• Stephen Osieyo

WHEN A LUO CUSTOM BECOMES LAW

Updated: Apr 21, 2021




What is the purpose of Law? Like Luo customs and traditions, the main purpose of Law is to provide certainty where there is none. A Luo custom and Law serve the same purpose namely to provide certainty where there was none. There fore in Luo Nation there was never gaps in the first place for English common Law as all uncertainties had been made certain? But that is a whole different topic.


So how does a Luo custom become a Law? A good example arose in the celebrated case of SM Otieno, the Luo man married to a Kikuyu woman. When the Luo criminal lawyer passed on in December 1986, the wife, Wamboi Waiyaki Otieno wanted to bury the remains of the lawyer in Nairobi but the brother and eventually more or less the whole republic felt the English customary law was unnecessarily swallowing the African customs. Many personalities waded in and even President Moi ignored the judicial system and commented that the Kenyan source of common law which is the English common law must only come in where there is no certainty provided by African customary law. Eventually the High Court did decide that the criminal lawyer SM Otieno must be buried according to Luo customary law because the Luo customs provides with certainty that a Luo man must be buried next to the mother’s hut. The Luo custom then became law and has been duly been made part of the new Kenyan Constitution to certainly determine the place of burial of a Luo man.

Sometimes there are cases where even in the absence of the English common Law, the Luo customs provides certainty. And there are countless of Luo customs that provide certainties on a daily basis to an extent that the English law is left to wait for rogue legal tussle to arise.

Mrau okalo kiewo

There was a video doing the rounds in social media of Madame Ida Odinga wife of the Prime Minister of Kenya Raila Odinga plucking fruits from a neighbour’s garden hanging over her side of the fence. And to Kenyans who I suspect don’t come from older group like Luos it appeared odd and they spent most of the time slighting the First Lady. To Luos resorting to the Luo saying of Mrau okalo kiewo, there was certainty that this was alright that once hanging fruits cross the boundaries then they are in no man’s land. How does a Luo Mrau okalo kiewo custom compare say with an older custom like the English? To Englishmen and their English common Law there was certainty provided that fruits that hang over your garden are yours to enjoy hence the “hanging fruits” phrase. This is not to say the English common Law and Luo customs have copied each other. The sources of the phrases are so at odds that there is no copying between the two cultures. The Luo customs implies that these types of fruits are rude or belligerent and deserve the predator feeding on them. This ties in nicely with other idoms and are not ultravires to say "oyany ogwang' oyany gweno" idom. The English concept of hanging fruit is that these are showers of blessings to the neighbour. Luos were not copying the English and vice versa. But to other Kenyan communities with recent history of less than 200 years commenting on social media (undeveloped or primitive customs) there was no source of reference and they had to resort to maligning Lady Ida Odinga. To them it was theft by the dignified lady until maybe their legal experts pointed them in the direction of more civilised groups like English and Luos. And there are many cases where such absence of English common law the Luos are well guided.

Luo Marriage customs

A good example is the day to day practicalities of marriage. The consumption of a marriage is not a matter of the courts. Every one falls back on tradition or customs.

Luo marriage customs are complete and in practice the importation of the English custom is really unnecessary. So many Luo marriages are solemnised after or before the marriage. But the actual practice of everyday living is all Luo. So what is the joy in spending one day to ape the English custom then go back to live like a Luo in Luo customs? It looks like unnecessary expenditure.

We even adopt customs from other local tribes just out of inferiority complex. There is this one that was adopted from the Arab slave masters where the slave owner picks a girl out of a harem of slave girls and blindly takes one. It found place amongst tribes along the coastal part of Kenya. I observed that Luos adopt it too to appear modern or to appear adequate. That during the bride price several girls are brought then you are meant to identify the girl whose bride price you want to pay. These ladies including the bride are draped in Swahili Kanga and grandmother who has now graduated to a more sophisticated title of Shosho instead of Luo dani is comically included in the lot. This is a classic case of stupidity by those who are adopting it in a Luo marriage. Why? Because incest is an abomination in Luo culture. There is no way a Luo cannot know the woman he is in the process of marrying. So what certainty is this custom inserted in urban Luo custom achieving.

Then there is the ridiculous bargaining of the bride price. Honestly that is not Luo. In Luo custom the bride price is like a ring gift or present. The value is in the eye of the beholder. What you give it is a present and has only a symbolic lower limit. The upper limit is only addressed as “dhako inyuomo nyaka chieng”. All this later day bargaining, cutting cakes then singing Isukuhti “Ing’ombe Ing’ombe” by Luos in a Gor Mahia fans marriage is repugnant. What certainty are we providing by losing the Luo Agoro with that dour repetitive chant of Ing’ombe that is sung at funeral parlours, football matches, and even cattle rustling? On the other hand, Luo Agoro/Ndaria was specific to Luo weddings only and you could not repeat them anywhere else. What is the point in moving from certainty to uncertainty? My point is let us replace only where there is gap.

There was this case in Mikeyi, Kadem, South Nyanza (these days Migori) when this guy took his sister in law as the second wife. And she was very pretty I must say. Being in Kadem of South Nyanza, which is cattle ranching belt the man parted with a whopping 27 heads of cattle to match what he gifted for the older sister, first wife. After one year the fresh off the boat, 2nd wife bolted with a Nyakach Luo man. There is a prevalence of Nyakach people to steal wives it appears.

I know the English Law is stranded in this Kadem case but does Luo customs provide a certainty here for the bride price gifted for the second wife? Yes, it does because Luo customs are fit for purpose. In this Kadem case the father in law dutifully transferred the second set 27 heads of cattle to the account of the elder sister, the first wife (ref: Dhako inyuomo nyaka chieng’ sub section). End Off!

Then there was this case around Kisumu Winam. This moneyed NGO procurement officer took up the schooling of his 2 sister in laws on account of future bride price settlement for his wife. After 6 years he decided to now go and formalise the bride price as the wife was agitating to get some respectability and cultural legitimacy. When the NGO guy arrived he opened his case with the line that he had schooled the sisters in law and therefore is just toping up culturally. Wrong move.

He was told to go ahead and marry the additional 2 sisters in law he had schooled if he wanted but will still pay their bride price for each of them. Their reason is that ever since Luos left Pubungu in 1200AD no Luo girl has ever received bride price on behalf of the parents. Do Luo customs provide direction here? You bet it does. Bride price is only paid at the house of the mother in law. Not at a post office or mpesa office or school bursar’s office. Case closed.

Another case was around Upper South Nyanza. Another moneyed guy packed all the bride price neatly in envelopes accurately stuffed with fresh whiffy bank notes and nicely laid the envelopes in a suited briefcase case locked with 6 coded digits. The grey suitcase model president was borrowed from the employer’s cashier’s office for the Saturday mission. Then on Saturday cometh the hour of parting with the bride price and various gifts for brothers in laws, sisters, in-laws, aunties, the girls who brought washing up water etc. and the big shot could not remember the suit case unlocking digits. After so much sweating they explained that it’s all intact but a passcode will come the next day to release the envelopes. Any Luo custom guidance, yes. A dowry is not taken by force and must exchange hands. You cannot just help yourself. Besides the uno-ropes (brief case) used to tether the cows is never allowed to stay overnight in the same compound as the animals brought for bride price. The NGO big shot and his entourage were directed to go back with their brief case and retrieve the money as they had announced. All is well and ends well.

Then there is this hilarious case that had my mother in stitches. The guy is my age mate and namesake and I even bought a piece of land from him. What my mother could not fathom is that this prospective mother in law in Landi Mawe railway quarters, Nairobi convinced my name sake that “just pay the dowry in Landi mawe, Nairobi then you can take the girl back to the rural area in Ukwala”. My mother could not understand how this town dweller of a mother in law pulled wool over my namesake’s eyes so easily. “An nyaBoro pok aneno ga nyako ma inyuomo ka pango to biro dak I dala kaluo”.

My mother was dying in tears at how this chang’aa seller in Landi Mawe could convince my namesake not to come pay bride price in Alego Kadenge but instead pay it in Nairobi. My mother kept asking, “bende use nenoe nyakwar musung, onge nyako ma ikendo ga kapango to biro puro idala”.

And true white women like wives of most Luo career envoys/diplomats usually run back to the to the cold of Europe and Americas leaving their aging retired former envoy husbands single in Luo land. If even Jomo Kenyatta and his presidency could not tie down a white woman in Kenya, how did my namesake hope to drag a Landi mawe town dweller to suburbs of Ukwala?

Any Luo custom direction: “Onge nyombo ma ng’ato sembo dhok kende maonge omine ne to nyombo ni maro kende”.

THE STRANGE CASE OF NYACHIRA


Then there was the case that dominated the social media a few years ago which was not exactly marriage but the way both party conducted themselves is a clear proof that a Luo will forever be guided by Luo customs subconsciously.

State of Play

I never follow social media brouhaha and it was only being explained to me last week. The way I am told is that a young Luo girl in the myth of muanda, was dating a middle aged man and moonlighting with a friend of the middle aged man who shares my name ( I share Steve with all gay men in addition to this). Also flirting with this woman were myriads of admirers like is the case of any single woman Luo woman enjoying platitudes.

The beauty of it all is that both in the circus and the fallout in the social media all the sides were true Luos to the letter and all were observing Luo customs for certainty. I will try to reference the sayings that covered their behaviour.

The Middle Aged Man (Ja doho otweyo gara).

The middle aged man is a typical Luo polygamist to boot. A Luo polygamist know the young wife is a toy wife. They also know that their prowess is limited and time bound and will not outlast the young woman's virility because such relationship is driven from midlife crisis. I get such request in my inbox and when I tell my niece Deb. Deb Auko just laughs, “Atoti tinde eka ilari”. In other words, 'get used to these small girls fishing in your inbox and just don’t get involved because they know you don’t have a shelf life' to last another 10 years'.

So like the middle aged man, Luo advise to polygamists is to ‘tie cow bells’ so that your young wife's lovers can take off when they hear you coming home. You have no room to complain because you knew your shelf life is limited.

And true the Middle aged man kept his cool when the matter blew up in the social media. The certainty of Luo customs had provided for him in Ja doho otweyo gara riddle. All he needed was to make sure the cowbells were loud enough to avoid catching his friend in embarrassing situation. What’s the fuss?

So during the transgressions he is the one who set up my younger namesake to flirt with his future wife. During the social media flare up just like jadoho he became inconspicuous and to date very few know his identity. After the media flare up life continued for him with his young ling Nyachira like a true jadoho.

My namesake -Nga’t ma musumba bende idewo wach ne.

In the olden days when Luos used to have harems, male slaves would be assigned to copulate with the younger wives. The above saying means do not concern yourself with a slave’s matters because he does not own the woman, the children and eventually will leave with nothing because he is nothing. A musumba, is a slave and a slave owns nothing. My namesake also knew the state of play.

And even with those who did not own slaves, men with harems were encouraged to build homes with small gaps behind the wife's house, Roth for ease of passage for the amorous lover to use to steal moments with the wife. The husband literally becomes an enabler because he knows midlife crisis is a mirage. He will never satisfy this woman.

There is another problem, the brothers to husband can however be unforgiving is he is caught. And the brothers to wife will never be party to someone who never paid dowry having a way with their sister. So it is for my namesake easy to get a beating, a loss of sleep and mostly any children he bears belongs to the Husband. Actually such amorous people in long run loose much more more than 500,000 Kenya shillings claimed by this young namesake as they are faced to live incognito.

It is the same with the words in dholuo saying, “Ng’at ma otho ka chode to uyuage ga nang’o”. which loosely translates in urban dholuo as “why do you grieve to those who have died in adultery”. But is that the meaning. The origin of the word chode is far from adultery and the word, ‘tho’ here is not even death. It means losing like othoyi-nono. In other words, the correct translation of the above saying would be “why do you commiserate with loses of their own gallantry”. Essentially the pursuit of women even for marriage meant that the gallant could lose to a more gallant person.

Pre social media flare up this young namesake behaved as per plan kept his case secret like Musumba or ja ong’ora. He approached her as ja ong’ora not aware that he was doing the dirty laundry for ja doho.

During the social media upheaval, he dared not reveal her identity because he knew the name of the game of musumba. Nobody cares what you say. And he also did not pursue any loses in a court of law because as a Luo practitioner at heart and mind he knew “ng’at ma otho ka chode to uyuaga ga nang’o”.


Fuho nyako

In authentic Luo traditions way before marriage and dowry which we will go through, good manners and etiquette demanded that young ladies are spoilt, in banter, showered in gifts, in words and deeds. Such gifts did not form a covenant or intention to treat by a woman. And they were not refundable.


It was like money showering of pretty woman, a good dancer, a singer or a woman of good character in the village. It amounted to a good name. There was no demand. Sometimes the showering could be presents and I remember my grandmother talking about waist beads as presents.

In our case above many men flirted with the woman of the middle aged man but they knew they did not even ask her name the Luo way, “In yar Kanye to nond u en mane”. They therefore knew they were flirting.

Where in the Luo customs that it says that when you give a lady gifts then you can ask for a refund? Whether it’s a car of a house or bus fare, where is the man still entitled to the gifts in any marital relationship? But more succinctly why is “Ng’at ma otho ka chode to uyuage ga nang’o” not applicable.

Or when you see a pretty lady wearing beads you never ask who bought them let alone offer give it back to whoever bought them because you want to kit her with new beads. You know the name of the game in Luo customs.

LUO WEDDING STOOL


A Luo wedding is in 4 stages and the only uncertain stage is when the bride is sat on a traditional stool so that her virginity can be confirmed the night after with the smudge left on the traditional kom nyaluo. The rest are certain and covered by Luo customs.

And all Luos live these weddings in real Luo customs and the western Christian wedding is only for show. The real Luo wedding and marriage is run by Luo customs.

Luo customs are laws in practice and will always override and outlast the fictitious English common law because English common Law is not in the hearts of any Luo, with or without the Kenya High court decisions.

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STAGES OF A LUO TRADITIONAL WEDDING




STAGE 1.- Path Finder

The contact is made usually by an aunt or uncle as matchmaker or path finder. The pathfinder ensures that there is not even a distant relationship and various aspects of compatibility including even bedroom aptitude go through due diligence. The lineage of the partners is checked for anti-social habits that are not compatible with the family. Issues like a hard fisted man can easily usurp a marriage proposal. Still the final approval rests with a supreme body of village elders.

It is worth noting that no Luo man or woman ever remained unmarried so it is not clear what all this due diligence did apart from compatibility.

STAGE 2- Nyombo

A mock negotiation of the bride price is the next stage followed by the departure of the girl for her new clan. The payment of the bride price is never concluded in one stage and as the Luos say “dhako inyumo nyaka chieng’.

The departure at one time used to be the mock abduction and forcibly pulling of a loud and elaborately resisting girl (the saying: when a girl runs holding her beads of breasts, its not that they are going to fall, its because your attention is desired). Essentially stage 2 is the payment of the bride price and relocation of the girl to her new home as a member of the new clan.

The very day the lady is brought into her new home they are considered married. That very day also a small group of girls on the very same night will follow the girl. This party of up to 40 girls is called Omo wer.

This the night the man and woman will meet sexually. This is now the beginning of the marriage. If Omo wer girls do not come, then there is no sex until the next night when the Omo Wer party arrives. Period.

That first sexual encounter must be witnessed by two or three girls of the same age, usually reliable buddies. Outside of the simba hut the rest of the Omo Wer girls are singing all night. (Ndaria and Agoro). The girls don’t sleep as they sing aloud all the night with extravagantly bawdy and salacious sigalala, huan and buaja demonstrating that deliberate romance and and the much coveted intimacy is in the air for the very first time,

-------------

Lead: Agoro

Chant: eeh

Lead: Agoro eeh

Chant: Eeeeeeh


Lead: Oyude

Chant: eeeh

Lead: Oyude

Lead: Eeeeeeh

----------

The next morning a traditional stool is brought and the girl is made to sit on it. Smudge of blood left on the stool will confirm that she was a virgin at marriage. The girls will immediately carry the stool in triumph with great joy dancing with even more in-your-face buaja directed at any marriageable man on show on their retreat trip to go and exhibit to the their village that their daughter was indeed a virgin.

STAGE 3- Diero

The third stage of the wedding ceremony occurs on the morning after consumption. As the omo wer girls return to their village they meet the older women coming in the opposite direction to celebrate the marriage. This is called the diero of the women. The diero women will have heard all the brouhaha from afar because Luo girls at the prime of their lives singing at the top of their voices in the stillness of the morning air can scale mountains and valleys to go very far. This is a triumphant singing with a completely different set of songs specifically for Diero by representatives of a mother in law.

-------

Lead: Mond joka xxxx oting’ore duto biro dala ni

Chant: Tin ka none jo dala ni

Lead: Mond joka xxxx oting’ore duto biro dala ni

Chant: Tin ka none jo dala ni

Lead: Mond joka xxxx oting’ore duto biro dala ni

Chant: Tin ka none jo dala ni

Chant: TO JO DALA UYUAK; TO UYUAK NANG’O

Chant: TO JO DALA UYUAK ;TO UYUAK NANG’O

Lead: Mege YYY oting’ore duto biro dala ni

Chant: Tin ka nonene jo dala ni

Chant: TO JO DALA UYUAK; TO UYUAK NANG’O

Chant: TO JO DALA UYUAK; TO UYUAK NANG’O

---------

They are showed with the most prized gifts as they represent the mother in law who did a sterling job to produce a virgin.

The next day there is the diero of the young brother in laws. The very people who forcibly resisted the pulling of the bride are now here to celebrate- and they now come to the husband’s home to celebrate and will now be showered with gifts much lesser than the mother in laws representatives.

STAGE 4- Jodong

The final ceremony occurs a few weeks after the wedding day. After the marriage has been consumed, the bride asks a handful of her friends to remain behind in the village to keep her company in her new home. They would stay for anything up to a month. Then the bride’s girlfriends who had stayed behind to give her company now accompany her to return to their village for a final celebration, the jodong.


Chant: Sigalala bar wiya, sigach mama nya-Kenya, sigalala obaro wiya

Lead: Aor yoo

Chant: Sigalagala obaro wiya

Chant: Sigalala bar wiya, sigach mama nya-Kenya, sigalala obaro wiya

Lead: Aor yoo

Chant: Sigalagala obaro wiya

Lead: Bed piny, min achieng' ose donjo

Chant: Bed piny

Lead: Bed piny maro onyon nie, bed piny

Chant: Bed piny

The husband would take the wife to her maiden home to visit her family, and as many as sixty people would join the celebrations. The wife is showered with a goat which is led to her parents’ home. The animal is slaughtered for feasting to mark the beginning of jodong celebration, followed by feasting drinking, dancing and singing (by tradition such slaughtering for ceremony is always slaughtered from the back of the neck).


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LUO TRADITIONAL WEDDING- other non wedding bride price

Convertible bride price here is a term invented by me to discriminate the following as they did not form part of the 4-part wedding:

DIERO ni maro • Dher- KAYIEM • RISO dhako • WERO ni dhako •

Diero ni maro

It is different from Diero above. Diero ni maro is not part of the wedding and comes much after the couple are living together. It only becomes part of the bride price if the matters below take place.

Diero ni maro is where the son in law sends his kinsmen to the mother in law's place with a well-chosen gift bull to be slaughtered and the skin carried back to him in appreciation of her diligence in bringing up the daughter (read wife) with say decorous manners. If on the other hand the lady's people manage to wrestle this bull out of the hands of the incoming in-laws before its slaughtered, then they have to arrange for another mission. Usually young men sent to deliver this cow should be alert and not easy oglers that can lose attention of focus by pretty in-laws sent to distract them while younger brothers take possession of the cow as part of the dowry. If the in-laws take possession of the live bull, then it ceases to be Diero ni maro and forms part of the bride price but goes to the mother in law. The son in law then has to dispatch a fresh package of Diero ni maro to be slaughtered.

•Dher Oyuma/Dher Kayiem

Where the cow above in Diero ni maro has been taken possession by in-laws before it is slaughtered, then it is now Dher kayiem / Dher oyuma and becomes part of the bride price. The beguiling sisters’ in-law are praised as true peace makers who can bemuse and calm a turbulent home. In other words, they become legends of their maiden home either for their charm or beauty for having waylaid the messengers of Diero ni maro.

Riso dhako

Riso dhako is not part of wedding or bride price. For one the husband is showering the wife for some good deed. is a scenario where the husband to a woman who was troublesome at pregnancy (moody etc.) and took retreat to her maiden place remained there until giving birth. The husband/son in-law was mandated out of good manners and show of responsibility to offer a goat to the in-laws when going to receive the wife and the new-born baby. The reason why it metamorphosed into bride price is because long term planning sons in law decided to take care of any eventuality in advance should the wife deliver while at her maiden home while visiting her people for any reason. It eventually evolved into a practice and tradition as an evidence of prudent sons in law and mostly a mark of the aptitude and disaster preparedness of the new son in law.

Wero ni dhako.

Wero ni dhako on the other hand is doing some generous shopping consumable gifts of foodstuffs to welcome the new-born. Mostly it is something you know she secretly craves for or silently wishes for. It could even be accompanied by a change of behaviour or bad habit like smoking or ogling at other women when she is around.

Good deeds by the wife could even be receiving your friends with courtesy, caring for an ailing relatives in her house with humility; shouldering a man’s responsibility like paying school fees; keeping secret of your weakest moments e.g. bed wetting. Examples of her good deeds are many and this is a family blog where are there are things I can’t write here.

As the gifts are never received by the in-laws it cannot form part of the bride price. However, the glowing reputation of the son in law cements the relationship and rekindles the bride price memories of good performance, so I will term it convertible bride price.



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