Animistic Beliefs and Religious Practitioners and How to Reconcile Them to
by Dennis Okoth
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
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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
King, Noel Q. 1986. African Cosmos: An Introduction to Religion in Africa.
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.
All pages Copyright ©2002 by
Gailyn Van Rheenen..
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