate the oppression of the other and given crumbs to feel a sense of belonging at the banquet table. Sometimes resources actually flow their way, and development, to psychologically manipulate them that conform and we give you tge cake, rebel and we withdraw the cake, making them perptual slaves to elite manipulation. This cheerleading the oppression of others is what we rage against. But at the root of this is class, and if people could be made to understand this, we’ll be talking about the need of revolution, an act where one class violently overthrows the other, and not secession, because what we need is an equal share at the table. I’m distrustful of Dr. Ndii pigeonholing NASA strongholds, now, with secession calls. If such calls, as I have seen are purely based on tribes, aka the Luo et al, getting their country, one wonders what Dr. Ndii hopes to gain, or he is now the saviour of the Luos (and other unconsulted communities bundled in Country B)?

We have serious historical injustices and political issues, but secession is not the magic bullet. I need more countries in Africa building bigger and stronger political and economic unions. 

“Nu Africa” – @OCTOPIZZO

Octopizzo Da’Illest has a new track out, “Nu Africa” off his upcoming 5th Studio Album. It is an aspirational track, laid-back and mature. Excellent production. Absolutely. The video concept is just too good and is beautifully executed. OCTOPIZZO’s music videos rarely disappoint.

“This is Africa Enterprise and we mean business”, “This is Nu Africa” is the rallying cry.

The track reminded me of Cyhi The Prynce’s (ft. Ernestine Johnson) track with the same name “Nu Africa” – which is a Black-American’s imagination of what would happen if Black-Americans stormed the motherland.

A wonderful production which imagines how American hip hop artists would transform the face of the continent, if they decided to escape the lack of fulfilment in America. It toys with Khaled building a neighbourhood in Tanzania, Jay and Bey buying land in Egypt, Puffy opening a stripper club off the sands of Kenya, Akon lighting the cities, Oprah opening up more schools, Michael Jordan bringing more shoes, going to Utopian Ethiopia for the beautiful women… and Obama becoming the President. It mentions up to 24 countries, bellying with the nostalgia and angst of the black man, and emptiness caused by loss of identity, something that is brought forth forcefully by Ernestine Johnson’s spoken word infusion.

I was expecting a similarly expansive capturing of “Africa” in Octopizzo’s track, albeit from an African’s perspective, but there is little apart from the title and en passant mentions.

The Africa in the track is “Kenya”. Also considering the huge and serious subject matter the track promises, it has too many of Octo’s rhyme book fillers (1.45 – 2.22, 3.20-4.00) that would have given space to better content, however, the hook maintains the soulful Africa feel, and the little speech at the end saves it from superfluousness, and refocuses it to the original vision of Nu Africa.

There’s this track, “Last Shot” ft Danton & M Lay on the war and refugee crisis in Sudan that had almost none of such filler rhymes, though the video production was basic and it was definitely produced to be a club banger.

Great ambition Octopizzo. Keep repackaging yourself. It is becoming better. The album will definitely be a chart topper.