Kenneth Matiba died two weeks ago. After all the “heartfelt” condolences and fake wishes by many in the political establishment, his family dropped a bombshell on Kenyans. What? That he would be cremated.
This goes against many traditions in most Kenyan communities. That brings about the question, what did communities do too. Remember this list is greatly truncated for the sake of brevity.
Kenneth Matiba belonged to the Agikuyu community and we will start with what there traditions entailed:
Among the Kikuyu
Under Kikuyu customary law, it was seen as a great transgression for any member of the tribe to touch a corpse.
Amongst the Kikuyu, the dead body was taken out to a burial ground called a kĩbĩrĩra. Certain rituals were practised prior to burial including the careful wrapping of the body with the legs and hands in the sleeping position, and the kĩbĩrĩra would be placed facing the homestead.
Contrary to the belief that the Kikuyu threw all deceased to hyenas, a person of means was accorded a burial. These burials were often an expensive affair in view of all the rites that had to be paid for in goats and rams.
Amongst the Luo
In Luo burial customs the individual’s status in society, the nature of his death, his good and bad deeds, as well as the way the ancestors performed the rituals, were determining factors in the manner and location of the burial.
In most cases when an individual died outside of his home, intricate rituals were followed. The deceased’s body was never brought through the main entrance to the homestead, but through a fence while rituals were being performed.
Burial rites also differed according to gender. Barren women would be stuck in the feet with thorns, ‘and a cat tethered to the neck of the corpse before burial.’ Daughters who were unmarried were buried ‘behind the fence of the homestead’ and if they had children, those that passed were also buried outside the homestead, ‘on the left side.’
Among the Luo, burial i.e. deep burial (five feet or deeper), is the primary means of disposing of a corpse. The arraying of the deceased’s body is an important part of Luo custom. The body may be placed in several different positions; on the side, contracted or extended, sitting or standing, in fact this is one of the means anthropologists and archaeologists differentiate between communities.
In Luo custom, ‘burial for the infant or still-born was strictly observed’ , depending on gender; the girl was laid to rest on her right side, while the boy was placed on his left. The body of the infant was always cleansed prior to burial.
Cremation has also occurred under special circumstances amongst the Luo. This would include a case in which a body is inhumed then cremated due to a malevolent ghost.
The grave is usually located within the homestead and is determined by the deceased’s specifics including social status, nature of death and sex.
Graves are usually rectangular in nature. The rituals surrounding death amongst the Luo are systematic and must be adhered to. They maintain ancestral links, guide succession and inheritance, and underscore the interdependence and the conjoint relations of living kinsmen.
Among the Luhya
According to funerary custom the bereaved family members must be shaved on the third day so as to rid themselves of what is known as ‘bukhutsakhali’ which is the breath of the dead.
Widows are also expected to wear their husband’sin Luo custom, the Luhya have differing rituals depending on one’s status. With regard to barren women, it is practice that ‘a thorn would be plugged between the hips of the deceased woman before burial.’
If the deceased was a wealthy or influential man, a big tree would be uprooted and the deceased would be buried there, after the burial another tree Mutoto, Mukhuyu or Mukumu would be planted (This was a sacred tree and is found along most Luhya migration paths it could only be planted by a righteous Lady mostly Virgin or a Very Old Lady).
If the deceased was a respected elder within the community, a cattle drive known as eshirembe was held in order to recognize the deceased’s status as a cattle owner.
The practice of burying a yago fruit in the cenotaph is also practiced by the Abaluhya who instead use a banana stem where an individual is believed to be dead but their body cannot be located.
Among The Maasai
The Maasai acknowledge the existence of innumerable spirits of whom the chief is known as Ngai. Burial amongst this tribe is generally under a tree in the sitting position with the deceased’s chin resting on the knees.
The body is then covered with stones; but the landmark is weak and hyenas are known to sniff out the corpse and pull it from its tomb. This is known as the practice of exposure wherein the corpse is either laid in a shallow grave or exposed to the elements to be destroyed by either animals or birds of prey.
In nomadic communities such as the Masai, the sick or aged were not allowed to die in the home. Instead, they were removed and taken into the forest, hillside or lay abandoned by the river. A certain belief in a future life is indicated by burial of a calabash of milk beside the corpse and by the fact that the name of the departed is never mentioned lest the spirit should regard it as a call and come back.
Amongst The Kamba
The Kamba have several allegorical expressions for passing, they include; following the company of one’s grandfathers, going home, to be fetched or summoned, to empty out the soul,to come to ruins, to become God’s property etc..
The Kamba have also practised exposure much like the Kikuyu and the Maasai.
In this community, if an ‘accomplished’ individual died, despite bereavement and sense of loss, the event was not seen as a breach of day to day life, but was instead accompanied by an inconspicuous and sombre period of mourning and ritual.
The Meru also believed that if a corpse was defiled, the deceased was permanently severed from the living. They also practised the ritualistic exposure of the dead when death was imminent. The individual would be taken into the forest or put in what was called the ‘hut of death.’
On the other hand, if someone died in their home, the house had to be destroyed, and the body dragged out by a rope to the bush where it was abandoned. The Meru much like the Kikuyu also harboured a fear of contamination thus the corpse was rarely touched. Those who disposed of the body underwent cleansing rituals including the family members, who were shaven.
An infant who died was customarily buried in the floor of the house. Few people attended this event and there was very little wailing. When a man of great wealth or social standing died there was much more mourning in contrast to the death of a minor.
The corpse of a dead Gusii adult was buried just outside his home; a man was usually buried on the right side of the house, and the woman left.