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The art of mourning for a living
By EDITH OSIRO | Updated Jan 12, 2016 at 08:02 EAT

Funerals have all their pomp and rituals in the world over and in Kenya, none are famed for their practices as the Luo. In a very modernistic world, Luos have to maintain funeral rituals just like many other Kenyan tribes. Having lived in the cosmopolitan yet dominantly Luo city of Kisumu, I can safely say that funerals are a big deal that can bring the town to a standstill.

Every Friday the bodies of the deceased are released from the mortuary. Unless one is a Muslim, Luo burials tend to last more than a week. The wake may be done in the town residence before heading to the village home. The wake allows relatives, friends, acquaintances and the prominent people enough time to view the body for the last time. This is why it is unheard of that in Luo Nyanza, the wrong body was picked from the mortuary or buried. The wake is most crucial at night where it is culturally believed to keep the spirit of the deceased company as it begins the transition to the afterlife. Ironically, the mood may be one of happiness with music, dance and feasting. Hence the name disco matanga that has a gained a notoriety for aiding spread of HIV/AIDS and immorality among the locals. Churches have come up against the move by having keshas or night praise-and-worship sessions. The financial burden of wakes has long been debated in favour of doing away with them or minimising the duration- pretty much like an expensive wedding that leaves the newly married couple penniless.

Proper mourning guarantees the spirit a peaceful resting place. If you think it is all folly, talk to Kenyans who have attended burial ceremonies with events bordering on the weird. Testimonies of hearses refusing to budge despite being in ship-shape condition, corpses falling out of coffins and suddenly being too big to enter, corpses getting a beating and being told to "go home peacefully" and recently in Mumias, a coffin erupting in fire from the inside and burning the corpse. Whether you lived in London all your life, burials in the African soil have to be done according to age-old tradition.

Very rarely are women shaved or wives' inherited but the particulars of mourning are maintained. The more, the merrier because the louder their howls and cries. It also speaks of one’s prominence. The cries have to be shrill, enacted as though they were real. Mourners accompany the hearse as a motorcade as it leaves the mortuary and heads to the final burying place. Branches are waved and horns hooted to get as much attention as possible. Where does one get all this manpower? At the rural home, it could be from the relatives. In town, the few relatives might be too busy grieving so you hire mourners stationed outside funeral homes. They come as a mob, with or without their transport. One bargains according to the distance and duration of service.

The job has its risks. Some mourners have been outrun by the hearses and left penniless after services rendered. Since business peaks on Friday, one could have clashing contracts if time schedules are not strictly adhered to. One has to have lots of energy to pull off the stunt and belong to a crew where the leader splits the money evenly at the end of the contract. The jobs may be far and few in between and not to mention that the common cold can rob you of your tool of trade. Not a bad way to earn an extra coin though.


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