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Controversial Practices: Luo Widow Inheritance

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The Luo tribe living around Lake Victoria in Kenya has for hundreds of years observed the custom of widow inheritance.  The younger brother of the dead man inherits the widow and provides her with security, financial support and parental care for her children. But some widows are now speaking out against the tradition.

For members of the Luo community, inheritance is a way of continuing life in the home of the deceased – where the widow and her children remain.  But complications may arise when the widow – whether she is a Luo or from another ethnic group – oppose the tradition.  That’s the case with Mary Wanjiru, whose husband died ten years ago.                        

“When my husband died, many men came asking me to accept inheritance. Some were the dead man’s brothers; some were kinsmen and even friends. They said I am still young and I should be inherited. So I refused," she says.

Wanjiru is a Kikuyu – and a Christian.  She has medical and religious reasons for opposing the Luo traditions of her husband.

Some widows have been infected with the AIDS virus by their brothers-in-law.  Also, if a husband has died of the disease, an inherited widow may spread it to her husband’s family.  It’s even said that today, some infected widows search out young, uninfected men to cleanse themselves of AIDS.

Wanjiru says she’s afraid of being infected:  

“These people don’t mind about HIV/AIDS. Other widows inherited say that you don’t have to go with the condom. If you husband died of HIV/AIDS, the man who comes to you is going to spread the disease outside. These men who inherit widows have some other women.  You are not the only one. So this disease can not be finished,” she says.

Apart from the threat of AIDS, Wanjiru says she disagrees with the Luo tradition of cleansing the widow’s home for the brother-in-law:

“Eh! The traditions to be observed include taking herbals….mixing herbals in the food and bathing water so that when the (brother-in-law) leaves your home, he doesn’t carry any bad omen to his house. I did not like that,” she says. 

The herbal ritual can be expensive and time-consuming.

Widows must look in the bushes for the ingredients, and those unfamiliar with the aromatic plants must purchase material.

“There are some people who provide the herbs but widows who don’t know the herbalists must buy and the widows may be cheated. So I did not like such things,” she says.

According to another cleansing ritual, the widow must cast off evil spirits by sleeping first with a social outcast, or madman, before sleeping with her new husband. 

“The Luo culture demands a widow to be inherited by an abnormal man just like a mad man before the dead man’s brother inherits her. The first man is going to be in your house for at least a year before you remain with the younger brother of your husband. “The family said, it is their culture, it is a must; but I refused, but it is a must,” she says.

Wanjiru says the economic rules of inheritance also worked against her.  For example, she says Luo tradition requires the widow to be inherited before building a family home, if she does not have one already.

“Since my husband did not have a house, his family said I must be inherited before I build a new (one). I refused and went to the church, and the church accepted to pray at the site before I build my home. My husband had saved some money in the bank for family development. I denied my husband’s family access to his accounts,” she says.

Although the church discourages inheritance, some people -- like village elder Akech Obati Masira -- continue to support the custom.                             

“Inheritance used to play a central role for the children to see a fatherly figure in the house and also for the mother to be respected in the community, because people looked down at a woman who doesn’t have a husband,” she says.

Masira says the current system of inheritance exploits widows by taking the dead man’s property. He says the way inheritance is now practiced is abominable and exploitative.

 “In the old days, inheritance was never based on sexual intercourse but it was for guidance ship to widows who had passed menopause….

But if a young woman had not passed the menopause stage, she was inherited by the younger brother of the deceased or by people from the same lineage so that she could have the children.  (That’s) because in the Luo community, children were seen as an asset and therefore it was very important for a woman to give birth.

“…(The tradition) used to play a central role in the sense that the children would see a fatherly figure in the house. And then the mother would also be respected so that in our community if a woman does not have a husband then people looked down upon you. And if there is a fatherly figure in the household then the children and the community respect you." she says.

Health care professionals are urging the Luo to abandon the widow inheritance ritual. Some have already done so – especially those who have migrated to urban areas.

But tradition is sacred in rural areas, and many are reluctant to adopt  Western ways.

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