Reverend’s Funeral Spotlights Clash Between Christianity And African Tradition


African Traditional Beliefs

Saul Gwakuba-Ndlovu, a journalist and historian who died in 2021, conducted research on how suicides are handled in African cultures. He concluded that, while there are slight differences from one culture to another, there is general conformity when it comes to keeping the bodies outside of homes, non-performance of the body-viewing ritual and the prominent role played by traditional medicine men.

He wrote that the practice in Zimbabwe, for example, is not to bring the body of someone who committed suicide into a residential home. Instead, do whatever is necessary outside the village before burial. 

“Body viewing is confined to the closest relatives such as parents, siblings and children,” Gwakuba-Ndlovu wrote. “Some communities do not body-view a suicide whatsoever. The reason for all this is that body viewing is a very sensitive part of bidding farewell to the deceased and that the evil spirit that caused the suicide to take his/her life can migrate to one or more survivors, especially those related by blood to the dead person, during that emotional stage.”

He wrote that there is belief that bringing the body into the home before the burial would give the demon shelter and facilitate this migration to a close relative of the deceased.

Gwakuba-Ndlovu found that in cases of suicide by hanging from a tree, the African tradition demands the tree be completely destroyed, stem, branch and leaves by having it chopped very close to the ground and burned.

“The ashes are then put in a sack and are emptied in a river,” he wrote. “This is done in the presence and with guidance of a local leader such as a village head or headman or chief. This reason is that if the tree is not destroyed, witches and wizards will strip the tree of it’s bark, burn it and mix the ashes with some other charms and herbs and use the concoction to drive their enemies or victims to commit suicide.”

Throughout African culture, there is a belief that the spirits of the dead are inherited by surviving relatives — contrary to Christian belief where the soul of the dead ends up in either heaven or hell.

“It is a matter of great controversy whether dead people’s spirits can be inherited by some of the survivors or that they go to heaven or hell depending on how the dead person lived on earth, that is to say sinfully or righteously,” Gwakuba-Ndlovu noted in his research.

According to Gwakuba-Ndlovu, some cases of suicide are a result of drug and substance abuse: “For one to consume such drugs, one must be mentally unsound. That mental condition is what Judaic-Christian communities refer to as demonic and it is to keep such a demon out of the village or residential house that the suicide body is supposed to be left and dealt with out there in the bush where it would have been found.”

Prince Mutandi, the secretary for education and research at the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (ZINATHA), said he is convinced the cleric’s funeral was handled in an African traditional way.

“What the church did to the reverend is linked to our African traditional religion,” Mutandi said. “In our African traditional religion, when one commits suicide, he or she is not supposed to be given a decent burial because it is believed that the person may also pull others to die the same way.”

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