‘Therefore, this is what the Lord, the LORD God of Heaven’s Armies, says: “There will be crying in all the public squares and mourning in every street. Call for the farmers to weep with you, and summon professional mourners to wail.’
– Amos 5:16
Here where I am from, the dead don’t really die. The end of one’s life sets into motion a series of events that have been cast in stone since the beginning of time. This, most of the time, involves the dead too, and ensuring their transition into the world of the ancestors. For one to gain access to that world, they must have been loved by many. How does this manifest? By how many people mourn at their funeral.
Every weekend, for the past two years, Celestine has been attending a funeral. Not because she has a streak of bad luck that has made her lose loved ones that fast, but because it is her job. Celestine is a professional mourner, and when we meet on a hot Wednesday afternoon under the canopy of trees at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga mortuary, she is looking for work. She has a leso wrapped like a turban on her head, and is wearing a faded kitenge dress that flails her ankles. Her feet are caked in dirt from what I imagine is the amount of walking she has to do to get to work frequently. I am sitting down on the grass next to her, and I ask her what she does.
‘I cry at funerals,’ she responds with a shy smile plastered on her ashen face that makes her look older than she really is. I look at her, and wonder if she knows that her statement has given me nothing. She shifts a bit and looks away, toward the pickup truck that is passing on the dusty road in front of the mortuary. I follow her eyes, to see if she is looking at something past the pickup but there is nothing. I had prepared a set of questions to ask her, but now that I am here with her, looking at her small frame, I wonder where to start. So I fold the piece of paper, tuck it in my pocket and ask her to tell me the story of how she came to cry at funerals.
Three years ago, she tells me, her husband was sent to prison for robbery, leaving her to fend for herself and their three young children. It was testing, and at first, she relied on her family for support, sending her children to live with her mother in Nyahera. She stayed behind and looked for work as a house help without much success. Her employers were unpleasant and the pay was very little. Then she started going round on the weekends, knocking on gates and doors, asking to wash people’s clothes. She would get paid between two and three hundred shillings for the back-breaking work. However, it was all she could do and she sent everything to her mother. Still, it was not enough.
One day, she came home and found the door locked with a different padlock from the one she normally used. The landlord had left a message with her neighbours that she would not get access to the house or her belongings if she did not settle the three months’ rent that was in arrears. She did not know what to do. Despair set in. She had no idea where she would spend the night. She had her parents’ home, but the idea of showing up there with empty hands and a mark of failure was something that terrified her. Furthermore, her parents already had hungry mouths to feed, including her own children.
She went to her friend’s house instead.
A few weeks after staying with her friend and no success getting work, she accompanied her friend to a funeral in Kiboswa. Her friend introduced her to someone else – an older woman – and when the matter of her unemployment came up, the woman she had just met suggested that she becomes a professional mourner.
‘I had known that such people existed. I had seen them at funerals. I just didn’t think I would ever be one of them.’ She tells me.
At this point, however, she was desperate and her mother was getting impatient with her for her inability to provide for her children. She took the job and the following weekend, she had her first pay. The woman she had been introduced to became her mentor, and most importantly, her friend.
I ask Celestine to introduce me to her friend, and she informs me that she is in another spot, at a different mortuary. The much-seasoned mourners, the older ones, are the ones who get the private mortuaries where the rich are; a dynamic that ensures that even such a profession has a distinct, unchallenged hierarchy. I ask if she can take me to where her friend and mentor is, but she is hesitant and she looks around. Without telling me, I know that if she leaves her post and there is work in that moment, she will miss it.
Here, there are others waiting for the same jobs. She shows me three other professional mourners. Ordinarily, they look like they are just waiting for the morgue to open during viewing hours, or for a friend who has gone inside for viewing. But that’s not it. They stand around and hunt for work like scavengers. I recognise the risk but still plead with her to accompany me to Avenue Hospital where her friend is. Begrudgingly she agrees.
The oppressive glare of the scorching sun accompanies us as we walk away from the mortuary, past the hospital buildings with the morbid grey walls. She tells me that there are some of them who wait at the hospital for deaths, but that is more difficult and is frowned upon by everyone. It requires a lot of stealth and is an option one resorts to only in a very desperate time. I ask her if she has ever had to wait at the hospital, and she giggles, shakes her head and informs me that her friend has ensured she gets work so she has never been that desperate. I ask her if she gets work enough to pay her rent, and she tells me, ‘It is not that much but at least I can afford a room in Manyatta – around Arina there – and I can feed my children. We get to the main road, which is under construction, and I stop a matatu but Celestine tells me that the distance is too close to take a bus. Therefore, we walk.
We walk in silence, past the rows and rows of wooden stalls. The thick film of dust clings on the hem of Celestine’s dress and she drags her feet on the ground as she walks. Cars and motorbikes zoom past us. We are lucky it is not a market day because the commotion would otherwise make it difficult to walk. At the hospital gate, the guards are very friendly and warm to Celestine and I ask if they know her. Of course they know her. She laughs as we make our way towards the car park area.
A woman with a slight limp walks towards us and asks Celestine if I am a client. I laugh and tell her that I am not. Celestine turns to me and tells me this is Pamela, her friend. She then tells Pamela that I am a journalist and I want to talk to her. I want to correct her and tell her that I am not a journalist but from the way Pamela looks at me, I know it is too late. I ask her if she has anything against journalists and she tells me, ‘They take our stories and get paid but we get nothing.’ I tell her I am not really a journalist but she is doubtful so I suggest that we go to the stall outside the hospital and drink sodas while we talk. She smiles.
Compared to Pamela, Celestine looks like an amateur. Pamela has been crying at funerals since before I was born. She tells me this and we all laugh and sip at our sodas. She has a big fanta passion bottle pressed in her large hands and her laugh is the crack of a whip on a donkey’s hide. It is both loud and cruel to the ears. I sit across from her and watch her as she talks and gestures animatedly. She couldn’t be older than my mother, I think to myself. But from the way she talks, she sounds like she has been to more funerals than anyone cares to count. She does not give me time to ask any questions and she takes charge of the conversation, asking me why I am interested in her story and even before I can answer, telling me that she has talked to some journalists before.
She is the one who informs me that this culture of professional mourners, that is hiring people to cry at funerals, is not something that is strange in this region for it did not start recently. On the contrary, one can even say it has become more subdued in the recent years. Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, people like them – Celestine and Pamela – could be found in front of the mortuary attached to the provincial hospital, waiting for work.
‘We have always been here,’ she declares, as if she is reading from a book. ‘In fact, my eldest daughter is around your age and I educated her with money from this work.’
I marvel at her confidence and her knowledge. She agrees with me that is indeed an odd profession, one scorned and shunned by many due to the fact that in some cultures, it is considered “fooling the gods”. I ask her what that means and she tells me that when one dies, his relatives or friends hire the professional mourners so that they give the impression that the deceased was a good and kind person, well loved by many. This may prove difficult however, if the person did not have so many friends or family members, or was, more accurately, unpopular. Say they led a life of a criminal who terrorised the community and did other repulsive acts. We laugh at the second part and she tells me such cases are more common than I imagine.
She goes on to say that not only is it their task to fool the villagers or the other people attending the funeral, but also the ancestors and the gods who will listen to the number of people crying and the loudness of the cries and believe that the person was loved by members of his/her community. Celestine nods and I ask her if she thinks that is true. She smiles and lets Pamela continue with her conversation.
I ask Pamela how she became a professional mourner, but she ignores my question and answers one I had asked earlier, about when she does the work of mourning. She tells me that even though the job requires her to be physically present throughout the week as the weekdays are spent looking for work, the weekends are the busiest and they may require her sometimes to travel out of town to the village where the deceased is being buried. Despite this meaning more money, it can be difficult as sometimes one is going to a place they are not familiar with the people, the language or even the mourning patterns for example Kisii or Kakamega. One therefore has to be adaptable, versatile and ready to learn quickly. Reading the mood of the funeral is important to be able to give excellent delivery.
The weekends are when most burials happen, with Fridays usually slotted in for the members of the Seventh Day Adventist and Saturday for the other denominations. These may not seem like anything, but to the professional mourners, a burial on a Friday means they can be back in time to attend another on a Saturday and that means earning more.
I interrupt her at this point and ask her about their earnings, how they know what to charge and the negotiation process. She informs me that the profession has advanced to the point where people print out posters with their rates on them. When she says this, she laughs as if to ridicule those going out of their way to do this. But she adds that the use of posters is a rarity, an emerging trend of sorts. Further, she tells me that most of them hang around and wait outside the mortuaries, and that is where the meetings usually happen.
Once a family has identified a professional mourner or a group, they talk to them and make the offer to engage the services. Sometimes, it is the mourner who approaches the family but all that depends on the situation. The professional mourner tells the family whether they are available, and they state their costs, which is usually between five hundred to one thousand shillings a day. The negotiations commence and this is dependent on several factors usually, such as the distance they have to travel for the burial, the amount and type of crying that they have to do and whether or not the family of the deceased is wealthy (seen from the clothing and speech mannerisms). These factors are tabled and enable the negotiations to move to the point of a decision. Once both parties agree on the date and location of the burial, the family pays a deposit and they shake hands to show that an agreement has been reached.
On the day of the burial, the mourners present themselves at the mortuary, joining the other relatives and blending in as much as possible. As soon as the coffin containing the body is brought outside, they start their mourning. They cry with the relatives as if they were also part of the family or close friends of the deceased. They accompany the body from the mortuary to the home and there is where their services are seen to be in use. Most choose to arrive at the home on motorbikes – popularly known as boda boda – and usually they have a whistle or a vuvuzela with them. The amount of noise they make is enough to show anyone watching the spectacle from afar that the deceased was a popular person, loved and adored by many.
The mourners spend the entire days at the home of the deceased and they move around in the same fashion as the relatives, offering a crying shoulder to the relatives who need help bringing their grief to the fore. The mourning continues until the body of the deceased is lowered into the grave with the dirges being sung while the mourners reach the peak of their theatrics. Afterwards, when everything is calm and the dust has settled, they get their balance and leave. They do not wait around like the other relatives and close friends who stay behind to comfort the family. The professional mourners pretend that they have business to attend to so as not to blow their cover.
Others however, are very forward and they use this opportunity to network and ask for other mourning jobs amongst the visiting relatives. They give out their phone numbers and state that in the alternative, they can be found in front of the mortuaries on certain days. They leave, having secured the prospects of future work.
That cycle repeats itself each and every weekend until it becomes a routine that both Pamela and Celestine have settled into comfortably.
Regarding the emotional labour required for the job, Pamela quips, ‘I can only mourn when I am drunk. I must take chang’aa before I can cry until it is believable.’
When she says this, I wonder if Celestine too has to resort to such means. But I know others don’t find it hard to summon the tears; for them, it comes naturally. And others, they don’t cry. They roll on the ground and do everything else apart from crying real tears. The key to being a professional mourner is to not concern yourself with the details of who is dead, why or even how. One only needs to keep a distance and mourn like they were close to the deceased. The mourning is generally very ambiguous and relies on a template of words from which one chooses depending on the situation.
One may ask themselves why someone would choose a career path like this, to be a professional mourner. However, the people who do it have their reasons. Some of them have, naturally, a flair for theatrics and they can put these skills to use and earn a living with it. Others, like Celestine, have the dire need to make ends meet in a world that is increasingly becoming competitive and difficult to live in. The poverty levels along the lake region have also necessitated the search for odd jobs like becoming professional mourners. The pay might not be glamorous, but it is better than nothing at all. One would rather engage in such an unusual profession than sleep hungry or be unable to provide for their family. The youth especially have resorted to such ways of getting an income due to the lack of jobs. In turn, odd jobs such as these have cropped up as a way for people to earn a living without resorting to crime and other illegal activities.
In addition, and this serves as the crutch upon which this profession leans on, the way the Luo society has shaped itself around the affairs of death and mourning, have necessitated such. There is demand for professional mourners because the culture of mourning and the rituals that accompany it are still a very fundamental part of the society until today.
The expression of grief and mourning is an elaborate affair in the western parts of Kenya, especially in the Luo region, where people believe that the louder someone is mourned, the more befitting the send-off is. Certain rituals that serve to show the celebration of the life of the dead are performed during the period of death and mourning of the deceased. In the city of Kisumu, this profession is widespread and the culture keeps growing around it, becoming more elaborate and grandiose, to the point that these professional mourners have standardised rates and a laminated paper that shows what you can get for what amount.
Both Pamela and Celestine are aware of the challenges that come with the profession, but they tell me that most times they leave happy and the clients are satisfied with their services at the end of the burial ceremonies. However, not everyone is happy with this culture. Some people have condemned it for being opportunistic as it preys on the innocent and it is akin to taking advantage of the bereaved who are made to believe that hiring professional mourners is the way to go so as to live up to the expectations of the community pertaining to the mourning rituals. This assertion is challenged by Pamela and Celestine who believe that the people who seek their services do so fully aware of the culture and the reason for needing the mourners at the burials of their loved ones.
The church, which has also pushed for the death of the professional mourning culture, says that it is unholy since it relies on the belief in gods and ancestors, but Pamela brings my attention to the biblical verses that address the culture of professional mourning to support her argument that even the Christian God recognises her work. She says that she is not stealing from anyone and as such she believes that she is living honourably.
The idea that the professional mourning is part of the Luo culture has also been challenged by some members of the Luo council of elders who state that although mourning is a vital part of Luo culture, paid mourners are not. Pamela responds with a shrug of shoulders and says, ‘We never said that being paid to mourn is part of the culture.’ What she means so well is that the art of professional mourning has cropped up and surrounded itself around the vibrant, pre-existing culture of mourning that places so much weight on how the mourning is done. Whether, over time, the two have become so intertwined, is still something one is left to debate. But one thing is clear, the prominence given to how one is mourned within the Luo culture has provided the context in which professional mourning operates and thrives.
The county government of Kisumu, at the behest of the business community, who complain that the culture around mourning has given bravery to thieves, who pose as mourners, have stepped in to regulate these excesses and the consequences are already apparent. The First County Integrated Development Plan, which was drafted in 2013 by the Kisumu County Government as part of the Vision 2030 proposed ‘legislation to tame noise pollution i.e. bodies being passed through CBD with mourners bringing the town to a standstill.’
This, I believe, is the first attempt by the government to intervene and interfere with the mourning rituals that are a part of the fabric of this community. However, Pamela remains unfazed and she tells me that most of the mourners have been defiant and disregard this law. ‘You cannot put a law to change the culture of the people!’ She remarks. The residents of Kisumu do not believe in silent mourning. To them, mourning has to be loud, boisterous and public. And I ask myself, if the county government were indeed to effect this legislation, what would it mean for people like Celestine, who rely on the grandness of the mourning routine in this part of the country to be able to survive?
In the end, I say my goodbyes and leave Celestine and Pamela and walk towards the main road. In the matatu, I look at my notes and reflect on the future of this profession. It is one that has grown from a point of little to no recognition to a place where it occupies such a vital space within the mourning rituals of the Luo community. Regardless, and I reflect with a bleakness on this, it is a profession that promises to die soon with the culture around mourning fading away, the fast urbanisation of Kisumu and most parts around it, many people opting for silent, modern funerals, and new laws put in place to limit the excesses of mourning.