Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Communicative Genre of Traditional Public Comforting: Perspectives on Traditional Bukusu Religion in Kenya

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Communicative Genre of Traditional Public Comforting: Perspectives on Traditional Bukusu Religion in Kenya

Article excerpt


Attending funeral events in parts of Bungoma County of western Kenya, and especially those of elderly male members of the Bukusu ethnic group, one is caught in the exchange of religious debate between the complementary and/or contesting Christian and Traditional Bukusu religions, and this is especially revealed in the practices accompanying and clustering around the main practice, burial.

Situated in a context with many other religions, the two religions have been in co-existence for over 150 years and have stepped up the dialogue especially since the Vatican council II. This has been in pursuit of the key mission of the Christian religion: to evangelize with the aim of changing people and their cultures. The target religions have responded in varied ways; for instance, members of the Traditional Bukusu religion have not only refuted the Christian beliefs that are inimical to the Traditional Bukusu religious beliefs and practices, but they have also endeavoured to legitimize Traditional Bukusu religious beliefs and practices (Nganga, 2018).

The dialogue via practices is especially intense during death, which not only, in the words of Willmott (2002:2), disrupt 'the meaning with which everyday practices are routinely endowed', but it also calls for the use of rituals that 'make death invisible or at least minimally disruptive normal appearances' by reassuring participants of a 'form of afterlife where loved ones are reunited' (Willmott, 2000:4).

In the context of the Bukusu funeral, lamentation, visitation, gathering around the deceased, invitation to burial, Traditional Public Comforting among other rituals from the Traditional Bukusu religion, co-occur and/or overlap with vigil, gathering around the deceased, prayers, mass (the sermon) from the Christian religion (Nganga, 2018). Hence, the subsequent interaction characterized by the incorporation of ideas from practices belonging to the partner religion reveals the religion the participants align to and, more importantly, the right way of coping with death. It also raises a question as to what role language plays in the attempt to incorporate aspects of the Christian religion in one of the practices, Traditional Public Comforting.

In this paper, we argue that Traditional Public Comforting - and what goes on within it - not only exemplifies a context that does not only index religious meanings, but it also shows how religious meanings are revealed and what role the religious meanings play. The meaning of Traditional Public Comforting is situated in the Bukusu religious landscape. Pressure to convert to Christianity on the one hand and an exhortation to retain Traditional Bukusu religious beliefs and to shun Christianity on the other hand constitute the background against which this practice emerges and in which religious allegiance is debatable.

After explaining the communicative ecology of the Bukusu funeral, showing where, when and why Traditional Public Comforting takes place, we briefly begin by anchoring this work in recent trends in communicative genre studies, and especially those that have to do with the constitution of genres in intercultural contexts. Performances such as Traditional Public Comforting have been studied under rituals; however, in this paper taking ritual as a religious practice (Turner, 1967) and considering communicative genre as a model that can be used to study such performances, we analyze ritual as a case of a communicative genre (Nganga, 2018:43). In line with the interest in how language is used in burial practices, we focus on the communicative techniques used to make heteroglossia relevant. Heteroglossia relates to appropriation of the beliefs, ideas and assumptions from the Christian religion, as well as 'acceptable' forms of behaviour during the funeral. We argue that semi-direct speech, etc. cue heteroglossia that serve to create an interdiscursive environment for the refutation of Christian religious beliefs and legitimization of Traditional Bukusu religious beliefs. …

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