Perspective of the World from Western Kenya

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Death among Iteso people

Written by Nandemu Barasa ‘Omutolometi’
2012-02-23 10:15:00
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Teso traditional hut.

Death is not only feared among other tribes in the world but the Iteso people also fear death.

However, when one passes on among the Iteso people, they mourn but still have hope that the deceased will come back after some time.

This explains why the Iteso perform an exhuming ceremony after burial of the dead.

When a person passes on, the body is kept in the house for at least four days before burial takes place. During the four days, relatives gather and mourn day and night. At night, they would light fire where they gathered especially men to chat and even review the deceased`s life.

If the elderly man with many wives dies, burial day would be determined by the number of wives he had if they exceeded four. That is because, the deceased is to spent a night in each of the wives` houses until it reaches the first wife`s house before burial would take place.

The clan played a very vital role when it came to burial of one of their own and even if the man had abandoned the first wife, it was a must that burial takes place there.

Remember that the issue of burial in almost all the tribes in the world came just later after it was discovered that throwing the bodies in the bush, the way it used to happen was causing spread of contagious diseases.

Back to burial among the Iteso, on the burial day the grave was dug facing the east and the soil dug from the grave is poured on the southern side. The deceased is buried that way because the Iteso people believe he or she will be coming back soon.

Rich people and those from well known families were buried in cow skin unlike the poor who were only covered with grass before burial.

Hon Elizabeth Laini who is the Culture Minister in the cabinet of the Iteso King

It is important to note here that unlike currently where women are allowed to escort the bodies of their husbands to the grave, they were not allowed to do that in the earlier days. According to Hon Elizabeth Laini who is the Culture Minister in the cabinet of the Iteso King, women were kept off because it was feared that they would collapse and die at the grave side. Also relatives of the deceased husband used such opportunities to bewitch the widow at the grave side if she attempted to go near. [Read: An enchanting culture of the Teso]

Unfaithful women would not escort the bodies of their husbands because Iteso people say they would die if they did it.

When some one who was born a twin, the twin sister or brother would not be allowed to view the body as it was argued that he or she will also die mysteriously.

Coming to the burial of a person who did not give birth, his burial was accompanied by certain rituals. His body would in the first place be moved out of the house using the behind door and if there was no door, the wall would be broken to create a passage.

The body would also be buried together with a broom, special grass, Emuria an equivalent of Lukhafwa among Bukusu people and Ekekepa, a special stone which is placed on his/her head.

The broom is meant to sweep the deceased spirit completely so that it cannot come back to haunt the living. Emuria is meant to tie the spirit where as the stone is meant to hit the spirit whenever it attempts to come out to disturb the living. And not only that, a sheep is slaughtered and rituals performed to lock the deceased`s spirit completely from the clan.   

On the third day after burial of the deceased, relatives took all the equipment used in the home such as hoes, pangas, and spades to the river where they washed them and came back. Note that they would not use the route they used while going to the river to come back. That was indicating that when they went they were in another state and now coming back was a new state and therefore they needed a new route to come back.

Later a shaving ceremony was conducted where relatives, neighbors and friends shave their hair. If the man had left behind widow(s) to be inherited, the clan selected one person whom they directed to shave the widow during the ceremony. The man selected to shave the widow was the one to look after her. In most cases there was no objection from the man himself and even the widow except in some rare cases.

That shaving could not automatically mean that the man had gotten a license to start living with the widow because another ceremony to make official the union had to be conducted.

During the ceremony, the man to look after the widow had to slaughter a ram for the relatives to feast. The very man had to take a piece of meat and gave it to the widow to cook for the relatives. If the widow refused to pick the piece of meat then it showed that she was not interested in the union. Another man was selected immediately and if the woman still refused, they would try until she accepted one man.

After the agreement, the union will be legalized and the deceased’s house brought down immediately.

Exhuming the dead.

At about twenty to third years after the burial, a ceremony is conducted where the remains of the deceased are exhumed.

Young and energetic boys take part in the exhuming of the remains the ceremony which is done mostly in November and December. They dig the grave pouring the soil this time round on the northern part. Note that when digging grave for real burial, soil is poured on the southern part.

When the reach the bones, an elderly woman is assisted to get into the grave with a traditional tray where she will place all the bones starting with the lower part up to the skull. She will then give it to another elderly woman outside before she comes out. That place would be sprinkled with traditional beer plus Ikujit, wastes of a cow. They would later dance while drumming as they take the bones at a sacred place where not everybody would visit to see them. Note that while placing those bones at the sacred place a lot of concern is put in place to ensure that the deceased’s spirit does not come back to haunt the living for not placing his remains well at the sacred place.

Exhuming the remains of the dead among Iteso people was conducted to every deceased regardless of age. However elderly people`s remains are the most exhumed because Iteso according to Hon Laini, most elderly people when the die they come back to cause havoc in the community leading to even death until the ceremony is conducted.

The significance of the whole ceremony was to show that the deceased had come back to stay with the living because even if the Iteso believed in death, they strongly believed in life after death and that if one passes on, he or she would come back later.

There has been a rumor that Iteso people use the deceased’s hand to stir beer something that Hon Laini does agree with. Mrs Laini further says that many people have had a feeling that Iteso people eat human beings basing on the culture of exhuming the remains of the dead.

She also argues that, Iteso people might have originated from Israel because even the Israelites carried Jacob`s remains with them especially after they got lost in the wilderness and were forced to go back to exhume his remains.

However, as it is now many Iteso people are now shunning away from the culture of exhuming the dead especially after it was associated with them eating human beings and also pressure from chritianity which does not condone such practices something that the Culture minister in Emormor cabinet Hon Laini contradicts arguing that cultural practices should be embraced as they have for a long time helped to streamline the society positively.

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