Kenyans burdened by cost of honoring dead

Kenyan church and aid groups work to simplify elaborate burial rituals - but traditions run deep.

Agnes Adoyo buried her mother earlier this month. In her family's dusty compound in this eastern Kenyan village, mourners filed through a mud hut to get a last glimpse of mama Leokadia Oguta, then stood in the hot sun and wailed their goodbyes.

The scene is unremarkable and repeated all over Africa, except that people from Ms. Adoyo's community will remember the funeral largely for what was missing. There were no goats or cows killed to feed the mourners, and no Luo warriors in traditional dress waving spears. The guests stayed for a few days and ate simple maize porridge instead of staying a month and dining on elaborate dishes of roast goat and beef stew.

"When my father died last summer, my brother slaughtered a cow. But three weeks later he died, too, in a road accident," she says. "Now people came and told me I should kill a cow for my mother, but I cannot [afford to]."

The Luo people of Kenya hold spectacular funerals designed to honor the dead and appease their spirits. They believe each person should be buried where they were born, and families hire expensive cars and travel hundreds of miles to bring the deceased back to their tribal home near the shores of Lake Victoria. Families who cannot afford to carry out a funeral straight away store the body in a mortuary, racking up fees until they raise the funds.

But honoring the dead can bankrupt the living. Now the church and aid organizations in the Luo heartlands of western Kenya are trying to make funerals simpler while still maintaining tradition. But convincing the bereaved that their loved ones are still being respected is not always easy.

Most African cultures revere the dead, but Luo death rites are extravagant by any standards. An average funeral can cost 60,000 shillings ($788) - a huge amount in a country where a civil servant earns just 12,000 shillings ($156) a month, and 60 percent of the population earn less than $30 a month.

The Rev. Joseph Ogola, dean of St. Stephen's Anglican cathedral in the main town of Kisumu, plays a key role in trying to change attitudes. The diocese loaned Adoyo an ambulance to carry her mother's body the 35 miles from the mortuary to the family home. Other church funds will go toward paying school fees for mama Leokadia's grandchildren instead of entertaining mourners.

"We do small things," he says. "Many priests will now perform the burial, then get on their bikes and ride away without eating, to set an example."

The church encourages people to bury or cremate the deceased as quickly as possible, even if that means conducting ceremonies on weekdays instead of the traditional weekends.

AIDS and poverty have forced some people to listen to his advice.

The province of Nyanza, the heartland of Luo culture, is desperately poor and has the highest incidence of AIDS in Kenya.

Some like Adoyo accept that they cannot pay, but most people with even a little money still feel they must do right by their loved ones.

Jim Adede, a social worker with Pandipieri, a Catholic community group, is still grieving for his brother Bob, who died on Christmas. Bob had said he wanted his funeral to be as simple as possible, but when the time came, Jim and his remaining brother felt they could not let the rest of the family down.

So they held a harambee - a public fundraising ceremony - that garnered $260. Mr. Adede also took out a $520 loan and slaughtered a cow, some sheep, and chickens in order to feed the hundred mourners.

"You cannot change tradition in a day," he says. "It is easy to tell people to hold simple funerals, but when it is your family, it is difficult. But I know that I want my own funeral to be small."

Ironically, it is the sense of community that often brings these economic pressures.

"When a person dies, the community still decides how the family should conduct the funeral," says Celline Odipo, a Red Cross project officer in Kisumu. "The family will be told to slaughter all their cattle, harvest all their maize, sell their land and their assets to pay for the funeral. No one looks to see how the family will survive afterward."

The problem, says Andrew Musiga, a retired marketing manager and church elder at St. Stephen's diocese, is that the economic burden used to be shared by neighbors.

"Traditionally, the community would all help provide food for the mourners who had come from far away," he says. "All this is good, but it all changed when the sense of community disappeared. Now the family bear the costs on their own. That is what has to change."

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