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Till death do us part! Women defy culture, dig grave for deceased friend

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A group of women from Tukutendereza Revival dig the grave of Helida Ogweno at her home in Ugenya, Siaya County on July 3, 2024. The women went against the norms and traditions of the Luo community that only men should dig a grave.

Photo credit: Alex Odhiambo | Nation Media Group

Till death do us part! This was the mantra that a group of women used until the last breath of their friend, Mama Helida Ogweno.

Rolling up their sleeves, 12 women went against Luo culture and dug Helida's grave in broad daylight on two consecutive days.

The women, all of the same age, descended on the deceased's home in Ng'ola village in Ugenya, Siaya County, in an unprecedented show of love and solidarity for their late colleague.

Helida, who died aged 87, was a staunch member of the Tukutendereza, a dedicated group in the Anglican Church of Kenya.

Ms Beatrice Otieno, 55, says their decision to prepare a grave for the 87-year-old was guided by the initiative of the Tukutendereza Revival Group within the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK).

Ms Otieno also says the women will carry the coffin to the grave, lower it and fill it.

"She was a member of Tukundereza, a committed, born-again, staunch Anglican. Her grave could only be dug by other Tukundereza women who are also born-again," said Ms Otieno.

This practice was unheard of in the past, according to the traditional customs and traditions of the Luo community.

A group of women from the Tukutendereza Revival carry the coffin containing the remains of Mama Helida Ogweno, who was buried on July 5, 2024.

Photo credit: Alex Odhiambo | Nation Media Group

According to Luo Council of Elders Ker Odungi Randa, the role of digging graves, carrying coffins, lowering the body into the grave and filling it was for men.

Ker Randa says this was in line with the gender roles assigned to men and women in the traditional Luo community.

Rare

"Women could only perform these roles when there were no men around, and that was rare," says Ker Randa.

According to Luo culture, graves should be dug at night.

But Ms Otieno said in Helida's case they had to prepare it in broad daylight.

"She was a born-again Christian. Night is associated with darkness. We could only prepare the grave during the day because she belongs to the light," said Mrs Otieno.

She continued: "In most cases, graves in the community are always dug by drunken men. That would have gone against our sister's beliefs.

Ms Otieno says it took them 12 hours to dig the six-foot grave.

She explained that the digging began on July 2 and was completed the next day.

"On the first day, we received close friends and relatives and ministered to them before telling them that we would continue digging the grave," she said, adding that the family of the deceased supported the idea.

Deceased's grandson

The deceased's grandson, Alex Odhiambo, says they supported the exercise as a family, knowing their grandmother's strong faith in the church. The exercise began at 2pm at the compound of the deceased, and by evening the women, armed with shovels, spades and hoes, had completed the first day's work, digging a three-foot deep grave.

A group of women from the Tukutendereza Revival group bury Helida Ogweno at her home in Ugenya, Siaya County.


Photo credit: Alex Odhiambo | Nation Media Group

The exercise came as a shock to community members who were witnessing it for the first time.

Some wondered where the energetic men of the community had gone, while others wondered if the women had taken an alcoholic drink before the 'manly' exercise.

According to Ms Otieno, some of the passers-by went as far as telling them "wabironeno", a Luo word loosely translated as "we shall see".

"But that did not scare us. We sang Tukundereza songs, preached the gospel and took breaks whenever we needed to," she said.

The next day, the women finished digging the grave by mid-afternoon and moved on to other funeral preparations.

She says this is not the first time she has dug graves as she has done the same for other born-again believers in the Tukutendereza group.

Ms Otieno says other occasions when they are allowed to dig graves include the burial of women who have refused to be inherited after the death of their husbands.

Unwilling to dig

"We also have young men who do not remarry after the death of their spouses, but the community is unwilling to dig their graves because of cultural beliefs. In such cases, we roll up our sleeves and do what is necessary," she said.

The ACK Bishop of Bondo Diocese, David Kodia, says the practice of allowing women to bury the dead is common among the Tukutendereza revival group.

"Although the practice is not part of the ACK church doctrine, we support it because if the deceased is their sister in the Lord, they want to honour her by not allowing anyone whose faith they are not sure of. Some are on drugs or have been involved in some worldly activities," said Kodia.

Ker Randa noted that traditional practices are slowly being overtaken by Western culture and Christianity.