DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE HEADSTRONG LUO WOMAN
Updated: Sep 20, 2020
There is a Luo saying that, “Ng’wen nene ogeng’o dhako ma dhi dwaro riya”. The translation is that showers of white termites, a rare delicacy, hindered a Luo woman from running away from her husband to seek a new lover. To me that is the translation. I have often questioned people what is the interpretation of this proverb. Just like Halabote saying or yuoro law kuach. Most luos shriek excitedly like excited school girls but very few give it a serious thought. What is the moral story here? At youth the saying seems to marvel at the delicacy of the rare sumptuous meal. That is what we young boys think about. Nothing but eat like termites, then sleep and wake up and eat again. Then you grow up to the interpretation of years of a woman preferring her children so much that she perseveres with the ills of the present domestic set up. However, is that all? Really? Is this woman in flight not deserving of some virtues? A key Luo saying that lasts for generations without some philosophical story line on the only subject in the story of the woman in flight fleeing away from harm’s way? And yet there is no virtue on the only character and no moral story line that makes it lasts for hundreds of years. It does not look right.
Is it a criticism of the Luo woman, an appreciation, an indictment, a slight or is it the ng’wen-like anatomy of the Luo woman?
Many a time I have examined such roles of Luo women and compared with women from other regions and even examined the habits and habitats of such regions. I remember I once compared the strong but feminine mentality of the Scandinavian Nordic women and how that habit arose from the Vikings absence from the home leaving the Viking wives in charge.
I find similarities of this Nordic habit with the Luo wives place in Luo culture from genealogy to politics and in wealth management just like the Scandinavian women and probably because the Scandinavian woman and the Luo woman shared the same habitat. However, an age mate came out so strongly and dismissed even self-evident structures such as the naming of the smallest cell of Luo clans (Nonro), the land tenure systems (puoth dani), the reverence of the Luo woman (taboos like gumo and chira), the punishment on domestic violence (cleansing with a cockerel sacrifice) and even the word chi for wife. In the same blog, a celebrated woman feminist from Luo land blatantly said that the Luo women were “too stupid” to have been given those rights and are responsible for their own subjugation it did not matter because my mother and many Luo women I have known are not that stupid. In other words, my wall became the first ever meeting point of a male chauvinist and a misguided feminist. How can a chauvinist and feminist dine and merry together while slighting women? But such is the nature of social media, that anybody with a smart phone can spare time to dismiss a different idea rather use google before responding.
In this blog I want to examine the similarity between the Irish and Luo woman today. Forget about the remarkable O apostrophe. Also ignore the policy of I-drink-I-get-drunk-and-I-fall-down (Dhiang’ tho gi lum I dhoge). Ignore that both land is surrounded by too much water and have been at loggerheads with the governments for ages even though we will come to that later.
True there is also an element of siege mentality maybe arising from the fact that the Anglo Saxons enslaved the Irish just like they did African. In fact, Irish slaves used to be cheaper than African slaves. In the US only once has an Irish American been voted to be president. Legend has it that one time a certain Hollywood blonde bombshell was being tracked by a powerful rich so and so. So this guy went to talk to a Kennedy to be the go- between the Luo style (Jagam). The Kennedy brother agreed but delivered the opposite message because this guy was not Irish. You see a jagam is never convertible to jasem but the Kennedy had to do it in loyalty to Irish siege mentality.
There is another Irish like story that you can never fail to notice at every Luo funeral. It is very similar to the story of the Luo wives who stand up to be counted when push comes to shove. The best place to see it exhibited is at funerals. It is repeated again and again at most burials all over Luo Nyanza. In fact, my cousin has a 10-year reward for anybody who will find a Luo widow vilifying the late husband.
In the early 1970s the British government was fighting local terrorism with IRA (Irish Republican Army). In my 20 plus years in the UK I have never been to Ireland but I am told the sectarian animosity is still too strong in the air. Anyway there is a story of love in the war front that is worth recounting. It is followed by a living photo of the woman in full combat with the British soldiers.
In one of the those skirmishes the young man engaged the British soldiers in a locality, say like the some Asembo would engage he GSU personnel at Luanda Kotieno. Cornered with him at one side of the battle front was a young fiancé girl no older than 17. You know just like how Luo girls are believers in matters love till the end of time. So as the fire exchange was raging she stood-by not running away, the way Luo wives put up with the onslaught and persecution from come-latelys. Don’t act like you don’t know what I am talking about.
So as the battle raged on the boyfriend of the 17-year-old was hit by the British army soldier and had to be dragged away from the battle line as they tactfully retreated to safety. In order to give the boyfriend room to retreat the 17-year-old girl picked the gun and resumed shooting at the wounded enemy. As she wanted some distance between the retreating boyfriend and the British soldiers she kept on firing back and now became part of a fresh battle front.
She fought back until she was killed in the battle. And you know how a woman can fight back when her back is on the wall. The fight back was described as so unconventional and scatter gun that at one point she was almost winning. Imagine being in a boxing match with a non-boxing trained woman. The punches come from anywhere and in all obscure and obtuse angles that they are practically impossible to defend let alone fight back. At such points you wish a brave passer-by can come and ask for cease fire. Or imagine how a verbal slugging match with a woman can be a handful as there are no rules of engagement. Now picture this young untrained 17-year-old with her back to the wall fighting back at the regimented British Army to protect her fiancé who is wounded. Usually the answer is retreat until her rage is calmed because otherwise you go down with her.
By bad luck the 17-year old fiancé was brought down after causing her own share of very considerable damage to the British army, but by then the boyfriend was pulled away to safety and survived.
When the British battalion came to retrieve the body of the terrorist, they were shocked to find that it was a 17-year-old girl with one machine gun firing from all sorts of angles in very un-sophisticated and strange uncoordinated phases that to the British army it could not possibly be one gun.
The British commander then ordered that the soldiers not to desecrate the body of the 17-year-old Irish girl but to leave it so that the Irish people can bury her honourable like a true fallen fighter. This act by the commander is in itself treasonable by the way.
The British Commander was heard marvelling how a 17-year-old Irish girl cares about her fiancé and her people who pay her nothing for it. He reflected on a government that they protect with their lives and pays and treats them like any paid and contracted employee. More the commander brought into focus a love that is being forced on the Irish people as compared to the selfless love by the Irish on fellow Irish people and conversely underscoring the strength of a marriage to one of your own kind.
If a Luo bible were to be written it should be forwarded by the commanders sacred sermon to the soldiers:
DO NOT BE AFRAID TO BE ASSOCIATED WITH A STRONG WOMAN. THE DAY MAY COME AND SHE MAY BE YOUR ONLY ARMY.
I would like to replace it with the following.
“Kik iring nyar Luo; guok ka otho idwaro ga won go mondo obi oyike”.
However, I cannot because the Luos already have “Ka irango gima gweno chamo to ok dicham gweno”. Which means do not dig into a Luo woman’s weaknesses, because if you do you will fail to benefit from her strengths. Just dwell in her strengths even if it is the headstrong nature.
This Irish story of 1972 is very similar to Luo women who stand by their men even at extreme cases of provocation. For example, the husband who has lived lavishly of resources but is now marooned by all sorts of challenges, probably has lost even their jobs, is in terminal illness but the much abused and maligned Luo wife will be the first to reach out to the husband’s kids on the plight.
With all her faults the Luo woman has been the home keeper when Luo men went on raids and all those Viking stories for over 1000 years revolved around her . She has remained steadfast in that.
In some cold winter while discussing the usual palaver about each other’s welfare when a woman in a mixed marriage quipped, “apenji mag bende gin gad hi tedo. Odiero gi muache gi bende iluongo ni dhi tedo?”
I was perplexed at such an attitude by 50-year-old in 30 years of mixed marriage. Her disappointment is that unlike a Luo marriage, her children are never ranked. In Luo culture there is a place for “kaneyi or okepe”. So this arrangement left her uncovered in many areas including the role of her brother in-laws in her life. In other words, if she cannot get married to a people for her children to belong, then it is not a marriage at all. In my opinion she was talking safety in numbers.
This brings us full circle to the opening, “Ng’wen nene ogeng’o dhako ka dhi dwaro riya”. The legend of the above Luo saying and often repeated is that after a serious domestic strife the woman decided that enough is enough. As was the custom by then they would wake up in the wee hours of the morning to flee away to either her home or new domain of out of clan. Reason if she tried to get away when everybody is awake in the clan they the clan would arrest her and woo her back to her marital home. Now you know why traditional Luo men were sweet talkers. Sweet talking was a drill taught from the age of 5 by comparing you to the person you were named after and how many in-laws she managed to pull for her cousins and naturally you up your game to your ancestor. A folklore for another day.
The folklore is that as she walked away there was a heavy fall swarm of ng’wen. Ng’wen is a delicacy in Luo land especially agoro type. They are usually dark brown with a figure 8 shape like a ripe Luo woman. Fried or raw, ng’wen is delicious. So the eloping wife started picking ng’wen then after a while decided to stock them in her bag to take a long with her. When her bag was full she made her way back to go and feed her children with the harvest of ng’wen and plan for another escape on another day. Of course we all know a Luo woman never feeds the children before the man. In any case a person holding the tether is not interested in the rope but the animal tied at the end of the rope.
So ng’wen nene ogeng’o dhako ka dhi dwaro riya is deeper than nutritional taste. It’s the very fabric that this Luo nation has been held together for 1000 years. Luo men are advised not give up on the tapestry woman yet because the tapestry woman has not given up on them and is always coming back to prepare delicacy and if need be to fight back for you the last battle. Or is it self-preservation by fighting for her children and name.
Well, she is fighting for something and like the British soldier said, do not be afraid because the Luo woman truly is your only army!
(All Photos borrowed from Nyakwar Musewe)