Honouring the dead with humility and simplicity

Mr Muniini K. Mulera

What you need to know:

Public announcements of mabugo (financial donations to the bereaved) mock the sombreness of the moment. Why not do so quietly...

Recent telecommunication advances enabled me, sitting in our living room, to attend two funerals in Africa on Saturday. Mrs Winifred Wangalwa Odera, who died at the age of 92, was buried in Funyula, Busia, Kenya.  Mr. George Otis Cook Jr, who died a month shy of turning 89, was buried in Johannesburg, South Africa, 4,150 km south of Funyula. It was a marvel of science that enabled us, sitting 13,000 km away, to be part of the most important last events in our earthly interaction with loved ones.

Naturally, it was an emotionally heavy day, yet eased by the dignity and civility displayed, and the absence of distractions that often disrupt many funeral ceremonies. The celebration of Mrs. Odera’s life at CITAM Church, Valley Road, Nairobi on Tuesday November 7, and the burial ceremony at her home in Funyula on Saturday November 11, were characterised by simplicity, humility, and exclusive focus on her life.

The speeches by representatives of her immediate family and associates were given prominence. The speakers were humble to a fault and did not consider it necessary to tell the mourners about their personal titles and importance. For a woman with a family of high achievers, several of whom enjoy great honour and recognition in Kenya, her funeral could well have been an opportunity to “recognise” the honorables, excellencies, and other titled people in the tents at Funyula.

After all, her brother Arthur Moody Awori is a former Vice President of Kenya. Her niece Judith Wakhungu was a former cabinet secretary in the Government of Uhuru Kenyatta, and former ambassador to France. None of that mattered. No “recognising” some mourners as though others were irrelevant, nameless intruders. Family and friends had come together in shared grief, to bid farewell to a great woman, not to outdo each other in pursuit of recognition.

Down in Johannesburg, the simplicity and humility of the funeral at Bryanston Methodist Church for George Otis Cook Jr was a manifestation of the life he lived. He was a man of great accomplishments, yet one who never acted the part of the big man. He was a man I held in very high regard, honoured in death in a manner that reminded me why I esteemed him so.

George and I first met in Maseru, Lesotho in 1978. He had gone to that Kingdom in the Sky as the leader of a mission that established the Lesotho Opportunities Industrialization Centre, a skills and vocational training institute that produced practical nation builders. It was a program that shaped my attitude towards education priorities for a developing country.

A native of Columbus, Ohio, George believed in Africa. He loved Africa. He lived  Africa. He dreamed Africa. He married a lovely African woman, with the beautiful name of Nomvula Mashoai. Nomvula, the equivalent of Nyanjura in Western Ugandan languages, meaning “mother of rain” or “born in the rain,” brought a torrent of blessings into George’s life, as he did into hers. 

George, and several African American members of his team became our very good friends. It was George that introduced me to jazz music, a passion that became part of my life. He would place a record on his high-end record player, marry the needle to the record groove, sit back in his chair, close his eyes, smile, and gently tap his foot and bob his head as we enjoyed the amazing work of some of America’s greatest musicians of the 1950s and 1960s. It was George who introduced me to Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Wayne Shorter, and so many others that remain part of my musical diet more than four decades later.

He told me stories of growing up as a Negro in pre-civil rights America, and the struggle for freedom in which he had been a direct participant, even as he served in the United States Airforce. He shared a lot of firsthand stories of the Vietnam War, including a near-death experience when the Vietcong nearly caught up with him as he and his men were fleeing from Saigon. He told his stories with a trademark smile, and that sweet cadence of voice that made listening to African Americans of his generation a great experience.

After George returned to the USA in the early 1980s, he worked with the US Department of Defence in Washington DC for 16 years. Memories of our visit to his home in Fort Washington, Maryland, remain fresh and full of smiles. George was one of those bright men to whom every conversation was a teaching moment. He helped me understand the role of the US Army and Airforce in America’s foreign policy. It is to George Cook that I credit my first focused consideration of President George Washington’s statement in his farewell address to the American people: “The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred, or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”

George devoted his energies to bridging the gap of misunderstanding between African Americans and Africans in America. Having dedicated many years to the people’s struggle in South Africa, George, Nomvula and their young children relocated to South Africa a few years after that country had gained its independence in 1994. He was back home for good and served his adopted nation with the same loyalty and industry that he had accorded America.

Given George and Nomvula’s decades of hard work and influence in Southern Africa and the United States, his funeral service could well have been an opportunity for the powerful on two continents to take over the ceremony. What we witnessed instead was a very spiritual occasion that was entirely focused on honouring him, with a few speeches by representatives of his close family and friends. It was consistent with George’s life, a man who never threw his weight around.

One longs for a return to a similar tradition of simplicity and humility in Uganda, where funerals have become political rallies, complete with so-called chief mourners that may not even know most of the deceased person’s relatives. Lines of politicians and other “VIPs” laying wreaths on caskets as a show of personal importance, not necessarily the depth of their grief, is pure drama that would be best done away with. Public announcements of amabugo (financial donations to the bereaved) mock the sombreness of the moment. Why not do so quietly, the money sealed in an envelope, with a message to be read by the bereaved alone?

The Oderas and Aworis in Kenya, and the Cooks in South Africa, effortlessly displayed the sophistication of the truly cultured.  They wrote a great message without words: honour the dead with humility, simplicity, and unlimited glory to God. All else is vanity.

Muniini K. Mulera is Ugandan-Canadian social and political observer.