Some burial disputes have kept the nation guessing and have at times divided clans, tribes, and families. Others have been bizarre and have involved famous personalities.
We have heard of professors fearing curses, succession rows disguised as burial disputes, and wills challenged in court. The disputes have also challenged the relevance of common law in such issues and the place of traditional practices.
We look at some of the most remarkable cases that have stayed in the national memory in the past 50 years.
JOHN MBURU: MBARUK OR MURANG’A?
The death of John Mburu, a former provincial commissioner, would have gone unnoticed had his three wives agreed on where to bury him.
Mburu died on October 27, 1981, and while his first wife, Carmelina, wanted him to be buried in Gaichanjiru, Murang’a, his two other wives — Mary Nduta and Hellen Omoka — favoured the 90-acre Mbaruk farm near Nakuru.
Two suits were filed in court — one by Carmelina against Nduta and Omoka, and another by Nduta against Carmelina and Mburu’s brother, Taddeo Mwaura, a former Kandara MP.
Mburu had married Carmelina in 1955, but their relationship had been strained because they did not have a child. When the couple left the country for Oxford, where Mburu was studying, he started a relationship with one Ms Nathalina Wakiuru. As it emerged during the case, Mburu later married Wakiuru’s younger sister, Nduta, as wife number two.
While Carmelina was not opposed to Mburu taking another wife provided there was “a mutual agreement”, she remained bitter with Wakiuru for taking off with him at Oxford. “It was very cold there and I was bitter because she used to take my husband away.”
This had strained the relationship. In 1963, the two stopped living together and Mburu married Wakiuru’s sister, Nduta, the following year. The two had six children.
Nduta and Mburu lived in Loresho, Nairobi, while Carmelina retreated to Mombasa, where she worked as a cateress at the Coast General Hospital.
Mburu had a 23-acre farm in Murang’a. He had also purchased 90 acres in Mbaruk in 1965, which Nduta regarded as their matrimonial home.
It was not until October 7, 1981, after Mburu was admitted to Kenyatta National Hospital, that the two women met for the first time. His death 20 days later saw Nduta schedule the burial for Mbaruk. Carmelina, who had been away for 18 years, was ignored.
In his ruling, Mr Justice J.M Gachuhi ordered that Mburu be buried in a separate Murang’a farm, which the clan had identified, next to his father’s grave. Justice Gachuhi warned the widows that none of them had won the case, and observed that there was a succession element in the dispute. All the three widows attended the burial.
SM OTIENO: THE BATTLE FOR NYALGUNGA
The case pitted Wambui Otieno against the Umira Kager clan of her husband, Silvano Melea (SM) Otieno.
For 140 days, the top Nairobi lawyer’s body remained at the mortuary as his widow battled to have the sole say over where to bury it. Wambui wanted the body of Otieno to be interred at their Upper Matasia home. The clan wanted a traditional burial in his Nyalgunga village in Siaya, telling the court that the ghost of Otieno would haunt and torment his survivors if he was buried outside the ancestral home.
Wambui argued in court that her husband had led a modern way of life and had divorced himself from Luo customs. Three judges in the Court of Appeal said it was impossible for an African to disassociate himself from his tribe and its customs.
The case was a test of whether common law was relevant in burial disputes and the court confirmed that African customary laws remained the guiding light in such cases.
Judge J.E Bosire noted that Otieno was a life member of the Umira Kager Welfare Association, whose aims and objectives were to organise transportation and burial of its members. “A person totally divorced from the customs and traditions of his clan or tribe will be slow, if not totally opposed, to becoming a member of an association whose aims and objectives totally conflict with his beliefs,” he ruled.
He noted that Otieno had been the head of Mzee Ougo’s home as he had assisted the family financially. He had also shown an interest in inheriting his late father’s land in Nyalgunga.
On Wambui, the judge observed: “The plaintiff, a Kikuyu by birth, chose to be married by a man who was not of her tribe. She knew she was marrying a Luo. He, at no time, at least according to the evidence, renounced his tribe or declared that, apart from the marriage, he would not be bound or be subject to customary law, where its application is permissible and is not in conflict with written law or repugnant to justice and morality.”
NJURURI’S TWO COFFINS AND A FUNERAL
When he was an assistant minister in the Office of the President, Ngumbu Njururi was flamboyant. But very little was known about him until media reports emerged in August 1993 that he was bed-ridden in a Buru Buru house and that his third wife and a bodyguard had barred other family members from taking him to hospital.
It took the High Court to issue an order to have Njururi admitted to Kenyatta National Hospital. The order by Lady Justice Effie Owuor compelled Mrs Sylvia Njururi and Gabriel Kagwara (the bodyguard) to take the ailing man to hospital following an application by Njururi’s son, Frank.
An affidavit allegedly sworn by Njururi said he had been treated for diabetes at Crowmwell Hospital in London and locally at Guru Nanak Hospital by Dr Eric Mngola and Dr D. Bhatt. But his son, then a student in India, challenged the affidavit, claiming that the signature on it was not his father’s.
More drama unfolded after the former MP died on September 7, 1993.
During the burial, the family members arrived at the Chiromo Mortuary with two coffins. One was allegedly donated by Kanu. The other was brought by Sylvia. A dispute ensued over which coffin to use. The body had been put in Sylvia’s coffin. After negotiations, the Kanu ‘undertakers’ triumphed and the body was transferred from the other coffin.
The media later reported that as the body was being lowered into the grave at the Giathugu farm, the coffin handles broke and the body fell. It was a sad send-off for the former MP.
PETER OKONDO’S FIERY EXIT
Peter Okondo was once christened “Mr Loose Tongue”. At the height of the Kanu reign, he openly warned leading Moi critic, Anglican Bishop Alexander Muge, not to step in Busia because “he would not leave alive.” The bishop went ahead with his August 1990 tour but on the return trip, he was killed when a milk truck crashed into his car at Kipkaren on the Webuye-Eldoret road. Okondo came under attack and he was forced to resign from the Cabinet.
His own death in 1996 brought controversy. As his Banyala clansmen began the burial preparations, his widow announced that their son was “embarking on funeral preparations.”
Then another woman, Endrica Akego, emerged from Buru Buru to claim that she was Okondo’s second wife. She produced a picture of her son with Okondo, claiming to have been married to him since 1983. Okondo’s other family hit back: “As far as I am concerned, my mother is the only legitimate wife of my father and I am his only son,” said Mudibo Okondo.
The family revealed little of the burial plans, only telling the press that they would obtain Okondo’s will from the bank on Monday after the other “wife” threatened to go to court to bar Okondo’s English wife, Ursula, from cremating his body.
“If her (Ursula) plans succeed, we are as good as dead because we shall remain cursed forever for allowing this to happen. I will resist this to the bitter end,” said Akego.
A man also emerged to claim that Akego’s son was fathered by his brother and was born in Dandora.
On Sunday, Okondo’s sisters and brothers assembled at his Karen home and ignored the Banyala clan members. That evening, they removed the body from the Lee Funeral Home and had it cremated on Monday morning before the courts opened.
Two clan members, Moses Kaywa and Gabriel Mbila, had prepared to file a case on Tuesday, only to wake up to the news that Okondo’s body was already cremated.
The reaction was furious: “It is most uncustomary, un-Christian, and disrespectful of our people for the family to have cremated Okondo,” said Makadara MP, John Mutere, on behalf of Okondo clan. “Our culture does not allow disposal of our dead in that manner. This action might cause untold suffering, especially to the rest of the Abamahya clan.”
QUEEN JANE AND THE FAKE WEDDING
When popular musician Queen Jane (Jane Nyambura) died, her husband, James Kariuki, obtained a restraining order from the Thika court, stopping the proposed burial at Jane’s Murarandia home in Murang’a.
Kariuki wanted a permanent order to prevent his in-laws from interring her remains at her maternal home. He claimed that he had been excluded from the burial arrangements, yet he was wedded to the singer under Kikuyu customary law in June 2001, and later solemnised the marriage under the Christian Marriage Act.
He wanted Jane to be buried at his farm in Makwa in Gatundu North.
After two months, the court ruled that Jane should be buried by her parents, as there was no valid marriage between her and Kariuki.
The magistrate, Barbara Owino, dismissed Kariuki’s testimony that he paid Sh60,000 as dowry, saying: “There is no evidence to prove this and whatever may have been paid cannot be distinguished from any other gifts between friends.”
Regarding a video played in court showing a wedding ceremony between the two, Ms Owino said Pastor J.J Gitahi, who officiated, was not licensed to formalise the marriage.
“Under the circumstances, no marriage took place between Queen Jane and Kariuki. He can only be called her friend. The body belongs to her family and they have the right to inter her remains.”
ROBERT WANGILA’S THREE FATHERS
In July 1994, news broke that Kenya Olympic gold medalist, boxer Robert Wangila, was in a critical condition after a bout in Houston, Texas.
Wangila, the first African to win a boxing Olympic gold medal, had apparently collapsed in his dressing room after a fight with David Gonzalez at the Alladin Hotel. Wangila never recovered.
A national hero who had turned to professional boxing, Wangila’s death sparked a big feud after two men emerged claiming to be his father. As doubts about Wangila’s paternity continued, it also emerged that he had converted to Islam. This created more confusion.
Relatives nearly came to blows as the body arrived and it was diverted from passing through Nairobi’s Jericho Estate and taken to Lee Funeral Home.
One of the “fathers”, Karani Angila, wanted Wangila to be buried on his Kisii plot. Another group claimed that Wangila’s father was the late Daudi Magero of Bunjwang’a village in Busia, while John Mabeche of Kisii, who married Wangila’s mother, claimed to be his real father. Another man, Karani Kanyimbo, also claimed to have married Wangila’s mother when he was born. Wangila’s mother, Eunice Moraa Mabeche, later said Kanyimbo was his father.
Thus, the controversy centred on faith and two clans.
Wangila had left a will, saying that he should be buried in accordance with Muslim rites and according to the wishes of his wife. The executor of the will was Dr Willy Mutunga, then chairman of the Law Society of Kenya.
The Muslims wanted Wangila interred at the Kariakor cemetery. Wangila’s Ababukaki clan led by prominent cardiologist, Prof Hilary Ojiambo, told the court that he may be cursed, dethroned, and ostracised if Wangila was buried outside Busia.
After three months of hearing, Mr Justice Andrew Hayanga respected Wangila’s will and gave the Muslims the go-ahead to bury the body. The ceremony was boycotted by the Busia and Kisii claimants.
JOSHUA OKUTHE: THE CREMATION TUSSLE
When sports administrator Joshua Okuthe died in July 2009, a tussle emerged between his wife, Ruth, and the Kager clan, which wanted to bury the body. His wife insisted on cremation.
A former chairman of the Kenya National Sports Council, Okuthe had collapsed at a Nairobi restaurant and was pronounced dead when he was taken to hospital. The clan said his wish to be cremated was not documented. They started funeral arrangements at his Muhoroni home.
“Since our brother died, we have not seen his body, yet a clique involving a prominent medical practitioner, a lawyer and a friend are busy arranging the cremation,” Mr Ochieng Okuthe complained.
On July 9, Ruth’s co-wife, Zawadi Hadija, and Okuthe’s sister, Deborah Odhiambo, moved to court for an order to stop the cremation. But by the time the order was issued, the cremation had been done.
SAMUEL WANJIRU: THE MARATHON MILLIONAIRE
Olympic champion Samuel Wanjiru died after allegedly jumping from the balcony of his house in Nyahururu. Wanjiru’s burial wrangle centred on his mother, Hannah Wanjiru, who wanted to know the cause of his death, insisting that her son had been killed. She wanted to stop the burial until investigations were completed.
Her claims emanated from a post mortem examination that indicated Wanjiru had suffered a blow to the back of the head, possibly caused by a blunt object. That was inconsistent with police claims that he had died from injuries received after he fell from the 14-foot bedroom balcony.
Mr Justice Anyara Emukule refused to extend the injunction previously given, allowing Wanjiru’s wife, Triza Njeri, to bury her husband. Hannah boycotted the burial.