Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Admitting his ‘staggering disappointment’, Samuel Abonyo reports that while ‘occupation’ influences funeral announcements in Kenya, ‘tribe’ is the primary determinant.

There is heavy emphasis on the occupation and place of work of the dead in death and funeral announcements in Kenya, said a columnist, writing in the Daily Nation of 13 September 2009. Only rarely do the writers of those announcements state the deceased’s tribe, she added, but occupations of the relations of the dead are routinely stated. Her reading of the above facts is that occupation is the primary identity in Kenya.

When I read that I felt like laughing for joy, because to state one’s tribe, I believe, is to participate in tribalism, and here was something, albeit a funereal arena, that had defeated tribalism in Kenya.

Before I could laugh for joy, I collected data from funeral announcements in The East African Standard of February to October 2009 and the Daily Nation of October and November 2009 to find out whether it was true that occupation was the salient feature of Kenyan funeral announcements and that tribe had been expunged from the genre. The result of the morbid exercise was staggering disappointment.

Occupation features prominently in Kenyan funeral announcements. But I found out that it does not dominate them. In fact, tribe does.

The Kenyan funeral announcement is nothing but another mountain top from which we Kenyans trumpet our achievements. And since we Kenyans are fiercely ‘corporate’, it is the ‘corporations’ we belong to that visibly brag about their achievements in the Kenyan funeral announcement. But tribe is the ‘corporation’ that shows off most conspicuously there.

The living, I found out, mention their occupations in funeral announcements more than those of their departed loved ones. While the occupations of the dearly departed appeared in 31 per cent of the 72 funeral announcements I analysed, those of their children and relatives correspondingly appeared in 43 and 53 per cent of the announcements. That distribution of occupational information between the two groups does not support the claim that occupation is the primary identity in Kenya. We write occupations in funeral announcements to show off our occupational achievements, and nobody knows what our occupations are before we tell them.

The dead are fewer than their children and relations. It is probable that some of the dead in the 72 announcements did not achieve occupations about which their relations could brag. As a result, the occupations were excluded from the funeral announcements. It was extremely rare for occupations such as farmer to be stated in the funeral announcements. When occupation was mentioned, it was almost certainly a professional occupation. The facts I have mentioned and similar ones constitute a minor explanation for the unequal distribution of occupational information between the living and the dead in funeral announcements in Kenya. The funeral announcement is in our country a platform from where we Kenyans proclaim our occupational achievements. It is not what it is. And we make the most of it.

There are tribally mobile Kenyans, who by adoption, marriage and acculturation have altered their tribal membership. That group, which must be a small and a very unusual group, have achieved their tribal statuses. But most Kenyans, including this author, have done absolutely nothing to acquire their tribal status. Occupation is achieved, in contrast to tribe. Tribe is therefore not something one would ordinarily brag about, with regard to one’s achievements. Being an achievement, occupation is by contrast something about which one usually boasts. But that is not the reason Kenyans include occupation in funeral announcements, but leave tribe out of them.

We Kenyans are ‘corporate’. Even individualists among us are corporate in their individualism. Our individual achievements too are, per force, corporate achievements. When one is bragging about one’s achievements, the corporation is bragging. To state one’s occupation is not only to trumpet one’s own achievements, but also, in ascending order of ‘ incorporation’, the achievement of one’s family, clan, village, district and ethnic group. When Kenyans include occupations in the funeral announcements, they in fact broadcast what their ‘corporate’ groups have achieved. It is likely that identification is the purported function, but the true function is telling other tribes what we have done in the world of work and of which we are proud.

It is eminently true we Kenyans do not mention tribe in funeral announcements. As a matter of fact, however, tribe is the most conspicuous feature of funeral announcements in Kenya. Tribe is given information in the announcements. It need not be stated.

The Kenyan naming system has a huge ethnic component, so the name of the dead person itself tells what tribe to which he belongs. The preferred place of burial for Kenyans is their ancestral land. And to say the obvious, ancestral lands are tribal territories. In four out of five funeral announcements I analysed was place of burial stated. Further, half the funeral announcements went as far as telling the reader the village where the deceased was to be buried.

As the cemeteries of Kenyan towns eloquently tell us, there are Kenyans who are buried outside their ancestral lands. But to be buried in one’s ancestral land is the norm rather than the exception. When the district the deceased is to be laid to rest in is mentioned, it is easy to know his or her tribe. Only in one out of the 72 funeral announcements could I not tell the tribe of the departed.


* Samuel Abonyo is a statistician based in Smørbukkveien, Norway.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.