Kinship: The effects of migrating to the West on Luo kinship and tradition

In our second year Kinship: Comparative & Contemporary Studies module, students are introduced to key theories and debates in the anthropological study of kinship. This week, our featured essay is by Tiffany Ayieko.
Tiffany’s bio: After two years of Anthropology, both biological and social, I’ve fallen more for social anthropology – although the biological discipline still fascinates me, which could possibly explain my interest in researching hair, its agency and how it is we use our bodies beyond their intended purpose.

Growing up with a Luo mother and father in the U.K. allowed me to experience what I always considered the best of both worlds. I grew up with two sets of traditions: from sharing meals on bamboo mats on the floor to roast dinners at the table on Christmas day or how I was taught to regard every one of my parents’ friends as auntie or uncle and their children as my cousins,which effectively blurred the lack of consanguinity. However, even with additional bonuses, the effects of migration on my family became evident in a few cases:the sudden deaths of my uncles,the seperation of my parents, and events following the birth of my siblings. I will discuss the effects of migration on Luo tradition and how being raised almost 7,000 miles away from my extended family was worth a lot less than being able to celebrate Western holidays. For the sake of formatting and clarity, a reduced version of my family tree is above and the tree in its entirety is pasted below. The detail above includes those mentioned in my essay.

I believe it is important to note that my mother is Muslim and my father is Christian and that even though religions like Islam and Christianity tend to have dominion over localtradition, tradition is still highly favoured and valued as a practice in Luo or any Kenyan tribe today. My mother, father and brother had all moved to London by the time of my birth, putting my immediate family (dad, mom, Hannah, Jerome, Loreen, Kennedy) and I considerabledistance away from anyone else in my extended family. Upon hearing of my parents’ separation, one of my mother’s family’s biggest concerns related to her chances of remarrying and what this would mean for her spirit. Luo women typically stay in their deceased husband’s family’s home(Potash 1986) and those who try marrying again outside their husband’s kin system are labelled ‘bad mothers’(Cline 1995), mainly because the children wouldn’t be allowed to leave with them; if my family had never left Kenya, she would have had no guaranteed burial place. (Although this applies primarily to widows, events of divorce are extremely rare and frowned upon.)However, as a Muslim, my mother can be buried in a Muslim cemetery; thus, while in Kenya local tradition tends to trump religion, my mother’s move to the U.K. has eliminated her family’s worries on this front, while also ensuring accordance with her beliefs.

My mom’s prioritising of her faith over Luo tradition is an uncommon occurrence in Luo tribes, although it is common for people to emphasise whatever will better suit them in the given situation, i.e.,choosing to side with what is lawful rather than what is traditional if the outcome better meets their needs. In Kenya, following the separation of my mother and father (divorce, if they had remained in Kenya) my mom would have had to leave my brother and I behind,earning her the label of bad mother(Cline 1995). This never happened for her because my parents split while in the U.K. and my mother was lawfully granted custody over us both. Though my mom is a Luo and tradition states she give us over, she is also Muslim, meaning she follow the laws of the land she is in, and the law was on her side. If she had been in Kenya this wouldn’t be the case as most divorces aren’t lawfully bound and children would remain in the home they were raised, whether the mother was there or not.

My mom experienced life threatening complications during and following the birth of my older brother Kennedy. She gave birth in the village after a very strenuous pregnancy, involving farm workand household dutiesessentially continuing with her normal way of living. This lack of knowledgeregardingthe complications this degreeof physical stress can placeupon a mother and her baby isn’t uncommon in Luo culture. Failure to diagnose and treat complications brought about by pregnancy contributes to the high maternal morbidity rates in non-Western countries (Nangendo 2006). Following her move to the U.K., my mother was taken through what she believed to be very intimate and very involved care from midwives, nurses and doctors in the months leading up to my birth. Although still expected to care for my brother full-time while my dad worked, she received contrasting advice from medical professionals,which she believed to be the main contributor to what she described as my easy birth. Thirteen years later, after the birth of my brother Jerome, my mother had little to no fear of the childbirth process because of the ease she experienced with my birth. Her experience with Kennedy made her expect the worst from childbirth to the point where she found the process to be easy, realising how much more difficult Luo tradition makes a process which is already difficult to begin with. Post-birth rituals like the burial of placenta and the need forchildbirth blood tobeshed on the father’s land affirm the requirementfor the birth to take place in the home (Nandango, 2006).

In the case of my brother Jerome, his father and my mother never married and separated before his birth, so the certainty of his permanency and authority is in question,just like my impermanency and vulnerability (Kibiti, 1996) due to the placenta we were birthed from not being buried in our fathers’ homesteads. There are instances where my mother notices my more authoritative attitude, from my quiet cries as a baby to my independent attitude as a child,versus my brothersmaintained dependency on her from birth till now. Shebelieves thesepersonality differencesare the effects of giving birth in the U.K andthefailure to bury the placenta. But these instances could arise from our living in the West,presenting cases where modernity in the form of feminism could have positively influenced our views on our roles in our family(though it is necessary to point out this could only arise in later stages of our development, not infancy). Conversely, my step-mom did have the chance to burymy sisterHannah’s placenta on my father’s land because he bought a house in the U.K.;however,the complications that arose during Hannah’s birth made the placenta unfit to leave the hospital, leading to its disposal there – although I am unsure whether my dad and step-mom would have taken it, given the option.

Following the death of my Uncle Malachi, Luo tradition states that my uncle’s wifemarry my dada tradition practiced amongst Luos:the levirate marriage is the marriage between the deceased husband’s brother and his widow (Potash, 1986). The deceased husband’s family do not generally like the widow to remarry outside of the lineage to ensure the deceased’s property remains in the family and doesn’t fall into the line of an outsider (Ntozi, 1997). While my family uphold many of the main Luo traditions, it wasn’t the case with this one. A combination of modernity and migration could have played a part in my family’s refusal to uphold this tradition. At the time, my parents hadn’t separated and though this wouldn’t have made my father any less available to marry my aunt, his living in the UK might have.My dad’s living in the U.K. at the time,along with a lack of travel documents and finances, made it extremely difficult for him to formally request my aunt’s hand in marriage; instead, he resortedto taking care of my aunt and cousins financially in every way possible (Ntozi 1997). Though my parents had already had Kennedy before moving to U.K. and having me, my father decided after getting settled here that it would be nice for them to get married, making this one of the first instances of them realising the effect migration would have on their usually simple traditions. The marriage wouldn’t be seen as legitimate traditionally if my dad didn’t present my Babu with cattle, meaning my brother and I are seen as children of my father’s mistress or girlfriend rather than of his partner or wife.

While it is easy to list all the effects moving the U.K. has had on my upbringing and the consequences it has had on my Luo family, I mustn’t overlook the less traditional drawbacks. I missed out on having cousins in the consanguineal sense, always explaining that those at church who I call my cousins are ‘just like family’. I’ve missed out on having my grandparents around, only watching others’ experiences and not understanding how they’re so close and them not understanding how I go years at a time without seeing mine. I couldn’t really make my kinship diagram without a lot of help from both of my parents, deciding to forgo adding my cousins’ children, my step-mom’s family, my mom’s half-siblings and their children– partly for space, partly due to relevance,but mostly because there are some even my mom doesn’t know. After analysing the effects growing up in the U.K. has had on my upbringing, it has become blatantly obvious it has had more of an affect on my parents,who have had to raise children in a foreign country, away from family and familiarity.

Only having just entered my twenties, I am yet to experience the real effects living the U.K. could have on my life. I am yet to be marriedcould marrying someone outside of the Luo tribe or even someone who wasn’t of Kenyan or East African descent cause problems? Will they be willing to uphold some of the main traditions? Would I be willing to? Would this in some way distance me even further from my extended family? Would I be subject to decision making that could bring repercussions on the rest of my expansive family? While my essay in no way dented the long list of my unfinished kinship diagram,it touched on the elements directly applicable to Luo kinship systems and highlighted the ways in which migration has brought about issues in my family and even how modernity has affected itin terms of my mother choosing where to be buried and marrying after splitting from my father, even while most would consider her unmarriageable. The effect migration has on Luo kinship and tradition is only so penetrable and I’m sure my life and those of my siblings will layout a clear picture of the effects this can and will have.



Cline, S. (1996) Lifting the Taboo: Women, Death and Dying. New York City: New York University Press.

Potash, B. (1986) Widows in African Societies: Choices and Constraints.Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press. 

Ntozi, J. P. M. (1997) Widowhood, remarriage and migration during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Uganda. Health Transition Review. 7(2): 125-144. 

Kibiti, R. N. (1996) Culture and gender. Mila: A Journal of the Institute of African Studies, 1: 60–73. 

Nangendo, S. M. (2006) Factors Affecting the use of modern prenatal and maternity services in Got Agulu Sub-location, Western Kenya. African Study Monographs. 27(4): 145-156. 

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