The Luo people are rich in tradition and cultural practices although some of their ways may have an observer raising an eyebrow.
This article lists some unusual customs that are practiced or formerly practiced by the Luo people.
Sleeping with the dead
In the past, there was a custom among the Luo people that had widows sleep in the same room with the body of their late husband before burial. It is expected of the widow to have an odd ‘mandatory dream’ of herself making love to her dead husband for the last time, to be considered ‘freed’ and ready to get remarried. This custom was supposedly meant to be a part of a cleansing ritual to purify such women in readiness for inheritance. If she doesn’t have the dream, more elaborate cleansing rituals took place.
No getting married before your older sibling
Another custom practised in Luoland, in some parts of Luo Nyanza, is not allowing a woman to get married before her older sister. Women of age are forced into marriage as elders frown upon celibacy and those who try it risk curses or banishment. Speaking about this custom, Joseph Odero, senior chief and Elder from Suna Migori, says this idea of people being mocked or forced into marriage began long ago. According to him, choosy women who take their time in choosing a husband are made to go into arranged marriages to pave way for others.
“Forced marriages were a way of easing ‘jam’ for younger ones who were ready and willing to settle down. Oddly, it’s still practiced for the same purpose,” he says.
“These arranged marriages are aimed at ensuring that the older sisters who might not be ‘easy-on-the-eye’ get a chance to settle down before the younger ones. It is important to them because it helps her maintain her stature and respect in the family and village at large,” says Odero.
Should a younger woman marry before her older sister, her bride price can’t be paid to her father. Instead, the groom pays the bride price to her uncle (preferably her father’s brother).
Women are not alone when it comes to this issue, as a younger son cannot marry before his older brother. Should he defy tradition, his elder brother cannot eat food cooked by his younger brother’s wife!
“Neither could the two brothers share a meal at the same table,” Odero explains, adding that if it happened and elders got wind of it, a ritual has to be carried out lest the families get jinxed.
Whipping, public shaming of suicide victims
There is a “punishment” for those who commit suicide in Luo land. In certain places in Nyanza, the body of a man that hangs himself on a tree is thoroughly flogged before it is brought down from the noose. The body is buried outside the homestead in a place referred to as ‘gunda’ — set aside for such and other outcasts.
The act of canning the corpse is to stop the victim’s ghost or evil spirits from roaming back to the home and prompting other people to kill themselves.
Furthermore, a person who commits suicide is buried at night and is not mourned, lest evil spirits haunt the mourners.
Special place of sex besides siring and entertainment
Sex holds a special intimacy for the Luo people as it goes beyond just siring children and enjoyment.
It is a taboo for a woman to hit her husband with a cooking stick during a fight in Luo land and should this happen; a special ritual is administered with the duo being forced to quaff copious amounts of an herbal drink known as ‘manyasi’. Thereafter, the elders order the couple to engage in mandatory sex to quell tension among them.
Another period when sex is considered important is at the start of the planting and harvesting seasons. This is more so for polygamous families as a typical Luo man must start the planting season in style with the first wife before the rest of the wives would plant in their farms. He is required by tradition to make love to his first wife a day preceding the planting season. This is always recommended for men who are no longer sexually active and take longer to get intimate with their wives.
However, Maurice Otieno, an elderly man from Nyakach Koguta, explains that this might have just been a ploy to ensure the first wives, who always get a raw deal, at least get their conjugal rights.
“The elders are smart, when a man marries other younger wives, he can get lost in their warmth and forget that the first wife also has needs. That is why they insist the man must sleep in his first wife’s house before the planting and harvesting season,” he says.
Another instance of the importance of intimacy is when an elder son brings home a woman to his hut for the first time. The custom does not allow him to get intimate with her until the young man’s parents blessed their bed by making love on it. The father would leave the hut, loudly clearing his throat to signify he had cleared the way for the son.
Uncircumcised women are ridiculed, shunned by men
According to Marwa Chacha, an elder from Kuria West, a cultural practice in Kuria has to do with female genital mutilation (FGM). He says the rite was commissioned by their polygamous male god known as Iresa.
Uncircumcised women are considered odd and are mocked as it is considered a standard for all women in Kuria to undergo FGM.
“It’s believed that a woman who refuses to undergo female genital mutilation risks getting cursed. This notion has been reinforced from one generation to another to the extent men shun uncircumcised women.”