The Suba of Kenya and Tanzania
Registry of Peoples code(s): Suba (Suba mother tongue): 109563
Registry of Language code(s) (Ethnologue): Suba: suh
Population: 184,477 total Suba
Kenya 138,305 (PeopleGroups.org 1999)
Tanzania 46,172 (PeopleGroups.org 1999)
Registry of Peoples code(s): Suba (Luo mother tongue): 109564
Registry of Language code(s) (Ethnologue): Luo: luo
Population: 299,115 total Suba Luo (Luo Abasuba)
Kenya 66,000 (Joshua Project 2006)
Tanzania 233,115 (PeopleGroups.org 1999)
Religion: Christian; High Percentage Nominal Christian
Location: The Suba people live on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya and Tanzania. Beginning in the mid-1700s, Suba people began coming from the region just west of Lake Victoria to settle the islands and shores of the northeastern side of the lake.
Fishing and boatbuilding have been their traditional occupations. The Suba were also renowned hippo hunters before it was against the law to kill wild animals. Today farming is growing as an occupation and cattle are kept mainly to provide for the payment of bride price.
History: The people now known as the Suba are descendants of one wave of the Bantu migration from Central Africa over the last 1500 to 1800 years. In the 16th century, it appears, small family groups related to the Ganda people on the western side of the lake migrated across Lake Victoria on boats to settle on Rusinga Island and other islands near what is now Kenya and Tanzania. Some gradually moved onto the mainland.
They found settlers from earlier Bantu migrations just inland on the cooler highlands, known now as the Kisii (Gusii). About the same time, the Nilotic Luo were also moving along the shores of the lake from the north.
The Luo were fishers and herders, who spread farther out from the lake for grazing land, setting up home settlements around the prominent hills in Western and Nyanza Provinces of modern Kenya. Moving gradually south, the Luo effectively established a settlement barrier separating the Suba from the earlier Bantu settlers and gradually absorbing some and fostering a cultural assimilation among many.
Identity: The Suba people developed from the general gradual eastward migration of the Bantu people from central Africa. They came from the Ganda people across Lake Victoria. The Suba maintain their system of animal totems like some other Bantu peoples around the lake.
As the Luo people became numerous and dominant in the eastern shores of Lake Victoria, the Suba were heavily influenced and many became associated or assimilated to the Luo culture. The part of the Suba people who now speak Luo as a mother tongue are also called Luo Abasuba. ("Abasuba" is the Suba language word for "the Suba people.")
Even those who now speak Luo, however, maintain their previous Bantu clan identities, where each clan identifies with a certain animal. The taboos associated with the clan totem animals are an ancient form of nature conservation.
The Suba live on the coat of the Lake Victoria and the nearby islands. Thus much of their culture focuses on fishing. However, farming has become more important.
Ever since coming to this area the Suba have been overshadowed by other ethnic groups, particularly the Luo to the east and north. The result has been a reliance on others for trade and survival. Intermarriage with the Luo is commonplace, but Luo customs are generally maintained when this happens.
European influence, which penetrated Africa from the east, viewed the Suba as a sub-group of the Luo. This further caused the Suba minority to lose recognition of their distinct culture.
In ethnolinguistic terms today, it appears we should consider them as two separate ethnic groups. The Suba who maintain Luo as a mother tongue tend to identify thmeselves in the Luo cultural group, while Suba with the Suba mother tongue see themselves as a separate group, identifying with the broader Bantu community.
Language: Suba is a Bantu language related to Kuria in Kenya and Tanzania and Gusii in Kenya, and more distantly to Kikuyu. The younger generation have learned English and Swahili in schools, but English would be used more than Swahili.
It is not clear whether the Suba-speaking and Luo-speaking Suba live in separate defined areas or are dispersed throughout the area. The Suba language is written in Latin characters, as are all the neighboring languages.
Neighboring peoples have viewed the Suba language as inferior. Education was introduced in English and Luo, and about two-thirds of the Suba speak Luo instead of Suba as a mother tongue. Culturally also, they have become mostly Luo.
In recent years the Suba people have developed a strong interest in preserving their culture and language. A vital step in this direction is to make Suba a written language. Suba Scriptures will greatly strengthen the existing church by making the Bible available to the Suba who do not speak Luo, in the language they understand best.
Political Situation: The Bantu Suba have related closely to the much larger and more culturally aggressive Nilotic Luo. They have gained access to education and economic opportunity to some extent due to their Luo identity. These benefits had to be gained through the Luo language, further subsuming them under a Luo identity. They have had no separate identity as a Suba ethnic group.
One factor in this has been the fact that fewer and fewer Suba still speak their original language over the years, weakening their sense of ethnic identity to the outside world. In recent decades, a new pride of identity has led to an attempt to lobby for a separate Suba identity.
The Suba have been overlooked in both colonial and independent Kenya. The British government assumed them to be part of the Luo people, partly because of their partial assimilation in language and culture. In 1995 the Suba people were awarded a singular recognition when Kenya President Daniel arap Moi established Suba district, allowing an ethnic Suba representation in the national parliament. The fewer Suba in Tanzania have been more eclipsed and lack a political identity.
Customs: The Suba people engage in fishing, farming, boatbuilding and minor commerce of fish and farm products. The Suba supply boats and fish to their neighbors. The Suba people get along well with neighbors. There is considerable intermarriage with Luos.
Extended families are led by the elders. Elders have total authority. A primary elder who is highly respected is informally appointed. His authority may be passed on if his son is also highly respected. The extended family forms the primary social group. The living area of the family is made up of many houses depending on how many wives and children are in the family.
Grandmothers play an important role in child rearing by providing most of the socialization experiences and training for the children. Girls do the cooking, collect and carry firewood and fetch water, while boys do the fishing, herding and working in the fields. The clan elders make decisions regarding violations of cultural norms. Payment to the offended party may be required. Banishment from the group or corporal punishment may also be employed.
Harvest time is celebrated with dancing and beer drinking. Social occasions are held periodically where beer drinking and dancing is enjoyed. Wrestling and a board game called Oluko are popular. Funerals are occasions for much social interactions. Suba art forms include, pottery, baskets, mats and carved designs on furniture. Wall and floor designs are popular.
One of the problems that faces the Suba people is lack of money to attend school as employment opportunities are limited. This brings about education, employment and capital to start fishing industries as one of their greatest needs. There are 3 clinics but people have to go 50 km to the hospital.
Christianity: Christianity was brought to this area through the Luo people. The Suba have been very passive to Christianity. Approximately 60% of the Suba people consider themselves Christian, but only about 20% actually practice their faith actively.
Access to the gospel is high, though response may have slowed and evangelism has apparently not been aggressive in recent years. There is a need for strong Bible teaching.
The comparatively high literacy rate of 50%, and expanding educational opportunity for youth would seem to offer increased opportunities for Bible knowledge.
Country: Kenya Tanzania
Percent Christian: 80% 51%
PercentEvangelical: 25% 9.7%
Population (year): 30,844,000 (1995) 32,892,000
Major Religion: Christianity Christianity
Suba Background Questionnaire
Total People (Suba Speakers): 184,477 (1999)
In Kenya : 138,305 (PeopleGroups.org 1999)
In Tanzania: 46,172 (1999)
Urban Percent: 5%
Location: Eastern shore of Lake Victoria, slightly inland in Kenya; nearby islands.
Country: Kenya and Tanzania
Ecosystem type: Semi-tropical
Geological type: Islands, Lacustrine coastal
Altitude: 3700 ft.
LANGUAGE /LINGUISTICS/LITERACY INFORMATION
Primary Language: SUBA/LUO
Ethnologue Code: SUH/LUO
Alternate Names: Abasuba/Luo-Abasuba
Dialects: Dialect of Luo spoken by the Suba is called Luo-Suba (or Luo-Abasuba)
Attitude towards mother tongue: Positive
Comments: About 2/3 speak Luo as a mother tongue, many without knowing Suba. There is an effort to revive the Suba language.
Second Languages: LUO, ENGLISH
Linguistically related to Suba: GANDA, GUSII, KURIA, KIKUYU
Neighbor Languages: GUSII, KURIA, LUYIA
Adult Literacy: 50%
Literacy Attitude: Very Receptive
Subsistence type: Fishers
Occupations: Fishing and boat building are the primary traditional occupations. Agricultural pursuits are practiced more and more today.
Income Sources: Sale of fish, boats, and some crops.
Products/crafts: Wood Carving, basket making, and pottery.
Trade Partners: Luo
Modernization/Utilities: Wells and hand pumps, motors for boats, grinding machines, and some telephones.
COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT STATUS
Health Care Quality: Fair
Health Care: Malaria and water borne diseases are major problems. People often cannot get to the few clinics in the area due to lack of water transportation.
Balanced Diet: Very good
Diet/food: Fish, millet, maize, and cassava flour.
Water Quality: Fair
Water: Abundant water available from Lake Victoria. Some water is available from wells, but water purity is not good.
Shelter: Homes are built with pole frames and grass thatched roofs. Walls are made of mud.
Energy/Fuel: Wood for cooking and kerosene lamps
Clothing: Mostly western style make of cloth.
Family Structures: Extended families are led by the elders. Grandmothers play an important role in child rearing by providing most of the socialization experiences and training for the children.
Neighbor Relations: The Suba people get along well with neighbors. There is considerable intermarriage with Luos. Boats and fish are supplied to neighbors by the Suba people.
Authority/Rule: Elders have total authority. A primary elder who is highly respected is informally appointed. His authority may be passed on if his son is also highly respected.
Social Habits/Groupings: The extended family forms the primary social group. The living area (boma) of the family is made up of many houses depending on how many wives and children are in the family. Grandmothers oversee the raising of the children.
Cultural Change Pace: Medium
Acculturation to Nat'l Society: Semi
Self Image: Depressed
Judicial/Punishment: The clan elders make decisions regarding violations of cultural norms. Payment to the offended party may be required. Banishment form the group or corporal punishment may also be employed.
Celebrations: Harvest time is celebrated with dancing and beer drinking
Recreations: Social occasions are held periodically where beer drinking and dancing is enjoyed. Wrestling and board game called Oluko is popular. Funerals are occasions for much social interactions.
Art Forms: Pottery, Baskets, Mats, carved designs on furniture. Wall and floor designs are popular.
Local Language Broadcasting:
Attitude to Outsiders: Somewhat receptive
Attitude to Changes: Very receptive
Primary Schools: 6
Teacher to Pupil Ratio:
Language of Instructions for Early Primary School: LUO, ENGLISH
Language of Textbooks for Early Primary School: LUO, ENGLISH
Unmixed Schools: 20 (<90% homogenous)
Labor/Tasks of Youth: Girls: Cooking, collect and carry firewood, fetch water.
Boys: Fishing, herding, work in fields.
Problems: Lack of money to attend school. Employment opportunities are limited.
Greatest Needs: Education and Employment. Capital to start fishing industries.
Medicare: There are 3 clinics but people have to go 50 km to the hospital.
Religion Adherents Active
CHRISTIAN 60% 20%
Primary Religion: Christian -- Roman Catholic, SDA, Baptist, others
Religious Practices/Ceremonies: There is much mixing of Christian ideas with traditional religion. Animal sacrificing is becoming more common.
Spiritual Climate and Openness: The Suba are very open to Christianity. Christian workers indicate the Suba need resources and teachers for good instruction in Christian doctrine.
Translation Status: Work in progress in Suba. Available in Luo.
Available Scripture: None in Mother Tongue Suba. Full Bible in Luo.
Available Form: Luo Bible, New Testament, portions, study materials
Recordings: There is a beginning of recording Suba songs. There are many of gospel songs in Luo.
Films: None in Suba language. Jesus film in Luo.
Video: None in Suba. Jesus film in Luo.
MISSION/CHURCHES WORKING AMONG
1. SDA - Seventh Day Adventists
2. RC - Roman Catholic
4. CPK - Anglican
6. Four Square Church
7. Many independent groups
Abuso, Asaka Paul. A Traditional History of the Abakuria: CAD 1400-1914. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1980.
Amin, Mohammed. Portraits of Africa. London. Harvil Press, 1983.
Ayot, Henry Okello. A History of the Luo-Abasuba of Western Kenya from A.D. 1790-1940. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1979.
Ogot, Bethwell A. History of the Southern Luo: Migration and Settlement. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1967.
1. Survey report by Art Rilling, Bible Translation and Literacy (BTL)
2. Micah Amukobole, General Secretary of BTL
3. Naphtaly Mattah, Suba Bible Translation Project Coordinator.
4. Report of Suba project by Joyce and Marvin Hyde, Summer Institute of Linguistics
5. Profile and additional survey items by Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins, then Director of Interfaith Research Centre, Nairobi, Kenya
Orville Boyd Jenkins
Originally written January 1997
Last updated and posted 3 May 2006
Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.