Into the Field

Kathy Randall: Lela, Maseno Division, Kenya
Growing up as a Preacher’s Daughter, I have had the opportunity to go to many funerals and interments. I became accustomed to the routine of visitation, service, and driving out to the cemetery with the hearse leading the way. My mother would have us stand at the edges of the crowd, respectfully silent, even if we did not directly know the deceased. Today, I was present at my first burial.
Our team arrived to our first homestay yesterday, knowing that today would be our chance to observe (and participate) in a local burial service. Last night we went to sleep listening to the amplified recordings broadcast from the house behind our host’s where the wake was taking place. This morning, we watched our host and a score of mamas preparing the meal that would be served after the service. Around ten in the morning, we heard the beginning of the testimonies of those who knew Susana.
Susana was a grandmother suffering from AIDS. Our director, Ellen Daniels-Howell, had met her once before, and learned some of her story. Susana and her daughter-in-law lived in their clay house with the tin roof, working in their shamba (field), raising maize and peas and other subsistence goods, struggling to survive. The
daughter-in-law (also sick, also a widow) will have to leave the house, since the property is not traditionally hers. Unfortunately, our team did not have the opportunity to meet Susana, but we did honor her today by our presence at her burial.
We went out her backyard around noon, to go observe and listen to the testimonies. This tradition of eulogy is continuous, with anyone who desires to speak about the deceased approaches the microphone and extemporizes for a unset period of time. When we arrived, we were found seats in the shade, (with the ubiquitous KenPoly chairs), and we settled down to see what we could see and hear what we might hear. We listened to the Dhluo testimonies, with periodic spurts of singing and clapping, watching the crowd grow and watch us. We estimate that at least three hundred mourners showed up to show their respects for Susana. After three hours of sitting and watching, we were told that we should go take our offering up under the tent. We queued with our shilling notes in hand, and entered the tent. Shuffling and humming along to the a capella choir, we approached the place where we were to deposit our offering. The black plastic bowl was placed on the lace covering the coffin, directly next to the small plexiglass window directly over Susana’s face, allowing us to see her face, preserved in death.
We returned briefly to our seats in the shade, but soon our guide told us to come get behind the choir, again inside the tent. We gathered again, not really knowing exactly what was about to happen (a common occurrence here). Soon, we began to sing, and move forward in a long train toward the shamba off to the side. The coffin followed us closely as we came up to the grave already dug deep.
We continued to sing, and the preachers read from their service books, and then four young men jumped into the hole, to receive the coffin, to lower it down to the bottom of the hole. After they lowered it in, and jumped back out, the preacher shoveled a spade of red clay onto the lace covered coffin, with the appropriate words (presumably. I don’t know for sure since they, as the complete rest of the service, were spoken in Dhluo). We prayed. As we continued to sing, the spade and two hoes were taken up to completely fill in the grave as we remained standing around the quickly shallowing grave.
Many hands make short work, the young men rotating between the tools taking a five foot hill and a five foot hole to level ground in about fifteen minutes. As they worked, periodically ringing the tools together to shake off packed clay, spare stalks of the maize from the field Susana is now buried in came in with the dirt. As the hill vanished, the crowd closed in around the newly covered grave, and a final chorus was sung. “Going home to Jerusalem” hope and expectation gathering in as we closed the service with a final prayer.
In all of my experience of Interments, the burying part is the one that is hidden from view, not part of our cultural experience. Here, in Kenya, we waited to see the whole process, so that we could be assured that each this was indeed a circumstance when we enter our deceased into the fertile soil. To be buried in your own field, out of necessity or poetry, seems fitting, especially here where their lives are so closely linked with this land.

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