An article by the The Star’s Matthew’s Ndanyi regarding the burial arrangements for the Late former President Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi elicited quite some heated chatter among Kalenjins Online. He suggested that under strict Kalenjin traditions, a leader of President Moi’s stature was supposed to be interred at night, a claim many dismissed. But was there any veracity to Ndanyi’s claim?
I’m not sure if am allowed to put this on print but because most of it was told to me by my grandfather, I’ll try to be a good teacher. Or at least portray that I was a good student of my grandfather. I have a duty to pass on to the next generation what I think is important, if only for knowledge’s sake. I hope I don’t violate anything as far as culture goes. And again, this may sound controversial, but there’s nothing evil in culture. Not everything that differs with Christianity is outright sinful.
In the days of my grandfather, amongst the Tugen people of Savannah and largely the Kalenjin people, burial was only a preserve of the high and mighty. Most people never qualified to be buried. They only got to be disposed in designated places. Disposal sounds crass but there were always efforts to make the disposal fairly decent and respectful. In any case it was a ceremony.
Disposal would happen in the dead of night and those tasked with carrying the dead to the forest for this ceremony had to be back before sunrise. Kalenjins bury their dead facing east and the same goes for the disposed bodies, which has to be placed facing east.
Respectable elders would be buried. Burial here means a grave was sunk. And since there were no coffins, a special cow skin was prepared and that would be used to wrap around the body of the deceased. Whether it was a disposal or a burial, elders insisted that a dead person was buried with the head facing east. Whether male or female. The burial site was only identified and dug on the morning of the burial day. Men are the only people allowed to dig a grave. Men in this context is are adult males who have been circumcised. Even if you were 60 years old and uncircumcised, you would never go near a grave. Actually you would never attend a burial. The bereaved shaved their heads bald. And pregnant women and children both boys and girls stayed away from a burial ceremony.
You won’t believe this but it was the singular duty of the first born son to literally carry the body of his father on his shoulder to the grave. It doesn’t make sense. It did then. Maybe that explains why every man longed for a first born son. They knew a time would come when their energy would be needed.
In the case of the burial of a man as great as a President Moi, men of his age set helped his son carry his body. No songs were sang. And in the wrapping of the body, a special milk calabash was stashed. Full of fresh milk. And a snuff box. The Kalenjins held a strong belief in life after death. They said they would get hungry along the way, and hence the milk was meant to offer nourishment as they made the perilous journey to the other side. The people of Savannah had a saying. “Mowendi chi ko tui kutit” (Nobody goes to the underworld hungry).
Elders were buried lying on their right side. Like how you sleep sideways. Not facing down nor outright upwards. It had to be at inclined position facing right. A fly whisk and his walking stick would be part of the burial artifacts.
To date, no female animal is slaughtered in a male funeral. Even on Wednesday at Kabarak, you can be sure only bulls will go down. Equally no male animal is slaughtered when a woman dies. Women were never buried. These days, they must be buried to the left hand side of their husbands.
Bachelors were equally never buried. They hit the “evil forest” no matter their age. And they were never carried using bare hands. They took long sticks, crossed them below his body and towed him to the forest. Marriage was a basic achievement. Dying without a wife, meant no basic respect at your funeral. The hyenas had a field day.
Good afternoon from Savannah!
Amkich Karanja is a Baringo County based social media commentator and literary enthusiast.