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ELECTION 2022

Mijikenda rites that have stood the test of time

COAST
By Patrick Beja | Jan 17th 2022 | 4 min read

Kaya elder Shaban Ndegwa leading prayers during a past event at Kasemeni Grounds, Kwale County, 2015. [Gideon Maundu, Standard]

Among the Mijikenda, if a pregnant woman dies, her womb is opened by a widower to remove the fetus, which is then laid on her chest during burial.

According to Shaban Ndegwa, 65, a Duruma elder and custodian of Kaya Mtswakara in Kinango, Kwale County, this is to prevent such calamities from befalling the family.

For a stillbirth, the baby is buried at the water point inside the house. A first-born child who dies after suckling is interred at the parents’ door-step.

These rituals are meant to prevent bad omen or calamities such as prolonged droughts and hunger in the community.

According to Ndegwa, if a child dies before or during birth, the body is wrapped in a black cloth from the grandmother. It (body) is then laid on castor leaves and buried.

“The black cloth must be from the grandmother and the body must be laid on castor leaves. All this is to stop such deaths from visiting the family,” Ndegwa explained.

Some families still hold onto these burial rituals while some have discarded them because of Christianity and Islam.

Dominating the Kenyan Coast, the Mijikenda comprise the Digo, Giriama, Duruma, Chonyi, Rabai, Kauma, Kambe, Ribe and Jibana.

The communities, whose traditions are similar, also have burial rituals around death resulting from killings and accidents.

It is common to see a grave by the roadside, river or under a coconut plant, depending on the nature of death.

“Such bodies are not supposed to be put in the houses and cleansing of the family using a sheep has to be done," said Mzee Ali Abdalla Mnyenze, 92, a Digo elder and chairman of Kaya Kinondo.

He said a Mijikenda who drowns at sea is buried at the shores of the ocean to stop such misfortune (chera) from visiting the family again.

Traditionally, the person may be buried after two days. The dances the deceased liked such as Kayamba or Kifudu are staged to give them a lovely sendoff.

Usually, women wail as part of tradition to honour loved ones.

The body is wrapped in white cloth and laid on a mat inside the chambered grave. if the victim was an elder, the burial is performed by fellow elders.

This is accompanied by a period of mourning and celebrations lasting four to five days, where bulls, goats and sheep are slaughtered.

“If the person was a medicine man or woman, the elders will return to the homestead after 40 days to perform dances overnight and install a relative to take over the trade,” said Mnyenze, a herbalist in Msambweni Subcounty.

Among the Duruma, when someone was killed by a machete or a knife, his or her family was asked to give a bull which was slaughtered inside a kaya forest (shrine) to cleanse the killer weapon in a ceremony known as ‘chirurumo’.

If someone died a bachelor and childless, a flaming firewood would be extinguished inside his grave to stop his spirit from ‘making demands’ to the living through dreams.

“We believe that if this is done, there will be no time that the dead will appear in a relative’s dream to make any kind of demand,” Ndegwa stated.

Mr Joseph Mwarandu, a Giriama elder, said the burial of an elder in the rank of a Gohu (traditional priest) is elaborate.

An animal is slaughtered and the body wrapped in the fresh skin in his honour. Timber is laid on both sides of the body inside the grave.

As women wail, songs and dances such as bumbumbu, chiringongo, namba, kayamba and kifudu are usually played to ‘appease him or her’ and to entertain the mourners.

“One of the most elaborate burial rites was performed for former custodian of Kaya Fungo Mzee Simba Wanje. When he died at Pandya Memorial Hospital, they offered us a coffin but we rejected it because it had nails. Instead we used local timber to bury him in accordance with tradition,” said Mwarandu, who is secretary general of the Malindi District Cultural Association and prominent lawyer.

Kutsuha kifo was performed 'to cast away death'. It's a traditional rite whereby the widow is made to have sex with a hired man, from outside the tribe, before she can be inherited by a close relative, usually a brother or cousin.

“The stranger known as ‘muwanda’ and the widow are taken to a thicket for the ritual sex before he leaves without looking back. This is believed to cast away the spirit of death so as to allow the widow to be safely inherited,” Mwarandu explained.

This ritual is dying because of the prevalence of HIV and the growing influence of Christianity and Islam which are against the tradition.

Kaya Fungo elder and former curator with the National Museums of Kenya John Mitsanze said although not common these days, the death of an adult member of the community was announced through a funeral dirge known as ‘kidunduruma’. The dirge brought mourners to the home. 

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