The recent Ethiopian air crash in which all passengers including more than 30 Kenyans perished left no bodies to bury. “Not even a skull” the officials told the bereaved.
Only fragmented remains survived the impact that resulted in fire decimating passengers including over 120 foreigners. While some Kenyans grouped and began funeral arrangements, revelations that there were no bodies left one gaping question: How do different Kenyan communities inter their loved ones without a body?
Ann Mogoi was a 30-year-old who perished less than two years to completing her PhD studies in water engineering in Switzerland.
The only daughter in her family hailed from Kisii.
After visiting the scene of the air crash in Ethiopia and taking DNA samples, her parents Benson and Lorna Birundu said a memorial service for their daughter would be held at the end of March in their rural home in Kisii.
“As Christians, we will proceed with a church service at home to communicate to the large community and immediate family that one of us has left and never to be seen again,” explained Birundu, adding that from the scene of the accident, it was evident that identifying bodies “is a process that will take more than one year and we don’t want to keep the immediate family waiting for all that time.”
But Gusii Council of Elders chairman Araka Matundura said that the Kisii community traditionally slaughtered a sheep and buried it with intestines as part of closure.
“Things have changed but initially a sheep could be slaughtered, intestines removed that it could be buried deep into the grave. This mostly applied in cases where somebody was swept by water and the body never recovered.”
However, Kisii County Director of Culture, Obino Nyambane said that the bereaved also have the option of burying the ashes collected at the site of the accident just that “It is not something an individual will have to decide, the family and elders should be given time to decide on how to bury the remains of their loved ones.”
Among the victims in the ill-fated plane were three passengers from Western Kenya.
Martin Wanyonyi, a Bukusu elder said that the Bukusu bury a banana stem (mgomba wa ndizi) and the rituals are more or less the same for those who get lost or drown never to be seen again.
“Bukusu elders will call an Omukulo (a group of 10 people from a different clan who normally do this job) are hired by the family of the deceased to conduct the rituals. The elders will talk to the banana stem in words no one understands before its lowered to the grave,” said the 75-year-old adding that elders talk to the stem (symbolizing the deceased) to appease the spirits not to torment the family and the lineage in future.
Elders were believed to have wisdom of appealing to the dead not to invoke calamity to the bereaved family.
“If the family of the deceased relative can get to the place (where plane crash occurred), they can take soil for burial and not the ash (ash might be of different people and bring misfortunes after burial). It’s referred to as ‘Kuleta Kivuli nyumbani’ so that the dead won’t send calamity for deserting him/her at the scene of accident,” said Wanyonyi adding that a sheep is then slaughtered after ‘burial’, and the elders then check its intestines to predict who and why their kin had to die a painful death and whether the same will befall his family in future and the “relatives are then smeared with the sheep’s offal (obuse).”
Julius Andati, a Butsotso, a 65-year old elder added that in case of more than one member like for the case of a family in Nakuru that lost five of its members, five banana stems are buried in five different graves and five elders called to speak to them in a language the other people don’t understand.
Shadrach Muruka, a retired ACK Maseno North diocese clergy, said he has never conducted a service for a missing body and he cautions that “relatives should not take ash since it might be mixed with other people. Let the take soil at the scene of crash, take soil and come home and bury it. We will conduct a normal service and read the holy books as usual.”
Rev Alex Ondumbu, the ACK Maseno North diocese administrator added that there is belief that the spirit of the dead is already with God waiting for the judgment after the church has conducted a normal service of a departed person.
The Kamba people from Eastern Kenya also had customs to deal with those who had been eaten by wild animals or went missing.
Luke Nzioka lost his nephew, Bernard Musembi Mutua, in the Ethiopian plane crash and he told The Nairobian that they were planning to conduct a Catholic Mass as “nothing of tradition will be allowed. We will follow Catholic rites.”
Pauline Mutinda who performs traditional rituals told The Nairobian that relatives have to go to Ethiopia and fetch soil for a burial ceremony at the home of the deceased after which a goat would be slaughtered.
“We would pour blood on the ground to deceive ghosts and any demanded disagreement in between the family and the deceased person,” she explained adding that the blood signified that there will never happen a similar incident in that family.
The soil fetched from the accident scene was placed where the victim’s grave was dug.
James Kisia, 88, from Machakos County said that “we do not bury something that is not there. This applies to everyone despite their gender” and that rituals following such incidents are restricted to family members and the persons performing the rituals as “it is not time of happiness, no one is supposed to be enjoying until the time of mourning elapses.”
Kisia added that performers of the rituals were not supposed to have sex prior to the ceremony and family members were not supposed to have marriage ceremonies or have sex as during “mourning it is against our culture.”
Thome wa Akamba elder Joseph Kavutha reiterated that the rituals are for creating good bonds and destroying the bad.