Death in African Society

(Tribute Magazine, December 12, 2006)

There is hardly a fundamental issue in the life of all of us which can be discussed and understood clearly and truthfully without linking it with the African foundation of Humankind. It was the African Slave Trade which despoiled and buried the connection between all Humankind and Africa deep in the subconscious, causing massive problems in our social identity and in modern history. Old, honest scholars knew this fact and stated it: “…the African past is intimately related to the prehistoric monuments of the cave-dwellers of southern France and Spain, to the Etruscan problem and the dawn of Egyptian culture, and this points a new way to the study of the most fundamental questions of human history. Whatever we can learn today of African religions and social institutions, art forms and poetry, is of immense importance for our knowledge of mankind and may radically alter our understanding of the past” (Leo Frobenius 1873-1973: An Anthology, 1973).

We now know that human beings first emerged in Africa. It is this Lady, Mother Africa, which gave birth to us all; which raised and nurtured infant Humankind; which imparted to all her children culture, knowledge of the Goddesses and Gods, and knowledge of good and evil; it is Mother Africa who gave to all her children Drum, Dance, Science, Language, Music, Philosophy and all the Arts. It is this Lady, Mother Africa, who taught all her children how to deal with Death.

The first exodus out of Africa was when the first communities of Africans left the Motherland for other regions of the world –to what is now India, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, etc. After a while, new skin-colours, hair textures, shapes of nose and lips emerged. Therefore, Africans, Indians, Arabs, Europeans, Jews, Asians, the peoples of the Pacific, Caribbean Islands, North and South America, etc., are all cousin brothers and cousin sisters long lost to one another physically, psychologically, and mentally. The greatest challenge facing all of Humankind is to restore the original relationship which existed between Africans and all the other peoples of the world. “Under our skins we are all Africans…” (Stringer, C., African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity, 1996)

The exodus of the first communities out of Africa to different regions and corners of the world laid a common, African stratum of culture in the cultures of all peoples in the world. This is clearly evident when we look carefully at the earliest stratum of religious customs followed by people all over the world, and at the earliest stratum of agricultural customs and land tenure, and at customs relating to Death. At this stage and level of history, there was hardly any major difference in rural cultures and communities of Africa, Europe, Asia, India, Near East, the Pacific, Caribbean, North and South America. The major differences emerged much later. In the life of societies, death, religion and philosophy are inseparable. Let us look at customs relating to Death.

The starting point of African philosophy, going back to times immemorial, which became that common, African stratum of culture in World culture, is the belief in the immortality of life. A Ghanaian scholar wrote: “To the Akan, death is a return to the World of Spirits… `Whenever a child is born in this world,’ according to Ashanti belief, `a ghost-mother moarns the loss of her child in the spirit world.’ And whenever there is a death in this world, there is a welcome in the spirit world” (K. A. Busia, The Challenge of Africa, 1962) The life of the individual does not end when that individual ceases to breathe and his/her body is buried deep in the soil. This was an African derived breakthrough in World culture: “Before any other people, the Egyptians introduce the concept of eternal life and immanent moral justice, opening the way for humanist universalism” (Samir Amin, Eurocentrism, 1988). It is important to stress that Egypt derived this outlook from the philosophy of ordinary African communities in villages and valleys of the Great Lakes, south of Egypt.

African philosophy and religion teach that a person does not die and come to an end, but is taken or called by his/her ancestors to come and abide with them. The initial separation of the person from family, friends, and associates is, indeed, very painful, and draws tears from the eyes of the living (Ukuxebuka kwenyama kubuhlungu). However, soon thereafter there is consolation, satisfaction, and joy that the individual shall join the ancestors, and become an advocate on behalf of the living relatives for safety, good health, happiness, and prosperity of spirit and material life.

Rituals and offerings to ancestors were central in traditional African religion and philosophy. Europeans observing and studying African societies mistakenly called these rituals and offerings “ancestor worship.” There is no `worship’ of ancestors in African society, similar to the worship of the Supernatural in Places of Worship in other religions. African religion and philosophy also did not have space for a “church”. Western observers and students simply transferred their own Western religious concept of “worshipping” to African reality. In traditional African society, the relationship between the living and the dead, the living and ancestors, is a continuation of a family relationship. Mazisi Kunene wrote as follows: “…the gods are so human that they do not seem like gods at all, but merely relatives who occupy a higher plane of existence. It is possible in this sense to scold the gods, to denounce the gods, to state one’s expectations from them without excessive observance. Indeed, in many African traditional religions the idea of prayer is better interpreted as a demand. The element of worship is minimized by the vulnerability and accountability of a god to serve the needs of humans.” (Mazisi Kunene, “African Cosmology”)

The belief in One God (Monotheism) is also an African philosophical-religious breakthrough, which passed from African communities to the Hebrews during their 400-year stay in Egypt, influencing the history of the Hebrews, Ancient Israel, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Do not forget that Egypt exercised heavy influence in what we know as the Near East and Middle East (and heavily influenced Ancient Greece), similar to the influence America and the West exercised upon the world after World War II. In traditional African society, the belief in One God who created the world and everything coexisted with the belief in the existence of ancestors and rituals and offerings to ancestors.

The Old Testament God is a “jealous God”: “Thou shall have no other god besides me.” A new conception of One and Only God, demanding total obedience, love, and loyalty, developed over time, conditioned and fashioned by the ruthless war for the survival of the community during the incredibly perilous journey from Africa to the Promised Land, the war of conquest, the wars to protect the new State, and the wars to protect the new religion and its organized leadership. Throughout this process, a ruthless war, led by religious leaders, was waged against other gods, including beliefs in the existence of ancestors, magic, and rituals and offerings to ancestors and other gods.

In traditional African philosophy and religion, the death of an individual, the burial of that person, and the journey to the home of the ancestors, to the “World of Spirits”, as the Akan put it, was accompanied and facilitated by rituals and offerings directed to the dead person, to the relatives left behind, as well as to the Ancestors and gods. Death inflicts deep pain and trauma (Ukuxebuka kwenyama). A striking psycho-therapy ritual is the wailing, and the recounting, over and over again, of how Death came to the family, taking the particular individual. This is repeated over and over again, so that this painful event is accepted deep down by the mind and emotions of those who have suffered the trauma. The entire process of the wailing, the endless visitations by community members, the repeated recounting of how Death came, the offerings, addresses and pleas to the ancestors and gods, the singing and dancing…the entire process aims at putting order to the pain, gaining mastery over the trauma, and pulling the sting and venom out of the wound to the minds and emotions of the living. It is psycho-therapy of the highest and most insightful order. The rituals and events at the burial site are also community-driven psycho-therapy of the highest order.


The completion of the burial rituals and offerings is not the end of the process. There are rituals which must be performed to cleanse and normalize the relatives left behind, especially the immediate family, the wife/wives/husband and offspring of the departed.

Then, follows the happy ritual and offering, marking and facilitating the return-in-spirit of the person who died. The departed is reunited with the family, takes his/her place fully and legitimately in the pantheon of Ancestors, and takes occupancy of a particular room or place in the home, where he/she is to be approached and addressed by family members in times of need. In Nguni cultures, this is known as Ukubuyisa ceremony. There is triumphant and happy singing, dancing, and thanksgiving –Ubuyile! (He/she has returned!)

These rituals and offerings were absorbed in various forms and substance by the new religions which developed, triggered by different social-historical and spiritual needs. This is the common, African stratum of culture in World Culture.



About Professor Herbert W. Vilakazi

Professor Herbert Vilakazi was born at Nongoma, KwaZulu/Natal, South Africa. He received his tertiary education at Columbia University, and at the New School For Social Research, both in New York City, USA. He has taught sociology and other social sciences at various tertiary institutions in and around New York City (City College of City University, Essex County College in Newark, Livingstone College, and State University of New York). He has also taught at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University), University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town, and University of Zululand. He served as Deputy-Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission from 1998 to 2004. He has also served as Special Advisor to the Premier of KwaZulu/Natal (2005-2007). He is Chairperson of Vilakazi Development Strategies.
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One Response to Death in African Society

  1. GIchimu robert says:

    In my own view as a scholar of religion death is just transimission to the world of spirits

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