Stories from the Pandemic
Burial Rites During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Rural Africa: The Changing Dynamics
(By KINYUA, Laban Kithinji PhD. Department of Global Politics, Hosei University)
This is the second and last part of an article explaining how burial rites have been changing in rural Africa due to the strict observation of measures to combat and control the spread of COVID-19. Although each part could be read independently, it would be more rewarding to read part two as a continuation of part 1.
An aspiring Member of County Assembly (MCA) for 2022 elections addresses mourners during macakaya as part of his campaign strategy in Embu county of central Kenya.
The Nexus between burial rites and politics
Political contestation based on bodies of the dead seems to have a long history in Kenya. In 1933, Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiu proved that the settler-land grabbed by Europeans rightfully belonged to his family through his ancestors by exhuming the remains of this grandfather (see Lonsdale, J. (1992). “Afterpeice”. In Burying SM: The politics of knowledge and sociology of power in Africa. Eds. David William Cohen, and E.S Atieno Odhiambo. Portsmouth (NH): Heinemann), thus giving prominence to the tools to contest the control over land and property rights. This act has continued to date, and to a large extent causes many people to insist on burying their dead at their ancestral land. With diminishing centrality of land due to shrinking size and utility, as well as the usurping of the means to control land by the corrupt capital and political elite, the grassroots communities have been transforming political contestation that is practiced over the dead bodies. The COVID-19 pandemic has been bringing to the core the centrality of such practices.
The “reggae stopped”? Diminishing sites for political contestation
Burial rites in Kenya have had a strange relationship with politics. The rites have become sites for both the political elite and the grassroots population to assert influence. Many rituals regarding the handling of the bodies of the deceased have had significant changes, most of which are based on new religious convictions. One ritual that has however persisted is macakaya (vigils) that are held several days before the actual day of burial. During macakaya, friends, relatives, and family members of the deceased gather usually in the evenings to show solidarity with the family. Relatives travel from far distances in urban centers and also from foreign countries to participate in macakaya. This is partly because it is seen as a disgrace to be absent during this period. Whereas one can be pardoned for not viewing the body, washing it, or performing any other direct rituals relating to the body of the deceased, those who fail to join the family during macakaya attract the wrath from the community, and that of the living dead as well.
Macakaya has thrived and shown resilience over time creating spaces for active political contestation and cultural expressions. Thus, it has persisted even in new religious settings as it has offered a place for religious leaders to reach out to the community through prayers and preaching. It is also widely viewed as not conflicting with church doctrines and the native burial practices. In the recent past, macakaya has been a site for political contestation as politicians pursue avenues of getting closer to the electorate. Politicians in Kenya are not elected to the office purely based on their ability to pass good legislation, rather on how well they connect with the electorate, which is often determined by the politician’s ability to meet people’s needs. It has therefore become popular for the beginners in politics who usually have no resources and have not learnt the art of misusing the public funds to take macakaya as their first platform for connecting with the electorate. It is also popular for the political class to use one of the stages of the burial rites for important political pronouncements.
Just before the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Kenya, the political momentum was already rife and exciting despite the fact that Kenya’s general election is scheduled for 2022. The political excitement was emerging from the so-called “handshake” politics after the opposition leader, Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta agreed to formulate what they have called the building bridges initiative (BBI) to spearhead constitutional changes for the purported purpose of making the “national cake” more shareable. The BBI has been seen as threatening the presidential ambitions of the current deputy president, William Ruto. Thus, in spearheading the campaign for BBI, Odinga castigated those opposed to it saying that “nobody can stop reggae” in reference to Lucky Dube’s revolutionary sentiments in his popular song. When the state issued a guideline limiting the number of people allowed to attend burials, and indeed declaring a ban on political gatherings, those in favor of the side that is opposed to “handshake” politics claimed that “god” had “stopped reggae” in response to their prayers led by Ruto who had claimed earlier that they would stop reggae (The deputy president claimed that reggae is for criminal gangs involved in drug abuse and that it was ungodly, See Githinji, R. (2020). ‘Ruto on BBI: We will stop reggae’. The Star. 24 February. Available at https://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2020-02-23-ruto-on-bbi-we-will-stop-reggae/). The halting was also celebrated in regard to burials, which are sites where political pronouncements are made. Thus, many people opposed to BBI seemed to celebrate COVID-19 restrictions on burial attendance saying, “Corona has stopped reggae”.
The restrictions on the number of people who can participate in gatherings then “stopped reggae” in that the electorate and the politicians meeting points had been somewhat suffocated. The electorate was therefore unable to lay claim on political resources from the local leaders. This also limited the political contestation, as macakaya remained one of the few places where rural populations can meet directly with their elected leaders. This limit has also meant that the electorate cannot test the ground for new politicians. Furthermore, the urban dwellers and the diaspora, who are seen as very important contributors to development in the villages, and who in turn are the aspiring politicians, have had a difficult time attending these important meetings.
Although the elite interpretation of political interference in burial rites decries the politicization of these important ceremonies, the rural populations are active actors utilizing the “politicized funerals” as tools for political participation and contestation. Different from other political forums where only able-bodied political characters with mastery of specialized discourses are awarded a chance to address the political class directly, the burials are places where the immediate family members and friends of the deceased cannot be left out in public speeches. Thus, voices that are perceived as weak have an unparalleled opportunity to make public pronouncements about political issues that they care about. Furthermore, they can address the elected political leader directly in the presence of his electorate, thus choosing to hold them accountable or pressing political demands. In essence, the burial sites differ starkly from political campaign rallies in the sense that the politician has to be seen as sympathizing with the bereaved, and the bereaved has power to assert his temporal authority as a voice that cannot be wished away. The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily eroded the politicians’ direct participation in burial rites, thus limiting the local people’s participation and confrontation with the political class.
The government announced recently that it is revising the protocols of burials related to COVID-19. This news came as a relief to many families who were worried about the COVID-19 pandemic eroding the most important cultural practices of sending off family members. The revision will also be a break from the precautions that have prevented people from fearlessly expressing faith in the meaning embedded in their burial rites. The COVID-19 protocols of burying the loved ones have challenged the rituals around death. One of the outcomes has been that the majority of people who live off these daily lived grassroots experiences have once again come to see the centrality of such practices. Thus, although the period before the pandemic was occupied by people calling out politicization of burial ceremonies, which often focuses on the usurpation of these spaces by the political elite, the role of these rituals to ordinary citizens in aiding their participation and active role in political and democratic processes has come to light.
As African politics seem to be once again endangered by the return of lifetime dictators, it is perhaps timely to begin re-emphasizing the kind of grassroots practices that are aiding and furthering democratic processes in rural Africa. Furthermore, highlighting this kind of practices during the COVID-19 pandemic is helpful in telling the story of resilience in rural Africans' preparedness to combat the pandemic and overcome the global stereotypes about their inability to handle such unprecedented global difficulties.