SELECTING TRADITIONS: DEATH IN AFRICAN FAMILIES – RITES, RITUALS AND DEMONS || Peace Osemwengie
“Death is not the end.”
The African people had always known it. Before the white man came and preached a new kind of religion to us, we had always known that death is never the end. If a man in this part of the world dies, we all know what will happen; his spirit would be judged by the Great Spirit in the heavens. Reincarnation is not an alien concept to us, indeed many dying folks have often expressed their wish to come back to the earth. They often do come back!
In Africa today, there are many traditions that accompany the death of an individual, such as rites that must be observed, and rituals that must be carried out. Some of these are wonderful customs that should be celebrated, others are barbaric, that they not only serve to traumatise the unfortunate victim, but also serve as a channel for vengeful relatives to carry out their evil machinations.
In this place, a woman is asked to prove her innocence and non- involvement in her husband’s death by drinking the water used to bathe his corpse. Totally disgusting but traditions don’t care. To further complete her humiliation, her head is shaved bald by the female relatives of her husband. Can we say this is a classical example of women uplifting women? Hell, no.
Another hellish tradition commands that the widow sleeps in the room where the corpse of her husband is laid, for a specified number of days. This, they say, is to ensure that the woman is proven innocent of any involvement in her husband’s death, since his ghost will not chase after her in a white dress, calling her name and chasing her around the village.
As it ever occurred to anyone that the women, whom they have falsely accused of having a hand in their husbands’ deaths, may have experienced psychological breakdowns resulting from grief and trauma, leading to hysteria and bouts of hallucinations?
Let us say civilization is finally getting here thanks to the spirits for education.
Among some tribes in the southern region of Nigeria, burial rites for prominent men such as chiefs and kings may last for as long as two weeks. Several different rites are carried out to ensure the safe passing of the dead into the world beyond, and to ensure that the ones that are left behind get some form of “closure”, that’s not the word they use for it though. Burial ceremonies are often lavish displays of affluence and culture, enhanced by the social status of the deceased’s family. As they say; soup wey sweet, na money kill am!
Often, at such burial ceremonies, different cultural groups and factions of kinsmen and extended family are present, all vying to get as much money as they can possibly get from the immediate family of the deceased and their invited guests.
Yet, without these performances, the burial ceremonies and rites feel empty and devoid of a sense of community. How else will one dance to the sound of the ogene and the goatskin drums, or pound their feet on the ground in sheer abandonment?
It is such ceremonies that bring families together, calling for the reaffirming of life, and celebration of the life that transcended into the other world.
In most African traditions, the age of the deceased determines the level of fuss around the burial ceremonies. It is regarded as unfortunate for a parent to bury a child, no matter how old such child was. Children should bury their parents, that is the way of life. Most premature deaths are treated with an almost clinical precision, done with minimal fuss, and never to be spoken of in large gatherings, only in sighs and musings and soliloquize.
After all, one ought to live a long, good life, so that good or evil, the obituary will read, “call to glory” or “exit of a rare gem”. Such gems are indeed rare.
Nevertheless, African death traditions are a wonderful thing to experience, from afar of course. Marry a white person, you’ll only have to buy a casket and mark a plot in the cemetery!
Peace Osemwengie is a writer, art enthusiast and musician. She loves meeting people and enjoys conversations on art, pan Africanism, and African culture and traditions. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via instagram @_therealisoken