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Human sexuality: meaning and purpose in selected communities in contemporary Kenya.

All over the world sex is used for biological purposes, but not exclusively so. In the African context marital sex has an important role of facilitating procreation and thus solidifying a relationship between the partners and the wider circle of their kin. African societies place a high premium on fertility, and a family endowed with many offspring is indeed privileged. Other functions of sex include accomplishment of religious, ritual and social obligations. This paper explores the socio-cultural regulations that govern human sexuality and its meaning and function in contemporary Kenyan communities. The focus is on the Luo community, with cautious comparisons and contrast with others such as the Agikuyu, the Akamba, Luhya and Maasai people. These are selected in the context of the author's experiences and research conducted among these people in the last several years.

The Luo, a Nilotic ethnic group, and locally famous for their soccer enthusiasm, occupy three districts bordering Lake Victoria on one side and Nandi and Kakamega districts on the other. Before the Luo dispersal and migration, their ancestors in Southern Sudan practised a transient semi-pastoral economy which suited the environment of their cradle-land. Fishing seems to have played a major role in their economy. The Luo economic activities revolve around crop cultivation, animal husbandry and fishing.

Kisumu, the major town, is a fast-growing urban centre, and as the hub of western Kenya it is the focus of both male and female migrants in search of employment. Stretching around Lake Victoria, Kisumu can best be seen as a rural town where some sections are purely rural households while others are residential areas in the busy urban district. Kisumu is located strategically on the major Nairobi-Uganda highway and is, therefore, a major transit point for travellers and traders. Generalized poverty in the outlying areas contributes to migration into towns. Oucho (1) notes that the migrants into Kisumu maintain a rural orientation so that there is movement back and forth. Given this scenario, the general problems of urbanization in major cities apply to Kisumu.

The scourge of HIV and AIDS has hit the Lake Victoria region, and the surrounding communities have had heavy toll of infection and loss of life. Many theories have been advanced in an attempt to explain this trend. For instance, researchers continue to investigate the hypothesis that male circumcision contributes towards protection against HIV infection, to some extent. Traditionally the Luo community does not practise male circumcision but recent studies have embarked on voluntary male circumcision under the supervision of strict hygienic practices.

To the north of Kisumu are the Luhya ethnic group, a Bantu group thus sharing common values with the Agikuyu and Akamba of central and eastern Kenya, respectively. However, due to physical proximity the Luo and the Luhya share some cultural practices, as will be demonstrated later. To the west and north of Kenya's capital city, Nairobi, the Agikuyu are found in four districts while the Akamba people border Nairobi to the east and occupy two expansive districts in the dry savannah. The Akamba and the Agikuyu share much in common.

The Maasai, on the other hand, are a pastoral community who still practise some form of nomadic life-style, moving from one area to another in search of pastures for their herds. This mobility pattern became especially obvious during the frequent prolonged drought plaguing the country in the recent past. The Maasai lived in the arid parts of the country south and west of Nairobi, and were socially and culturally secluded from the agricultural communities. Social change and cash economy has infiltrated into the Maasai community lately and the warriors (moran) migrate to the major towns to seek employment as night watchmen. External forces have generated a process of change in Maasailand, thus in turn forcing the Maasai to adapt to change as a survival strategy.

In this paper the author explores the diverse cultural meaning and function of sex among selected Kenyan communities and how these may contribute to the transmission and spread of HIV and AIDS morbidity patterns, and subsequently to suffering and mortality in these communities.

The meaning and function of sex

In different socio-cultural contexts, sex may mean different things in different occasions for a given community. Interactive participation and discussions with various groups reveals that sex remains central in the life of these communities. Questions targeting the deeper meaning of sex were posed to various discussion groups. Explication and emphasis varied according to the age, gender and social status of the specific group. It was noted that the various groups frequently used metaphors to explain the deeper values. For example, among the youth there was greater emphasis on sex as a source of pleasure, to prove or "flavour" love, often invoking the expression that "tea without sugar" is less delicious. The youth explained that it was important to experiment with the sexual organs, partly to remove the anxiety of non-performance, and to prove virility. Sex for procreation was rated lowest and of the least significance among the various groups of youth, both males and females.

Sex is also used as a trap to achieve a hidden agenda; for instance, a girl may use sex to ensnare a man to marriage through allowing herself to get pregnant with his child. Schoolgirls get lulled into exchanging sex for money and other gifts from economically able but older men. The same girls reportedly also use sex to express love to younger boyfriends during school holidays. These situations would appear to legitimize multiplicity of sexual partners in the minds of some youth and thus the exposure to the risk of sexually transmitted infections.

Among groups of women, on the other hand, there was emphasis on the role of sex in procreation, probably because this is what women could legitimately relate with in marriage. They explained, for instance, that when married partners want a baby frequent sex is necessary to ensure the woman has conceived. During early pregnancy sex is essential to nourish the foetus to healthy development. This then underscores the significance of frequent sex by married partners to fulfill different roles of procreation as they consolidate their marital relations. Other purposes of marital sex included gratification of biological desire, and strengthening or solidifying marital relationships. Sex was believed to offer relaxation to a partner who may have been upset by the pressures of life at the work-place. In most of the discussion groups it was stated that sex has a reconciliatory role, yet paradoxically it is also used as reprisal, to get even with an adulterous partner. This came out explicitly from the women's groups where they stated that a male spouse who repeatedly visited multiple sex partners provoked the female partner to behave likewise, in revenge.

Issues of infertility and the accompanying anxiety often motivated sexual partners to get involved in extra-marital sex to verify their fertility covertly. In a community that places a high premium on fertility this was quite significant. Among the men in general, virility, self-esteem, "machismo" was seen as a strong motivation to convince different women to agree to have sexual relations with a man. This is the way he attains triumph.

At a practical level sex, especially among women, is reportedly used as a tool to acquire economic means and some form of social standing. This is mainly attributed to commercial sex where the man becomes the provider and the woman the recipient. This is clearly a gender issue where inequity is propagated through elevating the male to wield authority over the woman due to her inability to provide for herself outside the male domain. Prostitution, as discussed later, may be seen a social construct. A woman in such a setting becomes acquiescent to the status quo as a fact of life. She has neither control over her sexuality nor can she control the sexual networking of her partner. Society can undo this misconception through empowering the female to realize her full potential through the inclusive possession of economic accomplishment.

A more crucial role of sex was attributed to ritual sex and its significance to the survival of family, clan and the entire community. This is revisited in greater detail in the sections that follow.

Marriage among the Luo

Polygamous marriages are a common feature in the Luo community, and polygamy serves as a status symbol for the Luo man. In a traditional homestead dala, households are arranged according to the age and place of each wife in the marriage. The man is the head of the entire dala while each wife is the head of her household. The most senior wife, mukaye, wields a lot of power over her junior co-wives, nyachira (some of whom could be the age of her elder daughters). She is consulted in most of the important family affairs such as marriages, burial ceremonies and all issues where ritual sex is required. She not only consents to her husband getting a new wife but also assists him to identify women of noble character/background. Traditionally her own niece qualifies to become such a new wife.

The fact that the new wife consents to enter into polygamous marriage with full knowledge of the arrangement, and that the older wife is involved in the process of recruiting other women to share her husband's love, may appear to restrain squabbling and petty jealousies among co-wives. The senior wife may find it easier to cooperate since a man will still fetch a wife anyway, if he so desires. The new wife on the other hand may be coerced by circumstances, including poverty and the quest for male protection, to enter into a polygamous union. Co-wives in a respectable dala are expected to live in harmony. Whichever way one looks at it, this remains a power game on one side and survival strategy on the other, with players governed by societal expectations and rules.

A man's property is inherited by his sons, and the wives only serve as custodians of such property while the sons are young. Once married, a woman belongs to her husband's larger family and neither divorce nor separation appear to be of any consequence, since in the event of her death the woman must be buffed in the husband's ancestral home. On the death of a man, his male relatives have the obligation to look after his widow(s) and offspring.

A woman has no power to object to her being inherited, even though she may secretly have a hand in the choice of the man, within the husband's kin, to inherit her. Nevertheless, this is the task of the elders who make sure that the man who inherits the wife has his own wife (or wives) and has demonstrated responsible leadership that supports his family.

Before the advent of Christianity and school education, widow inheritance used to be a common practice among most of the Kenyan communities, with the aim of ensuring survival and family continuity after the death of the male breadwinner. A woman had no objection to, nor was she really consulted in, the husband's decision to acquire the widow(s) of his diseased relatives. The practice of widow inheritance has a parallel to the kinsman redeemer described in the book of Ruth in the Old Testament. However, both Christianity and education introduced social change, to the extent that wife inheritance is virtually unknown in most contemporary Kenyan societies. However, the Luo culture appears intact in this aspect, irrespective of social change. In the era of HIV and AIDS infection, some of the cultural demands are beginning to appear detrimental to the health of the community.

Widow/wife inheritance

Culture expects a married woman to remain married so that even the death of the husband is supposed not to alter this status. The widow has to be inherited by the brother or close male kin of the diseased. This is not perceived as a new marriage but as the continuation of an already existing marriage with the diseased spouse. The rationale behind the practice is to ensure security for the bereaved family, to minimize interruption of the role of breadwinner, father to the offspring, decision-maker and sexual partner to the widow. The inheritor, known as the jater in Luo, is normally a brother or a close male relative of the deceased. However, this must be preceded by "ritual cleansing" (chado okola) to conclude or "finish off" the process, and is achieved through obligatory sexual intercourse, performed by jatiek kwer if he is from within the clan or jakowiny when he is an outsider. This ritual must be performed, irrespective of the cause of death of the spouse. It is preferable that he be an outsider because his undertaking to cleanse the widow means his assuming the state of contamination or "uncleanness", thus accepting to be separated from the clan much like the sacrificial lamb that takes on the blemish of the offender. In the cultural sense the separation is an important prerequisite to reintegration into the family and community in general. The cleanser is often hired at a fee, and a few individuals have willingly opted to provide the service, as "career cleansers", moving from one widow to the other in different villages.

In-depth discussions with various groups in the community revealed that ordinarily such a man is much despised, thought good-for-nothing and a poor individual, sometimes a person of slightly unsound mind, a destitute schemer who would not hesitate to seize the opportunity to boost his economic status through wealth acquired in such a manner.

In earlier days, the cleanser was paid in the form of livestock, and that way a poor man managed to build a herd for himself. Tradition demands that ritual sex must be penetrative to facilitate mixing of fluids, for cleansing to be said to have taken place. Thus, there is no cultural provision for the application of a condom or any other barrier. In contemporary society where HIV/AIDS transmission continues to reach alarming proportions, the ritual sex cleanser is a high risk. The cleanser is at risk of contracting the virus from an infected women and passing it on to others whom he subsequently cleanses. This may explain, in part, the high rate of HIV/AIDS in the Luo community.

A large number of widows, especially those with a secondary level of education, affirmed their aversion to the ritual, and a few reportedly fled and took refuge in a distant city to avoid being coerced into the ritual. This, however, was seen as a temporary solution since the ritual would have to be performed even after her death and before she is buried. One woman stated that if it must be done then she would rather undergo the ritual as a corpse!

Mandatory widow-cleansing

In the face of the glaring risk of contracting HIV, one argument in contemporary discussions is whether theses rituals are still necessary. To respond to this, one has to delve into what would be known or believed to be the repercussions for failure to conform. To explicate this one needs to revisit the concept of chira among the Luo, which broadly stands for an entire range of misfortunes, resulting from commission or omission. This concept has a parallel among the Luhya of Busia in what they refer to as ekhir, and the Giriam of the Mijikenda and Chaga of Tanzania as chirwa. Among Samia, marasmus in children is perceived as an element of a number of other social disharmonies engrained in the notion of ekhira, the latter resulting from a breach of moral values. In many respects, the notion of ekhira parallels that of chira among the neighbouring Luo. Parkin contends that
 Chira does not fit, either conceptually or semantically, into such
 "traditional" anthropological categories as witchcraft, spirit
 possession, and ancestor "worship", for which roughly equivalent
 verbal concepts can be found in the Luo language. Chira is not
 translatable ... It refers to a wasting disease sometimes
 culminating in death, which a victim or someone close to the victim
 has incurred through ignoring (not necessarily consciously) some
 kind of relationship taboo. The disease arises from an improper
 mixing of categories, which are normally kept distinct. In other
 words, it arises from a confusion of relationship boundaries. The
 basic idea behind it has much in common with that of "incompatible

Ekhira for the Luhya extends and embraces other facets of social disharmony in a wider cognitive field. Thus, there is no correspondence between the cultural and bio-medical conceptual categories. Ekhira is a pervasive and mystical affliction often related to sexual transgression. It is not an empirical but a diagnostic term that attributes a cause to an illness. Of particular relevance to the child's health is the sexual activity of the parents. Marasmus, when categorized as ekhira, is thought to be an affiliation induced by a breach of a social norm particularly on the part of either parent. In this instance, the condition is taken to be a manifestation of this transgression and the child is the victim of the wrath brought upon the sex offenders. In another case, if a mother becomes pregnant and continues to breastfeed, the foetus, through its jealousy or envy, would pass ekhira to the nursing child through the breast milk. However, the operation of ekhira in the child is not limited to the parents of the child. There are instances in which sexual relations of people who are not parents of the child may still precipitate marasmus in the child. Thus, the concern is not simply with an automatic one-way transmission of ekhira as a result of adultery on the part of the parents, but much more with an area of life, which embodies danger for individuals in various social relationships. This factor becomes important particularly in imputing responsibility and in the decision as to the course of action once a child shows signs of marasmus. For example, the fact that parents of a marasmic child do not concede to have committed adultery does not rule out the possibility that someone else, for instance a midwife, may still have precipitated marasmus in the child by having committed a sexual offence. The wide range of possibilities inherent in the diffuse nature of the notion aids to strengthen and sustain the belief in ekhira as a potential cause of harm to individuals. (2)

For the Luo, chira will go on to affect the offspring, and this effect could come in various forms. This is what a widow and the community would like to avoid, and for this reason ritual cleansing of the widow becomes paramount. The issue of possible infection would therefore not arise. In any case, it is better to sacrifice one or two people and (ironically) save the community, for this is where the stakes are considered higher. To illustrate this, a widow in Kano, Kisumu district, declared that she is HIV-positive and that her husband had indeed died of HIV. She therefore did not want to be inherited, as she did not wish to pass on the infection. To the clan members and community this was deemed a lesser issue and she was asked to revisit her decision taking into account the fate of her children and clansmen. Clearly, even though this woman was attempting to exercise her reproductive rights, this could not be placed before communal rights and obligations. Reference is made to the ICPD document of 1994 (3) on reproductive rights, which remains academic and rarely finds a niche in the everyday life of most women, who may to a large extent be enslaved by cultural practices that they find stifling.

Curiously cleansing takes a slightly different turn for widowers. A husband similarly acquires a state of pollution when his wife dies, and he too is expected to undergo a cleansing ordeal--but much less rigorous. For instance, his mobility and social interactions are curtailed for about a fortnight after his bereavement and burial of the spouse. He is expected not to lose his temper or get into a fight; thus he has to stay at home during this period awaiting sexual purification. He should not engage in sexual intercourse with any other woman before he symbolically does it with his departed wife. A female variant of jater kwer comes to the scenario. This must be an elderly, post-menopausal and rather unattractive woman and one who knew the deceased well. The widower goes into the house with this woman but not for sexual intercourse. She sensually stirs his memories to past sex encounters with the deceased as she moves seductively around. This is expected to cause an experience of wet dreams. Thus the widower is cleansed from pollution as he symbolically fulfills his sexual duty to his late wife.

A contemporary alternative is for the widower to find an unsuspecting sex worker, pay for her services and get over the ritual pollution, kwer. Interviews with bar-based sex workers confirmed this tendency of bereaved men to use them for bereavement taboos purification. "A man will walk into the nearest bar hardly three days after burying his wife, and pick up a prostitute to finish kwer as demanded by his tradition," these women complained.

Sex and sexuality among the Agikuyu

Comprising the largest ethnic grouping in Kenya, the Agikuyu occupy four districts in the central region of Kenya. Similarly to other communities in the region, social change has taken a huge toll on the cultural life of the community. However, as our research established, socio-cultural dynamics are still felt across the community. Due to its deep religious significance, sexual morality is the concern of the whole community since there is belief that sexual licentiousness could destroy families or the entire community. Collectively, the community guards against any breach of sexual norms.

The Agikuyu perform male and female circumcision as an important rite of passage. Individuals are regarded as children until they go through this elaborate ceremony. However, this is not a matter of individual choice but a set regulation governed by the cultural regulations. The boys undergo this ceremony between the ages of seventeen and twenty years, while the gifts are much younger since this has to be performed before the onset of menarche between the ages of thirteen and sixteen years.

Age differences between the boys and girls are meant to deter "haphazard" sexual interactions. Sex between an uncircumcised boy and an initiated girl is unpardonable. In the event of the breach of such forbidden behaviour, the female offender is disciplined severely with lashes administered by her age-mates for disgracing them. Circumcision ceremonies serve as opportunities to impart elaborate sex education including instilling the idea that "age-mates" are "brothers or sisters" who shared both honour and disgrace collectively.

Generally age mates watch over one other, and any violation is reported to the group for appropriate remedial action. For instance, a warrior who had sexual intercourse with a girl secretly said that he suffered a guilty conscience, and when age-mates conversed about such issues, the culprit's face and other exposed parts of his body turned goose-skinned, thus betraying him. This prompted interrogation from his age-mates. His confession to having dishonoured the group was followed by severe punishment with the aim of correcting him and restoring group reputation.

During socialization, the youth are provided with a substitute to ensure close physical sensual interaction without sexual intercourse. The nguiko institution is meant to instill will power such that sexual desire is put under proper control. The test is to be in very close proximity with a member of the opposite sex without sexual intimacy. Several virgin women lie in bed with one "warrior" who caresses them in turns. Definite rules govern the game, such that while the parties remove all outer clothing the maidens are appropriately sheltered by leather girdles, tightly fastened around their genitals as security against access by the male partner. These rules are internalized into the girls by adult women in sex education imparted to the girls as an important part of their initiation into adulthood. Older girls follow this further through example and discipline. Sexual intercourse is preserved for marriage and even then strict regulations are to be observed in order to avoid contravening sexual taboos. For instance, marital sex takes place only inside the woman's hut and on her bed, never in the open or in the bush. The marriage bed is to remain undefiled. Thus no warrior is allowed to visit a married woman in her hut. This was a control valve against creating an opportunity for adultery between friends. Dancing in the evenings is allowed under close supervision so that warriors may be allowed to hold the maidens by the waist, but they are made to change partners when the young men begin to get sexually excited.

A typical Mugikuyu homestead in our study had several housing units, the main ones being the woman's hut, nyumba ya mutumia, and the man's hut, thingira. The latter doubled as residence for himself and the younger males as well as the sleeping quarters for his flock of goats and sheep. The woman's hut was partitioned to accommodate the hallway, the hearth, the food store, the pen for the fattening rams and he-goats, her bed and the girls' bed. The woman's hut was the venue for family living and dining and centre for counselling where the mother talked to her daughters as they cooked the evening meal.

The woman's hut functioned as a venue for significant family affairs such as sex for procreation. This activity took place in the woman's hut at night when other family members slept in the same hut. This meant that the immediate family was part of the process of procreation, extending the family through acquiring new members. Each new baby was born at a specific place inside the same hut. Socialization for males took place in the man's thingira and at the bonfire, lighted every evening by the boys and the men, at the entrance of the compound, known as booini. Through socialization, the young people internalized the appropriate sex norms and expected behaviour. Sexual taboos such as incest, adultery and all other forms of immorality were observed strictly as repercussions from the breach of standards breach of the same affected the family and community collectively.

Social change has eroded tremendously the cultural values related to sexual interactions. The setting within which sex education is imparted to the growing youth has decayed increasingly. For instance, while male circumcision is still practised, the social and cultural education that accompanied the physical operation has diminished so much that the younger generations have missed the very meaning of the operation. Adolescents are sexually active at an early age and their attitude towards sex is quite liberal. An excerpt from one Gikuyu youth peer educator reiterates this:
 We tell them they should abstain until they are given permission to
 engage in sex. We Catholics lay too much emphasis on abstaining. We
 avoid talking about condoms ... but the question always arises from
 the youth: What about condoms? We tell them to abstain, as the
 church teaches ... What if you cannot abstain? Then try harder
 [laughter]. What I want to say here is my personal view, not those
 of the church programme. So don't quote me [laughter]. Some people
 tell me that they cannot abstain, and I tell them to use a condom.
 This is at a personal level, because while abstaining is good, I
 believe saving a life against HIV is better.

The concern raised by these youth reveals that things have changed from the past generations and they do engage in premarital sex; full penetrative sex takes place. A boy lamented ... "AIDS or no AIDS, I will not make love to the girl I care about with rubber [laughter] ... that way I am not giving myself fully to her ... [hilarious laughter] ... sex is incomplete if it is not performed nyama kwa nyama [applause from the group!] meaning [flesh to flesh]." Time is overdue for the church seriously to address adolescent sexuality in view of the current situation.

HIV among the Maasai

The pastoral Maasai for many years lived a life socially sheltered from the negative effects of social change such as urbanization. With the arrival of monetary economy, Maasai warriors are increasingly working as night guards in urban centres, away from their rural homeland. In the process of interaction they use money to buy sex from sex workers. Maasai herdsmen sell their livestock to butchers at smaller trading centres, earning good income. Unprepared for urbanism, some fall prey to the modernized women who entice the unsuspecting Maasai with high life-styles in the woman's "working base". A number of these young Maasai not only part with a large proportion of their income but they are also rendered vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS. On returning to their rural areas these men will in turn transmit the virus their wives. A Maasai elder bemoaned this state of affairs fearing that should HIV get into their community there will be the danger of wiping out the population. He stated emphatically, ... "As a people we are finished!" Their culture is permissive; age-mates share wives and girlfriends. This has dangerous implications in contemporary Kenya.

Perception and consequences of promiscuous behaviour

Promiscuity has been described in various ways reflecting the shades of categories of behaviour. For example, among the Luo community ochot commonly refers to a self-declared prostitute, malaya in Kiswahili, and mainly applies to women. Jachode, on the other hand, is directed to one with multiple sexual partners and the term may apply to either male or female, married or single. In a focus group discussion, a married woman whose husband worked and lived in the city admitted that she used to enjoy sexual relations with most of her brothers-in-law. She declared amid laughter, "I decided to assist the boma", literally meaning any male in the homestead is welcome to have sex with her. A woman of excessive sexual desire is labelled ochodororo, one audaciously promiscuous either for fun or commercial gain. In other communities this description refers to one whose delinquent behaviour in general is beyond repair, one who has, as it were, gone beyond taming, gutua mikwa. This symbolizes a tethered calf that breaks the tether and scampers passionately, destroying crops in its wake. Andwayo or bodho refers to a cheeky woman, married or single, whose sexual appetite is insatiable (nymphomaniac). While these labels are uncomplimentary, it is worth noting that such characters are known to exist in the community.

According to the traditional Agikuyu, excessive sexual desire and promiscuity in a woman is not only disgraceful but undesirable and indeed dangerous for her and, by extension, her family. During a focus group discussion in Murang'a, elderly Gikuyu women confirmed that "a promiscuous woman did not live to old age". It is important to explore briefly possible explanations for such perceptions.

Sex experience early in a woman's life, and sex with multiple partners in particular, impact negatively upon a woman's reproductive health. The consequences range from emotional and physical injuries due to early pregnancies and birth complications to bio-physiological malfunction and particularly viral infections such as the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which is believed to be responsible for some forms of cervical cancers among women.

A participant in a male focus group discussion in the same community used a rich metaphor to illustrate the depredation of promiscuity in a woman. He elaborated on how a single blanket gets over-stretched and rendered valueless by being shared by several ruthless users. In most families with many children and limited resources, three or four siblings of the same sex share a bed and a single blanket as the only covering from chilly nights. In such a scenario no one is ever properly covered and each child holds one edge of the blanket with their big toe and pulls the parallel edge diagonally with their hands to cover themselves. A great deal of squabbling also ensues. After a few days the threads of the blanket appears translucent like a mosquito net. Similarly a woman shared by several male sexual partners gets ruined, the man concluded, amidst consenting gestures from the others.

According to Kenyatta (4) girls were discouraged from fondling their genitals for purposes of eroticism. Indeed, the clipping off of the clitoris at puberty was supposed to reduce sexual desire among the girls so that they might remain sexually safe and sound until marriage. To display obvious yearning was not only disgraceful, but it also called for castigation from others and thrashing from the mother. Girls were socialized to avoid touching the clitoris or any part of their genitals, and any adult whacked a girl found disobeying this instruction! Married women have admitted that they are expected to initiate the sex act to avoid raising suspicion in the husband. Otherwise, he might wonder how she copes with the desire in his absence.

Opportunity for promiscuous behaviour

Some cultural ceremonies provide an opportunity for sex exploits. Funeral ceremonies are major events in Luoland. Mourners from far and wide spend days and nights commemorating the deceased with marked feasting and wailing. For prominent personalities, the carnival is more conspicuous and prolonged. In the night old friends, new acquaintances, young and old, engage in sexual encounters in this setting. Young males in the study elaborated on such escapades with nostalgia. A variant to this is the ceremony of Obukoko among the Luhya that involves the return of "daughters" to their natal homes, partly to finalize the mourning/commemoration of the deceased but also to bring food to replenish the consumables that were depleted during the funeral. Since this is a family affair, their spouses need not escort them. There is eating and drinking and it also provides an opportunity for people to link up wiih old acquaintances, usually boyfriends and girlfriends they claim "they could have married"! They indulge in sex freely and there are instances where families have been broken as a result of what goes on at Obukoko. Some husbands are no longer taking chances and insist on coming along to man the music system, but in fact the hidden agenda is to keep a watchful eye on their wives! On a more serious note, because people die so often the ceremonies of Obukoko are frequent, as a matter of fact this comes about every Friday. Mourning the dead every Friday in itself could fuel HIV infection as a result of the frequent sexual encounters,

Public holidays and national festivals such as the Christmas season celebrations are crowned with sex between friends. School holidays are occasions for young lovers to revitalize their mutual commitment to each other through sex. Annual district agricultural shows provide an opening for scoundrels and drug addicts to engage in a spree of rape and even homicide. Young men have narrated the importance of group solidarity in their endeavour to protect their female relatives and girlfriends during such festivals.

Regardless of the circumstances, motive or social status of those involved, the above categories boil down to a multiplicity of sexual partners and thus the risk of infection with sexually transmitted infections including HIV.

The men on the other hand reported that extra-marital sexual encounters are more exciting. The same was also true with regard to more innovative "style and patterns", as they excitedly referred to various techniques they engage in the sex play. These are acceptable and pursued in casual and extramarital relationships, but at the same time unpalatable and never practised in stable relations and marital unions.

This shows clear boundaries shaping the nature and expectations of each sexual association. Using the analogy of sports (the Luo are soccer fans) they elaborated that "home games" are shaped by modesty, ,while "away games" are expected to be more adventurous. The home game is habitual and described as boring with the emphasis on the missionary style, while away games are marked with innovative styles which is what men reportedly sought for increased gratification. A male participant reported that he takes herbal stimulants kokomanga with casuals and prostitutes but he can never attempt this "at home" or with a regular partner whom he cares for. Thus in sexual relationships there are the "good girls" and the "bad girls"; each occupying and playing a specific role in society, and both appearing indispensable. For the sake of social harmony it is important to ensure stable relationships at the conjugal level within the domestic domain to ensure the continuity of the lineage and by extension the Luo society. At the domestic level it involves the control of female sexuality by ensuring that they are not "spoilt". However, the situation is different for the men who are expected to be more adventuresome.

A similar notion runs through the communities in the grassland Cameroon where marriages are metaphorically referred to as "cooking". A married woman cooks inside the kitchen for her husband and children in contrast to a single woman who, having no kitchen, cooks by the roadside for anybody. There was a parallel among the Agikuyu of the past when sex in the marital union only took place in the woman's domain, her hut, which was constructed for her by her husband at marriage. An unmarried girl had neither a hut of her own, nor did she need to conceive, thus she had neither the place nor the necessity for sex before marriage.

The diagram on the following page illustrates seemingly legitimized, and therefore safe, sexual networks for a character we have named Bill.

Bill, not his real name, admitted that he had several extra-marital relations but he anticipated no real danger from most of the partners, apart from the commercial sex worker whom we have named Rahab. He opted to use a condom whenever he visited Rahab. He was also a little unhappy with Ana when he realized she had a regular boyfriend, besides himself. However, he had yet to decide on whether or not to use a condom with Aria.


Kenyatta and Mbiti (5) concur that within the social and religious confines a sexual relationship was sacred and respectable and any breach of such was taken seriously. Used correctly sex is sacred and a blessing not only to the parties involved but also to the Community as a whole. The contrary also applies: sexual immorality, breach of sex norms and regulations, brings curses on people. This view concurs with the biblical teaching in Deuteronomy 22:13-30 where the people of God were warned against sexual immoralities, incest, fornication and forced sex among others.

It is also clearly put to the people that the choice to obey or disobey is theirs but either option has its effect. "See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of God ... the curse, if you do not obey ..." (11:26).

In marriage, sex is essentially for procreation and only secondarily for enjoyment. Inversely, sex outside the marital union is primarily for enjoyment and it is no wonder that various styles and accessories were sought. These were available, ironically, among the so-called wayward women who necessarily fulfill an important function for the men in the society. Increasingly, prostitutes in Kisumu are serving the role of ritual "cleansers" for widowers, just as hired male jakowiny.

In contemporary African communities this wholesome view of sex roles is rapidly losing ground. Forced sex by highway gangsters, incest and child defilement by male relatives, deliberately aiming at infecting these vulnerable female victims or just to hurt them, are becoming common phenomena in both urban and rural areas. Married partners engage in numerous other casual sexual networks, thus exposing themselves and partners to infections. It appears as if people have opted for the curse rather than the blessing of sexual relationships. The burden falls squarely on the church urgently to intervene and teach the people of God what is expected of them. The weak, the voiceless and the poor who opt to use their bodies to earn a living are also children of God.

Discussions and conclusion

Epidemiological transmission of HIV hinges on the exchange of body fluids such as semen, blood and breast milk, from one person to another. Anthropological research, on the other hand, has often emphasized the symbolism of human body fluids, especially blood, in the maintenance of life. (6) Whenever we enquired about the possibility of using condoms or other prophylactic barriers during ritual cleansing, we learnt that the ritual would be incomplete and therefore invalid if the partners did not exchange body fluids. The male should demonstrate virility. In an attempt to underscore male virility, Luo men metaphorically stated that "a bull dies with grass in its mouth", implying that like the brave bull which chews grass to the very end, there is no regret when a man dies in the line of duty, that is, offering sexual service to females.

It is necessary to study the HIV/AIDS epidemic taking into account the centrality of meaning and context to illuminate the observed and resilient behaviour that appears to disregard risky actions. The sanctioning of ritual sex and the tolerance of sexual relationships within culturally defined boundaries may increasingly endanger the lives of many in terms of HIV infection. An important facet in this is that of labelling and risk perception. In the study, promiscuous behaviour encompassed an entire range of people and invariably a multiplicity of partners rather than prostitutes per se. This variety of people ranges from the ochot to the less obvious, the ochodororo and andwayo.

Another important observation is that in towns sexual cultures are essentially pluralistic so that the social and gender relations that mediate sexual relations are reflected in the epidemiological data. For instance, commercial sex and multiple partners and the presence of STDs fuel the transmission of HIV/AIDS, a condition that is in part socially constructed. The association of socio-economic conditions, generalized poverty and cultural realities has the potential to hasten the transmission of HIV. This is essentially true of Kisumu, a fast-growing town with a host of social problems that create an environment within which social interactions include sexual networking that is inadvertently cushioned by a culture that is accommodating. The significance of sex roles pervades the social fabric, and a woman who discards ritual sex is seen as introducing the risk of a curse to the family. Her sons would not be allowed to inherit the estate of their late father. Almost all the important events of family life are preceded with marital sex play by the married couple. It is in this context of social roles that widow inheritance becomes important. She must have a sex partner to perform these roles.

In the various discussions, respondents gave what was clearly the normative view regarding sex and gender relations. For example, multiple partners were supposed to be the prerogative of men while women were supposed to be respectable and observe ritruok--a concept that denotes moral uprightness, i.e "taking care" of themselves by sticking to one man once married. However, the practice varied from individual to individual. Ordinarily, it was expected that the male would take an upper hand in sexual relations. However, it was acknowledged that there were instances where women took the initiative.

Whereas the practice of wife inheritance is still important for a majority of the population, for some people this is no longer the case. There are instances, though isolated, where people refuse to either inherit or be inherited, thereby taking a risk of being isolated by the community. However, it was argued that even then declining to be inherited did not negate ritual cleansing which is the most important. Economically able women were known to select a man of their choice to serve as jakowiny to finish or as it were rid them of the taboos that follow widowhood. After this the widow is free to get on with her life including sexual relations without endangering the lives of offspring conceived with the departed partner.

All the participants gave the preferred age for first sexual intercourse in the higher teens, yet they themselves had been initiated into sex at very young ages. One participant observed that the age at first sexual intercourse has decreased while the number of sexual partners has increased. He noted that while sex was condoned traditionally there were also rules that do not seem to hold any more to the extent that even cases of incest are not uncommon. Migration to towns has brought with it laxity in behaviour and this is compounded by poverty, so that a large number of people are increasingly getting involved in sex for economic reasons. This is particularly the case with youth.

The advent of HIV/AIDS does not seem to have triggered substantial fear in people with regard to sex and sexual behaviour. Even with the knowledge that one can have protected sex, this avenue is less exploited as people prefer to have sex without barriers. One respondent said that he has not used condoms and does not intend to use them in the near future. He feels that "sealed sex is no sex at all". He is willing to take a risk with a woman rather than use condoms. This is a view shared by a majority of the respondents whose responses indicated desire for "full" or "total" sex that was only gratifying without a condom. In many respects this may be related to the concept of the "fractal" person as applied to sexuality in Rwanda by Taylor (7) in his paper on "Condoms and Cosmology--the 'Fractal' Person". The cardinal point of fluid exchange and the flow of fluids relative to fertility as opposed to infertility makes it impossible to introduce "blockage" which is not only undesirable but also fatal in Rwandan cosmology. A parallel to this notion is found among the Luo with regard to cleansing rituals of widows and widowers. A widow or widower is ritually unclean following the death of a spouse. It is also a liminal state that goes on to affect the activities of other members of the family, and especially the offspring. All family members are "bound", as it were. In order to resume the normal functioning of the household this state has to be "unbound" and this process is achieved sexually. As the semen plays the cleansing or "finishing" role, as commonly stated, this would be invalidated by the use of condoms. Even though it was claimed that ordinarily men would use condoms with prostitutes, a widower would not use condoms when ritual cleansing is the purpose.

In order to analyze a people's experiences and beliefs surrounding ritual sex, sexual behaviour and opportunities for behavioural change, this should be done within this context of cultural meaning and significance of such acts. Only then can one begin to visualize the direction a culture is taking or possible interventions that might prove successful strategies towards behavioural change.

Suggested topics for further discussion

* Discuss possible ways forward for women of the above backgrounds that would get them released from compulsory sexual demands.

* What is the role of the church in the above complex inter-relationships?


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(1) J. O. Oucho, Rural Orientation, Return and Future Movements of Urban Migrants: A Study of Kisumu Town, Nairobi, 1986.

(2) J. Olenja J., Socio-Economic and Cultural Factors in the Incidence of Malnutrition among Samia, Busia district, unpubl. PhD thesis, Cambridge, 1985.

(3) United Nations, ICPD 1994 International Conference on Population and Development Report.

(4) Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, London, Secker & Warburg, 1938.

(5) John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, London, Heinemann, 1968.

(6) V. Turner, The Forest of Symbols, Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1967.

(7) C. C. Taylor, "Condoms and Cosmology: The 'Fractal' Person and Sexual Risk in Rwanda", in Social Science and Medicine, vol. 31, no. 9, pp.1023-28, 1990.

Violet Nyambura Kimani teaches in the department of community health at the University of Nairobi, Kenya. A member of the WCC reference group on human sexuality, she presented this paper at the WCC meeting on "Human Sexuality and the People of God", Bossey, Switzerland, in November 2000.
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Author:Kimani, Violet Nyambura
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Geographic Code:6KENY
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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