27-05-2022 by Leni Frau
Dowry, kidnapping, symbolic battles, twists and turns and less and less predictable endings: the wedding of the Luo, one of Kenya's oldest and most famous tribes, originally from the Lake Victoria basin, is practically a musical, accompanied by traditional songs and real choreography.
Not surprisingly, before the advent of Christianity and still today in rural areas and for young people who still like to perpetuate the traditions of their ancestors, marriage is considered the most important and significant event in a Luo's life.
The ceremony is based on a series of obligatory steps that make it very complex and everything must go according to plan, otherwise the village elders might even call it off and for two lovers that would be a big deal!
First of all, the bride's suitor must go to the house of the fiancée's parents and negotiate the girl's price. Here the first ceremony is set up, with singing and dancing. Called "Ayie," the feast includes in its denouement the payment of a sum and heads of cattle to the mother of the bride-to-be.
"Ayie" in the Dholuo language means "I agree," and it is the ruling that must conclude the negotiation on the price to be paid by the husband-to-be; other family members and a neutral intermediary, who must not belong to either family, also participate in this negotiation.
Once the parents' consent is obtained, the two young people who will be getting married cannot change their minds. The wedding ceremony can be arranged, for the first available day after the Ayie.
Here is how the actual wedding takes place. It begins with what is called the "meko" and is the "highlight" moment of the wedding journey.
The "meko" is the abduction of the bride, a tradition that must be carried out by relatives and friends of the groom, who capture the girl to bring her to the bridal thalamus, often a new house built by the husband for the occasion.
The "ratting" of the girl must be thwarted by the bride's relatives to test the courage of the captors and to see how much the future husband really cares about having her as his bride. The play also involves mock battles with sticks taking place as the girl screams and tries to wriggle out to show her attachment to her father, even though she is actually in favor of marriage and already knew she would be kidnapped.
On the other hand, if the girl was against the marriage, she would have several ways to demonstrate this and interrupt the "meko," such as snatching flowers from a poinsettia (the euphorbia plant) or climbing a termite mound screaming her despair or even putting dirt in her mouth and spitting it at her captors.
In the case of the meko being interrupted, the groom will try to figure out why his betrothed changed her mind and try to find a solution. But even if the marriage eventually goes through, the girl will be scarred by what is considered by the Luo to be an ill-considered decision, peculiar to a woman who is not mentally stable and thus potentially might not be a good mother.
If, on the other hand, the meko goes as stipulated and imagined, the young girl is delivered to the hut of the future cohabitant, and here is the most controversial part, which in recent times, playfully, has also become symbolic and replaced with a kiss or little more: the deflowering of the bride.
The first sexual intercourse between the bride and groom must be consummated in the presence, at least audibly, of four witnesses. The role of the four is to testify that indeed the girl was a virgin, so that the price paid can be considered fair and the great feast that will last all night can begin. The evening will begin with the slaughter of the bride's parents' largest ox, which is given to her husband's parents. After that, eating and drinking, dancing and revelry can begin until dawn.
The Luo, like almost all Kenyan ethnic groups, are also polygamous, although in their case they have a limit of five wives. Crucially, he must have enough livestock to pay his dowries and at the same time support his brides and their children.
Another controversial tradition that survives in less civilized villages is that of the widow's purification. In case her husband dies, the Luo dictate that one of the deceased's relatives will take care of the woman, but he will have to have sex with her to exorcise the spirit of her former husband. According to Luo tradition, a widow belongs to the entire village. It is the family members and relatives themselves who meet and decide who is the most suitable adult, usually the wealthiest and in good health, to replace the dearly departed. But the widow's age and the wealth left to her by her husband also influence the choice.
Lately there has been a dispute within the champions of Luo traditions, because the tradition of widow adoption can lead to disagreements in the villages, especially when a very wealthy husband is involved or the woman is particularly comely.
A few years ago, the National Daily newspaper "Daily Nation" had launched the alarm with a survey that revealed "the crisis of marriage between the pressures of modern life in Kenya".
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