The Montezuma

By Todd Pitman

There is a coffin shop in Nairobi, just off Jogoo Road. And behind the counter, there is a thoughtful young Kenyan man with glasses, named Ken Kirunga. His old friends call him "the King."

He is a mortician.

"This is the MC-1 Executive," he says proudly, sweeping his hand over the sleek black box.

Ken is now in "production" - the construction of caskets. But he used to be "on the other side," he tells me wistfully. "Those were good days: cleaning bodies up, replacing blood with chemical preservatives."

He used to travel all over the country directing mourners for the final viewing. But Ken's dad yanked him off the funeral tour circuit, and now he's stuck in this damn shop.

The bottom line was this: he got a lot of flack from the peasantry on account of his flamboyant hair-style. His dad says his head looks like some wild rag-mop gone crazy, and it scared the hell out of Kenya's bucolic, hut-dwelling proletariat.

Just dreadlocks, true. But in Kenya - like most places - dreadlocks signal drugs, or at least unemployment. In any case, Ken's dreads earned him one too many stares at funeral ops.

"It was almost as bad as being a mzungu - a foreigner," Ken says. "They looked at me like I was an alien. But you tie your donkey where you want, right?" he says, quoting an ancient Kikuyu proverb.

The peasant dismay - and fear - of Ken's dreads was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that Ken Kiruga has an unfortunate, yet remarkable resemblance to one of Kenya's most notorious and wanted criminals: a nefarious entity known only as "Rasta," whose face was on the front page of the East African Standard a few months back.

"It just wasn't good for business," his dad told me. But Ken wouldn't budge.

"No way I'm cutting these," Ken says, shaking his head.

Tapping his fingers anxiously on the casket in front of him, Ken explained that he wasn't always a mortician. He spent formative years in the States, he said, where, after graduating from a top-notch mortuary school, he became an ice-cream man.

That's right.

And he had his own truck, too. There was some existential irony in that, no doubt, considering his once and future occupation. He cruised America's suburbs in euphoria for a while, contemplating life, death and their relation to 50-cent ice-creams, but he was always a mortician at heart.

Montezuma - the Kiruga family mortuary business - has a fleet of pitch black transport vehicles called Manyangas. For the majority of Nairobi's living, the Manyanga is the public transport vehicle of choice, and as a rule, they are hard to miss: neon-colored hunks of steel lurching indiscriminately through Nairobi's filthy, pot-holed streets. They are habitually crammed with rotating cross-sections of the African commuter, who is forced to listen to loud, esophagus-thumping rap or techno-pop.

In a flush, Ken told me he was toying with the idea - if he could ever get back out in the field - of introducing Bach masses to the grieving, funeral-bound Montezuma riders. "It could be a sort of education," he hypothesized. "But are they ready?"

Since Ken was demoted to production, he has contemplated the grand conspiracy: to mimic the whole damn business down across the border in Tanzania. "I'd change the 'z' in Montezuma to a 'c'. It would be "Montecuma." It could be done," he says.

Ken put his beer back up on the casket and told me how to stitch a head back on properly: "It's a challenge." he says. "And you have to get it on just right if you want an open casket. Most usually do."

Copyright 1997 Todd Pitman. All rights reserved.