The dual identity of being Christians and ethnic Africans is a source of confusion and internal struggle for many who feel torn between their roots and their Western religious identities
By Kenyatta Otieno
The past year has reminded me of my first weekend at Vihiga High School. I was told that Saturday is the day for “rovego,” which is Maragoli for a memorial for a departed relative, often a parent. It was named so because we used to eat beef for supper on Saturdays. When Maragolis hold memorial ceremonies for their departed loved ones, a cow must be slaughtered. The Luo call it dok e liel, “going back to the grave”.
I lost my dad in October 2021 after a long illness. We went about the funeral the best way we could, and the Seventh Day Adventist Church led the service per his wish. They were assisted by a breakaway from the Church of Christ in Africa (Hera Church), where my mother worships. After making the usual adjustments from losing the family patriarch, we did our best to move on with life.
Mid-last year, we toyed with the idea of holding a memorial service towards the end of the year. You never take these ceremonies seriously until the proposal comes from the depths of your heart. The Seventh Day Adventist Church could hear none of it; they called it idol worship. It reminded me of my father-in-law, who died in 2016, and the African Inland Church also objected to any form of memorial service a year later. Their reason or excuse for not holding memorials is that it is a form of worshiping the dead.
Meanwhile, I have supported my friends from the larger Luhya community in holding “makumbusho” for their parents. Some still elaborate on what the firstborn must avail and so forth. Most churches do not have a problem with it, especially the Anglican Church and Presbyterians, who call it the “unveiling of the cross”. It is mandatory among some Luhyas, and some family events cannot happen until you dispense with this requirement. Meanwhile, I have read reports of how some “born again” Christians have called the police to block their siblings from holding memorial ceremonies at home. It is that serious, but how did we get here?
The first local Archbishop of the Anglican Church – Festo Olang’ was a teacher at Butere before joining St. Paul’s Theological College in Limuru, where he became a Deacon. In 1948, Olang’ returned to Limuru to complete his theological training for ordination into the priesthood. He did not complete his studies as he got a scholarship from the British Council to study at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, in England.
He wrote in his biography how he got a culture shock in the seminary when he saw fellow students, clergy, and lecturers taking alcohol openly. The missionaries in Kenya had outlawed the taking of alcohol among converts. It was classified as pagan in the dichotomization of social life by the missionaries as either holy or pagan. Everything African was classified as pagan, heathen, and savage. The Western way of life brought by the settlers was thus modern, civilized, and holy.
Missionaries who tolerated drinking alcohol among themselves by drinking it secretly in their houses insisted that taking alcohol by Africans was a sin. Meanwhile, Africans thought drinking hot water was a mark of salvation because missionaries purified their water by boiling it. The Catholics, however, allowed their members to drink and smoke; Luos called them Opere Roho Thuolo – the permissive ‘holy’ spirit.
The purge against alcohol came because it was the only beverage apart from porridge that Africans had. Tea and coffee had not been introduced into the country. Alcohol was the drink that accompanied every ceremony; now, these ceremonies had been labeled pagan. Allowing alcohol would have come with many legalities of when and how it should be consumed, which the missionaries did not want to get into. It would have opened another angle that they could not deal with.
One missionary who was in Ukambani for less than two years before he met his death but left a huge legacy is Peter Cameron Scott. He is the founder of African Inland Mission, the forerunner to African Inland Church, whose name Scott Christian University in Machakos bears. Scott was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1867, but his family migrated to Philadelphia, America, when he was twelve. At age twenty, he fell sick, and the doctor recommended he return to Scotland to recuperate because of the cold weather in America. In Glasgow, he visited his sister’s grave and had an epiphany.
An encounter with God led him to commit his life to serving God. He later went to a Mission College in America and was assigned to the Congo. Scott was in Congo for about two years when his brother John joined him. A few months later, John died, and it is reported that Peter made a crude coffin and dug the grave himself. He stood alone by the graveside, and another crisis led him to recommit himself to preaching the gospel in Africa. However, he did not take long as he also suffered a near-fatal health scare that led to his transfer to London for medical attention.
In London, he visited the grave of Dr. David Livingstone in Westminster Abbey. The inscription on the tombstone reminded him of his mission in life; “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold, them also I must bring.” David Livingstone was a Scottish doctor, explorer, and missionary who landed on the Cape of Africa in 1840. He traversed Southern and Central Africa, losing contact with the rest of the world for up to six years. He died in May 1873 at 60 in Chipundu, Chief Chitambo’s village near Lake Bangweulu in Zambia. He died from malaria and internal bleeding due to dysentery, and his body was taken back to London for burial.
At Livingstone’s grave, he renewed his commitment to return to Africa and serve as a missionary. He also envisioned a chain of mission stations from Mombasa on the east coast of Africa to the west coast, where he had served in Congo. He got better and left for America, where he registered the African Inland Mission. That is how he landed in Mombasa, and in November 1895, his team and a group of porters set off from Mombasa for the interior. They arrived in Nzaui Hill in Makueni in December 1895 to set up the first AIM station. He died the following year due to black water fever, but AIM later grew into the African Inland Church, one of Kenya’s mainstream churches. AIC also prohibits graveside prayers.
Missionaries at the onset did not understand the African cultural practices. The animosity between the first Africans who followed the new religion and the foreigners who brought it worsened things. The four gospels in the Bible report Jesus Christ telling his disciples that to be his disciples, one must love Jesus (the faith) more than his family. This created an identity crisis more than a faith crisis for the new African converts and the church later. It was easier to shun the ways of the community because they had already ostracized you. The first converts were outcasts: orphans, weaklings, children born out of wedlock, and those born out of wife inheritance.
The dual identity of being Christians and ethnic Africans has been a source of confusion for many people. We have African culture that we feel obligated to adhere to but then still feel haunted by the “pagan” tag on African cultural ceremonies. It would have been different if missionaries had come in as Ethnographers first to learn and understand our ways and then find areas of convergence. Many “Christian cultures,” like white weddings, are more European than Christian.
The African cultural ceremonies all became pagan, especially the ones they did not understand. Memorial services were an elaborate affair because the burial was done faster due to poor body preservation methods, but the rites went well beyond a year. There was slaughtering of animals and taking alcohol, which missionaries interpreted as worshiping the spirits of the dead. Luos, Luhyas, and the other Africans believed the dead still watched over us.
It is good to look at this doctrine by some of our churches in the spirit and letter of the law. The letter says that Christians should not worship idols, which in this case is the dead or belief in their spirits. The spirit of it was born from the rituals accompanying the old memorial ceremonies. These involved shedding the blood of an animal, drinking alcohol, sexual cleansing for Luos, and mock fights for animals and people. To the nascent church in the colonial period, these were pagan practices and grey areas that could open the door for a convert to backslide back to the “heathen” way of life.
However, to Africans, death was not a finality but a passage into another life with those who went before. This is still true for Christians, as death is the door to heaven. To the church, the role of man and relatives ends at the burial. To Africans, it never ends. This is why children will be named after a departed relative, which many Christians still do.
To mitigate the pagan-holy divide, Luos substituted alcohol with tea and limited the slaughtering of animals. It was common to hear, “We are going back to brew our grandfather’s tea,” in reference to memorial service. The custom also said that the daughters of the home must go back and make tea a few weeks after the burial. Despite being a staunch Adventist, I remember our eldest aunty mobilizing her colleagues and insisting that the tea must be brewed the day after the burial. This was disguised as avoiding travelling expenses if it happens later, but the actual reason is to avoid “going back to the grave”.
The ceremony has been watered down to basics, shortened, and prayers incorporated. To staunch Christians, that is not enough or does not change the spirit behind the ceremony. I discussed this with some elders and clergy of different denominations among Luos and got a very cautious response. Some were forthright that it is not a debatable policy, but some were open to it but opposed particular sections of the ceremony. Even the families who belong to the churches that embrace it reported that some relatives showed up to save face but did not eat any food prepared at the ceremony.
Luo and Luhya funerals have many activities involving close and distant relatives. In the process of mourning, disagreements and conflicts are inevitable. The ensuing emotions may magnify these misunderstandings, which may drag on long after the grave has been overgrown with plants. A memorial service about a year later, when emotions have calmed down, is a good opportunity for candid conversations. This is a good start to mending cracks in relationships and normalizing relations within the family.
Death always comes as a final blow to life for the deceased and his relationship with those he has left behind. The section of Christians who do not want anything to do with public memorial services for the departed hang onto this finality of death. Flipping the coin means a new chapter for the living and adjusting to life without their loved one. Living without reminiscing about the time spent with the loved one is impossible, especially if you see their grave daily. Good or bad, memories cannot be wished away, but to Christians, that is where it should end.
In my discussion with a friend who lost his mother when he was three years old, I got the gist of it. He is a member of the Anglican Church who has no problem with memorial services and even has a liturgy for conducting the service. The clergy who led the service took time to explain why there was no harm in holding the ceremony. However, as a family, they never conducted the memorial for no particular reason until more than thirty years later, which is good as it removes statutory timelines that accompanied the cultural rites in the past.
He has scant information about his mother gleaned from what he had heard from his relatives. On the day of the memorial service, he heard tributes from people he did not know knew his mother well. It left him with closure and the comfort that his mother’s influence is evident in all his siblings, including him, who spent the least time with her. The preacher said the service is also meant to help the people present learn the good side they can emulate from the departed’s life. It is also a chance to see the dark side of life from the life of the departed and make adjustments to avoid them.
The death of a loved one always opens a time for reflection. It reminds us that life is fickle and fleeting, with death as the final destination. The Bible says it is better to go to the house of mourning than where a celebration is. Death reveals our vulnerability as human beings in spite of our station in life. This makes us open to making sound decisions from a deep reflection and the view of the reality of life.
In my case, I wanted to hold a thanksgiving service and debrief as a family on how the one year since our father died has been. Through all this, we could have also agreed on how to forge ahead as a family by finding out how to support one another. I don’t see anything wrong or pagan about this. Life is complex, and it is impossible to dichotomize everything into good and bad, holy and pagan, or religious and secular.