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How Embu people usher their dead into the world of souls

CENTRAL
By By FILEX MURIITHI | July 13th 2013

By FILEX MURIITHI 

In Embu traditional lore, a dead person is treated with due respect, just like people who are alive.  

When a person dies, it does not matter if he or she was a child or an adult, a special ceremony known as Macakaya is arranged and starts immediately to usher the dead to the new ‘world of souls.’ 

The ceremony goes for almost a week with area residents converging with the mourners daily for the ceremony. 

“It doesn’t matter whether the deceased was your enemy or your greatest friend when he or she was alive. We strengthen the family of the dead by praying and working together until the deceased is buried,” Ndatua Maria, 105, says. 

Usually, residents contribute the supplies that would be used during that time. Some bring firewood as others bring water and others help with household chores. All these things are done to date though not on a largescale as was the case before. 

Kikwetu recently visited a burial ceremony in Kimbu village to the East of Runyenjes town, Embu County.

On the burial date, all young men converged at the deceased’s home to prepare Mbirira (a six foot grave where he will be laid to rest). 

Ndatua says: “Those who dig the grave approximate its depth. You are not supposed to measure with a ruler or any other measuring tool. You use your eyes when digging it. Women are not allowed to come near the grave during the process.” 

The grave

Though nothing is paid to those who prepare Mbirira, some food is prepared for them. Mostly, the region prefers ugali with cabbage and meat. The meal is prepared by men and eaten immediately the grave is complete. 

Unlike other holes like those of pit latrines, where stepping notches are carved into its sides, people from the region don’t carve them when preparing the grave. Kikwetu crew found this interesting and waited with wide-open eyes to see how the last person would get out of the ditch. 

Mama Ndatua tells us the grave is prepared with due respect.

She says: “The last person is an expert. He makes sure that all ‘walls’ and surface are leveled. It can take three to four hours to complete it.”   

“They know how to remove the one leveling. Several huge men hold a strong rod and pull him outside with it,” Antony Gitonga aka Ndumbu, a leveler says. 

When it has been completed, ugali is ready and people are served.

Mr Gitonga, 34, is an expert who levels almost every grave in the area. He says everyone, no matter the age, can eat the meal. 

He says: “It shows unity. We are only served with cabbages mixed with meat on the plastic plates and everyone picks ugali pieces that are already sliced and placed at a strategic place on a sufuria where all people would pick. You eat to your satisfaction.”

 Direction of head

After the meal is over, all men disperse leaving area women and family members to set space where the burial ceremony would take place. 

Mr Gitonga says that when one has played a role on preparing the grave, it is not a must to attend the ceremony although some elders in the area have refuted it. 

“All parts of the burial ceremony are important. You should start and end with the mourners,” Abida Gicuku, 74, says adding that nowadays, young men leave proceedings to ‘look for money.’

“Some young men have no white collar jobs and thus they work on vibaruas (hard labour) to earn a living,” she adds. 

Embu people are buried with their heads facing Mount Kenya. The Mountain is located to the North of Embu County. Embu ancestors believed that Mwene Nyaga (God) stayed in Mount Kenya. 

“The reason they are buried like that is because God lived there. We must be respectful to our God. We believed that when the dead’s feet face towards Mount Kenya direction, we will be lacking respect to our creator. We don’t want to ‘step’ on the altar,” Anisia Mbeere, 84, explains to Kikwetu. 

Embu people honour Mount Kenya as they believe their creator lived there and their ancestors carried their sacrifices in the place. Mama Mbeere says that Mount Kenya Forest also veiled (atoi) Mau Mau war veterans from the region and says it deserves more respect.

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