In April, 35-year-old Henry Mwani conducted a mock burial ceremony for his daughter. The primary school teacher had called his estranged wife to find out how their daughter was doing.
What she said was devastating. Their daughter, she told him, had died and was buried at the Lang’ata Cemetery in Nairobi.
When a person dies but the body is not found, as is with some cases of drowning, a mock burial ceremony must be conducted to appease the spirit of the departed, according to Luhya traditions.
For adults, a grave is dug and a banana planted. For minors, wooden pegs (shikhongo) are driven into the four corners of a symbolic grave. A chicken is also slaughtered and cooked by the graveside.
But last week in Kakamega town, Mwani met a friend he had not seen for many years. It was after the usual pleasantries that Mwani got another shock. The friend informed him that his daughter was alive, hale and hearty.
Mwani could not understand why his former wife would concoct such a heart-rending lie.
“I got married to the lady in 2014 and the following year, on December 1, we got a daughter,” Mwani said.
At the time, he was working at a school in in Webuye. One day, Mwani claims he came home to find his wife and the two-year-old daughter gone.
“I came back from work in the evening to find my wife had packed her belongings, locked the house, and left the key with a neighbour. I was dumbfounded because we had been on good terms. I could not think of any reason that had made her leave so suddenly,” said Mwani.
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When he called her the following day, she told him that she had been promised a job, and that she wouldn’t be going back to him. Mwani says he was devastated.
“And early this year, I called to find out how our daughter was doing. She bluntly told me that whatever bound us together had been taken away by Covid-19; that my daughter had died and was buried at Lang’ata cemetery.”
Mwani asked why he had not been informed of his daughter’s death for a whole year and why she was buried in Nairobi instead of her father’s compound as tradition demands.
“When our son told us of the death of his daughter and what had transpired, we were shocked. That is when we called elders and arranged for a mock burial ceremony,” said Francis Mitungu, Mwani’s father.
“We slaughtered a hen next to the grave according to our customs. That is mandatory to appease the spirit of the dead,” said his mother Annah Mureshe.
An elder, Ernest Onami, invited the woman’s parents to the burial ceremony but they didn’t attend.
“They told us to go ahead with the ceremony because they stayed far, in Siaya County, and that Covid-19 restrictions couldn’t allow them to attend. We had no otherwise but to proceed with the ceremony on our own,” said Onami.
John Mukhweso, Mwani’s brother said: “Custom demanded that we travel to Nairobi if only to scoop some soil from the girl’s grave and symbolically bring her back home, but our in-laws declined to take us where they had claimed to have buried her.”
So when Mwani was told that the girl is a pupil at a school in Kakamega town, he had to confirm.
“I did not believe it at first, so I went to the school. After narrating my story to the headteacher and being allowed to see her for myself, I confirmed that my daughter is indeed alive. I was elated just seeing her.”
When The Standard visited the school, the director confirmed that she is one of their best pupils.
“When we admit a child, we collect details of both parents, when the child was born and the date of admission. Particulars provided by Mwani match our records except the girl’s father is listed as someone else,” she said.
Contacted on phone, the woman was guarded. She said Mwani is not her daughters’ father.
“I got married to Mwani when I was two months pregnant. He is not the father of my daughter. When we differed, I went back to the man who was responsible for my pregnancy,” she said.
But Mwani claims the person listed as the girl’s father is actually the woman’s father.
She then hung up when asked when she actually got married to Mwani and why she had claimed her daughter was dead.
The family of Mwani insists the girl has to be taken back to her father’s home for cleansing.
“We conducted a ceremony to signify she was dead. Now that we have discovered she is alive, we must conduct a cleansing ceremony to set her free. If we do not do that, misfortunes will follow her the rest of her life,” Daniel Alwanga, an elder, said.
“All I want is to have my daughter back. I will follow the right channels to make sure she is returned to me, even if I have to do a paternity test,” said Mwani.