Continuity and change in the funeral rites of Abatirichi of Western Kenya c. 1850-1960
Shiyuka, Elvis Karani
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This study is a historical investigation of the development of religious concepts and practices in funeral rituals among the Abatirichi of Western Kenya who belong to the larger Abaluyia community. It has traced the evolution and meaning of the religious concepts and practices in Abatirichi funeral rituals as occasioned by decades of encounters and interaction with external cultural systems. The study has examined a historical transformation of rituals with specific reference to types of burials and post burial rituals. These post-burial rituals included shaving of the hair by close relatives (ulubego), cattle drive dances at the funerals of senior men (shilemba), grand memorial ceremonies (khwitsulitsa), and “carrying” of the shadow-spirit of the deceased to the homes of close relatives and areas they frequented (khuhira or khukalukhitsa shihinini). This historical enquiry covered approximately a century from A.D 1850 to A.D 1960. It was cast in the mould of the symbolic interactionism theory. This is a theoretical formulation which explains the process of cultural change. This theoretical formulation insists that socially developed symbols by a community play a significant role during the process of interaction, interpretation and assimilation of new concepts when cultural systems come into contact. Subsumed under this theory the study has demonstrated that Abatirichi social symbols helped them to ascribe meaning to new cultural concepts during the process of encounter and interactions. During interactions Abatirichi acquired the best values which were consistent with the selection of the most functional social practices and institutions. Symbolic interactionism, therefore, assisted them in the process of reconstruction, restructuring, and assimilation of new ideas from external cultures which led to the development of a new social reality which was essentially syncretic. This study has emphatically rejected all claims of purity of Abatirichi funeral culture. It has demonstrated that Abatirichi obsequies are not given “wholes” which were handed down from their ancestors without being questioned. But rather, these religious concepts and practices were dynamic social entities which have been shaped, over centuries, by forces both external and internal to Abatirichi. This syncretism of funeral rituals was a function of long processes of interactions with their neighbours that is the Luo, Nandi-Terik andBantu Abaluyia such as the Abanyole, Abalogooli, Abeisukha, and Abidakho. Additional to this was Western cultural onslaught through Christian missionization. This study established that of all the external cultures, the Nandi-Terik and Western Christianity had the greatest influence in transformation of Abatirichi funeral culture. We have used both primary and secondary sources to demonstrate the evolutionary hybridisation of Abatirichi funeral rituals. Primary sources were acquired from oral interviews, the Kenya National Archives and mission archives at Kaimosi, Erusui and Nyang’ori. Oral interviews were conducted between August 2014 and May 2015 with the help of undergraduate students of History as research assistants. In a nutshell this study was a historical interrogation of the process of inter-cultural encounter and interaction. It emphasised on causality and consequences of human actions in historical phases of encounters and interactions between Abatirichi and their neighbours in South Western Kenya and Western Christian missionization.