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The Bukusu People of East Africa: Tracing Their Ancestral Heritage and Origin Story

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The Bukusu people, also known as Babukusu, are part of the Luhya Bantu tribe in East Africa.

They reside primarily in the counties of Bungoma and Trans Nzoia in Kenya and are closely related to other Luhya people and the Gisu of Uganda.

The Bukusu dialect is their primary language, and they make up about 34% of the Luhya population, making them the largest tribe in the Luhya nation.

According to Bukusu myths, the first man, Mwambu, was created by God the Creator, Wele Khakaba, from mud at a place called Mumbo in the west.

God also created a woman named Sela to be Mwambu’s wife. Mwambu and his descendants then migrated out of Mumbo and settled on the foothills of Mount Elgon, known to them as Masaba, where their descendants grew to form the current Bukusu population.

Anthropologists believe that the Bukusu people did not become distinct from the rest of the Luhya population until the late 18th century at the earliest.

They were part of a larger group of people who migrated into central Uganda, many of whom formed the eastern extension of the Bantu migration out of central Africa.

The Bukusu clan includes a subdivision called ekholo, which includes several sub-tribes such as Baala, Bakibeti, Bakibumbi, Batilu, Bameme, Baloncha, Bayundo, Bakimweyi, Bakongolo, Babhichachi, Baengele, Batukuika, Batecho, Bachemwile, Bakoi, Basekese, Balunda, Babulo, Bakhoma, Balukulu, Basefu, Babhuya, and Basonge.

Settlement of Bukusu People

The Bukusu people have a rich history that is steeped in myth and legend. According to Bukusu oral traditions, the tribe’s ancestors were created by God the Creator, Wele Khakaba.

The first man, Mwambu, was fashioned from mud and given a wife, Sela, to help him populate the earth. The Bukusu people believe that they originated from a place called Mumbo, which is situated in the western region of present-day Kenya.

Anthropologists argue that the Bukusu people did not become a distinct sub-nation of the Luhya people until the late 18th century.

Before this time, they were part of a larger group of people who migrated out of central Africa as part of the Bantu expansion.

Together with other Luhya sub-nations, the Bukusu people are believed to have first settled north of Lake Turkana, in a place called Enambukutu. From there, they migrated to the Cherangani Hills, where they settled in a place called Embayi or Silikwa-mbayi.

After encountering a series of bad omens and other misfortunes, the Bukusu people dispersed and took six different routes.

Also read: The Antemoro People of Madagascar -Culture, Religion & Language

Five of these routes took them around the western side of Mount Elgon, while the sixth route led them via the eastern side of the mountain.

The Bukusu people who took the western side routes included the Basilikwa, the Banabayi, the Baneala, the Bakikayi, and the Bamalaba. The Mwalie cluster, on the other hand, took the eastern side route and settled at the Mwalie hills.

Today, the Bukusu people primarily inhabit the counties of Bungoma, Trans Nzoia, Uasin Gishu, Kakamega, and Busia in the western region of Kenya.

They share many cultural practices and customs with the Bamasaba people of Uganda, who are closely related to the Bukusu.

Interestingly, the colonialists referred to the Bukusu people as Kitosh, a derogatory term derived from the Nandi and Kwavi languages.

The name means “the terrible ones,” and it was used to describe the Bukusu warriors, who were known for their ruthlessness and bravery on the battlefield. However, through campaigns led by local activists, the name Kitosh was eventually replaced by Bukusu in the mid-1950s.

The Bukusu people did not have a centralized authority structure, and instead, their villages were led by elected village headmen known as Omukasa.

These headmen were responsible for the administration and governance of their respective villages. In addition to the Omukasa, there were also respected healers and prophets who gained high status within the community due to their knowledge of traditional medicine and religion.

One such notable figure in Bukusu history was Elijah Masinde, who was revered as a healer and resistance leader during the early 1980s.

Masinde’s reputation as a traditional medicine man and his political activism made him a prominent figure in the Bukusu community.

Despite being arrested and imprisoned by the British colonial authorities several times, Masinde continued to advocate for the rights of his people and their independence. His legacy continues to inspire the Bukusu community to this day.

Tradition – Family structure, Marriage

The Bukusu family structure is based on the Luhya structure, but with unique characteristics specific to Bukusu culture.

Polygamy was and still is a common practice among the Bukusu people, with the first wife being accorded a special status among her co-wives.

Society is entirely patriarchal, and women were present not only as child-bearers but also as an indication of status. In addition, the practice of polygamy meant more hands to work the fields, which was an advantage in a society founded on agriculture.

Children inherited the clan of their father and were not allowed to marry from either their own clan or their mother’s clan.

The first son of the first wife was usually the main heir to his father, and he had a special name denoting this status: Simakulu.

At birth, children were usually named after grandparents or famous people, or after the weather.

Male and female names were different: male names frequently began with ‘W’, while female names usually began with ‘N’. For example, a boy born during a famine could be named ‘Wanjala’, while a girl could be named ‘Nanjala’. Both names share the same root word, ‘njala’, from ‘eNjala’, the Bukusu word for hunger.

The Bukusu practice male circumcision, which is thought to have been adopted from contact with the Kalenjin at Mount Elgon.

However, some argue that the presence of the practice in the other Luhya tribes indicates an earlier adoption, before the Bukusu settled at Mount Elgon.

In ceremonies that were spaced about two years apart, young boys of a particular age (usually about 15 years) would, on getting the go-ahead from their parents, invite relatives and friends to their initiation.

The initiation was a public event, witnessed by all. Going through the operation without showing any sign of pain is thought to be an indicator of bravery. Once circumcised, an initiate became a member of an age group.

There are eight age-groups known as ‘Bibingilo’. These are (Bakolongolo (2000-2010), Bakikwameti (2012-2022), Bakananachi (2024-2034), Bakinyikeu (2036-1946), Banyange (1948-1958), Bamaina (1960-1970), Bachuma (1972-1986), Basawa (1988-1998)), forming a cyclical system spanning over 100 years, with each age-group lasting for 12 years (composed of 6 sub-sets of 2 years each) apart from Bachuma which lasts for 16 years (made up of 8 sub-sets of 2-years each), one of which lasted from 1872–1886.

The reason for this was the tradition that there was an old man of the age group of Basawa from the previous cycle who was still alive and he was not meant to live and see the next Basawa.

Eventually the old man died in 1884, and the Basawa ensued the next initiation period in 1888.

It was then agreed to avoid such delays, and that any man who lives long enough to appear reaching the second cycle would be killed.

This has been the tradition since then. Once the last age-group has been reached, the first is restarted, and so on. Each age group is represented once every century.

In addition to intermarriages with the BaMasaaba, the Bukusu also had interactions with neighboring communities such as the Kalenjin and Maasai.

During times of famine, the Bukusu would sometimes purchase children from their Kalenjin neighbors to help look after their cattle.

They would also send their own young boys to live with Kalenjin or Maasai families, which served not only to strengthen ties between the communities but also for espionage purposes.

It is said that the Bukusu had a reputation for being wealthy and prosperous, with cattle being the main form of exchange alongside cowrie shells.

This wealth sometimes led to envy from neighboring communities, but also admiration. Many values, such as the beauty of a girl or the price of land, were expressed in terms of the number of cattle one possessed.

In Bukusu society, duties were segregated by gender and age. Women and children were responsible for housework and agricultural duties, while older boys looked after cattle.

Young, newly married men formed the community’s warriors, while middle-aged men did little.

The village’s council of elders, made up of older men, resolved disputes and enforced punishments for crimes.

Punishment for crimes was often on an eye-for-an-eye basis, while theft and other petty crimes resulted in the perpetrator being expelled from the village and their property confiscated and redistributed to the victim.

Marriage customs varied between arranged marriages and enforced eloping, with bride price being discussed and paid before the girl would be sent to live with her new husband.

In-laws were highly respected, and physical contact between a lady and her father-in-law or a man and his mother-in-law was not allowed.

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