Burial mysteries in Uganda

A grave for a child. In Uganda, there are many norms and traditions that are followed before a person is buried. Net PHOTO

What you need to know:

Traditions. In every culture in Uganda, there are, or used to be traditions followed before a dead person was finally laid to rest.

In March this year, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) officials rejected 20 bodies of their nationals who drowned into Lake Albert as they tried to cross from Uganda.

The corpses had stayed beyond 72 hours after death due to searching challenges. The officials argued that their tradition did not allow them to bury them.

World over, there are various traditions informed by beliefs and cultural norms that determine how people pay their last respects to the dead.

Prof Edward K Kirumira, a sociologist at Makerere University argues that people have a spiritual consideration of life before and after death.
“When someone dies, Africans treat him or her with the same respect like when they were living,” says Prof Kirumira.

The sociologists says people line up to view a corpse because they want to store the memory of the deceased.

In Buganda
Prof Kirumira says in Buganda, specifically Masaka where he hails from, the body of a house-hold head has to stay in his house for at least one night before he is laid to rest. He says it is a way of re-emphasising ownership of the home.

“The myth is that the spirit will come to haunt the living if not given the rightful respect it deserved,” Prof Kirumira adds.

In Buganda, if an unborn child dies between four mouths gestation and full term (forced abortion), no announcements are made. The feotus is wrapped in a cloth and the placenta is separated and wrapped in a banana tree in the banana plantation.

If the feotus dies near or at full term, an announcement is made. A coffin can be used when available and the body is buried on the same day. The mother is not allowed to mourn or attend the burial as this may cause the other children to die. No announcement is made and the child is buried by the father and other family members at home.

According to the clan head of the Patiko, Chief Rwot Jeremiah, among the Acholi, “The vigil for a woman lasts for four days as opposed to three days for a man. The funeral rituals are not done for unmarried people. For the twins, we treat them as we could treat a normal child.”

Suicide cases
In the Kiga communities of Western Uganda, when someone commits suicide, the body is given different treatment unlike one who has died of natural causes. Jackson Ohabwa, a retired civil servant based in Kabale District says: “When one commits suicide amongst the Bakiga, for example by hanging, the body is not touched by anyone. A hole is dug at the spot of the death and the ropes are just cut, leaving the corpse to fall into the pit.”

He adds, people are not supposed to mourn and those who shade tears by mistake as the body is being buried, are required to take some traditional herbal portion that will enable them get rid of the ill-omen bequeathed unto the community by the bad deeds of the deceased.

This practice cuts across most ethnic Bantu, the Bakiga Bakonjo, Banyankore, Banyoro, Batoro, Baganda, Basoga, Bagisu and many other tribes. However, if one hangs in the house, he/she is buried in a grave outside but the house is destroyed.

Among the Bakiga, when a bachelor or spinster dies, a fire is made, but only at the edges of the compound. A banana tree is planted besides the coffin to appease the possible anger of the spirits that may be angry with the deceased for having not married.

Burial for the married
This is different from when a married person dies as captured in Charles Baruhanga’s essay, Concepts of Childhood Death in the Bakiga People.
The whole village gathers in the compound and a fire is made in the middle of the compound to indicate that the deceased has been the owner of the home. The body is placed in a coffin in the middle of the living room. The body can stay overnight. When time for burial comes, the body is taken to the ancestral grounds for burial.

Burial for chidren
However, if a child dies, people are not supposed to mourn and very few people are informed about the death. The burial takes place the same day the child dies. The father descends into the grave and receives the body from the mother. The body is not buried in a coffin but wrapped in pieces of clothing.

However, most of these traditions have changed due to the influence from the western countries or modernity

Additional reporting By Enid Ninsiima, Abubaker Kirunda, Jacky Adure

Burial traditions for twins and bachelors among the Basoga

“When twins die in Busoga, the culture requires them to be buried at night,” says Prince Daudi Bogere Gabula, a 56-year-old senior citizen. He adds that the body of a twin is not passed through the doors of a house. He says when time for burial approaches, a hole is dug from the house where the body is taken out. He says drumming and singing of some traditional songs dominates the ceremony.

According to Children’s Palliative Care in Africa, a book authored by Justin Amery, Twins are treated as special children with special spirits in Busoga. Therefore, when one of the pair of twins dies, there is a great impact of fear on the remaining children in that family and other family members, especially the surviving twin.

A twin is never said to be dead, but that he or she has flown away. When a twin dies, the mother does not mourn. When she does, the belief is that the second twin also will die.

According to Prince Gabula, a bachelor is buried without any ritual being performed, unlike the married person whose body is washed by grandchildren using water fetched in a pot from a well . The pot shouldn’t have been held with hands, but simply balanced on the head.

The unmarried person’s body is not washed before burial. The funeral rites ceremony (Okwabya olumbe) is also not done for an unmarried person.