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Behind Luo Wall Hangings

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Gliding above Unending rows of hoary Clouds.

Turbulence. A battle zone for apprehensive passengers,

who miss the divine view: A sparkling orange sun.

Then marshy shores  of Lolwe

Then Luanda’s land unveils.

Luanda means rock

Volcanic rocks

that stand

On many stories


Given by the old.

For the young to uphold.

Past Kisumu, 3/6/2016


In my Luo village, every wall hanging has a unique story that is special to its home dweller.  Unlike refined expensive hangings  in urban houses  that are extolled purely for aesthetics and value, each wall hanging often carry a piece of   intimate  family story.

The  uncertainty of having a family member live in the city only  in  search of  livelihood, never knowing when they will return – alive or dead,  requires great faith and often consolation by hanging their picture on the wall.

On entering a middle-aged woman’s hut, do not ask aloud what a dry and faded 1978 calendar is still doing on her wall.You might find  out that her husband who brought it from work at the beginning of that year lost his job on the same month.This misfortune meant that the last salary  he ever brought back home was that  calendar copy. He was  was unable to find another job until his demise.

A visitor never openly admires a picture of a family member on the wall. It may  be that the person whose image he was admiring only died recently and talking about them may   rekindle  memories of an unfair death. You don’t want to pinch a fresh wound.

I wonder why we luos revere death.It shows in our wails and many other funeral  customs and rituals. In deed the only thing we fear more than death, is burying the dead. Or more clearly, the cost of  a burial ceremony. Of course luos are known to have the most intricate and lengthened burial ceremonies in East Africa. However with an economy that has been going down the spiral lane over the last two decades, organizing burials is a logistical nightmare and a daunting duty.  To majority of Luos, the ancestral soil and body is still connected in ways they do not bother to explain to those with different views. Therefore making sure a relative’s body in Nairobi, Mombasa,Kampala, Dodoma, or even abroad, is brought back to Luo land goes without question. Logistics only come to mind ones the grave has been allocated.

Often they will kneel at the alter in a small corner of the living room, to say a prayer of, Misawa Maria. Many luos in the village are of Afro-Christian denominations, it would be of little wonder to see on a wall supporting the alter, the picture of a black Mary. A stern middle-aged woman with a hijab tightened around her dark face. This is the mother of the, ‘Messiah,’ Simeo Ondete, founder and spiritual leader of the Lejio Maria  an African Inland Church  with about three million members.

To solve the problem of financing the funeral, fundraising is held at the deceased home before the body is brought for burial. This is done during a night vigil fundraising called budho(boothoh). Budho has now evolved into night parties where villagers are encouraged to come and have fun and celebrate the life of the deceased. Since this does not fully qualify as thum (thoom)- which means disco, parents allow their adolescent children to go and join the fun.

On seeing a picture taken by the family in front of a coffin during a burial, one may reckon how some funeral and burial rituals have also been dropped due to religious factors as well as practicality. First, obviously with Christianity came coffins and crosses on the grave instead of covering  the deceased body with cow  hide. However, most luos still plant indigenous trees on the grave as it was done in the old days. The most common tree planted on graves is Siala. Other feared rituals -such as the infamous one where the widow is required to sleep in the same bed with her late husband’s body – are rarely practiced nowadays. However, family members of the bereaved  will still keep vigil, in a consoling night of butho, before the burial. This is now common and widely accepted as a tradition.

As one secretly admires and carefully studies the stories told by Luo wall-hangings, they discover that the Luo culture continues to evolve as modern luos, especially villagers, innovate pragmatic customs to meet immediate needs. Perhaps in future our hybrid customs will also qualify as traditions to a generation of Africans who will  call us  their  ancestors. Who knows. But for sure, Luo villages are some of the most enigmatic places to visit due to enshrined and rather obvious customs that are Delphic to outsiders.

About Aroji Otieno

Observing - LIVING - Feeling

One response »

  1. Love the story, need more of those luo tales. Thank you



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