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close this bookCERES No. 075 (FAO Ceres, 1980, 50 p.)
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The Joluo equation

by Achola Pala Okeyo

The ancestral lands of the Joluo of Kenya sprawl along the northeastern shores of the Nyanga Gulf of Lake Victoria at altitudes ranging from 1000 to 2 000 metres. For the Joluo, who share with other Luo people in northern Tanzania, Uganda and southern Sudan common origins in this last region, as well as a common linguistic and cultural heritage, and similar patterns of economic and political ideology, land is the basis of rural existence. Traditionally, their primary orientation to land has been in terms of subsistence, the right to use land belonging to the patrilineage for cultivation, grazing and ceremonial activity.

This traditional system, which persisted through the colonial period and up until the initiation of the recent land reform programme, did not provide women, either as individuals or in groups, with the legal right to allocate or dispose of land. They were, however, protected by the emphasis on users' rights; individual men were not vested with the right to alienate land. Women, by virtue of their position as lineage wives and daughters, were entitled to use land for agricultural purposes from which they were expected to feed themselves, their children, their spouses and the extended family.

Until recently, the issues of having the right to allocate or dispose of land did not present a threat to women's role in food production.

The land reform programme now nearing completion in the region transfers the final right to dispose of land from a communal or lineage basis to an individual basis. Thus, it seemed appropriate, in the field research that we undertook in the mid-1970s, to examine how land reform is affecting the agricultural work done by women and their relationship to land.

All of the 135 women whom we interviewed in depth were cultivators who depended on the land for their livelihood. Our field research included open-ended as well as standardized questions concerning the current position of women in regard to land and land use. Specifically, we were interested in the following issues: women's access rights to land; how they acquired the land they are currently using; how they use the land; who holds the right of allocation on the land they are farming; how their status with regard to ownership and use of land compares with that of males; whether some or all of the land they are using has been bought or sold recently; whether their land is being registered and, if so, in whose name; how decisions are made regarding the sale, use or exchange of land.

Traditional concepts

To interpret the data we collected, it was necessary to keep in mind certain traditional concepts that the Joluo hold about landownership and use. In the Dholuo language, the term of land-levels. In the first instance, it identifies owner, wuon lowo, operates at two the person, usually a male, who has the right to allocate land. Such a person falls within a general category known as kwaro (grandfather) and exercises his allocative rights within a collective group of people deriving from "a grandfather or any male agnate above the first ascending generation."' The term, wuon lowo, however, also describes a person, male or female, whose rights to use land are guaranteed over a long period of time, by virtue of a specific relationship, usually validated by proven kinship, with the first category of wuon lowo. The period for which such rights to land are conferred quite often lasts a lifetime, or as long as the individual maintains the recognized relationship, for it is this relationship that carries a proprietary right. Typical examples of this second category are a wife or daughter, or an unmarried son before he is allocated his own land.

A second important term is wuon puodho, a concept that identifies a person who invests labour in a piece of land that has been allocated to her (or him), thereby transforming it into a productive unit. In this capacity, both in the past and at present, women exercise the right to exchange garden plots for agricultural purposes for short periods of time. Even today, a woman is not obligated to consult her husband, or whoever allocated the land to her, in exchanging plots, because such an exchange is only valid for the use of the land as opposed to retaining it for good. Women thus exercised considerable leverage in matters relating to the use of land, particularly as long as it remained plentiful and security of tenure was vested in the patrilineage.

The details of how land is allocated to wives and to sons are complicated by personal relationships. Prior to her marriage a woman does not have an allocation of land or livestock from her father's patrilineage; she merely has rights to use the land. However, by virtue of her labour input into farming, she has a share in the control of crops accruing from her efforts, or an equivalent amount from the collective efforts of the house. The mechanism by which land is allocated to a woman upon her marriage depends upon whether her husband's land-allocating kwaro is alive or dead, whether she is the first, second or third wife, and, in some instances, whether her husband is the first, second, third or last son. A first wife, for example, may have allocations simultaneously from the kwaro (her father-in-law) and from her husband, who because of his marriage to her may also be receiving a final allocation from his father.

A second or third wife, on the other hand, would tend to receive an allocation only from her husband, who might do this by subdividing land originally allocated to his first wife. The first wife of a last-born son would be likely to receive an allocation from the land being farmed by her mother-in-law.

One other difficulty encountered in our research was that while the women interviewed had a very precise count of the number of land parcels (puodho) they had the right to cultivate, few of them could give us an accurate measurement of their land sizes in hectares. Since there is a certain amount of variation in actual parcel sizes, our estimates, which were based on an approximate average size of 0.5 ha, should be taken as a broad indicator only.

On this basis, it was calculated that nearly 92 percent of the respondents had access to land in the range between 1.5 and 4.5 ha. Only two women (1.48 percent of the sample) had access to land in the range between 5.7 and 7.5 ha. Five of the women described themselves as landless, yet it was found on further investigation that they actually had access to land ranging between 0.5 and 1 ha. There are, however, two possible interpretations of this notion of landlessness. First, women may perceive that their access rights to land, which depended traditionally upon the fact that individual males were not able to alienate land, are now being jeopardized because of registration of land in the names of males. Moreover, desperate needs for cash, such as for fees at the beginning of the school year, may force some of the less wealthy peasants to sell off their small holdings at low prices to wealthier peasants. Secondly, this sense of landlessness may also reflect women's recognition that they cannot expand their land area. In terms of future options for her children, a woman who has 0.5 ha of land at the moment is justified in saying she has no land, because available land will be too small to subdivide among the children who have the right to inherit. In Dholuo, onge, is often used to refer to scarcity, particularly of important resources such as water, grazing or land; therefore, its usage in this context is entirely appropriate and reflects respondents' awareness of shrinking land base.

More than 95 percent of our sample indicated that they had acquired use rights to the land they were cultivating through a relative by marriage, usually naming the husband, the father-in-law or the mother-in-law as the source. However, only about two thirds said that they were the wuon lowo, the recognized users of all their land by virtue of their position as lineage wives. The remainder held this status only in regard to a portion of their land, ranging from one fourth to three fourths. The interpretation of this data is that, while the majority of respondents till only lineage land, there evidently remains some possibility of exchange of land within the lineage group so that some women actually have access to more land than has been allocated to them directly.

In their son's name

At the time of our field investigations, most of the region was undergoing the second phase of a legal process designed to change the land tenure system from corporate rights based on lineage to individual rights. All but four of the women interviewed told us that their land had already been registered under this new system. Of these 135 women, only eight, or less than 6 percent, reported that the land was registered in their name alone. An equal number mentioned that the land had been registered in their son's name and their own. In more than 50 percent of the cases, the land had been registered in the husband's name alone, and in another 25 percent, it had been registered in the name of the son. Joint registrations between husbands and sons accounted for the remainder.

The striking point of these results is the manner in which the land is being transferred to an almost exclusively male individualized tenure system, leaving no provision concerning how women's access rights are to be defined when the reform is completed and the new tenure system becomes operational. In practice, these women would probably still enjoy their cultivation rights to land as lineage wives, but in theory, at least, this status has been superseded by the new stipulation, which gives individual men the right to alienate land from which their female relatives expect to draw their livelihood for several years to come.

Two trends

Although it is still too early to predict accurately the outcome of this process, there are, in my view, at least two trends that could develop. In the first instance, young unmarried men who have reached their majority but who have no opportunity for paid employment will tend to sell the land registered in their name, leaving their parents to eke out a living on very small strips. We observed some instances of this trend in our field study and were often told by woeful mothers how they were unable to restrain their children from 'losing' all the land for money that lasted only a short time. While some registered owners may be expected to honour the use rights of their female relatives, such a trend is likely to be jeopardized by the fact that land is not readily available and that employment opportunities for these families are very limited.

The second concern is that if we look ahead five or ten years, there appear to be two categories of women who may find themselves in quite precarious situations because of the manner in which land-ownership and use rights are currently being defined in the land reform process. The first are those women who come from families with little or no off-farm incomes, so that their cash needs are generally met by the sale of livestock, land or agricultural produce. The second are those women who have only daughters or are widowed, for they are often defined by land adjudication officers as those who do not need much land.

In several instances I asked land adjudication officers why an overwhelming number of women were not being registered with land in the new scheme, In every case their answer was, "Because it is customary: men own land and women do not own land."

One author has suggested that there is some conceptual confusion between ownership, right of allocation and access rights. In the precolonial system of landholding, women were guaranteed use rights to lineage lands because their tenure was supported by the structural principle that defined a wife, among other things, as a person who was entitled to land for production as long as she maintained that relationship with the patrilineage. The right of a man to allocate land is not equivalent to the right to alienate land as is being introduced by the new scheme.

Compounding the current confusion is the technical language of the law and the manner in which it is applied at the local level. Many respondents in our sample knew that land was being registered only "because the Government says so." They were unaware of the mechanics of the land tenure reform programme and were therefore not in a position to intervene in processes clearly inimical to their well-being. Furthermore, local groups formed to assist in the adjudication of land were entirely male. These men argued that by custom women did not take part in land disputes and, therefore, it was reasonable that they should not be represented in such a group.

The power of veto

The traditional locus of female autonomy has been the wife's house, ot, whose legitimacy derived largely from the socioeconomic and legal status of the wife. One of its main functions has been to determine which sons inherit what land and livestock. The new land tenure reform programme is directed at identifying individual males in a patrilineage who are likely to inherit the property of that patrilineage. It thus speeds up the development cycle of the wife's house, rendering it unnecessary from a proprietary point of view. In this way, it isolates women from their sons, for whom, in the past, they would have been guardians of property until their marriage. It seems that one of the outcomes of the land tenure reform programme is the diminution of status of the house and its de facto head, the woman.

The concept of decision-making, as expressed in the Dholuo language, is susceptible to some ambiguity. When a question relates to whose decision carries weight or who must give permission before an event, such as a sale of land, it is usually stated in terms of the power of veto. Our questions in regard to decision-making were thus formulated as the equivalent, in Dholuo, of: "Who has powers in the matter of . . .?" To avoid ambiguity between who has the power in theory and who actually makes the decision, the question was put twice to each respondent, and followed with further probing. While the first answer invariably fitted the normative expectation second and the further responses to probing clarified matters a great deal.

More than 60 percent of the respondents said that their husbands were responsible for decisions where land is to be given over to someone permanently, sold, bought or given for public use. About 17 percent said that their husbands consulted them before making final decisions in these transactions. Widows or women almost entirely in charge of farming operations, because their husbands are working away from the area, composed the relatively small proportion of respondents who reported that they made these decisions independently: 10.37 percent in the giving of land, 7.41 percent in the buying and selling of land, and 2.96 percent in consigning land for public use.

A woman's decision

When decisions concern land use or deployment of agricultural resources, women play a significantly larger role. Decisions on the schedule of priorities for weeding plots, for instance were made independently by about half the respondents, while 27 percent said such decisions were made jointly with the husband and 23 percent said their husbands made the decision. Decisions to hand dig or plough a plot were more evenly distributed between the sexes. Respondents agreed unanimously, however, that when produce is to be sold or given to relatives of the wife or husband, it is invariably a woman's decision. When cattle, sheep or goats are bought, exchanged in bride-wealth transactions or given for lineage ceremonies, the decisions appear to be male-typed. On the contrary, decisions regarding the purchase or sale of chickens seem to be made by the individual owner. Within the household, chickens seem to play the role of gift objects which a husband, wife or grown children can own privately. Any member of the household may sell his own chickens or give them as a gift, as he sees fit.

In matters of children's welfare, particularly in the decision to educate a boy or girl, respondents were unanimous that the father plays a leading role. Similarly, in discussions and decisions concerning marriage transactions, it seems that fathers have an important role to play, although there is some evidence that parents increasingly consult with each other before reaching the final decision.

What appears striking about these patterns of decision-making is the level of consistency and stability in the division between "male-typed" and "female-typed" decisions. Decisions concerning land allocation, as well as transactions involving cattle, were traditionally the preserve of men, while their wives were largely in charge of cultivation and within most major crop cycles were almost entirely responsible for weeding.

A certain amount of cash flow

In regard to the division of labour, however, when we asked respondents what changes they had observed since they were married and had come to live in the area, there was broad agreement that women were doing many tasks formerly known to be men's work. The opposite trend was not as obvious. Tasks now done by women include clearing bush, ploughing, and even constructing granaries. In some instances, women took responsibility for supervising hired labour, often male, to do these tasks. There seems to be a growing differentiation among households in rural Luoland between those who have the cash to hire labour and those who need cash and must sell their labour. In other words, there is emerging a group of women who have access to their husband's cash and thus have the option of contracting work out to others. This trend may be related to another: male out-migration in search of paid employment, which results in a certain amount of cash flow to the men's families but also puts a strain on female labour.

It is significant that, as the Luo economy has become monetarized, the roles of men and women are shaped not so much by what men and women do, as by the patterns of remuneration for male and female farm tasks. Ploughing, which is a man's job, is better remunerated than weeding, which is the responsibility of women.

This differential, plus the cleavage between women in households who hire labour as opposed to those who sell their labour to meet cash needs, and the discernible trend to weakening of women's use rights in land loom as the major difficulties inherent in the land reform programme.