The dead are watching: Kamba traditions around death and burial

Gravediggers exhume a body initially thought to be of pastor Jonathan Mwania that was mistakenly buried at Katituni village, Machakos county in 2016. After exhumation, elders buried a sheep in line with Kamba traditions. [Philip Muasya, Standard]

The Akamba community believe the spirit of a dead person sneaks back to life through reincarnation. To appease the spirit of the departed, a child is named after the deceased. Woe unto you if you die before marrying. Your body would be buried at the very far end of the compound and elders would insert a red hot metal rod up your rectum to torture and drive away undesirable spirits.

Among the Akamba people who straddle the Lower Eastern Counties of Kitui, Machakos, Makueni and even their relatives in Embu, Taita Taveta and Kwale counties, ‘kwitwa’ or being ‘called’ is the perfect euphemism to describe the hand of death.

This implies that the community believes in a supreme being with immense powers to ‘call’ someone and take their spirit away from the face of the earth. This Supreme Being is Ngai or Mulungu, according to the Akamba.

The community also believes in the continuation of life even after death where the spirit of the dead person is still thought to be in existence. If the person was an elder, the community believes the departed continues to watch over the living from the other world.

Children named after the dead

According to Mutuku Muindi, a Kamba elder and the founder of Kamba Cultural Centre and Museum based at Emali in Makueni County, sometimes the spirit of a dead person sneaked back to life through reincarnation.

In this case, Muindi says, a child would be born in the same family bearing all the traits of the departed person.

Mutuku Muindi (right), a Kamba elder and the founder of Kamba Cultural Centre and Museum sips a traditional brew from an elder. [Philip Muasya, Standard]

“A traditional midwife who delivers the child would instantly know the person the child was a reincarnation of. Such a child would then be ascribed the name of the departed person to appease their spirit,” Muindi explains.

Should this not happen, Muindi who has spent the last 15 years researching and documenting the Kamba culture and traditions, says the child would cry endlessly or become sickly until it is given the correct name. When this happens, the spirit of the dead person is then pacified and becomes a muthiani (guardian angel) of the born child.

To signify the belief in life after death, the community also has befitting names such as Musyoka, Kasyoka, Musyoki - all meaning a returnee or one who comes back (to life) in the local dialect.

Funeral rites

Age and standing in society also dictated how funeral rites would be performed. Male elders (atumia) coordinated most burials while those of children were handled mainly by old initiated women known as Iveti sya Nzama.

But the complexity of the burial varied, depending on who was being buried. Boniface Kilonzo, chairman of Akamba Clans Governing Council says for an adult, the elders sought to find out if the person had paid all his dues to his clan (yielo ya mbai). If the person was clean, then his mbai (clan) would take over the funeral arrangements.

What followed soon after the burial was a cleansing ceremony to protect the family from the spirit of death, a ritual known as kutonya ng’ondu.

Protection from the spirit of death

Kilonzo says this ceremony involved the slaughtering of a goat or sheep whose stomach contents would be mixed with traditional herbs, then sprinkled on the mourning family. The meat would then be eaten by elders.

If the man of the house had two or more wives, Kilonzo says it was automatic that he would be buried at the home of his first wife.

Alex Mwandi and Johnstone Kassim Muumbo (right) at Lee Funeral Home, Nairobi protest the release of their father Timothy Mwandi Muumbo’s body. [David Gichuru, Standard]

“That came automatically without any complaint from any quarter,” says Kilonzo, recalling how, a few months ago, he was summoned to Nairobi’s High Court to shed light on this tradition in the case of former Nairobi police boss Timothy Muumbo whose body was kept in a mortuary for five years as his two families tussled over where to bury him.

“I went to the court and explained, according to our culture and traditions, how and where the man should be buried,” says the elder. 

The former police boss was finally interred at his Mbakini home in Mwingi in November 2020, at his first wife’s home, five years after his death. His first wife Phiatah died in 2013. 

Mr Muindi, the researcher on Kamba traditions says the community had special arrangements to prevent unwanted or evil spirits of a dead person from coming back through reincarnation. For instance, midwives would refuse to name a child after a dead person if they believed that spirit was evil.

“Refusing to name a child after such a person meant that his spirit had been killed and the lineage cut off,” Muindi says.

How the unmarried were treated 

If an unmarried woman died at her father’s home, the body would be buried at the very far end of the compound as a way of banishing her spirit. However, if a man of marriage age died without a wife, the ritual of banishing his unwanted spirit would be more elaborate.

Mr Muindi explains that in this case, elders would approach the corpse with a red hot metal rod and insert it in his behind while chanting incantations to torture and drive away the spirit.

They would then scoop hot ash and slap it on the corpse’s buttocks. The body would then be dragged to a grave prepared outside the compound and get buried facing downwards. Once the grave was filled up, a thorn branch would then be placed on top.

“This was meant to ensure the spirit of the dead man was banished. It was also meant to serve as a lesson to other men of marriage age who were still buying time,” explains Muindi. 

In other instances, relatives of the dead were forbidden from engaging in sex for up to seven days after the burial. In other clans, menstruating women were not allowed to attend funerals.

Bride price paid at death

Ntheo also plays a key part in how funerals are conducted among Kambas. Ntheo refers to initial dowry of three goats; a billy goat and two female ones are paid to the bride’s family to bind the married woman to her husband’s family – a ceremony known as kuthea

Kilonzo says for this to hold true, the he goat is slaughtered and its blood poured to signify the bond. The meat is then eaten by the two families. In case ntheo has not been paid and the woman dies, Kilonzo says customs dictate that it must be done even in death before the husband is allowed to bury his wife.

Contravening this would attract an instant curse over the husband’s family, he says. He cautions that if a husband has not paid ntheo even in modern times, their union is deemed a loose cohabitation no matter the number of children they had. He adds that dowry should also be paid outside ntheo.

In case one committed suicide, they would be buried early in the morning, after a cleansing ceremony to drive away the person’s spirit that was thought to be hovering around looking for somewhere to perch. Relatives were forbidden from shedding tears for such a person.

Grave but no body

What happens in a situation where a grave has been prepared but there is no body to bury, as was the case of Muumbo, the former police chief where his second family had prepared his grave? Or where a body has been exhumed?

Kilonzo says such a grave must undergo an elaborate cleansing ceremony called kuusya musyi before it is filled up with soil.

This cleansing ritual involves slaughtering a sheep whose stomach contents are poured inside the grave as elders eat roasted meat by the graveside. Failure to observe this would attract a string of deaths in the family, he says.

This kind of ritual was witnessed in 2016 at Katituni village, Machakos County where a body that had wrongly been identified as that of Pastor Jonathan Mwania of Africa Brotherhood Church (ABC) was exhumed following a court order in an exercise that seemed to clash with modern Christianity.

As soon as the coffin was brought up, elders grabbed a sheep and with a single swing, cut its throat, removed the intestines and quickly dumped the carcass inside the grave as the pastor’s widow Mary Nduku protested. Perhaps due to her protestations, the environment was not conducive for the elders to devour the meat but they walked home satisfied that no curse would befall their land.

“We cannot expose our family to calamities knowingly. The Kamba tradition is part of our life, we must abide by it,” Mwania Muinde, the deceased pastor’s father remarked.

The sheep that was slaughtered and buried inside a grave where the body initially thought to be of Pastor Jonathan Mwania of ABC Church had been interred in Katituni village, Machakos County in 2016. [Philip Muasya, Standard]

The widow later dismissed the ritual as Satanism saying it went against her faith and threatened to leave the family. The pastor’s body was later found and buried.

Traditions versus Christianity

Reverend Simba Mambo of Evangelical Lutheran Church opines that such traditions have been overtaken by events and go against the teachings of Jesus Christ. And because of modernity and faith, majority of them have been abandoned, he says.

However, just like in traditional practices where a bereaved family was cleansed to ward off the spirit of death, Reverent Mambo says Christians also pray for the bereaved family either before or after a funeral to seek God’s intervention and protection through the blood of Jesus Christ.

“Prayers are offered for the family to rebuke the spirit of death,” says Mambo, revealing that true believers believe in the resurrection at the end times.

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