Let’s say, for the sake of argument (although around here we don’t argue), that this was 1872 and you were a Kikuyu (Yes, including you, Momanyi). Let’s say that you suddenly started coughing and after a few days you developed a fever and your cough got worse and soon thereafter you started coughing blood. Then one day, your eyes just rolled back into your skull and you died right there on a mat in your darkened thatched house. Your body is found by your kith and kin who are just back from tilling their shambas; they walk in and find you cold on that mat, dead as a dodo. They grab their chests in shock and mutter, “Ngai fafa!” then they call the village elder who reluctantly leaves his muratina and shuffles over to your boma, children and hen getting out of his way, where he proceeds to feel your cold forehead and exclaims, “Ngai fafa” then mutters a short prayer peppering it consistently with “mwadhani.” Later, he, together with the village medicine man, will then pronounce you dead, officially.
Word will spread and there will be murmurs all over the shocked village, some extolling your virtues and some even shedding a few tears – mostly men, not the women. This was 1872 after all, when the Kikuyu men were weak and downtrodden and their communities were largely matriarchal. Which meant the women sent their men to fetch water, roll the mat after they had slept (equivalent of spreading the bed), wash the dishes, wipe the baby’s ass with leaves, milk the cows and beat them up when they tried being smartasses. In those days, if you were a Kikuyu and you were beaten by your wife everybody in the village knew that you were beaten but nobody would laugh at you because all men were being beaten. In fact, if you were the man who married a woman who didn’t beat you up, you sort of felt out of place. You felt that she didn’t love you enough and other men talked about you behind your back “Look at poor Njoroge, his wife just looks at him like he is sunset, never raises a hand at him”.
This was before all the Kikuyu men (with exception of Nyeri men who were too terrified to stand up against their women) gathered under an avocado tree one day at dusk and in hushed tones said ENOUGH! “A ya andû aka nî matûûrîte ihinda iraihu mûno. Rûciû thaa ithatû ûtukû no nginya mikonyo îhutithanio. Karanja, nîûkwenda uteithio na ûcio waku?” and then went ahead and made all their women preggers at the same time and beat the shit out of them one evening just after dinner, successfully regaining their power.
Can you imagine if the Kikuyu men hadn’t gathered under that avocado tree to plot to take power away from their women? There would be no Kikuyu’s stepping on crates of beer under tables in bars. Quiet as mice, that’s what they would be. They would huddle in corners at bars and go home at 9.30pm every day, chewing gum to get the smell of booze off their breath. No kikuyu man would be able to say anything on Facebook or go on national TV to comment on anything, no matter how learned they were because we would not take them seriously when they showed up with black-eyes and busted lips because Njeri wa Chege thupped them a good one last night.
It would also be easy to identify Kikuyus, apart from, of course, their gaudy shirts. If you saw frantic grown-ass men at Kencom stage rushing home to cook before their women got home, they would be a Kuyu. But this would foster brotherhood from men of other tribes. All these senseless and rabid inter-tribal, dick-comparison contests that occur on Facebook would not happen because why fight someone who is already being beaten at home? We would be our brother’s keeper. There would be an unspoken rule on the road that if you saw a car overlapping during evening rush hour being driven by a man, all men would let these overlappers back into traffic because we would know those are kuyu men only trying to beat a curfew. Brotherhood. Empathy.
You know how sometimes you are working late and you develop a problem with your computer and you call Macharia your IT guy from jobo at 7pm to help you out? And whereas normally he would pick your calls all jubilant with a cheery, “Wewe jaluo!” or “Githee, sema?” this time he would be whispering into the phone, telling you, “Boss, that problem can wait, acha I will fix it kesho. I’m in the digs feeding the toi.” Then just before he hangs up you’d hear his wife say: “Utaachana na huyu Mluhya mlevi, sasa ako kwa bar, eh? Anakusaidia na nini, huyo Mluhya…”
And you’d hear Macharia saying in a whiny voice, “Huyo ni Otoyo, ni mjaluo, sio Mluhya…na ako kazi, sio bar…. Ingîkûheneria kîî nyina wa Githendu. Wendete mbaara ûû ñikî?…”
The next day you’d buy him lunch.
That’s how it would have been and Kikuyu women have done a great disservice to this country by opening their legs, falling pregnant and ceding dominance. You ladies, owe the nation an apology.
Anyway, back to the hut in 1872. Your body, now stiff from rigor mortis, would be wrapped in skin and carried on a wooden stretcher deep into the forest, in complete silence, where they would leave your ass out there and head back home in time for a dinner of githeri under the flickering light of a three-stone stove. And that would be it for you, sir. Wild animals would sniff you out there in the forest and then devour you up – including your lousy lungs ravaged by TB. Koma thaayû mûndu wa nyûmba. Na ûgîtûhandîre mîangà îngîhûnia njogu.
And that’s how Kikuyus buried their dead; with little fanfare and even less emotion. Not so much has changed in 2015 it seems.
We buried my father-in-law two weeks ago. Cancer. This was the second Kikuyu burial I was attending. He was an exceptional man my FIL; very sober headed, always very curious and accommodating. When I met him for the first time, when I had gone to ask for his daughter’s hand, he had a chance of saying no because this was his only daughter and no doubt he would have preferred to hand her over to a nice young man from the house of Mumbi and keep that bloodline pure, instead he accepted me, a man from the land whose sons can’t properly pronounce what they love the most; fish. A man from the land where men don’t (supposedly) cut their foreskins. A male who isn’t a muumo. Isn’t that what it boils down to, cut or un-cut? Instead he was courteous and respectful and he saw past my forehead and said “That boy is OK” and with that, all ducks got into line because he was that guy who made a decision and everybody got in line. Which made him my ally, and so I had to pay my last respects accordingly, and bury him.
So I gathered a few close friends of mine, a few cousins, an uncle and even my old man who came down from shags and we all went to Muranga to pay our last respects.
The first thing that strikes you when you go for a Kikuyu funeral is the lack of tears. You have to understand, where I come from when we bring the body home it’s compete bedlam! Utter chaos! People meet the convoy kilometers from the boma and run alongside the hearse, chanting, waving leaves and sometimes running with cows. People wail; women, men, children, dogs, chicken, birds, goats…everyone! Wails rent the air. If it weren’t for the casket, it could well be a political rally.
So it was shocking for me not to see or hear a single person cry. The missus cried thrice, when the news was broken to her in the morning, at the morgue and during the eulogy. I never saw her brothers cry. She told me one of them cried at the morgue, but I didn’t see it with my own eyes. Apparently, Kuyus “cry on the inside”. People stood in huddles at the morgue, looking somber, but no tears. In Nyanza it’s not uncommon to be accused of killing the diseased if you don’t cry. This guy could have fallen off a ladder and broken his neck, but if you don’t shed a tear people will look at you like you killed him.
It was even more surreal for us to go to the boma and find silence waiting. Mourners trooped into the boma in total silence. If it weren’t for the casket, it could have been the coffee farmers Sacco members, going in for a quarterly meeting to discuss the price of fertilizers. Another thing; there were no villagers hanging loose. No idlers. In Luoland there are many people who come to funerals just to chill out. They are there just for the company. They also look forward to funerals because it’s the only time they are going to drink sodas. There was none of that character in this funeral – only the people who were affected showed up. The rest of the village went about their business of feeding cows and taking care of their shambas. Death in Kikuyu-land is a brief and solitary affair.
Then I noticed that they don’t open the casket. The body is only viewed at the morgue and once they shut it, that’s it folks. They will only view the body in shags by special request from those who didn’t view it at the morgue. They might as well be burying Bugs Bunny in that coffin for all they care. Us, we open the damned thing up, because we have to confirm if you are being buried in decent shoes.
We sat under tents. Avocados hang over our heads. It was silent except for the rustling of banana leaves, the distant mooing of a cow and the occasional sound of a bodaboda blaring kikuyu music tearing down the dirt road behind us, setting off a car alarm in the process. At this point I lean to my pal, Vincent and whisper over the screaming car alarm, “Er, baas, kina Karanja are on your moti, you might have to budget for new side mirrors next month,” and he stares intently at the funeral program, trying hard not to laugh.
The MC runs a tight ship. He spoke in Kikuyu for a while until someone whispered that there were jaruos in the crowd. With a quick apology, he switched to Swahili, sometimes forgetting and going back to Kyuk. We didn’t mind.
The program is brief and no time is wasted on long speeches. In my shags, people demand to talk. We are talkers. Everybody wants their 15minutes with the microphone and sometimes not being allowed to eulogize is seen as gross disrespect and is something that can cause a rift in relationships for generations to come.
Kikuyus are baffled with our drama at funerals, given, but they on the other hand, need to explain why they insist on taking all those pictures at funerals. It’s ironic that kuyus will run their funerals like clockwork, but still manage to carve out half of the funeral time to taking pictures of themselves by the coffin. It puzzled me. “Arata othe a mûtiga irî moke haha mbere mahûrwo mbica.” The MC will call the deceased’s children to go forward and take pictures, next would be his in-laws, then the people who called him uncle, then his parents, then friends of his sons, then friends of his daughters, then his grandkids, then his friends, then his great grandchildren, then his chama members, then the people who he worked with in Kilgoris, then the folk he owned a big stake with in Kitale… Everybody will take a picture! In fact the only people who don’t get an opportunity to take pictures with the casket is the deceased debtors. And here I thought Kisiis love pictures!
I wondered where they would take all those pictures. How will the photographer know which group is which? Will the images be emailed or printed out and delivered by post? And when you finally receive your much awaited picture of you standing next to the coffin, what will you do with it? Do you frame it? Do you keep it in an album, showing visitors who come to yours, saying, “hha ndarûgamîte hakuhî na ithandûkû rîa guuka wangu. Aarî njaamba mûno guukaguo”. Is there a specific album just for pictures taken next to caskets? Because I’d assume that by the time one reaches 40-years old they would have buried quite a few relatives.
Fine, we wail at funerals because we are melodramatic and attention seeking, but why do Kikuyus take pictures with the coffin? Eric Mwangi, please explain this concept to me like I’m a luo.
I asked some pal of mine about this and after looking at me weirdly (yes, because apparently it’s odd when you don’t take pictures with a coffin!) she said indignantly, “We take pictures so that we can remember the deceased!” I snorted. So, I asked her, “You guys don’t open the coffin, don’t cry, bury not more than a week after the death, giving every indication that you want to get over and done with this quickly, and yet you take numerous pictures to “remember” the deceased?”
Then there were the hats. I will submit that there will be more hats at a Kikuyu funeral than any other funeral. Kikuyus and their hats. Does a hat maketh a Kikuyu? Do Kikuyus sleep in their hats? My father-in-law wore hats all the time. His eldest son loves this particular blue hat. I know of some Kuyu pals who won’t step out of the house on a Saturday without a hat because it contravenes a code of hut-uct. When a man steps out in a particular hat, can you tell automatically if he is going to the garage or to the bar? You know the way our women know that if you wear a particular shirt you will be coming back home late? Is it the same thing? What does a hat mean for a Kikuyu? I won’t even ask you to explain those godfather hats; I suspect that might be a very long story that needs a whisky and a lot of time. I’m talking about those hats that chaps step out in over the weekends and at functions. You will see these hats and they aren’t even good looking hats; most are inconsistent with the profile of the wearer and the weather, but they remain loyal to those hats which makes me suspect that the hats are more than just fashion accessories, they are metaphors. But of what, dear Kikuyu friends, what?
Then there is the food. Before writing this section I sat down and asked myself what everyone who has written about Kikuyu food has asked themselves; how do you write about Kikuyu food in a tasteful way? (Hehe, see what I did there?)
I had warned my dad that there might not be food at the burial; because Kuyus don’t prioritize food in funerals like we do, so please don’t catch feelings if you aren’t fed, I told him. He – and any luo really – knows that folk HAVE to eat at funerals. In fact, in Nyanza people will judge how well you sent someone off by how well they ate at that funeral. When you hear someone say, “ne orit’wa maber a liend Omullo,” they simply mean they were fed well at the funeral. I suspect it’s even worse at Luhya funerals. But in luo funerals, we eat. In fact it’s only at a luo funeral that an outside caterer (yup, who has time to cook mediocre food?) will ask you, “Excuse me sir, would you prefer red or white meat?”
Anyway, as luck would have it there was food. Of course in Luoland this would not be called food, it would be called a snack. There was steamed rice, githeri (of course), mukimo (it’s only natural) and some boiled cabbages (I refuse to comment on Kuyus and cabbages again) and lastly there was a stew which basically had meat and warus and carrots all floating in this massive sea of broth. Let’s all just agree that kikuyu food is unimaginative and move on, shall we?
We ate in silence, just happy that at least there was food. It could have just been mukimo alone for all we cared. Talking of which, I later asked my dad if he enjoyed the mukimo and he asked, “which one was it?” Hohoho.[Side note: Here is how lowly we – the luo – think of cabbages; we call it “Kabich.” If you took that name and marinated it overnight with spices from Asia and deep-fried it the next day, it would still taste of disdain.]
At the end of the program we made our way to the graveside. Oh, by the way, I hope I’m not giving the impression that we ate before burial, because we ate after the burial it’s just that I thought I’d leave the burial for last.
So we all went to the gravesite and one look at that grave and I was like, Whoa! Who dug that grave, Tullow Oil? That grave was deep – about 9-feet! Here is how funny and different we all are in terms of culture; so I ask this chic by the gravesite why they dig the grave so deep and she says, it’s not deep! And I say it is deep and we can go on and on like that for days. But here is how you know a grave is deep; when folk stand about a meter away from the edge. If you have fear of heights you shouldn’t go to the gravesite of a Kikuyu. And because of that Kikuyus should stop using the expression, “six feet under,” because your graves are not six feet deep!
The saddest part of a Kikuyu funeral to me wasn’t even the fact that they didn’t cry, or that they didn’t serve sodas, not even that they took advantage of the dead to amuse themselves with pictures, it’s how it ended. By the end of the evening the tents were pulled down, the public address system was packed up and everybody left for Nairobi or wherever they had come from. If you went back to that boma the next day, there would be NO indication that there was a funeral the day before. Whereas, luos will hang around funerals for days after the burial, eating and idling about, Kuyus pack up and go before sunset. Grief will be left for the aggrieved. Death is treated with contempt. Death is not allowed to disrupt life too much. Life is for the living.
And it’s easy to stand here and call other people weird because they pierce their nipples or grow hair in their armpits or remove their teeth or eat monkeys but is it only weird when you look at it from your own socialization?
Because we are all weird; we are all different. A left-handed person isn’t weird because he eats using his left hand, is he? And you don’t even have to understand why people do what they do, you don’t even have appreciate it or explain it – all you can do is respect the difference. (But still, if someone could just explain that picture biashara…I’d be eternally grateful.)
I’d like to visit a Kalenjin and a Kisii funeral, though. I hear Kisii’s cry in shrill soprano voices at funerals. Even grown men. Especially grown men. I’d kill to see that.
RIP Mr. Kimani.