He lay there so peacefully; you’d think he was asleep.
But the flowers and golden cross on the casket and solemn mourners brought home the sad reality. Senior Paramount Chief Melchizedek Oloo McOgeka, VC, OBE, OBS was dead. He had been dead for over a week, leaving behind four wives, 20 children and 76 grandchildren.
The burial was set for two days later, in his village overlooking the placid waters of Nam Lolwe, many kilometers from the city.
At the City Mortuary, where his body lay in state, his kin stood in a long queue waiting to pay their last respects.
They had organized a funeral service at a city church ahead of the long journey home for the burial of Jaduong. That evening, the cortege would make its way into the night through the scenic Rift Valley, past the lush green tea plantations and down into the lake basin town, who many rudely tout as UK (i.e, United Kisumu).
His remains would be interred in accordance with Chik Luo (Luo customs) at a colourful traditional ceremony complete with the famous tero buru rites that is performed for respected elders, such as McOgeka. Side by side would be another funeral service as per the Catholic (Roman) faith to which he had subscribed most of his life.
Chief McOgeka had lived an illustrious career right from the time he returned from Burma, where he had fought for His Majesty in the legendary King’s African Rifles. For his courage in battle during the Second World War, King George had awarded him a medal.
Upon his return, he rose through the ranks from being a court interpreter; to a Sub-Chief in the colonial administration; then to a full Chief, Senior Chief; before attaining the celebrated position of Paramount Chief — one of only three in the entire country.
He was later promoted to be Senior Paramount Chief on the eve of the visit by the Queen; and was among a select few who lined up to be decorated by Her Majesty.
His second medal was in recognition of his efforts to uplift the standards and education of the native people of Luo Nyanza in Western Kenya. When the country gained independence in 1963, he was assigned “special duties” in the office of the country’s first Prime Minister. He retired with honours three years later and received his third medal from the Head of State — the prestigious OBS —Order of the Burning Spear.
The three medals were his pride. He kept them in a glass box above the fireplace of his modern rural home. People came from far and wide to gaze upon them. Men and women would stare at the medals in wonder as they drank tea in the presence of this great man who had been born in their midst.
Photographs on the walls illustrated his greatness: Kneeling before the Queen; shaking the Prime Minister’s hand; receiving sacrament from the Cardinal. He adorned the medals once a year, during the traditional end-of-the-year garden party at State House, hoisted by the President, where he and other war veterans were always invited to.
It was during one of these visits that the famous garden photograph with His Excellency was taken. He in his medals, the President holding his flywhisk. The photograph had appeared in a number of national newspapers under the banner, “Exemplary Service and Dedication to the Nation.”
Indeed, the framed picture on the casket was reproduced from that same photograph.
Chief McOgeka had fallen ill some three years ago. He had consulted a number of prominent doctors and had been admitted to several hospitals on different occasions. But his health continued to deteriorate to the point that he had become almost bedridden. Then a month ago, his condition worsened. One of his wives rushed him to the National Referral Hospital in the city. But the doctors couldn’t save him. So bad was his condition that Chief McOgeka became frequently delusionary. They said it was the many drips that he was hooked to. It was during one of those rare days when his mind was clear, that he fondly held the hand of Atieno, his favourite grandchild and the daughter of his fifth son by his second wife, that he made his last wish known.
Back at the mortuary where the queue of mourners had thinned down, the Chief’s eldest son signaled for the lid of the coffin to be closed and hoisted into the hearse.
Pallbearers were at hand. The Chief’s daughters carried the flowers and placed them carefully into the van. His wives, dressed in black took their seats. The choir began to sing. Atieno sat beside the coffin carrying her grandfather’s photograph. A signal was given by the chairman of the funeral committee. The pallbearers held the silver handles and made effort to lift the shining casket.
The coffin did not move.
They heaved again. The coffin would budge. The bearers were whispering furiously among themselves:
“What is wrong?”
“Are you people lifting?”
“He can’t be that heavy, surely!”.
They tried again to lift the coffin again. Zilch. The crowd stared in disbelief. The choir faltered and then stopped altogether.
Something was wrong. A woman began to wail. There was talk here and there. The crowd was fast becoming hysterical.
Then an old woman pushed her way through, a flywhisk in her hand. She ordered the men back and dusted the coffin, chanting and ululating.
She placed her head on the coffin and mumbled something. The mourners were pressing forward, trying to see what was going on. The woman then beckoned Atieno. Everyone went silent.
“Come here girl!”
Atieno walked up to her, trembling.
“Your grandfather wishes to talk to you,” the old woman pronounced.
“Come, don’t be afraid.”
Atieno braced herself, then gently knelt by the coffin and pressed her head on the polished mahogany wood and called out:
There and then, in front of that uneasy crowd, Atieno held a conversation with her dead grandfather. She smiled, listened intently and then laughed. The crowd stared in disbelief, women clutching at each other.
Atieno listened once more before shaking her head and whispering in earnest:
“I promise, Kwaru; I will make sure it is done as you asked before we lay you to rest.”
Moments later, she stood up and smiled at the crowd. In a calm voice she declared:
“It’s alright, now. Kwaru is now ready to be taken home.”
“What did it say… I mean what did the Chief want?” someone asked.
“He wants his three medals pinned on his chest,” Atieno answered.
“He had made that request to me before he passed away and was very cross with me because I had not done as he had asked. I have promised to do so as soon as we get home”.
The crowd was dumbfounded. Turning to the pallbearers, Atieno repeated:
“Kwaru is now ready to be taken home.”
She walked and got back into the hearse holding the framed picture with tenderness, a strange look on her face, and a tears welling into her eyes.
The pallbearers nervously took their positions. They looked at each other in both curiosity and fear. One of them then said:
“Aiyee, Aiyee, wating jaduong malo…!”
In unison they heaved. The coffin lifted easily. A moment of uneasy silence followed, then a cheer.
Once again, the choir broke into song.
The procession of the final journey of Senior Paramount Chief Jaduong’ Melchizedek Oloo McOgeka, VC, OBE, OBS, was finally underway.
First published 2010 ‘The Dead Man and the Medals’. The East African May 24, 2013 http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/magazine/Short-Story–The-dead-man-and-the-medals-/434746-1861620-17e24hz/index.html