Overview, Inhabited Localities, and Topography
Culture or simply a set of values observed by people seems dominant in each society differing from tribe to tribe. As a result, it sounds rather interesting to engage an individual in an interview where you expect him/her to give you at least a hint of his/her culture based on the various parameters that the paper tables from the perspective of the Luo community of Kenya.
I interviewed a 74-year-old woman namely Maria Atieno from Kenya, an East African country. She is temporarily living in the U.S on a six-month visit with her grandchildren, who are the US Citizens by birth. Her daughter migrated into the US over four decades ago in pursuit of higher learning and better economic opportunities.
Local rumors (back in Kenya) had it that she could work while studying and land a luxurious job soon after her graduation. However, another major reason for her migration was to escape the political instability in her native country as there was a lot of civil strife between her community and their neighbors over land, demarcation and cattle raiding which took many lives, including that of her elder brother.
She studied her undergraduate course at the University of Oregon, got a Business degree, and then attended the University of Cincinnati for masters in Finance. She is currently pursuing her doctorate at Leeds. Maria says that education back home is very tough for both students and parents. There are many economic hardships in terms of affording fees and other basic amenities while supporting a large family.
As for her occupation, Maria is a substantial farmer. She says she was lucky to have married a very wealthy railway worker who possessed a lot of land and livestock. However, he passed away almost 30 years ago, and these resources are what she used to educate her eight children. She engages in farming every year selling the produce to make ends meet.
Maria speaks fluent Luo and some Swahili (Kenya’s national language). Consequently, I had to get a translator to communicate with her and her eldest son, Thomas proved resourceful at this. Her voice is pleasant, and she was very open and willing to share with me. She maintained eye contact throughout the interview, and she said that in her culture, it is important to do this so as not to appear timid or weak.
However, she also said that other cultures in Kenya find maintaining eye contact to be disrespectful. She had no qualms about her personal space, which was the average one foot around her. However, she was very opposed to any adult or child jumping over her great grandchildren’s feet or heads as she said that in her culture, such an action would inhibit the growth or prosperity of those children.
While transferring whatever opportunities they might have had to the person who jumps over them (Owuor, Oketch-Rabah, & Kokwaro, 2006, p. 427). She shook my hand in greeting (very firmly) but disclosed that in some subcultures in Kenya elders touched the index and middle finger to the forehead of a minor in greeting among the Maasai, or the minor bowed to the elder as a sign of respect.
Winking is considered a sexual invitation, nodding one’s head up and down is equivalent to acquiescing while shaking it sideways is a negative sign (denying). Kenyans are more present-oriented caring much on the ‘here and now,’ preferring to deal with the future as it comes (Omeri, & Andrews, 2008, p. 95).
Family Roles and Organization
Most Luo families are patrilineal with the father being the head of the household. The wife and her children live on the husband’s property or homestead, data in Luo language, with the male children marrying and building huts within the same homestead while girls left to live in their husbands’ homesteads (Ayikukwei, Ngare, Sidle, Ayuku, Baliddawa, & Greene, 2008, p. 590).
However, some Kenyan communities, especially those at the Coast, e.g., Taita and Mijikenda, are matrilineal with women wielding the leadership crown as Gannon (1994, p. 15) points out. Incest is a taboo for the Luo people, frowned upon by the community. In the case of conception by a woman, society has to kill the child at birth. Suicide is also a taboo; the society flogs the dead body in public as punishment.
Polygamy happens on a large scale, especially if the first wife is barren where the in-laws pressurize the husband to marry another ‘fertile’ wife and beget heirs. The husband is the provider while the wife is the home keeper with the children helping in the household. Elderly folks like grandparents teach the children the ways of their culture through folk tales. There is no caste system.
Luo men are the breadwinners, while women take passive roles like staying at home to look after children, while also doing most of the farming. Boys go out to take care of livestock or to fish while girls remain with their mothers who teach them how to behave to win the adoration of men. Girls also collect firewood and collect water for domestic use (Ayikukwei et al., 2008, p. 594).
Contemporary jobs are mostly gendered specific. Men dominate fields such as the army, and police force, construction and engineering, medicine and mathematics, and other technical areas. Women and girls are more into domestic chores (house helps), liberal arts, history, education, religion, language, and nursing. This comes in as a trend that begins at the campus, all the way into their careers.
Mostly, girls get married while in high school, and so they do not join the universities. Those who do not get married proceed to take simple courses such as home science or nutrition. Beauty also plays a significant role; the few girls who venture into technical areas such as engineering, mathematics or architecture are usually the ‘uglier’ or less physically attractive ones whom no man is interested.
This finding matches other research conducted on women in pursuit of masculine dominated fields. About religion, as well as many other expressive practices such as politics, women tend to take the back seat with only one or two daring to rival the norm.
Maria Atieno is very dark in complexion; her children range between (ebony) black and light chocolate. She is also very lean. She tells me that most Kenyans are lean and tall. The women in her tribe are famed for their ample behinds. Kenya is a tropical country; hence, Malaria is a common disease. This raises the chances of Kenyans being born with sickle-cell anemia.
One of her children has this condition. The issue of seasons like winter and summer is also problematic; she says she has never adjusted to the cold and snow of winter. Colds and flu are therefore a common occurrence in her life whenever she visits. Summer is also too hot, and she succumbs to heat strokes at least twice during the six months she usually stays in the US.
She says that these ailments, home, and yamo, as she refers to them have traditional medication, which sometimes she carries with her. She believes that when one visits a place that is far from home hence different in terms of climate and lifestyle, the worms (joke) in our bodies are usually opposed to such change.
On further explanation, she says that the infections that keep us alive as they provide indications when things are amiss in our bodies. For instance, when we eat stale food (chemo motor), they scream in protest (yuak chulululu) (Wenzel, Geissler, Nokes, Maende, Okatcha, Gringorenko, & Sternberg, 2007, p. 43).
She eats a lot (breakfast, snacks, lunch, snacks, supper, dinner), as does the rest of her family, she says that she was used to walking long distances back at home, which she continues to do even in the US, to stretch her muscles. She says that her children are not as active as she is, and thus are approaching obesity- “all that McDonalds and Pizza they consume, and yet they do not work out.”
Meat is necessary to have for every meal, back home, they cook ‘omena,’ fish (rich), beef, pork, mutton, and even some birds-doves, (Uluru) for meat. Meat in the US is only readily available as steak, burgers, fried chicken, fish, or any other form. Back home, maize meal or ground cornmeal is the staple food.
Almost every day she cooks ugali for her household, and if they cook anything else, such as rice, a small piece of ugali will still have to be cooked for the meal to be complete. Fruits are not such a priority in meals; they are seasonal in Kenya, and so eaten only when in season (Gannon, 1994, p. 16).
Vegetables on the hand are very popular, and they exist in plenty, both as planted produce and in the wild. In Nyanza province alone, which is the region occupied by Luos in Kenya, there are over 67 different types of vegetables. These are served with the maize meal. (Orech, Hansen, & Friis, 2007, p. 525)
Pregnancy and Child Bearing Practices
Culturally in Kenya, sex is only allowed between married people who then ought not to use any birth control method. Sexual relations before marriage are prohibited, homosexuality is unheard of (it never happens at all). Children are viewed as God’s gift, and the more one has, the more the respected he/she gets from society. Children are also seen as a sign of wealth as only wealthy men can provide for such large families.
They can also be a source of wealth in terms of marrying off girls with ‘fat’ dowries. However, the women being the ones who withstand the worst of childbearing are very innovative in terms of birth control. They use herbs to prevent conception or to reduce their husband’s libido or sperm-count to avoid pregnancies.
Moreover, hard economic times have resulted in children being viewed as a burden. Consequently, polygamous practices are less common nowadays. Abortion is a taboo, and deformed children remain believed to be a bad omen or a curse. As a result, they remain locked away from society for life with instances of killing them at birth standing out.
Twins are also not recognized as being ‘sufficient’ children; often if a woman bears twins and then is widowed, the pressure will be mounted on her to be inherited to bear more children (Wenzel et al., 2007, p. 225). Pregnancy is a delicate stage for women, and the men acknowledge this.
The woman’s mother, therefore, receives an invitation to take care of her up until childbirth or the expectant wife goes to her mother-in-law up until she is ready to give birth. Children remain raised in strict obedience to their parents. They do not question directives: they comply. Corporal punishment is acceptable and advisable especially in the case of errant children.
Luos celebrate death, like life. There is a myriad of festivities associated with funerals (Gannon, 1994, p. 17). Sex is a big part of these because Luos perceive it as a source of blessings and a way of preventing curses and other evil harm from coming one’s way (Ayikukwei et al., 2008, p. 594).
According to Maria, when the head of a household passes away, the widow and her children shave their heads, and the central pole extending from the top of the hut is broken at the tip. All the relatives are expected to engage in sexual intercourse with their partners before and after the burial as a way of bidding farewell to the deceased, as well as appeasing their ancestors to accept the deceased into their realm.
The widow will be ‘inherited’ by one of the husband’s elder brothers, together with all the wealth her husband left behind. However, inheritance can only occur after such a widow has undergone a sexual cleansing ritual, which is believed to break the bond of her dead husband’s spirit over her body. This ritual is performed either by a professional cleaner (jokowiny) or by a family cleanser (later).
The elders usually prefer a family cleanser because they believe that he understands the cultures informing this sacred process. Commercial cleansers, on the other hand, are sought when the cause of the husband’s death was a mysterious disease, or an evil force (chira). These are brought in from distant lands; hence they do not know the cause of death.
The cleanser engages the widow in sexual intercourse during which the physical representation of her husband’s bond, a band tied on her waist, is supposed to be severed. After that, she is welcomed back into the family and community as an eligible wife ready to be inherited. Failure to perform this ritual leads to discrimination and ostracism by the entire village (Ayikukwei et al., 2008, p. 595).
After the burial, a huge party is thrown for the next three consecutive nights. Traditional liquor is served; the youth are invited to dance all night long while the elderly watch from a distance to supervise. The deceased’s family remains at the home where their relative was buried for at least a fortnight before resuming their lives.
Death stands out as a ‘rest’ from this troubled world. Luos believe that the spirit of the dead lingers to watch over the remnant family. This prevents relatives from mistreating the orphans and the widow. Ancestors are revered, and children are named after them to appease them.
She ascribes to the Pentecostal faith (Gannon, 1994, p. 21) though formerly Nyasaye is the Luo name for God. Maria believes that human beings must acknowledge the existence of a ‘higher being’ to regulate their behaviors here on earth. When she gets ill, she believes that prayer can heal her but agrees that medical help is critical for the rejuvenation of one’s health.
However, she insists that it must be God’s will for the medicine to work for one to heal (Owuor, Oketch-Rabah, & Kokwaro, 2006, p. 433). This also applies to traditional medication. The Deity is more powerful than any concoction than man may create for relieving illness.
Maria acknowledges that for one to be effective at whatever they are doing, be it studying or working; they have to be healthy. Poor health translates to poor quality of life. She attends routine medical check-ups and tries to eat a balanced diet. Culturally, there are measures that can be put in place to prevent people from falling ill.
She is careful not to expose herself, or her family to disease-causing vectors hence promotes cleanliness in the house and her environment. She believes that there are evil people and forces that out there seeking to harm others, which is why she and her family wear charms. The males wear a chain that has a shell, laced with garlic and pig oil, while females always wear a band on their waists, laced with the same concoction.
This concoction is also placed at the entrance of their house to ‘keep out evil’ which she believes is the source of all bad including poor health (Gannon, 1994, p. 20). Certain herbs are used to treat illnesses, e.g., Aloe Vera, neem, and green tea. Also, Maria believes that carrots improve eyesight and beetroot to increase blood levels. She mixes some concoctions to cure colds and flu.
These comprise of garlic, ginger, lemons, hot water, honey, and pig’s oil. Further, they believe that fish makes one more intelligent. As a result, she cooks a lot of it in her house. She insists on the dual nature and purpose of warms in our bodies and disapproves of the white man’s (wazungu) attempt to extricate all worms from the body (Geissler, 1998, p. 73).
If they succeed in doing this, then one will die, because a person cannot live without worms (njokni) which move around the body causing various health conditions. She asserts that they complete the cycle of life by breaking down the body for re-integration into the soil from whence it came.
Implications for Nursing
Maria’s cultural belief that worms are necessary for life is a good example of potential patient-nurse conflict in terms of medication procedures. The importance she attaches to sexual cleansing may also cause problems in terms of HIV prevalence, yet she requires to be treated autonomously while providing her with treatment. Her case illustrates the importance of having informed nurses.
Trans-cultural nursing is crucial for practicing health care practitioners in the US. This is because the population is fast becoming multicultural due to immigration from different countries (Omeri, & Andrews, 2008, p. 90). These ‘new’ Americans carry their native cultural inclinations with them, which may affect their relation to Western Health Practices.
Competent nurses need to familiarize themselves with these varying cultures to ensure the provision of optimal healthcare services (Andrews, 2005, p. 50). Lack of awareness in the part of the nurses can result in misunderstandings with the patient due to cultural undertones that have not been defined.
Figure 1: Luo cultural dancers, in their cultural dresses, entertaining the president at the Bomas of Kenya Retrieved.
Figure 2: Married Luo men and Women standing outside a grass thatched house.
Figure 3: A Pentecostal Church in the Luo land.
Figure 4: A Luo Pregnant Woman.
Figure 5: Kenyan Traditional Food.
Figure 6: Luo Nurses attending to a Patient.
Figure 7: Luo practice of balancing luggage on the head.
Figure 8: A luo traditional wedding.
Andrews, M. (2005). Chapter on Cultural Diversity and Community Health Nursing. In N. M. M., Community Health Nursing: Promoting the Health of Populations (4th Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.
Ayikukwei, R., Ngare, D., Sidle, J., Ayuku, D., Baliddawa, J., & Greene, J. (2007). Knowledge of herbal and pharmaceutical medicines among Luo children in western Kenya. Anthropology & Medicine, 8 (2/3), pp. 211-235.
Gannon, M. (1994). Metaphorical Journeys Through 17 Countries. In Understanding Global Cultures. London: Sage Publications.
Geissler, P. (1998). Worms are our life part 1: Understandings of worms and the body among the Luos of Western Kenya. Anthropology & Medicine , 5(1), pp. 63-79.
Omeri, A., & Andrews, M. (2008). Chapter on Meeting the Health Care Needs of the United States of America’s Diverse Society. In S. S. Daly J., Contexts of Nursing. Sydney, Australia: Maclennan & Petty, Ltd.
Orech, J., Hansen, A., & Friis, H. ( 2007). Ethnoecology of traditional leafy vegetables of the Luo people of Bondo district, western Kenya. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition , 58 (7), pp. 522-530.
Owuor, O., Oketch-Rabah, H., & Kokwaro, J. (2006). Reinventing therapo-spiritual Fellowships: The Jolang’o in Luo African Independent Churches. Mental Health, Religion, & Culture , 3 (2), pp. 423–434.
Wenzel, R., Geissler, P., Nokes, K., Maende, O., Okatcha, O., Gringorenko, E., & Sternberg, R. (2007). HIV/AIDS and cultural practices in western Kenya: the impact of sexual cleansing rituals on sexual behaviours. Culture, Health & Sexuality , 10(6), pp. 587–599.