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Controversial Practices: Balunda Burial in Kenya


Traditions are rarely disputed in much of the world. But it's at the center of controversy among one ethnic group in Kenya.

The Balunda clan of the Bukusu tribe in Bungoma district buries its deceased in an upright sitting position. They say it is their tradition. But a group of people from the same clan – as well as some critics across the country -- call the practice “cult-like”.

One of the reasons used to explain the practice is that being propped up in a sitting posture enables the deceased to rise up instantly on the day he or she is summoned by God.

Questions have been raised on how possible it would be to sit a dead person up after rigor mortis has set in. Michael Masinde, the cousin to the deceased says that one has to “convince” the dead because they listen.

"We have to speak to the deceased in a low tone to make them understand that we still love them and should agree with our requests and cultural practices, otherwise it would be difficult to make them sit in the coffin because of the hard bones and joints," he says.

Vincent Khamala, a 70-year-old who belongs to the same clan and has lived in the area all his life, says that the quaint custom is just a matter of fulfilling what the forefathers introduced.

"The reason we bury our people in a sitting position," he says," is because the first man to die many years ago in the clan was found dead in a sitting position and we just thought the whole clan should follow suit.

We cannot break the cycle just because we are in the modern world."

However, not all the clan members fancy the practice as they see it as old-fashioned and cult-like. Those who go against it are considered outcasts and become isolated. Jairus Khaemba is one of the clan members who despise it.

"We are part of the clan but we don't engage in that kind of practice because our grand parents and parents were very devout Christians and found it backward and ungodly so we will always be buried lying stretched out as we have previously been doing."

Some proud clan members want the clan to popularise the practice throughout Kenya and use it as an identity. They say the extraordinary way of burial could be a tourist attraction and a heritage to be envied by the rest of the world.

The Kenyan constitution does not have a national burial law and therefore such a practice cannot be prohibited because customary law is given a special place due to different existing tribes in the country. Analysts however say that given the current trend where people intermarry, perhaps it would be in the national interest to create a uniform burial law to avoid subjecting other people to unacceptable practices.

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