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Among the Bukusu the dead had to earn and not demand respect

By Nathan Ochunge | January 1st 2021 at 12:30:50 GMT +0300

Until the 1940s, the Bukusu dumped bodies of the dead in forests, believing that animals only ate the carcases of the morally upright, ways that started fading when the need to stop communicable diseases set in. Woe onto you if you committed suicide as your body will be whipped "until tears rolled down your cheeks."

The tell-tale signs are barely discernible. And when it happens, death hits family and friends like a thunderbolt.

Why didn’t we see it coming? Why did they do it? Why couldn’t we stop them? How could they do this to us? These questions rush through the minds of relatives and friends on losing a loved one.  

Many people fear death yet it is inevitable and brings with it sorrow to the relatives of the deceased.

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Different communities across the country have a special way mourning the demise of their loved ones but this depended on how the deceased died.

For instance, the dead were never buried among the Bukusu community until the appearance of missionaries.

Instead, the bodies would be dumped at a designated place in the middle of the forest where they would rot or be devoured by hyenas, foxes, wolves, dogs and vultures.

According to Ben Ndalila,73, they started burying dead people in early 1940s after they were taught by missionaries the importance of interment.

"We started burying the dead to control the spread of diseases like chickenpox and measles," said the former primary school teacher from Namawanga village in Lwandanyi ward, Bungoma county.

According to Ndalila, after dumping bodies in the forest, relatives and the community at large would celebrate in honour of the departed loved one, the event involved slaughtering of animals and partaking of busaa beer.

"If the dead person was considered a bad omen in the community (murderer or thief), wild animals and vultures would not touch his remains. Wild animals and birds could only eat the carcass of a person considered of upright and good morals while he was still alive in accordance to our beliefs," said Ndalila.

73-year old Ben Ndalila during an interview with Standard Digital at his home in Namawanga Village in Bungoma County. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

But, what happens to someone who committed suicide, drowned in a river, killed or was struck by lightning?

As per the Bukusu traditions, elaborate rituals are conducted to cleanse the living and ensure ‘the bad omen’ does not recur.

"A suicidal man was thrown far away and his body would not be taken into the forest. No bull or goat was slaughtered, maybe a sheep, whose blood was meant to cleanse and protect the departed man's children and relatives. However, no child would be named after such a man. The sheep was killed through strangulation and only those above 50 years of age were allowed to partake of the meat," said Ndalila.

Isaac Misiko,70, a Bukusu elder and a traditional healer, says those who died by hanging themselves were first whipped thoroughly "until tears rolled down their cheeks" before their bodies were disposed of.

He says that Omukulo (a group of 10 people) from a different clan would be hired to whip the dead at a fee by the family of the deceased. Today, those who die by suicide are buried at midnight.

"The dead are buried at this ungodly hour so that their spirit does not come back to haunt the family members. No one, including family members, is supposed to witness when or where the corpse is buried," Misiko explains.

After the burial, he adds, the Omukulo are given a bull and a ram. The ram is slaughtered and used for cleansing, together with a concoction of traditional herbs to protect themselves and their families from being haunted by the spirit of the dead. 

"The same burial rite applies to a person who drowns either by accident or through suicide, and those who succumb to fire or road accidents or are struck by lightning. It is a bad omen," explains Misiko.

Bukusu elder Isaac Misiko. [File, Standard]

And when someone drowns in your presence, you must spend several nights at the river bank until his or her body is found and retrieved from the water.

A ram and a cock were slaughtered and the meat roasted and eaten without Ugali next to the spot where the victim drowned.

"When someone drowns in your presence, you are not supposed to go back home until the body is retrieved from the water. If you go to your house, the deceased’s eshishieno (spirit) will start haunting you for deserting them," said Misiko.

He notes that by leaving the scene, one could make the mission of retrieving the body impossible because it is believed the dead will ‘get angry and hide’ from the rescuers. 

"Once the body is retrieved a brief ritual involving slaughtering of a ram and a cock has to be done," says Misiko.

"Everyone present must eat the meat and step on the animal’s open rumen and use dirt from it to smear their bodies as a part of the cleansing procedures. If the victim happens to be a woman, a hen and an ewe would be slaughtered," said Job Butalia, another elder.

According to Butalia, if the dead person had not sired any children at the age of 60 years and above, elders would be forced to punch a hole in the wall to create a temporary door in his house through which the body would be taken out to his final resting place.

"A sheep is slaughtered and the meat eaten by the old folks presumed to have menopause age. If the dead person was arrogant, the elders burying him will put on facemasks and no child is named after such a person," said Butalia.

Retired ACK Canon Melkzadeck Maboko, 92, says if a young man dies in his 20s and was not married, he will be buried after two days and a small ceremony will just be held.

"In Bukusu culture, one of the twin siblings dies, he would be buried in the absence of the other. 

"The brother is not supposed to know that the sibling is dead because it is believed he could also die suddenly leading to double tragedy," says Canon Maboko.

Maboko further said that whenever a renowned person in the Bukusu community dies, he is given a special send-off and children born are named after him.

"If it was a man who died and has been buried, after three days, the family congregates at his homestead and clansmen appoints an administrator to manage his property after a thorough audit of whatever he leaves behind has been done. The widow is given the freedom to choose from the clansmen the person to inherit her to ensure the family continuity and security," said Maboko.

But the widow will have to wear a unique uniform with a rope around her head for her new status to be easily recognized in the community. Widowers need not put on any uniform.

Maboko says that the widow must stay with uniform for at least a year.

"It’s only after a year you will be allowed to get married again by one of the men you will have chosen. The widow can't marry the same year she lost the husband, the community expects her to stay away from sex for a whole year to be able to earn respect."

Maboko said, "After a year, an elderly woman will come and cut the rope around the head (kumulindi) to symbolize that you are now available for grabs and ready to move on after the death of your husband."

Melkzadeck Maboko, 92, during an interview with Standard Digital on Bukusu culture at his home in Namawanga Village in Bungoma County. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

But western culture appears to be eating fast into the Bukusu culture according to Maboko.

"Nowadays when someone dies, contributions are made on social media (WhatsApp) groups and the body can be preserved for even a month in a mortuary before burial. In the old days, the body did not go past the mandatory three days."

He says churches dominate funerals with bodies being buried in expensive coffins unlike in the past when they could bury the dead in animal skins.

"Things you see today where local administrators and politicians turn funerals into their events were never heard of during our days," says Maboko.

Former ACK Maseno North Diocese Bishop Simon Oketch says the church conducts a normal requiem for those who commit suicide.

"It doesn’t matter how the person died. As the church, we console the bereaved by preaching to them on why they should surrender their lives to God. We cannot judge the deceased, we leave that to God," says Bishop Oketch.

He says they only offer a special prayer to the family in grief so that they can cope with the fact that their loved one has departed. 

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