Victims go home to grieve

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DAWN WAS breaking as Noah Kimani arrived, flanked by his brothers, to collect his wife Jeri and take her home. Nairobi's Chiromo Mortuary, heavy with the stench of death, was already crowded with the bereaved, all waiting for bodies. The funerals for the 257 victims of Nairobi's terrorist bomb have just begun.

The Kimani men put on a brave face for the sake of Noah's little girls. Outside with their aunts, Sheila, eight, and Lynn, four, looked bewildered in new, white, frilly dresses.

Sheila had been "prepared" by a church counsellor to accept her mother's death. She was finally told Jeri had gone to heaven on Wednesday, five days after the bomb, meant for the US embassy, ripped through Ufundi House, a neighbouring four-storey office block. Among the victims were Jeri and 12 colleagues from an insurance company based on the top floor.

Sheila's moods have swung ever since. She cried until her aunts and uncles were beside themselves. Yesterday she was smiling shyly at the muzungu (white person).

As a masked mortuary attendant, plastic apron slapping against black wellington boots, allocated the smashed and burned bodies to their coffins, one of Mr Kimani's brothers said: "Yesterday, Lynn she asked, `Where is mummy?'"

Telling the elderly was as hard as telling the young. Jeri's father, seriously ill in a Nairobi hospital, was devastated by the death of the daughter who visited him every day.

As the rich loaded coffins into funeral cars yesterday and the poor made do with borrowed pick-ups and even roof racks, it seemed as if no Kenyan considered Nairobi home. Jeri, like everyone else, was going "up country", back to her people and her rural roots.

It took two-and-half hours along Kenya's cratered roads for Jeri to reach Githima, a muddy, ramshackle town north-east of Nairobi, where barefoot women barter vegetables for clothes and a car still means almost unimaginable wealth.

To the villagers, Jeri, 30, and Noah, 32, and the Nairobi friends who followed the funeral procession, are rich people. But in Kenya, poverty is always the wolf at the door. In the mortuary car park, some vehicles arrived with furniture tied to their roofs. "With the breadwinner gone these are the people who cannot afford to stay in Nairobi," one driver said. "They, like the dead and the furniture, must go home."

Jeri, a secretary, was also a breadwinner. Noah, from a poorer background, has no regular job. Jeri's salary allowed him to send something back to Githima. Financially, Jeri's death will hit a vast extended family. "We'll struggle now," said Noah, a round-faced, gentle man. "But I will try to keep the girls with me in Nairobi."

The peasants of Githima may overestimate the wealth of those who moved to Nairobi but when the prodigals return the villagers turn out in force.

"They feel sorry for us," one of Jeri's Nairobi friends said. "They say we only come back with bodies." As the wheels of smart cars spun in thick mud on the track to Noah's parents' plot, almost 1,000 villagers made their way on foot across the hill that separates the Kimanis from Githima.

On a steep incline on the other side they came together, like a scene from the Old Testament. Women in tattered skirts and men in threadbare suits lined grassy terraces surrounding the Kimani home to hear clergy preach in the Kikuyu tongue that no one knew God's purpose and a Christian's duty is to accept His will.

In the middle of the crowd was Jeri's coffin, decked with carnations and her picture in a frame. Eight years ago she stood here and married Noah. Death, like marriage, was a community affair. Friends and family had clubbed together to meet the funeral bill. Neighbours dug the grave and shouted out advice to Noah not to remarry too soon.

Then the singing began, so impossibly sweet it broke the heart. A thousand Kenyan peasants, buoyed by faith in God's greater purpose. Noah cried. Lynn, sitting on his knee, dabbed his eyes. "I hope he can manage the girls," said Jeri's sister Helen. "He loves them so much but a mother's love is always ..." she trailed off.

When it was time for Jeri's coffin to be lowered into the rich, red soil at the bottom of the family compound, the sound of her sisters crying drifted back up the hill. Inside her grandmother's house Sheila became hysterical. "I want Mummy," she screamed.

In a bare, dark bedroom Noah sat, drawing on a cigarette. "It is the children," he said, as if he had to excuse the break in composure. "It was a bad thing the bombers did to us."

Tirana- The United States began evacuating non-emergency staff from Albania yesterday after temporarily closing its embassy in response to the twin bombings in Africa. The State Department said it feared the embassy might be a target for Islamic extremists.