- Missing the Luhya terms language and drill down
The Luhya community is one of Kenya’s largest ethnic groupings, mostly situated in the Western region of Kenya. They have a rich cultural heritage that includes distinct marital rites and behaviors. The Luhya marriage is earmarked by numerous cultural traditions, starting from courtship, introduction, bride price negotiation, wedding ceremony, handing over the bride, cultural rituals, and blessings from the elders.
The marriage process begins with courtship between the groom and the bride which either the groom or his parents can initiate. There follows the betrothal where the groom’s family, normally his uncles or close friends to his father, formally visit the bride’s parents and declare the groom’s intentions to marry the bride (Mwene, 2018). Upon acceptance of the request, there then follows an engagement process where the bride price is agreed upon and a date is set for the dowry payment. Once all this is settled, the families agree on a date for the marriage ceremony where the daughter is finally taken to the groom’s home to formally become a wife.
The bride’s family is more involved in the marriage ceremony as they host the party. The marriage ceremony is a major rite of passage among the Abaluhya and usually involves a large feast where all members of the community are invited. The bride’s mother and aunts are the main cooks, preparing traditional meals and delicacies for the many guests in attendance (Mwene, 2018). The bride’s sisters and female cousins referred to as “Bakesia” in Luhya serve as the bridesmaids and often entertain the guests with dance and songs. The groom’s brothers, cousins, and peers serve as the groomsmen and help with slaughtering the animals and all the other physically demanding activities at the feast. The Fathers and uncles of both the groom and bride often spend time together drinking and making merry. This is a significant sign of the strength of the newly formed bond between the two families.
The bride price or the dowry is usually offered as a token of appreciation to the girl’s parents for a good upbringing. It also serves as a solace for taking the girl from her home, a token for the chores and duties that she will no longer perform at the homestead and which she will, instead, transfer to the groom’s home. The bride price consists of 13 to 20 heads of cattle, depending on the subtribe (Bulimo, 2013). The bride price was not negotiable or revised downwards and could only be increased depending on the economic well-being of the groom.
Traditionally, the bride was supposed to wear skirts made of sisal threads, feathers on the head, necklaces, bangles, and earrings. Their chest would be bare as breasts were not considered a part of nudity (Mwene, 2018). Grooms would wear garments made out of goatskin that would be passed under one armpit and tied with a leather strap over the opposite shoulder. They would also adorn large feathers over their heads. These attires have been phased out by more modern clothing which is made mostly of the Swahili kitenge.
The exchanging of presents at a Luhya marriage ceremony is an important aspect of their cultural traditions. Marriage is viewed as a relationship not just between the bride and groom, but also between their families and communities in the Luhya culture. The exchange of gifts plays a vital role in affirming the union, honoring traditions, and strengthening the connections between families. It is a way of showing respect, appreciation, and support for one another while ensuring the well-being and happiness of the newly married couple. Modern ceremonies, however, have replaced these gifts with money and other modern equipment (Welter, 2019). Even the bride price has been replaced with money in modern weddings.
Parents of the bride and groom’s families are vastly important to the ceremony. They are the heads of that particular unit in the community and their conduct would be a representation of the larger family and would determine its stature in society (Bulimo, 2013). Their children and other relatives had to adhere to certain codes of conduct to ensure the smooth running of the ceremony. Female parents and relatives were largely involved in cooking and serving the guests while the males offered help with physically tasking roles.
The main rituals and ceremonies that occurred before the marriage were the betrothal, the engagement ceremony, and the dowry payment ceremony. The event was often a low-key event that involved only the bride’s family and representatives from the groom’s family, usually uncles of the groom otherwise known as the “Bakhocha”. It comes immediately after courtship once the bride has accepted the groom’s advances. That was followed by the engagement ceremony where the two families entered into a formal agreement that their children would engage in marriage.
While the betrothal period is not formal and either the bride or the groom can back out from the union, the engagement is recognized under customary law and is binding (Bulimo, 2013). It is followed by the dowry payment ceremony which is usually a large feast where all the community members are invited.
A traditional marriage ceremony is an important event for the couple, their families, and the community at large. Marriage is considered a great unifier in the community and the family is an important pillar in the general social structure. The strength of the community is highly dependent on the strength of the family unit. The success of the marriage ceremony is usually indicative of the strength and the uniting bond of the community. The moral fortitude of the bride and groom and their families are also to the test during the traditional marriage ceremony. They are tested on their knowledge of and ability to follow traditional Luhya customs and practices, which is considered an indication of their inherent Luhyaness (Mwene, 2018). The two families are bound by the marriage between their children and must respect their laws and customs. There is a great deal of respect between in-laws, with the groom and his family always showing immense respect during interactions. In respect of this bond, the two families committed to seeking solutions for conflict within themselves before they engage external parties when a conflict arises. During the day, all community members dance together, sharing happy and respectable tunes and melodies. The night however, is dedicated to the pubescent unmarried youth who mingle and share in naughtier songs and dances (Mwene, 2018). Many courtship processes begin during the night dance at wedding ceremonies. Traditionally, the bride was supposed to wear skirts made of sisal threads, feathers on the head, necklaces, bangles, and earrings. Their chest would be bare as breasts were not considered a part of nudity (Mwene, 2018). Grooms would wear garments made out of goatskin that would be passed under one armpit and tied with a leather strap over the opposite shoulder. They would also adorn large feathers over their heads. These attires have been phased by more modern clothing, made mostly of the Swahili kitenge.
The traditional Luhya marriage is vastly different from a Western marriage in numerous fundamental ways. Firstly, while European marriages are deeply religious, the Luhya marriage is a traditional affair where culture takes precedence over religion. While Western marriage vows are often a covenant between the couple and God, Luhya vows are a covenant between the couple and the community (Welter, 2019). Luhya marriage ceremonies are feasts that could last a whole day or more, while Western ceremonies are singular events that end abruptly after the couple has spoken their vows. Luhya marriage ceremonies are communal affairs while western ceremonies are familial events.
The Luhya marriage ceremony has evolved to incorporate modern wedding practices. The Abaluhya community is mainly Christian with some Islamic epochs. Most of the traditionalists have been phased out by modernity, mainly through Western education. Thus, most modern marriages comprise Christian and Muslim practices. They are carried out in churches and mosques and follow Christian and Muslim religious doctrines. They involve speaking marriage vows and most couples wear the wedding ring. Modern Luhya has embraced monogamy in place of polygamy, which was the traditional norm (Welter, 2019). Modern couples do not adorn traditional attire but wear suits and wedding gowns. Some parts of the traditional marriage practices have remained, however, with the most glaring being dowry payment and the bride price. The traditional practice of introduction between the families, and the creation of friendship between the families, the exchange of gifts also remains intact.
These changes and adaptations, however, have come amid major challenges. The older generations have heavily criticized modern wedding norms and practices and accuse the younger generations of abandoning their traditions. They feel that the younger generations have been brainwashed by Western norms to abandon important traditions, especially polygamy. The church, on the other hand, fights against incorporating traditional Luhya norms in the wedding practice, arguing that they are akin to idol worship and paganism (Welter, 2019). There has been, however, a reasonable balance that has allowed both traditional and modern wedding practices to coexist.
Bulimo, S. A. (2013). Luyia Nation: Origins, clans and taboos. Trafford Publishing.
Mwene, O. (2018). Luhya marriage traditions. Mulembe Nation. Retrieved May 7, 2023, from https://mulembenation.co.ke/luhya-marriage-traditions-10-unwritten-rules-of-etiquette-to-observe-when-visiting-your-in-laws-in-the-land-of-mulembe/
Welter, L. (2019). African culture vs European culture Kenyans cúlture vs Germany culture. BoD – Books on Demand.