A Kenyan Funeral

A year and half ago, we shared a story of our first Kenyan Wedding experience.  Today I thought I would share about a kenyan funeral experience. Although this was not my first kenyan funeral experience, actually my third. But this one had the greatest impact on me personally.

The first 2 funerals I went to were for a neighbor and another for a family member of our family we partner with here. I had not met either of the 2 deceased but the first one of the neighbor was a really sad situation. He was actually robbed, shot and killed by thugs on the streets of Nairobi at night. Sadly he was survived by a wife and 2 young kids young than Jayden and Aubrey. Truly a sad situation. But the saddest thing to me that I really struggled with for a while was the lack of apparent grief at the funeral. Of course we know that funerals are meant to celebrate the life of someone who has passed and we can have hope that they made Christ their Lord in their time on earth so we will see them again in Heaven. But in this case of a father dying and leaving a wife and 2 young kids. I can’t even imagine the pain for those closest to that family. But there really seemed to be a real sense of desensitivity to the pain of losing loved ones. Desensitivity was the only way I could explain it in my mind. People here seem to be so used to death and losing those close to them for various reasons, that they really don’t seem to grieve the same way we do in the U.S. I expected many cultural differences when I came to Kenya, but this difference was certainly not something I expected. I’m sure people were grieving and I know many people handle grief differently, but to me I just felt in my spirit there was a sense of desensitivity because of so many people around them dying.

It is no exaggeration when I say that at least once a week, someone I work with or am close to is going to a funeral. I understand that this is part of culture here for as many people to attend a funeral as possible to honor the deceased. Our social worker, Kellen was at a funeral for someone she knew on Thursday and this one with us yesterday.

Yesterday’s funeral was a bit different than the other 2, mostly because I did know the deceased. But also because he came from a poor family and the experience was a bit different.

Upon returning from a trip to Nairobi with the family a couple of weeks ago, I learned that one of our watchmen, Francis Mutegi (age 60) was in a very serious accident on his way to work.  Francis had been working for us as one of our night watchmen for over a year. We didn’t have a super close relationship because he didn’t speak much English and I don’t speak much Kikuyu or Kiswahili, but we were friends as we would talk together through our other watchmen who does speak English.  Francis was very polite, alert, respectful, and loved and protected my family very well.  We will greatly miss him.

Francis was riding his bicycle on the side of the road when an on-coming car decided to overtake a slower vehicle. When the driver overtook that car at a high speed, he hit Francis head-on while on his bicycle and knowing that Francis must have been seriously injured, the driver sped off. The other unfortunate part of this story is the reason why the driver did not stop to help or take responsibility for his actions. If he had stopped, there would have certainly been a mob and probably the driver’s car would have been burned and potentially he would have been beaten by the angry mob as well. I have experienced a similar type of this “mob justice” about a year and a half ago, but I really don’t wish to talk about it. But unfortunately it is a very real thing here and one that does strike fear into people but does not give them an opportunity to be tried in a court of law (which could have the potential be corrupted somehow along the way.). See the vicious cycle?

Francis was taken to a hospital in Nairobi (2 hours away because the local hospital could not handle such trauma and ICU cases). He was there in a coma for a few days before he eventually passed away.

Upon learning of his passing, I knew that it would be important for us to contribute to the funeral arrangements for Francis as this is another common cultural practice in Kenya.  Most people don’t have a way or simply don’t save and plan for their own passing so others around them contribute to the family for the funeral costs – transport of the body, mortuary costs, coffin, etc. A few of us went together to meet with the family on Monday and offered ACP’s assistance. We were able to cover all of the costs at the hospital in Nairobi so that the body could be released to the family. The family was very grateful for our contribution, but I could tell they were going to need much more.

The body then had to be transported from Nairobi back to Embu, which is no small cost depending on the type of transport he could be carried. I was told this could happen in a few ways – by a hearse or ambulance, in a coffin on top of a car or public transportation van, or simply wrapped in a blanket and placed in a hired taxi. I was shocked at the thought of the last 2 alternatives, but I am happy to report that he was in fact brought by a hearse on the morning of the funeral. His family went to Nairobi very early in the morning to collect the body and returned to Embu by 11 in the morning.

When we arrived for the service, they had already started with the photo session. This was a new thing for me at a previous funeral. Basically they would gather different groups of family, friends, or co-workers around the coffin for a photo much like we might do for family photos at a wedding. And the process took just as long as it does at a wedding at home except here, everyone is seated with many left standing and watching while each group goes for their photo. Here is our photo:

Front: Francis' wife From left to right: Ann Gacheru (Alex Mbuthia and Jim's mom), Mama Wariumu (our neighbor and mama's close friend), Kellen (our social worker), Jim (Alex's brother), Josiah (our gardener and daytime watchman), Daniel (our driver), myself, Albert (another one of our night watchman)

Front: Francis’ wife
From left to right: Ann Gacheru (Alex Mbuthia and Jim’s mom), Mama Wariumu (our neighbor and mama’s close friend), Kellen (our social worker), Jim (Alex’s brother), Josiah (our gardener and daytime watchman), Daniel (our driver), myself, Albert (another one of our night watchman)

I was surprised at the simplicity of Francis’ coffin. Although I have always said, “don’t worry about me. Just put me in pine box and bury me somewhere. I’ll be in heaven, it doesn’t matter what you do with my body.” I was still a little taken back and saddened at its simplicity of construction, materials, and paint. The sign you see is a temporary headstone. I understand that possibly even years later a proper headstone will be placed at his grave site at a special occasion in remembrance of him.

The service was nice aside from the struggling sounds system broadcast from megaphones on the top of the hearse and faulty microphones and the fact that the preacher asked the attendees for an offering at the end. I was SHOCKED by that one.  I’m sure she saw an opportunity for herself with such a large crowd (especially the “rich white guy”) and she got hungry. But she should have taken up an offering for Francis’ family, not HERSELF!  I was really disappointed in that. But no one else seemed to be surprised. And apparently it was a good message.

After a long service (none of which I understood since I was the only person there who didn’t speak Kikuyu), the coffin was carried about 100 feet behind their houses to the grave site. I have only seen one cemetery in Nairobi. I hear there is one somewhere in Embu but I haven’t seen it. But this is mostly because they are very rarely used. Most people are taken to their home village to be buried. Even those that live in Nairobi (like our neighbor who was shot) are still brought to their family land to be buried.

Another interesting cultural experience was after the coffin was lowered into the ground, everyone would come and grab a handful or shovel of sand to fully bury the body. This was not done by the funeral service, but the friends and family. The once the hole was filled, people came with pieces of flowers to plant at the grave site. I thought this was a nice thing.

After the burial was complete everyone dispersed to a meal consisting of rice and beans, again provided by the family as the host. We did not partake this time, but we did as part of the family at a previous funeral. But certainly most other people stayed for the food.

As we were leaving, the photographers at the service had printed the photos from the photo session and had them posted on strings on the exit path. The photos were there for purchase at 50 cents each. This same thing happens at weddings and most other large occasions. The photographers usually show up with their digital cameras, a printer, and a car battery for powering the printer. Amazing right?

I hope you have appreciated my thoughts about my friend’s funeral service. Our family already misses him and feels for his family as they have lost their husband, father, grandfather, and friend so unexpectedly. It really shows us that life is never guaranteed. Anything can happen at any time. And I hope you have given your heart to the Lord so that when your day comes you are ready to meet the Lord. And if you get there before I do, say “Jambo” to my friend Francis.

Note for any of my Kenyan friends reading this: I hope that my thoughts and assessment of things doesn’t offend you in any way. I just wanted to share my experiences with my friends in the U.S. and help them understand a bit of kenyan culture. If any of what I have written offends you, or if you want to talk to me about it, please talk to me. I certainly did not intend to offend anyone and would love to have a conversation with you about it.