Why the Kenya Luos removed six lower teeth

An old woman with six lower teeth cut. (PHOTO: ZACCHAEUS AMIMO/ STANDARD)

In Luo Nyanza, coming across someone with a big gap in his or her lower jaw isn’t strange. And it doesn’t have anything to do with some horrible road accident or assault from some hooligans; it is a cultural thing.

 A few decades ago, men and women had their six lower teeth removed in keeping with the Luo culture.

According to 70-year-old Jaduong’ Adika Juma from Kasipul Sub-County, the practice was meant to differentiate members of the Luo community, especially in case of an accident.

“There were instances where relatives of road accident victims ended up with wrong bodies. But with the practice, recognising relatives’ bodies became easy,” says Jaduong’ Adika.

He says those, it was obligatory for boys and girls aged 12 to undergo the painful exercise which was also regarded as a rite of passage: “It was used to distinguish children from adults. It was also an indicator of how courageous one was and this earned them positions in the society.”

However, following the pain with which the practice, which lost its significance in the late sixties came (the initiates were never tranquilized), some would sneak away. But in most cases, many people went for it. They argued one would rather voluntarily endure the pain than be forced into it or even be treated like a pariah in their own land.

“Despite having the willingness to be identified within the community, some would still try to seek ways to evade the pain,” said Jaduon’g Adika. Most youth were compelled to face the teeth cutter’s screw.

Jaduong’ Adika Juma shows a screw, a tool Luos used for plucking six lower teeth. (PHOTO: ZACCHAEUS AMIMO/ STANDARD)

The activity was mostly conducted at the marketplace where the “cutter” would proclaim the importance of his mission to attract more candidates. There were “send-off perks” like grains, foodstuffs or even cash.

The new initiates were given potassium permanganate to soak the gum before the teeth cutter came in with his screw driver to pluck the teeth. Once the teeth were removed, the “patients” were given another dose of the mixture to relieve the acute pain.

If some who had attained the age of 12 died before their six lower teeth were removed, a tooth had to be knocked out from his or her lower jaw.