Home » Luhya Culture » When a guinea fowl is not food but bad luck: Stories from Bukusu and beyond on Birds of cultural significance among the Luhya of East Africa

When a guinea fowl is not food but bad luck: Stories from Bukusu and beyond on Birds of cultural significance among the Luhya of East Africa

Here at mulembenation.co.ke, we have been reliably informed by our coverage on Luhya culture. From trees of cultural cultural significance among the Luhya to this latest installment of life lessons from our environment that looks at birds of cultural significance among the Luhya, our thirst for knowledge from our ancestors is satiated.

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.

Today I want us to explore bids of cultural significance among the Luhya of of western Kenya. Because I am proudly a Bukusu girl – a keen observer of the Bukusu saying: embako sebea ta! – this post might be swayed towards my people the Bukusu. However, speaking to my other Luhya friends, it appears that the myths of my ancestors cuts across most of the houses of Mulembe. I am at loss how bababa arrived at the following conclusions about these birds. I am picturing a half-naked Bukusu guy using stones to light fires, dressed in animal skins making these causal relations between certain occurrences and presence of certain birds.

Presence of Chisoko to indicate impending wealth

We all know weaver birds. The small birds that could weigh less than 100gms. Yellow in color. They live in colonies. Almost always come over during harvest time. Weaver birds can be noisy. They chirp all day long.

They make their nests such that their entrance faces downwards. The presence of weaver birds in one’s farm, homestead or even boarder indicates wealth. Simply put, the weaver bird nests are symbolically seen as wallets carrying lots of cash…. Now you know! Hahahah.

Presence of Kamakhuyu to indicate the coming rains

The Bukusu had a way of reading weather patterns using animal behavior. Today, science has it that birds are wired by nature to sense severe storms days in advance. However, for kamakhuyu, the Bukusu considered their presence was a good omen. Kamakhuyu are medium sized birds the size of hawks, grey in color with white ties. I don’t know where they live but I see them move around in big groups.

At certain times of the year, kamakhuyu routinely gather in the skies above open spaces – away from trees or buildings. They then begin flying in a circle rotating above the open space loosely tracing the perimeter of the open space in the sky for somewhat a couple of minutes. After say 10 minutes, they move to another location and keep rotating.

When kamakhuyu are sighted, the whole village would be excited. We the children would sing a song to thank them for bringing the good news of coming rains. The song went like this.

Khuyu khuyu paaaa…. 
Khuyu khuyu paaaa….
Khuyu khuyu paaaa….

The song has no meaning. It basically means khuyu the short form of kamakhuyu.

Birds of cultural significance among the Luhya: Nakholo the good luck charm

Nakholo is this small tiny bird. Black and white color. It is commonly found near swamps and rivers. Nakholo has a long tail that it loves wiggling and moving up and down like some sort of balance mechanism. The nakholo must be among the most sort after among birds of cultural significance among the Luhya. Among the Bukusu, nakholo has a reputation of being a trickster bird. However much one tried, you seldom get it killed. When you prepare to hurl rocks at it, it will have read your mind and either left early or makes moves that frustrate your quest.

Moreover, the nakholo is beautiful bird and by the looks of it, it knows. Apart form the well-blended black and white colors, it has a pleasant tail that it uses to dance and boasts.

nakholo the African pied wagtail is among the  birds of cultural significance among the Luhya
The pied African wagtail known as nakholo among the Bukusu is a bird of cultural significance among the Luhya from East Africa. Image / Charles J Sharp [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Anyone who manages to catch nakholo will experience success in their next quest. If for example you were a young man attracted to a certain girl, and had fears that she could reject you, one was encouraged to hunt nakholo. If the young man managed to get hold of nakholo then they should go ahead with the hunt for the girl. For their conquest was sure to be successful. Now you know…. hahaha

Hooting of owls to indicate bad luck!

Now the Luhya fear and hate the owl in equal measure. Among birds of cultural significance among the Luhya, the owl is the most dreaded. The moment an owl is sighted, word will be spread and the whole village will know. Young men will be hurling rocks and yelling at it so as to chase it away. The rest of the villagers will be cursing and cleansing themselves from the bad luck the owl would have brought their way.

southern white faced scops owl is native to southern Africa, owls are birds of cultural significance among the Luhya of east Africa.
Sighting of any owl not necessarily the southern white faced scops owl that’s native to Southern Africa, is considered a bad omen. Image/ Jason Thompson [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

You will hear words like shindwe! Riswa! Shetani Toka!  Pepo mbaya! Translated as Get defeated! Bad spirits go away! Satan get away from us! Evil spirits go away!

This is because my people believe that if the owl is left to perch on a tree and get comfortable enough, it might hoot. It is believed that if the owl can hoot, then someone would die. Riswa!

When it was taboo for a guinea fowl to cross your path

There is an important event that occurs after burial that is a central rite among the death rituals of the Bukusu among the Luhya of east Africa. It is a ritual where a public comforter through tales on the origins and culture of the Bukusu, comforts the village. This rite is known as kumuse. According to scholar Chrispinus J.C Wasike;

On the day of performing kumuse, cattle belonging to the deceased man do not graze in fields but are instead restrained to browse within the compound. If by bad luck an antelope (esunu) or a guinea fowl (likhanga) crosses the performer’s path on his way to the funeral venue, it is considered a bad omen and the funeral reciter immediately cancels the trip.

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