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Why The Iteso Community in Kenya Exhumes Dead Bodies After 15 Years

Nyamweya is a journalist currently attached to a leading Kenyan media

Like any other tribe worldwide, the Iteso community have some unique cultural and religious practices that distinguishes them from others. One of them is exhuming dead bodies after a number of years to perform some rituals on them. The purpose is to make them kind and friendly to the living.

The Iteso community believes that at death, the body is separated from its spirit (eparait)and goes to live in the bush. With time, the spirit moves deeper and deeper into the bush. However, practically, many of the spirits come back to disturb the living. The Iteso believes that the spirits of the death are greedy and need sacrifices of food, meat and drink.

The oral tradition of the Iteso postulates that, the legendary Oduk who is considered to be the first father of the community was the one who ordered the practice of exhuming bodies from bushes or graves after some years. This was a way of appeasing the dead and stopping them from disturbing the dead.

Linus Etori a member of Iteso who hails from Teso North attests the prevalence of the practice among people of his community.

"Since I was born, I found our community members practicing it and they have continued to encourage the new generation to uphold the tradition at all costs” says Etori.

According to him, this is a life-long tradition that has been adhered by some members of the community for a number of reasons. However, the major reason is to appease the dead and stop them from causing calamities within families.

“A family could experience strange sicknesses and they could visit a diviner or sorcerer who informs them that the ailment or problem is caused by the spirit of some departed member. What such family could do is that they will go exhume the body and make some offering such as slaughtering a goat” He reveals adding that “we believe by doing so, we will be appeasing the spirits and hence make them stop causing the problem”.

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According to Etori, the bones are never reburied after being exhumed. Rather, they are taken to a special place (usually under a special big tree) and left there after appeasements have been made.

Though the practice has dwindled over time due to influence of western religion and modernization, some families still consider the practice to-date. Many older Iteso are very concerned that their children will bury them in coffins or concrete graves and prevent this practice, thus suffocating the dead in the earth. Therefore, many Iteso communities who still hold this culture avoid using coffins or concrete graves to make exhumation possible.

Funeral rituals are a major focus of Iteso ritual life, and many Iteso reveal that they are a primary reason for having children: "If you don’t have children, who will sacrifice at the head of your grave?"

Known in Iteso language as Ekutet, the ceremony of exhuming the dead body was and is usually carried by elders. The select elders are those who are past child bearing age. The actual practice involves slaughtering of a bull and a ram for feasting alongside traditional beer called Ajon which is made from millet. However, for the ceremony to be approved, the elders have to ascertain that that the spirit of a particular dead person was disturbing a family member through sickness or some other misfortune.

The meat is eaten and beer taken as those participating in the ritual shout and reprimand the spirit of the dead person to live the sick alone. The sick person is fed on liver of the slaughtered animal before the remains are exhumed and the bones hidden at the bottom of a tree at the edge of the homestead. After exhuming of the remains, elderly women dance around the scene but those performing the ritual inside the grave avoid talking to keep any misfortune at bay. Those transferring the bones from the grave to the tree do not talk. It is feared that should one talk they could go mad. However, not any dead person can have their remains exhumed. In addition, 15 years must have lapsed since one died for the exhumation to be carried out.

The Iteso believes that once the remains of a dead person who is believed to be haunting the living have been exhumed and the necessary rituals done, then the sick person would fully recover.

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