This study seeks to explore the culture of Luo community in Kenya. It is not easy to study Kenya as a culture on its own due to its multi-cultural dimension. Therefore, one can only study it from the many cultures there are. It will explore Luo culture in various domains. The study will provide concrete examples to support the findings in each domain. It will also carry out a one-on-one interview with a Kenyan citizen and especially from Luo culture. The findings in the literature review will be compared with the data collected from the interview.
This study also seeks to propose a few recommendations and suggestions on applications to practice.
Luo Culture in Kenya
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Kenyan as a multi-cultural nation has got forty-two tribes with different cultures. Therefore, one can only explore certain aspects of Kenyan culture. This study narrows its scope to Luo Culture, whose community takes about 25% of the Kenyan Population hence being the third largest ethnic group (Ochieng, 2007). It is believed that this community originated from the Southern part of Sudan, getting into Kenya through Northern Uganda and settled in Nyanza Province (Ochieng, 2007).
It is also believed that their migration was in search of higher and cooler regions with adequate rainfalls (Isak, 1972). Today, they are popularly referred to as River-Lake Nilotes (Ochieng, 2007). This study chooses to explore Luo culture due to its peculiar elements. In fact, it is considered to be one of those complicated cultures in Kenya especially on the issue of “wife inheritance” (Gay, 1981). When Kenya was still under British colonialism, the Luo people managed to defend their land; more so, they played a fundamental role in fighting for Kenya’s independence.
It is also worth noting that this tribe produced and continues to produce a number of scholars and other educated men and women who have attained high levels of education from prominent universities all over the world (Liyong, 1972). Luo professionals are present in most parts of Kenyan economy; for instance, they serve in business and government ministries, educational institutions as professors, doctors, engineers and lawyers.
Literature Review Communication
The Luo community has got three languages.
Two of the languages are widely used by all other Kenyan tribes, for instance, English and Kiswahili. English originated from the British colonial era and was declared by Kenyan government as the official language while Kiswahili is the national language (Sinaiko, 1995). The indigenous language of Luo community is referred to as “Dholuo” which is commonly used at home and in their everyday conversation (Sinaiko, 1995). In their culture, naming of children relate to where they were born, the exact time of day or the day of the week. This also includes the kind of weather at that time (Ocholla, 1980).
For instance, the name Akoth (female) or Okoth (male) is given when one is born during a rainy season. In general, the Luo culture names children on three formats, for instance, a Christian name like Peter or James then a second name like “Okoth” then a sir name like “Omondi” (Ocholla, 1980). Nutrition Luo community grows maize (corn), millet and sorghum. It also grows cash crops, for instance, tobacco, coffee, sugarcane and cotton. They also keep animals such as goats, sheep, poultry and cattle, which are later used to settle dowry prizes.
Most importantly, fish in Luo culture means a lot; in fact, fishing is a major economic activity in Luo community (Parker, 1989). It is also worth noting that this community’s staple food consists of ugali (kuon) and fish. Ugali is prepared from maize meal mixed with boiled water until it becomes a thick porridge where fish becomes its preferred accompaniment. Additionally, the ugali food can be accompanied by green vegetables, meat or stew. Maize is a common food all over Kenya and most families grow it and sell it for a better income (Parker, 1989).
Luo culture abhors foods like rice and mixture of boiled maize and beans (Mboya, 1986). But sometimes, this mixture of boiled maize and beans which they refer to as (nyoyo) is typically consumed when the community members return from a hard day of work in the fields. The nyoyo can also be eaten with tea, porridge or stir fried vegetables (Mboya, 1986). This community likes traditional beer known as busaa which is prepared during special occasions or celebrations. Normally, they mix flour and water and leave it for some time until it turns sour after which they heat it in a big pot.
Men drink from the pot using long pipes while seated and women can join them or have their share on big mugs. They also feed on a mixture of milk and blood from slaughtered animals like cows or sheep.
Family Roles and Organizations
The Luo culture values family life and especially the gift of children. This culture believes that children belong to the father even in cases where both parents separate (Mboya, 1986). In most cases, the father is left to take care of the children. The culture also expects men of great wealth to settle for many wives as a sign of social responsibility (Liyong, 1972).
This notion is what has led to the issue of wife inheritance which is going to be explored later in this study. Once women get married they live in their husbands’ homesteads. Thereafter, married women are expected to build strong relationships between their family members and those of her husband. It is the women’s responsibility to nurture a warm and mutual relationship among all the in-laws. It is expected that married women will bear children for their husbands’ lineage (Southall, 1952). The more the wife bears more children the more she enhances her influence in the lineage of her husband.
These children later take care of their interests. As indicated earlier, men pay the bridal dowry which allows women to maintain ties with their loved ones throughout their lives (Southall, 1952). Polygamy is also acceptable in the Luo culture so long as traditional practices and regulations are adhered to, for instance, special recognition of the first wife (Mboya, 1986). Normally, the husband has to separate the wives where the first wife’s house and granary are constructed behind the homestead opposite the main gate (Mboya, 1986).
The rest of the wives’ houses and granaries are positioned to the right and left sides from the first wives’ premises and in the order of their marriage (Mboya, 1986). The same case applies to the sons who are given homes adjacent to the main entrance of the compound and in the order of their birth (Southall, 1952). The husband builds himself a house at the center of the compound (Southall, 1952). Luo culture believes that once the dowry has been paid in full and that the spouses have born children, divorce can no longer take place. Even if the two separate they are still considered to be married.
In case the wife does not bear children, the husband can divorce her or replace her with another wife. The wife receives the blame in cases of infertility. Young girls are expected to help their mothers and their mothers’ co-wives in tilling the land owned by their fathers, brothers and paternal uncles (Ocholla, 1980). It does not matter whether the girl gets to school and attains good education she still has to help in tilling the land. On the other hand, boys and youthful men spend more time with livestock and engage in lots of social labor (Ocholla, 1980).
Luo community, just like many other communities in Kenya, consists of black people with strong physical structure. Malaria is considered to be a major killer in Luo culture. Moreover, kwashiorkor which derives from lack of enough proteins in the body, affects most children (Themes in Kenyan History, 1990). Most families do not afford to prepare a balanced diet neither do they have knowledge about nutrition and health standards (Themes in Kenyan History, 1990). In villages, preventive medicine is preferred and in fact most communities in the rural settings have clinics with medical workers.
The medical workers try the best they can to help the communities maintain good sanitation, nutrition, prenatal care including other practices that can help reduce the risk of diseases (Themes in Kenyan History, 1990). Luo culture faces great challenges from HIV/Aids pandemic which has left many children orphans. Relatives to bereaved children adopt them with the hope that the enormity of HIV crisis will come to an end (IPAR, 2004)). It is however believed that the rate of HIV infection is very high in Luo Culture.
Moreover, it suffers from food shortages and records the highest rates of infant mortality in Kenya (IPAR, 2004). It does not have good facilities for clean water supply a situation that has led many residents succumb to water-borne diseases, for instance, typhoid fever, amoebic dysentery and common dysentery including diarrhea (IPAR, 2004). Most girls suffer from teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (IPAR, 2004).
As indicated earlier, Luo culture faces great challenges from HIV infections. This has been attributed to irresponsible sexual behavior among the youths.
As such, Luo culture does not value male circumcision instead they remove their young men six front teeth both from the upper jaw and the lower jaw. Unfortunately, this right of passage does not meet dental health standards since it is done manually and in a very rough way (Stein, 1985). Wife inheritance is another strange cultural practice whereby a widow is remarried by the deceased’s brother who must meet all her marital requirements, for instance, conjugal rights. According to Luo culture, adolescent period should prepare a girl for marriage and family life.
In traditional settings, girls obtain tattoos on their backs and having their ears pierced as well. The unfortunate thing is that the materials used to carry out these practices are never sterilized (Stein, 1985). Girls come together among peer groups where they get to share their sexuality, for instance, discussing boys and their personal attributes. On the same note, older women provide sex education to the teenage girls. Lovers secretly meet near these huts although pregnancy outside marriage is strictly prohibited (Southall, 1952).
Fertility and Childbearing Practices
Luo culture discourages people from noting when a woman is pregnant for they believe that it would bring problems and troubles from jealous ancestors (Mboya, 1986). Older women and wives accompany expectant mothers throughout their pregnancy and during nativity. In this community, twins are not received very well. They believe that twins originate from the evil spirits and so they treat such cases with special attention. The twins’ parents are required to assume certain taboos. In order to prevent the calamity that may befall the twins’ parents, the community members engage in obscene dancing as well as using foul language.
Only in this way can the burden of giving birth to twins be lifted (Gay, 1981). As mentioned earlier, women receive much of the blame in case of infertility in marriage. This culture believes that infertility is as a result of blasphemy in the ancestral lineage of the woman. They believe that unless the spirits and ancestors intervene, the woman will never give birth (Gay, 1981). As can be seen, it can be argued and justifiably so that control of fertility is attributed to the mercy of the ancestors. In other words, Luo culture believes that fertility is given by the ancestors to the favored ones.
In a more traditional setting, incest has been associated with most pregnancy complications. However, the husband including other relatives should make sure that after the woman gives birth they slaughter a goat or sheep for her where she gets to eat it at intervals. This ritual is compulsory and if one fails to honor it either the mother or the child can experience more complications even to the point of dying (Mboya, 1986). Men shouldn’t watch women giving birth unless on serious conditions. They are supposed to be far away from the scene.
If a woman gives birth traditionally, she has to sit on a stone with her legs apart where other women support her to give birth. Immediately she gives birth the child is rushed in the hut for other rituals which involve cleaning the umbilical cord and cutting part of it to be buried. This is believed to be a sign of appreciation to the ancestors (Liyong, 1972).
It is worth noting that Luo culture performs about fourteen rituals for the dead (Wakana, 1997). Table 1 in appendix A summarizes the rituals from the first step to the last.
Whenever a person dies women come out with long, quivering wail which is seconded by sound of drums. Strictly, the death announcement has to take place either in the morning or in the evening. Luo culture prohibits death announcement during the day although this varies across persons, age, sex and occupation (Wakana, 1997). If, for instance, a child dies in the morning the announcement follows immediately but in the case of elderly men, women have to wait until sunset to start wailing (Pritchard, 1965). The bereaved family stays throughout in the compound of the deceased until the burial day.
Other members of the community gather to console the family (Wakana, 1997). Digging of the grave takes place at round 9 p. m. and goes until 3 to 4 a. m. of the burial day (Millikin, 1906). One or two weeks after the burial cholla begins where several relatives to the deceased take their cattle to his compound at around seven o’clock in the morning. It is however important to note that this ritual is only performed for dead men. The men gather there, kill a cock without using a knife and share its pieces of meat.
They then blow horns of buffaloes and rhinoceroses (oporro) and play drums (bul) as well. These men later attract a long procession composed of more men, women and children; it becomes longer and noisier as communities sing and play the instruments even louder (Milikin, 1906).
It is believed that Christianity has penetrated the lives of Luo community hence changing some of their traditional religious beliefs. However, a greater part of Luo culture still engages in traditional rituals (Ocholla, 1980). The new Christian movements in this community are Catholicism and Protestantism.
Despite their Christian beliefs, they still belief in the intercession of their ancestors in their lives (Ocholla, 1980). Traditionally, it is believed that the ancestors reside in the sky or underground and their souls undergo transmigration either through animals or new born babies (Themes in History, 1990). In actual fact, they carry out ceremonies whenever naming of a child takes place to determine if a particular spirit has been reincarnated (Themes in History, 1990). Additionally, it is believed that the ancestral spirits communicate with the living in their dreams (Ocholla, 1980).
Luo Culture believes that failure to remember or respect the spirits may have adverse effects in their community (Sinaiko, 1995). It is worth noting that they refer to spirits as jouk which means “shadow” and they refer to God as Nyasaye which translates as “he who is begged” and also Were which translates as “certain to grant requests” (Sinaiko, 1995). Ancestral worship plays a predominant role in their traditional religion. Ancestral spirits are believed to be actively involved in the world. This strong belief is very evident in the belief system of many Luos (Sinaiko, 1995).
Health Care Practices
It is unfortunate to remark that Luo culture does not have elements that can promote community health. In other words, it is not a culture that motivates the Luo people to maintain healthy standards. Most of the beliefs and practices are geared towards appeasing the ancestors and thus forget the well being of the entire community at present. This is why this culture cannot be regarded as a past or present oriented culture because many of its emphases lay on their destiny (Isak, 1972). Even in matters regarding health, they call upon their ancestors to intervene.
It is also important to note that they believe that being healthy is a favor from their forefathers and being unhealthy is a curse from the same forefathers. It becomes complicated to guide them through a causal health understanding of their diseases. Inasmuch as healthcare practitioners would want to address the why of their health issues the big challenge would be to convince them out of their traditionally held beliefs. The elders who serve as traditional doctors are revered by this community and they rely on their guidance in curing certain diseases (Southall, 1952).
However, with the HIV endemic that has swept away many families leaving most children orphans, has led Luo culture to seek other better ways to deal with their health issues. Obviously, given that HIV/Aids has no cure they started realizing that traditional practices cannot address the problem (IPAR, 2004). Although their folklore practices do not directly address health issues, they got some moral stories that can be useful in giving care to the sick. For instance, among the commonly told story is refereed to as “Opondo’s Children” which talks of a man who gave birth to monitor lizards instead of human babies (Mboya, 1986).
With time, the parents decided to throw them away due to their inhuman conditions. One day, they decided to retain one of their babies who at the age of adolescence loved to bathe in the riverside. In the process of swimming the child turned into a fully functioning human being. Passers by noticed and ran back to the village with this news which pleased the community members. The child was accepted in the community and received a lot of love and support. From this story, Luo culture believes that they have a duty towards the sick especially the physically handicapped (Mboya, 1986).
Client Interview Data
This section discusses some of the findings established during the interview process. The participant is a Kenyan citizen and from a Luo culture. The impressive thing in this study is that much of the ideas established in the literature review were re-affirmed during the entire interview process. However, the interviewee was assertive that Luo culture has changed tremendously and that Luo people are becoming more scientific in their thinking.
According to the interviewee, communication in Luo culture just requires respect and clarity.
In general, young ones should not scold their parents and the same case applies to husbands in respect to their wives. However, this study leant that Luo culture prohibits pointing another person using an index finger; to them it means fate to the pointed person. He confirmed that Luo culture has become an interactive one where people can share their feelings with one another. It had been mentioned that men could not interact with women or children could not interact with their elders, today things have changed. The format for giving names is still evident where children are given names according to seasons, events or calamities.
This study learnt that Luo culture will never have other preferred staple foods apart from fish and ugali. The interviewee confirmed that this is not only a matter of culture but it is also because of the meaning of such food to their lives. He believes that Luo has many intelligent people “genius” because of feeding on fish. Moreover, they are healthy and strong because of combining fish with ugali which is actually a carbohydrate.
Family Roles & Organizations
The interviewee remarked as follows, “if there is anything that Luo culture has failed in, it is its perception on family”.
This study learned that modern Luo families want to treat their family matters as personal. In fact, most families have begun migrating to urban places just to experience peace and autonomy. However, the interviewee remarked that most parents still uphold cultural values meant to discipline their children. In other words, most families still hold to those traditional ways of bringing up their children. Husbands still remain the heads of their families and with the duty of educating their children. But all the same, wives are supposed to help financially especially if the spouses are both working.
The interviewee remarked that Luo culture has evolved where traditional practices have become a collective responsibility. Today, men and women can go fishing and even engage in its selling. Moreover, all genders have become professionals in different fields.
High Risk Behaviours
Indeed, the interviewee confirmed that Luo culture still engages in high risk behaviors which in the interviewee’s opinion are backward. First he sighted the “wife inheritance issue”; here he said that most women or men contract HIV Virus due to this practice. He said the following, “I still do not understand why Luo culture has to push for wife inheritance.
Somebody dies of HIV/aids and the community very well knows about it, but the brother to the deceased goes ahead to have intercourse with the woman. ” He also said, “This does not apply only to HIV/Aids only but it also extends to other diseases like diabetes, asthma, epilepsy, and meningitis”. This study learnt that there are women who get re-married to their in-laws who have terminal illness hence affecting their health both physically and psychologically. This study also learns that Luo culture still faces serious problems with HIV/Aids due to unsafe sex among the youths and commercial sex workers where most of them are young girls.
The interviewee had this to say, “Sex is deeply entrenched in the Luo culture such that it cannot be comprehended in isolation”; he also said “females who are poor resort to sexually irresponsible behavior just to get money which is not even more than five dollars. ” The interviewee also mentioned the issue of polygamous marriages where men engage sexually with many women hence contracting serious sexual transmitted diseases. This study also learnt that consumption of illicit brews and drugs and the growing establishments of entertainment houses have left many youths with poor health conditions hence dying at a very young age.
As mentioned earlier, female genital mutilation and removal of teeth poses great risks. The interviewee had this to say: “these practices are very risky since they are carried out under unhygienic conditions and even the equipment used is never sterilized. This is why they keep on contracting germs and HIV virus”. Pregnancy and Childbearing Practices The interviewee believes that causes of teenage pregnancies are as a result of ignorance on the side of the girls. According to him, most girls do not know how to go about their productive life.
But, he was very happy to remark that nowadays women give birth in the hospitals and rarely will women give birth in traditional settings. There are no taboos associated with marriage in the Luo culture today, only that the husband should take very good care of the wife. He also remarked that among the most improved health practices among Luo women is care for the mother before and after birth. Apart from traditional food, anything to do with the medication of the mother and the child is as prescribed by a qualified doctor.
Health Care Practices & Practitioners
The interviewee was very optimistic that in few years to come Luo culture will have the best medical practitioners ever. According to him, most Luo men and women have undertaken courses in medicine and other health care modules. “Today, Luo culture has evolved from a culture of traditional doctors to a culture of serious surgeons, physicians and mid-wives”. He informed this study that traditional medicine men cannot carry out any practices on complicated issues like pregnancy, eye-problems, heart failure, diabetes et cetera. They instead encourage the patient to seek professional help from a hospital.
They only get involved in the treatment of minor illnesses like cold, flu, chicken pox, normal diarrhea, sore throats just to mention a few. Here, they prepare medicine from traditional herbs from different plants. Moreover, they make medicine for children using fat substances from the fish products. In fact, the interviewee remarked that Kenya’s medical sector borrowed from the Luo traditional doctors how to prepare medicine to prevent children from coughing. The medicine is popularly known as “cough syrup” which is a by product of fish in Luo culture.
The research method selected for this proposed research study follows a qualitative approach. The qualitative method will be implemented because it follows the approach that allows for the collection and analysis of data that could not described through a quantitative approach. This approach is descriptive and inquisitive in nature, which is selected because of its relevance to the type of data collected and because of the purpose of the study. Contrary to the quantitative research method, participants from this study will be encouraged to use their personal experiences to interpret and answer interview questions.
Their demographic background will also be significantly considered for the interpretation of the test answers (Leed & Omrod, 2005). Any form of quantifiable data that can be found in this study, will be analyzed according to descriptive statistics. Alise (2008) pointed out that under the qualitative research method, there is an interaction between the researcher and the participants. The following are the research questions:
- To what extent does Luo culture hinder effective health safety measures?
- How does Luo culture affect health care practitioners? Is there any competition between healthcare practitioners and traditional doctors?
Recommendations for Research
Based on the findings of this study, it further recommends that: a) There be an empirical investigation carried out in this community in order to ascertain the findings of this research b) Health agencies to study this culture more closely in order to help it improve on community health c) To explore other cultures in Kenya that might be having similar challenges.
Applications to Practice
In order to carry out ethnographic fieldwork among Luo Community and generate information based on qualitative analysis, it would be beneficial to learn more from medical anthropologists and professors.
Moreover, there should be more research from the libraries to gain more insight on Luo culture and to familiarize more on the best methods to gather and record information. Medical volunteers are traveling to work with the Luo community to cooperate with the traditional healers and record their conversations about herbs. They should make sure there is an interpreter available. The team can take pictures and identify herb clippings for their easier recognition. The volunteers can carry out prior research to compare with the current clinical use of the herbs and their dosages.
This study has established that Luo culture has got three languages namely: English, Kiswahili and Dholuo. However, Dholuo is commonly used. Luo culture gives names according to seasons, events, calamities or time. Luo are mixed farmers since they grow crops and keep animals at the same time. Luo culture values ugali and fish which serve as their staple food. Marriage is regarded in high esteem and especially when children come by. Children remain with the father even in cases of separation or divorce for that matter. Luo community constitutes of black people.
Among the most common diseases affecting this community are malaria, malnutrition, kwashiorkor, typhoid, amoeba and HIV/Aids. The high risk behaviors include removal of teeth, tattoos, genital mutilation and other rights of passage that use non-sterilized equipment. Luo culture has got fourteen death rituals although their applications vary from age, sex, or occupation of the deceased. Moreover, this culture does not promote community health per se. Traditional doctors have an influential role although they recognize the role of professional medical practitioners.
The folklore activities provide wonderful moral stories that encourage the community to take care of the sick and especially the physically handicapped. The client interview data strongly brings out Luo community as a changing culture, and in deed, for the better. However, the high risk behaviors still pose a great challenge to the health well being of its members.
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