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Why we treat the dead the way we do in Africa

Last week, a friend came to me with a piece of advice: ‘Ssentongo, I notice that most of your articles and cartoons are political and provocative. Don’t you think you are wasting your time trying to engage our leaders?’

In his view, if I expect some of our leaders to come to their senses, then I will die stressed and fruitless. I took time to explain to him why we can’t ignore certain things without our consciences confiscating our sleep. I referred him to the strong counsel from the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht in the words:

“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participate in the political events. He doesn’t know [that] the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine all depend on political decisions.

The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”

On reading this, he said he agreed with the author and that he is no political illiterate; rather, a political realist who wouldn’t shout to the deaf. It was in the midst of this argument that a colleague from Uganda Martyrs University forwarded me a message titled Strange things we do in Africa in the name of ‘It’s our culture’. That’s how I momentarily found myself off the crazy subject of Ugandan politics and its attendant irritation.

I mulled over the pinching list of the ten curious ‘strange things’, all focusing on life and death, and I went wandering into rationalisation. How else would I execute my guilt?

“We care more for the dead than we do for the living”. This observation reminds me of the once-famous question in Religious Education: ‘In African traditional society, the dead are not really dead. Discuss’. For the belief that they are invisibly yet powerfully around, we fear that the dead could harm us if we angered them.

But also, the dead are easy to care for. For they do not demand that much and are not in competition with us. In any case, our fears notwithstanding, silently we ask: what can the dead actually do to us? There are certainly no ghosts. Otherwise, Kayiira, Mayombo, Kaweesi and the like would have showed a sign by now. But even the one who killed them could have been seated in front at their funerals.

“We spend more to bury a person than we do to save their life”. True indeed! At least at their burial we are sure that it is our last expenditure on them. We are not worried that they will expect more from us. Don’t forget that this is also a wonderful opportunity for showing off and masquerading as caring people.

That is why we make sure that our contribution is announced at the funeral. If we contributed by taking the person to hospital, how many would know?

“We will not travel to go see a sick relative but will travel to bury him and/or her”. Yes. Obviously once dead, they will not beg from us, neither will they expect us to go back to check on them again. And again, what matters is not to really care, but to appear to care. Note too that sometimes we only attend to be sure that they are dead and buried.

“People will rarely respect you while alive but will want to pay their last respects to your casket”. Of course after one is dead, we can respect them because we are sure they are not going do anything to contradict us, neither can they protest our pretence. Theirs is to quietly swallow all.

“A person may never receive roses in their entire life but they will get lots dumped on their graveyard”. Well, why give roses to someone who is going to analyse them? ‘This is a cheap one’. ‘He just plucked it from the roadside’. ‘It doesn’t smell good’. The dead ‘accept’ all, and they may not expect more after.

“We will spend a night at a neighbour’s funeral and it will be our first time to see the inside of their house!” But they did not visit us either! Even when we tried to connect electricity from their pole, they asked us to pay. And do you know that one could not enter their house with shoes?

“No one gives a damn to know your village until you die and they will all fill car after car to ‘escort’ your corpse to the same village”. Hmm! Many of us abandon our villages. Our parents live in dilapidated houses. Do you think anyone wishes that their friends see this mess except with deaths’ permission?

“We will take the dead to mosque/church knowing fully well they had nothing to do with worship while alive”. Simple; how we treat the dead is about our own feelings, not theirs. We also do this to remind others that they can run, they can hide, but they can’t escape society’s wishes.

“We might not have granite worktops in our kitchens but use the granite in the graveyard!” Well, it’s you people from cities that bring those stones to our plantations!

“An entire village might not have a single house with cement floors but the only place with cement will be a graveyard!” Yes, which means that our heaven begins in the grave. Should this bother you?


The author heads the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.


+1 #1 Lakwena 2017-07-17 10:21
Naye Dr. Ssentong, thanks though!

This reminds me of the cynic philosopher, Diogenes, who in broad-day-light, went around in markets places, public parks and squares; carrying a lit lamp.

When asked, what he was doing with a lamp in day light, he said he was looking for a honest person.

In other words, honesty or is it dishonesty, is our number one problem.
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+1 #2 Didaz 2017-07-17 22:30
Spire, I think that most of those strange things people do are driven by the fear of death. Different cultures have diffent ways and rituals to celebrate a departed soul.

Besides death of one person reminds us that of our own demise.

Presumably the stronger the fear of death, the stranger are the behaviours and some indeed irrational.

To ease this fear and tension one could make a will that states that pray for me, eat and drink.please do not weil it will upset me but celebrate with prayer and praise the Lord the Almighty!

For possessions distribute them when stil alive for some people do strange things for these.It demystifies the will that is if had anything of value you see.
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+1 #3 Spire 2017-07-18 09:15
Thanks Lakwena and Didaz. Didaz, have you given out your property?
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+1 #4 Didaz 2017-07-18 11:43
Quoting Spire:
Thanks Lakwena and Didaz. Didaz, have you given out your property?

Auntie Lakwena you are hilarious as usual.
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0 #5 Didaz 2017-07-18 23:31
Spire, I'm thinking about who should have what.

In my distribution plan I would be effectively immunizing alot of ill thought among my people.

It may be useful for you also to think about who may enherit the books.I mean your knowledge. It may not be one from your loins you see.
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0 #6 Tom Okello 2017-07-20 15:20
Brilliant piece, Prof!
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0 #7 Kabaale 2017-07-21 09:10
Well said Dr. Jimmy Spire.
I am surprised by the satirical writing for a teacher that comes off as very tough in class.

Nevertheless, your observations are succinct. I find these behaviors so common and most people guilty. Whatever changed us Ugandans ins showees is a tale of a lifetime.

We need to work on the most important things in life.
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