EXPLAINER

Wife inheritance ensures continuity

In Summary

• The idea is to ensure there is someone who will take care of the widow and children.

• Luo practice of widow inheritance is known as ‘tero’

The late Kibra MP Ken Okoth's widow Monica (Fourth, Left) during a service in rememberance of the MP at Starehe Boys' Centre on July 31, 2019.
The late Kibra MP Ken Okoth's widow Monica (Fourth, Left) during a service in rememberance of the MP at Starehe Boys' Centre on July 31, 2019.
Image: MOSES MATIBA

Luo culture is under the spotlight once again following the death of Kibra MP Ken Okoth. Media reports quoted elders from the community demanding that his widow Monica undergo ritual cleansing and be inherited in accordance with tradition.

Some reports said the rituals would involve Monica having unprotected sex before she is inherited.

What actually goes on in the Luo practice of widow inheritance, known as ‘tero’?

A study conducted in Bondo and Rarieda and published in the International Journal of Aids (2014) reports that “widows are expected to engage in sexual intercourse with a ‘cleanser,’ without the use of a condom, in order to remove the impurity ascribed to her after her husband's death.”

The cleanser is often a non-relative to the dead husband. Thereafter, the widow is expected to be inherited by a man, traditionally an in-law.

The majority of widows participating in the study reported being inherited and most widows interviewed described participating in the cleansing ritual.

Goeffrey Owiti, a lecturer at Egerton University, writes in a conference paper that tero ensures provision of material and moral support to the widow. The practice confirms a father figure in the homestead and guarantees a sense of belonging to the children.

“It also gives assurance of affection and satisfaction of [the] sexual urge to the widow while discouraging sexual promiscuity on the widow’s part. It is also assumed that tero ensures respect for the family of the late husband and the widow and confirms the worldview that wives belong to the community.”

But how is ‘tero’ done? Prof Chapurukha Kusimba, who teaches anthropology at the American University in Washington DC, says many societies believe in continuity of the family line.

“Your wife might belong to you but your children belong to the society,” he told the Star. “During marriage, bride wealth is paid to secure the reproductive rights of the woman.”

Upon the death of the husband, the family is concerned about the welfare of the widow and the children who need a father figure. The elders propose a suitable member of the family to inherit the widow and protect the estate of the dead man.

The idea is to ensure there is someone who will take care of the widow and the children, play the role of husband and father. There is nothing repugnant about it, Kusimba says.

The widow is consulted on who she thinks should inherit her. She has the final say. She can decline to be inherited and that decision will be respected.

Traditionally, ‘tero’ takes place two millet seasons after the death of the husband, which is about a year.

A ceremony called ‘duogo eliel’, which is a gathering of relatives to commemorate the dead man, marks the final ritual of mourning. “Once this is done, the widow is free to go ahead and remarry,” Kusimba says.

If the man died before paying bridewealth, the widow goes back to her parents. The inheritor is required to negotiate and pay bridewealth and then marry the woman.

But if bridewealth was already paid, the chosen inheritor visits the woman one evening for a ritual called ‘riwo’, which means join together or unite. The woman prepares supper – chicken is the preferred delicacy – and eats with the man and children, if any. The man spends the night in the woman’s house and consummates the marriage.

From then on, everyone knows who the inheritor is and there will be no interference.

“Okoth’s widow is still unclean because all the rituals have not been done,” Kusimba says.

The elders who are calling for inheritance are jumping the gun. They are acting too quickly, the scholar says.