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When tradition dictates when a wife can mourn

By Isaiah Gwengi | Jan 18th 2022 | 3 min read
Wives and daughters, among the Luo, would weep only early in the morning and late in the evening. [Courtesy]

When Miriam Akinyi lost her husband three years ago, she was not allowed to mourn. Being the second wife, tradition dictated that the first wife, referred to as mikayi, had to break the news first.

Among the Luo, it is the mikayi who is supposed to break the news of her husband’s death. In the past, if a man died in his homestead, the first wife would wail, to attract the attention of villagers.

Relatives and villagers would then troop in to mourn with the family. The body would be lying in the first wife’s house. According to 84-year-old Odida Buoga, there were a number of taboos regulating the mourning.

He explained to The Standard that a married daughter was not allowed to mourn her father until she first informed her husband’s family. Sons-in-law were not allowed to mourn until after the man’s funeral.

“In order to tie up any remaining loose ends for the deceased and to prepare for the funeral, there were several tasks, including paying dowry, and finishing home repairs, that needed to be completed by the family and community of the deceased before the burial could begin,” explains Buoga.

A family that had been bereaved relied on the community for support during the mourning period and burial.

“What followed was the identification of the burial site, which was always in front of the first wife’s house with the head facing the front of a gate. The grave-diggers were not paid, they did it out of respect and also felt it was an obligation.”

Some of these rites have today been overtaken by civilisation.

Another elder, Thomas Achando says that mourning would continue for three days after the burial.

“The wives and daughters would weep only early in the morning and late in the evening. After the funeral, the people dispersed by order of seniority and family status; first the sons, by age; then, the daughters; and finally, the wives, who often stayed for up to 60 days,” explains Achando.

This was followed by shaving of the head among the deceased’s family members, to demonstrate the impact of the death and to allow the wives to be inherited.

Achando, who is also a member of the Luo Council of Elders, adds that the level of respect given to the dead varied, depending on the status of the deceased and the circumstances surrounding their death.

“If a member of the family passed away outside of the community or family compound, it was believed that the person must be returned to the homestead. If not, that person faced a ‘wrongful death’ in the afterlife,” narrated Achando.

He added that in such cases, the family would bury some of that person’s possessions or substitutes in order to save the person’s spirit.

Achando says the circumstances surrounding one’s death were taken into account. Certain traditional funeral rites were reserved for those who died of natural causes. These were people who died of old age or as a result of illness.

“Those who committed suicide or were killed by an animal or died of diseases such as leprosy, smallpox or epilepsy were likely not given the same treatment as others for fear of witchcraft and curses,” he said.

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