Years ago when i was a little innocent boy, we feared death. The moment death chanced upon our village everything changed, it would just squat there like a puppy right where everybody could see and acknowledge it while trying hard not to be ignored. Well, back then it never used to be as common as it is nowadays to have funerals but the few there were still evoked a significant amount of fear in us.
We may not have been very familiar with the philosophy of pain and sorrow it brought along but one thing we knew was that it was something bad. We saw how the adults walked around with sombre faces, how the jokes in the homestead or entire village just died off literally to be resurrected way after the funeral was over. Even the cows which would normally be mooing in anticipation of a meal would all be quiet, crouched inside their cribs away from sorrowful human eyes.
The pigs too would for once quit their squealing and the only thing in the village that would be heard were women crying and the endless drone of tiny planes high above the sky. And for some reason up to this day the drone of a plane in a serene atmosphere like Maasai Mara sets me in a very sombre mood!
I remember how my granny used to react to news of a death in the village. She would sigh deeply, shake her head slowly, palm on her chin and sometimes if the deceased was close to her, like a member of her “Chamaa” she would shed tears.
People would start streaming into the bereaved family’s home to grieve with them and pay their respects. They would take foodstuff to them, milk, firewood and the like. They would raise funds and contribute generously. It was not until the year 2000 that people only visited bereaved families to eat and they would leave without even putting a penny in the provided basket!
A day before the funeral, young men would come to dig the grave. This in the Gikuyu culture is a domain for young men only. Any young man who doesn’t show up while a grave is being dug loses respect among his peers and the community perceives of him differently. The graveyard at that point is the only place lewd talk and marijuana is allowed. The young men are left to their devices and conversations. They are not supposed to be bothered coz their job is of significant importance, preparing a final resting place for the dead.
Upon finishing, they would be fed with lots of Ugali (has no English translation but it’s something made out of maize flour and final product somehow physically resemble a wedding cake with white icing) and Matumbo (animal intestines, preferably a cow. Hippopotamus too but a cow is better!) and Sukuma Wiki (kales). A very balanced diet, and lots of water.
The Gikuyu lack the dramatic funeral arrangements of their Luo counterparts. For the latter, the entire thing falls only short of a celebration. They say that they are celebrating life, we on the other hand mark the end of a life which we assume to have been well lived.
As such, the body is only viewed at the mortuary once it is placed in the casket right before being loaded into a pickup; only rich Gikuyu chaps use a hired, black hearse to ferry the body for burial. Your kawaida Mwangi or DeMathew will hire a pickup truck which on other days is used to probably ferry milk to the local dairy or meat from the slaughterhouse! The latter will always smell of dead cows.
When we were kids we were neither allowed near the casket or graveyard, it was, we supposed, an adult monopoly to see that the deceased was dispatched well to his other home out of this world. We just contented ourselves watching from a far as they took turns spading the mountain of dirt into the grave. The mischievous among us would climb a tree and view it from high but if a village elder saw them they would be ordered to get down immediately.
After everyone was gone, they left behind a lonely grave with fresh earth set like a mound, a few colourful flowers on top it which would wither by the next day. A wooden cross would also be placed there, a sign perhaps that the person did not die as a pagan.
We were advised never to stare or point at a grave. This, they said. Would make our fingers get crooked. I swear, there was a grave in our neighbours land right opposite our gate and i never ever dared look or point into that direction. Some naughty boys would play pranks on others, forcibly pointing their fingers in that direction and the poor boy would run home crying while checking his finger for signs of crookedness.
Nowadays kids have grown so used to death and funerals that they are never scared. There was a day i found a kid crying, his pals had whacked him and when i asked how i could assist he told me to kill them! Well, i didn’t kill his pal, just in case you are wondering but i was left wondering when death became a word that small kids can use so freely.