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Obama cites Kenya’s Luo culture in talk on polygamy

obama-picPresident Barack Obama on Monday cited the example of Kenya’s Luo community in criticising the contemporary practice of polygamy.

Mr Obama said the tradition in parts of Africa of taking more than one wife might have made sense in a particular setting.

He was speaking in Washington to a gathering of young Africans chosen to take part in a US-sponsored leadership initiative.

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The Young African Leaders Initiative’s 500 participants included 46 Kenyans.

“In Kenya, for example, in the Luo tribe, polygamy existed,” the president said after noting that his father was Kenyan.

“It was based on the idea that women had their own compounds, they had their own land, and so they were empowered in that area to be self-sufficient.”

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But with men moving to cities to work and perhaps starting other families there, women left behind in villages may have lost that power, Mr Obama continued.


“So what worked then might not work today — in fact, does not work today. If you try to duplicate traditions that were based on an entirely different economy and an entirely different society and entirely different expectations, well, that’s going to break down. It’s not going to work,” the president emphasised.

At the same time, President Obama announced the opening next year of a US-sponsored regional leadership centre in Nairobi.

He also referred to his administration’s efforts to bolster the East African trading bloc which includes Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

Asked about US trade initiatives, Mr Obama said flowers grown in Kenya will mainly be exported to wealthy countries while other goods could be sold within Africa at a much lower cost to producers.

“If I am a Kenyan businessman, it is going to be easier for me to sell my goods to a Tanzanian or a Ugandan than it is for me to try to compete with Nike or Apple in the United States,” Mr Obama said.

He also fielded a question from a Kenyan woman chosen to take part in the leadership programme.


The president said he had chosen the woman, who was wearing a traditional Maasai dress because she looked so nice.

“We’ve got a Maasai sister right here,” Mr Obama exclaimed.

On the issue of women’s rights, Mr Obama reiterated his commitment to defend the interests of women.

“You will not find anybody more committed than I am to this issue,” Mr Obama said.

“One of the single-best measures of whether a country succeeds or not is how it treats its women,” the US president said.

Failing to give equal status to half a country’s population was equivalent to a football team playing a match with only half its players, he said.

“If you are not empowering half of your population that means you have half as few possible scientists, half as few possible engineers. You are crippling your own development unnecessarily,” Mr Obama declared.


He went on to denounce female genital mutilation calling it a tradition that was barbaric and which should be eliminated.

He also termed violence against women as another tradition that needed to be eliminated.

In response to a question about whether the US would support a move to forgive Africa’s debts, Mr Obama said he did not regard either the debt burden or the injustices of colonialism as the primary cause of Africa’s contemporary problems.

“There is a legitimate discussion to be had around debt forgiveness,” the president acknowledged.

“But I will challenge the notion that the primary reason that there has been a failure in service delivery is because of burdensome debts imposed by the West,” he said.

He reminded the young leaders that problems plaguing Africa and which can be attributed to the colonial era should not be an excuse for failure to develop.

“There is no doubt that you can trace many of the problems that have plagued the continent back to the colonial era.

But as powerful as history is, at some point you have to look to the future and say, okay, we didn’t get a good deal then, but let’s make sure that we are not making excuses for not going forward,” said Mr Obama.

US President Barack Obama speaking during the Fellowship for the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in Washington, DC on July 28, 2014. He referred to polygamy in traditional Luo culture and said while the practice might have made sense years back, it may not be useful in contemporary society. AFP PHOTO | MANDEL NGAN

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