Repertoires and motifs of funerary practices in Nandi Hills / Yonatan N. Gez, Claire Médard & Stéphanie Duvail

How do people in Nandi Hills bury their dead? Through this question, we can learn plenty about social constraints and transformation. Indeed, burial and funeral practices can be thought of as a culmination of a given value and belief system, which come to bear on the crucial moment of seeing people off from this worldly realm to another, less tangible one made of cultural conjecture. Yet, these value and belief systems do not exist in isolation: ideas and practices are transformed collectively over time, and may furthermore be interpreted and embraced differently by individuals. This is not a matter of conviction and volition as it involves many practical considerations and compromises. These include, for instance, the influence of conflicting religious belief systems, local and national regulatory policies, community-specific customs and traditions, and—of great relevance to the majority of residents of Nandi Hills—material-financial constraints.

Challenging the idea of the funeral as an expression of a single, culturally coherent inner logic, we approach the different strands of ideas associated with burials as open-ended ‘motifs’. Each motif is itself debated by lay people, and at times even by specialists such as traditionally versed elders or Christian pastors. Moreover, the boundaries of these motifs may shift over time as cultural currents allow some to overtake others: that which once appeared foreign may eventually be integrated and claimed as one’s own authentic tradition. After all, people largely seek to view and construct their world as a coherent whole, and not as a patchwork assemblage of self-conflicting ideas.

Recognizing internal negotiation, loose boundaries, and shifting grounds, we nonetheless argue in favour of understanding funerary practices through the heuristic division into 4 distinctive motifs identified during our ECRIS fieldwork in Nandi Hills (July 2019, see below). The first is what we may call the ‘surface exposure’ motif. This motif refers to a historical view whereby, “back in the day”, prior to colonial intervention, the Nandi people, like other people in the region, used to leave their dead exposed in the surrounding bush or in their ancestral land, or would choose to bring their own lives to an end by jumping off a Rift Valley cliff. The second motif, which is widely followed among the Nandis today, is that of burial in one’s shamba (homestead), emphasizing continuity along one’s lineage. At times, such tombs are marked only lightly (e.g. by a favorite plant) while at other times they are cemented. Regardless of the specifics, such literal embedding of the body in the family’s ground contributes to an association between the living and the dead through land, which in turn points to the difficulty of treating shambas as mere property subject to the laws of supply and demand. The third motif derives from Abrahamic—in Nandi Hills, mainly Christian—influences. The Abrahamic motif transpires, in the case of Christianity, in the introduction of such elements as caskets, tombstones, and crosses. In some cases, the dead may be buried in religious graveyards, as we observed in our visit to both Christian and Muslim burial sites. Lastly, we identified what can be called a ‘modernist’ motif, wherein people willfully bury their dead in collective cemeteries—run by municipalities such as was observed in Eldoret—or may even cremate them.

The temptation might be to consider the motifs as superseding one another. During our stay in Nandi Hills, we often heard temporal references that contrasted practices from “back in the day”— when corpses were either exposed in the bush or when elders would jump from the cliff—and contemporary—Abrahamic or ‘modernist’—practices. But despite some narrators’ evocation of a trajectory of ‘progression’ or at least of cultural solidity, in reality, we argue that the four motifs make up for interconnected conceptual building blocks whose range of combinations stretch the realm of the possible. At times, and often unknowingly, motifs intertwine and fuse, creating hybrid forms. One example of such combinations is found in the integration of Christian motifs (e.g., cemented graves and tombstones) into shambaburials. 

 Even when they are not actually followed, other motifs loom large as alternative ways of burying. Such alternatives demonstrate the open-ended, flexible nature of social practices. While the existence of alternatives may sow confusion among practitioners, it also allows them flexibility. Indeed, the four motifs—or more, perhaps?—make up a repertoire of possible avenues, offering some latitude with regard to both practices and performed justifications that validate people’s choices.

The identification of these cultural motifs as a heuristic tool should be taken as part of wider contextualization and exploration. Questions abound regarding what prompts communities to shift from—or cross between—multiple motifs. In trying to understand such dynamics, we should consider not only the values that people claim to hold and shifting social norms over time, but also recognize practical imperatives (for example, the increasing subdivision of shambas in the context of land-tenure pressures, as well as dynamics of urban migration). 

18-24 July 2019 – Collective Fieldwork in Nandi Hills, Kenya

SALMEA team members and some of their partners conducted field work together in central Kenya based upon the ECRIS methodology conceived by French political anthropologist Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan.

ECRIS is the acronym for Enquête Collective Rapide d’Identification des conflits et des groupes Stratégiques, that is, in English: Rapid Collective Inquiry of Conflicts and Strategic Interest Groups. It aims to identify, over about 10 days of collective field work in sub-groups, the main issues and actors at stake in order to prepare further in-depth research.

See a more detailed outline of the ECRIS objectives and methods here.

The team studied cemeteries as sites where the notion of self-accomplishment gets embodied and implemented, through issues like access to land, the relations to ancestors, the links to the family, the opulence of the funerals, etc.

SALMEA’s Team Individual Fieldwork

1 – In the cluster studying ‘WEALTH’, Stéphanie Duvail will consider shifting visions of self-accomplishment and local morality in territories highly modified by new infrastructures (such as large-scale irrigation projects) and by renewed forms of land and resources control (such as protected areas) in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, by looking at new institutions of control over land and resources, and how do these transform individual patterns of self-accomplishment.

This question will also be considered by Claire Médard, who will look specifically at the commodification of land in contemporary Uganda and Kenya. She will study the transformation of the social, economic, political and symbolic role of land in recent years and will explore current strategies for gaining and granting access to land, as well as land transactions.

Last, Marie-Aude Fouéré will build upon her research on violence in Zanzibar to study how prestige, respectability and authority—which are at the core of East African coastal societies—are tied up with questions of land ownership. In particular, she will focus on the post-1964 Tanzanian campaign of land redistribution and the ways it reordered socioeconomic hierarchies and paths of family accomplishment.

2 – Within the ‘VIOLENCE’ cluster, Aidan Russell will consider the ‘parallel presence’ of violence associated with refugee political movements from Burundi and Rwanda to Western Tanzania in the 1960s-1970s, when the single party’s Youth League and National Service assumed central roles in debates around citizenship. Russell’s study will fuel broader reflections about national belonging, militarism, and transnational social ties.

Didier Péclard will study on political and military tensions, twenty years after the end of the Mozambican civil war (1977-1992). He will look at how armed struggle represents, in a context where social and economic upward mobility is tightly controlled by the regime, an alternative way of self-accomplishment for the youth, thus contributing to their successful mobilization by the former rebel group Renamo.

Taking a comparative perspective on Uganda and Kenya, Rebecca Tapscott will examine how the institutionalization of violence shapes the ways in which people imagine self-accomplishment, asking what forms does violence take, and how do they affect the nature of public authority—or the public expressions of political power that are more or less under the control of the state?

3 – Within the ‘RELIGION’ cluster, Yonatan Gez will study how Pentecostal and Born Again Christianity functions as a socially valued path for self-accomplishment among lower-middle-class Kenyan urban youth. Combining an actor-based perspective with an institutional approach, he will collect individual accounts on how Pentecostal churches reproduce shifting notions of ‘wholesome’ youth and adulthood.

Also focusing on Pentecostalism in Kenya, Carmen Delgado Luchner will study the presence of Pentecostalism on university campuses and how religion, religious ‘butinage’ and higher education intertwine in shaping Kenyans’ ethos of self-accomplishment. The two projects’ focus on Pentecostalism will be supplemented by the work of this cluster’s postdoctoral researcher, who will look at the attractiveness of religious ‘deviance’—Christian minority groups and widely dreaded ‘sects’—in Uganda, interpreted through the prism of the quest for self-accomplishment.

This interest in marginalized religious groups will also be explored by Hervé Maupeu, who will study the religious components of militia groups. Focusing on two Kenyan cases (Mungiki in the Central Province and the Sungu Sungu in the Kisii County), he will study how these groups mobilize different neotraditional repertoires, and in particular witchcraft and its regulation. Maupeu will articulate his insights vis-à-vis the political sphere to better understand such movements’ influence on the Kenyan electorate since 2002.

4 – Within the ‘FAMILY’ cluster, Henri Médard will study specific aspects of the history of homosexuality in 19th and 20th c. Uganda and contribute to a wider reflection on the historical dynamics of gender, masculinity, power, violence, religion and politics. Linking past and present practices, Droz will revisit woman-woman (W-W) marriage, a practice rooted in historical records but still practiced in contemporary Kenya.

Through an ethnographic study on gender role within W-W marriage, Yvan Droz’ study will contribute to developing the ‘floating gender’ concept and consider the W-W marriage as an expression of collaterality.

Bearing in mind the importance of land for the establishment of rural households, Valérie Golaz will examine both changes in family structure and individual and family strategies aimed at securing land in Kenya and Uganda. She will look at the transformation of inheritance processes and new types of agreements that allow women access their brothers and fathers’ land or housing.

Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle will look at upward social mobility, increased inequalities and changing practices of wealth redistribution within the family. Young professional urbanites navigate between their own conceptions of self-accomplishment and the expectations of their kin. While their ‘lifestyle’ has attracted academic attention, actual redistribution practices—which contribute to class formation and the appearance of a new ethos—still need empirical research

Norah Kiereri will look at how divorced women navigate the conflict that divorce brings to the relationships within their social networks: the church, family, friends, among others, in terms of moralities and their social status as well as investigate how their choices put their personal wealth (financial autonomy) at risk. She will use a blend of two qualitative methodologies, namely, the phenomenological and ethnographic approach where she will conduct in-depth interviews with the women as well as observe the participants in their churches, families, and social circles.