Luo Animistic Beliefs and Religious Practitioners and How to Reconcile Them to Christ

by Dennis Okoth

Introduction

The Luo community live in the western part of Kenya around Lake Victoria. The Luos are a Nilotic group who migrated to Kenya at the end of the fifteenth century (Trillo 1988, 132). The Luos are the third largest tribe in Kenya. They occupy Siaya, Kisumu and South Nyanza districts of Nyanza Province.

The Luos, like other African societies, make their application to the deities in submission and reverence. The prayers of traditional Luo are offered very early in the morning and late in the evening by spitting towards the sunrise and sunset and uttering magical words that connote request for blessing. This is performed by the homestead leader, who is the oldest man in the home.

There are religious intermediaries among the Luo. These include medicine men, diviners, witches and sorcerers. The Luo were introduced to Christianity when the first missionaries arrived on Africaís east coast. Traditional religious beliefs have fiercely clashed with the Christian gospel. The Catholic and the Anglican churches brought in some social and religious instability among the Luos, especially in their polygamous marriage lifestyle. The social life of the Luo was strictly governed by taboos, rites and regulation before the coming of the Christian religion. This paper addresses issues that are a major concern to evangelism among the Luo. These are the issues concerned with the Luo belief system and how animistic religious practitioners among the Luo can be reached with the gospel of Christ.

Luo Animistic Beliefs

The Luo recognize a supreme being whose common name is Nyasaye. He is described as Nyakalaga, the one who dwells everywhere. Legend attributes to Nyasaye an anthropomorphic form. He works and continues to support the universe he created in the totality of his creation. Nyasaye is considered to be without matter. He is powerful and intervenes directly in the daily activities of man. He can create and destroy man. He can send various sicknesses, disasters and punishment when he is angry. He is also the source of manís blessing (gueth).

The basis of the religious belief among the Luo is built on the worship of ancestral spirits. Ancestral worship becomes intelligible in the context of what constitutes a man. The Luos believe that man is made up of visible and invisible parts. The invisible part is known as "tipo". The union of the visible part (the body) and the invisible part (tipo or shadow) forms life. They believe that at death the body becomes dust and the shadow vanishes and becomes spirit. It retains the individualís identity and becomes more intelligent and powerful than it was before death. They believe that this spirit continues to exist as long as those who recognized it are still alive. He becomes a demon (jachien) when the circumstances of his death and burial were not honorable. The living dead are only effective on the generation level. Only spirits of a clan can haunt the living relatives of that clan.

Death is a big issue among the Luos. There is always a cause for the death. Among the Luos there is no "natural death." A man who dies of old age has been called by the ancestors to join them for more duties because they believe that spiritual beings are more powerful than the living.

Death marks the beginning of an elaborate rite of passage for both the dead person and his living kin. At death a manís physical body is disposed of in a highly respected manner with all ceremonies that befits it. The burial is a whole community affair. People come from far and wide to wail and dance to chase away the "death spirits" who came to take away the deceased. Once the corpse is buried the process of cleansing starts. A bull must be slaughtered for the final sacrifice. There are also death dances for the recognition of the transition.

The relationship between the dead and their living kin is expressed most fully in the ritual of sacrifice. In many African societies, sacrifice is made to ancestors or gods periodically, but the Luos sacrifice only on special occasions. The ritual of sacrifice consists of various elements, namely, the consecration of the animal to be sacrificed, the killing and the offering of the animal, and the distribution of meat and blood among the living members of the lineage.

If the living dead are offended, the head of the household must seek help from experts who are diviners on what to do. The concept of the living dead was significant because it served as a moral restraint on the people still living, preventing them from mistreating those who would otherwise have been helpless in the absence of their dead relatives, mostly orphans. Prayers were only offered when there was abnormality in the smooth running of the Luo life.

Religious Practitioners Among Luos

Medicine Men. This word was used to cover everyone who carried out religious services in the community. They had power to heal sicknesses. Their duties include making sacrifices and offering advice on religious matters. They use herbs to cure different types of sicknesses. The practice was inherited. A father could pass on his medical expertise to his son.

Diviners. The process of divination among the Luos is called "goyogagi" ("casting pebbles") or "mbofua" (the board). The term "diviner" (ajuoga) describes the work one does. He is a specialist in dispensing medicine and magic. He can diagnose illnesses that are usually difficult to determine because they involve the superhuman world of the spirits. He can prescribe cures that involve appeasement of the spirits by means of sacrifice or cleansing. When going to diviners, one must carry with him a present (chiwo). The diviners primarily deal with the spirits of those who have died. The methodology used by diviners involves rubbing one flat piece of wood block on another calling names of spirits. When the two pieces stick together, then he has spotted the spirit and will be able to deal with it.

They also use seeds from wild beams or cowrie shells. They cast these and can be able to spot the wayward spirit that is causing trouble through this method. The results are interpreted according to how they are arranged on the mat.

Most diviners rely on the dead for their knowledge. Consultation with the dead is done in the dark. Only he can see and talk to the spirits. Most of the time the patient will hear the voice of the spirit conversing with the diviner.

Witchcraft and Sorcery

Witchcraft is a mystical power by which some people are thought to be able to harm or kill others when they do not like them, whereas sorcery is the use of some material object for the same purpose (Van Rheenen 1991, 162). Witches and sorcerers among the Luo are known as "jojuogi". This word has its root in spiritism. It means "aligned to the spirits." Witchcraft power is seen as misapplied power and abuse of it. Usually a man accused of witchcraft feels offended and denies it. Women with evil eyes are also grouped with witches and sorcerers. Both of them are given inverted attributes which have some mythological figures in them. There are some animals which are associated with witches, who are believed to send them on errands. These witches are spirits embodied in these creatures and enter into special occult relationship with them (King 1986, 72).

Such is the brief content of the Luo beliefs and worldview about God and man. Death poses the greatest fear to the Luos.

Introducing Christ in the Luo Culture

Mugambi observes that "reality in African thought has two modes of existence; the visible and the invisible" (1989, 135). Human life is believed to be indestructible even though the material bodies are temporary. A person continues to exist even after his death. Ancestors who died a long time ago are believed to continue influencing the lives of later generations. As for the human destiny, the rites of passage from birth to death are endorsements of a pattern of change which is immutable. Because of this existential emphasis, the gospel of Christ must be presented in such a way that it addresses this belief. There is much need to make Christianity deeply rooted in the African religio-cultural heritage. Because Luos were highly indoctrinated to denounce their own cultural roots when they became Christians, many practiced syncretism, trying to hold to both their new Christian beliefs and their old cultural roots. There is need for their total liberation so that Christ reigns supreme in their lives.

In Christís ministry there was an intimate connection between the elimination of physical inadequacies and the restoration of spiritual wholeness. Thus a Luo who goes to a shaman should be shown how Christ can address his temporal concerns as well as spiritual ones for the restoration of his broken life. The gospel should be presented from a liberation front. The Luo customs and practices are chiefly motivated by the fear of the spirit world. Jesusí ideals concerning the kingdom of God can serve as a guiding light for the ordering of the Luo societyís life. The ultimate justification for the sustenance of these ideals is God. All human beings are answerable to God for their personal and social conduct. The preaching of the gospel about the kingdom of God being at hand (Mk. 1:14-15) demands that people believe, repent, and be joined to the kingdom.

The Luos need to hear that the ultimate realization of the kingdom of God rests with God alone. His kingdom is always ahead of us. Because God is always ahead of our most earnest endeavors. Those who accept the gospel and believe that in the kingdom of God man will be liberated from all that dehumanizes him, including the Luo terror of spiritual beings, will live a life of faith anticipating the final and total consummation of the kingdom.

As Van Rheenen remarks, "Our God, who is both sovereign and moral, stands above human cultures and judges according to his nature" (Van Rheenen 1991, 300). The Luos have a share in the love of this God. They can be saved by accepting the sacrifice of God, not by devising their own ways of propitiation and redemption.

Conclusion

The challenge of every Christian is to live a life up to the demands of the kingdom of God, believing that ultimately it is God who judges our attitudes and motives. There are many ways in which Luo Christian festivals and rites of passage can be held in such a way that Christ is glorified through them. The Luo live in a cosmos of spirit powers, principles, and forces. They are controlled by the impersonal powers and their manipulations. They must be taught that there is a divine principle, a power for and spirit in all things. The deity finds his focus in the human being who is his special creature. This is the gospel truth that will bring total liberation to the Luo community.

Bibliography

King, Noel Q. 1986. African Cosmos: An Introduction to Religion in Africa. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Mugambi, J.N.K. 1989. African Christian Theology. Nairobi: Heinemann.

Trillo, Richard. 1988. The Rough Guide to Kenya. Reading: Cox and Wyman Ltd.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1991. Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. Pasadena: William Carey Library.


 

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