Turkana's harsh punishment for 'Mpango wa Kando'

A group of Turkana Women
  A group of Turkana women    Photo: Lucas Ng'asike/Standard

Research has shown that HIV prevalence is higher in marriages or among couples in stable relationships due to infidelity.

The vice appears to have been legalised through the phrase mpango wa kando (literally, “side arrangement” in reference to keeping a mistress), a practice that has gained currency among couples.

But the opposite is true among pseudo-pastoral Turkana people inhabiting the scorched area of north-western Kenya, thanks to potent cultural beliefs that have defied modernity.

While the HIV prevalence rate in the larger Turkana stands at 9.2 per cent, according to the National Aids and STI Control Programme, in rural areas, the rate is at 3.7 per cent, thanks to culture.

There, mpango wa kando is akin to having a death wish on one’s head as there are cultural practices to detect the vice.

Picture this: Lokol (not his real name), a traditionally married Turkana man, normally returns home after a three-month absence as he works away from the village.

Whenever he returns, he receives a warm welcome from his wife and children.

On this particular day, however, as he was settling down at home, the unexpected happened. He started nose bleeding, something he had not suffered for a long time. Similarly, the children started to nose bleed. His goats too, suffered. Instead of walking on their fours, the animals dragged themselves around on their rumps.

His wife, Ekuut (not her real name),  was married with all the requisite Turkana rituals. Though guilt-stricken, she feigned bravery, hoping all would end well as she denied any wrongdoing.

Desperate, Lokol sought the intervention of clan elders.

Cornered and numbed by a deep sense of guilt, Akuut owned up before the elders to having broken her marriage vows.

“Yes,” she admitted tearfully, “I had an adulterous relationship during my husband’s absence.”

“Who is the man involved in this abomination?” exploded one elder, prompting Ekuut to bury her face in her palms.

She burst into sobs, crying loudly as she stammered out her lover’s name. No sooner had she pronounced the name than her husband and children’s nose bleeding stopped and the animals walked normally.

“The ignominy does not end with the woman’s admission,” explains Achoto Alakwe, a mother of seven who was married traditionally almost four decades ago.

Alakwe says a lot has changed from the days when the male culprit was speared dead and his lover condemned to die in shame without ever getting married again. “She was a condemned woman, avoided like a leper,” says Alakwe

Today, however, that no longer happens.

Alakwe, fingering her treasured beads and copper bracelet, says: “The male culprit’s family is drawn into the fray with a heavy fine in the form of a male camel for the purposes of cleansing. Camels are expensive.”

To exact maximum punishment on both the culprits, the camel is first taken to drink water to its fill and graze before it is speared dead by the disgraced man. Then the adulterers are forced to carry the heavy offal around the home they defiled by their abominable act, scooping the warm, wet dung with their bare hands and sprinkling it about uttering the words: “This is the home we defiled, this is the house we abused.”

Any dithering attracts vicious whipping with spiked sticks. The punishment witnessed by the entire village culminates in confiscation of the man’s livestock while the woman is thrown out of her matrimonial home, never to return.

“She is denied access to her children and cannot remarry. Any children she bears thereafter are placed in her husband’s custody.”

Chief Margaret Lomosingo of Lodwar township location in Turkana confirms Alakwe’s tales. Margaret is the first Turkana woman to rise to the position of a chief.

Alakwe’s is the living example of a strong Turkana marriage as depicted by her outfit comprising a heavy circle of beads on her neck (ng’akoroma) and a copper bracelet (ng’irsai) that symbolises the clan and age of the marriage.

Alakwe, who proudly confesses total faithfulness to her husband, says her dowry included 400 camels, 50 cows and 30 goats and sheep from her husband’s five kraals. A wooden item known as ebela from the root of a certain tree was given to her for keeping and attracts a fine from any man other than her husband who dares touch it.

“I have returned to my parents’ home only five times since my I got married, first for a ceremonial reception after I gave birth to my first child. ”

Subsequent returns are dictated by events such as death and are not usually accompanied by ceremonies save for the carrying of a calabash of water.

Her hair has never been shaved since she got married because traditionally, a married woman’s head is shaved only when her husband dies. A respectable married man is buried wrapped in a goat’s hide in the centre of his goat pen.

Says Margaret: “Apart from losing her prized hair, a widow must also shed her beads and chain, save for one with a white string of beads. Instead of the ebela acquired on her marriage, the widow now carries a forked stick. There is no mistaking her new status.”

The last cleansing ceremony to forget the deceased can be performed after a year or so, releasing the widow to be inherited by her favourite in-law.

Inheritance outside the clan is not allowed.