Life and Death Discussions
By Miluka Gunaratna

Our PamojaTogether student group had settled in Bondo Town for barely a couple of days and we were already exchanging bits and pieces of our lives with each other. We were all for the most part somewhere in our twenties, grew up in different parts of Kenya, the US and elsewhere in the world. None of us knew each other well. Even the BU students didn’t really know each other, coming as we did from various areas of study at a large urban university. In brief pre-departure meetings to orient ourselves with the project, the BU group had exchanged the kind of common courtesies that go with such moments. With our Kenyan counterparts we had mainly exchanged emails, messaged each other on Facebook and maybe talked briefly over the phone. We had been paired up with one or two Kenyans so that we could get to know each other a bit before reaching Kenya and also to attempt to figure out possible story leads.

My partner was Evans, and about a month before my departure, I sent him an email introducing myself and stating that I was interested in sports, particularly cricket and netball. From his response, it was clear that he thought I was a man. He stated that he was glad I was into sports and said that he wouldn’t be surprised if I was heavier than him, but was sure that he was much faster! Me, a man and of all people, heavier than him? Well, I hadn’t thought it necessary to mention my gender or how skinny I am (weighing barely 80 pounds and with little to no apparent body fat). I am a very competitive sportswoman and I didn’t want him to think he was faster than me (even though I figured he was as a rugby playing guy), so in my reply I told him not to be disappointed with the fact that I am probably the skinniest girl he would ever meet. I also told him that I was a fast runner myself and challenged him to a race. A perfect start to our getting-to-know-each-other conversation, right?

evan and miluka And now here we were, the PamojaTogether team, finally meeting our other half in a small town in Western Kenya. Yes, the mission which had brought us all together was to capture the impact of foreign aid in rural communities, but we were also keen to learn about each other from the moment we first set our eyes on each other. We weren’t just curious about what each of us was studying in school, we wanted to know much more than that. And by more I mean we wanted to know everything, love lives being a topic of much discussion and debate during those first few days of bonding. From there, our subjects of conversation ranged broadly.

During a lunch break on the second day, I happened to be sitting beside Jafred and Evans. I don’t recall how we got started on this particular conversation, but Jafred was telling me about how a couple of years ago one of his uncles had passed away. His uncle’s request had been that he should be cremated. Jafred’s grandfather, who was the uncle’s father, did not want to have anything to do with cremation and planned to bury him. So Jafred and his grandfather picked up the body from the morgue and drove home to conduct the burial services.

On the way home, the car stopped for no reason. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. Then Jafred’s grandfather got out of the car, went over to the coffin, opened it and scolded his dead son for being difficult and making the car stop because he didn’t want to be buried. After delivering this scolding, Jafred’s grandfather slapped his son’s face and went back to the driver’s seat. The car started on the first try. They drove for a while only to have it die again.

This stop-scold-slap-start process went was repeated 6 times during the journey and, when the car stopped for the seventh time, Jafred’s grandfather turned the coffin around and told his son that he was taking him back to the morgue. The car started again and after that they were able to reach home without further stops. According to Jafred, because the coffin was turned around, the son was under the impression that he was being taken back to the morgue. I felt sorry for the son because his father had not listened to his request to be cremated. However, I was intrigued at how the spirit of a dead man was trying to resist being buried against his wishes.

Jafred went on to tell me how sometimes when a body needs to be transported a long distance back to the home village, people can’t afford the expenses of hiring a hearse, especially if the body needs to be transported across the country. So families then resort to putting the dead body into the front passenger seat of a matatu (mini bus which transports people from town to town), tie it to the chair and pay the driver to transport the body at night to its destination. In the dark, the passengers sitting in the back of the matatu have no idea that they are traveling with a dead body in the vehicle. I’m not quite sure about how the driver handles being seated beside a dead passenger, though.

At first, while listening to this I wasn’t sure if Jafred was trying to pull my leg and make fun of my ignorance of Kenyan culture. After all, being a foreigner (from Sri Lanka) who is studying in the US, I myself have played many a prank on my unsuspecting American friends. When I was in college, I would be lucky to meet an American student who had even heard of a country called Sri Lanka. Once, I told one of them that my house was built on top of a coconut tree and I got around by riding on elephants. Guess what? The guy believed me. I have had other foreign friends make stuff up about their countries too when speaking with Americans just to have a bit of fun. So how could I not be skeptical about what Jafred was telling me? But, it was not just Jafred who was telling me this. Evans was pitching into the conversation too, and both said this really happens—dead people headed home, strapped to a matatu. The image made me laugh-but it also made me sad, because of the desperate measures people must take in order to say a final farewell to their loved one.


Since we were already on the subject of death, our conversation turned to morgues. Jafred talked about the existence of traditional morgues in Kenya. I knew every country has morgues, but I had no clue what a “traditional” morgue was. I have never been inside a “regular” morgue either in Sri Lanka or the US, and I have no morbid fascination with dead bodies–human or animal. But I had to wonder, what made a morgue “traditional”? I wanted to learn and fully experience this new culture I was suddenly immersed in. So I told Jafred that I would like to visit one. He explained that bigger hospitals have the typical morgues, but smaller ones usually have the traditional ones due to lack of resources. “Traditional,” in other words, means no frills.

One day I was at the Bondo District Hospital with Jafred and Jessica, waiting for a meeting with the mothers2mothers organization. Facing a 20-30 minute wait, we were passing our time walking around the hospital when Jafred remembered that there was a traditional morgue there. Would I like to visit it?

It was a small building away from the rest of the hospital. We walked in and found ourselves in a room with a desk and chair. Jafred told the person there that we would like to visit. The man disappeared and then came back with someone else who escorted us inside. We followed him through a narrow corridor and entered a windowless room that had about 20 dead bodies neatly lined up on “shelves” (long wooden tables). There were two bodies placed on a shelf on either side of the door through which we had just entered. This was the first time I had been in a room full of so many dead people. Each person was draped in a colored piece of cloth and had a white piece of tape across their forehead containing information about the dead person. Our guide explained that it takes families as little as 2-3 days or as much as 2 weeks to come and claim the bodies. In the next room, a person was in the process of embalming two bodies. There was formaldehyde spilled all over the floor. Our guide pointed towards the next room, which was empty. From where we were standing we could see that this room led into another room, but it had a closed door. The guide told us that was where bodies that had not been claimed by family members were kept.

By this time, the stench was getting unbearable. I was trying to hold my breath for as long as I could. It was clear that the room with the closed door had decomposing bodies and the smell that we were getting was that of the formaldehyde and the decomposing flesh. The morgue had no refrigeration capability; hence the term “traditional” morgue. We politely declined the guide’s offer to walk into that other room and made our way out through the first room of dead people and finally out into the fresh air. I had never smelled decomposing human flesh before, and it was a very important experience I will remember for the rest of my life. Death is inevitable, and perhaps reminding ourselves that one day we will have to leave the face of this earth might prompt us to be more compassionate, so when the time comes, we can say good bye knowing that we tried to serve mankind. As Nelson Mandela said, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” I hope that distinctive smell I breathed in Bondo Town will help me lead such a life.

During those few days I learned much about how Kenyans treat the dead and it was only fitting that I encountered a funeral procession while driving from Bondo to Gwassi. There were many people on the road wailing. Some had small tree branches tied across their bodies, arms raised to the heavens while crying. Some were on motorbikes, some walking and others in vans. I could see a coffin tied to the top of one van. Perhaps they were accompanying the body to the burial site. The rest of the commuters on the road like us, made way for them as much as possible and then stopped on the road. One does not proceed until the funeral procession passes you. It is a mark of respect. We came across this funeral procession while on our way to Sauri, a remote fishing village on Lake Victoria. On the second night at this village, I was awakened around 2:30 a.m. to the sound of distant wailing. I could hear men and women crying. It was pitch dark in my hotel room as the electricity had gone out. I was sharing the room with Jeremy, who was sleeping on the bed across from me. I wasn’t sure if he was awake and could hear the sounds. “Jeremy, can you hear that?,” I asked. He sleepily muttered something which sounded like a yes. He rolled over, but said nothing else. I wanted to see where the sound was coming from, but it was so dark that I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. I lay in bed wondering who had passed away. Was it a mother, a child, a father? What had happened? What was going on so early in the morning in that community?

Several months later, back in the U.S., I learned what sounds had woken me up that night. Jafred and I have been in constant contact since the BU Pamoja students left Kenya. One day Jafred sent me a Facebook message while he was at a relative’s house tending to funeral preparations. It was late at night for him, and I asked why he was still awake. He said there was so much noise at the house with the beating of drums and playing music that he thought his ear drums would explode. Jafred explained that the home of the person who lost a family member is often referred to as “disco matanga.” “Disco” is used here in the same context as we know it and “matanga” means funeral in Swahili. Apparently, the community stays awake with the body at the house until the burial, which usually takes place after a couple of days.

This part of Kenya’s tradition is very similar to what happens in Sri Lanka where we also stay awake with the body to ward off evil spirits. But, in Sri Lanka the house is very quiet: no music or TV and certainly no dancing. In contrast, Kenyans from the Luhya tribe (Jafred’s tribe) play music, beat drums and dance around a huge bonfire to ward off the evil spirit which caused the death. An entire village converges for this ritual, sometimes drawing people from neighboring villages. The community members help with preparation of food for the crowds that stream in round-the-clock . Local churches also donate food. It is a community coming together to mourn the loss of a loved one. But, as Jafred noted, not everyone is mourning. He said many people attend a funeral because free food is available, not necessarily because they knew the person who passed away. Politicians also take this opportunity to mingle with people. Basically, he said, these people gate crash funerals.

miluka and jaffThat was when I realized the sounds I had been woken up to that morning in Gwassi had probably come from a disco matanga. It all finally made sense. Before we ended our conversation Jafred said that one day when I am in Kenya again, we should gate crash a disco matanga so I could experience it myself.

I learned so much about Kenyan lifestyle and culture during my visit there, but also through the friendships that continue today, many time zones away. Distance does not seem to be a barrier for us to continue to learn from each other. I eagerly await the day I get to visit Kenya again so that I can gate crash a disco matanga with my Kenyan brother, Jafred.