On Saturday 9th May we lay my neighbour to rest. zoom
But it was not any normal service. The funeral was live online – streamed to us through WhatsApp and Zoom.
It leaves one feeling a bit discharged – you are there, but you are not there. You can see it, but there is just an emotion missing.
Due to the coronavirus, this is how we are living now. Freddy*, may his soul Rest-In-Peace, was buried hundreds of kilometres away, and yet anyone with an internet connection and enough charge could have watched it.
The hot-blood of Kenyan funerals finally meets the cold-steel technology. As I watched his casket being lowered to the ground, with the occasional internet buffering here and there, it hit me.
Zoom has become the unexpected buzzword of the pandemic, with daily users ballooning from 10m in December to 200m last month.
A WhatsApp group was quickly formed, normally reserved for the flotsam of messages with unwanted links and click baits sent to simmering eye rolls. Two months ago, I had never even heard of this app, and now it was embedding itself in the most personal and intimate moment of grief.
Freddie, who was a Luhya like me, must have wondered why we are throwing away our traditions. My culture demanded an elaborate funeral, complete with the slaughtering of a bull and several days of mourning – and of course, my presence, to pay my last respects and perform rites. No matter where I went, deep down, I was still a village boy.
Instead, a centuries-old traditional custom has been relegated to just another event tunnelling through shaky internet to Zoom on my laptop.
Freddie was in his mid-20s, one of the most jovial and gregarious personalities you’ll ever meet. I wasn’t close to him personally, but there is no way you wouldn’t have been radiated by his sheer force of will.
In normal times and as culture dictates, Freddie, as a son in the Luhya culture would be given a fitting funeral: an extended mourning period, with elaborate rites and hundreds of ilk paying their respects. Human contact is the one thing technology can never be able to replace.
With the onset of the Zoom Funerals, our culture is at stake. Its vibrant colourful and exuberant nature – now thrown further down the rabbit hole with the people who are expected to uphold it, gone. We were saying goodbye, just not in the way, we say goodbye.
But don’t get me wrong.
Here I was, with my neighbours, trapped in the dusty, government-warned Kawangware area, in a city under lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19.
The idea of somebody’s body being disposed of without ritual, without mourners, is a profoundly jarring one, even in our secular age. A black hearse, a raucous gathering, some solemn words, a eulogy. Their familiarity provides some kind of consolation in the delirium of grief.
This presents a catch-22 situation. Should we just leave the bodies in funeral homes until the time the pandemic will be under control – whenever that is? And, with the rising costs of funeral homes, can we even afford it?
But this situation is not unique to me. Or Kenya.
In Uganda, funerals are sacred and almost non-debatable. Big funerals are symbolic of the departed age and status, the integration of Christian doctrine with useful traditional African values has advanced African cultural pride and modern identity. Normally, this would include a long church service, complete with a lavish feast. But all this is banned.
Before lockdown, news of Freddie’s death would have spread through Kawangware like a bushfire, in hushed tones and wild gasps.
Well-wishers would have gathered together, sharing a beer as we reminisced on Freddie’s last moments. And then we would have contributed a little here, a little there, to his funeral fund – which we did, only this time it was on a WhatsApp group and an excel sheet.
Even the famed Yambakhana, or ‘Disco Matanga’ that Sauti Sol so generously sang about, is banned.
Coronavirus has upended our norms. Many undertakers and crematoriums are now limiting funeral attendance to no more than ten people; some are setting it at less.
For those going to attend the funeral, or to travel across the country as some areas under lockdown – you have to get a travel permit. In essence, a travel permit equates a mourning permit.
And at the burial, you couldn’t stand less than 2 metres apart. It was all so mechanical yet so emotional – being careful to observe the social distancing rules, so at least the community can go back to ‘normal’ life.
There was no fireplace where aunties from all over the country would be busy cooking for invited guests, there were no crates of beer for the wazees to comfort their souls – there was no touching or hugging.
As well as providing a catharsis for mourners, funeral gatherings offer a chance to fit the different jigsaw pieces of a person’s life together.
Messages started pouring in floods at the chat section of the Zoom app. This had become the de facto book of condolences. Through the WhatsApp live (which allows only 8 people at a go), and Zoom, I could see the muted emotions of friends and family, the subdued shock and the sombre mood.
Meanwhile, at the funeral, people were distant, and distant, needing to embrace yet being reminded of the stark consequences of doing so. Covid-19 has shaken the very fabrics of our culture.
Ritual conjures the invisible, and the invisible is hard to feel on a Zoom call. Some people prefer to mourn in private. Others, like me, appreciate the catharsis of shared grief. But did I weep on Zoom? I was aware that my weeping would be broadcast, and I kept my face impassive.
These are unprecedented times, and technology has never been more important in uniting an already shaken world. But it is still not the same. Strange as it may seem, this is now de riguer – the new jack swing, oscillating our emotions between discomfort and apathy.
A nation under lockdown, a people shocked and now the eerie decisions of choosing whether to inter or lay the dead to rest albeit virtually. Today, burying the dead is seen as a luxury rather than a right.
In life, Freddie was bubbly, warm and brought people together. In death’s cold grasp, cheered on by the coronavirus, the only way to be together, was apart.
As the mound settled on his grave, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that it was not just Freddie we were saying goodbye to. But part of our culture too.
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