At exactly five minutes past nine on February 5, 1987, Justice Samuel Bosire walked into the courtroom to find Prof Henry Odera Oruka on the witness stand.
The professor of philosophy at the University of Nairobi had been called as expert witness to offer philosophic and juridical basis of Luo customs in the matter of burial place for prominent lawyer Silvano Meleo Otieno.
The matter pitted SM Otieno’s widow Wambui represented by lawyer John Khaminwa against Otieno’s Umira Kager clan represented by Richard Kwach.
The next three hours featured discussion on Luo customs and overlaps on “modern man”. There were references to chira (misfortune), magenga (funeral fire), tudo lum (tying of grass), etc.
At one incident, chira came in full display in the courtroom or so it seemed. Oruka was in the middle of giving an explanation on why his son or wife could not, in Luo customs, sit on his traditional stool because that would be chira.
The courtroom burst into laughter, and at that moment a woman sitting in court fainted. Someone shouted whether that was chira.
“Let the spirits get out,” Khaminwa shouted back.
Oruka’s placement as an expert witness was somewhat puzzling. On one hand, he was a graduate of Wayne State University US, and Uppsala University in Sweden. On the other hand, he was an expert in Luo customs having undertaken research on sage philosophy among the Luo.
“May I remind you. You are speaking as a Professor of Philosophy and not a Luo,” Khaminwa told him while questioning the import of the written wishes of a deceased man.
But Oruko held on to both the Luo card and philosophy. He stood his ground that the wishes of a dead man must sync with the traditions of the people otherwise they are null.
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“If the will says, for example, that the deceased wanted to be cooked and eaten, the people would not honour such madness,” he explained.
He agreed that the dead man’s spirit will haunt people who do not honour the wishes of the deceased but only if “customs are on its side.”
“I am still looking for a reason why I should not believe in spirits,” Oruko told Khaminwa when he asked him how a whole professor of a national university still believed in spirits.
In the proceedings, Oruka stood firm on difference between a house and a home. A home is where someone’s father had blessed them to build while a house is a building where one lives.