The Luo (also called Jaluo and Joluo) are an ethnic group in Kenya, eastern Uganda, and northern Tanzania. They are part of a larger group of ethnolinguistically related Luo peoples who inhabit an area including southern Sudan, northern and eastern Uganda, western Kenya, and northern Tanzania.
The Luo are the third largest ethnic group in Kenya, after the Kikuyu and the Luhya. The main Luo livelihood is fishing. Outside Luoland, the Luo work in eastern Africa as tenant fishermen, small scale farmers, and urban workers.
They speak the Dholuo language, which belongs to the Western Nilotic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family spoken by other Luo-speaking peoples such as the Lango, Acholi, Padhola and Alur (all of Uganda).
The Luo of Kenya descend from early agricultural and herding communities from western Kenya's early pre-colonial history. The Luo people and dialects of their language have historic roots across the Lake Victoria region. Chief among the powerful families to which the Luo trace their ancestry were the Sahkarias of Kano, the Jaramogis of Ugenya, and the Owuors of Kisumu, whose clans married several wives and had multitudes of grandchildren and heirs to various chieftainships.
Leaders of these lineages typically had multiple wives and intermarried with their neighbours in Uganda and Sudan. The Luo tribe, through intermarriages and wars, are part of the genetic admixture that includes all modern East African ethnic groups as well as members of the Buganda Kingdom, the Toro Kingdom, and the Nubians of modern day Sudan.
The Luo had many ethnic enemies with whom they fought for access to water, cattle, and land, including the Nandi, Luhya, Kipsigis and the Kisii. As a result of these wars, peace treaties and intermarriages were accomplished, resulting in a mixture of cultural ideals and practices. As is the case with all so-called tribes of modern day East Africa, Luo history is intricately interwoven with the histories of their friends, enemies and neighbours, attesting to the complexity of East African precolonial history.
The Luo probably originated at Wau in southern Sudan, near the confluence of the Meride and Sue Rivers. The Kenya Luo migrated into western Kenya via today's eastern Uganda, the first wave arriving sometime around 1500 AD. Arrivals came in at least five waves arriving at different times:
- The Joka-Jok (who migrated from Acholiland, the first and largest migration)
- Those migrating from Alur
- The Owiny (who migrated from Padhola)
- The Jok’Omolo (perhaps from Pawir)
- The Abasuba (an heterogeneous group in southern Nyanza, with Bantu elements).
The present day Kenya Luo traditionally consist of 25 sub-tribes, each in turn composed of various clans and sub-clans. By the 1840s, the Luo had a tight-knit society with leadership from Ruodh, or regional chiefs.