FLIRTING: THE SERENDIPITY OF LUO CUSTOMS
Workplace Diversity is an interesting subject. I received a practical illustration of what diversity is when I applied for a job just after the turn of the millennium. The routine of answering these interview questions about one’s weaknesses, I tried to pull a first one. At the interview I told them that my weakness is keeping time in the morning because I am from the tropics and we over rely on the intensity of the sun to know the time.
As much as I still got the job, my Chief Executive Officer, Gary who is Irish descent was not amused. In my first supervision he took me through the essence of diversity at work place and what it means. He rightfully pointed to me, that people from the tropics are not clock watchers. They are casual about reporting on time as they are careless about watching the clock to leave at exactly the leaving time to go home after delivering the contracted hours. A nurse from Africa may report to work five minutes late on two occasions in a week. However, the same nurse will not leave work until she is fully satisfied that she has fully handed over and thereby giving freely an extra five hours a week which compares favourably to the 10 minutes the nurse lost when she came in late. And it gets worse in the summer when people of African descent rise early to report to work just because daylight is at 4.00am and have to be dragged from their working places because subconsciously they are more responsive to the 9.00 pm sunset as a measure of time than the 5.30 clock time. And he advised me that as someone who has just arrived to keep my eyes open for such elements of diversity not only in work place but generally in life.
And true they were many and I keep on encountering many examples. Just last month a top African football professional Gabonese Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of English premiership club Arsenal FC got into trouble for reporting late after visiting to see his mother. And this was the second time he had reported late. And given that he had earned an increased salary uplift by single handed lifting Arsenal to their only recent two trophies two seasons ago, he was singled out by racist fans who claimed that he does not display the seriousness to be a captain. He appears lackadaisical and is always laughing. Yet two years ago while laughing and being playful he lifted the club to two trophies and the same racist fans were not complaining. This smiling is of course a mannerism used to depict which African is a diaspora or black American in those stereotype Hollywood movies with such roles as Eddie Murphy as an exchange student from Cameroon.
That depiction not any different from the Go-back-To-Africa believers who insist that black slaves added nothing in making America great, “if African slaves were really working hard on farm fields, how were they able to sing so well and dance so well.”
The African diplomatic face of a smile is easily not visible in a society where everyone keeps to himself. About six years after the above job interviews I ran into another confrontation with cultural differences. In a completely different employment place, I reported to work in the morning and was met with the face of a distressed East European young woman at the receptionist. She was a temp staff and was wearing a very transparent top which was normal because it was summer and the day was later bound to be very hot. What was visible and nobody could point out to her is that beneath her see-through blouse she had suffered a wardrobe malfunction with the undergarments. The see-through top against her Caucasian skin made her anatomy even more visibly pronounced. And with the Luo in me I pointed it out to her very politely. To me it was the natural thing to do forget about a Luo being gallant or a flirt and if that is the case, so be it. If she was about to cross the road and a car was approaching dangerously naturally I would shout “STOP” and worry about political correctness and Luo reputation later. It is the natural thing to do. And the Luo ness in me demands that I act that way. Anyway, newly arrived immigrant intern/temp thanked me and went on to adjust her clothes while I shortly watched over the reception.
On reaching the office I enquired from my colleagues why anybody did not point out to the poor young girl earlier about her wardrobe malfunction. Listen to this response. I was told that it was culturally inappropriate and these days it could misconstrued as politically incorrect if one does it. But they added that because of my cultural background, I can get away with pointing it out.
I then asked how come I am exempt. I was told that some things like staring at people, greeting people come naturally to Africans. That the African male for example are more gallant to propose to or approach a woman they fancy in a public place more than say an Anglo Saxon or an oriental. That it is in African DNA to be flamboyant and showboat much more than a corresponding European white male without appearing arrogant.
That even flirting is excused of the African man because culturally there is nothing wrong with it. The positive thing they added is Africans should stick to their liberating cultures like being able to point out a wardrobe malfunction, instead of adopting suffocating cultures that even couples have “to get drunk before they can copulate”. So does that make the Luo flirting excusable? When did it start? To be more exact what makes flirting come easily to a Luo man or woman?
River Nile inventions like Lipstick, Nail polish are substantially a form of flirting, yet flirting even if invented along the river valley appears to be much older. When I googled flirting, the following is what I found.
flirting (present participle)
. behave as though sexually attracted to someone, but playfully rather than with serious intentions.
trifle with · toy with · tease · lead on · philander with · dally with · make romantic advances to ·
· (flirt with)
experiment with or show a superficial interest in (an idea, activity, or movement) without committing oneself to it seriously.
dabble in · toy with · trifle with · amuse oneself with
· (flirt with)
deliberately expose oneself to (danger or difficulty).
"the need of some individuals to flirt with death"
Strictly speaking then, there is no flirting in dholuo or is there? I say there is no flirting because there is a general disapproval of flirts in European or Caucasian unlike in Luo culture where it is a prerequisite to being a teenager. Comments like high, “he is a flirt, don’t take him serious, he is nothing but a playboy”. Or for a woman, she is a cockteaser are all disapproval. Then there is the sexual content of the western flirting. This is not a Luo thing.
On both sides of the Atlantic office no-go warnings like, “watch out you will get a reputation” are very common. And all this to underscore that it was never wanted.
Flirting in dholuo
Unless I grew up in a different part of Luo, being jangera, ja ole amongst in-laws was considered a virtue. To be straitlaced was a draw back. It was considered a good a thing to enter a home and everybody wants to greet you. Even for girls, it was seen as a good thing to be chatty, to be less terse with words to at ease. To be able to disarm people even in a family strife. And where it was absent it was very much tutored before one becomes a teenager. Flirting is still to a Luo what proverbs are to most west African tribes. The communications lines that is opened by ngera, aole, mbaka is endless. The person who described diplomacy (ngera) earlier had not heard the Luo definition of diplomacy aka Ngera as Ngera en hawanya.
Symptoms of Flirt in Luo.
In Luo, Ngera is tutored as culture in a person at a young age. A Kikuyu colleague once remarked, “you Luos, even the flowery provocative way a girl walks is coached at a young age”. And it just rang a bell when I recalled the rebuke “to ma wotho ka oriere tir cha to nyar kure”. Or have you noticed the way Luo women elaborately gather their dresses when sitting down or the way they arrange it after sitting down. It is in the way a person eats. Then the voice intonations, the elaborate dressing. A Criminologist in Buru Buru police station told me that only Luo women wear big loud ethnic ear rings. I always thought it was something to do with their necks. And all these stem from Ngera.
It was in the way one greets visitors. The way one delivers tragic, news of bereavement. The way one negotiated at betrothed, domestic disputes. The way one adjudicated in a domestic flare up. The way one cajoled a delinquent or a depressed person.
And these habits even followed in the new way of life. A Luo man still flirts to deceive by picking all the bills creating a flirting image. The flamboyance with Luo men all seems to come from here.
And there are boundaries. I am not speaking for songstress Iddi Achieng, but her current hit sensation Miel a Miela translated as just dance is a case in point. In fact, in my dholuo translation the title should be Just Flirt. In the record a lady is egging the partner not to be afraid to flirt. Like it is expected of him to flirt and there is nothing wrong with flirting like it is part of going out. This sort of mannerisms will earn one a reputation in the west that can stifle or throttle a public office career. And true even to a liberally cultured Luo this is not very strange and yet this exactly who we are up to now.
Flirting as Luo diplomacy
I was at party once when some a friend casually described diplomacy as the art of telling someone to go to hell in a way that they are actually happy to go to hell. Interesting because the Luos mantra to flirting is Ngera en hawanya.
Let us forget that the best diplomats in Kenya have been sons of the Lake or that trade unionism industrial bargainers is dominated by people of Luo extraction. It must be a Luo DNA to diplomatically set people at ease to bargain. It is therefore not surprising that it comes naturally to see President Barack Obama covering his aides against morning rain on embarking from a chopper. And Prime Minister Raila Amolo unashamedly does not shy away from jigs of younger girls the age of his daughters near First Lady Ida Odinga who also watches in amusement as if to say, it is expected of my man. To these Luos it is easier to flirt to disarm or escort adversaries away than confront them.
When I set out asking if flirting and promiscuity go together, I was reminded of cultures with greater track record of immorality but have no known history of flirting as a culture like the Namlolwe people. A controversial Hollywood movie around 1981 titled Lipstick brought this point home. As much as the movie could be fiction, it explored the role of lipstick on the US rape. Lipstick is not an invitation to treat it concluded. This is in the same vein to the not so distant “my dress my choice” campaign. Or closer to home the recent legislation passed in some western countries that a woman’s permission to sex is impaired by alcohol. So a woman’s being tipsy and saying yes is not an invitation to sex. Meaning that the alcohol content in a person empowers them to flirt but still that is not an invitation to sex and true that applies to the Luo Ngera. What is absurd that even locally among the liberated Namlowe people who so much as scream at the tallest buildings shout these ideals and boundaries, they have a readiness to find the tame Luo flirting at say an Ohangla jig or a political rally as a sign of a promiscuous tendency and have no defence for it but they are ready to die while defending of legislating for western and foreign moral standards that an average Luo cannot see.
The Future of Ngera
So have the Luo benefits to flirting changed in a 1000 years of Luo history? I don’t think the benefits have been diminished one bit. The communal links now need it more than ever before. Welfare organisations in the west are already employing befriending staff as lonely lifestyle threaten to take over. And Luo people dread loneliness. And with the rise in working from home since COVID 19 pandemic that has marooned people at home the work place is even lonelier leading to stress and tension at home. The rise in mental cases since the pandemic broke out is very high. The old flirting Luo culture is needed more than ever before, on cell phones, face books and other social media.