The Abashu: A clan which buries elders squatting inside their own houses

Elders feast on meat and Ugali inside the house of Lufwosi Wekati before burying him inside the house. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

Burial rites of the Abashu, a sub-clan of the Kabras tribe, border on the weird. Respectable old men aged 70 years and above are buried inside their houses at night, moments after 8pm.

The body is not laid to rest inside a coffin; instead, it is wrapped in the fresh skin of a bull clobbered to death at midday.

The bull is gently herded by the dead man’s grandchildren towards the entrance of the house where the body is kept.

Immediately it gets to the door, a grandson or a strong young man chosen by the community hits it at the centre of the head once, but with such force that it must die instantly. 

The skinning is then done there at the door and part of the offal spread around. After that, the skin is taken into the house to await some rituals.

“There is great significance to this. If the dead man’s wife ever cheated on him, she would die if she stepped on the offal or blood from the animal,” elder Benson Sunguti says.

The skinning of the bull is done skillfully from the hump downward in such a manner that when the corpse is finally wrapped in the skin, his male organ is fitted into the bull’s scrotum sac and penile pouch as a demonstration of virility.

The corpse is interred in a relaxed, sleeping-man position, both hands raised to rest on the cheeks as if to cover the ears. The body is then lowered into the grave in a squatting position or lying on the right-hand side.

“This symbolises that the man is not dead, but merely taking a rest. Great leaders are buried in a squatting position. We do not use caskets.

“The body is covered with animal skin and lowered into a grave dug inside the house. The head remains above the ground after the grave is covered with soil,” says Joshua Kulevi, another elder.

A special clay pot is used to cover the protruding head and the area between the pot and ground is smeared with cow dung that acts as sealant.

After one or two years, the pot is taken away to be buried in a mushy area by the riverside. By then, the skull would have sunk and the area is sealed and smeared with cow dung.”

In the second type of burial, the corpse is made to lie on its right hand in the position of a man taking a nap. Lufusi Wekati, a 98-year-old man was accorded such burial on Tuesday this week at his home in Mukhonje village, South Kabras.

When The Sunday Standard team visited his homestead to witness the unique burial, groups of men, women and children occupied the wide compound conversing in low tones.

There was no wailing, no show of sadness or feasting that is common in funerals in Western Kenya. The faces even appeared cheerful, as if celebrating something pleasant.

Inside a smoke-filled, two-room house at the right side of the compound, a group of more than 15 old men sat on plastic chairs around a freshly dug grave.

Four of them sat on a bed at the edge of the grave, their backs to the half-covered body of Wekati lying on the bed on its right-hand side as if in deep sleep. The grave was four feet deep and at the base of it, a smaller hole about one-foot-wide and two feet deep was extended.

“The body will be lowered in the smaller hole in the grave after which sticks will be laid above it and covered in grass before the grave is covered. We do so to stop the weight of the soil putting pressure on the body underneath,” Sunguti said.

According to another elder, Jonathan Sioma Lumbasi, not every elder is accorded this type of burial. He said those who qualify should have worn the ‘Omukasa’, a traditional bangle given to select elders who must be upright in their dealings.

“Such a man should not have been a womaniser, have any form of physical deformity, be left-handed or have sired twins at any time,” he said.

At 8pm, an elder walked out of the house where Wekati’s body lay and cautioned everybody to remain silent as the actual burial went on behind a closed door.

“We have commenced the burial. You must remain silent until the sound of a horn from inside the house announces the end of the process,” he warned.

Immediately, a hush fell on the crowd. The sound of the horn came about 45 minutes later. The door to the house that had become a mausoleum opened and the elders came out.

The last one out placed a drum atop the roof slightly to the left of the door and sounded it out in line with tradition. The crowd came back to life and milled around the house to catch a glimpse of the grave.

“This last stage of burial cannot be witnessed by children and women. It is only the dead man’s agemates or the eldest men in society who are allowed,” said Jonathan Wafubwa, Chairman of Abashu cultural group.

“Tomorrow, a goat will be slaughtered and blood sprinkled around the compound to cleanse the family. A grandchild with the dead man’s blanket tied around his waist will lead in the sprinkling and intonations that follow,” Kulevi said.

According to the elders, these rites must be observed, otherwise, the dead man’s spirit would come back to hound them.

“If we do not slaughter a bull and ensure all the elders at the funeral are taken care of, the spirit of the dead man will not give us peace,” Wafubwa said.

“It is on the following day after burial that we make merry,” elder Mwalati Kalawanga said.

“Very early in the morning, bulls from the area will be brought into the compound where a bullfighting contest will be held. There will be songs and dances to celebrate the departed. All community members will partake of it,” he said.

Children born out of such unions carry the name of the deceased, ensuring such an individual remains etched in the minds of villagers.