Controversial Practices: Luo Widow Inheritance



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.

Let us know what you think of this report and other stories on our web  site. Send your views to AFRICA@VOANEWS.COM or to  Please include your phone number.

Or, call us here in Washington, DC at (202) 205-9942.  After you hear the VOA identification, press 30  to leave a message.


We want to hear what you have to say !


This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs