The last few weeks I’ve noticed our region’s media poking fun at Kenyan funerals and political maneuvering. Humanity has a dark side. Sometimes we use sympathy as a means to manipulate for selfish gain. Possibly Kenyan politicians are the worst at it. Yet, if Kenyan politicians do it, we all do it. There are nuances from district to district, and nation to nation. Yet, certain patterns of behavior are consistent from Mombasa to Bujumbura. When one dies we all gather to support the grieving.
My wife Jana’s childhood was spent in Kenya. We are in Nairobi a few
times every year. We learned our basics of Great Lakes’ cultural
understanding and good manners in Kenya. We’re offended at any who would
manipulate sympathy for selfish maneuvering. Yet, we also are not
convinced that every funeral is just an opportunity for manipulation.
What if funerals are one of the events of life to display our common
sense Great Lakes’ compassion?
Those who taught me Great Lakes’ culture told me that when a
community member passes we all stop and do all we can to support the
family. In their whispers they told me that those living in the fear of
shadows would conclude we had sought the deceased’s death if we did not
attend the funeral. Yet, they also taught us it is just good manners to
attend and support. Some of my peers and juniors have pointed out that
funerals are the places where old wounds are healed so they don’t become
generational cycles of revenge. They have also pointed out that in the
memories of the deceased the most important life lessons are taught.
Missing a funeral is missing our community’s opportunity to remember the
past with hope for the future.
My youth was spent in Uganda in the early 1990’s as AIDS decimated a
generation. It seemed rare not to have a funeral per week to attend. At
times I wondered if the social obligation to attend funerals wasn’t
crippling both government efficiency and economic prosperity. Funerals
were the trump card to miss professional obligations.
The season has changed, but Great Lakes’ common sense compassion remains.
On Monday, 21 May my family was startled to read on Facebook and over
email that an old family friend, Berkeley Hackett, had passed. He was
70 years old, but as fit as many men half his age. He was a missionary
peer of Jana’s parents and like an uncle to her. He had not sought
personal prestige, but had built churches, schools, and scholarship
programs. His life’s jewel, Kenya Christian Industrial Training
Institute seemed to be the source for both some of Kenya’s better
basketball and computer brains.
We had no other choice. We boarded a flight on Thursday 24 May for
the funeral on Friday 25 May. In the back of my mind I wondered if our
region’s media cynics were right. What would the memorial bring?
As we reached Jomo Kenyatta’s Airports Immigration lines we wrote
“Funeral” as our purpose of visit and “1 night” as our intended length
of stay. The Immigration official asked a question and then pushed back
our $50 USD payment for a Visitor’s Visa. This was a Transit Visa he
concluded that would only cost $20 USD. He told us, “This is my decision
and not policy. Don’t ask for this another time. Yet, thank you for
traveling for a funeral. Let me help.”
I went to trade money with a Swahili and obviously Muslim family.
They asked why I was in Kenya and I told them a funeral. They asked,
“Who? What happened?” They concluded by asking Allah’s blessings on our
The funeral was in Eastleigh. The road was a disaster. In the end we
left our taxi and walked 3 blocks through the mud. Before we reached the
church building the road returned to tarmac. A poor woman noticed
Jana’s dirty sandaled feet, stopped her clothes washing, and washed
Jana’s feet before we entered the church compound. This was no religious
ceremony, but just Kenya’s best hospitality.
Facebook walls allow those of us with diverse friends who never meet
to now do on our wall what we only once could do at funerals. Yet
funerals are in a way much better. Social media helps us stay aware.
Humanity still needs to hear words, laugh, cry, sing, dance, and touch.
Funerals are that place.
Berkeley passed away in a gym shortly after exercise in the presence
of Kenya’s 1988 Olympian DouglasWakiihuri. Douglas told the story of his
gym friend. Most of us had no idea they were friends.
There were many speeches. Jana saw an old Kenyan pastoral friend,
Johnstone Kapa. After the funeral he repeated his request for our family
to return to Kenya to live and work. A Kenyan future seems unlikely for
us, but it is good to be remembered and welcomed.
As predicted by media cynics there was a political presence. Kenya’s
Minister of Education, Mutula Kilonzo’s daughter spoke. Her dad’s
schedule kept him occupied, but she told stories of old. Berkeley was
her dad’s friend when he was beginning a legal career and had yet to
enter politics. He sent his daughter to remember a friend who “led from
The media cynics may be right about some who use funerals as a way to
manipulate community sympathy. Yet, I still believe they reflect the
best of our Great Lakes’ common sense compassion. When there is a
community loss we all hurt. We respond by coming together to support the
family. In the process we remember the past and find the future.
A few years ago I attended a funeral in Rwanda that I’ll never
forget. A loved one had passed away abroad. The body was brought back to
be buried at home. In the process a scattered extended family gathered
from both our Great Lakes region plus Europe and North America. After
the funeral 2 couples pulled me aside. Neither had ever had a “church
wedding” in the presence of their complete extended family. For the next
few days a possibility existed. On a Tuesday night in Kigali I
performed a small intimate double wedding.
I had lunch that Tuesday with a media friend who writes for a
Kenyan-based paper. He asked me what I was doing that evening. I told
him a double wedding. He first thought it was a joke. Then I told the
story. My friend smiled, and we both delighted at the power of Great
Lakes’ common sense compassion. We knew the tragedy of a past that had
left an extended family fragmented. Yet what could be better than a
double wedding for a reunited family after a funeral?
A few may manipulate our sympathy. Yet Great Lakes’ common sense compassion is the substance of our lives. In it we find hope