Rest in peace: Grave matter of selling ancestral land in Vihiga

Thursday, December 1st, 2022 00:30 | By
Land for sale in Vihiga County, against all odds. PD/Enock Amukhale

Many traditions have been passed down the generations in Vihiga, some good, others in need of tweeking, and yet others somewhat outdated.

One of them is in the spotlight currently — a belief that land where one’s ancestors are buried must never, ever be sold.

 It’s a culture adapted by many local families to protect the remains of their relatives, but it’s now a grave matter — a stumbling block to development of  Vihiga.

Investors cannot buy prime plots of land simply because they host the graves of close relatives of the would-be sellers. 

In Luhya community, the graves of departed kin are jealously protected. It is taboo to sell land bearing such graves, or even to abandon these family cemeteries. When one is buried in Luhyaland, the commemoration rituals never end.

Many rituals are supposed to be performed at the grave-side in perpetuity.

 This culture has not gone down well with Governor Wilbur Ottichilo, who laments that  it has denied the area business investment.

 Taboo topic

  “We have a big problem in developing our county because our people have a culture of protecting graves of their departed kin in their plots, instead of developing the plots or selling them to potential investors looking for space to invest,” he says.

 Ottichilo gives the example of Luanda, Mbale, Majengo, and Cheptul towns in the county, where families have been reluctant to sell pieces of land because of the graves of their ancestors dotting the landscape.

“We have many potential investors here in Vihiga County looking for plots to develop but the problem with our people is that they are reluctant to sell their plots, saying they are protecting the graves of their parents,” says Ottichilo.

 He adds that investors who want to erect giant shops like supermarkets, malls and rental houses have nowhere to do so since residents are unwilling to sell land.

 “This culture of living with graves must be dropped. Even myself, I’m ready to be buried in a public cemetery to clear my plot for development,” says Ottichilo.

 Vihiga Chamber of Commerce chairman Billy Nyonje concurs. He says many pieces of land in the county cannot be developed  because of the “outdated culture of living with graves. It is killing us economically,” he adds. Nyonje is a businessman and a real estate developer.  

 Ottichilo notes that the Vihiga county government has proposed the establishment of public cemeteries where families can buy space to bury their kin, but the majority of residents oppose the idea.

The governor says the county government will outlaw graves within the municipalities and that people will have to bury their departed kin in public cemeteries.

A number of residents are still opposed to such a move. Resident Jenipher Awinja says:  “It is taboo for one to sell the grave of his parents. These graves must be protected by all means”.

 Angry bones

 Boaz Omutonyi from Bunyore adds that graves preserve the memories of one’s departed relatives and assist in the naming of one’s children.  He says the dead always stay with the living and anyone selling the bones of his parents could face their wrath.

He insists that upcoming generations must be able to see the graves of their ancestors, and preserve them  for traditional rites. “If we sell these plots, where will the family carry out Obukoko, Makumbusho and other rituals that commemorate the dead persons?” poses Omutonyi. 

He adds: “You cannot sell the bones of your ancestors to strangers. You will face untold suffering”.

And for good effect,  Omutonyi quickly but reverently spits on his father’s grave and mumbles inaudible Luhya words: RIP.

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