Mary Claire Kidenda & Osuanyi Quaicoo Essel

“Kom Nyaluo – Luo Traditional Stool, wood and beads”, 2019, Kisumu, Kenya. (photo by Mary Clare Kidenda); “A Luo Elder at Kisumu National Museum”, 2019, Kisumu, Kenya.  (photo by Mary Clare Kidenda) 

An Iconic Artefact in Kenya


The elegant three- legged Luo traditional stool - “Kom Nyaluo” remains a great fascination as one of the earliest forms of seating furniture with its characteristics deep concave surface and elegantly curved legs.  It is carved from a single log of wood. The round top of the stool, symbolises the round universe and a miniature universe on which the husband reigns in a home.  It is a sign of prestige and leadership, reflecting the status or power of their owner within society and a reflection of the round traditional Luo huts.

  • Mary Claire Kidenda
    Mary Claire Kidenda

    Kenya is extraordinarily rich in creativity, materials, and ideas sources of inspiration reflected in their artefacts which has evolved to its current prosperous state over the centuries. The Kenyan culture can be seen in the visual arts, applied arts, food, music, dance, sports, fashion, literature, and theatre. The artefacts are an extraordinary source of inspiration and nourishment for the artist. Their designs embody African design aesthetics that have retained traditional designs as they also reflect elements of innovation, hybridity, sustainability and modernity (Maina et al., 2017). The artefacts reflect religious beliefs and cultural values – two inseparable elements enmeshed in Kenyan craft. The Kenyan traditional art is fundamentally functional, meeting some specific utilitarian purposes, whereas its aesthetic consideration is typically regarded as having some secondary significance. Art was integrated into everyday aspects of life from formal ceremonies and religious rites to daily household tasks. The arfetacts were produced by skilled experienced crafts persons who were found in the societies.  Art is an expression of a particular community or culture through the employment of local materials and craftsmanship.


    The Jua Kali manufacturing subsector is the predominant creator of craft products in Kenya (Maina et al., 2017). Jua Kali is a self-organising community of practice producing goods. It is comprised of artisans running micro and small enterprises that are not fully integrated into the mainstream formal economy. The artisans learn skills through traditional apprenticeship (TA). Apprenticeship training is regarded as a critical contributor to skills supply, fostering economic development in Kenya. It involves the transmission of the tacit rather than the explicit knowledge and is the most tangible exhibition of the intangible cultural heritage. It facilitates the transmission of skills from a custodian of knowledge, the Master Craftsman. It combines ethnic design and aesthetics and contemporary styling in craft production in Kenya. Involves the transmission of the tacit rather than the explicit knowledge through observation, imitation and reputation. Besides, apprenticeship ensures that the knowledge and skills that relate to the craft are passed down to future generation so that they continue to be produced within their communities. The learning of the Kenyan design, aesthetics is therefore, an intergenerational phenomenon.


    Kenya's ethnic groups can be divided into three broad linguistic groups Bantu, Nilotic and Cushite. The Nilotic tribes  in Kenya include Luo, Kalenjin, Maasai and Turkana (Hino et al., 2019). The Nilotic speakers migrated from Sudan and Egypt. They are traditionally pastoralists and fishermen and reside in Kenya's vast Rift-Valley region and around Lake Victoria (Madut, 2020). Each of these communities has its traditions, customs, and practices, imbued with multiple layers of culture, colonial legacies, and migration that add to the rich Kenyan cultures (Deisser & Njuguna, 2016) . The distinctness and confluence of these cultures have served as artistic inspiration for many a cultural product creatively fashioned out of raw materials primarily sourced from the natural environment.


    The Luo or Lwoo (also called Joluo, singular Jaluo) are an amalgamated agro-fishery and Nilotic Dholuo ethnolinguistic groups in Africa that inhabit an area ranging from South Sudan and Ethiopia, through northern Uganda and eastern Congo (DRC) (Ojwang, 2021; Prince & Geissler, 2008), into western Kenya, and the Mara Region of Tanzania west Kenya, eastern Uganda, and in Mara Region in northern Tanzania. The name Luo or Low means "God's life-bearing exhalation.' The past economic activities of the Luo included fishing and cattle farming (Ndeda, 2019). Agriculture, especially that which involves staple crops such as maize and beans (Ojwang, 2021). Nilotic communities such as Turkana and Pokot (ekicholong) and even Bantus such as Kamba (mumo ya muthamia) and Taita (kifumbi) in Kenya have traditional stools that have been used for various cultural and functional purposes (Somjee, 1993).


    This paper discusses the Luo Traditional Three-Legged Stool called “Kom Nyaluo” in the Luo tribe (Hoehler-Fatton, 1996). My interest in this stool arose because I am a Luo lady married to a Luo man who owns the stool.

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    Kidenda, “Domestic Exhibition of Kom Nyaluo to EVC Expert Panel Discussing the Versions of the Traditional Stool”, Wood and Beads, 2022 Karen, Nairobi


    The circular top of Kom Nyaluo symbolises the round universe and a miniature universe on which the husband reins in a home. It is a sign of prestige and leadership, reflecting the status or power of men or the husband within society and a reflection of the round traditional Luo huts. Its legs embody male masculinity and virility (Biko, 2010). Only the father was qualified to sit on the seat as he had requisite authority and was the owner of all the women he brought forth life with. He would sit on it when addressing issues; women and children would sit on the ground.


    The traditional Kom Nyaluo was small, with a height of about 30cm from the ground and decorated with beads (Hoehler-Fatton, 1996). Each elder had their stool, and women and children were forbidden from sitting on it. Kom Nyaluo is associated with the authority the elders wielded and the respect that they were accorded in their homes and society. The stool design reflected the traditional activities of men and women. The men worked and socialised outside the home, and the women mostly worked inside and around the house and garden (shamba). A married young man with a few children applies for an eldership position in a ceremony where he hosts community elders. He would be dressed in traditional regalia, carry a spear and fly whisk. The elders would sit him on Kom Nyaluo and crown him as an elder.


    Most traditional Luo homes were polygamous, and the stool played a significant role in controlling the wife, which enjoyed marital favours and childbearing. The husband or man of the house would send the stool to the woman's hut. He would want to spend the night in her hut. The stool would be sent secretly, and early the following day, the man would sneak back into his hut so that the other wives would not know whom he slept with. This brilliantly averted obvious petty jealousy will arise from a polygamous home. If one wife felt that she didn't have the stool in her house often enough, she would ask the first wife to intervene on her behalf. "If the first wife didn't like her, she would ensure her complaints did not reach their husband. The seat symbolised love and joy and sustained life in a traditional Luo homestead. Literally and figuratively, of course. Kom Nyaluo did not only represent the authority of the man but also love and joy and sustained life in the traditional Luo home (Biko, 2010).


    Kom Nyaluo was used during the levirate ceremony or "tero", where a widow was remarried to a relative of their deceased husband. The levirate union is consummated by sexual intercourse on the first night. If the widow invited the elders for a drink the day after the night of "ter", it was a sign that the night had been successful. During the drinking session, there was the enthronement ceremony of the new head of the home onto the stool of the deceased, "Kom wuon dala" (seat of the homeowner). With the enthronement, it was as if the dead man was alive again (Lutta, 2015). After marrying and having a few children, a Luo man applies for elderhood by hosting the elders at a party where he will be crowned and dressed in traditional regalia. Signs and symbols of authority that include a spear fly whisk and a three-legged stool are given to the elder.

    Production Process

    In this case study, the Kom Nyaluo is produced by an artisan from Siaya County Jua Kali Association craftsman. He learned his father's craft skills through traditional apprenticeship and made his products on demand. The Luo traditional stools are carved with logs from ober (mvule tree), ngo'wo (fig tree), duwa (oak tree) and the member (mango tree). The logs are chopped by a power saw and dried for one week. These are hardwood types that are strong, durable and water-resistant. They also feature unique colours and grain patterns that create a stunning display. Oak is light yellowish-brown and generally straight-grained; it is also hard and durable. Mvule wood comes from the African teak, known in Nigeria as the iroko tree; it is challenging, dense, and durable. Fig tree wood sometimes contains latex, which can be toxic or an allergen. Since the fig trees seldom grow straight, their boards tend to be shorter. However, the wood is soft and not very strong. Mango wood is relatively easy to work with; it is easier to shape, plane and sand while still strong and durable. It is also friendly to waxing and staining, making it excellent for furniture or other household objects.

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    Kidenda, “Wood Logs used for curving out Kom Nyaluo”, 2013, Siaya, Kenya


    Each log costs the artisan ten thousand Kenya shillings (Ksh. 10,000), equivalent to sixty-seven (67) euros. The stool is carved from a single block of wood, the wood between stem and roots, which has twisted grains that are more durable and cannot break or crack. The stool is made without using joints or nails. The seat takes the shape of a log. The carver uses Koyo (adze) to fashion Kom Nyaluo from the log, which does not require nails or joints.


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    Kidenda, “Curving out the Kom Nyaluo from a log”, 2013, Siaya, Kenya (photo by Mary Clare Kidenda)


    Its top takes the circular shape of the log, and after carving, it is smoothened with a furr (metal scrapper for smoothing wood).


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    Smoothening the Circular Top Using Furr, 2013, Siaya, Kenya; Furr, the handmade metal tool used to smoothen the top of Kom Nyaluo, 2013, Siaya, Kenya (photos by Mary Clare Kidenda) 


    They are then sandpapered and vanished using paintbrushes.


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    Sandpapered and vanished sets of Kom Nyaluo, 2013, Siaya, Kenya (photo by Mary Clare Kidenda)



    A compass is used for drawing geometrical patterns on the top of the stool.

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    The drawing of geometrical patterns using a compass, 2013, Siaya, Kenya (photo by Mary Clare Kidenda)


    Supposedly the design is inspired by a parquet floor in a European-style house owned by Tom Mboya. The wire inlay practised by the Kamba may also have been a model. Thereafter, wood, glass beads, metal, and colourful Maasai beads are banged onto the top, providing intricate decorative artwork.

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    The inserting/banging of beads into the top of Kom Nyaluo, 2013, Siaya, Kenya (photo by Mary Clare Kidenda)


    Finished: A Luo Dignitary Stool “Kom Nyaluo

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    Variety Designs of Finished Kom Nyaluo, 2019, Karen, Kenya (photo by Mary Clare Kidenda)


    When Sara went to the US for the inauguration of Mr Obama as president in January 2009 Mama Sarah carried a similar stool. In 2015 when President Obama visited Kenya, he was given  a traditional Luo stool (Langat, 2015).

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    Kom Nyaluo Created by Luberastus Onyango, Wood, glass beads, metal, 2020 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.




    Luberastus Onyango was a renowned Kom Nyaluo craftsman (he died in 1988) whose stools have been given to at least 2 US presidents as gifts President, including John F. Kennedy and Barrack Obama.

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    Variety Designs of Finished Kom Nyaluo, 2019, Karen, Kenya (photo by Mary Clare Kidenda)


    A generation of Kenyan artists and designers are translating their view of Kenyan design into beautifully crafted products and creating an aesthetic diverse as the tribes and cultures that make up Kenya. This is evident in the JKS in the preservation and modification of the designs like Kom Nyaluo through a traditional apprenticeship that is the critical training methodology of apprenticeship used in Jua Kali Associations. This is evident with the continued production of Kom Nyaluo because of for its cultural utility and aesthetic functionality in the contemporary modern spaces. Artisans and designers are to re-direct and co-create new narratives that re-position philosophical discourse on aesthetics, among other contemporary debates. A generation of Kenyan artists and designers are translating their view of Kenyan design into beautifully crafted products and creating an aesthetic diverse as the tribes and cultures that make up Kenya.



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    Osuanyi Quaicoo Essel
    Osuanyi Quaicoo Essel

    Pan-African collective memory: Sociocultural power and identity making on indigenous stools from Ghana and Kenya


    Indigenous stools play significant roles in Ghanaian and Kenyan cultures and societies, especially, among the Akan and Masai ethnic groups in the two respective countries. Stools in the sociocultural context serve many functions. One of the primary functional roles is that, it serves as object for sedentary purposes. It is used as a utilitarian object for sitting, welcoming visitors, relaxation for people, for example, family and friends. In Ghana, it is customary to offer a visitor a chair (stool) by way of welcoming, serving him/her water, before asking the visitor of his/her motive for the visit. In the first instance, a visitor is given a sit to relax, followed by cup of water for drinking before asking the visitor to give purpose for the visit. Offering a visitor a chair shows an overt acceptance and respect for his/her presence. This traditional etiquette of serving visitors is ingrained the sociocultural life of both Ghana and Kenya.


    Amongst the Akan of Ghana, a visitor is usually given a traditional stool as a seat that may befit his/her status in the traditional society or culture. A family may have different stools: those for showcasing power and authority of its user, honouring guests, and everyday usage by the household. The usage of stools in this context depicts its status-defining tendencies.


    Apart from signifying status of individuals, stools, among the Akan of Ghana symbolises the authority of the ethnic or nation states. Stools in Ghana, generally serves as a symbolic soul of the society which links people to the traditional leadership (Antubam, 1963; Amenuke et al, 1991). The stool carries authoritative presence and signifies leadership concept. Warriors, clan heads, chiefs, kings used it to signify their status.


    Stools serve as scared and authoritative object in the traditional chieftaincy institution of the southern part of Ghana. Kings/chiefs are enstooled in southern Ghana while those at northern part are enskinned. This implies that in the cultural rituals in the making of Kings/chiefs, stools are inevitable. Amongst the chiefdom, there are several ritualistic uses of stool. Some stools in the court of a chief may be used only once in his or her lifetime. Some are also used once a year during traditional festivities while some are used on daily bases.


    As an object strongly connected with power and authority, the Ghanaian stool has three basic parts: the arc-shaped top, the middle portion and the flat base. Its arc-shaped top symbolises loving embrace of women or the concept of motherliness (Amenuke et al, 1991; Antubam, 1963). The middle portion usually gives the stool its name based on the symbol used in representing a concept or idea. The name of the of a stool could be based on a proverb, Adinkra symbol (Figure 1), traditional emblem or idea. For example, the stool in Figure 1 derived its name from the Adinkra symbol which has been stylised to occupy the middle portion, hence the name Nyansapow Stool.


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     Figure 1: Nyansapow (Wisdom knot) stool. Ghana National Museum. (Photo: the author)


    The recognition of the presence of God in the society, gender roles and the presence of children is also acknowledged by the middle part of the stool. Design of a stool may adopt basic beliefs and practices of symbolic significance to the society in general. The symbolic adaptation speaks to the visual presentation of Ghanaian societal values including concept of societal functions, cosmic beliefs, family and gender roles.


    As a utilitarian object, the stool plays vital roles in the rites of passage (birth, puberty rites, marriage and death) in indigenous Ghanaian and Kenyan cultures in different context. In indigenous Masai culture, stools are used by husbands as object of announcing their eminent visit to their wives on rotational basis. In many African societies, marrying more than one woman is an accepted norm just as same sex marriage are acceptable in other continents of the world. African society holds polygamy as a culture and not in negative perspective as non-African wrongly perceives it. Masai men with more than one wife usually build their houses in circular orientation, allocating a room each to the wives. The house of the man is situated in the middle of the circular-arranged houses. With this traditional set up, the stool is used as a preserve for the husband to signal his presence and authority. To announce his official intention of visiting one of the wives in the same compound, he sends his messenger to send his stool to one of the wives he intended to visit. By seeing and receiving the stool, the wife interprets this symbolic gesture to mean official announcement of her husband’s visit.

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    Figure 2: Traditional Kenyan stool used in negotiating visitation to wives. Found in the personal collection Mary Clare Kidenda. Kenya. (Photo: the author)


    The design of the Masai stool of Kenyan (Figure 2) varies from that of the Akan of Ghana. The Maasai stool features a circular-shaped top and prominent three-legged phallus-shaped upright stands.  Usually decorated with traditional Masai beads, the top of the stool has bowl-shaped surface that serves as a comfortable receptor of the buttocks of the user. The tip of the phallus-shaped stands touches the ground and gently bends inward, and depicts crown-shaped cork memetic of the phallus. These observable characteristic features symbolise the presence and potency of the manhood in procreation. Despite its simplistic appearance, the stool creates a collective memory of marital relationships and the supervisory power of males and the loving embrace of women. Interestingly, this depiction to the African, is not a show of chauvinism but a reminder to males to protect and care for women within their power. Generally, having secret rendezvous or extra marital affairs is frond up by society. Performing official marital rights to marry a lady is the traditional expectation rather than having them as mistresses.


    In Ghana, the head of a clan, warrior, chief/king and queen mothers uses the stool to symbolise authority. For that matter, the presidential seat was fashioned with inspiration from the shape of the stool. Despite the difference in design concept of the Kenyan and Ghanaian stools, both signify a collective memory of marital relationships, idea of procreation, leadership authority and the loving embrace of women in the society.


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