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Monday, June 7, 1999 Published at 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK

World: Africa

Aids forces change on Kenya's Luo people

By East Africa Correspondent Cathy Jenkins

Millicent Akinyi Dula lives in Asembo Bay, a small fishing community on the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya.

Cathy Jenkins finds that polygamy may have had its day in western Kenya
She is a member of the third largest tribe in the country, the Luo, which is known for strong customs including polygamy and lavish burial ceremonies.

A few months ago Millicent's husband died, leaving her with six children.

According to Luo custom, Millicent was expected to marry her brother-in-law, regardless of how many wives he already had. The practice, known as wife inheritance, is the traditional Luo way of looking after the economic needs of a widow.

But Millicent refused. As a strong Christian she did not believe in polygamy.

[ image:  ]
And with her work as a midwife, she also felt economically independent. So, at her husband's funeral, she stood in front of the coffin and informed the mourners that she was going to remain single.

It was not an easy announcement to make. Many of the people present simply did not believe her. Even now, many in her community expect her to change her mind.

Because of her decision, Millicent has had difficulties in her work. Some women refuse to let her deliver their babies because they believe that a widowed woman who remains single brings death into a house.

Fear of Aids

Millicent had another very practical reason for refusing to remarry. She does not know exactly what her 44-year-old husband died of, but she is aware of the possibility of Aids.

[ image: Fish caught on Lake Victoria are vital to the economy of the area]
Fish caught on Lake Victoria are vital to the economy of the area
She has not had herself tested, but she would not want to risk spreading the HIV infection through her brother-in-laws' family, or indeed, of becoming infected herself. She has no idea of the sexual history of the man she was expected to sleep with.

Western Kenya has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the country.

The disease is cutting a swathe through communities like Asembo Bay. And the tradition of wife inheritance is being blamed as one of the contributing factors.

Faced with this, the custodians of Luo customs have themselves begun to question their age-old traditions.

Over the past months, Luo elders have been holding discussions with various sections of the community, such as womens' groups and students' associations.

They are trying to see whether they can modify the custom of wife inheritance to bring it into line with the realities of modern life.

Search for consensus

Professor Gilbert Ogutu teaches at Nairobi University, and is a Luo himself. He says that on the question of wife inheritance, it is elderly Luos, traditionally the most conservative, who may have provided the way forward.

In discussions with the Luo Council of Elders, several old people remembered examples of a widow being symbolically remarried to a brother-in-law.

No sex was involved, but the community knew that the widow was now part of a new family and her economic needs would be looked after.

For many young, urban, educated Luo, wife inheritance already belongs to the past. But in the rural areas around Lake Victoria, old customs are hard to change.

In Asembo Bay there is an Aids information Centre which is trying to inform people about how the disease is spread.

It is an uphill struggle because many people believe that Aids is a result of what the Luo call "Chira" - a punishment for something done wrong.

The Luo elders want to reach a consensus within the next few months on the issue of wife inheritance.

Known to be exceptionally proud of their customs, no-one is suggesting that by bringing in a modification, the Luo will lose any of their identity.

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