Burying Okoth, the politics of individualism vs communalism

In this earlier post, we were reflecting on the 1986/7 saga pitting the Kager clan vs Wamboi Otieno over who should have control of the body of the deceased. In that particular case, the Court of Appeal granted the prayers of the clan, allowing them to inter the body of SM against the wishes of the bereaved wife.

We again find ourselves in almost a similar situation, albeit, with minor variations. The body of the late MP Kibra has already been cremated and so there is no contest on where it will lie. But there are certain similarities; like SM, Okoth was married to a non-Luo. Both were successful at their trades. Both lived their lives mainly in Nairobi.

The issue we have at hand is whether our bodies belong to us in death, and by extension to our nuclear family or whether the clan has a claim to the dead. Are we right, the urbane African, in demanding as part of dying wishes that we be granted private funeral, when like in the case of Ken OKoth, he led a public life? Do those who birthed us have a say in how we are disposed of? Since when we are dead we can’t do nothing, should we be the ones to determine how we will be sent off, who will be present or should this question be left to those who we have left behind to determine?

On a related matter, during nuptials, those who go to church say “until death do us part”, as part of their vows. What does this imply in the face of death? Should it not mean that death frees us of the obligations to the other? Can the society, in a sense, lay claim to this person who was yours by law, but is no longer?

Or is this, in a sense, the logical conclusion of the individualized lives we live today where Ubuntu- I am because we are- as was eloquently put by Cannon Mbiti?

So I think, I can ask these questions again?

 

  • Who owns the dead?
  • Can any person claim to exclusively own the dead?
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The Luo idea of god

Continuing from where we stopped a few days ago where we treated of African religion in general. We will now look at specific manifestations of the religious experience of different groups found in Africa.

Ogot (1964) notes that the original homeland of Western Nilotes is a difficult historical problem which has defied any satisfactory solution. What little is known is that about 1000CE they were living in the open grass plains of the present Equatorial and the eastern parts of the Bahr el Ghazal province of the Republic of Sudan.

The Luos, a Nilotic group, are divided into three groups; Northern, Central and Southern Luo and are found in Sudan, Ethiopia, Zaire, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The Northern group found in Ethiopia and Sudan is believed to have moved the least as compared to their other kin who moved South to their present homelands in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda.

Studies show, that while the concept of god is similar in some fundamental ways between these groups, there re slight variations that have been attributed to changes in time and space as these groups moved and interacted with others along the way. The argument being advanced here us that a change in the way of life results in a change in the idea of god.

Ogutu (1975) informs us that to the Luo, Jok is the ultimate object of ritual and was worshipped at the chiefdom shrines which were either erected for the purpose or were unusual natural phenomena or outstanding landmarks in the landscape. In most cases, these shrines , those that were built, were the houses/ homes of the leader of the group. The function of Jok, we are told, was limited to the clan and chiefdom. They also believed that Jok rested where people wanted it to rest. One can see here that the god worshipped was still a local god, almost under the direction of its human worshippers. We see eventually, this god transformed to an omnipresent god.

In the same work referred to already, the author, referring to a work by Okot p’Bitek says sacrifices were offered at the chiefdom shrines to Jok (god) and to the ancestors and any hostiles ghosts were dealt with accordingly. It is evident there was some belief among the Luo of a life after death in some form. Where these spirits (ancestors) resided is one that I have not seen answered.

From Ogot (1961), we learn that to the Shilluk Juok. Jok is the greatest spirit, and creator and sustainer of the world and everything in it. He notes, referring to a work by Leinhardt, that Juok is conceived in trinity that is in spirit and body. While referring to an article by Hayley, he says Jok can be seen as a natural power permeating the universe, neither well nor badly disposed towards mankind, unless made use of by man. It can be said that Jok is a kind of impartial, impersonal, limitless and universal power.

Ogot argues that because the people believe the vital force, that is, jok, can only be received through intermediaries as the ‘spirits of the air’ or prophets. For this reason, it is expected that the ancestors or medicine-men, diviners should be treated with respect.

To the Padhola, another Luo group, Were (god) is conceived of as one Supreme Being that manifests itself as Were Madiodipo ( god of the courtyard), Were Othim (god of the wilderness). The name of god is never spoken, but always referred to as Jamalo ( the one from above) (Ogot, 1972).

It should be noted, in passing, that to the Central Luo, the idea of a god responsible for man’s suffering did not exist.

As I mentioned in the beginning, that the idea of god is determined in time and space, the Luo concept of god changed during their migration from a god that rested where the community wanted it to, to a god found everywhere (Nyakalaga). What merits comment here is that the sun and other stellar objects, as many others have claimed, was not worshiped as a god but rather was seen as a manifestation of god, that is, the sun as the eye of god.

While it is generally believed by majority of Kenyans that the Kenyan Luo have always been fisher folk, this is in deed far from the truth. Evidence show that they were pastoralists and agriculturalists and only adopted fishing once they settled around the lake region. Fishing became a religious activity centered on the fishing vessel.

It is to be noted, to the Luo, any doubt on the existence of god Nyasaye/ Were/ Jok was an absurdity.

The Luo of Kenya perceive god as  jachwech (moulder), nyakalaga (omnipresent) and jarit (protector). Unlike other groups, for example the Jews with their god of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, the Luo see god as wuon ogendni (guardian of all people).  God is also said to exist in space (nyakalaga- everywhere present) and in time (wuon kwere- father of ancestors).

The cosmology of the Luo simply states that god moulded the earth. A creation ex nihilo is a concept they have no word for.


Ogot (1961) The Concept of Jok. African Studies, Vol 20 2.

Ogot (1964). Kingship and statelessness among the Nilotes. The Historian in Tropical Africa. 284-304

Ogot (1972). On the making of a sanctuary. The historical study of African Religion. 122-135

Ogutu M.E.G (1975) An historical analysis of the Luo idea of God. Unpublished Thesis, University of Nairobi.