Kikuyu - Feature Articles

A Kikuyu funeral

This is an extract from Melinda Atwood's book Jambo, Mama, and is reproduced by kind permission. Don't be put-off by the prospect of yet another mzungu safari journal: this one is superb. The following excerpt follows an intensely moving passage about the death of a friend, Lucy. See the copyright notice for textual extracts.

A Kikuyu funeral, by Melinda Atwood

I don't know what was said at the church service, for it too was in Kikuyu, but the singing was quite haunting. Nyamburra, seated on the other side of me, told me that all the songs were traditional Kikuyu burial songs. Most were sung in a question and response style and were lilting and melodic. The church was filled to capacity with everyone dressed in their best clothes. Lucy's coffin was up in front by the altar, but there were few other adornments.

After the service we piled back into my car, this time with four more Kufuma workers seated on the tailgate, and followed the pickup truck bearing the coffin into the coffee fields. We were bound for Lucy's parent's house, where I had been that dark night just a week before. I was surprised to find that it was only a short drive to get there, no more than ten minutes from the main road, and the walk from the car to the house was only a few hundred yards. It had seemed so far away and frightening six days before. We all hiked up the hill together and arrived at the burial scene.

Africans are very often buried in their back yard in Kenya. There was a huge mound of freshly dug earth behind the house and in the clearing near the front door sat the coffin. It was made of simple wood, and was set atop several hand carved stools. There were no flowers atop her coffin, just her school photograph. Most people were seated on the ground, but there were a few chairs on the periphery and I was offered one in the shade. I sat with James and most of Lucy's family. Mildred was across the grass watching me.

As the proceedings went along I noticed that every few minutes someone would go over to the coffin and spray it with an aerosol can. After a few times I turned to James and asked him what they were doing. He whispered back to me, "We don't want Lucy to smell." I then realized that it was a can of air freshener, and remembered that she had been dead almost a week. There was no embalming in Kenya.

The next part of the service involved friends and members of Lucy's family standing by the coffin and saying a few words about her. In the years that I had been in Kenya I had been to a few African ceremonies: farewells to balloon crew employees and celebrations of various staff accomplishments and I knew that the telling and retelling of every single detail of the life of the person in question was the norm. No one ever seemed to tire of hearing the same facts told over and over again. But in this case it was all in Kikuyu and I was left to imagine what was being said. When her father spoke and I heard "Atwood" and "Kufuma" uttered every so often I did, of course, realize what the general topic was, but I couldn't know what was being said about me. I hoped it was favorable. When the government representative, the local council member, got up to make his speech, however, he spoke in Swahili. That I could understand.

His name was Karanja, (the Smith of the Kikuyus,) and he was dressed in a coat and tie. Because of his position in the community the little congregation paid great attention to his every word as he launched into yet another retelling of Lucy's death. He started at the very beginning, from moving Kufuma from Kiambu to Karen right up to the night of the fire a month before. He told of all her suffering in "Kikuyu" hospital and the move to Kenyatta in Nairobi. He didn't leave out a single detail right up to that last night at the hospital when she had died with Martha and myself in attendance. He had the "audience" in rapt attention.

I was seated on his left, but thought I was hidden in the shade of the tree, so I was very surprised when he turned to face me directly. He changed his tone and spoke a few words in English, informing me that this next part was going to be about me. Then, still facing me, he continued. He listed all that I had done for Lucy, from giving her a job to paying her hospital bills. Everything that had occurred over the past month was recounted in a tone of glowing admiration. I was most embarrassed by all this and by the time he finished I had my face all but buried in my lap.

He wound up his speech with a final asante sana for my visit to Kiambu and for coming up to see the family to tell them that their daughter had died. To me this had been just a basic courtesy to anyone who would be suffering the loss of a child, but in that situation, and in that country, I guess it was cause for mention. Applause broke out among the mourners and I was already blushing when he motioned me to stand. I stood up and smiled, trying to catch Mildred's eye.

"Can this be the right thing to do?" I thought.

When I finally saw her she was smiling at me and clapping as vigorously as the person next to her.

Before the casket was to be lowered into the ground a professional photographer emerged and started to take pictures. Mildred kept nodding me on and so I stood with all the Kufuma people behind the coffin and had our picture taken. I was, once again, surprised and a little uncomfortable, but it appeared to be the thing to do.

The casket was then lowered into the ground, the dirt piled on top and more songs were sung. Everyone had been given a bouquet of fresh flowers and as we made our way over to the gravesite, Mildred told me that we were all to file past the fresh grave and stick the flowers upright into the earth, as if they had grown there. I was standing with the Kufuma people waiting for the flower ceremony to begin when the people in front of me started murmuring to each other and moving aside. A path opened up in front of me. I, too, stepped aside, assuming that there was someone behind me who needed to pass by, but when I turned around, I saw no one. Then I felt a hand on my back and heard Mildred whispering "It is for you Madame. You must go now." It seemed that I was to place the first flowers. With Mildred pressing me from behind I proceeded to the grave and stuck my flowers into the dirt. I then stood with Lucy's parents and shook a hundred hands as all the mourners filed past. As I was gathering my house staff together and about to leave, the councilman came up to me and thanked me, once again, for all I had done. I was not too eloquent at that moment and all I could manage to say was that I had only tried to help. What I really wanted to do was to get out of there before this new halo that had been placed on top of my head got any heavier.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography