Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Appeasing the Spirits - Across the Cultural Divide in Kenya

Following is a piece I wrote for the Foreign Service Journal, October 2010. I was the U.S. Consul in Mombasa at the time of the event described.

At the consulate in Mombasa, Kenya in the early 1980s part of our regular maintenance on housing involved pumping out the septic tanks. Paul Mwana, my general services expert, arranged to have the city team composed of Digo tribesmen, the only ones who did this work, do the job. Most houses had large tanks for sewage storage that were accessed through a slab in the parking area. The task went well until the team arrived at the house occupied by the Lt. Commander supervising naval construction and his family. Upon recognizing the house, the septic men adamantly refused to proceed. Paul reported back with some dismay, but both of us knew the cause of their refusal.

The house in question was just across the street from mine. It was a pleasant villa on spacious beautifully planted grounds. Yet, a year or so earlier when I was looking for houses to rent in a tight market, it was readily available. It turned out on account of a tragedy.

The house had been owned and occupied by an older Asian couple. Apparently, two killers arrived at the house early one evening. They found only the cook at home, so slashed him with machetes murdering him. They waited and when Madame returned from her bridge game, they killed her. They waited even longer until the man of the house returned towards midnight and they killed him. The killers stuffed at least the first two bodies into the septic tank.

Since the perpetrators of the crimes were obviously not there just to rob the premises (they had ample opportunity to search and sack the house after the first death) it was assumed that the murders were a contract hit. Furthermore, police supposed that motive arose because the old man was allegedly involved in various commercial transactions, some of which were shady deals related to gem stones. (At the time rubies and tsavorite were mined and marketed illegally.) Perhaps some deal went awry or a large sum of money was thought to be available.

One of the killers was later apprehended and confessed to the crime. However, he never implicated whoever might have ordered it done. The case remains unresolved.

The specter of the triple murder kept the house empty before the Navy family arrived and was, of course, the reason for the refusal to pump out the septic tank. Once I learned of the murders and before I signed a lease, I contacted the Navy couple to apprise them of the house’s history. They said to go ahead and rent it. I did and they were quite happy there.

Paul proposed a solution to the septic pumping quandary. He suggested that we employ a Digo traditional medicine man to perform a purification ceremony that would placate the spirits of the dead. He assured me that once properly accomplished; the workers would undertake the task of pumping the tank. I concurred, so he found the right “practitioner” and negotiated a fee for his service, plus a goat and a chicken for sacrifice.

It was an odd ceremony. With the workers in attendance before the open septic tank in the sunlit parking area flanked by blooming red, white and purple hibiscus and bougainvillea, the “doctor” chanted, invoked his authority and called on the spirits to depart. He sacrificed the goat and chicken (later eaten) and sprinkled blood. Once the proper deeds were done, the site purified and the spirits appeased, the tank was subsequently cleaned.

I decided that we could not detail the services performed, or the goat, on the invoice for reimbursement as that would certainly raise eyebrows in the embassy’s financial office, so we called the transaction “special cleansing services.”

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