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Flogging Suicide Victims, Sleeping With The Dead: Unusual Customs Practised By The Luo Tribe

Luo Tribe of Kenya and Tanzania

Luo Tribe of Kenya and Tanzania | Answers Africa

There are many customs and traditions from all around the world that others from other parts may consider “weird or unusual.”

For instance, we reported the story of the woman whose corpse was made to stand at her own funeral, the Namibian tribe where sex is offered to guests, the widow burning culture in India among others are just some of the unusual cultural practices from around the world.

The Luo also called Joluo or Jonagi/Onagi meaning “Ramogi’s heirs”) are an ethnic group in western Kenya, northern Uganda, and in Mara Region in northern Tanzania.


The Luo people are rich in tradition and cultural practises although some of their ways may have an observer raising an eyebrow. In this article, we have listed some unusual customs that are practised or formerly practised by the Luo people.

Sleeping with the dead

In the past, there was a custom among the Luo people that had widows sleep in the same room with the body of their late husband before burial. It is expected of the widow to have an odd ‘mandatory dream’ of herself making love to her dead husband for the last time, so as to be considered ‘freed’ and ready to get remarried. This custom was supposedly meant to be a part of a cleansing ritual to purify such women in readiness for inheritance.  In the event that she doesn’t have the dream, more elaborate cleansing rituals took place.

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No getting married before your older sibling

Another custom practised in Luoland, in some parts of Luo Nyanza, is not allowing a woman to get married before her older sister. Women of age are forced into marriage as celibacy is frowned upon by elders and those who try it risk curses or banishment. Speaking about this custom,  Joseph Odero, senior chief and Elder from Suna Migori, says this idea of people being mocked or forced into marriage began long ago. According to him, choosy women who take their time in choosing a husband are made to go into arranged marriages in order to pave way for others.

“Forced marriages were away of easing ‘jam’ for younger ones who were ready and willing to settle down. Oddly, it’s still practiced for the same purpose,” he says.

“These arranged marriages are aimed at ensuring that the older sisters who might not be ‘easy-on-the-eye’ get a chance to settle down before the younger ones. It is important to them because it helps her maintain her stature and respect in the family and village at large,” says Odero.

The downside of this, he says, is that it has made many women get married when they are not ready, just so they can open the way for their younger siblings.

Should a younger woman marry before her older sister, her bride price can’t be paid to her father. Instead, the groom pays the bride price to her uncle (preferably her father’s brother).

Women are not alone when it comes to this issue as a younger son cannot marry before his older brother. Should he defy tradition, his elder brother can’t eat food cooked by his younger brother’s wife!

“Neither could the two brothers share a meal at the same table,” Odero explains, adding that if it happened and elders got wind of it, a ritual has to be carried out lest the families get jinxed.

Whipping, public shaming of suicide victims

There is a “punishment” for those who commit suicide in Luoland. In certain places in Nyanza, the body of a man that hangs himself on a tree is thoroughly flogged before it is brought down from the noose. The body is also buried outside the homestead in a place referred to as ‘gunda’ — set aside for such and other outcasts.

The act of canning the corpse is to stop the victim’s ghost or evil spirits from roaming back to the home and prompting other people to kill themselves.

Furthermore, a person who commits suicide is buried at night and is not mourned, lest evil spirits haunt the mourners.

“We found this culture taking place. We were warned never to name a child after such deviants,” Odero says.

On the list of many who get buried away from their fathers’ homesteads as outcasts are unmarried women of age known as ‘migogo’  and divorcees who live with their parents.

Such women can also be buried at their aunt’s place in a low-key burial ceremony.

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Special place of sex besides siring and entertainment

Sex holds a special intimacy for the Luo people as it goes beyond just siring children and enjoyment.

It is a taboo for a woman to hit her husband with a cooking stick during a fight in Luo land and should this happen, a special ritual is administered with the duo being forced to quaff copious amounts of a herbal drink known as ‘manyasi’. Thereafter, the elders order the couple to engage in mandatory sex to quell tension among them.

Also, a mother’s underwear is so much revered in Luoland that children especially boys are not allowed to touch it.

“Their mere act of touching such clothing is frowned upon. So much that even when it starts raining and your mother’s aired undergarments starts getting rained on, you are not allowed to pick them from the cloth line, lest you attract a curse for being disrespectful,” Jack Odunga, a villager from Isebania, Migori County.

Another period when sex is considered important is at the start of the planting and harvesting seasons. This is more so for polygamous families as a typical Luo man must start the planting season in style with the first wife before the rest of the wives would plant in their farms. He is required by tradition to make love to his first wife a day preceding the planting season. This is always recommended for men who are no longer sexually active and take longer to get intimate with their wives.

However, Maurice Otieno, an elderly man from Nyakach Koguta, explains that this might have just been a ploy to ensure the first wives, who always get a raw deal, at least get their conjugal rights.

“The elders are smart, when a man marries other younger wives, he can get lost in their warmth and forget that the first wife also has needs. That is why they insist the man must sleep in his first wife’s house before the planting and harvesting season,” he says.

Yet another instance of the importance of intimacy is when an elder son brings home a woman to his hut for the first time. The custom does not allow him to get intimate with her until the young man’s parents blessed their bed by making love on it.

“The father would leave the hut, loudly clearing his throat to signify he had cleared the way for the son,” says Otieno.


Among some diehard traditionalists, when a husband and wife separate, the man is expected to destroy the house they live in. This can be done by setting it ablaze or knocking it down to signify he has broken any ties with her and she would never return alive. However, if he had paid her bride price, he has no choice but to bury her when she dies even if she got married elsewhere.

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Uncircumcised women are ridiculed, shunned by men

According to Marwa Chacha, an elder from Kuria West, a cultural practice in Kuria has to do with female genital mutilation (FGM). He says the rite was commissioned by their polygamous male god known as Iresa.

Uncircumcised women are considered odd and are mocked as it is considered a standard for all women in Kuria to undergo FGM.

“It’s believed that a woman who refuses to undergo female genital mutilation risks getting cursed. This notion has been reinforced from one generation to another to the extent men shun uncircumcised women.

“Men fear uncircumcised women because of the curse and jinx they come with. In fact, when such a woman gets married, she can’t pluck vegetables in a farm. It’s believed if she does, the vegetables in the farm will dry out. She can’t milk a cow lest all the domestic animals die, neither can she cook for her in-laws or open the family gate, lest she lets in bad omen. Those are jinxed women no family wants such a woman for an in-law,” he says.

There are many other odd cultures in Nyanza and parts of Western Kenya like stepchildren especially boys who go with their mothers to new marriages are held with low esteem. It is always recommended that they get sent away to their fathers lest they interfere with inheritance plans.

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