Opinion

When 'fear' and 'respect' mean the same thing

When 'fear' and 'respect' mean the same thing
  • There are about a million things that a man cannot do or say in the presence of the mother of his wife, and vice versa.

The Nation’s “splash” headline on September 2 was: “Treasury slept as tax defaulters got away”.

It raised one question: What happens whenever, as a taxpayer, you “default” and even “get away with it”? What is it to “get away”? No, the expression is not just to “get away…” but to “get away with”.

Yet nobody will take you to any language court if you omit the word “with”. The only reason I put my question is the Nation’s page-one “splash” headline that day: “Treasury slept as tax defaulters got away”.

Concerning the tax law, the answer is that the person concerned has returned to correct conduct: namely, the behaviour socially sanctified and officially demanded.

In other words, he or she has graduated with full marks from a “tax defaulter” — namely, from a criminal — to a law-abiding and worthwhile citizen.

Yet your country will officially earn the number one epithet only when those who represent it in international councils have learned good behaviour and speak respectable language.

FEAR

No, by “respectable”, I do not mean merely that your words are techno-culturally passable.

I mean also that your sentences do not include material that a Luo man would rather die than repeat in front of his mother-in-law, and vice versa.

For among the Luo (Nilotes who live in Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, the Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda), a man’s mother-in-law is by far the most “feared” person in the world.

No, here, the word “fear” (Dholuo luor) is no more forbidding than it would have been among the biblical Hebrews in relation to Jehovah, their deity.

In English, the Bible, at least, reports the Hebrews as frequently cowering violently before that deity.

But I can report that even the Luo words luor (respect) and luoro (fear or cowardice) are etymologically closely related.

The Luo word luoro refers to cowardice, namely, the negative “fear” that a normal person has for, say, a leopard.

RELATIONSHIP

This is no wonder because, in most other world languages known to me, there are occasions when fear and respect mean more or less the same thing.

We know this from, for example, the classical Semites and the people of modern England whenever they urge us all to “fear God”.

To “fear God” does not mean to run away from him trembling. Indeed, it means to move towards him in total surrender.

For, among the Luo, the culturo-linguistic community into which I was born, marital respectability — between, for example, a man and his mother-in-law — is extraordinarily delicate.

There are about a million things that a man cannot do or say in the presence of the mother of his wife, and vice versa.

Yet I have never read anywhere any comprehensive explanation as to why, among the Luo of the Congo, Kenya, the Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, the relationship between a woman and her son-in-law is so extraordinarily forbidding.

REASON

The question is: Among the Luo communities of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, why is the mother of a man’s wife such an extraordinarily and intensely forbidding person?

Why does a Luo man fear the presence of the mother of his wife or of his wife-to-be as desperately as he would fear the presence of a cobra or a leopard?

There are a million things that a Luo man cannot do or utter in the presence of his mother-in-law and more than a million things that a Luo woman cannot do or say in the presence of her son-in-law or father-in-law.

Even Jaduong’ Paul Mboya is silent about it in his book Luo Kitgi gi Timbegi.

Philip Ochieng is a veteran journalist