This article is a recounting of a real live event. It was August 25, 1998 when the whole family gathered at the invitation of their 91 year old mother. The author is pleased to share his reflections on what happened next in an experience of the blessing given to his family by their mother. The Akamba people are found in two districts of Kenya, namely, Machakos and Kitui. The following rite of blessing is found among the Akamba of Machakos from where the writer comes.
Once a parent realizes that his or her life is coming to an end, he or she announces the intention to give a final blessing to all the siblings that is children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. In brief, all close members of the extended family are invited for the blessing.
The preparation includes first of all an announcement of the intention to impart this special blessing and the choice of a convenient date. Once an elderly person has expressed the intention to offer this blessing there can be no negotiation to postpone the event, say for another year or for a few months.
Another important dimension of the preparation is reconciliation of all members of the family. If there are disagreements within the family or if one member has hurt or offended the head of the family or a member of the family, a session for reconciliation must take place the night before, so that all sleep in peace on the eve of the blessing. The ritual cannot take place until all are reconciled. This part of the preparation is taken very seriously. If the persons concerned are not reconciled, they cannot receive the blessing, and that means that if the head of the family dies without giving a blessing to that person, the person and his or her entire family is cursed for generations to come.
It is also foreseen that the gathered family will share a meal together on the day of the blessing and so the head of the family orders that a goat be slaughtered and prepared along with other types of food for the following day.
Finally, some milk is kept apart for use during the blessing.
Once all (35 persons) had gathered in the family room, the blessing that took place on 25th August had several stages:
- At about 12.30 p.m., the mother asked the eldest child to say a spontaneous opening prayer.
- This was followed by an address by the mother who was the elder (91) explaining the meaning of the traditional ritual blessing. The main purpose of this blessing, our mother said, was to give her final blessing to all her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, so that like her, they may build good families and live edifying lives in society. It is also a sign of inheriting gifts handed down from one generation to the next. Such gifts may be prosperity, wisdom, leadership etc. She also explained the meaning of a gift that is symbolically given to the one blessing, saying that a blessing cannot be bought, but given gratuitously.
- The actual blessing then began starting with the eldest child along with family if any. The ritual consisted of going forward before the head of the family, putting a gift in a basket, and then stretching open one's hands to receive the blessing. In this example, the mother took a small mouthful of milk, and with it spat on the open hands saying: "May God bless you and guard you. May you prosper through the work of your hands". With the milk on one’s hands, each person symbolically washed his or her face and then the chest to symbolize the blessing of the entire body.
- When all had received their blessing and sat down, the mother asked the two eldest children to speak, mainly on behalf of all, to thank the mother for the blessing, and to exhort members of the family on the significance of the blessing they had just received.
- There was then a concluding prayer, which was also the prayer of blessing the meal, to be shared from one table in a buffet style.
- The final part of the ritual was then the sharing of the meal in a very joyous atmosphere, having received a special final blessing from the mother, who was also so content to have given her final blessing. It was 4 p.m. by the time the meal was over.
One is struck by the rich symbols used in this traditional ritual blessing among the Akamba of Machakos in Kenya.
In the first place the idea of gathering together around the head of a family on his or her last days creates an opportunity to strengthen the extended family bonds and solidarity. The gift given by each person is a token of gratitude for the life and care received. The milk used in the actual ritual is not only a symbol of cleansing but also of nourishment, for just as the mother nourishes her baby with her own milk, at the end of a long life, the head of the family spits out milk from the mouth on the hands of her siblings thus symbolically nourishing them for their entire period of their life and that of their children for generations to come. The one being blessed symbolically washes his or her face and chest with the milk in the hands, to signify the fact of blessing the whole body, as well as a cleansing of the whole body and soul.
Finally, there is the climax of sharing a meal together, symbolically communing with the head of the family for the last time, and symbolically nourishing the present generations and those yet unborn. At the same time, the sharing of that meal becomes a link between the living extended family with its past and the future generations. It is indeed a celebration of the gift of life, past, present and in the future.
©2016 John S. Mbinda