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Hello From East Africa: A Letter

Dear friends:

Jambo! My name is Ochieng. I am twelve years old and in sixth grade. I'm writing this letter with the help of my sister, Atieno. She is eight. This year she is not attending school because our parents decided she should stay home and help with family chores. She hopes she can go back to school next year. Through this letter, we would like to take you on a tour of our village so you can learn what it is like to live here

We are Luo people; that is, we are of the Luo ethnic group and we speak the Luo language. Everyone in our village is Luo. That's because we live in the heart of Luoland on the shores of Lake Victoria, near the equator. We are sometimes called 'lake and river Nilotes' because our ancestors lived on the banks of the Nile river in what is now the country of Sudan. Several hundred years ago, our ancestors began migrating south. Because their lifestyle was centered around the Nile river and fishing, they always chose to settle in areas with lakes and rivers. Some of them settled near lakes and rivers in Uganda, but some came as far south and east as Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa. When they found this territory, they naturally felt it was for them and they claimed it as their own.

Luoland, also known as Nyanza, is only one part of our country called Kenya. There are many other people of many different ethnic groups who live in Kenya. Some live only with others of their same ethnicity, like here in our village of Kodiere. But others, especially those who reside in large towns and cities, like our capital, Nairobi, live together with people of many different ethnic groups. So, to make a long story short, there are many different lifestyles and cultures here in our country of Kenya. Life in our village, for example, is different in many ways from life in Nairobi, or life in the Masai grasslands or in the Nandi hills. Despite the differences, though, there are many similarities in our lifestyles, too. In most any part of Kenya, for example, or even in all of Africa for that matter, the life of children like us is mostly made up of four important parts: family, work, school and play.


In African tradition, family comes first. In fact, in Luo tradition, the family you come from is at least as important as who you are as an individual. Most adults refer to young people as "son of" so-and-so or "daughter of" so-and-so, instead of calling the person by his or her actual name. The size of your family is important in Luo tradition, too. If you come from a large family, chances are you will be better known and more respected. In the old days, the number of wives and children that a man had were the most significant measure of his real wealth.

In our modern world, some of these practices are slowly changing, but many traditions hold firm. Today, for example, many younger people in our village do not believe it is right for a man to be polygynous - to have more than one wife. They also believe that a couple should only have a small number of children so they can take care of them well and send them to school. Some people believe that a person should be judged by his or her own behavior and not the family reputation. Many others, though, still follow tradition. For example, we have one uncle who has eight wives and over thirty-one children. He is a rich and powerful man in the community and, needless to say, very well respected.

Many families in our village also live together in a traditional way - that is in 'extended families.' An extended family is one that 'extends' beyond the modern 'nuclear family' of parents and children. It includes grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Traditionally, the father hands down a plot of land to each son. The sons marry, have children and hand parts of their land down to their sons. The result is 'extended families' living in one large area. Now, in Kenya, this tradition is also changing because there is not always enough land to hand down. But well over half of the people in our village still live in extended families.

In an extended family, children actually have lots of 'mothers' and 'fathers.' That's because we call all of our aunts 'mother' and all of our uncles 'father,' and we respect all of them as if they were our actual parents. They, of course, by this arrangement, treat us as their own, too. In fact, in some cases, if we follow tradition, we become their own. We have a tradition where, if a man dies, his brother inherits his wife or wives and all of his children. With this tradition, it was guaranteed that all the wives and children would be taken care of even if their father or husband died. Again, some people still follow this tradition while others do not.

At Home

In Luo tradition, the family lives together in a large home. But, for us, 'a home' (or dala in our language) is not the same as 'a house' (ot). In fact one home might consist of ten or even twenty or more houses. That's because a home is a large dwelling area surrounded by a fence made of trees or bushes. Everything inside the fence is part of the home. There are several houses because each adult has her or his own house. When a boy turns sixteen or so, he can also build a house in the dala. (A girl has to wait until she gets married to build her house in the dala of her husband.) The houses in a dala are usually made with wood, mud which hardens like cement, and thatch or tin (for the roofs). Also inside the dala are several granaries where we store grain and other foods; a fenced area where the domestic animals, like cows, sheep and goats, are kept at night; a couple of old houses that might be used for storage, cooking or roosting the chickens; a burial area; several fruit trees; and, sometimes the slowly disintegrating house of the grandmother who has passed away.

In our culture, the grandmother is highly respected. Traditionally, she is the family storyteller and therefore the main teacher. We have a special custom that shows respect for the grandmother. After she dies, no one is allowed to disturb her house. No one may enter it or touch it or tear it down. It must be left completely alone until it melds with the earth and grass grows over it. Of course, this takes many years; so, the crumbling house is sort of like a monument to the memory of the family's grandmother. Many people believe that if the grandmother's house is disturbed after she dies, the grandmother will haunt the person who disturbs it.

Another special house in our family home is the one where we host guests. Often this is the father's house. It is usually more decorated and has the best furniture. If a visitor enters our home, we will bring that person to the guest house and serve him or her soda or tea with bread or fruit for refreshment. We consider every visitor a special guest and treat them accordingly. But if we receive an extra special guest, we may kill one of our animals, usually a chicken or a goat, and make a meal of it. This is a special occasion, indeed, and one that the whole family enjoys greatly.

Outside the fence of our family home are a pit latrine and large fields where we grow a number of different crops including beans, corn, sukumawiki, potatoes, peanuts, millet, cassava, tomatoes and onions. We also have a large yago tree outside our fence. In our culture, a yago tree is traditionally considered holy. It has long thick pods hanging from it. Our people believed that the spirits of the ancestors lived in these pods. For this reason, it was forbidden to cut down or harm a yago tree. It is also a tradition that when a person dies, his or her body must be brought back to the family home and buried in the special burial area there. If the body cannot be recovered, however, a family member cuts down a pod from the yago tree and buries it in place of the dead person's body.

As with most traditions, some of our people still respect and follow these beliefs about the yago tree, while others don't: to some the yago is sacred, while others won't hesitate to cut it down for much needed firewood. Another ethnic group in Kenya, the Kikuyu people, use the pod of the yago to brew a traditional kind of beer. We brew beer here, too, but it would be considered very bad to do it using the yago tree. We use millet instead.


As I have mentioned, family is the most important thing in our culture. But, a family cannot stand strong without work. Work is what sustains a family. It makes a family able to survive and thrive - so it, too, is very important in our culture.

Each member of the family has different jobs to do. Traditionally, the father is the leader and the guardian of the Luo family, but in order to be respected in these roles, he must be a hard working person. Men usually are responsible for taking care of the family's animals. This mostly entails herding and finding good pasture for them - and making sure they don't get eaten by leopards and hyenas, or stolen by local cattle thieves. Men are also the main fisherpeople in our village. Women and children may fish at times in small rivers, but men fish with nets and canoes in the lakes and catch many more fish. They sell the fish they catch in large markets. Men also tend to be the repair people in our village. We call them fundis. They fix vehicles and bikes, they construct buildings, they repair shoes and watches, and they sew and make clothes. Finally, some men in our village travel to larger towns and cities where there are many nontraditional kinds of jobs like working in offices and factories. These men only come back home once a month or so.

The main responsibilities of the women are taking care of the children, keeping up the home, and growing and preparing food. These are all demanding tasks, but probably most challenging is ensuring that the family has a steady flow of food to eat. And believe me, that means a lot of work! In their shambas (gardens), women dig the soil by hand using hoes, then plant and weed the crops, then harvest and store the food. Harvesting may include winnowing, pounding, grinding and drying the grains or other foods so they are clean, able to be stored, and edible. This is very important work. One of our favorite foods, cassava, has poison in it which is only removed after careful and laborious preparation. And all that work comes before the cooking! When it's time to cook, the woman has to fetch water and carry it on her head, sometimes from as far away as a mile or two.

Helping Out

We children are expected to help out as much as we can and every day we have jobs that we have to do. We boys will help both the father and the mother depending on which one needs more help at the time. Many times we are called upon to herd the animals. Walking around all day with animals can be on the boring side, so we sometimes play games or hunt birds with slingshots while we're on grazing duty. Still, we always have to be on the lookout. Besides steering clear of the hyenas, leopards and snakes (which actually mostly only strike at night anyway), we have to make sure the animals don't trample or, even worse, eat a neighbor's garden. If we do allow this trespass, our family has to pay a fine - and you can rest assured that we would be punished for slacking off on the job.

The girls usually help the mother with her many jobs. One of Atieno's main jobs is selling things in the village center. Even when there is no market, she goes there to sell mangoes, or tomatoes and onions, or mandazi (which are sort of like donuts without holes) to whoever happens to be passing by. If she has luck selling her wares, she may take the money and buy something like flour, sugar or tea at the small shop next to the market place. Or, she may grind some flour at the posho mill or bring an article of clothing, a radio or a shoe, to a fundi to be repaired. Back at our dala, Atieno has to help our mother take care of the younger children. She carries them on her hip all around the home and entertains them so mother can get her work done without too much disturbance.

Some jobs that both Atieno and I do together are fetching water, sweeping out our houses, weeding the shamba and collecting foods that grow naturally around our home, like mushrooms, certain greens, and fruits like papaya, oranges and mangoes. One of our favorite things to collect and eat only comes out of the ground twice a year - flying. I'm talking about white-bellied termites. They are very sweet tasting and, whether fried or eaten straight out of the ground, are considered a delicacy in all parts of Africa. In fact, when the termites come, we are so excited that collecting them hardly seems like work.

Another job which mixes work with fun is bringing things to the market and selling them on market day, which is much different then doing the same thing when it's not market day like Atieno does. Once a week, we have a large outdoor market in the center of our town. People come from miles away, usually by foot, to sell the animals and food they have raised, or the crafts and goods they have made or gathered, like baskets, clay pots, charcoal, fabric and beads. The fishermen bring their fish and some people sell things that they bought in bulk when visiting a larger town, things like soap and flour and tea, or things like pens and notebooks, bicycles and clothes. Selling our products at the market is work, but because market day is such a big and colorful gathering of people and goods, it is also like a big celebration. It's an exciting day for everyone.


Because working to sustain the family is the number one priority, sometimes school is considered a luxury in our village. In some cases, children are kept out of school for a year or more so they can help the family by working around the home. Such is the case with Atieno. But formal education is considered more and more important in our community and most parents try as hard as they can to earn the fees necessary to send their children to the local school. For their part, most of the children like school a lot and complain as much as they can get away with if their parents do not send them there.

At school, we learn reading, writing, art, math, science, agriculture, religion and gym. But school is more than just a place of learning. It's a community gathering place where many of our traditions and practices are kept alive. For example, you may remember that I said the grandmother was traditionally the storyteller in Luo culture. Well, now the teachers have become the storytellers and we learn most of our traditional stories - funny stories about the trickster, rabbit; mythical stories about famous Luo heroes like Simbi Nyaima and Luanda Magere; and historical stories that tell of our migration from the Nile river - at school. We also have traditional dance and music festivals at school which the whole village attends. Now, in our village, school is the only place where these events occur.


School is important, then, because it connects us to our traditional past in a quickly changing world. But it also connects us to that quickly changing world - which we are coming to realize is an equally important connection. We learn about our country's history and government and about the people of other cultures that live in our country. We learn about other parts of the world, too, and we study how Africa has interacted and interacts with them. In school we also learn two new languages, Swahili and English, which help us to communicate with other people in Kenya and the world.

Learning these second and third 'tongues' is very important to us. In our country there are forty-two different languages. In the past this was a problem since it made communication between people who spoke different languages very difficult. When we became a unified country, though, we realized that all groups in our society needed to communicate with each other. So, we chose an African language, Swahili, to be our "national language." But, we also realized that it is important to be able to communicate with people outside of our country who do not speak Swahili. So, we chose to make English our "official language" since it is the most widely spoken language in the world.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to graduate from high school, then, are trilingual - that is, we can speak three languages, Swahili, English and Luo. In fact, once we graduate from sixth grade, we are not even allowed to speak our mother tongue in school. All of our classes are taught in English, except for Swahili class, of course, and even when we are talking with our friends, we are only allowed to speak in Swahili or English. If we get caught speaking our own language, we get punished, often with a stick across our backsides! This may seem strange, but our teachers believe that the best way to learn a new language is to use it all of the time. By forcing us to use English and Swahili, we learn them more quickly.

Only those with a formal education, though, can speak all three languages. Many older people in our village who never went to school and young people, like Atieno, who don't go to school only speak Luo. They may learn a lot of Swahili and English words and phrases because they hear others in the village using them, but they converse in Luo only.

Mother Tongue

Even those of us who learn other languages at school feel most comfortable speaking our mother tongue. It's a fascinating language. Let me teach you a little. You may remember that I started this letter with the word 'jambo,' which means 'hello' in Swahili. If I wanted to greet you in Luo, I would have said,'amosi.' Amosi, as you can see, is just one word; but, in English, it would be three words: 'I greet you.' That's because in Luo, the pronouns are attached to the verb. In this case, a- means 'I,' the verb, mos, means 'greet,' and -i means'you.' So, can you figure out what 'imosa' means? And if I tell you that o means 'he' or 'she,' can you figure out what 'omosa' and 'omosi' mean?

In Luo, the letters O and A are also used in naming. Most boys name begin with O, while most girls names begin with A. Another neat thing about naming in Luo tradition is that at least one of a a person's names tells where or when he or she was born, or what was happening when he or she was born. For example, my name is Ochieng. Chieng in Luo means 'day' or 'sun' or'sunshine.' So can you guess when I was born? Right, during the day when the sun was shining. Can you figure out what a girl would be named if she were born in the day when the sun was shining? If I tell you that 'koth' means 'rain,' can you figure out the male and female names for a child born while it is raining? My sister Atieno's name means 'night' because that's when she was born. So what would a boy born at night be called? Easy, huh?

I'll teach you one more neat thing about our language. If you put a k' (or ka if the person's name doesn't begin with a vowel) before someone's name, it means 'home of' that person. For example, k'Odhiambo means 'the home of Odhiambo' (Odhiambo means 'sunset' or 'evening,' by the way). So if you said, "I am going to k'Atieno,' that would mean, 'I'm going to Atieno'shouse.' Many towns in Luoland are named after their most famous resident, sometimes a local hero. Our village, for example is called Kodiere, since it is named after a famous resident who once had a home here.

Luo is a playful language. It is part of every day talk to make up nicknames, funny sayings and jokes. We fill our traditional songs with lots of sound effects, invented words and 'plays' on words. We children often quote funny rhymes that warn our friends about old superstitions. When these are translated, they lose their rhymes and their humorous use of our language, but I'll tell you a few just so you get the idea. When a hen shakes its feathers at the door of someone's house, we say that it means a visitor will be coming soon. When there is a rainbow, we say that hyenas are getting married - and if someone points at the rainbow, it means they will hurt their back (sort of like 'stepping on a crack') .We also have sayings like, 'If you drink milk directly from the gourd (instead of pouring it into a cup), you will develop a stinky nose;' and 'If you listen to a story during the day time, you will never grow tall,' (since night time was the traditional time for storytelling). Some people believe that some of these sayings are true, but mostly they are said in fun - like a game.


Speaking of fun and games, after family, work and school, play is the fourth main part of a Luo child's life. In fact, whenever the responsibilities of family, work and school leave just a little space, we fill it with play. We play lots of different games and do many fun activities. We play in our houses, in our homes, in the fields around our homes, at school and anywhere else in-between.

At school, during gym class and after classes, we play several different sports including volleyball, basketball, netball and, the favorite of most, futboli (soccer). In gym, we also play games that mix songs with actions, like jumping or picking up stones, to improve our coordination. In one such game, called katore, we sit in a circle and pass stones to the beat of a song we sing. If some one misses a beat and ends up with two stones at once, the song stops until the correction has been made. At recess, we play tag, jump rope or a game called katty. Katty is something like a mix between monkey in the middle and dodge ball. The person in the middle has to stack a certain number of bottle caps or stones to make 'a house' while dodging a ball thrown by the players on the ends. It's lots of fun.

On the way home from school, or while we're out herding animals or just wandering around, we also play. As I mentioned before, we boys like to carry slingshots around with us and pretend we are hunters. We like to fish for fun, too, and might carry a fishing rod with us wherever we go. In the paths and fields of our village, we children like to collect things like bottle caps or certain seeds and flowers; or we pretend we are farmers and 'herd' grasshoppers. When we get together, we pretend that we are at a large market and we trade and sell the 'goods' we have collected. Younger children also play with another insect that burrows in the ground and forms little mounds of dust. The children scoop the dust to the beat of a song until they succeed in scooping out the insect. The insects are humble and harmless, so it is a rule that they must be left free or covered back up with dust when the game is over. Some children even put food next to the mounds of dust to 'feed' their 'animals.'

Back in the dala, we play several games, too. One of our favorites is called mchezo wa majumba which is a version of hopscotch. We prefer to play outside, but if it's raining out, we also play in our houses. We play cat's cradle inside, plus a game that's a lot like checkers. Maybe we like games so much because our ancestors used to play, too. Their favorite was a game called ajwa. Ajwa is a strategic game with a wooden playing board that has two rows of eight holes. Three beans are placed in each hole and the two players have to use a variety of moves and strategies to capture more beans than the opposing player. For some reason, this game is not very popular with Lou children these days, but there are many versions that are still played all over Africa. It is well known in West Africa as ayo or wari.

In our houses, we also like to tell traditional riddles for entertainment. Here are a few for you: 'I'm surrounded by guards;' 'Both laughter and sorrow bring them to your eyes;' 'My house has no door;' 'I have three mouths and even a child carries me around;' 'I can run fast but I have no legs;' 'Soldiers wearing the same kind of hat and sleeping in the same room;' 'I walk over and under water, but I don't touchit.' I'll give you the answers, but not in the right order - so you'll have to figure them out on your own!: an egg; tears; a river; the tongue; pants; a woman walking over a bridge with a pot of water on her head; matches in a match box.

Another thing we like to do is play with toys. We don't have a toy store, so it's up to us to be creative and make some of our own games and toys. That's no problem - in fact it's part of the fun. We collect scraps of tin, old bottle caps, plastic bags, wires and strips of rubber and then we go to work making things to play with. We can make our own toy cars out of these things, or musical instruments - or we use them to play some of the other games I already mentioned. We also like to make houses and buildings out of sticks and mud. If we're lucky and some one in the village has an old bicycle or car, we take the worn out tires or rims and roll them around the village, sometimes having races and pretending that those tires really are our cars.

Kwaheri; Oriti; Good-bye

So, as you can see, from sun up to sun down, our lives are very full. We have family ties, work, academics and play that keep us very busy - and we think we have a healthy lifestyle. In fact we have a traditional proverb that backs up this thinking. It says that if one builds a life with family, work, education and play as the four cornerstones, that person is sure to have a full, healthy and happy life.

We are very happy to be able to communicate with you through this letter and we hope you enjoyed your 'visit.'

Oriti as we say in Luo, or kwahere in Swahili: bye-bye for now.

Your friends,

Ochieng and Atieno

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