Casket of Gladys’ Aunt Catherine ready for burial at funeral on April 5, 2017. Note the picture held up by family members and the T-shirts with her picture.

Two weeks ago, grandson Brian’s and grandniece Trina’s school, Sunrise Valley Academy, asked all parents to donate 50 shillings (US 50 cents) for the funeral of the father of one of the students who had just died. If all 300 students’ parents contributed, and most will, the school would contribute about 15,000/- ($150) towards the funeral expenses. This is the customary practice here. Of course we sent in our 100/- ($1).

The normal funeral here in Lumakanda costs around 200,000/- ($2,000). As soon as a person dies, a committee is formed to organize the funeral. This includes a chair, secretary, and treasurer. They quickly develop a budget indicating the amount that needs to be raised. Since the cost of the funeral is a community expense, not an individual expense, the committee then sets about raising the necessary funds.

If the burial is on Saturday – the most common day for a funeral – on Thursday the body is brought from the mortuary for public viewing. Later on Thursday afternoon there is a public assembly to raise the necessary funds. Naturally the close family members are major donors, but everyone else chips in. I think that in vast majority of cases the necessary funds are raised. Gladys attends many of these community fundraisers and, if she is not able to attend, she will send her contribution through the church or sometimes by M-pesa (mobile money). At the funeral itself, which will be attended by 500 to 1000 people, a final offering will be made.

The major expense of the funeral is food for all the activities from the initial committee meetings, the Thursday fundraiser, the Saturday funeral, and the support of close family members from all over the country for the seven to ten days they will be there. Some of the donations will be in kind. For example, at the funeral of Gladys’ Aunt Catherine a year ago, Gladys who spent three days and nights with the family also donated half a bag of maize, lots of sukumawiki (collard greens), and a chicken. Someone usually volunteers to purchase the bull that is needed for the funeral.

Other expenses include paying the mortuary, digging the grave, buying the coffin, renting tents and chairs, a thank-you to the pastor who presides over the service, a generator if electricity is not available, the fee for the person who provides the sound system and music, medical expenses for the terminal illness, and so on. You will notice that most of these expenses are used directly for the community members who have donated the funds. Therefore the whole community enterprise here is arranged by, directed to and consumed by the community itself.

Bridesmaids at the wedding of our niece, Jackie Mideva.

Similar methods are used for weddings. The advantage here is that there is a lot of time to organize the event. While the wedding will be in the groom’s hometown, the bride’s family will come to the wedding in large numbers and help contribute towards its expenses. I have also seen these community fundraisers used to pay tuition for a favorite pastor at Lumakanda Friends Church to get a master’s degree in divinity, help with medical expenses, support the repairs of a house, purchase the plot for a person to build a house, complete the building of a house where the owner was short, the support of a blind/deaf Quaker to help pay school fees for his children, and other major ordinary and extraordinary expenses that a person might need.

I have been impressed by how people contribute and do their share, voluntarily. Young people who may not have many economic resources put in whatever they can, even if it is only 10/- (10 US cents) – at these functions we give our kids the 10/- coin so that they become accustomed to donating to the common good.  

I have read article after article by westerners about the extraordinary expense of these funerals with the “advice” that the funds would have been better spent on investment and development. These westerners don’t understand the system at all.

As I have understood it, many expenses which are considered personal or family expenses in western culture are considered community expenses here in Kenya. This is all based on the African philosophy of Ubuntu (humanity), “I am because we are and we are because I am.” What I find interesting is that with the local Kenyans including my wife, Gladys, this is so basic, so fundamental to the way people live that they don’t even notice it. As a consequence they don’t really explain it to foreigners including those that denigrate the funds spent on funerals and weddings.

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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC) and Friends Church Peace Team (FCPT). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region. He is an analyst on eastern Africa issues for TVC News in Lagos, Nigeria.

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David Zarembka

Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC)

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