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Death and Burial, the Luhya Way

This Story is provided by:
Bryan Mukulu , Oct.1.2003

The past one month has seen a funeral event of one man that has captured the attention of Kenyans from all walks of life. This was no ordinary man. He was Kenya’s Vice President, Honorable Michael Kijana Wamalwa. One of the reasons why the funeral drew so much attention was because of some of the traditional customs that accompanied the whole event. Some viewed the customs as rather peculiar. You see, the Luhya tribe, from which Honorable Wamalwa came from, is a tribe that adheres to several customs during burial rites. I have had the opportunity of getting to attend and learn about some of the Luhya burial rites. So read on and hopefully you will come to appreciate some of the unique customs of the Luhya tribe.

Lamenter and the death wake. Once the death of a member of the community takes place, a group of women will run around the family’s village to announce the death by wailing. Members of the community will then quickly gather at the house of the bereaved to share in the sorrow of losing a loved one. By now, the dead body will have been laid out in a casket in the veranda for viewing.

It is during the viewing, that you will occasionally find a mourner who will address the dead person and wonder why he or she departed prematurely. In some cases mourners will slash down banana plants to express their anger at the loss of a loved one.

In the evening fires are usually lit outside the home at several locations, where mourners can gather around and stay awake overnight as they keep each other company. As you walk around the compound and eavesdrop on the many conversations taking place, you will hear of the many wonderful memories the mourners have of the deceased. It is at these bonfires, that you may find women singing songs of encouragement to the family and friends. The men will be looking forward to the bull fight that is usually held in respect of the deceased. As for the young, well most of them will while away the night listening to the latest music hits on a stereo system.

The burial will not take place for at least two or three more days to allow people sufficient time to view the body and pay their last respects. The time allocated for viewing the body depends on the position the person held in society. Also the older the person, the more the viewing time is.

Everyone is outside. A gas lamp is lit on the table (there is no electricity in the village) and the lamenter has stepped in the chamber. The only thing that can be heard besides the lament is the crackling of fire.During the mourning period, the bereaved family is responsible for feeding the mourners. However the villagers sometimes get to chip in and assist in the exercise of feeding of the mourners.

On the day of the burial, a funeral program administered by a village elder is carried out. The program is dominated by eulogies, hymns and prayers. This is a part of the program that is open to the bereaved family, family friends and village and Church elders. This extends into the early afternoon when the actual burial takes place.

The funeral ceremony does not end there, far from it. After the burial, the village may choose to organise a bull fight in honour of the deceased. This usually proves to be a great crowd puller.

One week after the burial, a ceremony called Lovego (which in Luhya means shaving) is held. It is during this ceremony that discussions will be held on the future of the bereaved family (particularly if the person who died was the head of the family). It is also during this ceremony that an inventory of the dead person’s assets and liabilities is done. The bereaved are also counselled on how they can best cope with the death and on how to move forward.

Night Drummers at work. To symbolise a new beginning, the hair of the close relatives is trimmed. In the olden days, all the family members, including the female relatives, would have shaved off their heads completely bald! However, today, a slight trim will do. The Lovego then marks the end of the death and burial rites, the Luhya way.

Bryan Mukulu

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