Building legacies: death, landscape and generation in western Kenya
Constance Smith (University of Manchester)
Paper short abstract:
This paper considers the interconnection of death, landscape and inheritance in western Kenya. It explores how the materiality of homesteads makes kinship visible across generations. This can index familial attainment, but also disaster. Here, what is passed on is not only land but also misfortune.
Paper long abstract:
In Luo communities in western Kenya, death is materialised in the landscape. Building a homestead is a lifelong project for Luo men, ultimately completed by burial within it. After death it is abandoned and left to disintegrate; the sons inherit land and build their own homes nearby. This process locates kinship topographically: generations and homesteads flow forward in the landscape whilst the decaying remains of houses and graves root intergenerational inheritances into particular locales. In this way, an ideal death enables land to be passed on, new generations to accede and kinship to be made visible. But this idealised generativity is often obstructed. For urban Luos, failure to build a rural home leaves nowhere for a body to be buried, while one brother's failure to take up his inheritance and build on his father's land has implications for his siblings' capacity to become fully adult. Meanwhile, new burial methods and construction materials mean that graves and homes endure in the landscape, obstructing the generativity of decay and restricting inheritable land. By tracing several generations of one Luo family, this paper considers the shifting terrain of death, family and inheritance in western Kenya. It explores questions of decay, legacy and what happens after a 'bad' death. Here the homestead of the deceased can transform into a monument to disaster, a contaminated legacy inviting intergenerational misfortune. The resilience of cement, glass and brick - which in life indexed attainment - become a reminder of familial failure to inscribe generations of kin into a landscape.
Passing on: the materialisation of kinship