The Luo Lakeside Script was developed by Kefa Ombewa in Kenya with help from graphic designer Will Were and Paul Sidandi of Botswana between 2009 and 2012 as a unique, non-Latin way to write the Dholuo language—so as to, in Ombewa’s word, “decolonize African culture.”
He adds “I was interested in making sure that African societies, and in this case particularly Luo, also have their own script.”
Creating a workable non-Latin script turned out to involve a wide range of challenges. How would the glyphs work together with a QWERTY keyboard? Would it be possible to make similar sounds look the same when written? Should the script be cursive, and if so, what ligatures were needed to join letters?
“Through trial and error, samples of simple abstract strokes and curves were used,” Ombewa said. “Further modifications were done in order to fit specifications of font creator softwares.” The guiding principle was to develop a cursive script with a central connection, having ascenders and descenders.
At the same time Paul Sidandi, working independently from Francistown in Botswana, was developing an African number system, then known as Luo numbers. (It was later changed to Lwo Numerals to avoid confusion with Chinese, who also have Luo Numbers.)
“Africans generally learn to write letters and numbers in the air, then on the ground,” Paul Sidandi explained. “This is the logic for the horizontal line which can be seen running through the letters and numbers when written sequentially.”
As always, the challenge to a new script was partly invention, mostly implementation. It was publicly launched by Kefa Ombewa in an interview on the Kenya Television Network in 2014, after which an implementation team was set up with representatives from Botswana, Kenya, Australia, the UK, Tanzania and Uganda.
In Botswana, a graphics designer Taolo Dipatane of Lobatse was tasked with producing infographics and designs for posters, clocks, and T-shirts. The team pitched the script to local chiefs, magistrates, academics, youth groups, museums, schools and sign language interpreters.
The script has been tested in several primary and junior secondary schools around the country, and in Kenya an Academy that is to open in 2020 has made a commitment for the script to be taught at the school. The script has also been presented at the Museums of Botswana, University of Botswana Mathematics Department, and the Botswana International University of Science and Technology.
In Kenya, Maureen Oyuga’s book of Luo words, written in the Lakeside Script and translated into English, has sold nearly a thousand copies.
“I want to make it an African script,” Ombewa said. “If the Luo want to enjoy the script and own it, I don’t mind, but it is an African script. I envision an Africa that is delatinized all the way from Southern Africa, West Africa to East Africa.”
The original Luo script was in lower case onl,y and had glyphs for combination sounds such as mb, ng, nd. The Luo African Lakeside Script was developed from it, and now has upper and lower case glyphs which correspond to A-Z. An app was developed by Kefa Ombewa that enables numbers and letters typed on a QWERTY keyboard to toggle between Latinized and non-Latinized Letters and Numbers. As a result, the script can now be used by any African language ranging from Akan of Ghana to Zulu of South Africa.
Updated August 2020
General Script, Language, and Culture Resources
- Luo Lakeside Script Tutorial (PDF)
- Kefa Ombewa Youtube Channel
- Wikipedia (Luo Languages)
- Wikipedia (Luo People)
- Decolonizing Luo Language Interview
- Cultural Background Video