Grieving families lay loved ones to rest in Kenya Tide of sorrow crests with a day of funerals

August 16, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Two little girls, Grace, 12, and Maryanne, 9, stood beside their mother's varnished coffin in Langata Cemetery here yesterday and said in sweet but sad chorus: "We shall miss our dear mother."

Then Alice Nduta Gachiri, 38, bomb victim, was buried in the red earth of Africa.

There for the family farewell was her husband, Mwangi Gachiri Kabugu. Ten days earlier, he had scrabbled with his bare hands in the rubble of the bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy here, which left 247 dead and more than 5,000 injured.

His desperate search for his wife of 14 years ended 24 hours later at the city mortuary, where he identified her broken body.

Under the polished glass plate of the open coffin, her face was turned to the right to hide the worst of her wounds. Her head was covered with a cream and gray chiffon scarf.

But the lacerations still visible on her face and the sunken eye sockets suggested that she had done what many of the victims did on that fateful day -- rushed to the office window to see the cause of an explosion outside, a hand grenade thrown during the terrorist attack, only to be hit by the full force of the main bomb blast.

The seismology department of the University of Nairobi recorded the first blast at 10: 30 a.m. Aug. 7. Eight seconds later the instruments picked up the second shock, which registered 3.4 on the Richter scale used for measuring earthquakes.

That, apparently, was the moment of Gachiri's death.

A daughter's eulogy

At the funeral, her daughter Grace, with impressive composure for such a youngster, recounted the life of her "jolly, generous, sympathetic and welcoming" mother, who "suffered a cruel, brutal and senseless death."

A civil servant for 16 years, Gachiri rose through the ranks to become secretary to a senior official in the Ministry of Cooperatives, a promotion that took her to the second floor of Cooperative House, next to the U.S. Embassy -- and cost her her life.

The funeral announcement that brought about 200 mourners to the cemetery was typical of those that have filled the pages of local newspapers since the attack:

"We regret to announce the death of Alice Nduta Gachiri as a result of the bomb blast. She was the wife of Mwangi Gachiri Kabugu of Pawa Investments. Mother of Grace Christine Gachiri and Maryanne Wambui Gachiri, both of Kianda Primary School. She was the daughter of daughter-in-law of sister to sister-in-law to. "

The bereaved family numbered 16.

All gathered under the orange, violet, yellow and white blossom trees that line the yard of the Lee Funeral Home at the edge of Nairobi's Uhuru (Freedom) Park.

As they filed past the open casket, the coffin of Lawrence E. Gitan was pushed out of the chapel, and another sobbing family waited for its turn.

Yesterday was the first full day available for burying the dead. Eight corteges were to assemble at this one undertaker, forming a procession of mourners.

An opportunistic hawker, realizing where a crowd would be, plied the sidewalk selling candy and cigarettes from an open cardboard box.

Return to birthplace

Across the country, families were burying their dead, often bringing them long distances back to their roots. It is an African tradition to be buried where you were born, and funerals are major family events even for the poorest.

"In Africa, we cry for 10 days and drink for four," said Shariff Nassir Taib, minister of home affairs, charged with helping families cope with the national tragedy.

The government, he said, was giving free coffins, worth about $120 each, and grants of $800 for funeral expenses.

For the Gachiris, a middle-class family, a funeral was not the financial strain that it was for Lawrence Irungu, husband of Rose Wanjiku, the 37-year-old bank messenger who survived four days in a cavern deep in the rubble, but died before rescuers could reach her. She has been dubbed Kenya's "candle in the wind" -- a life that flickered before it faded.

Unemployed widower

Irungu, 39, who is left with two teen-age sons and a daughter, 8, is unemployed. "I am hoping God will make me able to make them comfortable," he said.

He plans to bury his wife of 16 years on their 1-acre farm plot in the village of Ongata Rongai this week.

"I can't afford a coffin," he said, before hearing of the government's free casket and grant program.

"It's a very deep burden for Lawrence," said Nathan Kahara, a former mayor of Nairobi and a Red Cross volunteer who spent part of the final 20-hour vigil with Irungu waiting for Rose's body to be recovered. "Rose was almost the sole breadwinner for the family."

As families across the country came to terms with their losses, Alice Nduta Gachiri was laid to rest here. Philemom Mwaisaka, in whose office Gachiri was working when she was killed, said: "In this insecure and uncomfortable world, we should be kind, loving and considerate, as Alice was. As long as we live, let us avoid the spirit of tearing each other down."

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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