You know you’re a seasoned city dweller when you’ve attended just two village funerals your entire life. Mum’s village funeral is the second for me, my brother’s was the first. Our road trip to Siaya takes a little over eight hours. It’s a scenic view that loops and winds past Nakuru, past the Mai Mahiu viewpoint, and past Kisumu. Since we have a mix of adults and children in the 50-seater hearse cum bus; we make many stops along the way for toilet breaks, ‘change of clothing after spills’ breaks as well as ‘purchasing more food’ breaks.
Once our bus gets to Liganwa, our village in Siaya; just a couple of hundred meters from the home, the bus goes into an irritating hooting frenzy.
As if in response to my pained expression, my brother quips, ” They are announcing the arrival of a great woman.”
As we tumble off the bus, piercing wails rent the air like breaking glass slicing through silence. A few women who rode with us in the bus and were hitherto silent, join the melee with their screams and shouts.
Mum’s coffin is laid in state at the verandah of our village home and opened up, and more women from everywhere rush around it, with many making lamentations, weeping and addressing mum as if asking her questions.
Mum lies still and utters not a word. This is uncharacteristic of her. She was a talker. She expressed herself with colour and sprinkles of humour. It was hard to have a conversation with her without one bursting into laughter at something she said. She would describe people by traits they were known for, “When so and so has money, everyone will know…the road becomes too small for him to walk on.”
She looks like a bride in her beautiful white lace dress, her white gloves and a fascinator on her head, rested on a satin pillow. I chose the design of a dress that represented the fashionista mum was. As it is in life, so it is in death.
A guy who has travelled with us in the bus, and is from the region explains that the loud wailing and beating of the chest is somewhat therapeutic. He adds that, “Another reason for wailing is that if someone had a secret they wailed as they transmitted the message.”
I’m hoping that no secrets are spilt out in this massive group of friends and relatives. I’m hoping that mum goes down into the grave with all her secrets intact.
Since the coffin had been in the underbelly of the bus, and has gathered a film of dust through the journey, I get busy with a cloth in hand, coming in between the wailing mourners and quietly wiping the dust off the sides, top and glass of the coffin. I’m allowed to do so. I’m my mother’s daughter, and who knows if this is my therapy.
With the wailing crowds dispersing, we all troop out into the darkness towards the tented make shift restaurant catering has provided for us. We are served pilau, chapatis and stew with very soft meat. I understand that one of mum’s cows was slaughtered to provide meat to the mourners.
It’s a mix of joy and tears the next day as more relatives troop in for the burial. Luo burials are summed up as one huge reunion. Grandparents and their kids and grand kids all in one place. Cousins, aunts and uncles all eating together. It’s a sad occasion but this makes it bearable. We enjoy ourselves in the presence of extended family. I had always wished we could have family re-unions; now’s the chance to have one.
I haven’t been a frequent visitor to our shags (ancestral home) throughout my lifetime. I’ve visited about five times. There’s a heck of a lot of people who know me that I don’t know; as well for my last born brother who is now so massive that we keep on introducing him as our ‘big small brother.’ My two other brothers are well known as they have been frequent visitors, so they take me on a tour around the home.
There are a few guys who come up to me, and introduce themselves as cousins. They last saw me when I was so very young, they say. I can’t tell them from Adam, but their glazed beady red eyes and swaying from side to side inform me they’ve had one too many of changaa, the local brew, so I excuse myself and beat a hasty retreat. I run into one of our older cousins and she pulls me aside to a different kitchen they’ve set up. She wants to give me a plate of aliya (dried meat in stew) and brown ugali (made from millet). It’s quite a tasty treat for which I’m grateful.
When lunch is served, I notice the presence of scruffy looking thin dogs, with their ribs sticking out. There are occasional whelps as people give them swift kicks to chase them away. The dogs go under the tables for scraps of food, or sit at the foot of people, and gaze at them eating their food, hoping to be fed.
The biggest take-away from mum’s burial is a lesson on sowing and reaping. Mum sowed seed far, wide and deep. Such was her nature. Many come up to say how she bought them their first suit, how she paid fees for them as kids growing up in the village, how she initiated church projects; folks from mum’s village proudly say that she was the first girl from Marachi to be accepted into Makerere University. There’s a lot that is said about mum. Good things. Things I didn’t know about my mother. These are good secrets. My heart swells with pride.
It’s an emotional send-off, and each time I’m asked to speak, my voice cracks a little, and I let a flood of tears out. It’s like that. I describe mum as I know her; a strong and resilient lady who withstood many battles. A lady who loved hard, with sacrifice and with all she had. One who constantly was on the lookout for new projects, a workaholic of sorts.
When her beautiful brown casket, with small gold figurines of the Last Supper by the sides, is lowered down, and we each throw soil and then lay wreaths, I’m hit by the total absence of mum, and cry some more.
I sleep on my mum’s bed when night falls; right next to my aunt Norah, the first born of mum’s siblings. I’m so happy to see her. I had been told she was so sick that she couldn’t walk, but here she is doing normal things, I tell her she looks good, and I keep asking for her to come to the ‘restaurant’ with me, when it’s time to eat.
She replies that even though she eats, she never feels satisfied, it’s like she feels tired of eating, like eating is a non-necessity.
My dad’s elder sister, Aunt Dorah laments why mum had to go and not her. I sense she’s tired of this life that all of us try to desperately hold on to. When we chat her up, she says she’s in her eighties. She’s still clear minded, and looks very strong.
My cousin troops in with an announcement.
‘Nairobi folks can pay ten shillings to take a nice shower.’
I snort at this.
We are in nature and have paid for a water bowser. The showers are crowded and have a faint urine smell, so I opt to bathe with a bucket under the blue sky and behind some thicket bushes. It feels good and soon my cousins who laughed at the idea of me lathering myself in soap, then tossing cold water over my head in nature, troop to the bushes to have a go themselves.
I love the simplicity and slow pace of life in the village; the sage wisdom of the elderly, the young folks telling wild stories to get a buck out of us, and so forth. Throughout the burial, we had been asked to come back, to keep visiting and not to turn our backs on the village now that both mum and dad are gone. I don’t need convincing. I know I will be back.