For example, the elders want to revive the ideal of female virginity. Traditionally, on the afternoon of a wedding, a dozen or more married women went to the newlyweds' home to check for blood, believed to be a sign of a woman's virginity. They also checked the man—not for virginity, but for sexual prowess. They "witness that she has a normal man," explains Otuko, "a man who can have sexual relations with her."

The elders also want to take more aggressive steps. Against the recommendations of most public-health workers, they want to identify HIV-positive women and impose restrictions on them. "They should be controlled, quarantined in their areas," Otuko says. (Only when asked does he say that this restriction could also apply to men.) "AIDS is serious," he says. "There is no cure. So people should avoid contact with infected women, sexual contact especially." There's the rub, because one venerated Luo tradition usually involves sex with a widow—and AIDS has caused a proliferation of widows.

Like many cultures in East and southern Africa, the Luo practice what is variously translated as home guardianship or, more commonly, widow inheritance. When a husband dies, one of his brothers or cousins marries the widow. This tradition guaranteed that the children would remain in the late husband's clan—after all, they had paid a dowry for the woman—and it also ensured that the widow and her children were provided for. When the guardian takes the widow, sexual intercourse is believed to "cleanse" her of the devils of death. A woman who refuses to take a guardian brings down chira—ill fortune—on the entire clan. Of course, if her husband died of AIDS, she might very well pass on the virus to her guardian. Millicent Obaso, a Luo public-health worker with the Red Cross, says: "We have homes where all the males have died because of this widow inheritance."

Anna Adhiambo (left) and her mother-in-law Consolata Atieno: Anna was kicked out of her home when she left her husband’s cousin, who had "inherited" her.
photo: Mark Schoofs
Anna Adhiambo (left) and her mother-in-law Consolata Atieno: Anna was kicked out of her home when she left her husband’s cousin, who had "inherited" her.

Danger to the inheritors is only one reason AIDS is putting this tradition under strain. Guardians are supposed to provide assistance, but even the elders concede that inheritors often take a widow only for sexual pleasure or to seize her property. According to tradition, a guardian must already have a wife of his own, so no matter how well-intentioned he may be, poverty often makes it impossible to support a second family.

Anna Adhiambo is standing where she and her husband used to live: in Ngeri village, on a fertile hillside that slopes down into the blue expanse of Lake Victoria. It's the first time she has been back since her late husband's family forced her off the property two years ago. Her husband died of AIDS in 1996, and she was inherited by his cousin. She expected him to help her feed her three children and pay their school fees (education in Kenya, as in most African countries, is not free). But he was a fisherman who had a family of his own, and "whenever he came from the lake," Anna recalls, "he said he didn't have enough. That was the song." They quarreled frequently, and five months after she was inherited, Anna decided to separate.

The consequences were swift and harsh. A group of men from the clan told her she and her children would have to leave the next day. She remembers that they called her an ochot, a whore who "goes from one man to another." When she asked them to "please leave me alone in my house," she recalls one of her brothers-in-law retorting, "This is our home. You shouldn't answer me rudely like that, and if you do so again, I will beat you."

Consolata Atieno is Anna's mother-in-law. She has been smoothing the earthen walls of a new hut, and on her hands the thick mud dries and cracks as she talks. Anna "violated tradition, broke a taboo," she says, so "we had to chase her and her children away. We felt the furniture and things in the house were my son's, so we took them. Anna did not buy them. And the land we took: Some we gave to my other sons, some we sold. In our tradition, a woman is the property of her husband's family. He bought her with the dowry."

Unable to farm, Anna now makes less than $10 a month doing odd jobs in a nearby town. The Akado Women's Group, a local agency, is assisting her, but so far only one of her three children is in school. How does Atieno feel about her grandchildren suffering? "When Anna was making this decision, she must have known the consequences." But if Anna cannot provide for them, her children will be at greater risk for continuing the cycle of infection. A study in Zambia, for example, found that a lack of education quadrupled the chances that a woman would contract HIV.

Otuko and the elders believe home guardianship could strengthen families like Anna's. What the elders want is to strip this tradition of its sexual component, transforming it into what they call "symbolic inheritance." They point out that nonsexual cleansing was practiced with aged widows who were past menopause. And in parts of Zambia and Zimbabwe, such symbolic rites have gained ground.

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