The place of fig trees in Bukusu burial traditions

Angusu clan elders Ernest Itenya Ichechi and Morrice Angula Ichechi showing fig trees planted on their father's grave at Ebushitsiula village in Ikolomani. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Maurice Ichechi and his brother Ernest Itenya sit pensively on plastic chairs next to their father Raphael Ichechi's freshly covered grave at Bushitsiula village in Ikolomani, Kakamega County.

The duo is guarding their departed father's grave as part of the local culture. Raphael, who died at the age of 100, was buried a month ago.

And his burial was bizarre as he was buried sitting, in a specially-made coffin, in line with his clan's cultural beliefs.

As if that was not enough, Maurice,64, and 54-year-old Itenya are now guarding his grave. It is not clear what they are guarding it against, it's just part of their culture to do so.

On the grave, the family has planted four fig trees, in each of the corners of the square grave. The tree seedlings are supported by dried sticks of a wild plant locally known as Ifubu.

"Our culture demands that fig trees are planted in each of the four corners of a grave of a respected elder. The trees become the dead's dwelling place," Maurice said.

Francis Welakha, a local elder, said the fig trees become the second home for the departed. "Failure to plant the fig trees on the grave means the dead man will have no place to live and may be rejected by the ancestors," said the 90-year-old Welakha.

Bull bracing for a fight on Raphael Ichechi's freshly covered grave at Bushitsiula village in Ikolomani. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Ifubu represents pillars that make the dead man's house strong, according to Welakha. "It means the dead man's house is a stable dwelling place." 

He added: "Evil spirits may come and haunt the living if they fail to plant the four fig trees on the grave. Tradition demands that after the burial, a ceremony is held to usher in the planting of the fig trees on the grave. And the trees must not be used for firewood otherwise, something bad may happen to those using the firewood and even the whole community."

"The fig trees protect the dead from the sun and rain. He cannot be allowed, by ancestors, to take refuge in another dead person's home. Every dead man must have their own dwelling places.” 

And the fig trees on graves are not to be cut down as that would mean demolishing the dead person’s home, according to Welakha.

"That is why when you walk around, you will see huge fig trees because no one dares cut them down. They are not be tampered with because of their significance in the society," he said.

Maurice said they spend time at their father's grave because they believe he is around watching over his home.

The late Raphael is from Angusu clan which buries their dead in a sitting position and in special coffins. Not all Luhya clans subscribe to the cultural practice.

Itenya who is pursuing a Master's degree in history at Mt Kenya University said members of their clan are required to observe the traditions without fail.

He said future generations will easily identify the grave because of the fig trees growing on it.

"Funeral rites, are quite riveting and are often associated with mystery and fear. However, I believe such rites touch on something fundamental to human nature in line with how people view the afterlife," said Itenya.

He said the rites are not optional. "We can't avoid them. They form part of the final stages before the dead person meets their maker. That is why we are not leaving anything to chance. We want to ensure our late father is happy where he is."

The burial of Adriano Aluchio at Shikhombero village in Ikolomani, 2014. Aluchio was buried in a sitting position. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

However, Rev Moris Amusavi of Pentecostal Assembly of God said cultural activities witnessed during burials of elderly people in some communities have nothing to do with appeasing the soul of the departed.

“Those activities are not biblical. As Christians, we believe when someone dies, their soul goes into the afterlife and the body is left. That is why we believe all the things we are witnessing are only done to satisfy other interests,” said Amusavi.

Amusavi said planting the fig trees on graves and all the other cultural activities some clans are carrying out when someone dies is more of worshipping gods instead of the only one true God.

"We understand that our communities have cultures they follow. However, we must ensure these activities do not go against God's teaching to the level people appear to be worshipping idols. We must ensure these traditions don't interfere with Christianity," Rev Amusavi said. 

Itenya said a fig tree is a revered plant that cannot be used for other purposes, not even firewood. "The tree plays a critical role in preserving our culture and the environment."

Welakha said there are special circumstances under which the fig trees are cut down. "The tree can only be cut down by the eldest brother of a dead person. It is however a rare occurrence," he said.

He added: "Elders may sanction the cutting down of the fig tree. When that happens, the person allowed to cut it down must be a married man whose children are adults. The person must be at least 60-years-old. We don't know yet what informed the restrictions, on age and family. Graves are regarded sacred places,” said Maurice.

The widow or widows of the departed and underage children are not allowed to witness the planting of the fig trees on the grave.

"It is considered a taboo for them to be at the ceremony as it is believed that something terrible would happen to them," Maurice said.

Overgrown fig tree at a gravesite in Ebushitsiula village, Ikolomani. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

He however noted that many people are also beginning to lean towards the church. "We are now allowing the church to pray and bless a grave before the fig trees are planted."

Maurice sought to clarify that their culture has nothing to do with witchcraft as some people have claimed. "We have only chosen to observe the traditions of our forefathers."

If the deceased was a good person, the fig tree will thrive and die if the person was a "sinner". 

During the tree-planting ceremony, Walekha said, a cock is slaughtered and its blood sprinkled on the grave "to connect the living, the dead, and their ancestors".  The elders also drink traditional brews at the grave.

It is the dead man's eldest adult grandson who is allowed to slaughter the cock. Children and women are not allowed to eat the meat.