How Okoth’s mother tried to stop cremation

Kibra MP Ken Okoth's wife Monica Okoth and his brother Imran Okoth are joined by members of the civil society, family and friends on a vigil to celebrate his life at Uhuru Park's Freedom Corner last Friday. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Kibra MP Ken Okoth’s mother tried in vain to stop his cremation on Saturday morning, The Standard can now reveal events that lift the lid on the rising number of family feuds over the disposal of bodies.

Okoth, who died of cancer 10 days ago, was cremated at Nairobi’s Kariokor cemetery on Saturday in a ceremony shrouded in intrigues and secrecy.

Only a half dozen close family members, including wife, brothers and ODM party officials were present.

It has now emerged that Angelina Ajwang, the MP’s mother desperately reached out to some Luo MPs on Friday night to stop Okoth’s widow, Monica, from proceeding with the cremation, but the effort seems to have failed.

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Ajwang reached out to two MPs — one from a constituency in Migori County and another from Kisumu County. She could not reach them on voice calls forcing her to send text messages instead. One of the MPs, however, called the late Okoth’s mother back before posting the message to other Luo MPs on their WhatsApp forum.

Jodalawa (my kinsmen)…I just got a message from Mama Ken and I called her back...she is pleading for help so that she can bury her son...She sounded so desperate...”

Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) chairman John Mbadi yesterday insisted there was little the parliamentarians could do to resolve such a delicate family dispute.

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Mr Mbadi revealed how the family stopped the party’s plans to fly Okoth’s body to Homa Bay for a funeral service at Rateng’ Secondary School before its interment.

“The whole thing was clouded in so much confusion. Parliament had organised how to fly Okoth’s body to his village, but we were told to hold on and wait for communication from the family. Unfortunately, what we heard next was that the body had been cremated,” said Mbadi, who chaired the parliamentary committee constituted to help with funeral programme.

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“Even if she reached out to us, there was little we could do because that was a family decision. They just needed to talk as a family,” he said.

Yesterday, the late Okoth’s mother, Angelina, was expected to travel to her rural home in Kabondo Kasipul where the family was preparing for a symbolic burial of the MP. The ceremony is expected to take place this afternoon (Monday). 

Protests by some close relatives of the Kibra MP over the early morning and secret cremation of his body has rekindled the flame of family wars that have followed such unorthodox methods of disposal of bodies of prominent Kenyans.

Funerals remain deeply cultural and religious affairs for the majority of Kenyans whose determination and management go beyond the nucleus family.

Family feud

In Kenya, methods such as cremation (the burning of dead bodies), though increasingly becoming the preferred choice for some prominent politicians and business people, is still considered bizarre and unacceptable.  

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Okoth’s nephew, Evans Oluoch, lifted the lid on the family feud over the decision to cremate the MP’s body when he publicly expressed shock over the matter on Saturday morning.

“We woke up to news that Okoth had been cremated. The mother was totally opposed to cremation and wanted him buried next to her house in rural Homa Bay,” he said at Lee Funeral Home.

Cremation as a final rite first became the subject of intense public debate in Kenya following the 1996 death of Peter Okondo – a prominent Busia politician who had served as a Cabinet minister in then President Daniel arap Moi’s government.

Like Okoth, Okondo was married to a white woman who oversaw the cremation of his body sparking a bitter family feud and sent shock waves in his native Busia village. Mrs Okondo’s plea that she had only acted to fulfill her husband’s wish fell on deaf ears, especially among his Samia clan who had known burial as the only method of internment.

Similar controversy also rocked former Kenya National Sports Council chairman Joshua Okuthe’s family following his death and subsequent cremation in 2009.

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Okuthe’s sister Deborah Odhiambo and a woman, who claimed to be his second wife, Ms Zawadi Hadija Issa, went to court to stop the planned cremation of his body. Instead, the duo wanted Okuthe buried at his Tamu farm in Muhoroni.

Ms Odhiambo actually did get court orders stopping the cremation, only to find that Okuthe’s first wife Ruth Florence and close family members had earlier picked the body from the morgue for cremation.

Deborah had argued that Okuthe was born and brought up in Luo land making the internment of his body subject to Luo customary law.

In April last year, multi-party struggle hero Kenneth Matiba’s body was cremated at Nairobi’s Lang’ata crematorium in a rare non-controversial ceremony. The family said it had acted to fulfill a wish Matiba had made 26 years earlier.

Matiba had in a 1994 interview said he made his wish known to his family and that he wanted to set a precedent for Kenyans to follow.

The politician argued that burials were colonial, and asked Kenyans to be realistic as there was no more land available to bury the dead.

Matiba also argued that he did not wish to subject mourners to endless fundraisers to meet his burial expenses.

“After all, the Kikuyu traditionally never buried their dead. They used to take the bodies to the forest to be devoured by hyenas. Was that not wisdom?”

“If a man was not assisted while he was alive, why should people raise funds for him after he dies,” Matiba had posed.

The majority of those who have opted for cremation — mainly through their wills or verbal communication to their families — are wealthy Kenyans with large swathes of land and whose families can easily afford the huge cost of funerals.

Earlier in 2002, Anglican Church faithful were treated to confusion after the former head of the church in Kenya, Archbishop Manasses Kuria decided to cremate his wife in a low key ceremony attended by close family members.

The body of Mary Nyambura Kuria was cremated at the Langata Crematorium only two days after she passed away.

The brief ceremony was attended by Archbishop Kuria, his two sons, two daughters, the former church leader’s elder sister and a few other relatives.

Archnishop David Gitari, who succeeded Kuria in 1997, was reported to have pleaded with him in vain to have his wife buried.

When asked why he had chosen cremation, Kuria simply retorted that “the Bible says ashes shall return to ashes, dust to dust when human beings die.”

Kuria would also be cremated in 2005 in a ceremony that split the church.

Bishop Joseph Wasonga, the long serving Bishop of ACK Meseno West, who retired last month, would later talk about a 1975 conference he attended with Kuria in Kajiado where they studied cremation.

“Together we did a study on cremation, which led to his decision to cremate his wife a few years ago and the church has nothing against it. We want people to break from the traditional way of having graves in homesteads because of lack of land, poverty and the high death rates,” Bishop Wesonga said.

The list of prominent Kenyans who have been cremated include 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai.

The famed conservationist, who became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”, did not wish for trees — that she had spent years protecting — to be felled to make a coffin for her burial.

The ashes of her remains were interred at the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, in accordance with her wishes.

Safaricom Chief Executive Officer Bob Collymore and former Head of Civil Service Jeremiah Kiereini are some of the notable figures whose remains were cremated this year.

Last year, John Macharia, the son of Royal Media Services chairman SK Macharia, was cremated at the Nairobi Lang’ata crematorium after he died in an accident on the Southern by-pass.

Cremation usually involves subjecting the body to intense heat, reducing it to bone fragments. From a fuel tank on the roof of the crematorium, the body is sprayed with diesel and ignited.

The wooden coffin further aids the process. A smaller machine then crushes the remains. Relatives have the option of collecting the ashes, either storing them in an urn or disposing of them in any other way they deem necessary.

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