The idea of life after death is central to a majority of African cultures. Life is often defined in terms of ones ability to be consciously active in the physical realm. While death on the other hand talks about the inability to actively participate in the physical realm. It is the departure of the soul from the human body, this renders the body lifeless.
There are different ways by which the issue of life,death and the afterlife is perceived in African traditions
Death: A Door to Eternal Bliss or Looming Doom
There are majorly two opposing schools of thought concerning the issue of life and death in African traditions. While the first sees death as an evil occurrence caused by evil spirits or ultimate penalty for sin, the second sees it as something to be desired as it helps one transcend into the realm of ancestors which is viewed as a higher realm than the physical realm.
The origin of death is described in many African myths. In most, death is conceived as something that came as a result of some mistake. Death was not supposed to be a part of human life and is blamed on some animal, on people or on some spirits. In general death is not considered as a natural event but tends to be seen as or ‘caused’ by some external forces such as witches, spirits or curse. Others believe that though inevitable, death does not terminate human existence, but is a moment of passage to the afterlife.
LIFE AFTER DEATH
For many African traditions that believe in life after death, it is believed that when a person dies, he transcends into another realm which is not as physical as earth. For them, death is not the end but the beginning or in some cases continuation of life. This explains why death in most African traditions is not viewed as a tragedy, rather it is celebrated with several rites of passage.
According to Allan Anderson, it is the widespread belief among many African peoples that witches and sorcerers are not admitted to the spirit world, and therefore they are refused proper burial — sometimes their bodies are subjected to actions that would make such burial impossible, such as burning, chopping up, and feeding them to hyenas. Among Africans, to be cut off from the community of the ancestors in death is the nearest equivalent of hell.
One interviewee stressed that a person, after having lived a good life, was to become an ancestor. Becoming an ancestor should be seen as a normal step following death. An ancestor would intercede for the living and protect them. In that context it meant that it is in ancestorship one could find the continuation of life. However, life after death could not necessarily be seen as a continuation in case of a bad person. For the traditions that believes in re-incarnation,when a bad person died, he would not be named after and the cycle of life would be interrupted because he would not be reincarnated. In that case, life after death could be seen as an interruption.
THE ISSUE OF REINCARNATION
Most African traditions believe in reincarnation of the dead. This means that there is widespread belief in the reborn of hitherto dead individuals. E.g the Yoruba people of west Africa. It is believed that when a deceased person is not properly buried or has an unfinished business in the physical realm, the person may be reborn. Often times, the new birth is named after the deceased person to signify his/her reincarnation.
SIGNIFICANCE OF BURIAl RITES
Since the concept of life after death is universal in African tradition, certain measures are taken so as to prepare the deceased for the life hereafter. For instance, the Abaluya (a Bantu ethnic group in Kenya) bury their dead naked as a preparatory stage for rebirth in the next world.
The Madi’s (of South Sudan) on the other hand bury their females with the opening of their genitals wrapped to avoid the flow of menstrual blood to avoid embarrassment of the people in the next world; while the males are buried with their penis cut out and the foreskin removed to aid erection and procreation in the next life.
Those not buried rightfully are believed to become wandering spirits who were refused admittance into the world beyond. They wander the physical realm aimlessly and wreck havoc whenever they can. They are mostly feared and believed to become evil spirits perpetuating and causing evil plagues and occurrences. Often times, no burial or incomplete burial rites are performed for deceased persons of questionable character. This is to serve as a form of punishment in the great beyond since they will be refused admittance. For them, the ultimate goal is to reach the great beyond and become an ancestor carefully overseeing the realm of the living.
Although African tradition believe in life after, the issues or reward and punishment in the after life is largely contested. The Yorubas, Lozi, and landagaa believe that the life one has lived in the physical realm determines the reward or punishment of such a person in the after life. This belief helps to deter individuals in the society against bad behavior. It serves as a form of societal check to ensure that everyone obeys and does the right thing.
On the other hand, some clans in Kenya do not believe in punishment or reward of the afterlife. It is simply a continuation of the physical realm.
[Header image]– Sunset . Black River, Mauritius- Nicholas Kaeser / Flickr