Written by West FM Team
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The Luhya believed that the outcome of an undertaking or important event that will happen in the near future could be foretold by omens or portents. These omens are either auspicious and inspire confidence in the person or persons engaged in the activity or inauspicious and serve as a warning to either abandon the activity or take precautionary measures to ward off evil forces. Omens are, however, distinct from oracles which are consulted to find out the causes of events that have already happened or are in the process of happening. They are never made to happen by man as a result of ritual manipulation but occur on their own account. The following are some of the common presages:
In Luhya tradition, the sighting of a night owl signals that the death of a family member is imminent.
While among the Maragoli, it is considered lucky if one meets a small antelope while going on an important journey.
- If somebody sets out to see someone over an important matter and while on the way he hers a certain bird singing on his left, that is regarded as ominous and he must return home and postpone the journey. Conversely if the bird sings on the right side of the road, the omens are good and auspicious and the outcome of his journey will be a success.
- Among the Bukusu and Wanga, if someone sets off on a journey he must ask the first person he meets if his first born is a boy or girl. If it is of the same sex as the questioner, that is seen as positive and negative if they are of opposite sex. In that case the questioner must return home and do nothing of importance that day. If the business is very urgent and cannot be postponed, i.e. must pass the person questioned at a considerable distance to minimize the inauspiciousness of having met the wrong person. The traveller does not put the question straight but metaphorically. Hence he would ask: “Olila lukendo sina?” (What journey do you eat?). The other one replies: “Ndila lukendo lusacha” (I eat the male journey) if his first born is male or “Ndila lukendo lukhasi” (I eat the female journey) if a girl. If the answer is auspicious (i.e. if the traveller’s first born is the same sex as the first born of the stranger) he salutes him emphatically with outbursts of mulembe, mulembe, bulahi, bulahi. Khulira lukendo lulala (we eat of the same journey). One may also say: “My arm is up” if the first born is a boy or “my arm is down” if a girl. Accordingly, if both arms are up it is equally good and if down it is a bad omen. Among the Maragoli, it is also considered a good omen if when staring out on a journey a man whose first born is a son meets two boys walking together or in rapid succession, or two girls if the first born was a daughter. He says in that case “ I have met my arm”; but if he returns home because the omen was bad and people ask him why he has come back he tells them: “sinoye omukono gwange mba” (I did not find my arm)
- Stumbling is a bad omen among the Maragoli but it is worse to stumble with one’s left foot than with the right. In the latter case on returns home only if it happens twice in succession. If one stumbles with both feet in quick succession it means two different troubles lie ahead. Among the Wanga, however, it is considered lucky to stumble with the left foot when going out on a journey but unlucky to stumble with the right. But when returning home from a journey the opposite prevails i.e. lucky to stumble with the right foot and unlucky for the left foot.
- In Maragoli if one meets a certain rat called elivengi, it is considered a bad omen generally.
- Meeting a small antelope (ekisunu) is considered a very good sign among the Maragoli and so is a silver squirrel with a long bushy tail.
- Meeting esimindwa (red hawk) is a bad omen among the Maragoli and Wanga.
- Among the Maragoli, if the enyiru bird crosses a person’s path twice just in front of him and whistles, he must return home at once.
- If an owl (elikuli) cries near a homestead, this is a sign that someone from that home will soon die. To avert the danger which the owl portents, he is driven away with a firebrand.
- If one hears a big fox called ekivwi crying, this means that someone important in the tribe or clan is about to die.
- Among the Bukusu, if one comes across certain ants called nafusi, this is taken to mean one will receive good hospitality if he is visiting or something pleasant is in store for him.
- Sneezing is generally considered a bad omen and if a person sneezes repeatedly before taking up an important assignment, he puts it off for some time if possible. However, among the Wanga, if someone sets off to visit a friend who is sick and dying and starts sneezing before he starts the journey, this is an indication that friend will recover from his illness.
- If two people while working in their gardens collide their hoes by accident, this is considered a bad omen indicating they will quarrel over their land. They must therefore stop working and go home for the day. By paying heed to the omen, they forestall a fight.
- If in succession one sees two fig trees (emikuyu), the leaves of which are hanging down, the harvest of one’s crops will be plentiful.
- If an antelope crosses the road from either side in front of the marriage cattle while being driven from the bridegroom’s father to the bride’s father, it is a bad omen indicating that the cattle will die.
- It is a taboo to cut nails (both finger and toe nails) at night because it is believed evil spirits will haunt you.
- It is taboo to sweep the house at night or take rubbish out at night. It is said that by doing so, you are throwing your luck (of getting wealthy) out.
- It is taboo to kill a python (evaka) among the Maragoli while the Wanga may not kill a bushbuck as it is considered sacred and a tribal totem.
Report by Steve Biko