KIRUMBA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO —On Aug. 7, 2022, Kahindo Kasayi, 47, lost her 23-year-old son unexpectedly. Unbearable as it was to bury her healthy, young son, what still sends shudders down her spine is how “undignified” his funeral was, and how deviant it was from the way of life Kasayi knew.
On the day of his funeral, as Prince Muhindo Muhasa’s family was bidding him the final goodbye, many, including Muhasa’s co-worker hairdressers, carried the corpse to the cemetery in their hands, instead of in a hearse. Some mourners took selfies; others giggled. With no outward signs of sadness, they sang about how the young Muhasa left too soon. The pastor couldn’t say prayers before the burial because he was constantly interrupted by noises and obscene chants. It ended up being complete anarchy, led by many people, including relatives and friends, who were under the influence of drugs and alcohol. People threw in bows made from straw, bananas and banana peels, and a flask of alcohol, under the pretext of decorating the grave.
“Since I was born, I have never seen a dead person as badly buried as my son,” Kasayi says. What she saw that day, she says, was “unheard of” in her culture.
Kasayi’s Nande tribe has always held death in high respect. Funeral ceremonies and mourning had specific meaning. But Kirumba-based sociologist Justin Kasereka Lwatswa says a range of factors, including globalization and constant civil wars, together with frequent circulation of images of violent deaths on social media, have changed the way Africans, particularly the Nande, deal with death today. This worries some, like Kambale Maha Kwiravusa, former president of the Kyaghanda Yira cultural association, a nonprofit organization for the tribe, about the loss of the “uniqueness” of the tribe’s customs and identity, because of the influx of “foreign cultures.”
“People were so afraid of death. When a person died, they were convinced that they had transgressed God’s commandments, and that God was punishing them,” says Kitsongo Wambeho, who belongs to the association. Fear of death would often lead people out of a village. Nothing of that fear is visible among people now, he says.
The Nande, one of the country’s 250 tribes and among the largest in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, mostly live in North Kivu province, in the territories of Beni and Lubero. They believe the soul survives after death. In fact, throughout the African continent, many believe that the dead can only find their place as ancestors, rather than as vengeful ghosts, if, as a 2008 paper published in the Journal of African History states, “their loss” has been “properly registered, not only by the individuals closest to them, but by the social groups of which they were members.”
To prevent the deceased from casting bad spells, mourners performed certain rites, such as dances or the ritual slaughter of goats and sheep. In the past, people showed contemplation, compassion and dignity in memory of the deceased. Today, at funerals, mourners often wear T-shirts with an image of the deceased, or badges pinned to their chests. Some sing lyrics such as “you left too early, so early that you couldn’t even have sex,” and even solicit sex at funerals. In some cases, mourners destroy public property, such as bridges, and private stalls and use the wood to light funeral fires.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe , GPJ Democratic Republic of Congo
This change has been gradual. As insecurity in the region grew, more people moved to urban areas, away from close-knit village society, says sociologist Lwatswa. As societal relationships changed, it became easier for “people to forget each other,” and as a result, “the attention that people paid to death and the dead, disappeared little by little,” Lwatswa says. At the same time, as the popularity of social media increased, images and videos — for example, of armed groups executing people—were published more frequently, he says. All this seems to “familiarize people with death.”
Lwatswa says society started losing “good traditional African habits” with regard to funerals somewhere around 1997, when the effects of urbanization began to be noticed here. But the change has also been attributed to the spread of Christianity in the region. According to Kakiranyi Kule Léonard’s 1998 book, “Le Munande (Yira) et ses Traditions” (“The Munande and Its Traditions”), as the influence of Christianity grew, these practices gradually disappeared. Some ancient funeral rites, Kitsongo says, came to be seen as satanic or false. Convinced, he says, some chose to follow the Christian path, thus trampling on their culture.
Whatever the reason, today, some fear funerals may become subject to law and order. “If it continues like this, we will have to go to burial sites with the police,” says Musafiri Kasereka Makombo,42, head of the Kikimba neighborhood in Kirumba.
“The Nande are an orderly people who have respected the dead for a very long time. Our custom is what makes us unique. Let’s not let foreign cultures take over. Let’s go back to how it was,” says Kwiravusa, of the Kyaghanda Yira cultural association.
To help control the situation, a civil society organization, the Communal Youth Council of the commune of Kirumba, holds frequent awareness sessions. About their work with the youngsters, Jacques Kambale Kibasubwamo, the organization’s spokesperson, says, “As of now, we bring them together here or we go look for them in different youth associations,”
Some young people have a different way of looking at the singing and dancing at funerals. Rubin Kasereka, 28, who has danced after getting drunk at a funeral, says, “If young people take drugs when death strikes, it is to eliminate the sadness of death. Everyone has their own way of grieving.”
But for the family of the deceased, an undignified burial as a last memory of their loved one is just too painful. Kasayi, Muhasa’s mother, says that while she will never forget her son, “what hurts me more now is no longer the fact that he is dead, but that he was badly buried.”