1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kavirondo

KAVIRONDO, a people of British East Africa, who dwell in the valley of the Nzoia River, on the western slopes of Mount Elgon, and along the north-east coast of Victoria Nyanza. Kavirondo is the general name of two distinct groups of tribes, one Bantu and the other Nilotic. Both groups are immigrants, the Bantu from the south, the Nilotic from the north. The Bantu appear to have been the first comers. The Nilotic tribes, probably an offshoot of the Acholi (q.v.), appear to have crossed the lake to reach their present home, the country around Kavirondo Gulf. Of the two groups the Bantu now occupy a more northerly position than their neighbours, and “are practically the most northerly representatives of that race” (Hobley). Their further progress north was stopped by the southward movement of the Nilotic tribes, while the Nilotic Kavirondo in their turn had their wanderings arrested by an irruption of Elgumi people from the east. The Elgumi are themselves probably of Nilotic origin. Both groups of Kavirondo are physically fine, the Nilotic stock appearing more virile than the Bantu. The Bantu Kavirondo are divided into three principal types—the Awa-Rimi, the Awa-Ware and the Awa-Kisii. By the Nilotic Kavirondo their Bantu neighbours are known as Ja-Mwa. The generic name for the Nilotic tribes is Ja-Luo. The Bantu Kavirondo call them Awa-Nyoro. The two groups have many characteristics in common. A characteristic feature of the people is their nakedness. Among the Nilotic Kavirondo married men who are fathers wear a small piece of goat-skin, which though practically useless as a covering must be worn according to tribal etiquette. Even among men who have adopted European clothing this goat-skin must still be worn underneath. Contact with whites has led to the adoption of European clothing by numbers of the men, but the women, more conservative, prefer nudity or the scanty covering which they wore before the advent of Europeans. Among the Bantu Kavirondo married women wear a short fringe of black string in front and a tassel of banana fibre suspended from a girdle behind, this tassel having at a distance the appearance of a tail. Hence the report of early travellers as to a tailed race in Africa. The Nilotic Kavirondo women wear the tail, but dispense with the fringe in front. For “dandy” they wear a goat-skin slung over the shoulders. Some of the Bantu tribes practise circumcision, the Nilotic tribes do not. Patterns are tattooed on chest and stomach for ornament. Men, even husbands, are forbidden to touch the women’s tails, which must be worn even should any other clothing be wrapped round the body. The Kavirondo are noted for their independent and pugnacious nature, their honesty and their sexual morality, traits particularly marked among the Bantu tribes. There are more women than men, and thus the Kavirondo are naturally inclined towards polygamy. Among the Bantu tribes a man has the refusal of all the younger sisters of his wife as they attain puberty. Practically no woman lives unmarried all her life, for if no suitor seeks her, she singles out a man and offers herself to him at a “reduced price,” an offer usually accepted, as the women are excellent agricultural labourers. The Nilotic Kavirondo incline to exogamy, endeavouring always to marry outside their clan. Girls are betrothed at six or seven, and the husband-elect continually makes small presents to his father-in-law-elect till the bride reaches womanhood. It is regarded as shameful if the girl be not found a virgin on her wedding day. She is sent back to her parents, who have to return the marriage price, and pay a fine. The wife’s adultery was formerly punished with death, and the capital penalty was also inflicted on young men and girls guilty of unchastity. Among the Bantu Kavirondo the usual minimum price for a wife is forty hoes, twenty goats and one cow, paid in instalments. The Nilotic Kavirondo pay twenty sheep and two to six cows; the husband-elect can claim his bride when he has made half payment. If a woman dies without bearing children, the amount of her purchase is returnable by her father, unless the widower consents to replace her by another sister. The women are prolific and the birth of twins is common. This is considered a lucky event, and is celebrated by feasting and dances. Among the Bantu Kavirondo the mother of twins must remain in her hut for seven days. Among the Nilotic Kavirondo the parents and the infants must stay in the hut for a whole month. If a Bantu mother has lost two children in succession the next child born is taken out at dawn and placed on the road, where it is left till a neighbour, usually a woman friend who has gone that way on purpose, picks it up. She takes it to its mother who gives a goat in return. A somewhat similar custom prevails among the Nilotic tribes. Names are not male and female, and a daughter often bears her father’s name.

The Kavirondo bury their dead. Among one of the Bantu tribes, the Awa-Kisesa, a chief is buried in the floor of his own hut in a sitting position, but at such a depth that the head protrudes. Over the head an earthenware pot is placed, and his principal wives have to remain in the hut till the flesh is eaten by ants or decomposes, when the skull is removed and buried close to the hut. Later the skeleton is unearthed, and reburied with much ceremony in the sacred burial place of the tribe. Married women of the Bantu tribes are buried in their hut lying on their right side with legs doubled up, the hut being then deserted. Among the Nilotic tribes the grave is dug beneath the verandah of the hut. Men of the Bantu tribes are buried in an open space in the midst of their huts; in the Nilotic tribes, if the first wife of the deceased be alive he is buried in her hut, if not, beneath the verandah of the hut in which he died. A child is buried near the door of its mother’s hut. A sign of mourning is a cord of banana fibre worn round the neck and waist. A chief chooses, sometimes years before his death, one of his sons to succeed him, often giving a brass bracelet as insignia. A man’s property is divided equally among his children.

The Kavirondo are essentially an agricultural people: both men and women work in the fields with large iron hoes. In addition to sorghum, Eleusine and maize, tobacco and hemp are both cultivated and smoked. Both sexes smoke, but the use of hemp is restricted to men and unmarried women, as it is thought to injure child-bearing women. Hemp is smoked in a hubble-bubble. The Kavirondo cultivate sesamum and make an oil from its seeds which they burn in little clay lamps. These lamps are of the ancient saucer type, the pattern being, in Hobley’s opinion, introduced into the country by the coast people. While some tribes live in isolated huts, those in the north have strongly walled villages. The walls are of mud and formerly, among the Nilotic tribes, occasionally of stone. Since the advent of the British the security of the country has induced the Kavirondo to let the walls fall into disrepair. Their huts are circular with conical thatched roof, and fairly broad verandah all round. A portion of the hut is partitioned off as a sleeping-place for goats, and the fowls sleep indoors in a large basket. Skins form the only bedsteads. In each hut are two fireplaces, about which a rigid etiquette prevails. Strangers or distant relatives are not allowed to pass beyond the first, which is near the door, and is used for cooking. At the second, which is nearly in the middle of the hut, sit the hut owner, his wives, children, brothers and sisters. Around this fireplace the family sleep. Cooking pots, water pots and earthenware grain jars are the only other furniture. The food is served in small baskets. Every full grown man has a hut to himself, and one for each wife. The huts of the Masaba Kavirondo of west Elgon have the apex of the roof surmounted by a carved pole which Sir H. H. Johnston says is obviously a phallus. Among the Bantu Kavirondo a father does not eat with his sons, nor do brothers eat together. Among the Nilotic tribes father and sons eat together, usually in a separate hut with open sides. Women eat apart and only after the men have finished. The Kavirondo keep cattle, sheep, goats, fowls and a few dogs. Women do not eat sheep, fowls or eggs, and are not allowed to drink milk except when mixed with other things. The flesh of the wild cat and leopard is esteemed by most of the tribes. From Eleusine a beer is made. The Kavirondo are plucky hunters, capturing the hippopotamus with ropes and traps, and attacking with spears the largest elephants. Fish, of which they are very fond, are caught by line and rod or in traps. Bee-keeping is common, and where trees are scarce the hives are placed on the roof of the hut. Among the Bantu Kavirondo goats and sheep are suffocated, the snout being held until the animal dies. Though a peaceful people the Kavirondo fight well. Their weapons are spears with rather long flat blades without blood-courses, and broad-bladed swords. Some use slings, and most carry shields. Bows and arrows are also used; firearms are however displacing other weapons. Kavirondo warfare was mainly defensive and intertribal, this last a form of vendetta. When a man had killed his enemy in battle he shaved his head on his return and he was rubbed with “medicine” (generally goat’s dung), to defend him from the spirit of the dead man. This custom the Awa-Wanga abandoned when they obtained firearms. The young warriors were made to stab the bodies of their slain enemies. Kavirondo industries are salt-making, effected by burning reeds and water-plants and passing water through the ashes; the smelting of iron ore (confined to the Bantu tribes); pottery and basket-work.

The Kavirondo have many tribes, divided, Sir H. H. Johnston suspects, totemically. Their religion appears to be a vague ancestor-worship, but the northern tribes have two gods, Awafwa and Ishishemi, the spirits of good and evil. To the former cattle and goats are sacrificed. The Kavirondo have great faith in divination from the entrails of a sheep. Nearly everybody and everything is to the Kavirondo ominous of good or evil. They have few myths or traditions; the ant-bear is the chief figure in their beast-legends. They believe in witchcraft and practise trial by ordeal. As a race the Kavirondo are on the increase. This is due to their fecundity and morality. Those who live in the low-lying lands suffer from a mild malaria, while abroad they are subject to dysentery and pneumonia. Epidemics of small-pox have occurred. Native medicine is of the simplest. They dress wounds with butter and leaves, and for inflammation of the lungs or pleurisy pierce a hole in the chest. There are no medicine-men—the women are the doctors. Certain of the incisor teeth are pulled out. If a man retains these he will, it is thought, be killed in warfare. Among certain tribes the women also have incisor teeth extracted, otherwise misfortune would befall their husbands. For the same reason the wife scars the skin of her forehead or stomach. A Kavirondo husband, before starting on a perilous journey, cuts scars on his wife’s body to ensure him good luck. Of dances the Kavirondo have four—the birth dance, the death dance, that at initiation and one of a propitiatory kind in seasons of drought. Their music is plaintive and sometimes pretty, produced by a large lyre-shaped instrument. They use also various drums.

The Ja-Luo women use for ear ornaments small beads attached to pieces of brass. Like the aggry beads of West Africa these beads are not of local manufacture nor of recent introduction. They are ancient, in colour generally blue, occasionally yellow or green, and are picked up in certain districts after heavy rain. By the natives they are supposed to come down with the rain. They are identical in shape and colour with ancient Egyptian beads and other beads obtained from ancient cities in Baluchistan.

See C. W. Hobley, Eastern Uganda, an Ethnological Survey (Anthrop. Inst., Occasional Papers, No. 1, London, 1902); Sir H. H. Johnston, Uganda Protectorate (1902); J. F. Cunningham, Uganda and its Peoples (1905); Paul Kollmann, The Victoria Nyanza (1899). (T. A. J.)