Kenya's paid mourners face uncertain future

By Dennis Okari
BBC News, Kisumu

  • Published
Media caption,
The louder the noise, the deeper the family of the deceased must dig into their pockets

Samuel Ochieng waits outside a mortuary in the western Kenyan city of Kisumu every Thursday and Friday looking for bereaved families.

The 36-year-old is a professional mourner and his voice and his motorcycle are his only source of income.

For years hired mourners have been paid to go round the city at breakneck speed on motorbikes, swerving from one side of the road to the other, piercing the air with loud whistles and blaring horns from early in the morning.

"They pay us to make noise and use our bikes to go round the city. They will buy whistles and alcohol. We will then do the job," says Mr Ochieng.

"The lowest amount of money we get paid is $6 (£3.80) and on a good day we can make $12."

Grieving families believe the louder the noise and the bigger the procession, the greater the honour for the deceased.

And they are willing to spend huge amounts of money for a lap of honour around the city - traditionally on the last two days of the working week.

This is because in the Luo community burials normally happen on a Saturday, so a body will stay in the house for viewing for a day or two before.

A crowded funeral procession is a symbol of the popularity and fame of the family.

The paid mourners are briefed about the life of the deceased and for hours, they will scream and chant their name.

"We have to show people that the person who has just died was important, [then] the family feels good," explains Mr Ochieng.

Fines or jail

But many local businesses have been unhappy with the practice.

Naresh Patel, who sells motor vehicle spare parts along one of the busiest streets in Kisumu, says "hooligans" pose as mourners, loot shops and rob people.

Image caption,
The more noise the better - so whistles are a must for professional mourners

"It affects the traffic so the businessmen and workers cannot reach to the office in time, even the customers cannot reach the shops in time," Mr Patel told the BBC.

The local authorities agree and are now putting a stop to the practice.

"If you come to Kisumu on Thursday and Friday, you won't believe what you'll see," says Jacktone Onunga, the local tourism board chairman.

"It's chaotic. Many shops remain closed.

"We cannot run a government without taxes from the business community."

He said the funeral processions even scare away both local and international tourists.

In August, the county government came up with a plan to ban the processions inside the city.

Funeral marches will only be allowed outside the city limits - far from the central business district.

So a body must be collected from a mortuary and transported away without any accompanying mourners.

The law came into force last month, but is being slowly implemented - so the processions have continued.

Mr Onunga believes that when people become aware of the heavy penalty of a $150 fine, or six months in jail, for violators they will stop.

'Cultural attack'

The county government is running education campaigns to explain their reasons for banning the city mourning.

Image caption,
Professional mourners will no longer be able to accompany a body from the morgue

But some residents fear the practice will die out altogether as the whole point of the procession to be seen and heard by the whole city.

Some are defying the ban outright, saying they feel it infringes on their cultural practices.

However, there are signs that business is down for the professional mourners.

Motorbike riders near a mortuary now idle around on empty bikes.

Before the ban, it would have been packed with hundreds of young men waiting for bereaved families.

Mr Ochieng says he has not been able to make much money in the last month - he offers lifts to passengers, but with so many other taxi bikes around, it is hard to find business.

He does agree that it is getting easier to get about the city without the noise and chaos, but feels the authorities have missed an opportunity to turn a cultural spectacle into a tourist attraction.

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