Blood Follows Blood’

Dimensions of Life Plurality among the Luo of Western Kenya

in Social Analysis
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Kennedy Opande PhD Candidate, Institute of Anthropology, University of Nairobi, Kenya k.opande@gmail.com

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Washington Onyango-Ouma Associate Research Professor, Institute of Anthropology, University of Nairobi, Kenya onyango.ouma@uonbi.ac.ke

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Wilfred Subbo Associate Professor, Institute of Anthropology, University of Nairobi, Kenya wilfred.subbo@uonbi.ac.ke

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Abstract

Among the Luo of Kenya, blood carries potencies that make life. The common saying ‘blood follows blood’ embodies this flow of potencies between different entities (human and non-human) that creates life and changes life-courses. The materiality of blood is agentive here, in the sense that it produces diverse human conditions. Examples are given specifically from life-cycle rituals, prayers, and healing practices of a Luo community in western Kenya. Ultimately, the sentient agency of blood defines the essence and dimensions of life in this case. Our focus on the conditions and processes that make life is contrasted with culturalist approaches, which misrecognize life plurality.

The Luo expression remo luwo remo literally means ‘blood follows blood’. The notion implies that blood carries particular potencies and as such is used to convey the situation in which forces are transmitted across entities, both human and non-human. The concept re-enacts an image of something flowing in a particular path, which illustrates a material interface. Among the Luo peoples of western Kenya, the conception of blood—a precious life-giving fluid—is enveloped in a language that expresses it as capable of carrying particular potencies from certain subjects such as spirits or ancestors to humans. The origin and persistence of life are given in the materiality of blood itself, and the Luo amplify processes that lead to life causality, creation, making, and existence as the kind that can be influenced by blood. The agency of blood is made active through the intentions of non-human forces with which people are entangled, causing their lives to be altered.

Blood, therefore, gets its interpretive figuration from the potencies it transmits to the living. The origin of all such potencies—and therefore the origin of life—is traced to the supreme being (Nyasaye) and a supernatural spiritual force or power (Juok) (Ocholla-Ayayo 1976). Nyasaye is charged with molding life before endowing it with abilities and material components. Key among the material components that Nyasaye gives people is remo (blood), which enables them to accomplish multiple functions. Spirits also perceivably give blood, both through inheritance and when they provide for the transfer of their ancestral name to a baby in the cultural ritual of naming. Humans pass on blood through sex, feeding, and even ‘modern’ blood donation, which supplements what has been provided by Nyasaye. The blood that has been received by individuals through transfusion keeps them alive and transmits different potencies to them. Therefore, human and non-human entities co-participate in ensuring that blood is active and keeps flowing.

In an environment where human and non-human agents are entangled and strive to exert their influence on human lives, ‘the powers of the ancestors’ (teko mag kwere) are distilled into the flow of blood. Analyzing the flow of blood therefore allows us to understand how human and non-human agents cohere within their established pacts of co-performance. Contrary to modern biomedicine, where blood is passive and non-agentive matter, the Luo practices we explore exemplify blood as an agentive force that carries the multiple possibilities of life itself. It is this life plurality given in Luo practices of sharing blood that we will analyze in this article.

In Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa, historian Luise White (2000) examines beliefs of the East African peoples—the Luo included—regarding blood. According to these beliefs, blood determines genealogy, heredity, kinship, and belonging. White discusses at length the theme of blood-sucking vampires: for fear of one's blood being stolen, people avoid any interaction that directly involves blood. Similar fears govern Luo attitudes toward blood samples taken by doctors, as pointed out by Geissler (2005). The taking of blood, by either vampires or by doctors, is seen as ‘blood harvesting’, tantamount to the theft of one's belongingness, relatedness, and kinship. According to these folk beliefs, blood is absolutely central to kinship (see also Carsten 2011).

The fact that people trace their genealogy through blood does not tell us much about how such links account for the conditions that constitute life, or even the processes through which blood creates and makes life. In the Luo context, life can take different forms: ‘long life’ (ngima mathoth), ‘healthy life’ (ngima maonge tuo), ‘moral life’ (ngima mochanore), ‘forthright life’ (ngima moriere), ‘corrupted life’ (ngima morochore), or even ‘eternal life’ (ngima mochwere). The shape and attribute that one particular life acquires is generally explained through idioms of blood, for example, ‘hot blood’ (rembe liet), ‘bitter blood’ (rembe kech), or ‘good blood’ (rembe ler). Through these characteristics of blood and blood flows, particular potencies are transmitted, and ultimately it is these potencies of blood that constitute life itself.

The potencies transmitted in blood come from ancestors, humans, and non-humans. They impact on the behavior, attitude, and character of a person, and also produce fortune and misfortune. A condition of untold suffering, for instance, is a form of transmitted force that is interpreted as an act of co-working across species, including humans, spirits, God, or other non-human beings and things. The Luo hold that people can directly or indirectly cause such a condition through their individual or collective acts committed against their progenitors. If individuals treat their kin dishonorably or breach certain customary rules, their kin could retaliate by causing them or their descendants untold suffering.

Among the Luo, the passing on of life-making attributes can be seen clearly in life-cycle rituals and prayers, and in the practices of traditional medicine and healing. Based on interviews and participant observation,1 we analyze how the transmission of potencies through blood creates life plurality. Before this, we briefly situate our argument in the emergent anthropology of life and provide the context of Luo society.

The Anthropology of Life

Anthropological classics, such as Frazer's Golden Bough and Hocart's Kings and Councillors, directly tackled the renewal of life in ritual. Only recently have anthropologists rediscovered the topic and explored specifically anthropological concepts of life itself (Fassin 2018). Those efforts have generated theoretical approaches including constructivist (Santos-Granero 2009, 2012), ecological (Ingold 2000), phenomenological (Ingold 2011), semiotic (Kohn 2007, 2013), and pragmatic (Pitrou 2015, 2017), among others. Das (2007) analyzes ‘forms of life’, while Fassin (2009, 2016, 2018) examines the ethical or moral life. Das and Fassin deal with the evaluation of life, revealing what life means to certain people. Fassin explores the way life is treated across different societies, focusing in particular on the values and moralities attached to it. The precarious and vulnerable lives that inform his research reveal the meanings of life, along with the essences of the values attached to those lives, and specifically what people consider to be ‘the good life’. Such analyses help us understand crucial aspects of what life means to different people, but they do not tell us much about the processes of life creation and life making.

Santos-Granero's (2009, 2012) approach explains how the body and artifacts attain life through the process of ‘ensoulment’. Drawing on empirical data from various Amazonian societies, he observes that persons are not born as such but must be intentionally manufactured or shaped through the input of a variety of substances and affects provided by parents and kin (2009: 7). Those material substances cause the social transformation of the body (2012: 185). The process of making brings together the creator gods and human beings. For Santos-Granero (2009, 2012), then, ensoulment involves ritual operations and the performance of craftmanship as critical processes that create life. Adopting a phenomenological framework, Ingold (2011: 4) reinforces the idea that life has no beginning and no end—that life “is a movement of opening, not of closure.” Closure in this sense means death, and Ingold encourages us to approximate the procedural flow of life in our analytical frameworks.

Writing about Dechenwa Tibetans of southwest China, da Col (2012: 85) observes that the people describe life as a procedural state, not as an essence or substance. Specifically, they use the term sok to refer to the state of being alive: sok is attached to one's body and hosts one's consciousness, meaning that it does not have a substantive component. Da Col's ‘cosmoeconomic’ perspective combines well with the pragmatic perspective favored by Perig Pitrou (2015: 86–88), according to which life is a process of ransoming rituals when different values of vitality or merit are traded. Based on his ethnography of the rituals of the Mixe of Mexico, Pitrou emphasizes the crucial interventions of multiple agents in vital processes. Non-human agents and human agents play different roles, but both are equally important in ‘making life’. Moving beyond ‘culturalist’ approaches that describe how different people attach meaning or value to life, these observations focus on what constitutes life and the processes that maintain it.

Building on these studies, we explore the ways in which the flow and exchange of blood, and with it the transmission of potencies, make life. There are multiple processes and different relations that create life, including natural phenomena, such as wind, weather, and sun (cf. Hocart 1935: 346), or the forces of particular objects and situations. Among the Luo, rivers, homesteads, gravesites, village paths, rice fields, and markets are said to have such powers (Ocholla-Ayayo 1976). Most importantly, there are ancestors, spirits, and other humans who actively contribute their actions and intentions. The sum of these potencies creates the fundamental life plurality in the Luo world, which in the following we attempt to capture.

The Physical and Cultural Landscape of the Luo

This study was conducted in an ethnic Luo community found in the western part of Kenya, specifically, peasant farmers in the Kano flood plains.2 Irrigated rice farming is the mainstay of agricultural production and livelihoods.3

Across the Kano flood plains, land remains widely respected. It is considered a multi-relational material that can affect lives in different ways. The people link land with blood in memory of the bloody battles that their ancestors waged to acquire land. The other thing that makes land or soil or earth connected with blood is its mechanism for supporting food production. The people see their growth and development as heavily dependent upon the productivity of their land. Among the Luo of Uhero (Siaya County), diminished growth is seen as the consequence of ‘dying land’, ultimately a symbol of social death, as Geissler and Prince (2010) have argued. For the people on the Kano flood plains, however, land can never ‘die’; it can only tire. The potency of the land might recede at times, but it can always be boosted by applying the right practices, that is, by connecting agriculture and communal life.

Rights to land use were—and sometimes still are—determined by membership in traditional units such as clans and lineages (Shipton 1984, 1989). This changed after the government launched a reclamation program in the 1960s that led to the establishment of the two current irrigation schemes. After consolidating the land, the government held it in trust for the local community. With that came a new distribution model, in which each farm holder got four acres. The land was shared in line with Luo customary rules, which recognize natal males as heads of ancestral land. So men owned the land and only relinquished ownership to their wife or wives upon death. Recent land reforms have seen the reorganization of the land tenure system and rice farming groups through village elders and rice blocs.

Men are the main ancestral landowners by virtue of inheritance from their parents. There are also women landowners, mostly widows who have inherited their deceased husbands’ land. Another group is comprised of women who have gained control of ancestral land following the migration of their husbands to towns. The women manage the land in consultation with their migrant husbands. A number of people engage in rice farming, which is the major economic activity. Additionally, people plant subsistence crops, such as maize, beans, and traditional vegetables, and some undertake small-scale cattle rearing.

Socio-culturally, the Kano people trace their descent mainly through the male line, and have a patrilocal system of residence. They reckon kinship first through their common eponym No whom they regard as their clan's progenitor, thus referring to themselves as people of Kano (Jokano). From the clan, they descend into sub-clan. But again, similar to other Luo people characterized by polygynous unions, they evoke the name of their grandmother (Jokamiyo) in an effort to distinguish themselves from close clans with whom they share a remote common agnatic ancestor (Nyambedha 2004; Ocholla-Ayayo 1976: 195; Parkin 1978). The matrifocal units are then conceived as representative of ‘houses’ (dhoudi, sing. dhoot). Although the Kano landscape is distinctive with regard to its geographical location and climatic conditions, the social, cultural, political, and economic practices of its people widely mirror those of other Luo people elsewhere.

The Kano people also identify with universal religions, such as the Anglican and Catholic faiths. However, a sizable number are followers of African-initiated churches. Both groups still offer sacrifices during naming ceremonies and death rituals. Moreover, they pray to ancestral spirits with which they hold a deep connection, as they shape their life in different ways. During a birth ritual, a fowl is slaughtered and its blood poured to appease the ancestor whose name is being received by the new child. Similarly, upon death, rams, goats, and bulls are slaughtered, whereby their blood, other than appeasing the spirits, is made to foster the interconnection between the living and the dead. Blood is perceived to be critical to human lives: apart from being inherited, it can also transmit different potencies from the ancestors to the living members. This notion unveils different perceptions about blood that are distinguishable from its physiological inferences.

The Transmission of Potencies

Diverse potencies are said to be transmitted by blood from ancestors to the living. Bad or irascible behavior, for instance, is frequently explained as ‘bitter blood’ (rembe kech) passed on from an ancestor. People who are particularly good-hearted might be said ‘to have a heart as pure as their forebears’ (ng'ane chunye ler ka kwar mare). When applied to behavioral interpretations, those aspects signify the transfer of good attributes of their ancestor through blood. In distilling meanings of experiences expressing how one lived, a perceivable potency could be a subject of bipolar interpretations. For example, a person could be said to exhibit ‘cold blood’ unlike his forebears who bore ‘hot blood’. Other people could be described as having a good heart, yet their descendants still lead a miserable life. In general, the spirits that were perceived to have had bad blood were considered to be capable of ‘transmitting’ evil acts to their descendants and vice versa. Such phenomena were culturally canonized with a view to how they mirrored the earlier practices of the ancestors.

Blood also is central to how people explain the ‘zombie condition’ called ran. Ran is characterized by a state of not being upright or capable of making rational choices or decisions in life, and, like one's future or destiny, the people assert that it cannot be prefigured. The way people hoped for a prosperous and successful life was structured by an awareness that such prospects could also be hampered by a misfortune or an accursed destiny. And that was dependent upon how one's forebears navigated their affairs in space and time. Through narratives, the people conceived of a zombie state, misery, and bad luck, for instance, as being part and parcel of their life, and whenever they struck, the capacity to prosper was limited. Those conditions were seen to reside in the people's bodies, spaces, homesteads, and environments.

The study participants’ lived experiences were expressed through bodily substances and material things, which taken together could be defined as ‘ensembles of education’. Our informants disclosed the cultural flow of human bodily substances such as blood and its exchange as the processes that make life—bringing out gazes that made them socio-culturally significant. Through linguistic systems, the participants shared notions regarding how the body reflects magical, spiritual, symbolic, or poetic constructions because it bears potencies transmitted by blood.

Literature on bodies—especially dead bodies (Cohen and Atieno Odhiambo 1989, 1992; Mboya [1938] 1997; Ocholla-Ayayo 1976)—has demonstrated that the Luo are deeply conscious of their bodies and those of their kin. They maintain cultural practices that help them to preserve kin connections that contribute potencies. Aesthetics, art, and craft not only work on bodies, but can also create and shape bodies (Csordas 1990, 1994; Mauss 1973; Merleau-Ponty 1962; Miner 1956). As such, decoding how bodies speak to issues of life can illustrate the way in which people interpret potencies that come about with those techniques, aesthetics, and performances. Such revelations show statements of attachment as regards how blood is used to produce life (as it walks across bodies, kin networks, and other species) in the process of making life.

Our participation in birth and death rituals enabled us to observe and record accounts about the dynamism and freedom of the material substances used. At a birth ritual, the blood of a fowl is shed for consumption by the ancestor whose name would be given to the new child. After the latter has consumed it, the spirit reciprocates by allowing its name to be given to the child. Moreover, at death rituals the blood poured on the account of the deceased is consumed by ancestors, causing them to pardon the deceased for errors committed in the past. This action enhances a peaceful co-existence between humans and ancestors, with ancestors transmitting good potencies to the living.

In the Luo rituals, therefore, blood engenders life and assures its continuity. Similar observations have been made by other scholars working in the wider region. Classical studies among the Banyoro of Uganda show that blood was a significant entity of sensing embodiment, as it was used to assert bonds of life (Beattie 1958; Beildelman 1963). The people's abstract notions of blood covenant, which were reified through social pacts, made it necessary to investigate how meanings about potencies come about. Links between human and non-human agents reinforce a system of existence across entities.

To show the people's engagement with the non-human agents that give blood, in the following we discuss a prayer uttered to signify the cultural processes traveled by blood to make life. Then we provide an exchange between a couple and a medicine man (ajuoga) in a ritual of pouring blood (olo remo) to influence growth and development. The prayer is spoken by a couple in a naming ritual of assigning an ancestor's name to a newborn child. The context of the short prayer is such that it opens up a collaboration between human and non-human agents. The prayer is conducted in the house of the child's parents, and it is recited by the infant's father, who was the son of Onyien's cousin. Onyien was the grandfather of Ayier—one of our informants, who died during our fieldwork. In an interview, the couple explained that an infant in need of an ancestral name is signaled by its persistent crying, which begins some weeks after birth. This continues and stops only after the father has correctly identified an ancestor's name and assigned it. Sometimes the name is picked by a medicine man. In this instance, the ritual was accomplished by the child's father. The prayer, which is not standard for all the clans, goes as follows:

Obong'o nyakalaga God,
Malago gik moko duto The guardian of all things
Jachwech gikmoko duto The creator of all things
Wakelo e nyimi liswa maler We bring before you our pure sacrifice
Ka wakwayi ni mondo ikawnwa As we beseech that you may take it
Kaka nichikonwa. As you commanded us.
Obong'o, jatend kwerewa God, the head of our ancestors
Ma nowewa kindewa to gi kinde machon Those who left us in our lifetime and those before us
Or kwerewa mondo oyuor liswani maler. Send our ancestors to attend this ceremony.
Adundo wuon Agogo Adundo, son of Agogo
Ka in ema in tie kae If it is you present here
Donj e nyathini mondo irit ngimane Please enter the child's life so that you can take care of it
Kata ka in Akello nyar joka ruodhi Even if it is you, Akello, daughter of the royalty
Bi mondo idag gi nyathini. Come and dwell inside this child.
Nikech mae rembi Because this is your blood
Ma in iwuon iseluwo That you have chosen to follow
Ja ka'ruodhi Son of the rulers
Ka in ema in kae If you are the one present here
Donj e ngima nyathini gi muolo. Please enter the child's life in peace
Rateng’, The black one,
Ja kor gi jo madongo Scion of the respected lineage
Wan waonge gima wanyalo miyi We have nothing worth presenting before you
Mak mana lemowa Other than our prayers
Wahombi We implore you
Ne bi mondo irit nyathini kaka That you may come and protect this
isekelo ranyis child as you have revealed your intention
Nyithindo en nyak mar ogandawa Children are the fruits of our lineage
Bi ikom nyingi Come and plant your name
Kendo iluore gi tipo mar rembi Cover it with the apparition of your blood
Mondo tekri gi So that your power
Oritnwa kodhi misekomo kendi May protect your germinated seed
Magi langi te tee These are all your descendants
Rateng’, wuod ka Magaga The black one, son of Magaga clan.
Ma nene ogago ondiegi The one who fed the beasts
Onyien, waseneno ka imol kae Onyien, we take note of your presence
Kudh muchi e adundo nyathini Blow your breath into this child
Mondo oti nyingi So, he can grow your name
Kaka neikome kendi As you planted it yourself
Remo maber ma isekelonwa e langwa This good blood you have regenerated
mabiro dongo karwa is what will grow our lineage
Chung’ kode Stand by him
Rite mondo oyud ngima mogundho. Protect him so he may have a long life.

Turning to the incantation, the father begins with a reference to the supreme God, Obong'o nyakalaga (God, the guardian), whom he also describes with other praise names, such as Jachwech (the creator), to illustrate his greatness and power. Then he reaffirms the honor reserved for the supreme being—being the creator of all things, including life. The nature of invoked attributes are made in respect to what the supreme being is capable of doing. Afterward, the father comments on the purity of the sacrifice that is being presented to enhance its acceptance. However, aware that this would not happen automatically, he implores the supreme being to accept it, because failure to do so can lead to non-reciprocation of the favor. What we see in this prayer is an effort to assert a co-associational relation, in which both agents view each other as significant for their co-existence. Only if the offering is accepted can the father summon the spirit and bring about its compliance.

To guarantee impartiality, the father resorts to the random naming of ancestors to discover which specific one would be yearning to establish a dwelling in the child. The random naming indicates that the father is unsure about which particular ancestor is dominant, but the action is strategic enough to exclude those ancestors whose past is said to have been characterized by evil doing. Such spirits are considered toxic and can pollute the young child, causing its death or turning it into a zombie later in life. Based on his work among the Mixe, Pitrou (2017: 364) discusses the prayers uttered during sacrifices with regard to new birth that illustrate how the child “is seen to result from a double activity of ideation and shaping carried out with the cooperation of a nonhuman agent.” This is consistent with our findings among the Luo: the incantation shows why it is important to protect the young child, which is considered very vulnerable when born. Blood encapsulates the context of potency transmission; it is significant to the prayer in the sense that it symbolizes the essence of regeneration of life, thus demonstrating how potencies move across humans and non-humans.

From the weakness of its skin and body to its sociality, a child's arrival in the world is considered to be replete with risks from seen and unseen forces. A father illustrated this when he explained: “Humans can provide protection to people against physical threats, but they are incapable of guaranteeing spiritual protection against the unseen threats emanating from the spirit world. A newborn child is very delicate and insecure, and must be protected” (male informant, aged 65 years). As such, a strong spirit is required to establish co-dwelling with the child and to guard it. By so doing, it is said that an appropriate ancestor whose blood the child carries has been selected, as the ancestor affirms its consent by sharing its name. It is through ‘proper selection’ that an ancestor's spirit can institute a communion with the new life it has secured. The significance of proper selection was explained in the following manner:

You don't just call upon any ancestor spirit to come and dwell in the child. There are good and bad spirits; some bad ancestors who died in an inappropriate way can ruin a child's life. Such ancestors, when you name a child after them, their bad blood can pollute the baby's life. But, you know, no child will just take any spirit. A bad spirit would see it cry endlessly—something that can go on until it dies. So, my grandchild has got an appropriate juok name that will protect it; it is a good name which will see him grow into a good person like his ancestor. (Male informant, aged 84 years)

This is critical because a spirit will not initiate a relation unless one is ready for co-living. Unity can only be secured between parties that conform to its terms of formation—a child and a spirit. However, the child has the most to gain from becoming part of this pact as the spirit becomes its protector and guide. According to the prayer, the spirit's power will protect its “germinated seed.”

The incantation ends with a robust narration meant to appease the ancestor's aspiration to expand its lineage (lange). The action is reinforced by an adulating devotion of its planting a name. As it turns out, both the life of the infant and the consent of the ancestor spirit have been secured. The social growth of the spirit is significant for the infant, because it has been named after a good spirit whose blood will (hopefully) transfer good influences. In this way, blood is necessary for the process of potency transmission, as well as for the connection of human and ancestor. In particular, blood institutes a mechanism for uniting the human and the ancestor in order for them to co-share life, as in the prayer when the father pleads with the ancestor to “come and dwell inside this child because this is your blood that you have chosen to follow.”

Instituting the Metaphor of the Unseen through the Idiom of Blood

The flows of potencies through blood are expressed in multiple ways. In the ritual of name-giving and in prayers such as the one above, people encourage and enable the flow of blood, that is, the transmission of potencies from ancestors to the younger generation. The conception that blood originates from the earth (remo a e lowo) or the perception that blood brings about soil or land (remo chiwo lowo or lowo iyudo gi remo) reveals a connection in which blood affords the creation and sustenance of lives through the material units it gives humans that are passed on to the lineage's members. This has nothing to do with the soil giving blood. However, the discernible interpretation is that soil can be used to reference the movement of forces across kin members. While it is inconceivable that blood can come directly from the earth, we learn that through the spirits of ancestors buried in the soil, the people are able to weave the process of connection, showing the way that ancestors manage to transmit potencies to the living. A key informant explained this as follows:

This land, our ancestors got it through blood; when they came here, they found other people inhabiting it. So they fought for it and lost blood as they pushed out those occupiers. Therefore, it is soaked with the blood of our ancestors. It is through their blood that we have kept it, we can't leave it and move elsewhere. If we leave it, then our ancestors would punish us for deserting them. Our life rests in the blood that our ancestors lost on our behalf. (Rapando, male informant, aged 71 years)

The iteration of the blood presented above manifests itself through a range of abilities, including transferring potencies, curating behaviors, and designing human and non-human interactions. It reveals the need for maintaining certain relations because of the unfavorable influences that can be realized by the spirits should the living abandon the inherited materials.

To suggest the range of practices that the Luo people perform to illustrate the idiom ‘blood follows blood’, we provide a narrative of an observation we made on the ritual of atonement for a perceivable past transgression by a couple of 50 years, Elias and Rosa. The couple, their three children, and a sick sister organized the ritual with the guidance of a medicine man (ajuoga). It took place in the morning outside a small structure, which had been constructed the previous day to act as the deceased's house. The ritual was held to remedy a curse brought on by the supposed non-performance of funerary practices for Elias's grandfather. Of course, such rituals are rare and can be reported by only a few households. But, like most rituals, they involve adequate preparations by the host.

For the ritual, the couple slaughtered/offered a ram, since they could not afford a bull. Before the ceremony began, Elias and his family members gathered at the deceased's grave. Then the ajuoga pulled out a small bottle of ‘medical charm’ (manyasi) from his bag and sprinkled its contents around the grave. Afterward, he asked Elias to speak. The latter stood and started to restate the transgression as follows:

Obaka our great ancestor, son of Magaga sub-clan, I confess before you, our sins. I know that we wronged you when we failed to slaughter for you the bull as we were expected to, but this was in no way intentional. Our transgression has only caused us suffering. We beseech you to pardon us; forgive us so we may have peace. Let not our transgression be engraved in your heart; let our generations not undergo this pain and suffering. We cannot bear the suffering anymore. Please let not your blood harm any of our descendants again. Take this pure ram we offer you in respect. Let its warm blood cool your anger; we are mortals who know not the hidden ways of the dead; we pray that you let your blood not drown us in pain anymore. Because we know that blood follows blood.

Elias finished the incantation and moved close to the ajuoga, who took him by his right hand and the ram by his other hand. They went around the grave three times with the ram in tow before handing it over to the slaughterer, who slit its throat. Then the ajuoga drew some blood in a small enamel cup, which he sprinkled on the grave. Finally, the ram was skinned, its flesh prepared and feasted upon by a few extended family members.

After the feast, we sat down with Elias to understand the ritual and its implication. He then narrated the ancestral curse troubling his family:

For many years, I have experienced a lot of suffering; it has been misfortune after misfortune striking my family. First, it was the mysterious death of my only brother, who left no child. Then came my sister's desertion of her matrimonial home without disagreement with her husband. Soon after her return, she mysteriously broke her hip bone after falling from her bed. Since then, she neither walks nor does anything. As if this was not enough, my only son disappeared and when he returned, he had already wasted away through drinking. He hasn't been able to start a family. These experiences struck me and I knew that something was amiss. You know, such strange things do not happen without a reason. So I visited a diviner who revealed to me about a death ritual of my great-grandfather that had not been conducted. A bull would have been slaughtered upon his death by one of my father's siblings whom he instructed to do so. But he did not. The breach enraged him and then he started to ‘follow’ my family—meaning causing suffering. As the head of the family, I had the responsibility to rescue my siblings from this curse by ‘pouring blood’ on his behalf. The diviner advised that I should get a bull for the sacrifice or a ram instead, if the former was unavailable. That is the reason I held this ritual of pouring blood. I'm happy he [the ancestor] accepted it, because I saw how his grave drank the blood the moment the ajouga poured it. Now I shall not suffer the curse again.

As in ancient times, when blood was conceptualized as a sacred entity (Whisson 1964), for Elias the pouring of blood (olo remo) was an exchange between human and non-human agents. Moreover, blood was believed to enforce the connective streams and pacts of co-performance. From the narrative, we saw that humans relied on the non-human agents for social terms of interpreting certain forces that shaped how they lived. Non-humans also relied on humans to decode meanings of their expectations, which came alive through the potencies they perceivably transferred to them. Through blood, Elias situated the free-flowing agency of ancestors, earth, and spirits as they traversed their pathways across a clan, a lineage, a family, and finally individuals. They established links through which processes that make life could be distilled from entities and connected with those transmitted influences. The first link was through the unseen world, where certain human bodily substances had both literal and social meanings. This was due largely to their connection with ecology and the supernatural world. In particular, the heart (adundo), blood (remo), and the placenta (biero), just to mention a few, were seen as dual-sated parts and substances bearing both physical and spiritual connotations. Through blood, Elias constructed an iterative vision of the sort of forces that emerged to make lives, reinforcing it through a cultural idiom of blood being capable of transmitting potencies that caused the untold suffering. Such forces were difficult to fit into standard definitions of sharing, but their cultural interpretation provided a figuration of how potencies moved across biological substances.

Moreover, the social arena of untold suffering was expanded across both the behavior of bodies and social conduct. The former was exemplified by Elias's sister's physical breakdown, which caused her fracture, as well as the death of his only brother. His son's inebriation also revealed the sense in which human bodily performance can be altered by behaviors caused by ancestral potency.

Like Elias, another informant narrated how ancestors could account for the transfer of behaviors and manners to humans. A former Baptist Church pastor explained this notion as follows:

When a child is born, it comes with a shadow of their ancestor. This shadow is not the kind you see when you walk around. But it is a shadow of their blood. It's not the blood such as the kind we shed when cut. The shadow of blood cannot be seen or touched, because it moves through the unseen forces. It is very powerful in the sense that it walks with the spirits of our ancestors. It's this shadow that accounts for one's behavior. When this shadow of blood enters in a child, it makes it occupy the same position as its ancestor in the society. This is because it becomes the representation of the ancestor in the physical world. Hence both the ancestor and the child act in unity. The child takes up the deeds of the ancestor and continues them. The deeds can be positive or negative. For example, if an ancestor was a jabilo or diviner, then its blood will follow the new child and make it to act as the diviner did in their lifetime later in life. It will unconsciously ‘inherit’ the practice and become a jabilo. The same happens with families associated with evil acts such as murders. If an ancestor committed evil acts against other people, its deeds will return to haunt his descendants even many years after his death. This can be witnessed through their daily suffering; for example, there are some people who bewitch girls and cause their death while at their natal homes without marriage. When such a girl dies, her blood will follow the perpetrator's lineage and cause their daughters to experience the same fate. The blood of an innocent person must avenge itself. Therefore, blood is very significant to the lives of the people because it reminds them about how their past lives were and how their future would be. (Male informant, aged 84 years)

From the above narrative, we learn that humans and non-humans are connected through blood. That is why the informant sees a child and its ancestor as occupying the same social position. This may appear counter-intuitive, since people recognize the difference between a child and its progenitor. However, what the informant explained is that a child and an elder exist to accomplish the position of each other, although we are informed later that such an accomplishment may not automatically be realized as elders may reincarnate into children, but not all children mature into elders. The converse can be witnessed with blood. Blood walks: it forms, it creates, it builds, and it also destroys. Its forming and moving seemingly flow in one direction—from a senior to a junior member of the family.

Even though all of our informants accept the transmission of potencies through blood as a fact, this does not determine the interpretation and meaning of life—or of any particular life—among the Luo of the Kano flood plains. The nature of such transmission is essentially practical, as it produces visible features of action for the living. As the people walk around, they are able to see and to interpret that reality. Perceptions about blood are recalibrated depending on how people feel when their survival is threatened. At that time, the would-be recipient does not pre-judge the ethical standards of the donor. Beattie (1958) and Beidelman (1963) were not able to show how aliens who entered into a blood covenant conceived of blood to reveal how its processes constituted life, or even the way that they might live as a result of those processes. When we explored the attitudes of our informants about receiving blood from a person perceived to being an evil one, there was a feeling of unwillingness to accept such blood. This attitude influenced the behavior and personality exhibited by the donor.

The Luo recalibrate their opinions about life-making pursuant to their perceptions of how human bodily substances transmit the kind of potencies that constitute their lives. We were informed about how certain people can ‘inherit’ their ancestor's ‘hot blood’, not to depict consanguineal kinship but simply as indicative of a cruel behavior, condition, personality, or attitude. According to Hallowell (1955: 76), “notions about the nature of the beings and powers existent in the universe involve assumptions that are directly relevant to an understanding of the behavior of the individual in a given society.” This is reflected in some of the informants’ notions, which emphasize that ancestors existing in the nether world can actively participate and influence behaviors of people. Jacob, another informant, opined: “Our ancestors and spirits reorder people's lives. They can make one useless by turning them into social misfits.” Blood, then, being interconnected with the supernatural world provides an outline of how life is not only made but also shaped across worlds.

Conclusion: Pathways toward Life Plurality

Our findings have shown that the exploration of life plurality cannot concern itself only with organisms, things, or objects that bear life. It must also aim at revealing the conditions, processes, and states that constitute life. Pitrou (2015: 88) argues that “it would be unwise to assume that the term ‘life’ or the Greek root bios on its own conveys a principle of unity.” Pitrou (2017: 361) emphasizes that “instead of seeing ‘life’ as a unitary phenomenon, it is more accurate to view it from the perspective of its dissemination in processes.” This shows that life can perceivably be created in many different ways. Although that may not be the only point of focus, Pitrou's perspective resonates with Santos-Granero's (2009, 2012) approach, which envisions how human bodies, objects, and artifacts are ‘ensouled’ by shaping them to produce particular vital substances. Among the Luo, as we have seen, the flow of blood between human and non-human agents can occasion certain life states or conditions. Both the prayer and the rituals of sacrifice and blood pouring we have discussed are instances where we can see the exchange of blood that makes life.

Fassin's (2016, 2018) perspective on life evaluation and valuation focuses on the meanings of life in specific places. However, our argument is about processes that make life. This is significant in the domain of the anthropology of life, as it shows the way processes of making life can reveal diverse ways of understanding the conceptions and perceptions about what constitutes life, rather than the meanings and values attached to life. This is not to say that such meanings of the good life are not important—far from it. They follow from the flow and exchange of bodily substances that make life, without being determined by them. This article has focused on the nature of those flows and the processes that institute that nature. It has revealed that blood flows across non-human agents such as ancestors to living beings. As it flows, it transmits positive or negative potencies that make life. The flow of blood and the potencies is unidirectional, moving from non-human to human.

We have also shown the flow of blood through prayers recited during birth and death ceremonies/rituals. We have revealed this through elements of Luo practices of child naming and cleansing ceremonies where blood pouring takes place to signify the exchange and institutionalization of potencies across the agents. For instance, during a birth ritual an ancestor passes on its attributes to the child in an elaborate process of ritual action. It is those potencies, processes, and substances that come to constitute the life of the new member. The essence of the flow of blood among the Luo means that life can be created and made by inherited substances as well as the exchange of potencies. This illustrates that life can be perceivably created and made through inheritable substances, exchanged potencies, and diverse processes. The article has gone beyond previous works on the Luo regarding blood as a unit of conceiving kinship to its role in the transmigration of potencies. In other words, blood is more than a substance matter: it is a transmitter of forces from other entities with which humans are entangled. As such, blood is a transcendental unit that can make life.

Acknowledgments

We thank the people of Kano who allowed us into their homes and shared stories of their lives with us. We also thank the two anonymous reviews and the journal's editor for their insightful comments and invaluable criticisms on the draft. We take responsibility for any errors that remain.

Notes

1

Interviews were conducted with two medicine men of the Kamagaga clan and 20 individuals from the Kabonyo, Kobura, and Kakola clans. The interviews were held between July and August 2020 at each interviewee's homestead. In those sessions, we also observed the informants’ daily practices, activities, and conduct. All of the individuals provided deep insights and observational experiences regarding the cultural practice of child-naming. The names of the participants are pseudonyms.

2

Data were collected in Ahero Irrigation (AI) and West Kano (WK) schemes for 12 months between August 2019 and 2020. The two irrigation schemes are located in the eastern part of Kisumu County of Kenya. According to the 2019 population census, some 7,549 Dholuo speakers live in the Ahero Irrigation and Kabonyo Irrigation administrative units, where they undertake peasant farming in addition to rice cultivation (Republic of Kenya 2019). The sites also host non-Luo members who have been assimilated by the dominant Luo ethnic community. At the time of the study, the two sites had 1,407 rice farmers.

3

The irrigation method used in the Ahero scheme involves directing water from the Nyando River into shallow basins using canals, while in the West Kano scheme the irrigation water is pumped from Lake Victoria. In these two irrigation schemes, water is channeled from the river and lake to the farms in order to grow crops on dry land.

References

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  • Beidelman, T. O. 1963. “The Blood Covenant and the Concept of Blood in Ukaguru.” Africa 33 (4): 321342. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1158078

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Cohen, David William, and E. S. Atieno Odhiambo. 1989. Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape. London: James Currey.

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  • Cohen, David William, and E. S. Atieno Odhiambo. 1992. Burying SM: The Politics of Knowledge and the Sociology of Power in Africa. Nairobi: East Africa Educational Publishers.

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Csordas, Thomas J. 1990. “Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology.” Ethos 18 (1): 547. http://www.jstor.org/stable/640395

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fassin, Didier. 2018. Life: A Critical User's Manual. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Geissler, Paul Wenzel. 2005. “Kachinja Are Coming!’ Encounters around Medical Research Work in a Kenyan Village.” Africa 75 (2): 173202. https://doi.org/10.3366/afr.2005.75.2.173

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Geissler, Paul Wenzel, and Ruth Jane Prince. 2010. The Land Is Dying: Contingency, Creativity and Conflict in Western Kenya. New York: Berghahn Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hallowell, A. Irving. 1955. Culture and Experience. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  • Hocart, A. M. 1935. “The Purpose of Ritual.” Folklore 46 (4): 343349. https://doi.org/10.1080/0015587X.1935.9718614

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  • Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Mauss, Marcel. 1973. “Techniques of the Body.” Economy and Society 2 (1): 7088. https://doi.org/10.1080/03085147300000003

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nyambedha, Erick Otieno. 2004. “Change and Continuity in Kin-Based Support Systems for Widows and Orphans among the Luo in Western Kenya.” African Sociological Review 8 (1): 139153. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24487420

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ocholla-Ayayo, A .B. C. 1976. Traditional Ideology and Ethics among the Southern Luo. Uppsala: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Parkin, David. 1978. The Cultural Definition of Political Response: Lineal Destiny among the Luo. London: Academic Press.

  • Pitrou, Perig. 2015. “Life as a Process of Making in the Mixe Highlands (Oaxaca, Mexico): Towards a ‘General Pragmatics’ of Life.” Journal of the Royal Anthropology Institute 21 (1): 86105. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9655.12143

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pitrou, Perig. 2017. “Life Form and Form of Life within an Agentive Configuration: A Birth Ritual among the Mixe of Oaxaca, Mexico.” Current Anthropology 58 (3): 360380. https://doi.org/10.1086/692027

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Republic of Kenya. 2019. Distribution of Population by Administrative Units, Volume II. Nairobi: Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

  • Santos-Granero, Fernando, ed. 2009. The Occult Life of Things: Native Amazonian Theories of Materiality and Personhood. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Santos-Granero, Fernando. 2012. “Beinghood and People-Making in Native Amazonia: A Constructional Approach with a Perspectival Coda.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (1): 181211. https://doi.org/10.14318/hau2.1.010

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shipton, Parker. 1984. “Lineage and Locality as Antithetical Principles in East African Systems of Land Tenure.” Ethnology 23 (2): 117132. https://doi.org/10.2307/3773697

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shipton, Parker. 1989. Bitter Money: Cultural Economy and Some African Meanings of Forbidden Commodities. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Whisson, Michael. 1964. Change and Challenge: A Study of the Social and Economic Changes among the Kenyan Luo. Nairobi: Christian Council of Kenya.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • White, Luise. 2000. Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Contributor Notes

Kennedy Opande is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the Institute of Anthropology, Gender and African Studies, University of Nairobi. E-mail: k.opande@gmail.com

Washington Onyango-Ouma is an Associate Research Professor at the Institute of Anthropology, Gender and African Studies, University of Nairobi. His current research interests include kinship and relatedness, children and youth, sexual and reproductive health, culture change, quality of healthcare, human resources for health, and social protection, among others. ORCID-ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2723-7900. E-mail: onyango.ouma@uonbi.ac.ke

Wilfred Subbo is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Anthropology, Gender and African Studies, University of Nairobi. His research interests include food security, gender issues (particularly women's empowerment and health), culture and development, and the welfare of the vulnerable, such as children and youth. E-mail: wilfred.subbo@uonbi.ac.ke

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The International Journal of Anthropology

  • Beattie, J. H. M. 1958. “The Blood Pact in Bunyoro.” African Studies 17 (4): 198203. https://doi.org/10.1080/00020185808707064

  • Beidelman, T. O. 1963. “The Blood Covenant and the Concept of Blood in Ukaguru.” Africa 33 (4): 321342. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1158078

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Carsten, Janet. 2011. “Substance and Relationality: Blood in Contexts.” Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 1935. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.105000.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cohen, David William, and E. S. Atieno Odhiambo. 1989. Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape. London: James Currey.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cohen, David William, and E. S. Atieno Odhiambo. 1992. Burying SM: The Politics of Knowledge and the Sociology of Power in Africa. Nairobi: East Africa Educational Publishers.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Csordas, Thomas J. 1990. “Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology.” Ethos 18 (1): 547. http://www.jstor.org/stable/640395

  • Csordas, Thomas J. 1994. “Introduction: The Body as Representation and Being-in-the-World.” In Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self, ed. Thomas J. Csordas, 124. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • da Col, Giovanni. 2012. “The Elementary Economies of Dechenwa Life: Fortune, Vitality, and the Mountain in Sino-Tibetan Borderlands.” Social Analysis 56 (1): 7498. https://doi.org/10.3167/sa.2012.560106

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Das, Veena. 2007. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Fassin, Didier. 2009. “Another Politics of Life Is Possible.” Theory, Culture & Society 26 (5): 4460. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276409106349

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fassin, Didier. 2016. “The Value of Life and the Worth of Lives.” In Living and Dying in the Contemporary World: A Compendium, ed. Veena Das and Clara Han, 770783. Oakland: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fassin, Didier. 2018. Life: A Critical User's Manual. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Geissler, Paul Wenzel. 2005. “Kachinja Are Coming!’ Encounters around Medical Research Work in a Kenyan Village.” Africa 75 (2): 173202. https://doi.org/10.3366/afr.2005.75.2.173

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Geissler, Paul Wenzel, and Ruth Jane Prince. 2010. The Land Is Dying: Contingency, Creativity and Conflict in Western Kenya. New York: Berghahn Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hallowell, A. Irving. 1955. Culture and Experience. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  • Hocart, A. M. 1935. “The Purpose of Ritual.” Folklore 46 (4): 343349. https://doi.org/10.1080/0015587X.1935.9718614

  • Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.

  • Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.

  • Kohn, Eduardo. 2007. “How Dogs Dream: Amazonian Natures and the Politics of Transspecies Engagement.” American Ethnologist 34 (1): 324. https://doi.org/10.1525/ae.2007.34.1.3

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Mauss, Marcel. 1973. “Techniques of the Body.” Economy and Society 2 (1): 7088. https://doi.org/10.1080/03085147300000003

  • Mboya, Paul. (1938) 1997. Luo Kitgi gi Timbegi: A Handbook of Luo Customs. Nairobi: Equatorial Publishers.

  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge.

  • Miner, Horace. 1956. “Body Ritual among the Nacirema.” American Anthropologist 58 (3): 503507. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1956.58.3.02a00080

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nyambedha, Erick Otieno. 2004. “Change and Continuity in Kin-Based Support Systems for Widows and Orphans among the Luo in Western Kenya.” African Sociological Review 8 (1): 139153. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24487420

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ocholla-Ayayo, A .B. C. 1976. Traditional Ideology and Ethics among the Southern Luo. Uppsala: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Parkin, David. 1978. The Cultural Definition of Political Response: Lineal Destiny among the Luo. London: Academic Press.

  • Pitrou, Perig. 2015. “Life as a Process of Making in the Mixe Highlands (Oaxaca, Mexico): Towards a ‘General Pragmatics’ of Life.” Journal of the Royal Anthropology Institute 21 (1): 86105. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9655.12143

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pitrou, Perig. 2017. “Life Form and Form of Life within an Agentive Configuration: A Birth Ritual among the Mixe of Oaxaca, Mexico.” Current Anthropology 58 (3): 360380. https://doi.org/10.1086/692027

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Republic of Kenya. 2019. Distribution of Population by Administrative Units, Volume II. Nairobi: Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

  • Santos-Granero, Fernando, ed. 2009. The Occult Life of Things: Native Amazonian Theories of Materiality and Personhood. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Santos-Granero, Fernando. 2012. “Beinghood and People-Making in Native Amazonia: A Constructional Approach with a Perspectival Coda.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (1): 181211. https://doi.org/10.14318/hau2.1.010

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shipton, Parker. 1984. “Lineage and Locality as Antithetical Principles in East African Systems of Land Tenure.” Ethnology 23 (2): 117132. https://doi.org/10.2307/3773697

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shipton, Parker. 1989. Bitter Money: Cultural Economy and Some African Meanings of Forbidden Commodities. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Whisson, Michael. 1964. Change and Challenge: A Study of the Social and Economic Changes among the Kenyan Luo. Nairobi: Christian Council of Kenya.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • White, Luise. 2000. Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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