The Mikayi Senior Wife
An Examination of the Roles of Women and Wives in the Luo Community, Kenya

The Luo community in Kenya revolves heavily around the political structure of the homestead. The homestead consists of the male, whom is head of the homestead, the wives, children, and additional family members living within the household. In this project, we will integrate the place and status of the wives and their roles they play in the Luo community, especially focusing on the Mikayi (senior wife). By looking into the historical traditions and practices that the Mikayi is involved in, her roles and place in the community, making her very relevant and important within the family and outside of the home. The “Great Wife’ or “Senior Wife” has played a strong role in the history of the Luo community and is still practiced in today's Luo society. In contrast to the the traditional treatment and place of women in the Luo community, the Luo women have become increasingly recognized around the world in recent years. Many of these women have become important political figures, advocates, and international celebrities, breaking in new steps for women, not only in their community but worldwide.

One of the most visibly unique features of Kisumu City is a building on the Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground that resembles a traditional senior wife’s hut in a Luo homestead. The building is aptly named Od Mikayi–the house of the senior Luo woman, the first wife, in a Luo homestead. Although this essay is not about that Od Mikayi building on the Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground per se, it is clear that there is a reason why that building is named as such. The building is a homage to the place and status of the senior Luo woman, the first wife in a homestead, among the Luo people.

The mikayi wife, who was the first or senior wife in a Luo homestead, was always the first to have her house built on the husband’s property, and her house, the od mikayi, was always placed strategically facing the main entrance to the homestead. The co-wives’ huts/houses were built and placed in specific locations defined by and adjacent to the mikayi’s hut in a specific order of when they were married into the family, in strict adherence to the customs and mores of the Luo. Most marriages in Luoland were polygynous. It was common for men to have many wives, who all lived on the same homestead known as “dala” (Obudho 1985).

Before the European expansion into Luoland and other areas in Africa, most of these houses were made from grass, wattle, and mud, with each wife and her children having their own hut or house within the homestead. The mikayi was the first wife married in a compound. She was the one who graduated the husband from bachelorhood into a married life. She was the first to give the man his children. She was min ji [mother of the people]. The mikayi therefore enjoyed the highest status in the homestead.

The mikayi was a leader, and was also respected as such in the entire homestead and the community as a whole. In fact, the homestead was often known by the name of place of origin of the first wife. Thus, you would have homesteads named as “ka-Nyang’iya” [the homestead of the daughter of Ng’iya]; “ka-Nya-Asembo [the homestead of the daughter of Asembo]; “ka-Nya-Ugenya [the homestead of the daughter of Asembo]; and so on. This demonstrated the high status enjoyed by the mikayi in the community.

The mikayi’s hut was considered the main house in the homestead. All visitors to the homestead were expected to report to her house, and to her, before approaching the rest of the buildings and people in the homestead. On top of being the first wife, the mikayi also had the largest hut/house among the wives, demonstrating, once again, the high and important status she enjoyed in the community.

The mikayi also had the most say and authority when any decisions were made concerning the homestead, including when to plant, weed, and harvest the crops around the homestead. She had control over what to plant in and around the homestead, and over who could enter or not enter the homestead (Awiti 2018). She was so powerful that her own hut even dwarfed the house –the duol– of the senior-most male in the homestead, the husband.

After examining the history of Luo marriages, we have come to realize that the mikayi seems to have had many rights over her husband. Although today it is common to find men marrying wives helter-skelter, things were different in the past. An already married man was not allowed to choose whichever woman he fancied as his next wife without consulting his mikayi and coming to an agreement with her about it. The man had to let his mikayi know about his plans. He had to consult with her. This process of consultation was important not just for the sake of recognizing the authority of the mikayi and adhering to community mores, but also for remedying conflicts that might occur between the mikayi, her children, and the incoming wives and their children within the family.

Such consultations went beyond merely asking or notifying the mikayi of a man’s plans to marry another wife, but also about the potential of the new wife bringing wealth and status within the community. Consultations were also important in helping to choose a woman perceived to be fit to bear children, specifically if there was a need for more boys in the family (Awiti 2018).

The Luo, just like most African communities, maintained certain traditions and beliefs regarding the gender of their children. They had preferences for certain genders, and believed that they could control it through what they ate and how they lived. They believed, for example, that a pregnant woman should eat certain foods and plant specific crops if she wanted a boy or a girl. They also believed that the mikayi should give birth to a son as her first born because a son would inherit the family name, continue the family legacy, and generally protect the family. However, if, instead of a son, the mikayi gave birth to a girl, there would be questions about that because a girl was not considered the heir to the family. A girl was considered as only being a temporary member of the family because she would be married off at a certain age. The members of the community therefore preferred having boys to girls.

Women gave birth surrounded by midwives and medicine women within the community. The gender of the child would immediately be announced through women ululating and making noise in a specific way telling the father and the family as a whole the gender of the baby.

After giving birth, the mother and the baby stayed secluded in their birthing place for three to four days. This was again based on gender: three days for a baby-girl, and four days for a baby-boy. Once the mother returned to her house after giving birth, she was confined to her home and was forbidden to answer any calls outside of the homestead for a certain amount of time. This was due to the fear of potentially welcoming bad spirits or black magic around the baby when it was just born and vulnerable (Awiti 2018).

While boys were expected to carry the family name and keep the homestead in traditional order, the girls were taught at a very young age that they would be married off into another family, so their stay in their current family was not permanent. The girls were brought up to be good homemakers and wives for their future husbands and their families. Once married, the daughters no longer belonged to their parents, but to the new husbands and their families. The daughters could visit their parents as guests or visitors in their homes and only stay for a limited period of time. When growing up, girls were expected and encouraged to want to marry, and when they did not marry they would be looked down upon, especially if they did not receive a proposal from any man. The girls who did not marry were considered unlucky and were often shunned by their families and members of the community, as they were said to have failed to fulfil their main purpose to the community (Obudho 1985).

Traditionally, for a young man to seek marriage, he must get permission from his father, who then would send out go-betweens (bride seekers) to look for a good girl for his son to marry. The go-betweens were certain members of his family, who included the aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives. Their goal was to find a “good girl” who was born into a family with good reputation. Once a potential bride was found, the go-betweens would interview and examine the girl and see if she would be a fit for their son. The bride-to-be had to prove she was respectful, honest, and hardworking so that her new family would know she would not be trouble or burden to the family (Obudho 1985).

Once the go-between had found a suitable match, they would arrange for the two and their families to meet. If she was suitable for the man, he would give his proposal to the woman to be his wife. The groom-to-be and the men of his family would then visit the girls’ home and introduce the suitor to the girl’s family. The elders in the family had to approve the relationship and discuss the bride-wealth that the man was to pay for his new bride (usually in cattle or other livestock). Once the agreement was made the man would pay the woman’s family in livestock, which, by the way, was not a form of payment to the bride’s family like most people erroneously think today, but, rather, was an expression of gratitude and hopeful future to his in in-laws (Wanga 2004).

Once everything was ready, the woman would be required to move to her husband’s home, usually to the homestead where the husband was still living with his parents. If this was the first wife of the man, she became his mikayi, the first wife, the senior-most wife to the man, but her status was still junior to the senior mikayi, the senior wife in the entire homestead. It was important for the newly wedded woman to move into her husband’s family’s homestead because that was where she got trained and taught about the habits, manners, and traits of the family, and, more importantly, about the character of her husband. She would learn from her mother-in-law about the things her husband liked and did not like, what kinds of food he liked to eat and did not like, things essential to the future harmony of the family.

The mikayi and her husband then started living together and building their family here within the husband’s family homestead and eventually, gradually, moving out and putting up their on homestead somewhere else. Her hut would be at the center of the homestead put up by her and her husband. It was often the biggest hut in the compound. It was the od mikayi. It faced the main gate of the homestead and all visitors were required to come and see her before moving on to visit other buildings and people within the homestead. The mikayi took control of the homestead and ran it with the support of her husband. Many women therefore aspired to be the mikayi and to enjoy all the powers and privileges that came with being the first wife.

The mikayi was also the only person allowed to announce the death of the male head of the homestead, her husband. When the husband died, the mikayi would announce to the community of the passing of her husband. Moreover, no one else was permitted to mourn or cry over the husband’s death until the mikayi had announced the death to the rest of the homestead and community. If the husband happened to die outside of the mikayi’s house, he would be brought into her house first. During this time, everyone was forbidden to mourn his death until his body was placed inside of the mikayi house, and the mikayi started mourning and the grieving process. The husband was then buried, and the process of widow cleansing also began at that point (Perry 2014).

After the death of the husband, the new widows led by the mikayi were often inherited by the husband’s younger brothers or close male relatives to the family. This practice is also known as levirate marriage. Wife inheritance was performed after the chola cleansing (widow cleansing) ritual, and after the ritual, the wife was able to interact with members of her society (Gunga 2009). If a wife refused the cleansing ritual and/or wife-inheritance, she could be accused of trying to bring a curse to the family and could even be forbidden from leaving her home or having visitors. In fact, she would be shunned by members of the community (Weinreb 2000).

More poignantly for our essay, the status of the mikayi was also observed during chola ritual and wife inheritance procedure. The mikayi was made to undergo the chola ritual and wife inheritance first before her co-wives were taken through theirs. Such practices therefore demonstrate the power and status that the first wife enjoyed in the Luo society.

Although many people today emphasize the sexual aspects of chola ritual and wife inheritance, such views are erroneous to say the least. The role of such rituals was bring in a responsible male figure to take care of the wives in the homestead the same way that the departed husband used to do. The wife inheritor was required to provide the homestead with support. He was supposed to provide companionship, guidance, stability, and economic resources for the well-being of the homestead. Sex was the last thing on the minds of the founders of the community when wife inheritance and even chola ritual were first introduced into the community. This was the reason why the cleansing ceremony was performed by the husband’s male family members. Where the relationship involved sex, the inheritor and the wife knew that that this was not the only activity that was supposed to take place among them. There were other obligations and responsibilities that required their attention, and that they had to attend to. As one writer observes, this “new” marriage was not considered a new emotional commitment to one another, but a fulfillment of a role that the husband played (Perry 2014). The inheritor’s role was to fulfill all the needs of the new wife or wives, including, if necessary, sexual needs. However, if the inheritor did not fulfill his duties and obligations, the relationship could dissolve.

Throughout their marriages the Luo established family obligations which were lasting and practiced until death. A marriage was a social affair among the community and the wife was just as important as the husband, especially if she was the mikayi, because of her high status and the important role she played in the community. Even though the emergence of Christianity into the Luo region has altered, transformed, and even diminished many of these traditions, including the practice of polygyny, the traditions and status of the wives, especially the mikayi, in cases of polygyny, are still relevant among many Luo families. And with progression of women’s rights and the demand for equality for women around the world, the Luo women have continued to become more powerful and play a role in reshaping how they are perceived and viewed by their community and the rest of the world.

The practice of marriage and the status of the first wife, the mikayi, in the Luo community was and still is pivotal. She is the first woman to make a man a husband and a father. She is the min ji, the bearer and nurturer to her children and to others in her homestead and community at large. But, the other wives were not helpless in this equation. Although the other wives did not enjoy the same status as the mikayi in the community, they were also considered important and were thus able to attain great status and play significant roles within the homestead. All these women played their roles as wives and mothers in the homestead and the community as a whole. The mikayi was senior to them, but also part of them. That is why one of the most unique buildings in Kisumu, the major city among the Luo, is known as od mikayi. It is a homage to the place and status of women, especially the senior wife, the mikayi, among the Luo people and people generally around the world.


Od Mikayi, Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground, Kisumu

Od Mikayi, Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground, Kisumu: A close view of the Od Mikayi at the Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground. Kisumu ~ Photo by Meshack Owino, January 8, 2018 | Kisumu Archive,

The Od Mikayi Building

The Od Mikayi Building: This is an image of Od Mikayi at the Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground, Kisumu. ~

Luo Homestead Exhibit, First Wife's Hut, Kisumu Museum

Luo Homestead Exhibit, First Wife's Hut, Kisumu Museum: This is an exhibition of the hut of the mikayi, the First Wife, within a traditional Luo Homestead. ~ Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 8, 2018 | Kisumu Archive,

Aerial View of a Luo Village near Kisumu

Aerial View of a Luo Village near Kisumu: Kisumu, Kenya: The large mikayi hut is clearly visible in this Luo village with a hedge or fence made of trees, an enclosure inside the homestead that serves as kraal, and surrounded by small huts that serve as granaries. Clearly a wealthy homestead. American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, ~ Photo by Mary Meader, January 5, 1938

A Luo Woman wearing a Ligisa [Ceremonial Marriage Headdress]

A Luo Woman wearing a Ligisa [Ceremonial Marriage Headdress]: "A Luo woman from Alego Gangu Village in Alego/Ugenya wearing her marriage ceremonial headdress (ligisa )" ~ Photo by Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, 1936 | Pitt Rivers Museum--Luo Visual History,

A Luo Colonial Chief with His Wives

A Luo Colonial Chief with His Wives: Photo by Edward Evans-Pritchard, 1936 | Pitt Rivers Museum--Luo Visual History,

Luo Women Gathering

Luo Women Gathering: Photo by Charles Hobley, ca. 1902 | Pitt Rivers Museum--Luo Visual History,

Cows in a Luo Homestead

Cows in a Luo Homestead: “A typical Luo homestead with cattle (dhok) tethered on the pegs (loch) in the kraal (kul) which usually situated at the center of the homestead. Cattle dung (owuoyo) is seen all over the kraal and an old man’s three-legged stool (kom nyaluo) is seen in the middle. The homestead is fenced with euphorbia trees (ojuok) and grass thatched huts (udi) and grain storage granaries (dere) are lined around the kraal.” [Gilbert Oteyo 9/9/2004] ~ Photo by Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, 1936 | Pitt Rivers Museum--Luo Visual History,


Achien'g Oneko Road-Oginga Odinga Road-Ang'awa Avenue ~ The Od Mikayi Building is located at the Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground which is in the area between Achien'g Oneko Road, Oginga Odinga Road, and Ang'awa Avenue. It is right in the middle of Kisumu downtown.