The Cost of Dying Is Killing! in Today's Business World, Culture Is Everything. Multinationals Who Pride Themselves on Being 'At Home Abroad' Have Discovered That Real Business Success Lies in Understanding People and Their Motivations, Not in Economic Theory and Statistics. This Month, Wycliffe Muga Presents a Fascinating Insight into an Essential Cultural Custom in Kenya

Article excerpt

An Italian friend of mine, a businessman in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, told me this story some time back. When he was still quite new here, one of his junior employees came to him with a request: "My mother is dead. I have just received the telegram. Would you please arrange for me to get a company loan so that I can go and bury her?"

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My friend found this request unusual--the idea of someone taking a loan, not for medical expenses for a parent, but for funeral expenses--but he granted his employee the loan all the same.

When about eight months later, the same man came with the same request again, my friend reminded him that he had already taken a loan some months before so that he could go and bury his mother. So how was it possible that he wanted yet another loan (with the first loan still not yet fully repaid) for exactly the same purpose?

The employee did not even blink. He just explained in a straightforward way, "That first mother was my mother's older sister--I call her my mother, according to our traditions. But this time it is my real mother--the woman who gave birth to me, who has died. And I must go and bury her."

This story illustrates a local custom that has greatly puzzled many foreigners living in Kenya. The Muslims, whether Arab, Swahili or Asian, bury their dead within 24 hours of death, as prescribed in the Koran. Other Asians in Kenya follow their own traditions and mostly cremate the bodies within a fairly short time.

But the indigenous Africans can take up to two weeks before burial and then continue with other rituals for up to another week. And that is not all. Because of the length of time between death and burial, the family of the dead man or woman will usually spend a great deal of money on the burial arrangements, often getting into substantial debt in the process. Why do Africans make such a big fuss about burying their dead? Why do they make such a big feast of it? And having changed so many of their other traditions and customs over the years, why have they not changed this one?

There are sociologists who have even stated plainly that such 'anti-progressive values' are some of the key causes for continuing African poverty. My answer to this is that it is a matter of values that go beyond merely economic considerations. There are aspects within certain communities that are considered to be so central to the way their people live that mere logic cannot change how they will behave, no matter what their financial condition might be.

Asking any such traditional-minded African why making expensive and elaborate arrangements for burying a dead parent back in their ancestral village is so important to him is like asking an American tourist at Kenya's Maasai Mara Game Reserve "Why does it matter to you so much that there are a million and a half wildebeest crossing the Mara River at this time? Why are you willing to travel thousands of miles, at great expense, to see it for yourself, when you could just stay at home and watch it on TV for free?"

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Ofafa's tie

My point is that there can be no adequate answer for either of these questions. The most that can be said is, "If you have to ask, then you will never understand."

And this is more or less the same point made by Blaine Harden, the Washington Post's bureau chief for sub-Saharan Africa in the late 1980s, in his classic Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent, when he writes: "for traditionalists ... an African can no more wish away his tribal obligations than he can wish away the laws of gravity ..."

And he goes on to quote from a court battle over the burial of a prominent Kenyan who died in the mid-1980s: "Otieno's brother testified that unless he was allowed to bury the lawyer back in his ancestral farm, the dead man's angry spirit would sabotage his life, pester him in his sleep, and make his clansmen spit on him. …