Written by Staff Writer, CNN Jerusalem
Northeast of the capital Nairobi sits the village of Minnianda, which means “beautiful grave” in Swahili. It has long been the back drop for folklore in the region, from witch doctors accused of killing their own children to the local dyer caring for his aging parents until his death.
Occasionally there’s even a movie set here, with the once sleepy villages now surrounded by a wall of luxury hotels and game reserves.
To those involved in the local industries which surround the villages, there’s a reason why story after story centers on graves. Around 50,000 from this region lie in close proximity to Minnianda, in a country where nearly 40,000 infants still die every year.
The statistics offer little solace. But for the coffin makers, it’s business as usual.
“I have been in business for over 40 years, and every year it gets busier,” said Lutalira Odhiambo. She works in a huge shop on the outskirts of the village and says her apprentices are often busier at the start of the year, as new parents prepare to bury their newborns.
“Work starts right after the death of the baby, and continues throughout the year, particularly now that the government is sponsoring free cervical cancer screenings at most hospitals. Mothers will be changing their minds about getting their daughters vaccinated,” she explained.
So what’s driving an industry as commonly associated with mourning as a call to action?
A vision of prosperity
Besides economic woes, health fears, and a recent refugee influx to the area, there are also underlying factors that no doubt contribute to the steady demand for burial goods.
Minchianda’s many graveyards are dotted with the gravestones of prominent locals like James Muriuki, a one-time football star who’s been repeatedly stabbed to death and forgotten.
The village itself is remote and mostly unknown to outsiders — until a film crew came calling two years ago. They found high demand for the style of coffin Lutalira works with, which are crowned with a feather.
“When we started selling these types of caskets, the first demand was from women, but we didn’t realize it until we met the film crew. We saw a lot of demand from both men and women, so we quickly adapted and began selling the special type of coffin to customers in Nairobi and other towns in Kenya,” she says.
But how much of the death industry does that income benefit Minnianda? Lutalira is one of around 300 coffin makers in the village, among a population of around 12,000 people.
As one local says: “Those who own the houses must have been left behind by their families in various ways. But where families cannot come to know about their children or animals, these caskets are the only way for the bereaved to bury their loved ones.”
A good day for your back
You wouldn’t know it from watching or listening to my visit, but though there’s plenty of weeping here, you won’t hear of funerals. Money is always on the brain and need in the villages is overt.
But in Minnianda there’s also joy in the way the villagers play such a keen part in the process. “Most of the caskets are made from animal skins, so the men in the village help to skin the animal before the women hang on to its hind legs. These limbs help lift the coffin off the ground so it can be laid in a special coffin,” explained Simmy Sodi, a local woman.
This is a fascinating, and largely overlooked, little example of how communities like Minnianda work together to look after themselves and one another.