If you are looking for a sad tale of tears and grief, I will not offer one today. Instead, I divulge into the phenomenon that is rural funerals in Kenya.
They can last anything from a week to a month or longer! So here it starts:
News of the death
So a person dies, through whatever means. The story starts spreading. Mourners troop to the home of the bereaved to comfort them, where they are fed, watered and given a listening ear for their unsolicited advice about life and death.
The story of how the death occurred will be retold over and over again. For instance, I heard quite a number of colourful tales explaining how my grandfather died. Almost all accounts I heard were first-hand, everyone seems to have been an eyewitness, which I highly doubt.
The closest family members who are affected meet and begin to plan the funeral, after the initial wave of mourning and acceptance. The funeral has to be set at a date convenient for those important to be informed in due time to attend the funeral.
The Funeral Procession
Unlike in Nairobi or other places all around the world where the body is fetched from the mortuary and buried on the same, in Kisii (and perhaps other rural places), the body is brought home the day before. If someone knew as many people as my grandfather did, the number of vehicles taking part in the funeral procession will be long.
Most people who had forgotten their grief in the helter skelter of planning the funeral now face the reality that their loved one is actually gone. They see an empty shell instead, a cold body lying in a coffin, still and unmoving.
I must admit, the few corpses I have seen have been scary. Not my grandfather though, he looked like he was just sleeping.
There were so many people at the funeral procession, coming to fetch the body from the mortuary at Keroka.
We met long lost relatives, with whom we would at first hug with joy after going for years without seeing each other, before starting to cry for our loss.
Now that the body is back home, the crowd that has been hanging around the homestead of the bereaved swells incredibly.
First, there is a brief church service at the homestead, where people are allowed to view the body, prayers are said, songs are sung, and elders/important relatives allowed to speak. The grave is dug and covered so it will be ready for burial the following day. The body is moved indoors for the night.
Now, all these people who’ve come for the funeral (some important relatives from far away, others from not-so-far away) need to be fed, and provided with a place to sleep.
The crowd that turned up at my grandfather’s pre-funeral was huge. There was hardly any room to sit in any of the houses in the compound. Hired help prepared food and served guests, over and over again. Family members worked almost all night to make guests comfortable. If you ask me, the guests really, were a burden to a family already stretched thin by grief.
My dad says we have become like Luos. When someone dies, and people come to comfort you, the first thing you give them is food. They enter the compound, you greet them and direct them to a table of food before they can sit down.
It’s like you are hiring mourners!
In our case, some of those who came for the funeral, in addition to being fed, expected to be given fare back home!
On the day of the funeral, a field is set aside for the congregation to sit. The church usually takes over the MCing roles, testing mics, providing a choir. Someone prints out the schedule of the day and hands it round, which usually includes a brief bio of the deceased.
People start streaming in around 10am to around noon. The choir sings, and ‘important’ people are given time to address the crowd.
These important people include close relatives, the chief of the area (who thinks the time is all his.. and in turn may invite other ‘important’ people), the chairman of the local sacco, the headmaster of the high school around, the director of the tea factory around there… and so on.
There is blantant and shameless campaigning and marketing that goes on during the funeral. I remember one guy who was asking to be voted MP/Senator/Governor I don’t know which. I hated his very guts.
The chief made a few community announcements.
The director of the local SACCO took the time to explain what his SACCO does, how to become a member, what are the benefits etc
The guy from some institute not only talked about his institute, he actually handed out brochures!
The MC deemed it important to announce the contributions people were making for the family.. “Sabina, 10bob. Joy, 300bob. Mogaka, 20bob etc..”. He did this in-between-the talks.
The preacher will then give his/her word of the day, comforting the family of the deceased and then introducing them to the congregation.
By this time, it’s already 4pmish so time to do the actual burial.
After the Funeral Service
This is the time for socializing. Relatives who haven’t seen each other in a long time catch up. People marvel at how much you’ve grown, the last time they saw you you were “this high”. There is the pesky cousin with a videocam walking around shooting videos, I know I don’t wanna watch that. The random aunt who will tell you to get a job quickly so she can send her kid to live with you so you can pay fees and bring the kid up. Pause.
How about I pay the school fees, but you stay with your child?!
There are a number of people who extract promises of invitations to your graduation. The problem is, you have to provide them with transport to Nairobi, house them, feed them, do shopping for them and give them fare back home.
People drift slowly to the graveside. Someone says a last prayer. The coffin is lowered into the ground. Family members break down yet again. They do the soil-throwing ritual. Young men cover the grave, family members put flowers on top. Photos are taken. Tears are wiped. A life is over.
Most guests leave after they are served some meal. A few linger around, the closest of family members. Three days later, there are probably no guests left around. Life has to go on. The family adjusts to life without the deceased.
Life goes on.