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

Author:Nganga, Simon


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.


Research in Intercultural communication demonstrates that discourses in interactional settings comprising diverse cultures are 'multi-voiced' in nature. This has the implication that, as practices, different discourses draw aspects of form and/or content from other discourses within and across culture.

Thus, for instance, while the pragmatic context of the encounter between the Christian and the Traditional Bukusu religions determines how practices belonging to the two religious cultures are constituted, it is also shaped by these practices. This paper examines communicative techniques used by the comforter to incorporate Christian beliefs and practices in Traditional Public Comforting.

But just how diverse are the practices and, indeed, the cosmologies underlying the Christian and Traditional Bukusu religions? The Christian and the Traditional Bukusu religion are based on diverse cosmologies underlying the understanding of death; hence, each of the two religious systems organizes the funeral experiences in different ways (Nganga, 2018). For the Christian religion, among other practices vigil and prayer on the days preceding burial and a funeral mass shortly before burial are recommended for a baptised member (Adam, 1991). While some practices are fixed, for instance prayers, other practices such as the sermon embedded in the burial mass allow participants the freedom to explain the Christian religious beliefs, ideas and assumptions. Underlying these practices is the focus on the life, death and resurrection of Christ, not just as a model but as a source of - and a means to - redemption for the deceased (Durrwell, 2004; see also Nganga, 2018). In death, the union between the deceased and Christ are completed in anticipation of the final perfection at apocalypse (Durrwell, 2004).

The Traditional Bukusu religion recommends wailing, visitation, and gathering around the deceased among other practices before burial and determination of debts, Traditional Public Comforting among other practices after burial (Nganga, 2018). Of these practices, while wailing and lamentation are simple and take a certain prescribed form, Traditional Public Comforting has a complex internal order that involves many verbal and non-verbal actions. At the heart of the cosmologies underlying the Traditional Bukusu understanding of death is the focus on the deceased, who, according to tradition is not 'dead'; rather, he already lives through sons and grandsons (Nganga, 2018:67). The understanding that tradition 'houses' life and that through it the deceased lives is elaborated in Traditional Public Comforting, with focus on the process of 'making life' to counterbalance death (Nganga, 2018:67).

The differences notwithstanding the two religions have co-existed for many years. Contact - and indeed - the engagement between the Christian and Traditional Bukusu religions date back to about 150 years. For all these years the need to evangelize and to transform other cultures to conform to the Christian religious beliefs and ideas has been the guiding mission within the Christian religion (see Evangelii Numiandi, 20). The consequence of this has been contact (and dialogue) with other religious groups, providing room for mutual and in many cases one-sided influences. Contact and dialogue has for the case of Africa been especially problematic since there exist many dissimilar ethnic-based religions in Africa whose members have all along been hesitant to convert to Christianity. This is partly one of the reasons why the Christian religion has modified its approach to other religions from time to time.

Describing the nature of contact between the Christian religions and Traditional African religions in Africa in general, which applies to the situation of contact between the Christian religion and Traditional Bukusu religion, Lado (2006) observes that since the arrival of the Christian missionaries, the engagement between the Christian religion and the traditional African religions can be summarized in three phases: colonial Christianity, inculturation and ongoing dialogue (Lado, 2006).

The colonial Christianity constitutes the initial and largely violent encounter between the Christian and Traditional African religions. During this period, the Christian missionaries set out to replace traditional African religions with Christianity, by destroying the sacred sites and levying social sanctions upon some Africans who resist Christianity (Masuku, 2007). During the Vatican council II, within which inculturation was conceived, the violence that characterized the initial encounter between Christian and African religions was discarded (Lado 2006). But this did not mean that the two diverse religious systems in dialogue were equal partners; African religions were expected to adopt the Christian religious beliefs and ideas fully.

Over the years, the need to change other people's way of life (and of believing) has been articulated in Christian religious practices in different contexts. The context of death is particularly crucial as it is a moment of loss and a time when important questions about the meaning of life and what follows death are raised. In this paper, we argue that within the Bukusu funeral context, practices based on Traditional Bukusu religion reveal the reaction of Traditional Bukusu religion to death and to the Christianization of the Traditional Bukusu beliefs and practices. We further argue that the response to Christianization is evident in Traditional Public Comforting based through the use of verbal communicative techniques, such as semi-direct speech.

The Traditional Public Comforting

The expression 'Traditional Public Comforting' was first used by Wagner (1949) in reference to the activity of Khu:swaala/khusweena kumuse among the Bukusu people (Wagner, 1949) (see also Wanjala, 1985). What the activity is and why it is performed can be gathered...

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