JA-SEM: The Good King Bad.
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Sem in dholuo means to bad mouth or to malign someone or something. Even if it is the truth, still to say it in a very inappropriate place or time is sem.
The main purpose of sem is alittle more than “buyer be aware” because a specific reaction is expected of the listener. Why am writing about sem in Luo way of life? Does sem have its place in our community. If that is the case, then Luo culture must be very primitive if slander is welcome. Not so fast, with wholesome trashing of Luo culture.
If you are an international Rugby fan like Stan Oburu-Otema Ramogo then you are well versed with a common banter at the expense of the rugby mad fans of Wales. The welsh and it follows all sporting teams from Wales are used to this banter. The banter is equivalent to the one enjoyed by Gor Mahia fans over AFC Leopards fans and poultry-bestiality. I must confess I don’t know why only this ethnic community was crucified by this bestiality when some communities even had it ritually practised as coming of age. But, I was told how the Welsh banter came about.
Long time ago there was a law against stock theft and the punishment for stealing animals from the English Law was so bad (hanging by the neck until you die). The Welsh just like the Scots despised the English so much they would steal their stock even for fun. There was also another law against bestiality (having sexual relationship with an animal). But unlike Kenya it was lighter sentence. So the Welsh when cornered with a stolen sheep, they would quickly strip and start sexual relationship with beast! The arresting officers were therefore forced to charge them with lighter sentence of bestiality as they were not stealing the sheep but engaging in bestiality. Incredible! And that is how the Welsh acquired the tag of sheep shaggers. It is a real act that came in to scupper a heavy sentence. The welsh were not really practising bestiality but quickly adopted it to escape being hanged by the neck until they die!
I was asked by Welsh Rugby player to find out from he 1000 years old Luo customs if there was any Luo common, law, ritual, tradition or way of life that reverted itself to lighter sentence in that way. 5 years down the line I cannot think of any and have not found any. I know that you can be let go but there is no way that a lighter offence is induced to replace the more serious one. Even the Ugunja thief who went back to steal the kid because the ewe was bleating all night was still charged with theft. My Ugenya people sometimes amaze me. This is the only place in the world that named a bar and lodging (short time getaway) after a saint- Ugunja St Michaels Bar and Lodging!
The nearest I came to answering my Welsh friend is the practice of Jajuok- piti-piti and Jasem. And in the two no lighter sentence is preferred. The wise within the community prefer to live with them. Take for example Jajuok- piti-piti. The elderly enjoyed the intel they provided for the community against enemies and the internal intel against ills such as incest. The piti-piti guys and Jasem had a file against everybody in the community. Josem (plural) also had their good sides.
One characteristics of Josem is that they collected and gathered information about clans, peoples, homes, events etc. And they were mostly undesired events and ASBOs (Anti Social behaviour). They are not interested in good things about people. Only the negative ones. And they had memory longer than the internet. Josem never forget just like the internet.
Jasems’ primary objective is to slander and disrupt what is being constructed. To scatter. It is not the same as say “Buyer Be aware” that just provides you with information and does not require action. Jasem was not like small print in a contract that you are supposed to miss. If Sem was written it would be bold with neon signs all over it.
And real Josem never required to be remunerated before for their efforts. They did this at their own personal expense. Jasem could travel long distances to pass the information desired or not. Once again the main purpose is to cause despondence on the subject. To make the subject very undesirable.
In most cases one was born Jasem. You never learnt to be Jasem. There is no training college for Jasem in Luo land. One is either born Jasem of not. You could not even pretend to be Jasem because it was not easy and it was expensive. Why then did the community live comfortable with such destructive characters.
Good King Bad.
Let’s us not pretend. Everybody has desired to hear Josem. As much as Josem is maligned in the community, we all wanted to hear what josem has to say. The devil’s advocate sayeth what? After that the truth that he spewed is weighted and discounted.
One old lady described it as the heat of the sun. You know it will be hot so you start your journey when it is cool and walk the most part in the cooler part. Simba Wanyika my favourite band described it as “maji ya moto haiwezi choma nyumba”. So you know it is coming. Do not shun it. Listen to the stories then make an informed judgement based on wise counsel.
And in many cases Sem has been observed to sometimes make the target act in the opposite of expected direction. In most relationship where people enter an abusive union, it is not that Josem has not done due diligence and unticked the boxes. Usually Josem has been very thorough. The only problem is one party decides to take on the challenge. And bingo the union is sealed. Primitive minds can go on blaming dowry, Luo culture, poverty etc. but the marriage was re enforced the moment despite Josem attempts to uncheck boxes. You will hear tales of a domestic quarrels ending in fatality like maiming and even killing when the tell-tale signs were everywhere for this eventuality to be avoided. The public is left dumbfounded as to “why did she/he not see it coming?”.
Did our culture encourage or at least condone Josem? I have a resounding Yes. As much as they are maligned, it was a way of testing the resolve of a person to a cause. We grew up with tales like Cinderella tales where one spouse masked their appearance to hide who they are. I was told just yesterday how celebrities lead a lonely life because they cannot hide who they are and attract genuine friends. Luo fables tells us that the availability of Josem to test the commitment was very welcome and probably a culturally inbuilt system of purifying the community hence the term Good King Bad. I know of a lady whose line in public place to rebuff moves from suitors is “I am a hunter and gatherer.” She would say be having lunch in restaurant in a place of available ladies in Kisumu. And any wandering suiter who heard that dreaded introduction would just coil away to wherever they came from.
My mother or rather my clan used to recite the legendary Josem in our home area. One Mzee popularly known as Ja-sport was a smart dresser and always wore a white raincoat. Another was a legendry neighbour who never liked a bad smell, “gik-mang’we-to-nene-ase-dag”. A little earlier was a prominent son of who is who. My mother was telling me that even though he specialised in making missions to stifle budding relationships, he was a kind man at heart and never like to hear of somebody especially women suffering. He would untether his opulent father’s flock to give a destitute village woman to milk or pay school fees. He would break his father’s boxes and give out the clothes to a needy person. I teased my mother what this royal Jasem said of my Dad on double take mission to kill of the relationship he was party to. But my mother adored my father so much she could kiss the ground my father walked. So I knew she would never tell me. Even 30 years after his death, it was Samuel, this, Samuel that. Samuel blah blah. Samuel all day long... Ooh well.
Do I think Josem have a place in modern Luo life. Let me speak for myself. I am very naïve as person. Maybe from the fact that I was a weakling Odongo. It is very easy to pull wool over my eyes. You should try sometime. Many have done it and continue to do so and will do it tomorrow. I am one of these people that can sit next to a woman who is 8 months pregnant and not notice her pregnancy. Sometimes I think I live at the mercy of my enemies. But here is why Josem prove beneficial to me. I welcome all their rubbish then once alert source intel to trash the rubbish or look for tell tales of what Jasem said.
Say Jasem told me that this prospective employer is “here today and gone tomorrow”. I want that information. I need that information. Then I will use some other intel to query the information. Of course not all decisions can be reversed in time. And still some can be false signals.
There was this guy who Josem had worked over thoroughly as a liar and con man who is just out to steal this woman's heart with cheap lies. On the day of going to pay the dowry or bride price, he borrowed a briefcase and duly lined the envelopes with the right notes of brand new whiffy notes.
Come the time of parting with the envelopes and oops, the guy could not remember the three digits that unlock the brief case. And the Jasem chuckled with glee on hearing of the mishap.
Still I think it was right that my people fostered Josem. You need Josem out there. You want Josem out there. If you don’t think so. Look at those ancient marriages. Did you ever hear of a man stabbing a wife in those days? That reputation would have been filed by Josem to follow the clan, the village and the man forever. Jasem, the Good King Bad is still relevant today. If not then consider for a moment life changing decisions you would have made if only Josem pulled you a side for 5 minutes.