May 3, 2013
NAIROBI, KENYA – Samuel Okwiri, a 30-year-old designer at a small publishing house in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, became an orphan when his mother died in April. In the midst of his grief, a rift emerged between Okwiri and his family because of the cost of his mother’s funeral.
Okwiri belongs to the Kisii tribe of western Kenya, where elaborate funerals are an important tradition, he says. When his mother died, his uncles insisted that he return her body to their native district of Nyamira, approximately 180 miles from Nairobi.
“I had no problem with their proposal,” he says. “But when I calculated the cost, it amounted to a huge amount of money. I could not afford it.”
Tradition would have required Okwiri to hire a hearse, a bull to slaughter in his mother’s honor, two buses to transport mourners from Nairobi to Nyamira, and food for his guests, he says. The estimated cost was 300,000 shillings ($3,570).
To host a funeral he could afford, Okwiri proposed that he bury his mother in the family’s small plot of land in Nairobi, where he and his four siblings grew up, he says. But as tribal elders, his uncles angrily told him that burying his mother in Nairobi was the same as throwing her away.
They pledged to help Okwiri and his siblings raise the amount needed to pay for the funeral. But they managed to collect only 800 shillings ($10), he says.
It was not enough, so Okwiri had no choice but to bury his mother in Nairobi rather than return her body to their ancestral home. With financial support from his church, he ultimately spent 100,000 shillings ($1,200) on the funeral.
But the funeral savings came at the cost of his relationship with his uncles.
“I decided to bury my mother in the city, and this did not go well with the elders,” he says. “They cursed and told me that I should never go to the village. They even threatened to go to court.”
In Kenyan communities that hold elaborate funerals, members struggle to cover the soaring costs of traditional burial rituals. Several insurance companies began offering funeral coverage last year to offset these costs. The coverage is slow to take hold in Kenya, but some say that they will take out a cover to spare their families the agony of fundraising for a funeral in the event of their deaths.
Kenya is home to at least 24 different distinct people groups, according to the country’s 2009 census. The customs and costs of funerals vary by group.
“The cost of funerals will vary and depend heavily on various factors including religious beliefs, traditions among other things,” Brian Wesonga, the communications manager for insurance company Old Mutual, writes in an email.
Old Mutual is among the companies that recently introduced funeral insurance coverage in Kenya.
Regina Muthoni, an independent funeral service provider in Nairobi, says she leases a hearse to bereaved families to transport their dead to their ancestral homelands. She charges 75,000 ($900) shillings to transport a body from Nairobi to Kisii, a town in the district where Okwiri’s uncles wanted him to bury his mother.
She does this in addition to selling coffins, which range in cost from 10,000 shillings ($120) to 50,000 shillings ($600).
“Some people prefer to bury their dead at the city’s public cemetery, while others take them up-country,” she says. “Some perform traditional rituals; others don’t. But the minimum one can spend on a funeral in western Kenya is 200,000 shillings [$2,385].”
Basic necessities such as coffins and hearses are only the beginning of funeral costs for some communities in Kenya.
When elderly people die in the Kisii community, the family must transport their bodies to their villages for burial, says Kisii elder William Momanyi in a phone interview. To appease ancestral spirits, mourners typically light a bonfire in the person’s living compound as soon as the family announces the death.
“The fire should not go out until the person is buried,” he says. “Additionally, a bull has to be slaughtered so mourners have enough meat to eat.”
Mourning lasts from seven to 14 days, and the bereaved family must feed about 100 mourners each day, Momanyi says. If the family suspects that witchcraft was a cause of death, it must call a traditional doctor to cleanse the home at an additional cost.
The traditional way for bereaved families to meet these costs is by organizing fundraisers known as “harambee,” Momanyi says. Families invite friends, colleagues and neighbors and ask them to contribute money.
But even these fundraisers may not cover the amount required by families to host elaborate funerals. So insurance companies have stepped in.
Within the last two years, several insurance companies with branches in Kenya have introduced funeral coverage as a way to offset these costs. Among them are Old Mutual, Pan Africa Life, CfC Life and Metropolitan Life Insurance.
In August 2012, Old Mutual introduced a product called “Heshima Mpango Poa,” Wesonga writes. The name translates to “a good plan for final respects” in Swahili.
The product targets members of the “jua kali,” which refers to the informal sector of Kenya’s economy, Wesonga writes. To launch the product, Old Mutual partnered with the Jua Kali Association, an organization that represents informal workers. But the coverage is available to all Kenyans.
Under the plan, clients may purchase coverage for themselves, their spouses, and their children ages 18 and younger. Clients pay a yearly premium for the cover, ranging from 350 shillings ($5) to 1,400 shillings ($15), for corresponding benefits ranging from 25,000 shillings ($300) to 100,000 shillings ($1,200).
The product is available for people up to 75 years old and provides coverage for life as long as clients renew the cover annually.
But despite high funeral costs in some parts of Kenya, the coverage has not gained a foothold yet, Wesonga writes. Considering the low cost of premiums, he deems the cover of 100,000 shillings ($1,200) a bargain.
But those benefits would barely cover a village funeral in western Kenya, Okwiri says. Okwiri, who is single, says he will not take a funeral cover for himself. He is concerned that companies may take too long to process the benefits.
But under Old Mutual’s new plan, the company pays benefits within 48 hours of receiving claims and documentation, Wesonga writes. The company provides 50 percent of the benefits up front, and it pays the remaining balance upon receiving the original death certificate.
“Terms and conditions apply,” he adds.
Kenyans’ slow response to the coverage may also be due to the discomfort of talking about death, Wesonga writes. Because death is a taboo topic, it is difficult for the company to approach customers about buying funeral coverage.
To promote the plan, Old Mutual sales agents educate prospective clients on the importance of financial planning for all circumstances, including death, Wesonga writes.
“There are multiple factors still impeding the reach of insurance services,” he writes, “and most of which point to a need for financial education and planning. We have however set ourselves apart by engaging in financial education.”
Old Mutual has not received any claims yet, as the product is still new, Wesonga writes. But some Kenyans say they are considering purchasing funeral coverage.
Chris Wekesa, a father of two children who works as an accountant in Nairobi, says that he recently began considering taking a cover for himself and his family.
“I was recently part of a committee organizing the funeral of a colleague,” he says, “and the experience left me thinking about what would happen to my family if I died.”
The funeral was in western Kenya for a member of the Luhya tribe, the same tribal affiliation as Wekesa. Mourners brought his body to the western city of Kakamega, approximately 230 miles from Nairobi.
“Transport to his Kakamega home alone cost us 150,000 shillings,” Wekesa says, the equivalent of $1,785.
Once mourners had delivered the body, the costs had only just begun.
“Then, we had to build a small house there before he was buried,” Wekesa says. “In our culture, a man has to build a house in the village before he dies. Since he had not done it, the elders insisted that we build the house.”
After the experience, Wekesa says he would prefer that his family bury him in the city to save them the agony of organizing a village funeral.
“But I know the elders won’t allow it to happen,” he says. “That’s why I’m planning to take the cover, even if it won’t take care of all the expenses.”