A packed funeral, a rollicking bullfight and a message for Kenya’s police: ‘Corona can’t stop culture’

Fans urge on a pair of fighting bulls. (Luis Tato for The Washington Post)

KAKAMEGA COUNTY, Kenya — The bulls were let into a clearing in the cornfields, and panic spread through the crowd. The animals were red-eyed — high on a concoction of weed, moonshine and God knows what else.

One deranged bull charged, then suddenly changed direction. People were falling over each other. Agile children shimmied up thin, branchless tree trunks. Grown men tumbled through cornstalks and jumped fences.

A tent where just minutes earlier old ladies had been ladling out rice and stew nearly came down in the chaos; a banner featuring a limousine, set up for glamour shots, was ripped in half.

But as quickly as the terror overtook the crowd, the people broke into giddy peals of laughter and pure joy. It was the funeral of a legendary bullfighter, and this is exactly what was meant to happen: the intoxicated bulls drawing fighting spirit from the grave of a man who had bred champions.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have stopped this much exuberance.

No pesky cops enforcing coronavirus restrictions on gatherings — a bribe took care of that, anyway. And no nagging naysayers to complain: But what about the pandemic?

“Corona can’t stop culture,” said Bonventure Lusambili Munanga, chairman of a wildly popular local bullfighting association, most of whose members belong to the Isukha sub-clan of western Kenya’s Luhya people, who cherish the fights as a central pillar of their way of life.

No more than 50 people are allowed to attend funerals these days in Kenya, but Edward Lilumbi Litali’s service this month drew thousands. He was buried in an open field on his family’s compound, where his success as a farmer and bullfighter, which can be lucrative, was evident: Electricity, satellite television — “modernity,” as Munanga put it.

Several variants of the novel coronavirus are present in Kenya, but the pandemic hasn’t swept through the country as it has in other parts of the world, and everyone from the World Health Organization to the bullfighters here seems to have a theory as to why: Some kind of inherited immunity, a younger population, or perhaps the government should get credit for its border closures, a policy that’s now in its 14th month, and restrictions on the movement and mingling of people.

The government has done little, however, to prepare Kenya for the possibility of a major surge. Vaccines are barely in the picture. Only around 2,000 people in the entire country have been fully vaccinated. Politicians continue to hold giant rallies, which have proved in other countries to be superspreader events.

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In rural Kenya, the whole pandemic hubbub seems a bit far-fetched. When the topic comes up in conversation, people roll their eyes. Mask-wearing is widespread in the capital, Nairobi, as are economically devastating business closures, and curfew enforcement has often been strict and even brutal. But less has changed in places like Kakamega County.

“We hear the news, how people have lost jobs because of lockdowns,” said Emmanuel Nzalu, 28, a mourner at Litali’s funeral. “In the village, we have not felt it firsthand. It’s a story we hear, that someone somewhere has died, most of the time someone you do not know. Life has to go on. We are alive. We live, and how we do it here is by enjoying our culture.”

In Luhya bullfighting, there’s no matador. Bulls are instead pitted against each other, usually in a cleared field, and the atmosphere is festive. Revelers blow whistles and carry long sticks to protect themselves from bulls that turn their attention toward the humans encircling them. The spectators are pressed together, shouting and full of adrenaline.

When police enforcing coronavirus restrictions in January tried to break up a bullfight, attendees injured 10 of the officers, and the event went on.

The pandemic is ever-present, however, if only as a punchline and as a source for the names of some of the up-and-coming bulls. A promising maverick, expected one day to vanquish many lesser bulls, was named Sanitizer. An older bull that’s being readied to fight last year’s champion is called Curfew.

Long before the pandemic, Litali named his most famous winner Lukhutsu, which translates roughly to disease, or bringer of death. Litali’s widow, Phoebe Mwenesi Lilumbi, looked on at her husband’s raucous funeral with gratitude toward the fitting send-off he was receiving, but also with trepidation.

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“This covid will wipe people out just like Lukhutsu wiped out so many bulls,” she said. She spoke from the edge of the melee, where thousands had turned the funeral into something that was part rodeo, part mosh pit.

And the funeral was just the beginning. With so many bullfighters in one place, it was inevitable that bets would be made on which bull would triumph over which. The especially hotblooded set dates right then and there for bouts.

“Our culture prizes passion and bravery,” Munanga said. “If you are confident, you might bet your motorbike on a bullfight that might only last a few minutes.”

The morning after the funeral, one such fight took place on the other side of the county.

It pitted a bull named BBI, short for Building Bridges Initiative — the political alliance led by President Uhuru Kenyatta, which he says is aimed at averting ethnic violence in next year’s election — against Ocampo, after Luis Moreno Ocampo, the International Criminal Court’s former chief prosecutor, who tried and failed to prove that Kenyatta had committed crimes against humanity in violence that left more than 1,000 dead after the disputed 2007 election.

BBI was visibly stronger than Ocampo, who seemed a bit timid.

In preparation, BBI’s owners sharpened his horns with the ragged edge of a broken bottle, and someone pulled on a joint and exhaled into BBI’s nostril.

Then they led the bull miles down country roads, goading it on with whistles and chants. People along the way put down their farming implements and joined the procession. Eventually, the two bulls met in a fallow cane field, where they fought a full 13 minutes before Ocampo relented. His supporters were crestfallen; BBI’s were exultant.

One onlooker who had breathlessly hectored the bulls with delirious cries of incitement took a moment to wipe the sweat from his brow.

“Life without this?” he asked. “Not worth it.”

Rael Ombuor contributed to this report.

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