CULTURE BEFORE SAFETY

Covid-19 victims secretly exhumed, buried by Bukusu elders

Elders exhume, supervise the reburial of 2 bodies that were 'improperly' buried.

In Summary

• Global public health expert Dr Bernard Muia told The Star there's still no study on how long the virus survives in dead or buried bodies. 

• In April, the Ministry of Health published guidelines stipulating that bodies of Covid-19 victims should be buried within 48 hours. 

Siaya county personnel carry the body of a Covid-19 victim to his rural home for burial at night.
Siaya county personnel carry the body of a Covid-19 victim to his rural home for burial at night.
Image: COURTESY

Bodies of individuals killed by Covid-19 in Western Kenya are being secretly exhumed and accorded Bukusu burial rites. 

Under the new Ministry of Health regulations, funerals have changed from a nearly all-day affair to a hurried one-hour service mostly at dawn, supervised by health officials in hazmat suits. 

But fearful of a curse, Bukusu elders have now opted to exhume and supervise the burial of two bodies that were 'improperly' buried.  

 
 
 

According to Bukusu culture, bodies are to be buried in a resting position.

The head must always face away from the compound and shoes, necktie, shirt and trouser must all be loosened. 

If this is not done, it is believed the dead person will constantly harass family members in their dreams, the elders say.

One prominent reburial, which took place this week, involved the family of a politician whose father sits in the Bukusu Council of Elders and brought together all the elders for the exhumation ritual. 

Council chairman Patrick Chaka said the community is keen on enforcing traditions. 

He said the community has a way of burying their loved ones depending on the cause of death. 

A person who commits suicide by either hanging or taking poison is whipped before being buried in the dead of the night. Those who die from normal illness are interred after a minimum of three days, but not before 3pm for adults.  

 
 
 

"We bury them in the night to cast away the evil spirit so they don't hound the remaining family members," he said. 

"We, however, don't have a system of burying people who succumb to the Covid-19 disease because when one dies of the virus people are not allowed to go near and the government takes over," Chaka said. 

In April, the Ministry of Health published guidelines stipulating that bodies of Covid-19 victims should be buried within 48 hours and community rites must not be performed. 

"The disposal of human remains from Covid-19 cases should be overseen by a public health official within 2 days (48 hours) to avoid community practices that would result in more infections through contact," the regulations, signed by acting Health director general Patrick Amoth, say.  

"The health worker must ensure that the casket is handled using the PPE at all times. The body must not be opened for viewing." 

Amoth, in the guidelines, says the regulations would be reviewed as more is known about the disease. However, this has not been happening.

So far, six persons from the Bukusu community have died of Covid-19. Five died in Nairobi and their bodies were ferried to Western for the burial while one died in Sirisia.

The two exhumed and reburied bodies, are both from prominent families.

The political family's burial was conducted before 3pm, against Bukusu traditions. 

The second body was buried at Namuyemba home in Kanduyi constituency. 

His Balonja clan led the exhumation attended by a few family members and elders this week. So secret and sacred is the exhumation ceremony that nobody wants to talk about it. 

On Wednesday, Health CS Mutahi Kagwe said the government will not allow culture to override Covid-19 regulations. 

"This is only for a time. When the danger of this disease is over, we can go back to practising our cultures safely," he said, referring to Bukusu circumcision ceremonies. 

For public health professionals, the question is whether dead or buried bodies can transmit Covid-19.

The World Health Organization guidelines for burial of Covid-19 victims state:

"Except in cases of hemorrhagic fevers (such as Ebola, Marburg) and cholera, dead bodies are generally not infectious. Only the lungs of patients with pandemic influenza, if handled improperly during an autopsy, can be infectious. Otherwise, cadavers do not transmit disease."

Global public health expert Bernard Muia told the Star there's still no clear evidence on how long the virus survives in dead or buried bodies. 

Dr Bernard Muia, a global public health expert.
Dr Bernard Muia, a global public health expert.
Image: FILE

"We know for sure the SARS-CoV-2 remains contagious on open surfaces for 72 hours, but for buried bodies we still do not know for how long. But it is unlikely to still be contagious on a body buried more than two weeks ago," he said. 

However, Muia called for adherence to the government's public health guidelines. 

"Our culture is dynamic and must always evolve with science. A few decades ago, we used to have widow inheritance, but with the spread of HIV this could not continue," he said. 

Kiminini MP Chris Wamalwa declined to comment on how the Covid-19 has affected the Bukusu traditions, only referring us to the elders.  

Stephen Wamalwa, a Bukusu from Trans-Nzoia county said that the community revere the dead and never want to disturb their bodies.

He said that the community has resolved to follow the government protocols during the pandemic period. 

"You know we never bury our people facing up. They have taken away our practice during burials. Under normal circumstances, a dead man is buried lying on his left hand and a woman lying on their right hand," he said. 

Wamalwa said members of the community have been denied an opportunity to pay their last respects to their departed loved ones because the government required that a person who does of Covid-19 be burried within 24 hours and by public health officials.

Edited by R.Wamochie