The Luo idea of god

Continuing from where we stopped a few days ago where we treated of African religion in general. We will now look at specific manifestations of the religious experience of different groups found in Africa.

Ogot (1964) notes that the original homeland of Western Nilotes is a difficult historical problem which has defied any satisfactory solution. What little is known is that about 1000CE they were living in the open grass plains of the present Equatorial and the eastern parts of the Bahr el Ghazal province of the Republic of Sudan.

The Luos, a Nilotic group, are divided into three groups; Northern, Central and Southern Luo and are found in Sudan, Ethiopia, Zaire, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The Northern group found in Ethiopia and Sudan is believed to have moved the least as compared to their other kin who moved South to their present homelands in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda.

Studies show, that while the concept of god is similar in some fundamental ways between these groups, there re slight variations that have been attributed to changes in time and space as these groups moved and interacted with others along the way. The argument being advanced here us that a change in the way of life results in a change in the idea of god.

Ogutu (1975) informs us that to the Luo, Jok is the ultimate object of ritual and was worshipped at the chiefdom shrines which were either erected for the purpose or were unusual natural phenomena or outstanding landmarks in the landscape. In most cases, these shrines , those that were built, were the houses/ homes of the leader of the group. The function of Jok, we are told, was limited to the clan and chiefdom. They also believed that Jok rested where people wanted it to rest. One can see here that the god worshipped was still a local god, almost under the direction of its human worshippers. We see eventually, this god transformed to an omnipresent god.

In the same work referred to already, the author, referring to a work by Okot p’Bitek says sacrifices were offered at the chiefdom shrines to Jok (god) and to the ancestors and any hostiles ghosts were dealt with accordingly. It is evident there was some belief among the Luo of a life after death in some form. Where these spirits (ancestors) resided is one that I have not seen answered.

From Ogot (1961), we learn that to the Shilluk Juok. Jok is the greatest spirit, and creator and sustainer of the world and everything in it. He notes, referring to a work by Leinhardt, that Juok is conceived in trinity that is in spirit and body. While referring to an article by Hayley, he says Jok can be seen as a natural power permeating the universe, neither well nor badly disposed towards mankind, unless made use of by man. It can be said that Jok is a kind of impartial, impersonal, limitless and universal power.

Ogot argues that because the people believe the vital force, that is, jok, can only be received through intermediaries as the ‘spirits of the air’ or prophets. For this reason, it is expected that the ancestors or medicine-men, diviners should be treated with respect.

To the Padhola, another Luo group, Were (god) is conceived of as one Supreme Being that manifests itself as Were Madiodipo ( god of the courtyard), Were Othim (god of the wilderness). The name of god is never spoken, but always referred to as Jamalo ( the one from above) (Ogot, 1972).

It should be noted, in passing, that to the Central Luo, the idea of a god responsible for man’s suffering did not exist.

As I mentioned in the beginning, that the idea of god is determined in time and space, the Luo concept of god changed during their migration from a god that rested where the community wanted it to, to a god found everywhere (Nyakalaga). What merits comment here is that the sun and other stellar objects, as many others have claimed, was not worshiped as a god but rather was seen as a manifestation of god, that is, the sun as the eye of god.

While it is generally believed by majority of Kenyans that the Kenyan Luo have always been fisher folk, this is in deed far from the truth. Evidence show that they were pastoralists and agriculturalists and only adopted fishing once they settled around the lake region. Fishing became a religious activity centered on the fishing vessel.

It is to be noted, to the Luo, any doubt on the existence of god Nyasaye/ Were/ Jok was an absurdity.

The Luo of Kenya perceive god as  jachwech (moulder), nyakalaga (omnipresent) and jarit (protector). Unlike other groups, for example the Jews with their god of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, the Luo see god as wuon ogendni (guardian of all people).  God is also said to exist in space (nyakalaga- everywhere present) and in time (wuon kwere- father of ancestors).

The cosmology of the Luo simply states that god moulded the earth. A creation ex nihilo is a concept they have no word for.

Ogot (1961) The Concept of Jok. African Studies, Vol 20 2.

Ogot (1964). Kingship and statelessness among the Nilotes. The Historian in Tropical Africa. 284-304

Ogot (1972). On the making of a sanctuary. The historical study of African Religion. 122-135

Ogutu M.E.G (1975) An historical analysis of the Luo idea of God. Unpublished Thesis, University of Nairobi.


About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

26 thoughts on “The Luo idea of god

  1. Very interesting article.


  2. Veracious Poet says:

    “Where these spirits (ancestors) resided is one that I have not seen answered.” — They resided in an ancestral world which is a peaceful world that exists beyond the physical and they rule the living much like Jesus is believed to be doing now.


    • makagutu says:

      The obvious question to ask is why would African repudiate traditional religions on to adopt one that teaches donkeys talk and snakes walk among people? Is that not moving from enlightenment to a more primitive conception of religion


      • Veracious Poet says:

        You’re right on the issue of moving away from enlightenment. The answer to your question is not that simple. I can only say that Christianity/Bible was instrumental in the colonialisation of Africa.


        • makagutu says:

          I think a longitudinal study looking at the works of missionaries and how it made it possible to colonise Africa should be done


          • Veracious Poet says:

            Ofcourse I understand how it all happened. From the policy of indirect rule to divide and rule. Christianity acted as an opiom but as I have said before, and as in every society, there were certain weaknesses in the African society which made the common people defect to the side of the missionaries. I just think that this topic is complex and requires a whole new chapter so that we can properly trace: How Africans lived, what were the societal weaknesses, why do they think the missionaries were ‘good’, why did they abandon their own gods and turned against their own traditions etc. We have to answer all this before arriving at your question. My friend, you have a way of asking simple questions that requires complex answers.


  3. renudepride says:

    This was very informative, my friend. Thank you. It is interesting to observe the parallels between the Luo as you shared above and what I remember about Christianity. Aside from the name changes (Jok/God) the belief systems seem remarkably similar in some aspects. Naked hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Quite informative, my friend. Thanks.


  5. Unlike other groups, for example the Jews with their god of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, the Luo see god as wuon ogendni (guardian of all people).

    This is a misconception of the Jewish understanding of God or at least it’s not clear what you’re trying to communicate here in terms of the ideas you’re contrasting. Judaism (proper) understands God to be the God of all people. Stories like the prophet Jonah communicate this idea.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. john zande says:

    a change in the way of life results in a change in the idea of god.

    Not a truer word spoken. We see it now with the UFO religions.


  7. nasimolo says:

    This is a gem. It solidifies my latest idea and belief that there is no real battle between Christianity and African spiritual traditions. Only those created by misrepresentation and misinterpretation. I see lots of parallels between the two in this post. Our understanding of God keeps changing as we learn more, we ascend from one glory (knowing) to another, seeing more light (truth) as we progress. It is absurd not to believe the existence of God/ nyasaye/jok/mulungu (regardless of the name one gives)
    The challenge I find in the tradition you mention, similar to mainstream religions, is that jok can only be reached through an intermediary. An intermediary is a guide especially in the initial (initiation) stages, thereafter one if free to enter the sanctum sanctorum.( Sorry for the long reply, the article is very rich) Thank you friend


    • makagutu says:

      No need to apologise, mate. This reply doesn’t even belong to the group of long replies!
      I think out of ignorance, the missionaries misrepresented what they didn’t know and didn’t want to know.

      Liked by 1 person

      • nasimolo says:

        Sure, rather than seat down and learn. It is interesting that guys like Carl Jung sat down on learn from Africa. In one of the references he quites the beliefs of the luhya in Mt.Elgon Kenya.


  8. X says:

    Wonderful. Christianity was in Africa waaaayyy before the conniving ‘missionaries’. Look up Christian Nubian and letters from early African Christians such as Tertullian from 1st and 2nd century. What we as African’s have done wrong is rid of our culture in the name of the God of colonialism-Christmas in fact enriched our ancestral foundation’s rather that uproot them all. Peace, love and blessings from Nyasae to you all!


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