The Leso and the secrets of the sexuality of the Luo woman…part 2

Have you ever heard this myth about the passion that Luo women have in bed? I do not know who carried out the research but that is some anecdotal story out there. First of all, please allow me to apologise for the inconsistency in posting. Forgive me. A lot has been happening: My Twitter was hacked, my Instagram deleted –but there is a new one here yaaay— and I also got a little more responsibilities at work.

Since my last post on how my tribesmen bring women up, I have had interesting conversations with some of you on email. I decided to take this conversation into controversially sensual territories. Let us talk about sex and explore the context under which it is communicated.

I have never considered myself a passionate woman—maybe I am… wait, y’all will ask my husband one day ahahaha— but there is something about raw culture, expressed in art, innocent and unmasked that makes me warm and sentimental. So recently, when I went to Lamu on a health assignment (You can read a story here ) I was amazed at how much my sexuality as a Luo woman is intimately intertwined in a piece of cloth: Leso. If you travel to Tanzania, it will bear a different name (khanga)

On the second day in the evening, I went to check out the tailors, as I always do when I visit a place with such a rich textile culture. I met two interesting women. They were appalled I had on boots. They thought that was too… manly. However, they appreciated that I at least owned a Leso which I had used as a skirt that day. As I sat there, immersed in the Mediterranean culture, I had conversations with them. That drove me back to my childhood, through teenage and now as a woman.

I trace my maternity to Tanzania. So, it was not unusual for my late mother to have Lesos as I have many now.

Rosemary, my mother in... she must have been in her late 30s when this was taken
Rosemary, my mother in… she must have been in her late 30s when this was taken. Y’all can see where I get my numerous gifts from. Rosemary was a nurse but she knitted, crocheted, baked(No I don’t like kitchens so I did not inherit baking ahahaha)

I was just surprised when I looked back at my photographs and I have Lesos on me from as early as my teens.

Me, at 20, in a Leso.. having my western-Swahili groove going on there
Me, at 20, in a Leso.. having my western-Swahili groove going on there PHOTO/Sam Abara
You know I spent a huuuuge part of my teens and 20s being a worship leader... Singing loudly to 4HIM's "We need to get back to the basics of Life"
You know I spent a huuuge part of my teens and 20s being a worship leader, you know being “,mama Kanisa” (mother of the church).This is me after leading a 2,000-member church Christian Union through worship service in 2012. I haven’t stepped in a pulpit with a microphone ever since, except in weddings. Y’all need to sing 4HIM’s “We need to get back to the basics of Life” loudly to me

I have used them in my tailoring as well as to recreate a cheap bohemian décor in my house.

Then I owned a clotheline(Verah Okeyo) and this was among the clothes that made part of my first line, which was inspired by my late sister Carol who loved "stairs"/tiers in her clothes"
Then I owned a clotheline(Verah Okeyo) and this was among the clothes that made part of my first line, which was inspired by my late sister Carol who loved “stairs”/tiers in her clothes” PHOTO/BEN KIRUTHI

A little anthropological history about the Leso. It came to Kenya through Lamu as a consequence of the precolonial trade between East Africa and the Europeans in the 1800s—we might wanna verify that, the exactness is escaping me— and morphed to become more than just a piece of cloth: the women decorated and dyed it as a sign of pride of how well they knew their culture; they used it to communicate, in a very abstract uncoordinated manner with the words that are always inscribed in the fabric. Next week I will write more about the studies into this clothe for our travel pieces in the Business Daily, as I link Lamu to Dare Salam in Tanzania, and show you how contraception in these two cities are linked to Leso. For now let me dwell on how the Leso speaks of the Luo woman’s sexuality

From a young age, I saw my mother gift women with newborn babies with a Leso. For the poorer woman, this may have been the first shawl for her child. If she gave birth at home, she may have lay down on Leso. Later, she would carry the baby on her back with it. As I moved into my teenage and early 20S, I learnt that the cloth was a precautionary thing that young women carried with them just in case they soiled themselves while on their monthly periods. Now this is where it gets interesting. For teenagers, the Leso signified some sort of hidden communication. Anybody who saw a schoolgirl with wrapped around her thought “yes I know you are having your periods, and that is a sign of growth, but I want you to hide it from me”. It is like the society appreciated sexuality but it had to be mysterious and hidden. Behind that Leso. For the older, perhaps married woman, the Leso is a tool of seduction. The man would know when not to ask her for intimacy by just looking at how it would be wrapped around her. It would be on carelessly draping on her lower hip. Without even saying a word, the Leso would be saying “baby, not tonight”.

Most Luo women born and raised in the rural areas never used towels until they went to high school where the need for one was specified in the admission letter. So they use Lesos at home instead of a towel. This is where the seduction begins. Assuming her periods are over, she would go to the bathroom, come back to her husband with that Leso wrapped around her just below her armpits. Her arms, neck and portions of her chest would be exposed. That would be some sort of a gentle invitation. Like “I want you, but I cannot say it”. Usually a thin light cotton, Lesos soften when water is sprinkled on it. So it would cling to her wet body, where he could just pull it away.

So in Lamu, at the shop where I went to buy me one, there were cursory remarks that a woman also gets the Lesos to mark her territory and communicate that to other women. She would choose the one with the message that spoke to those eyeing her man and wear it, with nothing underneath and pass by her competitors. This was a tactic used by the woman with much larger hips. So the fabric allowed the other women to read whatever she was trying to tell them. Yours truly would not have used this tactic at all because she is just an inch short of being called skinny. Let us take a moment and laugh at that. It did not matter whether the messages was read or not, but it sure was communicated.

Me in Lamu, after buying Lesos, in the "manly" boots and of course in a Leso myself. Like I am the real package here
Me in Lamu, after buying Lesos, in the “manly” boots and of course in a Leso myself. Well despite owning over 30 pairs of shoes, that includes heels, those happens to be my favorite pairs of  shoes… yeah I know, I am hopeless

As I had explained in the first part of this article, the Luo woman is brought up to be hospitable. But with the Leso, she has the chance to put boundaries on her hospitality. Like, from without the house, she could serve the night guard food. It was her duty to feed him but she would take that food fully clothed with a Leso wrapped around her waist. In silence, she was saying “I am just from cooking from my man’s house, I am unavailable and I demand your respect”

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  1. Thanks again for such a moving piece. The story of lessos brought back memories of our days growing up in Kongowea area of Mombasa. I still remember how some of those ladies used the writings on the lessos to pass their message. One day there was this lady who had beef with the neighbour and they made so many trips to Kongowea market nearby everytime each coming with a lesso with words they thought would communicate their anger and disdain for each other. Some of the writings included ‘Unaringa na mume wako ananitongoza’, ‘Ulipewa pua ukanyimwa sura’, etc

    Thanks again for the piece

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