SHORT STORY: Death at a funeral

Thursday March 12 2020


Robbe looked at the four children seated before her and, for the first time, she regretted being a mother. Tears welled up in her eyes and she put the knife that had been lying there, harmless, through her neck. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA | NMG 

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The smoke rose, sneaking out through the numerous openings in the structure that served as the kitchen, as if signalling the world to the internal battle that was going on within the woman trying to bring the fire to life. The kitchen felt like an oven.

She could hear people talking outside, asking for one thing or another, others chuckling and laughing, but not too loudly, because it was a funeral. She had been given the task of making the afternoon tea.

She reflected on her life. She had wanted to leave early and go home, but she had faked a headache yesterday and she could not do it again today. The village had a role for everyone, at weddings and funerals. If you were not part of the community in times of need, you could be abandoned when you needed it, or summoned and fined by the elders. Gatherings like this were also an opportunity to see who had lost or put on weight, and gossip about enemies and friends alike.

Robbe stared at the large sufuria on the fire and pushed a log that was burning out back in. She removed the lid from the sufuria to see if the tea showed any signs of boiling, rinsed a cup and pulled the huge kettle closer.

Most of the utensils were abnormally large. The women’s group had pooled money together and purchased kettles, sufurias, sinias, and plastic cups for occasions like this.

Men were rarely allocated tasks at events. They set up tents and, for funerals, buried the dead. Today they would sit in those tents waiting for tea and talking. Their most vital role was cutting firewood. Occasionally some men helped with serving tea and food.


Mama Tarri walked into the kitchen, disrupting Robbe’s thoughts.

“I can see the tea has boiled,” she said, her hands akimbo.

“Yes,” Robbe answered, using the cup to pour tea into the kettle.

Mama Tarri leaned in closer and whispered, “I have just come from the house. Your husband is home and he is drunk.”

Mama Tarri and Robbe were married to brothers who had built their houses on land they inherited from their father.

Robbe’s hands didn’t tremble as they usually did. Her heart didn’t race either as she calmly asked, “What is he doing?”

“He is sitting in front of the house asking for you. He is also saying that he will slap you and turn your face around to your back,” Mama Tarri said, standing up. She picked up some cups from a bucket behind the kitchen door and arranged them in a sinia that would serve as a tray. She then picked up the full kettle and left as Robbe filled up a second kettle. She did not want to think about the impending fight that awaited her, but, the way her eyes darted around, one could tell that she was restless. She called out to her four children.

They came running, knowing the advantages that came with having one’s mother near the cooking pot. The eldest was seven and the youngest was two. Their clothes were tattered, and their ragged appearance was enhanced by the dust they had been playing in.

Only the two-year-old was wearing a shoe on one foot and a sock on the other. The elder children’s shoes had worn out, and whenever Robbe asked her husband to get the children new ones he either threw his fists or insults at her.

Robbe cooled the tea and handed each of them a cup. They retreated towards the walls and sat down on the dirty kitchen floor, cups pressed to their lips.

Robbe felt particularly tired today. She wasn’t sure if it was from the activities of the day or from her constant mental restlessness. Mama Tarri came in with an empty kettle and placed it at Robbe’s feet.

Everything seemed to be moving slowly and she felt dizzy. It could have been the heat or the loud crashing noises that her thoughts were making in her head. She looked at the four children seated before her and, for the first time, she regretted being a mother. Tears welled up in her eyes and she put the knife that had been lying there, harmless, through her neck.

Robbe had never visualised her death. Feeling the pain explode in her head summed up all the suffering and fear she had gone through all these years. When she was married off at 15, she was taken to a place she was supposed to call home, yet it rarely felt like one. She had watched her children sleep hungry night after night.

When she complained about her husband’s neglect and violence, she felt like she was inconveniencing everyone so she stopped. She had borrowed money from everyone such that when people saw her approaching they sneered.


Chaos erupted. Mama Tarri ran out of the kitchen screaming, the children were crying and screaming. Robbe’s husband Dokata was at the front, carrying his wife’s body to the grave. Dokata wondered why Robbe had killed herself. He had tears threatening to fall, but he was a man and tears were for women who had the luxury of crying.