Lau Tribe Cultural Practice

January 2020

Culture is a way of life with core principles and ideals upon which an entire community exists, consisting of either traditions, rituals, beliefs or religion. In Kenya, we have communities that are very entrenched in their culture. Take for example, the Luo community, who are an ethnic group in Western Kenya with a culture that dates back for centuries. The Luo like the Masai have very strong principle, values and beliefs.

One of their entrenched cultures is the practice of wife inheritance.  After the death of a husband, the widow is expected to shave her head as a sign of mourning. She must also engage in a “cleansing” ceremony to break the bond with the dead husband. Even if the widow desires to marry someone else, the culture dictates that she first be ‘cleansed’ by the village cleanser. The cleansing is a sexual act. The “cleanser” is someone in the community who has been set aside by the community elders to perform this act. He could be a village drunkard or a professional inheritor who gives themselves out to perform the cleansing exercise for all widows in the community. After the ceremony, the widow is inherited by the elder brother of the deceased, and in case they do not have one, the elders appoint the nearest elderly cousin’s brother. This practice has now become commercialized as the demand for willing inheritors grows.

In the Luo culture, most issues revolve around sex. Couples are expected to involve in sexual intercourse during the building of a home, during various agricultural cycles such as planting and harvesting, and when participating in funeral and marriage ceremonies. These sexual rituals often mean that no protection is used. That is why HIV is prevalent in this community. Luo widows are expected to engage in this sexual “cleansing” exercise without the use of a condom in order to remove the impurity attached to her after the death of her husband. Widows who are inherited for cultural obligations have a higher prevalence of HIV than those who remain un-inherited.

Sadly, many widows, especially in the rural areas still engage in this cultural practice because they are compelled to do so by their own families or their husband’s families with the belief that engaging in the tradition will ensure that they or their children will not be ostracized or face other misfortunes.

HIV prevalence in Siaya county, one of the counties in Western province.

A typical widow “cleanser”

Gathering of women and children listening to an activist who is against wife inheritance.

Do we have potential girls in our Choice Club mentorship program who are at risk of this practice?  Yes, we have students who are from this community who have witnessed this absurd culture and are also being taught that it is an important tradition to be passed on from mother to daughter.

Educating the girls on the risks involved in the practice of wife inheritance will help reduce the HIV prevalence as well as preservethe women’s dignity. This practice favors men~ not culture. Valvisions Foundationadds our voice to the activists who have come out strongly against this practice. We hope to help the girls change these attitudes and behaviors, challenge the cultural norms, and in time, help eliminate the issue of wife inheritance as a matter of respect and honor.

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