Amid the melodious beat of traditional drums (isukuti), four bulls went at the mound of fresh soil above the grave with a chilling ferociousness. They represented the last part of an elaborate burial process among the Vashitsula sub-clan of the Angusu clan in Kakamega County.
In line with the centuries-old tradition, Raphael Ichechi Musebe, a 102-year-old Second World War veteran, who died recently, was buried in a sitting position.
His remains were enclosed in a coffin whose outline indicated a sitting position.
The six-foot-high coffin measured four feet by three at the base. On the outside, the unique casket was covered in a brown-flowered velvet material with silver-coloured handles on the side and back.
"The Vashitsula bury their heroes in a sitting position," said 58-year-old Daniel Shikoto, a real estate manager based in Nairobi.
They are descendants of the Wanga tribe in Mumias who migrated and first settled at Sabatia in Butere sub-county before spreading out and finally settling in the present Idakho North area”.
He added: "We are descendants of the Wanga tribe, the only people who had a King and Kingdom in Kenya.
Among the Wanga, heroes were buried in a sitting position directly in front of the house facing the front door. According to custom, this does not only signify utmost respect, it allows the dead man to watch over his homestead even in death.
A sitting position signifies vigilance as opposed to lying on one’s back, a sign of helplessness."
No one with bad intentions can visit a homestead where the owner was buried in a sitting position,” Shikoto said.
Among the Luhya, other sub-clans that conduct upright burials include the Balunda clan of the Bukusu, the Kabras and the Tachoni.
Inside the coffin, the dead man is in a sitting position. To stop the body from toppling forward, a wooden bar is laid across the chest and secured on the sides of the coffin.
“With his legs held together, it is important to make sure that the man’s sexual organ faces up, not lie facing down between his thighs. Traditionally, that ensures virility and continuity of his lineage," said elder Adrian Luvando. The burial of such honoured individuals is normally conducted in two phases.
The church is allowed to conduct the first phase of the burial ceremony under Christian values. By agreement, traditional rites must be held back until the clergy leave the homestead.
Thereafter, bulls are let loose to fight over the grave amid drumbeats and dance.
In the excitement, sometimes people get hurt by the bulls when one bolts, but that has not diminished the people’s faith in their unique culture.
The instance in which bulls fight over the grave is known as ‘Shirembe'. According to the custom, not every male merits the honour of Shirembe. For an elder to be buried in a sitting position and have Shirembe performed, he should meet certain prerequisites.
First, he must at least have a son who is circumcised. If the deceased only had daughters, they must be married and have children. More importantly, however, he must have fought in a war and emerged the only survivor among his peers who set out for the war.
“If a man dies without having a circumcised son, or if his daughters are not married, he will still be buried in a sitting position but the Shirembe will not be performed," said elder Lawrence Shipoche.
Musebe merited the elaborate last rites because he was the sole survivor of a group of individuals in his village who fought in the Second World War.
He joined the King's African Rifles that fought wars on behalf of the British colonialists in many countries, including Burma, Afghanistan, Jordan, Turkey and Germany in 1943.
He came back from the war in 1946 and got married two years later.
Community Administrator James Amboso says “If a prominent man is not buried in a sitting position as tradition demands, calamity will befall the homestead. His children either start dying one by one in close succession or some of them even run mad”.
Shockingly, after the burial and bullfight at the graveside, villagers clear all plants on the dead man’s farm and heap everything atop his fresh grave.
The leaves and twigs are removed after three days when, in case of Catholics, the Father who conducted the burial comes back to plant the cross.
The pandemonium that follows burial does not allow the immediate laying of the cross on the graveside. While the destruction of crops is a recipe for hunger, elders aver it is the opposite.
“After that has been done, the crops grow back healthier and in abundance within a very short time," said George Atemba Muteshi, an elder.
There is more to the burial rites as Community Administrator Chris Shimonyo explains.
“More elaborate rites come after the Shirembe for two to three days. For instance, a Mugumo tree is planted on the grave.
A ceremony called ‘yambeva’ is then conducted. Yambeva entails a grandchild of the dead man breaking traditional cooking the cooking pot that was used to cook the deceased’s meals at the latter’s front door. That is believed to set his spirit free.
While one would expect variance between cultural values and Christianity, Father Edward Mulama of the Catholic Church who conducted Musebe’s burial said there was no clash between Christian values and traditions.
However, he stressed the need to do away with cultures that are outdated and serve no purpose today.
“Christianity is based on Jewish customs. Thus, any good religion is based on culture. In any case, Christianity found us steeped in our own cultures. Christianity must therefore co-exist with our cultures, but they must be in accord since the two must co-exist at some point,” Mulama said.