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Bizarre burials of the Luhya, where wishes of the clan prevail

The Balunda Bamekhala clan, a sub-tribe of the Bukusu community buries their people in a sitting position. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

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

In Western Kenya, when someone dies, different clans of the Luhya community have a unique way of burying the dead and cremation is not part of it. In fact, if your wish was to be cremated, it will not be honoured.

The Balunda Bamekhala clan, a sub-tribe of the Bukusu community buries their people in a sitting position.

Isaac Misiko, 71, a Bukusu elder, said the Balunda clan started the practice in the 18th Century. The culture was started when a wealthy elderly man (Omulunda) died while grazing a herd of cattle.

“Villagers saw cows walking home in the evening but the owner was nowhere. After a search, the old man was found dead while sitting upright under a huge tree. After the burial, he is said to have appeared to one of his kin in a dream and demanded to be buried while sitting,” said Misiko.

He went on: “The elders did not take the dream seriously and what followed was a series of deaths of children which compelled the elders to exhume the old man’s body and have it buried afresh as per the deceased’s wishes.”

Misiko claims that even those from the clan who have embraced Christianity practice the culture whenever they lose a loved one. “Usually, they wait for nightfall then they exhume the body and rebury it in sitting position.”

Further, the Bukusu clan ensures that men aged above 30 who die before undergoing the cut are circumcised before burial takes place.

“Circumcision is done at the time the coffin is being lowered into the grave. A circumciser who cuts the dead is prohibited from circumcising any other person in future and even the knife is buried. Circumcision is done if the deceased’s agemates are married and have children,” he said.

Martin Wanyonyi, 60, a Bukusu elder, said if a man is buried without undergoing the cut he will forever be considered a child even if he was married and had children.

So numbing is suicide that when it happens, elaborate rituals are conducted to cleanse the living and ensure “the bad omen” does not recur.

Wanyonyi says those who die by hanging themselves are whipped thoroughly “until tears roll down their cheeks,” before their bodies are let loose.

Omukulo’, a group of 10 people from a different clan who normally do this job, are hired by the family of the deceased and paid handsomely. Those who commit suicide are buried at midnight when people are asleep.

Elaborate rituals are conducted to cleanse the living and ensure “the bad omen” does not recur. [Philip Orwa, Standard]

“They are buried at this ungodly hour so that their spirit does not come back to haunt the family members left behind. No one, including family members, is supposed to witness when or where the corpse is buried,” explains Wanyonyi.

He went on: “After the burial, ‘Omukulo’ are gifted a bull and a ram. The ram is slaughtered and used for cleansing, together with traditional herbs to protect themselves and their families from  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 are struck by lightning, as it is considered a bad omen.

Among the Wangas from Mumias and Matungu, when one commits suicide, whoever stumbles upon the body is not allowed to go to his or her home until the family of the deceased pays a fine.

According to Mzee Musa Atamba, if that is not done, they will start getting disturbing dreams from the dead. 

“A piece of the rope that the deceased used to hang themselves is given to the person who discovers the body. By custom, this person is given a cow and a sheep. This sheep is slaughtered at night before burial and the offal (obuse) is used for cleansing. This is called okhwikala, a ritual aimed at blocking the bad omen from recurring,” said Atamba.

No children are named after those who committed suicide.  

“When someone drowns in your presence, you are not supposed to go back home until the body is retrieved. If you go to your house, the deceased’s Eshisheino (spirit) will haunt you for deserting them,” said Ramadhan Ali, a Wanga elder.

Ramadhan added that if you go home, the mission of retrieving the body becomes impossible.

According to Job Butalia, a Bukusu elder, if a man over 60 years dies without siring any children, elders would be forced to dig through wall to create a temporary door in his house through which the body will be taken out to be buried.

“A sheep is slaughtered and the meat eaten by the old folk. No child is named after such a person,” said Butalia.