BURIALS IN TRADITIONAL KALENJIN SOCIETY
By Kipkoeech Araap Sambu | Additional info By Kipkemoi Araap Korir
Kalenjin cultural writer Peristiany in 1939 on his section on “Death and Inheritance” says that where the body was disposed of in the bush, a small enclosure was erected around the body and a small entrance left for the hyena to come in through.
According to Hollis in 1909 wrote the “old men are sewn up in ox or goats’ hides, and milk, beer, and food are put in their graves. After the grave has been filled in, a /lepekweet (dracaena sp. of li/iaceae family) tree is planted in the cow dung (cow dung is the esteemed material used to ftll in graves).”
The practice of sewing up, or wrapping up corpses in ox hides for burial, dates back to ancient Egyptian times and Hollis’ observation in Nandi may be compared with Budge’s (dictionary) definition of meska “the skin of an animal, the bull’s skin in which the dead man was wrapped in order to effect his resurrection.”
The concept of resurrection and the well-publicised ancient Egyptian habit of burying the dead with the best of their personal property in preparation for the next world is indirectly alluded to by Peristiany in relation to the Kipsigiis.
However, like the other European anthropologists working in Kalenjiinland, he does not bother to draw comparison with the corresponding ancient Egyptian practice.”The corpse (of an old man) is placed in the grave in the same position as with ordinary people, that is to say, males are laid on the right side and females on the left, with the hand supporting the head and the legs outstretched.”
In the experience of the author, however, the legs are not outstretched completely: they are drawn a bit at the knees, the left thigh resting on top of the right thigh but the legs are parted at the knees, the left one being bent backwards at a slightly more acute angle than the right leg so that the ankles of both legs touch the earth, or touch the hide if the corpse is laid on, wrapped in, or sewn in one.
The top of the head, turyeet, is oriented to the east for both male and female so that the eyes of a male actually “look” north since it is laid on its right side while the eyes of an interred female “look” south because it is laid on its left side.
This custom may lead back to a likely ancient practice that required that after the husband, especially if a king, died, the wife committed suicide in order to immediately join him in the next life and hence were laid together side by side facing each other in the natural sleeping manner.
We would expect the Kalenjiin, and the others who revered the sun as the chief symbol of Deity, to bury their dead eyes facing east, because that was where they faced when praying.
That indeed was the practice in Egypt during the dynastic times up to the Middle Kingdom (2050 -17 50 BC): head pointing north, face east. But the Kalenjiin were following the 9th to 11th Dynasty (about 2200 to 2000 BC) burial customs of Dendereh, closer to their Tto and Sebbeny legendary cradle-land, of orienting graves and bodies heads East, legs West, face North or South.
It would seem that the would-be natural choice of orienting the face to the east in a north-south grave was compromised when it was considered that a man and his wife ought to face each other even in death.
If the man had to face east, the woman would have had to face west and no one would want to face west, not even in death! In death, they were beginning a new life with great hope, and new life and hope symbolically lay in the east, while death and despair symbolically lay in the west.
So, finally, it would seem that a compromise was struck: the man “looked” north lying on his right side while the woman “looked” south lying on her left side.
That way, both bodies were laid in an east-west axis, the crowns of the heads pointing east-the most esteemed point on a compass. Even if the burials of husband and wife were separated by long periods, at the time of burying the one that died later, he or she would be laid side by side in the prescribed manner-joining the spouse late but, nevertheless, in the traditional sleeping position of living couples.
A Dynastic dating from Oxford Interactive Encyclopedia, 1997 nomadic lifestyle, such as the Kalenjiin lived for certain lengths of time in the past, would not always allow the side-by-side burials because homes shifted often.
But the required symbolism would still be fulfilled by laying corpses in the prescribed manner wherever the individuals fell. This included even the circumstances where a body was laid for the hyenas to devour. Such a corpse still had to be laid down in the prescribed manner.1
Among the Kalenjiin, funerals remained an almost casual affair and participation in actual burial was minimised to the extent it was physically possible. It was an unpleasant duty to carry, keesut, a corpse either for burial or for disposal otherwise.
This, as well as the entire work of arranging the body on the ground, as we have already seen, was done by the man’s eldest son alone. He held the body by the armpits lifted and carried it This was witnessed by the deceased’s second son, but preferably by the first son by the second wife if there was one who was old enough for this largely passive role.
The witness would help from behind with the legs if it became necessary, but he was still technically a mere witness who by so doing incurred only minimal additional moral uncleanness (Cf. Huntingford, 1953b:147).
If the sons were too young or if there was none, the man’s oldest surviving brother did, if none, a paternal relative, ifthere was none still, a man was hired. And any of the substitutes would have to do it all alone as well, with the inevitable witness tagging along.
All were paid for the undertaking job, even if they were the deceased’s own sons. They were paid because they had handled a body, of whose mere sight polluted morally, let alone the touching of it.
Because of the “polluting” effect of death, and the high handling charges, the handlers were reduced to the smallest number possible. Disposal of bodies whether by burial or by laying them down for hyenas to eat, was always towards any convenient direction in relation to the home of the deceased, such as where there was a bush, but strictly excluding the East, “since the East is the direction of health, life and prosperity sopondo” (Orchardson, 1961: 104 ). 1
The author’s personal experiena: of a traditional Kalenjiin-scyle burial is still limited to that of the male in Kipsigiis countty. It is important to note that while the traditional body orientation may be as described, it may not be practical everywhere. but only owing more to variations in topography than in culture.
The Kipsigiis country is more varied in topography than Keiyo and Marak.wet for instance, and gives the people the choia: to orient interred bodies more strictly in accordana: with ancient custom.
The latter two northern countries are characterised by land sloping West to East, where Kerio Valley lies to the East So homes are buih to the west. higher up the hill The rule seems to dictate that if the body is inrerred on sloppy land, the legs will have to be oriented downhill and the head oriented uphill.
The example comes from Marak.wet where land slopes from West to East So the bodies are buried here head to the West, i.e., towards the higher ground where the houses are located.
The feet are oriented to the East, i.e., towards the valley below. Sina: the male lies on his right side, his eyes “look” South while the female’s eyes “look” North.
Whether this custom came as a result of the desire to orient the head homewards. as Kipk.orir says, or it came as a result of the desire to lay the body in the natural manner of a person lying down resting on sloppy ground, i.e., legs downhill and head uphill, we may never be certain.