What has a door to do with your final resting place? Just ask the Abagusii 

5 minutes

Until his death, Naftali Onderi Ontweka was not only a prominent member of the Gusii community, he was also a dedicated family man.

Small wonder four months later, Onderi’s body still lies at the Lee Funeral Home as his wife and two brothers scramble for it in court.

Like most Gusii men of means who have bought land and built homes in the ‘diaspora,’ Onderi, former Deputy Director of Budget at the National Treasury, has two houses. One is in Kamulu where he lived with his wife and children until his passing away in April this year. The other one was built in Kiango, Bomachoge Borabu Constituency, where his extended family lives.

But, as if to confuse his clansmen when he departs from this world, he ensured he had built two doors for each of the two houses, as a proper Omugusii should. Interestingly, this has left the two litigants in some kind of a stalemate.

Indeed, one of the reasons being pushed by the siblings is that Mr Onderi had built a house back in the rural home with two doors. According to the siblings, in the event of death, the body would be taken into the house using one door and exit through the other one.

But this was countered by the spouse and his first son Boniface, who said the Kamulu home similarly had two doors. And unlike the home in Kamulu, the rural home was in bad condition and his father never repaired it because he never had intentions of living there, the family argued.

It is said that a respectable Gusii man’s house must have at least two doors. The main door can be used by anyone, including visitors who don’t have any relations with the host.

However, the other door, mostly facing towards the West or the door facing the cattle kraal, is used by in-laws, your seniors and even grandfather as a sign of respect, a Gusii elder told MtaaSkika. Known as egesieri kia bweri (cow shed door) it is also through this door that the coffin will be taken out. 

Abagusii, popularly known as the Kisii, is one of Kenya’s 42-odd ethnic communities. Numbering about 2.7 million according to the census results of 2019, they live in the hilly side of what was formerly called Nyanza province. They occupy the counties of Kisii and Nyamira.

Although a lot of Abagusii have moved from their ancestral lands in the two counties, partly due to increasing population, they are known for zealously adhering to their cultural norms and values including burial rites.  

The symbolic importance of Egesieri kia bweri can also be seen during the circumcision rite. 

It is also through egesieri kia bweri that a daughter who has successfully gone through the ceremony of ogosuba or esubo–which is meant to prepare one for adulthood as well as the responsibilities of motherhood–passes through as a final rite.

The father, who will be sitting near bweri, will spray the initiate with ribuogore (fermented cereal beer) and then sip amabere (milk) and spray her again with the contents. But most of these traditions have been abandoned. 

In the present case, the High Court had ruled in favour of the spouse Zipporah Masese Onderi last month and allowed her to collect the body for burial in Kamulu. The court had also ruled that Kisii rites should apply during the burial.

But the brothers moved to the Court of Appeal arguing that it was their brother’s wish for his remains to be interred in his rural home.

It is a case that is reminiscent of the 1986 legal battle pitting Wambui Otieno against her husband’s clan, Umira Kager over the burial of Silvano Melea Otieno, popularly known as S.M. Otieno.

Like in most communities from Western Kenya, important individuals in the society like Mr Onderi who was the chairman of the Mogunde family was even crowned as a Gusii elder, cannot be buried away from their ancestral homes.

“There is no evidence that the deceased’s wishes were for him to be buried in Kamulu. Therefore, it is in public interest and in the interest of justice for the deceased to be buried in accordance with the Gusii community customs and not as per the wishes of his nuclear family as was held by the High Court,” the relatives submitted.

Soon after Onderi’s death in April, his brothers moved to court and successfully argued for the body to be buried in Bomachoge.

Ms Onderi moved to the High Court and convinced the court that he should be buried in Kamulu, where the family had established their matrimonial home and lived until his death.

In a judgement on July 5, Justice Eric Ogola set-aside the decision of the lower court and held that Ms Onderi had the right to bury her dead husband.

In the appeal, the brothers argue that although the wife had the absolute right over the body, Mr Onderi was a prominent member of the Gusii community and according to his wishes, he is to be buried in Kiango, as evidenced in his actions of building a permanent house in accordance to the Gusii customs.

Support MtaaSkika.

Fund independent journalism.