So You Want to Know About…the Luo

Another thing that came up in a recent email exchange was a request for “starter scholarship” on a particular African nation. For most contemporary African countries, I really feel that there is not a single great “done-in-one” book that is about that nation’s history in general. There are very good books about regions, about particular ethnic groups, about issues which affect multiple nations in Africa, or about localities and communities. But I get these requests so often in email, often from people who are planning to travel to some particular African country or who are soon to be stationed there in the Peace Corps or for some other reason, that I was thinking that I should publish a regular series of bibliographic recommendations.

So let’s start with a very appropriate list given the November news: the Luo people of Western Kenya, where the President-Elect’s father was from.

The Luo people live in present-day Kenya and parts of Uganda and Tanzania. They speak a Nilotic language related to languages spoken elsewhere in northeastern Africa. Much of the attention to their history and experience as a people centers on their political and social status within Kenya since independence.

None of these books are popular page-turners, keep in mind. I’m very fond of the Cohen-Odhiambo books not just because of personal connections but also as historiographical and methdological statements, but if your goal is to get a simple working knowledge of the Luo, you may find them frustrating.


Tom Mboya, The Challenge of Nationhood: A Collection of Speeches and Writings
The words and thoughts of the charismatic Luo nationalist (who started a scholarship program that benefitted the young Barack Obama Senior, the President’s father). Mboya was assassinated in 1969.

E.S. Atieno Odhiambo and David William Cohen, Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape.
Innovative, unusually structured exploration of themes in the 20th Century experience of Luo communities. Don’t read it expecting to get a bullet-point account of Luo history: it’s an attempt to explore the meanings and consciousness circulating within Luo communities from the inside out.

E.S. Atieno Odhiambo and David William Cohen, Burying SM. Like Siaya, a deliberately digressive, meditative account, in this case, focusing on the long legal and political struggle over the right to bury a Kenyan lawyer named S.M. Otieno. His wife wanted to bury him as a Christian, maintaining that his primary identity in life was as a modern, educated and national person, while his Luo relatives wanted to bury him according to Luo traditions, maintaining that Otieno had defined himself first and foremost as Luo.

Bethwell A. Ogot, History of the Southern Luo. A very carefully composed and thorough monograph. Not a page-turner but one of those works of history which everyone in the field ends up using as a standard reference.

Parker Shipton, “Debts and Trespasses: Land, Mortgages, and the Ancestors in Western Kenya”, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 62, No. 3, (1992), pp. 357-388. Goes well with Siaya. Shipton has a new book on some of these themes which I have not read yet.

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9 Responses to So You Want to Know About…the Luo

  1. peter55 says:

    “But I get these requests so often in email, often from people who are planning to travel to some particular African country or who are soon to be stationed there in the Peace Corps or for some other reason, . . . “

    And what single, great book would these people who contact you themselves recommend to intending travelers to the USA which would describe coherently the history, geography, languages, politics and cultures of the country?

  2. jpool says:

    Matthew Carotenuto has a couple of articles out from his work on the Luo Union.

    On the brief introduction, I’d be curious as to what you think of the History of… and Culture and Customs of… series that Toyin Falola has been editing for Greenwood.

  3. Doug says:

    de Tocqueville, because if you quote from it with an air of authority, you can fake knowing just about anything else about the US.

  4. moldbug says:

    peter55, I’m quite partial to G.W. Steevens’ Land of the Dollar. And of course there’s always Dickens’ American Notes

  5. withywindle says:

    James MacPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. Or any good book on the Civil War. My experience is that of the various things foreigners don’t know about the United States, and what has made its character, that’s the most important.

    I am, I confess, astonished at how relatively little American history is taught abroad. (Have I mentioned my astonishment on this blog before?) Given our prominence on the world scene, you’d think learning a bit about our past might recommend itself to the enlightened national self-interest of educational bureaucrats abroad.

  6. kimdutoit says:

    For the United States? I would suggest Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing as a seminal work. A little shy on historical reference, to be sure, but the outcome of American history is perfectly explained.

  7. Carl says:

    Re: the U.S. these are all good suggestions, but I think Peter’s point was that no one book or even terrific short list of books can adequately capture the complexity of any country, not even one with a short history like ours. And I agree.

    Still, a start must always be made and so thanks very much Timothy for this. I’m especially looking forward to ordering the Cohen-Odhiambo books for our library and getting my hands on them first!

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree that no one book can, but in some cases, the very best books on African societies don’t take the nation as their subject. E.g., you can find some compelling books on some nations (African and otherwise) which of course do not tell you everything, because no nation is that simple. For other countries, though, I sometimes just have to say, “You’ll have to read about this region or community or ethnic group or phenomenon or cultural movement to get a feel for that nation.”

  9. moldbug says:


    Want a good book on the Civil War? Try George Lunt’s Origin of the Late War – Boston, 1866. Intervening events have hardly clarified matters.

    If you must, however, Charles Francis Adams Jr’s beautiful essay ‘Tis Sixty Years Since is about the latest primary source I can recommend. The scholarship of the early 20th century is good, also – Burgess, Dunning, Randall, Craven, Mary Scrugham. And Beveridge and Masters on Lincoln. I definitely would avoid anything published post ’45. If you have to ask why, you’ve been reading too much of it already!

    For other more primary material, I previously mentioned Dabney’s Defence of Virginia. Full of theology, but if you have a taste for moral hairsplitting, still kind of fun. Also John S. Wise’s End of an Era. A great prewar piece that will really make your head hurt is Nehemiah Adams’ South-Side View of Slavery – Boston, 1854; Adams was a Congregationalist minister. For winter beach reading, however, you really can’t beat Admiral Semmes.

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