A luo will die. In spite of all the grandiosity and showboating and all the jokes that luos peddle to feel important and entitled and invincible, jokes about them not dying but “passing on” or “retiring to glory”, death remains spectacularly unmoved by those gags. They still die, eventually. And death doesn’t even send them a memo a day before so that they can slip into their bespoke Ozwald Boateng suits or have, in their manicured hands, a short glass of their favourite single malts when they die. They just go. Death does to luos what death does to everyone else; death kills them, unapologetically, swiftly, laboriously and, sometimes, brutally. Death doesn’t care.
So maybe you knew this luo. Maybe he was your friend. Maybe you played golf together. Or worked in the same department. Or grew up together and lost your virginities to the same bird (let’s call her Zuhura). Maybe you did biashara together, supplying tissue paper to the government and robbing it blind while at it. Maybe you married best friends. Or both went to Maseno. Or you met in jail (him in for drunk driving, you for selling fake Kenya Bureau of Standards seals). Or maybe you are dating him and someone close to him is dead. And now you have to attend the funeral. Now you have to go to Nyanza.
But you are scared. Scared because you have heard weird things about luo funerals. You’ve heard that they shave people during funerals (not true) and you are thinking, “there is no way no jango bringing a scissors to my weave. Nuh Ahh. Unless that goddamn scissors cost more than my hair, they aint!” Or maybe you heard that they sleep with the dead (bullshit). Or make holes through the fence to bring in the casket in the boma. (True, in some cases). Or that they wear the dead a hat (only if they are going to a party later). And that they eat. And eat. And eat. (True!) Which poses a problem for you because you are currently detoxing.
But you have to go, because it’s important to go. We call it to “yuago” someone. To cry with someone. To mourn with them.
This is a guide on how to navigate a luo funeral. I don’t think Kisii’s need much help with this because they are as dramatic as luos are. Luhyas are basically our neighbours and relatives that shit rubs off. Plus no amount of eating at funerals can really shock a Luhya. Kambas might struggle with the cultural shift a bit, but not too much because Kambas, with the biting poverty and hunger have been numbed to the horrors that death accord. So ideally this guide is largely for the coastarians and our friends from Central. These guys and the “Others”, which are merus and, well, the rest of the indigenous tribes of Kenya that number around a million or less.
Unfortunately for you, to grieve with a luo you have to travel to the luo. In future, as a rule of thumb, you have to ask a luo where they come from before starting a friendship. As a general rule, and for your own sanity, do not befriend luos that come from those far-flung areas. It’s costly when you have to go to a funeral in their shags. I’m talking about places like Kabuoch, Olambwe Valley, Rusinga, Mfangano, Karateng. These are places that you drive to for so long until the road suddenly gives up. Then you drive some more in a thicket until your car suddenly gives up.
You know you are far deep in luo-land when a horde of shrieking and excited half naked luo children run after your car, wanting to touch it. By this time you will be too tired and too hungry to bother lifting your android phone to Instagram this moment. And whatever you do, don’t ask your hosts “aren’t these kids supposed to be in school?” It’s brash. It’s also none of your business. But should you feel you just have to (because you are one of those NGO types yoked with humanitarian piousness) you will be told, deservedly, that, “Luo children are born learned, they only go to school to calibrate their brilliance.” And you would have deserved that answer.
By the way, still on this far-flung business, there is a theorem I’m turning over in my head; that the further a luo comes from an electric line, the more obnoxious and loud he is.
Leave your Toyota IST behind. If it struggles to Olei Polos it won’t ace luo-land. You know how when people are planning on attending a luo funeral and you ask a jango if their roads in Kabondo Kasipul are OK? That’s like asking a man if he is good in bed. Most jangos will glorify the state of their infrastructure in shags: “Roads?” they will say, “of course, surely, what kind of a question is that? We have tarmac right up to the granary! There is lots of tarmac, we can even pack for you some you bring back to Narobi.” You will pack something all right; you will pack your bumper in the boot when the roads are done with you.
For all the perils of this kind of travel, luo-land is beautiful. It might not be scenic as Central Kenya, but it’s beatific in a very earthy way and a very modest salt-of-the-earth kind of way. You will go to places that seem to have successfully resisted the hand of time.
As you drive, huts run back alongside the road, huts and trees and goats and guys burning charcoal or shovelling sand and cattle and herds boys with ashen knees, leaning on sticks. It’s a tableau that totally relaxes you, opens you to a world of stoic, pride and endurance. Maslow’s sat on a stone in Nyanza when he dreamed up the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you are lucky and you happen to drive alongside the lake you will see how it shimmers in the sun like a million diamonds and you will struck at how a sun-soaked place like this can stir some much in you.
Nyanza wasn’t blessed with meadows and a soil bearing basket of life, but you won’t see its true silver lining if you insist on comparing it with where you are from. So as you transverse the land, headed to the funerals, look around, soak it all in. Open your mind, yes, but most importantly open your car windows and kill your AC and let the smells of Nyanza waft in. You will smell dried millet, hooves in the dust, a month-old promise of rains, drying cow-dung…A purged smell. Nyanza smells of earth that has refused to birth again. But let it all in your car and take a lungful of it. Keep a bit of Nyanza in your lungs if it doesn’t have space in your heart.
Over a year ago I did a story in Nyeri and the Arbadares area chasing the many waterfalls of Arbadares. For a week I was transversed Kikuyu-land. I went to places where they had never seen a luo in real life, except Raila and Kajwang in the newspapers, which I can assure you are wrong misinterpretation of luos because we really can sing better!
Although I never felt any sort of animosity from the folk I ran into, I never quite felt their warmth either, only civility but mostly curiosity. But luos deep in the boondocks are truly warm folk, that hot sun thaws the coldest of hearts. And luo-land is the only place in Kenya where you will travel deep inland and speak to anyone in English, anyone at all, and you will be answered back in English. True story, Gang. Pick a cassava farmer, or a herd’s boy and ask him where Mbita Health Center is and they will retort, “ You took the wrong turn two kilometres down that road, my good friend. What you need to do is swing this bebi around (the baby here is your car) and do a kilometre until you get to a T-junction then turn right. Are we together, class…?” (They picked that “are we together class” from their brief session in primary school and always insist on using it in every sentence.) What’s my point?
English is more than just a language for luos; it’s a natural instinct. (Hehe)
You have finally landed in luo-land. You remembered to carry your mineral water, torch, kikoi and mosquito repellent. Be warned; If you are really light, people might stare at you. If you are really light and have a big ass, people will definitely stare at you.
In luo funerals people don’t cry, they wail. There will be lots of wailing. Most will be tearless wails, it’s like watching a muted TV. You have to remember that crying in funerals in luo-land is less about grief than it is about clan politics. Close members of family of the deceased have to cry to show their unified grief, those who don’t will be victimized for not mourning enough. And that story can be held against one and talked about for many moons and generations! There is a lot of underling politics in funerals; most of them have nothing to do with the deceased. So ignore the crying and worry about where you will sleep.
You won’t get a warm bed and scented candles in your room, that I can assure you. In fact, you won’t get a room. Rooms are reserved for the elderly in the family and the visiting in-laws. You will sleep in the car. Or on a tree, because you are a bird (…see what I just did there…no? OK). Or you will sleep on your chair. It’s called a wake for a reason. If there is a local lodging, your host might book for you a room, one of those lodgings with mismatched slippers. Don’t ask for hot-shower. Should there be no lodging you can be sure that a church choir will keep you company the whole night. And, no, there are no night-runners!
What might shock you is the fact that the luo might open the coffin during viewing. Some people will cry and place their hands on the dead. Some might cry while “talking” to the dead. (“I’wewa ma’ kata oriti yawa, Atieno?”). It’s purely pseudo-cultural. Totally harmless and insignificant.
During my mom’s funeral the Missus walked to where I was sulking under a guava tree and interrupted my thoughts with a weird question: What will you guys do with the table?
The table the coffin is on.
Ah, that table! I chewed on my maize thoughtfully then when I couldn’t come up with an answer, I lengad that story.
The table, Biko, what will happen to it?
You want it? (Hehe).
She glared at me.
Look, the table will remain as is. I said.
Remain as is where?
Where it belongs. In the verandah.
So people will eat
from it as usual?
Uhm, yes. Well…only those who are hungry.
She looked genuinely worried. The worry turned into terror. I was sure she would leave me as soon as we landed back in Nairobi.
And that’s the thing. As an adult who has attended numerous luo funerals this is something that has never occurred to me. What happens to the table is not something I had thought of, but first time at a luo funeral and from all the things she could have noticed, the table jumped at her! I bet she thought/ thinks we are quite strange. Who can blame her? Certainly not the table!
Such cultural peculiarities will arise. You will notice something that seems strange to you but only because you come from Nyeri, or Kerugoya.
The night before burial, gravediggers- strapping young luo men, shirtless and high on illicit brew – will dig the grave under the soft glow of a lantern. The banter that ensues by the graveside is hilarious! You know the way guys become famous for doing lame luo stand-up jokes on Churchill Live? Now picture a group of guys who are not acting, who haven’t rehearsed their punch lines but just churn such serious original jokes in mother tongue, complete with the accent. The expression “#dead” was coined from guys laughing so hard at these jokes until they fell in those open graves. This is where you will find me spending my night at funerals, because it’s an unending comic relief without commercials.
Cows and goats will die in a luo funeral. That’s just how it was written. There isn’t githeri or ngwace, so you will have to make do with meat and ugali and fish. Nobody will touch the vegetables because in shags vegetables are for the poor. Sodas are in high demand. Especially Fanta. Eat when you can because you don’t know when else you will eat. Dress appropriately, especially if you have a large ass and you are light. This isn’t the fashion high tea. Don’t show off your belly ring. No short things. No tight things. But you can rock a floppy hat if you want; just make sure you cock it to one side, because really, Frank Sinatra encouraged all to cock their hats because “angles are attitude.”
You know you are dressed scandalously when all the men want to fetch you a seat, or food or a phone number (theirs.) And there will be that young man who attended KU’s satellite campus in Migori who will offer to show you around so that you can see how the locals are “switched on to the usage of biogas as an alternative energy.” It’s not the biogas, silly. It’s your ass.
You will be struck at how wasteful our funerals are. How arduously long they are. How unnecessarily expensive they are. You might wonder how, in such poverty-stricken homesteads, they can still afford to splurge and stretch thin on already meagre resources. We, the younger generation, wonder too but nobody really can change this overnight because funerals aren’t just a family affair, it’s a community affair organised by the elders and the church members. We don’t get to vote.
The saddest part of luo-funerals isn’t when the body is lowered in the grave. The saddest, most anguishing part is the days after the burial, when everybody has gone back to the city and to their lives and the homestead, now only left with/for with the bereaved, sit still and silent. This is the time an ominous uncertainty of the future hang over the homestead. This is the time it all sinks in.
This is when the bereaved come to the realization that that they have to deal with their pain alone. It’s a dark dark excruciating time; so dark even the animals in the boma hang their heads in sorrow and the dew on the leaves take forever to evaporate, which makes them look like they are weeping too. This is the time to visit a luo and mourn with him, not when the mourning is clouded in funeral politics and razzmatazz.
Your presence counts then. Plus you will get a warm bed and matching bathroom sleepers.
Luo funerals have become the butt of many jokes and rightfully so. Maybe things will change, and things have to. But for now, the luos send off their dead the way they lived their lives; colourfully, loudly and with intemperance.
Ps. I just realised I mentioned a Zuhura up there and forgot to tie it to the story again. Anybody here in High School wants to take a stab at it?[Photo credit: PhotoSensitive]