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Sitting and standing: how families are fixing trust in uncertain times.


There is widespread apprehension about the resilience of the 'traditional African' model of the extended family in maintaining norms and practices of inter-group cooperation and care in conditions of demographic, social and economic change. In Nyanza Province, Kenya, where one of every five children is currently orphaned, and HIV/AIDS and wide-scale poverty continue to render lives and livelihoods insecure, many people are not able to take their families' care for granted. Ideas and practices of kinship have been challenged profoundly by questions regarding who is responsible for the care of orphaned children. This article looks at two complementary practices among Luo families in western Kenya that address such dilemmas: the communal initiative of 'sitting' as a family to discuss and resolve issues in a cooperative and consensual manner; and the individualistic initiative of 'standing' to represent the interests of another individual. I suggest that while the immediate purposes of sitting and standing are pragmatic in assigning caring responsibilities for specific children, their eventfulness also actualizes something greater: trust, reciprocity and solidarity among extended families.

Il existe une opinion largement repandue concernant la resilience du modele << africain traditionnel >> de la famille elargie a maintenir des normes et des pratiques de soin et de cooperation intergroupe dans un contexte demographique, social et economique en mutation. Dens la province de Nyanza au Kenya, ou un enfant sur cinq est actuellement orphelin et ou le VIH/SIDA et la pauvrete a grande echelle continuent de rendre la vie et les moyens de subsistence precaires, nombreux sont ceux pour qui il ne va pas de sol de s'occuper de sa famille. Les idees et les pratiques de parente ont ete profondement remises en cause par la question de savoir qui est responsable de la garde des enfants orphelins. Cet article s'interesse a deux pratiques complementaires, observees dans des families luo dans l'Ouest du Kenya, qui traitent de ces dilemmes : l'initiative communale qui consiste a s'asseoir en famille pour debattre des problemes et les resoudre de maniere cooperative et consensuelle; et l'initiative individualiste qui consiste a se tenir debout pour representer les interets d'une autre personne. L'auteur suggere que si l'acte de s'asseoir et l'acte de se tenir debout ont certes une finalite immediate pragmatique pour assigner la responsabilite de la garde d'enfants specifiques, leur contenu dramatique traduit plus que cela : la confiance, la reciprocite et la solidarite au sein des families e1argies.


There is widespread apprehension in policy and academic circles about the resilience of the 'traditional African' model of the extended family in maintaining norms and practices of inter-group cooperation and care (Foster et al. 2005; UNICEF 2007: 42; JLICA 2008: 19; Mathambo and Gibbs 2008). In western Kenya, as in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa that have experienced major political, economic, demographic and social changes, the family has long been understood as a site of crisis (Whisson 1964: 223; Kilbride and Kilbride 1990: xi; Weisner et al. 1997). The multiple pressures associated with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, combined with enduring poverty, have provoked pointed questions as to whether families are 'coping' or 'collapsing' (Abebe and Aase 2007: 2062-5; Mathambo and Gibbs 2008). Although extended families are understood to be the 'central social welfare mechanism in most countries' for the care of orphaned children in sub-Saharan Africa--with an estimated 90 per cent of all orphaned children primarily cared for in the households of extended family members (UNAIDS et al. 2004: 10)--how families are managing to do this remains unclear (Sabates-Wheeler and Pelham 2006: 8).

In Nyanza Province, western Kenya, where high rates of HIV/AIDS prevalence (KNBS 2007) and wide-scale poverty (UN Habitat 2008: 7) render lives and livelihoods insecure, people are not finding it possible to take their families for granted. Although Nyanza Province's predominantly Luo population is popularly characterized as strongly kin-centric and ideologically committed to kin-based sharing (Mboya 1938; Ocholla-Ayayo 1976; Parkin 1978; Shipton 2007), questions now raised regarding who will be responsible for the care of orphaned children have profoundly challenged customary ways. Recent studies indicate significant deviations from 'traditional' patterns of patrilineal fosterage as well as exacerbated discrimination against widows and orphaned children among Luo families in Nyanza (Nyambedha et al. 2003; Nyambedha and Aagaard-Hansen 2007; Geissler and Prince 2010: 165). These findings, as well as my own, indicate that the long-idealized Luo virtues of patrilineal solidarity and sharing have been strained in new ways as people struggle to work out how to care for large numbers and proportions of orphaned children.

According to Luo custom--as people in the present study's context commonly identified, and existing literature also describes--children are considered to belong to their father's family, and therefore the care of orphaned children is the responsibility of the father's family (Ocholla-Ayayo 1976: 37-9, 120-6). Given patrilineal and patrilocal models of social organization, children are expected to be raised in ways that establish their integration with paternal and patrilineal relatives. For instance, adult sons are supposed to build their first homes in their parents' homestead, which means that their children will spend their first years of life in this multigenerational homestead. Ideally, each adult son will later establish a separate homestead with his wife (or wives) and children on proximal land allocated by senior family members from patrilineal land holdings. Adult daughters, meanwhile, move to live with their husbands and raise their children along the same patrilocal and patrilineal patterning. Yet migration away from rural land holdings by young adults in search of economic opportunities has a long history, which has resulted in the dispersion of adult siblings and their households across Nyanza Province and Kenya (Hay 1982; Cohen and Atieno-Odhiambo 1989, 1992; Francis 1995: Morawczynski 2009; Geissler and Prince 2010). In fact, it was more common than not among families included in this study for a few brothers to live on patrilineally inherited land in the local area while other brothers lived (with their wives and children) in urban centres such as Eldoret, Nakuru, Mombasa, Nairobi and Kampala, or at sugar and tea plantations in western Kenya. Married and unmarried adult sisters from the study area most commonly lived within 50 kilometres of their natal homes, but it was also not uncommon for one or a few sisters to live in urban centres across Kenya. This high degree of dispersion underscores the significance of this study's findings concerning the emphasis on families to demonstrate their solidarity physically through organized meetings.

While elsewhere I analyse families" decision-making processes in terms of the outcomes they have generated for orphaned children's care arrangements (Cooper 2011: 112-55), in this article I consider what the processes themselves signify for the ideological and practical constitution of families. This analysis is based on sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork that I conducted between 2007 and 2009 in a peri-urban agricultural village that I call Kanyathi, (1) which is located near Kisumu, Nyanza Province, Kenya. Local primary school data and my own survey results indicate that approximately 20 per cent of all of the children in the study area have lost one parent, while nearly 10 per cent have lost both of their parents (Cooper 2011: 12). Similar proportions of orphaned children have been documented among nearby populations (Juma et al. 2007: iv).

Through this study I found that two complementary practices are proving important for families reckoning with the dilemma of how to work out care arrangements for orphaned children. These include the communal initiative of 'sitting' as a family to discuss and resolve issues in a cooperative and consensual manner, and the individualistic initiative of 'standing' to represent the interests of another individual.


Sitting and standing are idioms used by Dholuo speakers in Nyanza Province to encapsulate two different yet complementary activities. 'We sat,' people would explain to me when describing how their families determined particular solutions to particular problems. 'To sit together' (for example, 'Wabedo e achiel', 'We sit together as one') means purposefully to convene to discuss something as a group. (2) Yet when I asked for further details about how solutions were reached, I was often told of individuals volunteering or being volunteered and consenting to fulfil specific responsibilities. In this, people could describe how particular adults had been selected to 'stand for' a particular child. To stand for someone (-chung'n-) is to volunteer or to accept nomination to act as a representative of that person and their interests, potentially serving as a guardian and/or an advocate. When I asked children about their various relationships, I occasionally heard the phrase 'Ochung'na' ('S/he stands for me'), or more commonly 'Ochung'na e sikul fees' ('S/he stands for my school fees'). In this, children could designate which specific adults were responsible for different aspects of their care. In the study area, children's care is commonly distributed, with children eating, sleeping, helping, and having their education funded according to different individuals and households. The notion of 'standing for' is particularly relevant when responsibility for a specific aspect of a child's care must be assigned, as in the case when someone must guarantee to cover the costs of a child's education.

To quickly introduce the practical meaning of sitting and standing, I will use an example shared with me by a neighbour, Joseph. Joseph's older brother Ochieng' died in 1981 before he was 30 years old, leaving behind three young wives and 'many children' who remained living in their three houses several yards from each other in the same homestead. After one of the co-wives died in 1990, her children stayed in their house and were fed and clothed and disciplined by their 'other mothers'. However, these other two mothers died in 1991 and 1992. Two months after the last wife died, Joseph's father called 'a special meeting' of all of his children who were born to the same mother as Ochieng'. Two of Joseph's sisters, who were married in other villages several hours of public bus transport away, travelled to be present at that meeting. When everyone invited had arrived at the homestead and were seated together, Joseph's lather said to his adult children about his orphaned grandchildren: 'These children of your brother are very young so they cannot stay by themselves and so we must divide them among ourselves and when they are old enough they can return to their home.' (3) Joseph, the eldest remaining brother of this sibling group, said he would take the young boy Michael to live with him and his wife and their four young children. Joseph's brother, who was the youngest of the siblings, did not take any of his orphaned nephews or nieces because he still had many young children of his own and no steady paid work. One of Joseph's married sisters took two of the children and another married sister volunteered to take three of them, while Joseph's father's sister offered to take one child to live with her. Sixteen years after this meeting Joseph made the point that the boy who had been two years old when he brought him to live in his home continues to live in Joseph's homestead. He has allowed Michael to build his bachelor's house (simba) in his homestead because it is Joseph who stands as a father for Michael.

As this example shows, sitting is understood as a special meeting because in seeking to address a particular problem it convenes select individuals who are recognized as having a stake in the outcome. During such a special meeting, sitting and standing both entail explicit communication and arbitration; together they form a deliberate process of holding individuals to account to their group. Such events also, however, run the risk of exposing and exacerbating the fissures and weaknesses among families. The questions of who will show up and who will agree to 'share the burden' (kawo ting') put families to test.

Traditions of sitting and standing

Sitting and standing are not new practices among Luo families in Kenya. Burials have long been important occasions for sitting together, and therefore for the authorization of family members' roles and responsibilities (Cohen and Atieno-Odhiambo 1992; Nyamongo 1999; Prince 2007; Shipton 2007: Geissler and Prince 2010). Many adults in the study village could recollect, from memories stretching back four decades, earlier stories of their families sitting down together to delineate what to do about children orphaned by parents' deaths.

Adult men and women described how, in the event of a father's death, their families had focused primarily on the question of how the widow (or widows in polygamous marriages) might be cared for within the fold of the family, and specifically how levirate, or 'widow inheritance', might be organized. Several widowed women described how their own circumstances were made the subject of family discussion and, in many cases, debate. Sarah, for example, recounted how she was told by her husband's family that they would like her to select one of her deceased husband's agnates to be recognized as her husband. She privately asked one of her deceased husband's cousins, using the phrasing 'Will you stand for me?' ('Ichungn'a?'). The man in turn asked for the permission of his wife. Once all three had agreed, the family was called together. At that gathering, Sarah, the cousin, and his wife were each asked before the group if they agreed to this arrangement. The family members witnessed their assent and voiced their approval. From then on, Sarah said, all of the family recognized that man as her husband, even when she moved away to her privately purchased land. Many other widows' situations were not so harmoniously resolved, and family disagreements resulted in hostilities and estrangements, as described in an example below and in other studies (Prince 2007; Geissler and Prince 2010).

Some adults specified that the same deliberateness of family meetings did not necessarily feature after a woman's death if she was survived by her husband, because her husband would either have other wives or would be expected to marry another woman to help raise the children whose mother had died. Nevertheless, several adults also recounted instances in their histories when their families sat to strategize their response to the consequences of a woman's death. If the deceased woman's husband was still alive, the discussion would centre on how the deceased mother's children would be raised--usually a question of which co-wife or co-wives were best able and willing to take more children into their homes. If the woman's husband was already dead, this meeting would be even more important because deliberate commitments would be sought, specifically concerning which relative would care for any young children and who would provide children's school fees.

What I call 'standing for' relationships are most commonly associated with Luo patronage practices in which one person accepts the dependency of the other in return for accumulation of esteem, prestige or indebtedness (Parkin 1978: 93). Similar concepts of being responsible for another person have been noted among other communities (Bledsoe 1990:74-5; Ferme 2001: 81-5). Somewhat counterintuitively, perhaps, Luo patron--client relationships--or relationships of 'entrustment' as Parker Shipton (2007) prefers to call them--have been evaluated as reinforcing an ethos of sharing and egalitarianism. As Shipton (ibid.) has theorized this connection, the act of helping someone today is embedded in an ideological and practical system of extended reciprocity.

My analysis of 'standing for' relations agrees with this in part. I found there were two types of relationships of responsibility between people in Kanyathi. The first turned on the metaphor of one person bearing the burden constituted by the other's needs. This was often used if a person recognized him- or herself as the obvious and primary carer for a less capable person (such as a young child, or a disabled or ill dependant). For example, a grandmother who lived with two of her deceased sons' children explained to me that 'Akawo ting'gi', which translates as 'I carry the burden.' The phrasing implies a fundamental duty with little room for discretion. As another grandmother explained it, 'If there is no one else, I must accept this duty' (ting' translates as burden, load, duty or responsibility). On the other hand, 'standing for' another person implies a more assertive, voluntary, and benevolent practice of responsibility and care. The distinction is important: whereas bearing the burden of another is linked to what a person sees he or she must do, a 'standing for' relationship is understood to be more optional. Both the kind of support provided, and the category of relative that provides it, are locally regarded as optional. For example, an uncle or aunt paying for a relative's education or providing a plot of land to build on is more optional than a grandmother housing and feeding a grandchild. As a consequence of its more voluntary attribution, a 'standing for' relationship is both more susceptible to appeals to an egalitarian ethos, as well as more readily counted toward the generalized reciprocity of the extended family.

I suggest that it is the complementarity of sitting and standing that is integral to understanding how specific actions enfold with generalized reciprocity. As the cases above and below exemplify, the key relationship is the combination of individual declarations with the group's affirmation. With their emphasis on articulation before a group, sitting and standing as combined events render a decision a performative act; more similar to a vow than a promise (Austin 1962). In what follows, I consider the various elements that contribute to how these acts, performed in combination, serve as critical events in delineating the immediate, as well as the potential, content of families.


Sitting down together after a close family member's death is a derivative of common notions of death and uncertainty of lives in Kanyathi. In an early group discussion among women who know each other well, I described how in my culture soon after a child's birth the child's parents may decide which other adults that child would go to in case of the parents' death and document this in a written will. The women were extremely surprised and laughed awkwardly at the strangeness of this practice. Cornelia took the lead in explaining how such an approach would not work for them:
   In our culture, we do not think about the death of a person who is
   still living. But when one dies those who are left behind sit down
   and decide where the children should go. For example, either they
   can go with their grandmother or they can go to their uncles or to
   their aunties. We did not have in mind that someone will know they
   will die and leave their children. If, however, someone, for
   example, if someone is sick and almost dying, that is when one can
   say: 'My sister, please take my children' or 'My children will go
   to So-and-so'. And what made us not to say where the children would
   go after they are left alone is because, for example, I can say
   that when I die my children will go to my sister but what about if
   my sister dies first, before me? So that is one of the things that
   could not allow us to say where the children will go.

I received a similar reaction from a group discussion with men and in later private conversations several individuals returned to this matter and asked how it could possibly work: ultimately, how could it be useful when no one knows who will die first? Not knowing who will die first is an extremely valid concern among people in Kanyathi. Adult children have died before their elderly parents: people who seemed healthy one week have died quite suddenly the next. There have been many deaths that people cannot explain to their satisfaction and these are often the cause of much (quite private) speculation. Life is not considered predictable and hence, when it can be practised, caution is valued.

Such precaution is what I discern to be motivating the contemporary organization of family meetings. While sitting together as one was customarily organized in response to specific circumstances, such as after a death or before a marriage, today many families are organizing these to occur proactively.

'We are like u society': institutionalizing families
   We are like a society. We meet if there is some misbehaviour or a
   death. We try to meet once a month.... The floor is open to
   everyone so anyone can have their chance to speak.

Today, as George's description above indicates, some families have established their meetings as a regular activity. By comparing his family's organization with a society, George was not referring to a society in the sense of general membership in the same community, but rather an association of members governed by rules, mimicking the practice of a business-oriented society. Families' efforts to institutionalize their practices of meeting are consistent with their interest to be able to respond to challenges experienced among them. Indeed, many such family-based 'societies' have been created in the reflexive aftermath of family crises, usually deaths of adult members, with the explicit purpose of bolstering the families' social and economic unity and cooperation so that they will not be 'defeated' by future crises.

Family members organizing themselves like "societies" is also not a new practice: however the regularization of such societies is a more recent innovation. David Cohen and E. S. Atieno-Odhiambo's study of everyday hie in Slaya, Nyanza Province during the 1970s (1989: 87) notes that Luo clan members would convene meetings for specific purposes, such as raising money for a shared project (for example, a village school), and more commonly clan members would gather in a series of meetings during the period between a death and a burial so as to raise financial contributions among themselves for funeral expenses. Similarly, Shipton (2007: 11) has found in his studies in Nyanza Province since the 1980s that families' savings and loans groups were usually emergency-initiated, as in response to a death for the purpose of fundraising for a burial, while more regularized savings initiatives occurred mainly among small-scale merchants and salaried people in and around towns.

Today in Kanyathi everyone seems to participate in at least one, but usually several, routine savings and loans groups. Some function as a way for people to raise money for special household or business costs. Others serve the explicit role of insuring against personal emergencies, including death. Savings groups of this kind are the societies into which many families have transformed themselves.

Isaiah, my host father in Kanyathi, is the secretary of his clan's burial savings group, their welfare savings group, and their savings and loans group which meet concurrently on one Sunday each month. These three different groups involve the same members but with different degrees of participation. The most regimented and regularly paid-into group by far is the clan's burial savings group. Once a month each member of the clan's burial group is supposed to contribute Ksh 100 (US$1.30) toward his or her own future burial. The purpose of these monthly contributions is for each individual eventually to save Ksh5,000 (US$65). Once this limit has been met, the individual is eligible to take a loan from the group's collective savings that she or he will repay according to an agreed-upon schedule. The Ksh5,000 minimum is set at the price of a basic coffin. This implies that once a particular group member has reached the objective of saving Ksh5,000 his or her coffin is guaranteed. This individual guarantee in turn guarantees that the other costs of his or her burial will be covered by the rest of the members of the clan's burial savings group. If a deceased person had also been contributing to the clan welfare savings group, then whatever amount he or she had contributed to that account should be tripled by other group members' contributions. These are the rules that the members have determined for themselves.

In making one's own contributions the condition for other group members' contributions, these burial societies are formalizing expectations and calculations of reciprocity. In the group's ledger there is a page designated for each member and a list under his or her name of each contribution and the date on which it was made; the bookkeeping is producing explicit reciprocal balance sheets. The purpose of such institutionalized practices is not just to reserve money as burial or emergency insurance. They are also intended to secure relationships, in the present as well as in the unknown future, through demonstrations of individuals being members in good standing.

Being an active contributor to one's own future burial through membership in a burial savings group is a tangible demonstration of an individual's sense of accountability for his or her own welfare as well as the welfare of the group. Advance payments indicate a person's acknowledgement that he or she does not want to cause undue hardship to the group, but also wishes to maintain the right to claim help from the group. As such, the individual is simultaneously proving his or her commitment to the group and consolidating their commitment to him or to her.


Certainly, not all families were equally diligent in their conduct. The absence of a family meeting to discuss orphaned children's living arrangements was often explained as a consequence of poverty. As one man stated: 'Sometimes there is no sitting down because there are no resources. But, of course, small groups may discuss the circumstances together but they will not have a formal meeting of all the family.' Others lamented the practice of relatives leaving a burial ceremony before a meeting can take place to discuss the surviving children. Some adults reasoned that there are so many burials now that it is rare for people to be able to stay for the customary four days. Instead, people come only for one day of a burial ceremony, or one day and one night, and promptly return to their households and work. However, according to other interpretations, some individuals deliberately stay away to avoid being asked to help their relatives. Histories of estrangement and distrust between migrant labourers and their relatives still 'at home' in rural Nyanza have been documented by other researchers (Hay 1982; Cohen and Atieno-Odhiambo 1989: 125; Francis 1995; Morawczynski 2009). In present-day Kanyathi, I found that the absence of certain family members (especially siblings and adult children) from funerals was likened to abandonment. The common understanding was that those who did not come were demonstrating selfishness.

Yet sometimes the absence of a family meeting reflected the assumption that a different custom would be followed, namely the absorption of the care of children among their paternal relatives. Such assumptions have proved faulty in many cases. Failures among paternal relatives to provide care have resulted in some children's deprivation, prompting some children to run away or maternal relatives to intervene. Marion told me of how it came about that her elderly mother was caring for Marion's deceased sister's children:
   At the burial [of the father after the mother's death two years
   before], there was no discussion about the children. The children
   were left at their home [their father's family's homestead], in the
   grandmother's house. The children were not in school and were doing
   odd jobs to help provide. The paternal uncle was living at the same
   homestead with his own children. But this brother and the dead
   brother [children's father] had not got along. So this uncle
   refused to take in the children. Neighbours started sending word
   that these children were not being cared for well. My mother
   [children's maternal grandmother] travelled to her daughter's home
   and requested a discussion about the care of the children. She
   asked the paternal family to let her take the children. She said
   that she was not taking them for good.... Now we have the children
   and we are educating the children. And the children visit their
   home [their father's family's home] and there is no bad feeling.
   They know that they will go back to their [patrilineal] home....
   The children know that their father's home is where their home is.

There is much in this story: how 'tradition' was being followed in leaving the children with their paternal relatives; how neighbours monitored the children's care and took action through sending a message to the maternal family; how a maternal grandmother requested to care for the children temporarily with the assurance that the children would still know 'where their home is' and eventually return to it. But what I choose to emphasize here is how Marion opened with the statement that 'At the burial there was no discussion about the children.' This statement identifies that the absence of discussion about the children was critical to the subsequent problems these children faced. I think that this statement reflects a fundamental distrust that what family members do can be taken for granted, despite long-standing and idealized customary obligations.

This distrust spurs the contemporary endorsement of sitting as the best practice for families to follow. Correspondingly, to talk of sitting as in whether people 'sat' or not--is to make social commentary on the integration or disintegration of families and their preservation of a collective ethic. For instance, at Tufi's family's most recent occasion of sitting together--on the last day of the funeral for one of her cousins--her father's brother, who was the eldest surviving member of her father's family, had solemnly counselled Tufi's siblings and cousins on the importance of their unity. Tufi recounted:
   He told us we must try to keep our unity because this will be very
   important for us. We all felt touched after this and we said to
   each other that we will keep our unity. Everyone felt good about

Such self-conscious pride in actualizing unity or 'togetherness' (riwruok) further underscores how this is conceived of as a deliberate project, and not something that can be taken for granted.

Not all individuals have experienced their families as quite so supportive, however. Eliza's case illustrates the potential for gerontocratic and gendered power relations within families to undermine more egalitarian and collaborative collective action. After Eliza's husband died in 2000, she chose not to take a jater (levir, 'widow inheritor'). One of the elders of the family, Eliza's husband's father's brother, was angry at Eliza for refusing to take a jater and instructed the rest of the family to refuse to help her or her children. Eliza found the rest of her in-laws (who lived on adjacent land) avoided her, even when they saw the deteriorating conditions in which she and her children were living. When the roof of Eliza's house collapsed, she and the children slept under a makeshift shelter attached to a tree. Her children could not stay in primary school because of lack of fees. Eliza judged that the rest of the family was too afraid to defy the old man because he still controlled much of the family's access to land and because he had predicted that her refusal to be 'cleansed' through tero (widow inheritance, in this case implying a new sexual union) would put the rest of the family at risk of misfortune. (4) Eliza turned to the Catholic Church to ask for help, and after several months the congregation helped to build her a new home. A year later, a brother-in-law visiting from Nairobi stated he was ashamed of his uncle's behaviour and he volunteered to pay for a mechanics course for one of Eliza's sons. Since then, a few other relatives had restored friendly and cooperative relations with Eliza. However, others still kept their distance. Eliza said she believes they all feel guilt and shame, especially since neighbours had directly criticized their family for their neglect of Eliza and her children. What impact this particular breakdown in the family's care would have for their future resilience as a group was uncertain: while some relationships were restored, others seemed to have been destroyed.


After listening to the first collection I had gathered of people's accounts of how their families determined what to do about the care of orphaned children, and recognizing from this collection the repeated use of the word for 'sitting' (-bedo), I grew increasingly speculative about whether 'sitting' is an actual concept, or idiom, and in any case what it could mean for social relations and practices. During the course of my research I attended several family meetings, usually as an observer, but also as a participant at a few. The meetings I attended focused on planning funerals, preparing to raise and transfer bridewealth for a wife, and, at the other end of this relationship, preparing for a visit by in-laws to receive their bridewealth for a daughter of the home, organizing the building of new houses for sons and wives, strategizing for the secondary education of a child of the family, and the mediation of a couple's dispute due to the man's infidelity. As well, I attended several burials and several different families" 'society' meetings that were held regularly, usually once a month and hosted at the homes of different members. The more occasional events included kin that lived both near (on adjacent land holdings, for example, often patrilineally inherited) and far (as in cases of female relatives married elsewhere, or male and female relatives working elsewhere). The participation of those who did not live in the immediate area was often very important in the distinction of such gatherings.

Family meetings were experienced as differently as the people and issues that filled them. Some were extremely disciplined bureaucratic affairs presided over by chairpersons, and especially if money was collected, or distributed, or promised--written records were made. Others were less organized gatherings of people who sporadically engaged or avoided engagement--with an issue that someone had voiced for discussion. These latter sometimes felt like cat-and-mouse games during which individuals carefully plotted their next steps. In a few cases, I noticed how such diffident meetings often did not occur in one sitting, but rather were drawn out over hours or days, with many negotiations happening in groupings of two or three people and 'off-stage', for example behind the house while cooking food or on brief walks through the maize fields. Other gatherings, including burials and families' savings group meetings, were often more boisterous affairs that seemed to celebrate being together as much as any more particular purpose. In some of these, a lot more time was spent moving about, dancing, possibly drinking alcohol and telling stories than in sitting and being contemplative.

Yet some common elements were apparent across different families' experiences. Generally, the first step to a family meeting involves the calling together of individuals according to a selective kinship calculus. While a request for a family discussion might be made by anyone, the call for people to participate often required special authority. Most commonly, this meant the endorsement of a senior family member. Another important precondition was the agreement of key individuals to participate. It was common practice for families to negotiate the timing of a meeting to ensure that those from afar could participate, especially if those individuals had access to important resources. For example, a family discussion about what to do with two young children whose father and then mother had died was delayed until an uncle living in Mombasa could take leave from work to travel back to Kanyathi for it. In the end, this proved important: his participation led to his agreement to fund their school fees, while the children stayed in Kanyathi to live with their aunties.

There were also commonalities in the calculus of who was called to sit together. In most cases concerning the care of orphaned children, who was called for a family discussion reflected patrilineal affiliations with additional emphasis on being related 'by blood', which in the local context referred to people sharing the same father and mother. The concern with 'blood' draws important distinctions within polygamous families. The kin considered most directly responsible for fostering orphaned children included the adult siblings born to the same father and mother, as well as that father and mother (in other words, the children's paternal grandparents); that is, 'the people of one house' (joot). More distant relatives, regardless of patrilineal affiliation, were considered less immediately responsible for fostering (Cooper 2011 : 137-43). This meant that many children were fostered into the distant (patrilocal) households of their fathers' married sisters and thus moved away from their patrilineal homes (where children had commonly lived until the death of their parents). In many cases, orphaned children's immediate maternal relatives (siblings and parents to the deceased mother) also fostered children. Such arrangements have been described by other scholars as 'culturally inappropriate' (Nyambedha et al. 2003: 301). On this matter, people in Kanyathi reasoned that there were many cases in the past of maternal families helping to foster children. Furthermore, it was emphasized that the most important thing was to reach an agreement with which everyone could live. However, how living away from patrilineal relatives and land might hurt children's future claims for assistance, and especially sons' claims on family land, was very uncertain. (5)

The above discussion seems to indicate some important gerontocratic and genealogical constraints on families' decision-making processes. However, people described the actual discussions when families sat together as open and encouraging to anyone and everyone present who wished to state their ideas and opinions. According to everyone I asked, the elder family members are listened to for their advice, but they do not make unilateral decisions. During family deliberations over the care of orphaned children, for example, an individual is able to make arguments for why he or she is unable to take children into his or her household. A grandmother may say she is too old to chase children, or a brother may describe his current challenges in providing for his own children without employment and with little land. The group is expected to consider the reasonableness of each person's case and to try to find a resolution that takes everyone's specific circumstances into consideration and metes out a sort of distributed justice. This process is expected to carry on until a consensus can be reached, and the nominated caretakers agree (including the wife of any man who has agreed to take a child into their household), before they make any decisions.

Indeed, it was these negotiated agreements that were considered the strength of the entire process. The process was meant to do more than delineate immediate responsibilities. It was also intended to foster collective stakes in the well-being of the children in question. This proved extremely important in cases where the initial arrangements later had to be adjusted. For example, when Auma's elderly aunt agreed to take the little girl into her home after her mother's death, she told her relatives that she would only do so until Auma reached primary school age. The group acknowledged the aunt's concerns, and when the time came for Auma to start school, she moved to live with another aunt. In another case, an aunt sent word to her brothers to explain that she could not control her adolescent nephew; he kept running away from her home. It followed that the aunt, the boy, and the uncles sat down together and decided it would be best for the boy to return to live at his eldest uncle's home. It seems the initial events of discussing children's circumstances provided important precedents for who should be involved in any future planning of how to proceed.

Certainly, family discussions do not always prove to be opportunities for negotiated agreements, however. Disagreements and disputes can also break out. These may be due to historical grievances over broken reciprocal relationships. As elderly Wilhelmina explained:
   Now when people are thinking about these things [fostering orphaned
   children] there can be some disagreements. For example, a brother
   is dead and one will ask: 'What did he do for me? When my son was
   in school he did not help me much.' And a living one with some
   money will be told by others: 'You're kind with your money, you
   should take them all.' And there is quarrelling.

Wilhelmina summed up the general attitude toward dealing with such conflict:
   Forcing a decision will not work. It will bring more problems.
   There will be resentment. If they cannot agree now, it is better to
   wait until there is agreement. So people will agree to disagree for
   a while and face other decisions later.

If a representative of a particular household refuses to take in orphaned children while other family members judge that his or her household is able to do so, the family does not insist. However, the good character of this individual and his or her household will certainly be tarnished and it is likely that other family members will complain that the individual has a 'bad heart' (chuny marach).

As the foregoing descriptions reveal, people in the study context elucidated many principles that guide how sitting and standing are determined. These include respect for one another, a sense of equity, and a goal of consensus: perhaps all are captured in the Luo phrase 'sharing the burden' (kawo ring'). From these accounts, sitting and standing both seem to represent deliberate and facilitated (often subtly choreographed) occasions where responsibilities for children are cast in terms of the preservation of the family through cooperation and respect for one another as well as for the continuity of the family's lineage. These are cast as ideal moments, even if they are not often experienced as such.

The acquired faculty (habitus) of sitting and standing

This analysis of sitting and standing would not be complete without a discussion of perhaps the most obvious qualities of sitting; those of the body held in place.

'Bed piny' ('Sit down', literally 'sit on the ground'; piny, literally, ground, territory, homeland): (6) these are the familiar words of hospitality after someone has been invited into a house. The majority of houses in Kanyathi only have two or three rooms: a large sitting room which is the room first entered; (7) and to the left of this main room, separated by doors or curtains, one or two bedrooms. The cooking is done in a separate building, usually directly behind the main house, although also sometimes in a bedroom. Most sitting rooms are styled very similarly, and in a style that is common beyond Kanyathi. Chairs and Chesterfields are set against each of the sitting room's four walls so that every sitting person faces the middle of the room, possibly quite near or quite far from the other sitting people depending on the size of the room. There are commonly one or two wooden tables in the centre of the room and often a cabinet standing up against the wall opposite the entrance, which contains the household's dishes, special foods, and many other small things that might be used in the sitting room. From the tops of the walls are hung calendars, posters and framed photographs. Of the dozens of sitting rooms I visited in Kanyathi, there was not one that did not conform to several of these details.

Noting these similarities is relevant because they structure similar interactions in different people's homes. Their regularity makes the protocol of visiting easy to learn and repeat without social blunders. I also think that this conformity of domestic arrangement and style is a reflection of how social conformity is valued generally, and judged by appearances. More importantly, the way the furniture is arranged structures how interactions occur. The arrangement of the furniture and how it is used combines function and custom. Being arranged around the periphery of the room makes it possible for the room to include more chairs--and therefore more people. Yet, according to local custom, not every chair is available to all. Upon entry, visitors are expected to move to the right hand side of the living room (kor ka dhoot, side of the door, or kor budo, side of staying) while the owners and occupants of the house are the people who are supposed to sit next to the door or with their backs against the wall that separates the sitting room from the bedroom (kor nindo, side of sleeping, or kor kamach, side of the fire; sleeping and cooking may both be done in the private room to the left of the sitting room). (8)

Entering a house to sit, the guest makes a concession to the authority of the host. Sitting as a bodily act fixes a person in place and consequently physically enforces a principle of accountability. When held in a seat, it is difficult to evade, and even harder to escape, communication with other people in the room. Nevertheless, I have watched women use the excuse of cooking to move in and out of sitting sessions; they might hover near the back door (leading out to the kitchen), either inside the sitting room or just outside with their head directed to listen in, usually standing or squatting on the ann of a friendly female's nearby chair. This avoidance of sitting is not always due to the demands of cooking, but can reflect a desire not to be directly involved, either because of the issue or because of their preferred role as a private adviser to their husband or other relatives. It can also reflect a woman's acknowledgment of not being a full member of the family that is sitting, without direct obligations and rights. This is especially true of new wives and young or middle-aged widows living among their deceased husband's family.

In sitting, everyone is facing the middle and can therefore easily capture the whole group's attention or watch and listen as someone else speaks. People can be called upon to speak to the group and must speak or refuse to speak by signalling through shrugging body language and a wave of a hand. The oratory that most occasions of sitting and standing demand is important. Eloquence is admired, but so is exactness. Polite and deferential language is the norm, as well as acknowledgment of the good contributions made by others, and evidence of one's commitment to reaching consensus. Post hoc conversations about what was said during a sitting session--and how it was said--were interesting, for even when they occurred just hours or even minutes after sitting, they were done in a remarkably more colloquial type of speech.

I found that it can feel very uncomfortable to be positioned in such a way that pressures active participation. When I asked other people about this they agreed that it can feel uncomfortable because it is difficult to avoid addressing something you do not necessarily want to discuss when you are sitting in the room face to face with others. One such experience occurred one evening in the home where I stayed, yet seemed to demonstrate the efficacy of combining sitting together with the goal of standing for one another.

It can be rare for the everyday members of a household to find themselves sitting together, even in their own sitting room. In Kanyathi, this is only likely to occur with some majority of members in the evenings when they are trying to share the light of one or two kerosene lanterns by which to read and write. This is what I thought was the reason for the coincidence of several of my host family members being together one night in the main house's sitting room. I only realized we were sitting according to my host father's plan when Isaiah reviewed out loud in quite a formal format the recent developments concerning his sixteen-year-old niece Julia's education. He spoke of Julia's good scores in her primary school exams; her offer of a place at a provincial boarding school; the cost of that school; and my earlier suggestion that someone should go to a local charity organization to ask if they were going to continue sponsoring Julia's education as they had during her primary education. Isaiah then turned to me in front of Julia's brothers (Julia was away from home) and asked me what I thought. I was surprised to be put on the spot and felt a bit unnerved because I was not sure what the motivation was in asking me. I quickly assumed this was a way to pressure me to pay the extra school fees. But after I had spoken rather indirectly about the importance of knowing what support might be possible from the charity before we could consider the options, Isaiah called on Julia's eldest brother, Omondi, who was with us on a rare visit from a distant urban centre, to state his thoughts. In listening to how Isaiah expressed his deferral to Omondi as Julia's eldest brother, I realized this discussion was not only Isaiah's tactic to recruit my commitment to Julia's education, but also to impress on Omondi an expectation for his commitment and contribution. Indeed, Isaiah stated with relative formality that he would not be living forever and so it was important for all of the family to think together ('Wariwore e paro', 'Let's be together in thinking') about the future of young Julia, and as Omondi was the eldest of Julia's siblings, he must help to make decisions about Julia. Perhaps Omondi also felt uncomfortable at being put on the spot, but he spoke well, stating his recognition of his responsibility in sharing family authority with Isaiah. Julia's cousin and brother were also sitting in the room with us, but did not speak until at the end of the discussion when each person said out loud that we seemed to have a good plan to proceed. This exchange certainly felt like Isaiah's deliberate way of trying to enlist Omondi's and my commitments to be accountable for Julia's future education, and to make more explicit the family's growing expectations for Omondi. Although ostensibly coincidental, this moment of sitting and thinking together actualized an explicit demonstration of the family's constitution and shared purpose.


This article has described how people in Kanyathi consider sitting together and standing for one another as the ideal ways for families to address specific challenges to their integrity. These practices have antecedents that people can use to justify them as traditions, and in the current context they seem to prove themselves particularly efficacious in meeting emergent and sometimes sudden--demands with flexible responses. Moreover, I suggest that the eventfulness of sitting and standing not only produces tangible outcomes. It also enables the production and reproduction of social consensus concerning the meaning of family (Bourdieu 1996).

I perceive the combination of the events of sitting and standing as critically important practical and symbolic work. By accepting to be present and fixed in place before others, through sitting in a chair or on the ground, in someone's home, an individual uses his or her body to communicate his or her membership in the group and willingness to cooperate with the group. The seemingly simple act of sitting works as a very effective symbol of unity with, and accountability to, the group. It is an expression of openness to the consequences of sustaining a relationship with this group. And the potentiality of being in that place includes that one may be asked to stand for another, and therefore take practical action on behalf of the symbolic entity of the family.

My argument then is that while the purposes of sitting and standing are usually immediately pragmatic, such as determining how to provide care for several orphaned children, their eventfulness also actualizes something greater than the sum of these parts. Beyond the practical accounting of particular terms and conditions--which may be highly significant for individuals' interests sitting and standing prove themselves as critical events in the way that Veena Das (2007) defines: they are different from everyday transactions because in combination they crystallize the 'thing-ness' of family, solidarity and sharing, or as this is better translated from Dholuo: togetherness (riwruok).

The motive in all of this quite self-conscious and deliberate institutionalization of what families do seems to be to fix families, in terms of their particular relationships and their enduring reciprocities. I use the term 'fixing' to connote both repairing something so that it may realize a previous integrity and to connote the securing of an attachment. I think that both uses of the term are pertinent to how people in Kanyathi have regarded their efforts, although they are not terms I have translated from local language usage.

In summing up his own family's history, one young orphaned man offered me the equivocal description that 'When the relationships are distant, people can decide to help or not.' In Kanyathi, whether extended kin would help to care for orphaned children was highly contingent on conflations of kinship genealogies, practical circumstances, and individuals' 'hearts', all of which were experienced as changeable. The outcomes of such combinations were, above all else, uncertain.

It seems there are two interrelated facets of life that people in Kanyathi believe have become deleteriously detached to the point of needing to be fixed to ensure family solidarity. First, there seems to be a profound uncertainty about the existence of a shared morality. I believe that the institutionalization of sitting and standing practices is an attempt at preventing sudden and difficult moments of loss such as a parent's death--from being experienced as moments of 'moral breakdown' (Zigon 2007). In this, the normalization of sitting and standing as what families do is meant to pre-empt questions of what a family's response to an unexpected challenge, such as orphanhood, should be. Families sitting together and family members standing for one another serve to open important space for the moral life of kinship to matter. These practices are mobilized by moral discourse and in turn hold opportunities for those with less obvious (that is, economic) power to assert their claims upon others through the language of kin morality. In this, there is potential for some family members to use the moral logic of kinship to bridge across widening economic, social, and physical separations.

Second, and central, to this effort in shifting the experiential field from one of improvisational--and uncertain--ethical moments to normative morality is the fixing of trust among the individuals. Sitting and standing serve to fix trust among individuals through rendering their relationships obvious and accountable to themselves. As this article has described, this occurs through creating opportunities for individuals to become increasingly familiar with one another through face-to-face meetings, which might be conceptualized as 'facework commitments' (Goffman 1955; Giddens 1990: 80-8). And in many cases, trust was even more explicitly monitored through keeping account of individual members' reciprocal balance sheets (as in the bookkeeping of burial savings groups).


The tenacity of kinship is a very difficult fact of life to explain, particularly when its fragility is often starkly exposed. People's lives in Kanyathi are replete with stories of disenchantment with their kin as well as enduring hope for them. In a context of enduring demographic and economic uncertainty, some people in Kanyathi have appropriated particular acts in efforts to tip the balance so that the tenacity of their families is clearly demonstrated and consequently persuasive and reinforcing. Specific events, which bring people into direct contact and communication, like burials and family meetings, have proved integral to the designation of specific responsibilities, such as fosterage and school fee payments, for orphaned children.

Moreover, the eventfulness of occasions of sitting and standing matter because these hold the potential to establish consensus on the existence and meanings of things, such as who is responsible for whom and how. In this, events prove extraordinarily influential, as Das (2007: 8) distinguishes: 'boundaries between the ordinary and the eventful are drawn in terms of the failure of the grammar of the ordinary by which I mean that what is put into question is how we ever learned what kind of object something like grief, or love, is'. Some people in Kanyathi have deliberately insisted upon the manifestation of family events to establish a 'grammar', or a set of conventions, for kin-based care and reciprocity.

Yet, while sitting and standing are acknowledged and increasingly esteemed as opportunities to gain some sense of control over situations marked by uncertainty and ambiguity, their practice is far from uniform among families in Kanyathi, and further afield. There are many families that have experienced further fragmentation and attendant uncertainty. In reflection of this risk, sitting has also assumed normative discursive relevance it is what families should do. I suggest, therefore, that respect for this logic is key to understanding how families are proving able and willing, or not, to care for orphaned children.

doi: 10.1017/S0001972012000320


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(1) Kanyathi is a pseudonym assigned to try to maintain the confidentiality of individuals cited in the research. All names of individuals in this article are also pseudonyms.

(2) If Dholuo speakers wish to communicate that they are just sitting without seeking to resolve a particular issue (for example, perhaps they are just resting), they say 'Wabedobedo' which translates as 'We are sitting, just sitting'. Distinct from the act of sitting together to work out a response to a specific problem is the practice of budho ('sitting without doing anything') which refers to an aspect of the mourning period in which people are supposed to stay within the deceased person's compound without doing any worthwhile work (Shiino 1997).

(3) The youngest children were biologically fathered by distant male relatives to Ochieng', who acted as the widows' 'inheritors' (joter). However, the children were socially recognized as the children of Ochieng'. The joter were not invited to the meeting that Joseph's father called.

(4) According to one set of Luo customary beliefs, widows are dangerous to others before they are 'cleansed' through levirate, which in some cases emphasizes a widow's sexual union with a jater and/or other symbolic rites such as sharing a meal. For a more detailed analysis, see Geissler and Prince (2010: Chapter 8).

(5) My research included several cases of young men who had returned 'home' from living away from their paternal relatives and consequently experienced challenges over the legitimacy of their claims on the family, and especially its land (Cooper 2011: 134-5: Chapter 6).

(6) The concept of piny is extremely significant to Luo identities, merging social, cultural and political meanings (Parkin 1978: 235-6; Cohen and Atieno-Odhiambo 1989: 31-5; Geissler and Prince 2010: 44-5).

(7) The Dholuo word for door is dhoot which literally translates as 'mouth of the house', conjuring the idea that a person who enters is ingested by the house.

(8) Geissler and Prince (2010: 304) also describe how social interactions within the house are structured by the association of different sides of the house with relative degrees of intimacy with the house owners.

ELIZABETH COOPER is an Assistant Professor at the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. This article is based on research conducted for her doctorate in social anthropology from the University of Oxford. Email:
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