The return of ‘Hayati’, ‘Mzee’ vocabulary in grieving lingua

Thursday, February 13th, 2020 00:00 |
In this undated photo, President Daniel arap Moi chats with DR Congo President Laurent Kabila (now deceased) during one of his trips abroad. Photo/PD/FILE

Mukalo Kwayera @kwayeram

In many ways, the events surrounding the funeral of retired President Daniel arap Moi, whose remains were interred yesterday at his Kabarak home, are not dissimilar to those that took place following the demise of his predecessor, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, in 1978.

Whereas Kenyatta died while in office and Moi passed away 18 years after retirement, both of them were accorded a State funeral with full military honours. 

Though departures of former Vice President Michael Kijana Wamalwa, Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai and former First Lady Lucy Kibaki were handed State funerals, the trio’s send-off events were lacking in military tinge and honours.

About 42 years ago, Kenyatta’s body lay in state for one week at State House while in Moi’s case it was just three days at the Parliament Buildings.

However, in both occasions, the public was allowed in their multitudes to view the bodies, such that today Kenyans are being treated to some of the events and vocabularies applied during the send-off ceremonies of Kenya’s first President more than four decades ago.

Revered title

The most outstanding is the return of the Swahili words Hayati (the late or the deceased) and Mzee (elder) in news bulletins and headlines published in the national language.

Other synonyms of  hayati would be marehemu (the dead) or mwendazake (the departed).

Curiously though, since independence, the term has been used only twice, in 1978 and this year in reference to the two former Heads of State following their passing on while marehemu and mwendazake are tagged to the rest of the citizenry.

So attention-catching is the application of the word such that Senate Speaker Ken Lusaka told People Daily upon Kenyatta’s death in 1978, when he was a 15-year-old Form Two student at Kibabii Boys High School in Bungoma county, he thought it was another name or revered title for the departed founding father of the nation.

“The news of Kenyatta’s death was unbelievable. How could Kenyatta die? I thought he was not human. I had only seen him once in 1972 at the Kitale agricultural show.

We were warned to remain indoors as anything could happen. I then heard for the first time the Swahili terminology hayati. I first thought that was another of his titles.

The song Pokea moyo wangu also rent the air repeatedly. The whole of my village was in total silence. So was the rest of the country.

Follow proceedings

“It was a solemn moment. In homes and local urban centres, people crowded around transistor radios to follow the proceedings of the State funeral through the then Voice of Kenya.

The word that caught everyone’s attention was hayati as it was repeatedly used in VoK news bulletins.

Of course, I did not know who I would later become in life. I had no idea about how my life would pan out in later years.”

Since independence up to Tuesday last week when curtains fell on Moi as he breathed his last, the title Mzee was reserved for the late Jomo Kenyatta. The word, which means ‘elder’ or “man of honour’ was strictly applied in reference to Kenya’s first president. 

However, in recent times, it has been frequently used by Moi’s personal secretary Lee Njiru and retired presiding bishop of the Africa Inland Church Dr Silas Yego, in reference to the second Head of State long before his death.

Yego used it over and over again in May last year during the funeral of Moi’s son, former rally driver Jonathan Toroitich while Njiru used it in his press statements whenever updating Kenyans on the health of his boss or any other matter pertaining to his person.

But after Moi’s passing away, the media has gone a whole hog to apply both words, Hayati and Mzee, in their news highlights regarding former President Daniel arap Moi.

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