By PETER WANYONYI
No other human race has abandoned its culture and religions as conclusively as Africans have. We have embraced the religions of our enslavers and colonisers like the unthinking lot that those oppressors claimed we were.
Religion, as expected, brings with it lots of baggage. This extends into all sorts of places in life, but itâs in and around death that religion and superstition â two sides of the same coin, arenât they? â really come to the fore.
The African is scared of death. More than any other people, Africans view death with a trepidation that borders on the childish. Among African communities of yore, and long before the European imagery of death as a grim reaper, death was an evil thing in Africa. The African, devoid of science and reliant on superstition and magic, viewed death as the work of evil forces, usually witchcraft, sometimes an evil spirit or two, perhaps even an annoyed deceased relative with a score to settle.
And so we learnt to fear the dead. It was thought that living people had immortal spirits in them, and these spirits were unleashed when the person died. The spirit invariably took on one of two forms: benevolence â like a beloved grandmother â or malevolence â like a deceased co-wife with a big, noxious bone to grind. Various forms of appeasement were used to keep these spirits happy: animal sacrifices, naming oneâs children after them, or even outright bribes with cowrie shells and similar monies. Our corruption didnât begin yesterday!
Funerals, therefore, became exercises in communal self-defence against the spirits of the departed. To ensure that the deceased knew they would be missed, professional mourners would be hired to rend the air with their dirges and cries of loss. Feasts would be laid on to show the deceased that their departure meant a big deal to everyone. And woe unto any mourners who spoke badly of the dead.
Honesty about the deceased is not an African thing: we reserve our most blatant lies for funerals. We eulogise the deceased as having been nothing less than angels, while quietly wondering how to get back the money they owed us.
six feet under
We forget our enmities temporarily while the funerals are underway, only to resume the mudslinging and bad-mouthing after the deceased has been committed six feet under. The religious proceedings that accompany the funeral are usually ignored, as borrowed religions surely deserve to be, while the more important matter of making peace with the dead personâs spirit is attended to.