Saturday, 13 April 2013

Health and Wealth Stories Associated with the Luo Deche...

 The Luo, an agro-pastoral community inhabiting the Lake Victoria basin, treasure good custody of their belongings. As skilled fishers, herders, hunters and farmers, the Luo made a wide range of tools and structures to help them earn a living, store their food and keep their property safely during both times of plenty and periods of scarcity. Deche or dere (singular Dero) are traditionally cylindrical granaries made of a variety of plant material such as olando (pliable twigs), oundho (papyrus), odundu (reeds), tiang’ (millet stalks), minya (twilling vine), woven together using poyo or togo (papyrus) and daubed with cow-dung (owuoyo) and whose conical roof was covered with grass.

A structure of great skill and adept workmanship, dero was characteristic of every Luo homestead built close to the family houses (as in Fig. 1 above) in which was stored all varieties of grains and nuts (millet, groundnuts, maize, sesame), dried foods like aliya (meat) and seeds of every kind. Any home that did not have it was looked at with pity since dero symbolized wealth, prosperity and food security. Usually constructed during harvest times, the number of deche depended on the number of women in each homestead as well as the different kinds and quantities of produce generated by the family fields. Continued disappearance of deche from the Luo homesteads is a sure index of increasing poverty and insecurity as well as a decline of traditional skills in such art attributed to loss of materials due to environmental change and exhaustion of the resources. It is also a clear pointer to increased individualism and use of alternative custodial practices now embraced by the contemporary generations for whom banks and shops offer meaningful alternatives, besides their large permanent houses with inside storage facilities. Today wealth is not counted by the number of deche but by the size of bank savings, the number of food shops and supermarkets and the magnificent permanent buildings. New technologies also allow use of refrigerators.

 Fig 1: A Section of a Luo Homestead (Dala or Pacho) showing the Main House (Od Mikayi), a Granary (Dero) and a Euphorbia (Ojuok) Fence (Source: NMK Audiovisual Archives, Photo by Fiddy Wangari Waruinge 2010). Traditional granaries were cylindrical and had conical grass-thatched roofs. Some granaries today are rectangular and made of planks of wood and sisal poles with iron-roofs. A food reserve for each Luo family, Dero was a noble centre of the homestead portraying the community’s capacity against hunger and a significant cultural spot of varying entertainment and ritual value. Such granaries are disappearing from the contemporary Luo Homesteads.

Not only forming a resting place during sunny weather, dero was a social and a health index for the Luo people. People often had meals and played games like ajua besides deche. Whenever one was overfed or suffered from constipation during festivities, one would be urged to run around dero a number of times, singing and blowing out air from one’s mouth into the granary. While this may have been purely a wise counsel to careless feeders on the need for physical exercise to relax their stomach muscles and allow digestion to occur, the focus of this activity was ritualistic in the sense that relief came from singing and dancing to the store, the source of the consumed food. The stomach and the granary were to be in harmony for the sustained health of the individual members of the Luo community. This did not mean that the Luo had no knowledge of curative herbs, for pepper and other weeds just did the miracle. The community wise-men saw that physical exercise to relieve constipation had to be done around the granary or else the individual had to go and rub his or her stomach on a path as a curse of greed to ground on which people trod on end.

Traditional granaries did not have locking systems, only some strings or thorns could be placed on their entrance to prevent intrusion. Although it was unusual for people to steal from granaries, children often poked holes at the base to steal groundnuts. During severe droughts and famine, depraved and hungry villagers could robe the neighbours’ granaries. If a woman were caught stealing some grain from such a store, she would be allowed to go home with the stolen grain but was asked to return an equal measure of such grain during the next harvest season. This incident was adjudicated and held in top secrecy with the elders and never reached the ears of her children. It would be tormenting to any child to know that his/her mother was a thief. Such secrecy meant that the community gave its individual members dignity and respect in spite of their failures that would have made them a laughing stock.

With the disappearance of these structures owing to environmental degradation and with the continued detachment of people from rural life, such knowledge is virtually getting lost day by day. As a representation of strength, skill, wealth, health and security for which many stories were told and songs sung and to which memories and names are attached, dero remains a significant structure among the Luo. As I end my brief story, dear reader, kindly volunteer any narrative connected with dero that you may have to help inform the present generation of our dying indigenous African heritage and digitally preserve this oral heritage for posterity. 



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