By Grace Wachira @yaa_grace
Turning into the Hindu Crematorium, we hit a simple and wellmantained tarmacked road that wound up at its manned red gate. It is surprisingly easy to miss it: it has no signage to indicate its existence and 14-seater matatus plying the Kariokor route have already made the gate a parking spot.
Its compound is dotted with green-leafy trees, offering a cool breeze to visitors, contrasting sharply with the surrounding Kariokor area, known for its dusty and bumpy roads, dotted with hawkers.
Inside, we meet 51-year-old Robert Mwania, the man in charge, carrying wood to one of the sheds that houses three open-fire furnaces. At the end of the vast parking space is a shed, where they store all the wood needed.
“The Hindu community is very generous. They donate the firewood from trees they are felling to pave way for buildings or even make cash donations to buy firewood. They say that while they are alive and able, they will help those in need and providing firewood is a way of giving back to their community,” he says.
In the semi-open shed, Mwania stacks dry logs on top of each other as he describes how coffins are placed once families bring their loved ones for cremation.
“This live furnace is more popular with the Hindu community,” he says as he places sawdust beneath the sturdy steel-grill of sorts. “The coffin is laid on top of the wood, then we add more wood on top of it until it is enough,” he adds.
He goes about his work with so much ease, making it clear he knows his way around cremation, even though it is not what he had studied growing up. “I am a mechanical engineer by profession; it is what I studied in college. Fixing exhaust pipes was my specialty 23 years ago. What I am currently doing, I learnt by apprenticeship,” he says, as he gets ready for a 2pm cremation.
He worked as amechanic at a firm in industrial area, but had to look for other options once his employer sold the business. “When the gig was up, I had to look for work because I had a wife and children to look after. So, I made my way here and was trained by my seniors,” says the father of five.
Rise in ranks
Mwania, who started off tending to the garden, steadily rose in rank. “My bosses trust me. Twenty-three years is testament to my diligence as a cremator,” he laughs even though in the beginning, it was not a laughing matter. “I had a few sleepless nights after I cremated my first body, but I prayed and have held steadfast to the job. My family in Machakos feared I would not pull the job off, but here we are,” affirms the staunch Christian.
He lives in Nairobi with his son who, once in a while, helps in tending to the compound.
“This job has paid my bills and has enabled me to take care of my family.
Work comes from God and this is from Him. It is something that my friends have since come to terms with,” he continues. Mwania says that once the wood is neatly laid, the Hindu perform their traditions, go round the coffin four times then light it up using a torch and give the fire a few minutes.
“They do not watch it all burn. Once it is lit and the fire has caught on, they leave and sit in the service bay,” he says as he points outside to the hundreds of seats. “They have their memorial service there before they leave. Usually, a few family members come back a day later to collect the ashes and that’s that,” he adds.
Adjacent to that open-shed is a modern building that houses a powered furnace. “We have had it since 2004. It is more popular with Africans, Chinese and everyone else and costs Sh40,000. For Hindus, since it is their community, it costs Sh24,000 for this and Sh18,000 for the wood furnaces.
This is where we cremated Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, Royal Media’s Chairman SK Macharia’s son, the former Safaricom CEO, Bob Collymore and many others,” he says, adding that the family switches on the furnace after placing the coffin inside.
Between the shed and the building is a driveway that Mwania says, is limited to hearses only. “They are the only cars allowed this far, although sometimes they ferry very old people who cannot walk,” he says, adding that more Africans embraced cremation after Wangari Maathai chose it.
How does it all work, we ask him.
“What burns first in both furnaces is the wooden coffin. It catches fire, metal rods fall off and the glass gets curved. What remain are just the bones because fire consumes the flesh. Fire is no mean element; it burns and reduces everything to ashes. Fire is a mystery you know? Because when it burns the corpses fused with the firewood, we hardly get any foul smells. We only feel the heat,” he says.
Mystery of death
As we drove in, we noticed a sign that read ‘Baby Cremation’. Mwania is quick to explain that children are not cremated and the signs indicate where they are buried.
“The Hindu culture forbids children below 10 yearsfrom being cremated, they are simply buried. In fact, they have very strict rules about children here; the only children I see attending these ceremonies are probably aged 15 and even then, they are a handful as are women. Only the elderly married women attend,” he adds.
Mwania says that having numerous simultaneous cremations is his greatest challenge. “The Westgate terror attack was the busiest in my career. A lot of the victims were from the Hindu community and we had even four to seven bodies cremated in a day.
I operated both the manual and the electric furnace for weeks. It was a sad period and this seven-acre crematorium was full! The damage was real and we, at the crematorium, were busy. The other time this place was full was when the Vohra family that owns Sarova hotels was bereaved,” he adds.
Having cremated many bodies, Mwania says he does not fear death. “When I have conversations with my friends and family, I am always aware that I could die the next minute.
Death is mysterious; it is a door we all have to go through and we really should be ready for it,” he said. The idea of cremation when his time is up is not one that he thinks his family will fancy. “It may not go down well with my Machakos folk,” he laughs.