Fowl Wakenings and a Funeral – last Saturday in rural Kenya

Posted by on Nov 5, 2017 in News, Stannard | No Comments

If we hadn’t realised it on previous trips, the last few weeks here in Kenya have reminded us very clearly that life here is very different to what we have in UK. Particularly out here in ‘the rural’ in Luo land, it certainly isn’t just like Chandler’s Ford only hotter!

A picture of the day in sound is one way of understanding it. Yesterday morning we were woken before dawn by one of the local cockerels who decided that he wanted to give us a personal alarm call right outside our window. That was after a typical night of crickets chirping outside and sometimes inside the house and, after thunder and heavy rain beating on the roof so we couldn’t hear each other speak, frogs croaking loudly. Not to mention the two dogs, mother (Tina, small and sandy brown) and son (Fred, big and black), who seem to think they are our personal guard dogs, apparently spending the night scratching and wagging their tails against the tin walls, barking and playing around with the rubbish or anything else they can find. On moonlit nights, the neighbourhood dogs howl. And on some nights, if there is a funeral in the district, there is the sound of BOOM BOOM BOOM – the all-night ‘Disco Matanga’ that is required for the traditional vigil – or is an excuse for a drunken party for many hangers-on.

Back to the morning, there are our own sounds: filling the kettle from the tap (bliss – it’s working again!) for washing water, filling our electric kettle (hurrah! – the power is on!) for our cup of tea for which we use water from 10 litre bottles, striking a match to light the gas burner to heat the washing water, popping the anti-malaria and vitamin tablets out of their wrappers. Meanwhile, outside, our neighbours are on the move: the cattle are lowing and the sheep are bleating on their way out to pasture for the day. There’s always the noise of traffic on the busy road in the background too, engines revving, matatu horns blaring, motorbikes roaring, tuk tuks chugging, heavy lorries crashing over the speed bump….But there is also always birdsong around here: weaver birds chatter away in the trees just outside the house and numerous other species including beautiful sunbirds and glossy starlings also make their voices heard. Each morning and evening we hear ibis going by (think of a kind of deep, long gull sound).

So to our afternoon experience. Sadly, two weeks ago, Eric’s nephew Cephas, a gentleman who was actually older than him and to whom he was close, passed away suddenly, it seems, due to a diabetic coma which was not recognised and treated by staff at two local hospitals. We asked what was the polite thing for us, as visitors, to do, and it was suggested that we should go along yesterday afternoon to pay our respects at the funeral – or should I say, part of the funeral. So, after a morning of filling in holes ( trying to use mortar- but involved using rough sand and sieving the cement) in the library room we are converting at the Care Centre, we got ourselves tidied up a bit and went along.

By this time, funeral proceedings had already been underway for about 24 hours. Luo customs dictate that there must first be a long ceremony at the mortuary, followed by the removal of the body back to the family home, where it stays for the night. The widow is obliged to sit by the body all night and to help keep her awake there is the aforementioned ‘Disco Matanga’ for all and sundry. Then, the following day, the body is taken to wherever the actual funeral service is to take place, in this case a field owned by a local school where marquees have been set up, about 1000 plastic chairs set out, and caterers employed to cook the food. Ten sheep and five bulls were slaughtered for Cephas’s funeral.

Speeches in tribute to the deceased were scheduled to begin at 10.30am. We arrived at about 1.30pm and they were still going strong. One rule of living here is to expect the unexpected. No sooner had we found seats than we heard ourselves being welcomed and that we would now be ‘saying a few words’! We were ushered to the front of the crowd (there must have been 1000 people there) and given a microphone. Somehow, completely unprepared and never having met the deceased or his family, we managed to say a few words of comfort and encouragement (thank you, Lord) and then sat down, relieved, to witness the rest of the proceedings.

Over the next couple of hours, numerous other people gave speeches. We didn’t understand much of what was said, but we found the whole thing quite bizarre – certainly unlike any UK funeral we had ever been too. While the speeches were happening (even those given by the close family), the people around us came and went, wandering around chatting amongst themselves. Some were on their mobile phones, one elderly man read his newspaper from cover to cover. Others got up and made their way to where the food was, or to where photos of those attending were on sale, or to the distant long-drop toilets. Various people we vaguely knew (some of the staff from the school, for example), turned up and came for a chat with us. A stray dog appeared, and after going to and fro a few times, settled himself in the shade underneath the coffin. Some children chased sheep around the field. It is strange that what would be considered extremely rude in some cultures is perfectly acceptable in others.

Eventually the speeches came to an end, and it was announced that it was time for the sermon. One large man shouted into a microphone in a mixture of Kiswahili and English, and another small man translated his words into Luo by shouting even louder. At this point, we had to move from our seats as we were both getting headaches. A man who had been taking photos tried to sell us a couple of pictures he had taken for 200 shillings each. Kevin, Eric’s nephew, who was with us, said that this was twice as much as we should pay, but the man refused. Later, we discovered that Eric had bought the same pictures for 50 shillings each! Kevin introduced us to numerous relatives, and, having lined up to pass on our condolences to Cephas’s widow (we passed on the opportunity to view the body lying in the coffin), we made our exit, leaving those who still had the stamina to go on to the burial. The amplified electronic keyboard continued to blare out some kind of calypso rhythm while all this was going on.

For the record, if either of us should die while in Kenya, family and friends please note we DO NOT want a traditional Luo funeral.

Seriously, talking to Eric and other members of the family last night, they do not think that all these proceedings are necessary. For one thing, this funeral cost about 300,000 shillings – about £2,300 – a sum which the family can ill afford. They believe that the money spent on the funeral would be better spent helping the widow who is left, rather than feeding and (to be blunt) entertaining vast crowds of people, some of whom would only have had a passing acquaintance with the deceased.

So there we are – another snapshot of life in Luo land. I’ll describe the horrific traffic jam we encountered on our way back from Kisumu this afternoon another time!