The writer’s son-in-law Emmanuel Sobakin and daughters Margaret Sobakin and Victoria Makokha. 

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Culture shock of lavish funeral in Nigeria

When I got news from Nigeria of elder Abraham Adeyinka Sobakin’s death on Tuesday, July 27 this year at 6.48pm, nothing would have prepared me for the long wait ahead of his burial.

The WhatsApp message from my daughter, Margaret, was short: “After blessing him with 90 good years of life, God saw it fit to call Baba Abraham Sobakin back home. He passed away while asleep yesterday morning.”

My husband and I quickly made it to Nairobi’s Maasai Estate in Lang’ata to condole with my daughter and son-in-law the following morning, believing they would soon be airborne to Nigeria to start the funeral arrangements for the patriarch, fondly called Baba Sobakin, as we would learn. After the commiserations, we ventured to inquire into a tentative burial date. In his typical smile and calm demeanour, our son-in-law, Emmanuel Sobakin, said he would let us know about his father’s funeral after consulting with his siblings.

That was the beginning of a 101-day odyssey that culminated in the final send-off of Baba Sobakin in a celebration of life like no other I have ever witnessed. You will have heard of the snide, “Luhyias feast at funerals”. What I saw in Isale-Ake, Abeokuta, in Nigeria’s Ogun State, was beyond anything that remotely resembled a funeral.

True, communities in Western Kenya are known for eating, disco matanga, complete with Isukuti — an intangible cultural heritage that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has immortalised. However, what I saw in Abeokuta on Friday, November 5, dwarfed anything I had hitherto associated with death and mourning.

Nigerian red beef stew

A white bowl of delicious Nigerian red beef stew with soft cow hide meat served with white rice and diced carrots.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Having arrived at Park Inn Hotel at 3am, we thanked God for the two-hour difference between Kenya and Nigeria, which gave us a three-hour rest before daybreak. But we had hardly shed our fatigue, prolonged by a mandatory Covid-19 test, when Margaret, who had travelled ahead with her family, knocked gently on our door to remind us that we needed to prepare ourselves for the 30-minute drive to the Sobakin residence.

Margaret’s response to our earlier concerns regarding dress code came rather late — but she was gracious enough not to make a fuss of it. Vickie, my daughter and travel companion, had a black outfit.

“Don’t think they do black here”, Margaret had remarked.

We were later to behold their stunning outfits, made-to-measure on their arrival only two days earlier. Five-year-old Anuoluwa wore her mother’s royal blue colour, while their three-year-old twins — Taiye and Kehinde — wore their father’s light blue.

Emmanuel’s mother, Abigael, saved us from looking out of sync with the rest of the mourners when she presented us with a brown-orange and blue-patterned cloth, which we threw over our shoulders. Most family members had the same cloth, stitched in different designs.

The day started with a short prayer service at a small church right next to Baba Sobakin’s house. The opening hymn, “Jerusalem on High”, was sang by the feisty church choir that seemed unfazed by that morning’s downpour, befitting a king’s send-off as my Wanga clan would put it. The hymn was complemented by a reading from the Bible. Then followed announcements and a benediction before the mourners proceeded to the graveside service, next-door.

But just before the interment, there was some drama at the viewing of the body as two attendants kept repeating, ‘Final respect!’ We had surely paid the patriarch our final respects? No! The respects had to be expressed in Naira, and mercifully, Vickie had changed enough dollars for our needs.

The highpoint of the graveside service was the emotional lowering of the casket after the pastor recited the traditional Christian committal and invited the immediate family to throw soil in the grave. A young woman broke down as she threw her soil on the casket. Baba Sobakin had finally rested.

Mrs Margaret Sobakin

Mrs Margaret Sobakin (left) and her sister Victoria immediately after the final service at Isale-Ake church. 

Photo credit: Pool

Like the first service, the graveside service ended with an announcement to proceed to the Outing Service. I was curious to see where the ‘outing’ would be, imagining it to be some kind of prayer service in a park—like the Uhuru Park crusades in Nairobi. It would be the climax of Baba Sobakin’s funeral services. The service was conducted at Isale-Ake Christ Apostolic Church (CAC) on Lisabi Avenue, a modest but imposing structure.

Seven pastors, led by English Assembly Pastor Ayo Oduronbi, presided over what they called the final service—a festive affair that lasted nearly three hours, contrary to the Kenyan tradition where a funeral service ends with interment. A meal or refreshments follow, and guests leave at their leisure.

The service at Isale-Ake was the most elaborate of the three with a carnival mood of song and dance. It was also here that Baba Sobakin’s eulogy was read, providing a peek into the life of a man who died 50 days after celebrating his 90th birthday, without the slightest hint of his imminent transition. On the day he died, he reportedly went about his daily routine, including sending a driver on a debt-collection mission at the Ogun State offices, for which he was a contractor.

A retired civil servant, Baba Sobakin appears to have led an extremely active life, which probably explains how he could have boarded the plane to Nairobi in 2018 to witness his son and my daughter say ‘I do’ to each other.

Nigerian Naira.

Nigerian Naira.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

This piece is really my view of Nigerians’ style of celebrating life and how it differs from Kenyans’—generally speaking about cultures that widely vary even within the same country. My first cultural shock was the idea of keeping a loved one for 101 days without any dispute in court or elsewhere in the family. In Kenya, such a dispute would typically be the main reason to keep a dead body in the mortuary indefinitely as families wrangle over the burial site or ‘ownership’ of the body. None of these scenarios applied in Baba Sobakin’s case.

However, it didn’t take long after the final service to see why our Nigerian in-laws needed time to plan the patriarch’s final farewell. CAC Isale-Ake and OOPL Events Centre are a mere 3.1km apart, and it would have taken us only five minutes to get there were it not for a police hold-up for an imaginary offence, which Emmanuel refused to own up to. It was our third encounter with covert solicitation of bribery.

By and by, however, we got to OOPL Events Centre, the venue of a reception that did not accord with a typical Kenyan funeral. This is because while prayer at a funeral home or a requiem Mass or church service is quite a common practice before interment, a reception as we understand it is not on. Mourners are not guests to be entertained; they are normally treated to a modest meal or refreshments, kwisha!

What awaited us at OOPL Events Centre was a grand reception which, save for the absence of a bride and groom, would have passed for a lavish wedding celebration. Each eight-seater round table seemed to have a sponsor—either a family member or an advertiser—and they did not disappoint.

drinks

There was no shortage of drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic at the post-burial reception.

Photo credit: Pool

Being an in-law, and the mother of the girl, at that, I had to be discreet in my information gathering, avoiding to be nosy. I noticed that our table had this prominent placard: “Funmi Fashions & Events”, which advertised the firm that had offered sewing and decoration as well as embroidery and industry fashion — complete with their contacts. At one point, my eyes wandered off to a few tables. It was obvious that each table had a sponsor, including the Sobakin family members.

It soon dawned on me why it took 101 good days to pull off the grand reception that lasted well over four hours—to about 6pm.

The menu, complete with athola or inyama isiche—that Luo-Luyia delicacy of slightly fermented meat that’s roasted over a period of days and preserved in ash salt to give it that distinct mouth-watering flavour—was not a preserve of Kenya; it had replicas in Abeokuta, and did I relish it!

Luhyia funerals

And drinks? Flowing like a river! In Luhyia funerals, and especially at the kesha (funeral vigils) and disco matangas, which the local administration is determined to stamp out, the common alcoholic drink we know of is usually chang’aa. Youths, especially, manage to sneak into the home and particularly for the grave diggers, for whom chang’aa is part of the legal tender for that grim overnight task alongside tsingokho (chickens). Tsingokho bears the brunt of funerals…and of any celebration for that matter.

In Baba Sobakin’s funeral, alcoholic drinks included palm wine, which I spotted too late after the mourners had downed it all. Our table had ANDRÉ Rose and Baron Romero, and Maltina, touted as the only malt brand in Nigeria enriched with vitamins. Never did we run out of drinks, including sodas and fruit juices.

One-litre bottled water bore the image of Baba Sobakin. The label read: “Celebration of life; Final Burial (was there an earlier one?) Ceremony of our Husband, Father, Grandfather and Brother Elder Abraham Adeyinka Sobakin” complete with the burial date, and the ubiquitous reminder that he was 90. Baba Sobakin’s age was emblazoned on the various gifts that mourners received. Every mourner had a set of gifts, including toiletry bags, plastic trash cans, and spiral-bound hard cover notebooks—the latter courtesy of Oluwole Sobakin. They were passed round towards the end of the reception.

And I could never forget the live band that entertained us throughout the celebration. I had to suppress the urge to jig along with the various groups that danced below the podium—because where I come from, mothers-in-law are supposed to maintain sobriety and not engage in any act that might later expose their daughters to ridicule.

So, next time you’re tempted to accuse Luhyias and Luos of feasting at funerals, visit Nigeria first.

Christ Apostolic Church, Isale-Ake, Abeokuta,

Christ Apostolic Church, Isale-Ake, Abeokuta, where Elder Abraham Adeyinka Sobakin’s final service was held. 


Photo credit: Pool

But our trip also had a downside: we nearly landed in hot soup—all because we ignored chai overtures by immigration officers at Murtala Muhammed International Airport. It started with claims that Vickie’s Covid-19 test certificate had already been used—a certificate we got on the same day at a hospital in Nairobi West prior to our departure. We argued our way out—but with a near-fatal oversight: our passports were not stamped for arrival. This would haunt us as we went through passport control on our way back to Nairobi. More about this shortly.

Eventually, and probably sorry for the anxious mother after I asked the officers what the matter was, we were ‘mercifully’ let off. I brushed aside requests for something “to quench your sons’ throats [as] the night is hot, Ma”.

Covid test

We didn’t link up with our designated driver immediately and were hiring a cab for Abeokuta when my son-in-law, Emmanuel, called to alert us that a driver was around, but a Covid test was mandatory before leaving Lagos.

I don’t know how Vickie pulled it off, but we managed to shake off the cab driver’s demands for a “blessing” for having offered to drive us to Abeokuta.

Emmanuel had arranged for the Covid test at Synlab lab in the airport’s vicinity—a huge blessing for Nigeria wouldn’t have let us out and Kenya wouldn’t have received us home, without a negative test certificate. Covid-19 is a cash cow as nations milk departing and arriving passengers.

Baba Sobakin’s burial day was not without drama. As we bowed our heads in honour of the patriarch, two attendants kept saying, “Final respects!” That baffled me because that was what we had just done. It turned out they wanted ‘chai’ for allowing us to pay our respects. Mercifully, Vickie had enough Naira for us to navigate the drama.

Then on our short drive to the post-burial “outing reception” , an officer stopped us to examine Emmanuel’s driving documents. He had stamped application papers that should have satisfied the officer, but no! A row brewed up in which, for the first time, I saw ever-placid Emmanuel’s feathers ruffled. After what seemed like ages, we were let go after Emmanuel rebuked the officer, telling him he was an embarrassment “to our international visitors”.

Then there was the missing “entry” stamp I told you about. Come Saturday and we realised we were in trouble as we were being cleared to leave!

Thank God for an officer at the exit desk who noted it, and shared with colleagues, “Those fellows didn’t stamp their passports”, before stamping our exit. I shudder to imagine what would have happened had we landed in the clutches of vindictive immigration officers.

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