There are characters, then there are characters at Kenyan funerals. Though funerals are sad and sombre occasions, these mourners provide for fascinating people-watching episodes when paying last respects.
You will find the gossiper, the ‘FBI surveillance officer,’ the village mad man, the show-off, the city slay queens, the township mongrel and those who came to cause chaos, including the mpango and her brood, not forgetting the hungry who attend funerals to feast, and those who fight for funeral programmes. They are all in attendance.
Then there are those in Central Kenya who take funerals in far-flung outposts as chances for ‘Tembea Kenya’ trips, punctuated by binge drinking and nyama choma stops along the way.
Moses Mutua, a sociology lecturer at Moi University, says there’s no single or specifically defined way to mourn and people will always behave differently since “human beings are naturally social. You can never confine people to behave the same way.
You can’t put them in a corner to do one thing. That’s why you’ll find different behaviours at a funeral.”
He added that: “People have different motives in life and as some are genuinely mourning, others will be picking crucial information about the deceased or the cause of their death - especially if the death was mysterious.”
From Luo Nyanza to Central, Western to Eastern Kenya, here are the characters you will encounter at Kenyan funerals:
The mushene brigade
The mushene mourner is not normally there to cry, but to check out who is wailing the loudest to ascertain whether it’s the second wife or the mpango. That will provide good gossip fodder on the return journey if wife number one does not even shed a tear.
The mushene mourner is also gifted in assessing a deceased family’s lifestyle in Nairobi, where they have a home in Karen, but live in a grass-thatched hamlet in Sambakhalu.
If there is a battle over property and some children don’t resemble the deceased, the mushene will even be juicier.
Ann Wambui, a businesswoman from Central Kenya says gossip is a must, especially for those whose urban lives were incongruent with their rural realities “and we have to make sure it’s all laid bare.”
The road trip mourners
Some Kenyans, especially from Central Kenya, long turned funerals into drinking parties; drinking overnight and literally blacking out on burial day.
They always ensure they have the funeral programme in their cars as they make return journeys, drinking back to the cities. The drinking is even worse if the deceased was a drinking partner at the local.
Maina Njunji, a financial consultant in Nairobi who hails from Subukia, explains that “according to Kikuyu culture, any social gathering was supposed to be curtained-raised with beer.
This is why people, especially the ones who travel from far, drink a lot on the eve of a burial. It works best for people who are relatively well-off financially in the community.”
A variation of the above are the party-goers, mostly skimpily-dressed slay queens out to take selfies with odd captions to attract likes and comments on social media.
When guys are around the bonfire listening to soft traditional gospel songs, the slay queen will be at high-end pubs in the nearby shopping centre whining and dining with ‘new friends’.
She can’t sing bye bye oh we shall meet, instead ‘Odi dance’ rocks her mind at the grave with serious hangover following last night’s party.
Funeral programme warriors
This is a common commotion all over Kenya, rushing to grab funeral programmes to see pictures and read the story of the dead despite having known them when alive. Maina Njunji explains that the practice among the Kikuyu, whose legendary scramble for funeral programmes has mourners being thrown legs up into tea bushes, was inherited from the church.
“It is historic. It was adopted from the church,” he says. “The PCEA church printed booklets for worshippers to help them follow the proceedings and understand the correct pronunciation of words, since most Kikuyus are heavily loaded with accent. Kikuyus are very funny. They adopted it everywhere.
"That’s how the funeral programme became very important in Central Kenya. Everyone runs for the programmes in order to follow what’s happening at the event, the history of the deceased and sometimes the programme acts as evidence of burial attendance.”
Njunji adds that they fight for funeral programmes to go home with evidence and “it gets even serious for mourners who travelled from the city and must show the wife who remained behind that they were at the funeral. Such mourners will do anything to secure the programme.”
The absentee siblings
There is that person in the family, often a son, who got lost in the big city and has never been seen since the 1982 coup attempt. He is often the first or the second born.
Sometimes he’s the son who went abroad after winning the Green Card to the America. Mutua explains that: “Last born children are always present at burials because they are attached to their parents. But in some cases, kids avail themselves at funerals to get their share of the deceased’s property. The ones who don’t attend are already well-placed in life”, he said, adding that, “However, if you see a son absent from a burial, most of the time there’s an issue within the family.”
The show-off mourners
Funerals are a major stage for showing off the latest fashion, car models and generally how well one is doing. For that, you have to arrive with a ‘swag’, starring the latest smartphone, designer clothes, shoes and fuel guzzlers, car-keys dangling from dainty fingers in one hand, mineral water in the other. No rural cholera for this people, please.
These mostly urbanites can’t stop talking about their MBAs and will always disassociate with the rest, having some hearty laughter as they speak sheng.
For those leaving in the city’s slums, rugged jeans and second-hand shoes are their main items to ng’aria watu wa ushago. Then sheng crowns it all.
These Nairobi mourners also have special tents and food from the high table. Wambui says urbanites assert their authority by showing they lead a better life than their rural folk, so as “to create a difference, some even go the extra mile of wearing matching clothes to distinguish themselves from the rest.”
The main motive is “psychological and ego thing; the urge to show you’re working and living well,” Wambui explains.
A trip to shags is a chance to dandia free transport to visit their cucu, but amazingly duck contributing over the same. They are literally thankful for the death and directs the people at home to gather goodies to be carried by the same ‘bus’ back to Nairobi after the burial.
Then there is that lot that travelled to shags much earlier over unrelated matters but then got stuck for lack of fare to return to the city. Now that gari ya maiti is in ushago, they will be the first ones to secure a seat in the bus for the return trip back to the city.
Wife inheritance is something which was, and is still practised, among the Luo, Luhya and Meru communities.
The Luo Council of Elders member Mzee Silas Odhiambo Apuoyo or ‘Apuoyo Biggy’, says that among the Luo, “the inheritor was ever present at burials. In most cases, they are the masters of ceremony.
They know the dead very well and talk about him in details.” He added that: “Nowadays, inheritors do business, not like in the past when the friend or a brother to the deceased was the inheritor. But these days, people read obituaries in newspapers to identify who to approach. They go for rich women.”
Mzee Joseph Maingi says that among the Ameru, wife inheritance is fading because of sexually transmitted diseases and complexity of modern families. Mzee Gregory Makhokha meanwhile observes that the Luhya adopted the practice from the Luo as “they are our neighbours.”
You won’t easily notice them, but they ensure all customs are observed during the burial. Among the Abagusii, they conduct rituals on the body so that the it is not exhumed by ‘cannibals’ at night.
“The traditionalist will pass a needle through the deceased’s cloth before the body is buried. This is meant to protect the body from exhumation,” an old Kisii mzee explained, adding that: “When the witches call the dead, he will be busy knitting using the needle. That’s the belief.”
Among the Luo, the traditionalist cleanses the unmarried “for instance, the bereaved’s hair have to be shaved. They must also drink manyasi before departing for their various destinations or homes,” Mzee Apuoyo elaborated.
“If a bachelor dies, his foot is pricked with a thorn, while a bachelorette is buried next to the fence and there is someone who ensures all that happens,” he explained.
The Meru traditionalist ensures the bachelor is not buried in the compound.
The mad man
The mad man in Western and Luo Nyanza is very important, especially if the deceased is a woman. Among the Luhya, Mzee Makhokha says, “if a woman dies before being cleansed (sleeping with the inheritor) following the death of her husband, that has to be done when she dies. A man who looks lost is approached and drowned in alcohol then let to lie on the coffin. That way, the woman is cleansed,” says Mzee Apuoyo.
Most are boda boda and tuk tuk operators who wail loudly while hooting towards the bereaved home. The wails get louder in the compound.
Mzee Apuoyo says the pressure to mourn like in the old days has forced the bereaved to hire mourners. In the past, there was tero buru, a Luo term for mourning which entailed trekking with cows, accompanied by loud mourning, towards the deceased’s home.
Apuoyo says that hiring mourners is now being abused, since mourners were originally called diel men, and they meant good at funerals.
“The diel men originated from Kano in Kisumu County in the 1950s. Originally, they were a group of people, who willingly mourned and offered comic relief at funerals as a way of celebrating the dead.
They were usually conspicuous in their glamorous clothes. “They are the ones who have given birth to the current breed of hired mourners. They position themselves around mortuaries and hospitals in search of ‘jobs,’” he said.
The hungry tigers
Feasting is a must at Luo funerals as mzee Akong’o Omonde from Homa Bay explains, explaining that “food is the first priority when someone dies in the Luo community.
In their minds, mourners are always sure of feeding properly immediately after a burial because that’s the culture,” he said, adding that, “This complicates things if the food is not enough for all. It occasionally results in fistfights, as everyone seeks to grab a piece of that nyama ugali.”
The village drunk
The village drunk last drew a sober breath in primary school. A beauty to watch, but also a thorn in the flesh, the drunk, invariably a man, has ways of spilling the beans about how the deceased died. He’s the one who will blurt that the deceased was “searching for wealth in banks using a gun.”
He will also reveal the friends and foes of the deceased and all the co-wives and children who don’t resemble him, before he’s quickly kicked out.
The village mongrel
Village dogs even, Murang’a Shepherds, have ways of sniffing out where to pick bones at funerals. They will trek over 10 kilometres to the funerals, hungrily baying for crumbs.
And don’t be surprised if mongrel and master meet at the funeral, with the latter scavenging for bones at the funeral to feed his canine friend.
The eulogy reader/chief fainter
In most cases, these are daughters, mothers or wives to the deceased who are strategically located next to the door or exits, so that when the fainting happens, they’re shoulder-dragged to safety.
Never mind, they insist on viewing the body and the fainting begins 100 metres away as their legs give in when the grease in their knees turns to jelly.
Their fainting continues at the first thud of soil on top of the coffin when they roll to the pastors’ feet, groaning as if a bayonet has been driven through their backsides.
In most funerals, the fainter also doubles up as the eulogy reader. Yes, you guessed it, they faint halfway through reading yet there is no first aid kit around.
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