Sieu, a cultural practice among the Nandi community of terminating life due to old age or terminal illness
Written by Shillah Mwadosho
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Pastor Alfred kemboi at Tabendoi, showing the sitting position made by the old, in preparation to draw themselves down the cliff.Photos/ Shillah Mwadosho.
The cultural practice, sieu, as the Nandi community call it has been ongoing among them for centuries and the latest victim underwent the same five years ago.
Tabendoi, literally translated as viewpoint, is a place where the very old tired of waiting exhaustedly for death which seemed unforthcoming would plunge themselves to ease the burden they felt they imposed on their families and community.
Euthanasia is a termination of one’s life due to old age or chronic disease. It is a practice in the Nandi community that up to date is considered a collective and holy practice.
Tabendoi was the place chosen for that purpose beside other functions it served to the community.
West Fm visited Tabendoi, Kipsertuk village, Maraba location in Nandi South district where we were revealed amazing historical realities about the place.
We were directed to an old man believed to be a resource person and we requested him to lead us to the place. We met him outside his grass thatched hut feeding his chicken. The old man, after formal greetings, changed into a sad mood when we mentioned the place.
We requested him to lead us to the place and tell us about it. He dragged his feet reluctantly arguing that it was a bad omen besides betraying the old ways of the land. Later he accepted our request and we set off to the place, about three hundred meters away from his home.
Standing on a tall cliff at Tabendoi, one can peer fearfully at the huge rocks lying hundreds of feet at the ground. The place is dead silent except for birds singing their sweet lulling songs and Columbus monkeys who often giggle at the sight of strange looking people.
The rocks beneath lie a death sleep, unmoved by constant look by people who frequent the place, not even the monkeys who climb and birds that sometimes perch on them. Bushes surround the white-looking rocks, but cannot completely engulf them.
As we stood at the place, the old man, Kiptarus Arap Chemeno told us as he gestured that Tabendoi was Nandi’s ancestral home besides being a gateway to sieu. Whoever went over the place never came back.“The old walked to the place without turning back as they meditated on how they would depart to the ancestral home,” Chemenon explained.People of the past, he narrated, lived for so long until they were tired and opted to die so as to minimize the burden they felt they imposed on their families and the general community.
Kiptarus Arap Chemeno showing where the bodies landed from up the cliff.
“There were no serious disease attacks as people were naturally resistant to them. Dying was therefore, so rare,” he further said.
The lifestyle of the past, he said, was unique from what it is currently.
“The people ate honey, millet, herbs, drank blood and milk and there was nothing to worry about,” he said.
The old, narrated, occasionally met during the day as people lived next to each other as land had not been partitioned and was also communally owned. Their family members would carry them to wherever they wanted to go since they were too old to walk themselves.
They met to chat and would mention how they felt they were a burden to the people. Since they belonged to one age set, they would discuss and unanimously agree to end their lives by sieu.
They then organized a departure party disguised as an ordinary feasting party in which they could get a chance to give their last words of advice to their children and grandchildren about life. The ceremony was believed to have involved the ancestors, the unseen guests, which blurred the minds of the people so as not to easily detect the reality of the party.
On a chosen day at the time that everyone is out of the homestead, the old dragged themselves to Tabendoi and when everyone involved had arrived; they lined themselves at the edge of the cliff. They then sang departure song and dropped themselves down in unity never to be seen again According to Pastor Alfred kemboi, 78, who is also a resident, the songs were meant to appease the ancestral spirits by requesting them to welcome them into the new world.
“There was some swaying back and fro before one last sway and letting it go was made,” said Kemboi.
No other people except the volunteers headed secretly to the place when everyone had gone to work. However, the neighbors could later trace them to the place formally confirm their departure which was evident with their walking sticks left behind at the top of the rock.
The bottom of the cliff is far and traces of the dead could not be seen.
The people further did not bother looking for the bodies at the foot of the cliff as burial of the bodies could not be done then.
“Hyenas were many then and they must have been eating them,” Kemboi explained.
The last person to die in this way is the late David Keronei, a resident, who died in 2006 at his early fifties. The community regarded it as an abuse on the practice and termed it as a suicide. They therefore went for his body and later buried him.
To date, Tabendoi still plays a crucial role in decision making among the Nandi community. It is a central point where serious issues are discussed and final decisions drawn.
Before William Samoei Ruto was anointed as a Kalenjin leader, elders met at the place to meditate and discuss about it.
Tabendoi has been currently marked and recommended as a tourist site because of its historical and geographical significance.
“It was the first place to have been settled in by Nandi people during migration. It is therefore, their original home,” Mr. John Chumo, director of Friends of Nandi Environment said.
Beneath the rocky cliff are several caves that people and their livestock used to live in the past.
“During raiding, Nandi hid their livestock from their enemies in the caves. Nandi county is endowed with lots of resources, the leading being agriculture. The county residents grow tea and others sugarcane or both as cash crops and maize, millet, sorghum, bananas among others for subsistence and commercial purposes.
It has the largest potential in the tourism sector but has been hindered by several challenges. The county has accessible sceneries that can be of great significance in the tourism sector if tapped.
Pastor Alfred kemboi exlaining how the cultural practice was done.
Tabendoi scenery in Maraba location has historic significance besides being a good aerial viewpoint for the popular Obama’s Kogelo, Kisumu City, Kano plain and Ahero irrigation area. It also has scenic rocks, caves and some wild animals like Columbus monkey.
Few kilometers from Tabendoi is Bonjoge site which the residents have been pushing the government for over twenty five years to be gazetted into a national park because of its potential. It was instead made a forest against their wish. It is inhabited with several kinds of wild animals like Columbus monkeys, warthogs, apes, birds and many others.
Some kilometers away are Nandi hills which remains a spectacle even to the residents. The tall hills are pleasing to the eyes and their arrangements amazes people.
Despite all these sceneries, the tourism sector has not been ventured in the region. The then Bonjoge forest could have been a national park as the residents wished and that could have been a gateway to the expansion of the tourism sector. However, residents are still pressurizing the government to gazette the encroached forest into a national park.