We are not haunted by evil spirits - says mortician

By - Jan 1st 1970

Some people refer to us as social outcasts but our occupation is like any other job. These are the words of Fred Olela, the mortician in charge of the Homa Bay County Referral Hospital mortuary.

There is a perception that morticians are people who are haunted by evil spirits. In some communities, people assign discriminatory names to them. In the Luo community, they are referred to as Onyango Otoyo.

Semantically, Onyango is a Luo name assigned to a male child born in the mid-morning. Otoyo is a synonym for the word Ondiek which means a hyena. Therefore, the name Onyango Otoyo creates a perception that morticians are compared to hyenas.

Some people do not understand them and hold a perception that they are connected with evil spirits, which gives them the courage to handle human bodies.

At Homa Bay County Referral we met the 34-year-old Olela who is a resident of Awendo Sub-county in Migori County. Olela is one of the people who is grappling with stereotyping utterances about morticians.

He explained the origin of the name Onyango Otoyo which is assigned to people working in mortuaries in the Luo community. According to Olela, the name resulted from a man called Onyango who used to work as a mortuary attendant in a Kisumu county hospital about 50 years ago.

Onyango used to eat in a filthy place, in the room where human bodies were preserved. At times he could touch the bodies with bare hands and eat ugali before washing his hands.

“Many people fear human bodies, whether they belong to relatives or not. When people saw Onyango touch human bodies with his hands and eat before washing the hands, they considered him inhuman and compared him to a hyena hence the name Onyango Otoyo,” Olela said.

Since then, many members of the Luo community have always referred to people working in morgues as Onyango Otoyo.

The fact that people who handle bodies in a mortuary do not fear the bodies makes many people uncomfortable with them. That is the reason for many myths and misconceptions about morticians.

Such myths include the tag Onyango Otoyo and being associated with demons.

But Olela is out to demystify the tags saying it is baseless.

On the job, they treat bodies using chemicals and place them in cold storage facilities. Morticians have separate rooms where they sit and conduct their administrative duties.

“The narrative that morticians eat in the same room where bodies are preserved is far-fetched. The environment in which we work is very clean and we take care of any issue which can lead to infections. We don’t conduct ourselves like Onyango Otoyo,” Olela said.

What many people do not know is that many people who handle bodies in mortuaries are professionals who undergo academic training in universities or colleges.

Olela argued that their job is similar to that of doctors, nurses, journalists, teachers, and other professionals who were trained for what they do.

“Morticians are people with academic training. Our work is similar to that of other professionals. Nobody should look down upon us because this is a lucrative source of livelihood,” Olela said.

Olela developed an interest in the job in 2012. His interest was motivated by the late Boaz Odhiambo Ondiek who was a mortician at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital Mortuary in Kisumu. Odhiambo was later elected as Kibiri ward MCA in Homa Bay County in 2013.

How I became a mortician

By then, Olela was working in the hospital as a clerk.

“I took time to monitor Ondiek and concluded that he was the neatest person in the hospital. I developed an interest and made inquiries on how to become a mortician,” Olela said.

He saved money and joined the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo Campus in 2015 where he graduated with a certificate in Mortuary Science.

“Today, I am planning to start my diploma in Mortuary Science. So this is a professional job,” Olela said.

Olela has been on the job since 2016 and has worked in four mortuaries. A social challenge affecting morticians is that some people view them as social outcasts. But Olela argues that the view is wrong because it results from the failure of such people to understand the nature of their job.

Olela said the negative attitude cannot deter him from doing his job.

“People who do not understand our job view us as social outcasts but that is false. We are people with families and have always stood firm against such perceptions.  I am proud of making various achievements in life,” Olela added.

 He argued that morticians are people who raise their families like any other worker in Kenya.

“We have families and this is a very good job which I enjoy,” he added. Olela argued that the job can help reduce unemployment in the country if the youth embrace it.

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