Chira and Cleansing in Luo Spirituality
A man was not allowed under any circumstances to see his mother-in-law’s nakedness, not even viewing her corpse.
Culture and spirituality, in Luo cosmology, are intertwined in a practical way. An infraction on one has a direct effect on the other. Our ancestral spirits, juogi — a conglomeration of family, home, village, and elemental spirits — are considered cosmic guardians. Juogi are vested in the wellbeing of Luos, living and in the afterlife, through reincarnation or passing on certain skills and abilities. A traditional healer possessed spirits of healing, and upon his death, the spirits ‘’fell on’’ his next of kin, to ensure continuity in the lineage and community.
Ancestral spirits brought blessings to the people and mete punishment to those who deviate from cultural norms, through chira, best understood as the immediate consequences of cultural transgression. I use the term transgression and not taboo, because chira is a consequence of taboo. Chira, broadly, is any act violating cultural norms. Where norms and laws were not observed then the juogi are obligated to send their enforcers, otherwise known as chira, to bring back order in the social system. Among ajuoke (Luo diviners and healers), chira are the ‘’askaris’’ of juogi.
Chira presented as illnesses that were tough to cure, or had no cure at all. A person afflicted of chira lacked appetite for foods favoured by juogi, showed dryness of skin even with hydration and moisturisation, and exhibited an excessive need to sunbathe at sunrise and sunset. Some cases manifested as stubborn skin diseases bearing pus and/or blood, infertility and, in many cases, led to death. The cleansing of the afflicted was the role of traditional healers. Each transgression or taboo had a specific cleansing regimen. Minor transgressions were handled by jathieth (healer) using ‘manyasi (herbal concoctions). Major ones were handled by ajuoga through specific misango, usually animal sacrifice.
Taboos were actions seen as unconscionable to Luo sensibilities. Their severity was by implication rather than direct contravention of laws. The Luos had a specific order and hierarchy to be followed when conducting family affairs. These could range from a man tero (inheriting) his deceased younger brother’s wife, a junior wife planting the first crop at the expense of the elder one, or a man sleeping with his junior wife prior to the planting of the first crop instead of mikayi, the elder wife. Cleansing in the above taboo cases, involved ingestion of manyasi immediately to subvert impending chira.
A man was not allowed under any circumstances to see his mother-in-law’s nakedness, not even viewing her corpse. When my maternal grandmother passed away in 2016, my father led the delegation from Migori to Ugenya for the burial. Strangely, during the function, he kept a safe distance from her casket. He later was explained to me, and the moral questions behind the taboo. I am named after my maternal grandmother. As a child, my mother regaled me with tales of how I would pull rank on my father since I was 6 years old as his maro, mother-in-law. Maro ranks highly in Luo culture, dead or alive. When the maro you are named after dies, their spirit fully rests in you, and you embody their gifts and qualities.
Major transgressions required elaborate cleansing ceremonies. Misango, animal sacrifice, was officiated by ajuoga, to cleanse not just the person, but the clan and larger community and rid it of bad spirits linked to the transgressive act. In Luo culture, spilling of blood is feared and avoided because of chieno, where the spirit of the dead comes back to haunt and punish their killer. Murder or spilling another’s blood, within the home, whether intentional or by accident, automatically provoked chira.
In 1995, a year after my eldest brother died, word reached us that a known villager had run mad and died from chieno. In the heat of hysterics, he ran around his home screaming how my brother along with another deceased relative of ours were constantly chasing him. He died soon after. It was poetic justice. Had he recognized his transgressions, the chira could have been averted through misango to cleanse the killer and protect the land from the angry spirit of the dead.
Angry spirits cannot stand black animals and will immediately be exorcised from a person. The sacrifice of a black animal be it a goat, cow, sheep, or chicken is preferred. In the case of chieno, a black sheep is highly recommended over other animals. If a black goat is sacrificed, for instance, a particularly stubborn spirit might leave but still return through dreams to make more demands. In severe circumstances, even after misango the murderer is additionally required to marry and name the child that will be born after the deceased as an act of appeasement.
Ancestral spirits cannot abide are promiscuity, followed closely by theft, and greed. Promiscuity provokes chira, when it breaks people’s marriages. Juogi welcomes a man with many wives if he has followed traditional procedure, and followed the customs of doho, polygamy, and the place of the wives, whether mikayi (first wife), nyachira (second wife), reru (third wife), or nyachiando (fourth wife). Such a man is seen as a paragon of virtue and propriety, unlike the man who has many partners out of wedlock, especially those running around with other men’s wives.
Herbal treatments were prescribed and mixed by the healers for minor transgressions, but with a special caveat. Manyasi cannot be comprised of herbs alone. It must be mixed with what caused the affliction so that the chira itself can be completely cleansed with the herbs, even as they are ingested; anything less puts the afflicted at risk of death. What caused chira must be taken to the healer. If it is promiscuity, a small piece of the bed cover or whatever was lain on must be taken to the healer for incorporation into the herbal remedy. If one is unable to eat certain food they had liked before, they must bring a piece to the healer to mix with the herbs.
Luo culture was highly organised and morality systems were structured to maintain order and discipline in the community. Punishments were proportional crimes and infractions, all with the aim of cleansing and rehabilitating transgressors before re-integration into the society.