Burials Ideal For Reflecting On The Ultimate Meaning Of Life

Professor of Literature and Stylistic, Henry Indangasi

Be careful with your words. Once they are said, they can be only forgiven, not forgotten. –Unknown

Kennedy Buhere

Professor of Literature and Stylistic, Henry Indangasi, related a story about a relative who sought help from him days ahead of giving tribute to his recently departed mother. Indangasi, who was conducting a Speech Writing workshop for Senior Civil Servants at the Kenya School of Government in 2012, expressed surprise at the request for two reasons.

The first reason was that typically, tributes to the departed dead in the rural areas are not written. They are orally delivered and almost always unrehearsed. He, therefore, found it strange that his relative was thinking about writing a speech to deliver in a communication environment that is completely oral.

The second reason was that his relative shouldn’t have asked anybody what he ought to say in paying tribute to his mother. He, however, advised him to think about what he instinctively remembers about her mother whenever he thinks about her.

“That should form the basis of your speech when you are called upon to speak during the burial of your mother,” Indangasi advised.

Indangasi caused laughter when he said that his relative not only forgot the advice he gave him; he also went ahead to write down his speech. In the speech, he referred to the year his mother was married. “Were you there?” a section of the audience asked him, Indangasi recalls people retorting.

The deceased’s son’s reference to the date of his mother’s marriage, raised poignant principles around communications in general and public speaking in particular.

The rule of thumb is that public speakers must be credible and empathetic in their utterances. They must address issues they know, through experience, education, or profession. That is not enough. The issues must be relevant to the people.

He must also address the emotional needs of an audience. The needs may be familial, institutional or national. In the context of an audience in a sleepy village, an audience wants to see speakers talking about issues around familiar people and things.

In the context of an institution, an audience—employees, their families and stakeholders—want to hear about where the institution has come from, where it is at present and where it is going and what is there for them.

The same applies to the nation. The citizens want leaders to address their fears and their hopes. The citizens want to be told that, in the words of John the Baptist, that: “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth.”

A public speaker, regardless of his or her station in life, is a leader. At that fleeting moment when people are listening to him or while he holds an institutional office or influence in society. For that reason, he must be a dealer in hope.

Public speakers are expected to raise people’s expectations and calm down their fears about the future. The speech must give hope. Whether it is a speech for information, persuasion, or entertainment; it must be sensitive to people’s needs. It should be a speech to share important information, persuade them to abandon an attitude, a value or an action that is negative to their best interest or adopt an attitude, a value or an action that is positive to their best interest.

All speaking occasions are all subject to the idea that they must uplift and not depress the spirits of a family, a village, an institution or a nation. As Indangasi noted, there are oral speeches and written speeches.

Speeches for people in the countryside don’t need paper and pen. All the speakers need is communal knowledge and personal testimonies—without ceremony and sophistication.

Speeches for formal institutions and with national reach inherently need prior thought in preparing for them. Thought, decency, honour must suffuse the speeches regardless of whether the speaker sticks to the prepared text or gives speeches at the spur-of-the-moment.

Speaking occasions provide an opportunity for public speakers to unfurl their visions, purposes and values about life. A tribute to the dead is a perfect occasion to articulate issues, the values and principles underlying a person or institutional response to issues, problems and challenges facing an institution or a nation.

Public speakers in the past have seized situations to utter the right words in the right places targeting the right people—words that change the trajectory of events and attitudes immediately or over time.

Students of political rhetoric all know about Pericles Funeral Oration. They also know about Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. Some Kenyans remember the Eulogy presented by Princess Diana’s brother Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer during her burial.

Suffice it to say that during solemn occasions such as the burial of a person, words matter. People remember words that stir their breasts.

It matters little who the deceased is. The village is a microcosm of a whole nation. So in the village as in a nation, words matter. They have potential to spread hope or dejection. Stir the noblest feelings in a village as well as in a nation. They can make people warm up to you or walk away.

The reason why rhetoric, the art of persuasion, as a skill and as an art, ought to be available to citizens, regardless of their level of education and occupation.

Then we shall not seek advice whenever we are called upon to speak. Because we have the subject matter and that we know how to deliver it.

Kennedy Buhere is Communications Officer, Ministry of Education, www.education.go.ke  kbuhere@education.go.ke

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