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Social Networks and Contraceptive Use Among the Luo: A study of fertility, gender equality, and cultural change

Samuel Chereskin June 16, 2009

For: Professor M. Dietler Department of Anthropology University of Chicago


Social Networks and Contraceptive Use Among the Luo A study of fertility, gender equality, and cultural change

Abstract: This paper is about the cultural and social mechanisms that influence contraceptive use among the Luo men and women of the Nayanza province of southwestern Kenya. The Luo are a historically polygamous people that strongly emphasize patriarchy. Their social structure is built around large familial units, and Luo identity is communally constituted. Families traditionally have many children. However, a variety of influences that have emphasized the economic and cultural practicality of small families have been challenging this tradition. Contemporary iterations of these pressures have endorsed the licit use of contraceptives. Modern family planning via clinical birth control is still not completely accepted among the Luo however. It has been largely viewed, suspiciously, as a western cultural import that undermines traditional avenues to social standing in Luo society. Due to these, and other, culturally salient misgivings those Luo who have decided to practice family planning did so via the personal choices of the individuals in conjugal partnerships. This emphasis on individuality contradicts most anthropological discussions of the Luo that tend to center on the communal aspects of family life, and not individual preference – especially that of women. This paper addresses qualitative and quantitative data about the nature of fertility decisions and the use of clinical contraceptives to show that individual actors make decisions with large cultural ramifications. That said, personal preference in the contraceptive debate has been shown to spread and be influenced by the preferences of small contact networks. It is the position of this paper that the communal aspect of Luo identity causes the reconstitution of personal preference into the more culturally salient aggregates. Little spoken of, these social networks, in this case specifically among women, constitute staging grounds for the recommunialization of personal preference. Introduction An egalitarian polygamous patriarchy, the Luo have experienced a relatively high degree of political and social isolation. This isolation was both incidental and imposed. It has contributed to the perception of Luo culture—especially the character of family and role of fertility—as resilient to outside cultural influence. Studies of about contraceptive use among the Luo however suggest that this is just not the case. As an egalitarian group fundamentally based around extended familial units, discussions of family planning are tantamount to discussions about altering the fabric of Luo society. The presence of debates about contraceptive use and licit


curbing of fertility rates is a historically constituted phenomenon that suggests that Luo society is in a point of profound cultural transition. Fertility decline among residents of Nayanza Province, Kenya, has been substantial. Total fertility in the region has fallen from 8.1 children per woman, as recorded in the 1978 World Fertility Survey, to 5.4 as seen in the 1993 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (Rutenberg 1997: 290). As alluded to above, the decline is due to a complex confluence of external factors that have exerted themselves on and amongst Luo society during the long century from approximately 1895 to the present 1. This transition towards fertility decline is not made by broad strokes and a centralized decision to change reproductive behavior. Individual women have chosen to limit the number of children they have. The external origins of this decision are apparent in how the choice to practice modern family planning today is part of a political and economic rationale that a large family is impractical. But political and economic concerns within southwestern Kenya are reflective of policies, ideas, and the macroeconomics of Kenya as part of a world system; the pressures, and indeed the very idea of clinical contraceptives, are not native to Luoland. Colonial and postcolonial exposure to the Western small family ideal created a perceivable progressive bias towards small family size (Watkins 2000: 733). The colonial period also necessarily expanded the level of contact the Luo had with other parts of established Kenya, and the British, in ways that will be described later, instituted policies that engendered intergroup competition. In this period and the period after independence, formal education was raised 1

The date given is the beginning of British direct rule over the East African Protectorate in 1895. British explorer John Speke is given credit for ‘discovering’ Lake Victoria, connected to present day Nayanza province, in 1858. 1895 however provides a more proximal bearing on when British colonial rule started to establish political dominion over Kenyan territories and started to govermentalize and rationalize the social, cultural, and political groups within their colonial bounds. These forces, exerted by the British, provide a multitude of the preconditions that led to the current state of fertility decline among the Luo in Southwestern Kenya. 3 of 17


to importance as the silver bullet that could lead to Luo economic and social advancement. This conception expanded immediately after the end of British colonialism; independence spread a climate of hope, progressivism, and self-determination across the country, and the education of Kenyan youth was a central aspect of the national agenda. The education of one’s children became an utmost concern, and the economic pressures of educating many children too added pressures to reduce fertility rates (Watkins 2000: 734). Kenyan economic stagnation in the interconnected neoliberal world system, and persistently high unemployment levels for even secondary school graduates, has largely quelled the optimistic rationale that followed independence. But the economic lag has, for different reasons, continued to promote smaller family sizes. Many no longer perceive the feeding and education of a large family as economically viable. This stands in opposition to the spoken testimony of elder Luo community members. Often testimonials state that a large family was the path to social and economic standing in Luo culture, and that previous periods were abundant with material provision. By these accounts Luo marital structure, wedding rites, and fertility were the means of economic advancement, and large families were a central part of this social structure (Evans-Pritchard 1950: 139; Watkins 2000: 729). That said, historical comparison of these testimonies to records of draught have led some researchers to believe that such periods of plenty never existed. Their persistence in saying that large families were easily fed, and the route to economic advancement through the transfer of bridewealths, seems to be an extrapolation of tradition from a rigid social conception of Luo social identity that used sporadic empirical examples—how at any given point, regardless of economic or environmental factors there will be a family who is both large

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and prosperous—to fit the mold of a fictitious cultural tradition that may never have existed (Watkins 2000: 730). The introduction of an open economic system, externally imposed on the Luo and separate from traditional notions of cattle accumulation as wealth, has emphasized the economic practicality of smaller family sizes (Watkins 2000: 735). Luo society—in appreciating the effects, if not the causes, of these systemic changes to the livelihoods of its members—has started challenging the some of its deeply rooted cultural norms, and is still taking further steps towards fertility decline. Analysis of how this cultural change is happening within Luo culture exposes the basic but necessary point that Luo culture is currently subject to outside influence in ways it never has been before. The point of this paper however is how contraceptive use among the Luo elucidates the interesting ways in which individual reactions to external pressures read as choices to change, and how they are then incorporated into larger community aggregates and cultural shift. It should be emphasized that the idea that profound cultural change due to women’s private preference is extraordinary in Luo culture. Indeed, individual choice based only on personal preference—and individual cost-benefit analysis—is inherently atomistic. And that individuals, let alone individual women, can change the nature of this communal patriarchy is noteworthy. But it is the social mechanisms by which these women are changing the current face of Luo culture that is of supreme interest to this paper. Studies have shown (Rutenberg 1997, Watkins 2000) that these decisions are greatly influenced by the communal preference of social networks to which the individuals belong. These social networks are not clandestine, but their dialogs about contraception are private. They

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are not necessarily the same as the familial networks these women are a part of, or at least do not have to incorporate the whole of it. Rather they are networks created through contact and realworld understanding that the experiences of the each member are similar to those of the rest. They include co-wives, workers that a woman may have regular contact with, a friend, etc. Much as men have egalitarian forums in Luo society in which to discuss individual preference and choice, women it seems too have, however covert, forums for the communalization of individual choice. It is the position of this paper that these social networks, of both genders, are the fundamental staging grounds for large cultural change in Luoland, and that they are the grounds by which individual opinion is recommunalized and by which, even in patriarchal societies, women can affect profound transformation. It will be explained that these social networks are fundamental components of Luo community life. They are built-in channels by which individual preference becomes community preference, and it happens in real time. This paper is about mechanisms. It will be established that the rigorous nature of Luo collective identity makes cultural transition through personal choice and the recommunalization process fundamentally different than similar transitions in other cultural strata. The historically constituted social dynamics of Luo relations, both with other Luo and with external cultural groups, make the choice to act against norms a quasi-political venture. Social networks are, as always, the basis for the proliferation of new grass-roots conceptions of behavior and thought; but in the Luo case they act as self-aware political platforms where personal preference is aggregated and communalized. These networks act as a bridge, a unique staging ground that cognizantly exists in the social middle space—and power dynamics—between nebulous, often

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western, ideas of cultural adjustment due to individual preference, and concerted community based action towards socio-cultural shift. Luo Communal Identity & A Working Definition of ‘Politics’ Luo personal and political identity is communally constituted. Luo society is based on an egalitarian system (among males) that emphasizes familial ties and the importance of kin groups (Barbieri 2005: 620). Extended family groups inhabit communal lands in southwestern Kenya. These familial units were, before British colonization and the introduction of monetary exchange, were the basis for the accumulation and transfer of wealth and social standing (EvansPritchard 1950: 139; Watkins 2000: 727). Elaborate marriage rites were the primary mode of transfer of wealth—via bridewealths paid in cattle—and large families were seen as the channel to a vibrant economy and the possibility of social furtherment (Watkins 2000: 727). Both the economic incentives, and the polygamous rites themselves served to create large, cohesive, social bodies whose individual members’ identities were tied up with their respective patriarchal lineage. This is the larger basis for Luo cultural identity. Self-appreciation of the whole Luo system was not forced until British influence congealed the separate lineage groups, which operated under similar social paradigms, into a larger political identity based on those norms (Watkins 2000: 726). The British created the Luo where once there were just families. This political identity is the same as its older, overarching, cultural conception save for two distinctions: it was applied to larger group of people, and by incorporating the word politics it implies the political mechanisms of macro group struggle—such as “self-identification,” and group positioning in formal policy discussion—in a way that could not be implied without the

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incorporation of Kenyan Politics. Luo identity has been codified as that of a branch of people, a cultural unit, and as a political interest group at the same time. “Self-identification” in the above sentence is used in much the same way as in G.H. Mead’s Mind, Self & Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (1934). The phrase is elucidative of a mechanism that was appropriated by this author, as it may be useful in describing the way in which Luo collective political identity was created when the British caused the selfcodification of the Luo as a high-level social group on the order of ‘tribe’ with the territorial boundaries of a ‘state’. The appropriation of this mechanism is by no means meant to be universal in its application. I contest however that both the Luo case and Mead’s microanalysis of western behavior share similar formative patterns. Mead’s analysis embodies the social mechanism by which a social-self becomes cognizant of itself, and develops a fictitious thirdperson understanding of how it is perceived and what reactions its actions will engender. Mead’s position is that the formation of this fictitious third-person perspective constitutes perception of self, and is the nature of identity – it is finely tuned and always changing due to habituation and empirical observation respectively. It is the position of this paper that the formulation of a Luo political position in the Kenyan schema greatly parallels Mead’s mechanism. It is the position of this author that the Luo, because they felt othered by British policy, became aware of a collective Luo identity that encapsulated certain salient similarities among similarly speaking residents of Southwestern Kenya. It is a complex reflexive formulation of identity in which the Luo have generated an idea of their place in Kenyan politics via a centuries worth of empirical observation and feed-back through experience that led to habituation to the reactions Luo actions, culture, or presence have engendered. Like in Mead’s work, this formulation of identity is ever-changing as

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new experience is accrued, but—because of the collective nature of Luo political identity and how it encompasses many people, information networks, and large distances—it is naturally slower moving and change does not come as rapidly or with as much ease. This political identity constitutes a definition of what it means to be Luo that steadfastly incorporates the fictitious perspectives of the British, the central Kenyan government, the outside political economic order, the Kikuyu, and other Luo into an inherently self-regulating definition. This explanation helps us to understand why Luo collective identity cannot be separated from Kenyan politics; it also helps us explain why Luo political identity is necessarily slow moving, and why Luo cultural change is at its heart difficult and rigorous. It is the changing of an historically constituted definition; it is the changing of self-regulation; it is the changing of what has to be self-regulated in order to still be recognized as Luo. The Luo have, for as long as history has recorded, regarded themselves as separate from the rest of Bantu Kenya. Part and parcel of a migratory peoples that first located on the eastern banks of Lake Victoria in the 16th century, the Luo have been linguistically and ethnically separate from other cultural groups in the region. Their egalitarian social composition further distanced them. British rationalization of their colonial holdings halted the gradual Luo migration southwards, and solidified their geographic position. The codification of British territorial classification necessarily removed cross-cultural fluidity between the migratory Luo and other groups; it established them, their cultural emphasis on egalitarian communality, as something different.

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British policies aggravated what might be called tribal tensions. The British imposed a system in which group identities constituted political identities. Once this happened it created fertile grounds for political isolation of the Luo both before and after independence. The Luo’s egalitarian political structure did not include a top-down hierarchy through which the British could easily exert control. Other groups, notably the Kikuyu, were more easily incorporated into the British bureaucracy and were thusly the beneficiaries of a greater number of policy implementations. This furthered Luo otherment, and bred resentment. This was the fostering of a Luo political identity. This political identity, strongly tied to core Luo values of egalitarianism and traditions, continued into independence in the 1960s. Political differences, and their constituting cultural dimensions, have persisted to this day. A Luo has never been president of independent Kenya; indeed after President Obama’s election to high office (who is of Luo descent) in the United States Luos in Kenya joked that, due to the discrimination against Luos in their country, that a Luo could become leader of the free world before he could become the leader of Kenya (Traditional; mentioned in class 5/6/09). The result of this being that the Luo, as a political stance, have adopted a community suspicion of policies that come from outside Luoland (Watkins 2000: 733-734). So now we have established that Luo culture is historically constituted, self-regulatory, and community based. We have also established that cultural change is slow-moving due to intra-group adherence to traditions that may never have existed, and is seemingly inhospitable as a ground for individual women to move against those traditions. It is in this light that we turn to examine contraceptive use in Luo society.

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Woman’s Choice Luo culture, characterized by “polygamy, early marriage of girls, prolonged celibacy of men, and large age difference [between spouses],” has long favored the extended family over the conjugal unit as the dominant social element (Barbieri 2005: 620). The cultural shift towards fertility decline and contraceptive use ultimately reverses this power relationship however. It is the conjugal unit that makes decisions that have profound ramifications on greater Luo society. And it perpetuates an even greater inversion because this cultural shift relies on the personal choice of female conjugal partners as its final determinants. This stands in contras the basic logic that men’s decisions would be universally more influential in the power dynamics of a polygamous patriarchy. Childbearing in Luo society is a prime directive, and is ultimately the responsibility of each conjugal pair in Luoland. These reproductive pairs, due to cultural restrictions, are rarely unmarried—or tied to each other in other socially acceptable ways2 (Barbieri et al. 1997: 618). Noting the power dynamics of Luo marriages is important in formulating the assertion that fertility in Luo society fundamentally rests with the personal choice of the female conjugal partner. Several studies attempt to quantify the extent to which each partner has power and influence over reproductive behavior. Angela Reynar (2000) breaks down reproduction into three necessary distinguishable decisions that provide the opportunities for power dynamics in patriarchal Luoland to come into play. The first is during the formulation of intent: does each partner want to have a child, and if so how many? Second is the decision whether or not to use family planning measures to meet

2

See “Ci Liend” section of Evans-Pritchard’s Marriage Customs of the Luo of Kenya for an example of a culturally acceptable situation for procreation between two people who are unmarried. pg. 140 11 of 17


this goal. And third, is the decision to actively engage in protected or unprotected procreation. Reynar attempts to establish the relative influence of both the man and woman in each step of the process. Magali Barbieri (2005) also examines power relations between Luo spouses, but instead analyzes whether age discrepancies between partners—which are statistically common—give greater influence to one partner or the other. Both authors come to the conclusion that, despite the disadvantaged position of women in a polygamous patriarchy, women have a greater influence over actual fertility rates than one might think. Reynar establishes that discussions about fertility intent are egalitarian, and that even though the perceptions of both female and male respondents place greater influence on the man’s position on family planning, it is the woman’s ability to use contraceptives without informing the husband that gives her ultimate control over fertility (Reynar 2000: 191). Barbieri establishes that age differentials in the man’s favor do endow the man with more power over reproductive behavior, and that relationships in which the spouses were of similar age made for a more egalitarian decision-making processes. The closer the age, by this author’s calculations within a margin of +/- four years, is tantamount to an equal partnership in fertility decisions. This research shows that this “egalitarian demographic” constitutes the largest plurality of couples in Kenya; the least equal relationship by contrast was less than ten percent of the population (Barbieri 2005: 630). This seems to mean that more woman than not have the opportunity to cogently present their opinions about fertility and contraceptive use. This is not to say that men do not favor decreased fertility at any given point, but rather that individual women have influence in the final decision. This point, synthesized with Reynar’s above conclusion,

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spells out how it is that women exercise their volitions in family planning, and that the women that choose to use it have the final say. Family planning, as decided upon covertly or overtly by the woman, is thusly an individual decision in the Luo context. Regardless of how many children a woman wants to have, which is still way above western averages even with birth control, the idea of limiting reproduction at any point is a major challenge to salient conceptions of Luo social relations in which many children, as many as possible, are a sign of social status and a source of wealth (Watkins 2000: 726). The Role of Social Networks It was stated above that the personal preference of Luo women was the final determinant in the decision to use or not to use contraceptives. It was also stated that Luo culture has been habituated to be suspicious of external cultural norms, and that the personal preference of each woman was highly influenced by the opinions and preferences of other women in a small-scale peer network. Modern contraceptive use and family planning is a western medical practice that has, via varying rationales, been exported around the world. At times behavior modification and contraceptive use have been imposed. At other times they has been more politely encouraged to the people of the developing world (Watkins 2000: 725-6, 728). Regardless, as reported by Luo respondents to Susan Watkins’ study (2000) they are fundamentally [of] kizungu (the possessive of muzungu, or ‘white man,’ literally meaning ‘of the white people’) origin3. Due to this 3 At

the point of authorship, the author is unsure weather the translation of ‘white person’ as muzungu. Watkins’ article “Models of Reproduction in Nayanza Province, Kenya” is written entirely about the Luo and she includes the Kiswahili words wazungu, muzungu, and kizungu as part of direct quotations given by primary participants in her data collection. The author of this paper is unsure as to whether these words are appropriated Swahili translations of Luo responses, or whether respondents used Kiswahili words themselves. 13 of 17


contraception has been regarded suspiciously as an external attempt at regulating the behavior and population of the Luo (Watkins 2000: 727). Clinics and nurses are the physical and personal manifestations of the importation of western family planning into Luoland. Critics of the system identify that clients at these clinics perceive the system as one that treats them like “empty vessels to be filled with information� by nurses and technicians, but who themselves have been filled with information from foreign expert opinion (Rutenberg 1997: 304). The grass-roots appreciation of the system as the importation of suspicious foreign expert knowledge creates a social distance between the nurses and the clients. Nurses have uniforms that are outward indicators of training and regular, albeit small, salary. They also may use English words during clinical sessions. Both of these things distance the proprietor of knowledge, the nurse, from the clientele, the average rural Luo woman considering family planning (Rutenberg 1997: 301-2). Even though the nurses in Nayanza province are predominantly Luo, and they are socially closer to the average Luo woman than either foreigners or women from other tribes, they are socially distant from the rural clinic or distributary’s clientele who are unsure of how much they should trust them (Rutenberg 1997: 302). The clientele of these clinics instead compare what information they accumulate with other women who are socially more proximal to themselves (Behrman 2002: 713). These social networks provide give and take and a forum for discussion of opinions about the risks and benefits to contraception in a way that does not require a once-and-for-all-commitment (Rutenberg 1997: 302). Watkins explains that outside influence, inclusive of the aforementioned inculcation of international markets, money, and the power of the state into the Luo cultural

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frame of reference, has exposed the Luo to new “value constellations” (Watkins 2000: 735). These value constellations include new appreciations for material and cultural inclusions such as the higher valuing of education, and the desire to use commercial baby powder instead of flour – the traditional equivalent good. The small-scale peer networks that this paper has been discussing are socially digestive bodies that “Luo-ize” externally derived information. The discussion between contacts springboards new information and technologies into a cultural framework that is culturally relevant. They do this through discussions not of intended use of a good, but of the utility each Luo person—man or, in the case of contraception, woman—and how it affects their personal preference and micro worldview (Watkins 2000: 740). Behrman states that these social networks “may work through social influence and social learning. Social influence implies that social networks reinforce or alter norms by providing examples of behavior that may then be considered and copied by others. Social learning reduces the uncertainty associated with innovations, such as family planning, through social networks that provide new information and facilitate evaluation of that information (Behrman 2002: 713).” Conclusion The discussion in this paper was centered around the introduction of contraception and modern family planning to Nayanza province, and it necessarily highlighted little spoken of allfemale social networks that are associated with fertility decline and the particular cultural shift therein. This paper tried to establish that these social networks—semi-private for women and assumably open for men in this particular patriarchal society—are fundamental forms of matching and peer association in Luo society. The paper established a theoretical basis for Luo communal identity, and how it’s historically constituted formation endows it with certain

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characteristics that make Luo culture self-regulatory against change. The small-scale peer networks that were the subject of this paper, through social influence and social learning, serve as the mechanism by which cross-cultural suspicion is “Luo-ized” and this author thinks cultural change is achieved in Luo society.

Bibliography Angela Ruth Reynar. “Fertility decision-making by couples amongst the Luo of Kenya.” Ph.D, University of Pennsylvania, 2000. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdlink? Ver=1&Exp=06-16-2014&FMT=7&DID=731877321&RQT=309&attempt=1&cfc=1. Ayo A. Ajayi, Leah T. Marangu, Janice Miller, and John M. Paxman. “Adolescent Sexuality and Fertility in Kenya: A Survey of Knowledge, Perceptions, and Practices.” Studies in Family Planning Vol. 22, no. No. 4 (August 1991): 205-216. Barbara S. Mensch, Paul C. Hewett, and Annabel S. Erulkar. “The Reporting of Sensitive Behavior by Adolescents: A Methodological Experiment in Kenya.” Demography Vol. 40, no. No. 2 (May 2003): 247-268. Beth Maina Ahlberg, Eila Jylkas, and Ingela Krantz. “Gendered Construction of Sexual Risks: Implications for Safer Sex among Young People in Kenya and Sweden.” Reproductive Health Matters Vol. 9, no. No. 19. (May 2001): 26-36. Donald F. Heisel. “Fertility Limitation among Men in Rural Kenya.” Studies in Family Planning Vol. 4, no. No. 12 (December 1973): 351-355. E. E. Evans-Pritchard. “Marriage Customs of the Luo of Kenya.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute Vol. 20, no. No. 2 (April 1950): 132-142. Jere R. Behrman,, Hans-Peter Kohler, and Susan Cotts Watkins. “Social Networks and Changes in Contraceptive Use over Time: Evidence from a Longitudinal Study in Rural Kenya.” Demography Vol. 39, no. No. 4 (November 2002): 713-738. Karungari Kiragu, and Laurie S. Zabin. “Contraceptive Use Among High School Students in Kenya.” International Family Planning Perspectives Vol. 21, no. No. 3 (September 1995): 108-113. Magali Barbieri, Véronique Hertrich, and Madeleine Grieve. “Age Difference between Spouses and Contraceptive Practice in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Population Vol. 60, no. No. 5/6 (December 2005): 617-654. Naomi Rutenberg, and Susan Cotts Watkins. “The Buzz Outside the Clinics: Conversations and Contraception in Nyanza Province, Kenya.” Studies in Family Planning Vol. 28, no. No. 4 (December 1997): 290-307.

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Susan Cotts Watkins. “Local and Foreign Models of Reproduction in Nyanza Province, Kenya.� Population and Development Vol. 26, no. No. 4 (December 2000): 725-759.

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Social Networks and Contraceptive Use Among the Luo  

A study of fertility, gender equality, and cultural change.

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