The Gĩkũyũ People Art of Dying – Revisited

Burial as depicted by Fr Cagnolo, The Akikuyu, 1933

Any discussion of the Gĩkũyũ people’s art of dying and especially one that is open to the non-Gĩkũyũ reader would have to begin with defining certain words and concepts that relate to death among the Gĩkũyũ.

Gũkua: means “to break” as in “breaking a pot”. It also means “to cease to live”, “to die”

Gũtuĩkana means the actual moment of the break with life. The passage from the living state into the realm of “those who sleep eternally”, Ngomi.

Gũtuĩka is “to be” or the act of becoming. It also means “to break” like in “the rope has broken”

Ituĩka means “The Great Break of Becoming”. It is one of the greatest and probably the most important Gĩkũyũ ceremony involving the entire tribe when one ruling generation hands over the instruments of governance to a younger ruling generation. This takes place every 30 to 35 years and is the centerpiece of Gĩkũyũ conception of the passage of time and ages.

Ngomi means the “eternally sleeping ones”. When one becomes a Ngoma (sing), one qualifies to speak directly to MweneNyaga (God) and is therefore an intercessor for kith and kin. It is therefore standard practice that before they sip anything all conscientious Gĩkũyũ always pour a libation to the living earth wherein their Ngomi sleep. Since the Ngomi had a very close religious relationship with their people, a relationship closer and more immediate that the distant MweneNyaga, the christian missionaries targeted them more and designated the word Ngoma to mean the devil. This lie was preached with so much vigour that it is very hard for many Gĩkũyũ christians today to believe otherwise.

The entire process of making a purposeful conscious break with the living and becoming one of the Ngomi is faced not with trepidation, fear or trembling but with a purposeful sense of mission and responsibility for those kith and kin left behind. Each Ngoma intercedes for its immediate family and the intercession becomes weaker and weaker the further it gets outside the circle centered on the family, Nyũmba

When one consciously enters the process of becoming a Ngoma, after a life well lived, one prepares not just self but those closest to him/her. If a man, he begins to unburden himself of his material possessions and places the burden on his sons and any unmarried daughter without prospects and any unfortunate daughter who has returned home from her husband, Gĩcokio. If he had not unburdened himself while still strong and active, he then calls all his sons and those daughters for a final discussion with them. This discussion is called kwĩgaya, or dividing his physical self between his posterity. Other close members, favorite grandsons, favorite daughters, daughters in law and wives gather around him and await in a silence beyond description for that momemt of moments when he unburdens himself of this body and joins the privileged status of a Ngoma. All those kith and kin left behind with the things are irĩ (they have) and their children and children’s children, irĩri. The dead man is “mũtiga irĩ na irĩri”, “one who leaves descendants with bounty”. The sons immediately make arrangements for the disposal or burial of the useless body on the same afternoon or the following afternoon if the events happened at night.

If to be buried, the body was laid and wraped in a cow hide on its right side in a pre-natal position and right hand on his cheek, a process called kũhetwo. From this came the saying, “mũrega akĩrwo ndaregaga akĩhetwo”, meaning one can refuse to hear when alive but can never refuse being laid to rest in the manner of kũhetwo.

The passage of a woman was exactly the same as that of the man save for the fact that as lands and livestock were the man’s to dispose of, she had only to give out her jewelry and other personal items to her favored daughters and daughters in law.  She becomes “mwendwo nĩ irĩ na irĩri”, “beloved of her bountiful children and children’s children”. Her role as intercessor for the living in the Ngomi realm was just as powerful as that of the man.The effectiveness and power of the intercession however depends more on the prayers and actions of those who seek it but that is a discussion for another day when we discuss Gĩkũyũ spirituality and prayer.

Today, and we do not want to dwell too much on this as it is a distressing and tiresome subject, dying among the Gĩkũyũ people has become a painful, stressful, expensive and ultimately a sad affair despite its fanciful billing as a celebration of a life well lived.

From the moment the time comes to the so-called celebration, the entire process is an exceedingly painful and spiritually strange affair not just for the principal traveler between realms, but also for those left behind. The traveler is surrounded by strangers, in uniform, shiny, cold stainless steel and showy equipment whose value is extending life for the unfortunate victim by a few extra days or weeks. The unfortunate fellow gives up all autonomy and independence and helplessly awaits the angel of death to release him from the misery. When the moment arrives the poor fellow dies all alone, curtained off and cut off from family. Family and “friends” then gather facelessly online or sometimes face to face to raise funds to pay for the showy machines and final humiliation. Sometimes the dying bill will be in the millions of shillings and the family has to wait sometimes for months to be allowed by the death managers to pick their body.

To add insult to injury, and here we will just make a passing remark, not for want of space but for the distastefulness of the subject. All too often we have seen, and especially due to inheritance national laws, post death wrangling over who will bury who, who will inherit what, ad nauseum. Subject closed.

Those who really want to die well without that kind of insensitive bureaucratically managed death opt for a quiet homely hospice care or better still, a home death. One of the purposes of building a Gĩkũyũ Thingira or separate man’s room away from the main house, a kind of Japanese Tea Room, is precisely for the purpose of having a dignified space in which to prepare for the honor of becoming a Ngoma while surrounded by my intimate family members.