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ai generated image of an African man shepherding his children

What a name! An alternative meaning of Bukusu

In a previous article Meaning and origin of Bukusu name, we looked at one explanation on the origin of the name Bukusu. In that article, we came to learn that the name Babukusu was given to the community by other people who came into contact with them. During the days of old, at the markets where barter trade between communities took place, they (Babukusu) were known for their habit of inquiring about bukusi (price) of the goods. As as result, they earned the nickname babandu be bukusi (the “price people”). As many, including myself, were not entirely convinced by this origin story, I went looking for another explanation. Join us to find out what we learned when we went looking for an alternative meaning of Bukusu.

But before we go into the details of this other explanation of the meaning and origin of the name Bukusu, a clarification: Even though we have termed this other meaning of Bukusu as ‘alternative’ it might as well turn out to be the more important one as it is rooted in Bukusu culture.

An alternative meaning of Bukusu

Among the Bukusu there is a special ceremony that takes place after burials. It is a special ceremony as it is unique to the Bukusu and its performance can therefore be used as a way to identify Bukusu from non-Bukusu. The purpose of this after burial ceremony is to educate the community on the ways of their forefathers, and what is means and takes to be Bukusu.

The ceremony is known as khuswala kumuse and is performed by a special ‘teacher’ who is not only chosen by his musambwa (special gifts that run in families), but is also well educated on Bukusu culture, history and origins. As he is the one we ‘says’ kumuse, he is known as oswala kumuse.

In one such ceremony, an unnamed oswala kumuse had this to say on the origin and meaning of Bukusu. In his performance, the orator defined Babukusu people as being known to the outside world as “Babaayi”, meaning people who have ability to lead others. They are shepherds of people.

Luhya scholars, chiefly Prof. Christopher L. Wanjala, have written in support of this alternative meaning of Bukusu. In at least two publications, Wanjala has agreed with this traditional definition of Babukusu people as “Babaayi” (shepherds) because of their ability to look after each other as a community.

Brother’s Keeper

As one who has lived and share close relations with Babukusu, I wholeheartedly agree with this characterization of the my brothers the Bukusu. While the spirit of mulembe nurtured over centuries by the warmth of Oluyia makes the Luhya people especially benignant, the Bukusu are a special kind of generous people. It always surprises me the lengths to which a Bukusu would go to be a brother’s keeper.

Learn Lubukusu

Bukusu language or Lubukusu is the tongue of Babukusu, the largest of the 18 houses of mulembe. Learn how to speak Bukusu language through our free lessons in Bukusu language; our stories on Bukusu culture that harness the richness of Lubukusu in their narrative; our continuous search for the meaning of different Bukusu proverbs and sayings; and if your Lubukusu is already good enough, sharpen and challenge yourself with our new blog sibukusu that covers everything Bukusu in the purest Lubukusu.

Get started with our mega post:  130+ common Bukusu words and phrases their meaning, translation and pronunciation.

Read more

  • Wanjala, C. (1985). “Twilight years are years of counsel and wisdom” in History and Culture In Western Kenya. The People of Bungoma district through Time. (Ed) S. Wandibba, Nairobi: S. Were.
  • Maelo, M. (2014). The manifestation of Nationalism in Bukusu funeral oratory. International Journal of Education and ResearchVol. 2(No. 11). https://www.ijern.com/journal/2014/November-2014/28.pdf

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