BY Nduta Waweru, 6:18am April 13, 2018,

Why Kenyan communities bury chiefs and elders in a sitting position

Coffin of Nabongo Japheth Wambani Rapando, late Wanga king who died in 2012 [Photo: Daily Nation] Inset: The King lying seated in his casket which was specially built to respect the customs. However, the Elders had threatened to burn it as Wanga kings must be buried in animal skin.

While in many communities, the dead are buried lying down and usually with their arms bent and hands folded across the chest, a number of Luhya sub-tribes in western Kenya opt to bury their dead in a sitting position.

The custom of burying people seated is believed to have originated from the precolonial King of the Wanga community, Nabongo Mumia.

The Wanga kings are wrapped in animal skin; and a stool, the symbol of power, placed on their head.

The Wanga are not the only ones with such a tradition. The Bukusu, Idakho, Tachoni and Kabras also conduct the burial of their elders this way.

Not only do they believe that burying the dead the ‘proper’ way will ward off evil spirits but also show respect to the elders as they go to the other world. It is also a way of connecting the community with the king, who they believe is watching over his family even in death.

Even in modern days, the tradition is still observed but with various modifications. When King Nabongo Japheth Wambani Rapando died in 2012, his coffin was constructed to look like a reclining chair.  It was designed and built before the king passed on.

Why Kenyan communities bury chiefs and elders in a sitting position

Nabongo Japheth Wambani Rapando’s coffin. [Photo: Daily Nation]

The other modification is the inclusion of the church in the funeral program, something which was not done in the past.

The first Wanga king, Nabongo Shiundu was buried in one of his wives’ house. Wamanya was the mother of King Mumia. His bones were later removed and buried at Matungu, the traditional site for the Nabongos.

Before the burial, the next king must be selected. Unlike in “Wakanda”, where mortal combat was the way to determine the ruler, in the Wanga community, the elders anoint a successor from the late king’s sons. The chosen son will then spear an animal, which must fall next to the king’s body to indicate the king’s approval of the elders’ choice. Anything less, the process has to be repeated.

The skin from the bull is usually wrapped around the dead king.

The climax of the funeral ceremony is the coronation of the next king. The elders give him the omukasa (copper bracelet symbolising the Nabongoship) and dress him in a colobus monkey skin.


Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: April 13, 2018


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