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  • Writer's pictureStephen Osieyo


Updated: Jan 24, 2023


Lately it is like I am writing memoirs of my mother. But so be it, I went missing when I should have been close to her to extract all that I could get from her in terms of Luo folklore. First let me clarify her locus standi in the politics of side chics. My mother was the last born in her family. However, she was the second wife of a polygamous household. I have never seen myself as less than any other child and my failures are my own and not that I am the son of a second wife or that my grandfather had six wives. I don’t even take offence when polygamy is being vilified unless it is Europeans slurring Africans. Why the difference? It is because I take the Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere’s position in such matters. “Forgive those who insult you if they are not known for any intelligence of their own”. And true Luos who vilify Luo customs are not known for any intelligence of their own.

Sunday best

So what did my mother do this time? One time in the early 1990s, when my mother was visiting me in Nairobi, I came from work early to be with the family and to enjoy the company of the visiting mothering. Then as I was changing in the bedroom, my wife walked in with a smirk. I was not irritated but wanted to get in the groove as to what was making her so happy. Then she teases me, “This mother of yours is just as sly as you!”

So I asked why. And she said, “Parie ni owachona ni nyiri ma ibayo go oko gin lep yuach. Ni ka dichuo oheri to okendi oketi I ot kaka law wuoth ma okan I sanduk. Lep yuach go kik badhi ga. Nikuop kata dichuo bed gi lewni sanduge apar, to lep yuach nyaka obed go ma onyalo dhi go kata beto kata pur.

This loosely translates to, “side chics are just like tattered clothing to be used for menial jobs. If you are loved, then you are promptly married safely secured like Sunday best attire. Never get rattled with side chics”. The rest of the paragraph I will leave to your translator.

I have never stopped laughing but I never asked my mother, Awino nyargi Odame, about suitcases of Sunday best attire versus at least one lep yuach for menial chores. However, I did follow up with uncle Paul Odame on the lep yuach (tattered clothes) concept in Luo culture. It is a tall tale. So you have to get ready. And as you get ready let me explain the uses of lep yuach. It is normal for anybody to have Sunday best clothes. That is the clothes that are rarely worn except for special occasions. In the older days with scarcity of textile it was just one set or pair. Sometimes it was a regalia headdress that only one person owned in a village. So every time there is a mission it would be lent out. This was normal.

There were also the tattered clothes. These were the threadbare clothes used to do menial jobs in place of aprons or attire to withstand the rugged and dirty work. As for ladies it would be the sort of clothe she wears when just indoors tending to daily chores. Nobody wears Sunday best for such functions. Sunday best was kept securely in a suitcase or wooden box in those days. It did not matter how many one had. The Sunday best was not for daily wear or menial jobs. Conversely lep yuach would never be kept in the wooden box or suitcase. I guess in these days, lep yuach would never find its way into wardrobes. I think, they are now stuck in basket somewhere and when of no use are then used as duster or door mat. Lep yuach cannot be promoted to Sunday best. In fact, lep yuach are not really carefully laundered if at all cleaned. As far as I can I remember no shop sold lep yuach. So much for clothing. So how did side chics become lep yuach or how did lep yuach become side chics depending on which side of the evolution you are coming from.

Evolution of Side Chics

Traditionally in Luo culture there was nothing as a side chic. The metamorphosis of a woman to a wife was very complex and could be just by cohabitation or even implied like when a mourning woman besotted touches the grave or when a woman dies on the way to or from visiting a lover. But that is another subject for another day. Suffice to say that side chic is a recent invention.

Even in the days of wuowo (group sleep overs by post puberty girls in simba) where lovers would meet with zero sexual contact, side chics was absent. All those terms you hear of chot xyz had no side chics connotation I am reliably told because the Luo customs held such reverence to sexual union. Some of these I encountered. For one there was the saying jamiaha ok or. In other words, a newly married person was not sent on errands. Mainly it was not only to avoid enemy fatalities but also to keep them as pure and untainted as possible. This was explained to me severally when I got married and sometimes I was being spitirited away from revelling places to go home lest I cross paths with tainted single ladies. Late Apond Kochomo of Savana Hotel at Ugunja who was a clans’ man literally kicked me out of the joint. Reason? He did not want me to come in contact with abomination even if my wife was in Nairobi. That is clan responsibility for you. Taking care of each other at all times. Apond did not know me well, but once he heard I am jakaGer then he owed me a duty of care. In old South Nyanza especially Karachunyo this duty of care still strongly exists.

The conclusion here is that the so called side chic permissiveness is a recent invention. And connotations like opon gi roye, point to general frown on sexual pervasion from Luo males just as well. In other words, if you wanted to marry another wife then you comence the proceedings and consume the marriage. This business of lep yuach was not tolerated. If that is so, how did the riddle of lep yuach come about.

Migrant Labour

Migratory labour is not a new thing to the Luo community. It is not for nothing that they are known as the barbarians of the Nile. However, this mission was not occupational. They raided a community destroyed the homes and took away arsenal, livestock and slaves. Nobody messed around with the captive women. They were brought and paired with male slaves to propagate and expand the kingdom. In fact, it was a belief just like in Sicily that women were more dangerous than machine guns in their operation as spies. So any warrior mixing with them was asking for an easy way for the doomsday of the clan.

However, with new economic order of later years there was need to travel for longer period until it became occupational migration with the coming of the Europeans and foreigners. So such long migrations were say a 6-month period to raise capital or lump sum to advance oneself or even just invest in fast production of wealth. It is in this occupational migration that lep yuach concept came about as explained by my maternal uncle Odame, wod Boro Nango.

During this period of occupational absence from home maybe as a farm worker in the white highlands, Asian duka or such long distance places a Luo took up a mistress from the local tribe just to fill the vacuum. Such lep yuach was not for marrying. And nobody took them back to luo land where a wife (Sunday best) is waiting. Nope. They were to be for immediate use just as the tattered clothes used in the quarry, sisal plantation or minefield and left there when the mission is over.

Over time some people through the absence of studies or work started marrying them but it was believed that even if you marry them, you must marry a Luo woman to represent your Sunday best because the lep yuach can never be promoted to Sunday best. This trend can be evidenced among all luos returnees from Tom Mboya airlift who came with wives. These wives were presumed to be lep yuach. Most jirani communities had this custom as well. As late as 1985 An afro Arab college mate in Nairobi attempted to take a Somali girl and fellow Muslim to Mombasa. Said my friend was told in his face. “Huyo ni mke was Nairobi hata awe mjaluo. Sisi tuko mke hapa anakusibiri” (that is your Nairobi wife even if she is a Luo. Here we have an arranged marriage waiting for you).

Characteristics of lep yuach.

1.Lep yuach can never supersede Sunday best. It is the Luo woman whose presence is required when you are being buried.

2. Lep yuach condition is irrelevant. Some were picked from the nearest pubs in Europe and even Nairobi and nobody was concerned. She is lep yuach and is doing a specific function

3. Lep yuach are not owned as anybody can wear them. This is very typical of the urban marriages. Divorcing a luo man comes naturally and easily to them and without any provocation especially where lep yuach is from the mountain.

4. lep yuach has no further use. You can gift one lep yuach. Hence the saying, “bende ise neon ng’at ma opiro nyakwar musung? Kata Jomo Kenyatta nene ok opiro nyakware ma musung”. Basically that the off springs will not find a place in Luo land.

Luo side chic

Is there anything like a luo side chic? From the foregoing above a Luo woman cannot be a side chic to a luo man. Luo women in all honesty fail miserably to be side chics because they are the opposite of the main characteristics of side chics. For one, their readiness to take their place in a luo homestead just usurps all attempts to side chic them. And what’s is worse is they know all the customs that validates a Luo marriage. It could just be one determinant or discriminate but around it she knows the clan will be on her side to validate the marriage as legal. Take for example the ceremonial death of the Attorney Generals Marriage certificate which was celebrated by all women in Kenya. All luo women did was show up with the children at the funeral and the marriage is validated. And this will happen to any laws that attempts to invalidate a Luo customary marriage. I have seen it before and grape vine is ripe with their next new moves.

How about other side chics? As long as non-Luo women want to stand aloof and wave the English common law then unfortunately they will remain lep yuach here. The droves to marry non Luos is not a panacea to lep yuach jinx.

Benefits of Lep yuach

The modern lep yuach I am told is filling a gap. Some say that Luo men are closer to them, lep yuach than even the wives. And sometimes they hold dear secrets that even the wife may not know. One cited is the case where a man’s medical condition is known by the side chic and not the wife. The embarrassing fact that he has unwelcome debilitating piles which makes going to the toilet difficult is now easily revealed to the side lep yuach. Why? because lep yuach is always there yet not visible to the naked eye. I lay this not at the door steps of the luo wife but the western way of life that has reduced the household to a mere man and husband. The in-laws have been economically and socially driven away. That favourite in-law that you could confide in has been marginalised away by the new economic order. That cousin’s wife that could sense the invisible frown in the man’s face or unheard of growl in your voice is no longer there. Even if when the meet at family functions or funerals, It’s a one day rushed ceremony where they are served by hired caterers and not the in law whose nyombo he was the chief spokesperson. Lep yuach has nicely nestled in that corner and removing her any time soon is not possible.

Then there is the reality of longevity of marriage. The wife becomes the closest kin. Actually in some isolated cases a sister in more ways than I can list in this family blog (you get my drift). Naturally she decides what to pay attention to. It is like was noted by a colleague mama Mbuthia. Why do men apologise for hitting a road bump when they don’t do that even if the wife is pregnant and in pain? I always defensively answer that in luo you don’t greet your wife in the morning like a coastian, “hamjambo mke wangu, habari yako, habari ya usiku, habari Zaidi lakini”. No luo greets a wife he did not say goodnight to. In any case such good will is implied that is why they are married. It is the same with the good intention in the longevity of marital union. The wife seeks out important issues and leaves out the obvious ones. And men being the weaker sex easily fall to where they can be mothered and even smothered. (According to Luos a boy takes four days before they are brought out to sunlight because they are the weaker sex and trauma say, of a divorce or watching a domestic fight impacts on the boys more than the girls. That is not me saying. Luos say that go argue with them). And once again lep yuach has found a niche to fit in nicely.

Then there is the marriage management. In traditional marriage, the match maker or the clan had a say whether you are a compatible pair. And more so in polygamy where it would be assessed whether the incoming woman can co-exist with the wife. I am reliably told that that is now competently handled by the side chic who will manage the relationship. For example if she knows the Sunday best is a motor mouth with a loud mouth who does not need to open her mouth to eat, then it would be a recipe for disaster if she came near the marital union if herself, the side chic talks so much that she even talks in her dreams.

In the old Luo kinship mgogo were the custodians of such interests of protecting the sons of the home. The nuclear family has grown smaller now. When Mgogo used to be even cousins from the mother’s side, mgogo is now the biological sister only who is busy battling with selfish interest at her marital home or better side chicing elsewhere building empires. That vacuum has been filled by the side chic.

But one main advantage of lep yuach is that they are interested in the health of the man. Its self preservation because the shared man is no good to her if he is dead. Her ace three priorities is health, health and more health to the man.. And in most cases this what the clan wants

The only way to drive the side chic away is to culturally break the boundaries of modern lifestyle and go recoup luo kinship like all prosperous communities in the world like Indians, Somalis, Jews. That network will render lep yuach irrelevant.


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