Category Archives: Indigenous Cultures


#23 Burial Alive: The Master of the Fishing-Spear

When a master of the fishing-spear has fallen sick and is becoming weak, he will call all his people and tell them to bring his whole camp (tribe or subtribe) to his home to bury him whilst he lives. His people will obey him quickly come, for if they delay and the master of the fishing-spear dies before they reach him, they will be most miserable…

[An informant relates…]

…I first saw a master of the fishing-spear called Deng Deng buried alive in the land of the Majok tribe across the river. I was only a boy…

The master of the fishing-spear Deng Deng was becoming very old, and when his years were finished and he was very old indeed, so that he could not see well and all his teeth had fallen out, he told his lineage that he wished to be buried alive, and that they should go and tell the people of the country and see if they agreed.

They prepared the ground for his burial at a very ancient cattle-camp site called Malwal, which was also hard by the homestead of Deng Deng and near his cattle-byre. So it was at his very own original home [panden nhom, literally ‘the head of his home’]. The clan which cleared and dug the ground was Padiangbar; it is that clan which buries a master of the fishing-spear alive in my country.

They dug a very big hole on the highest point of the cattle-camp site, in the middle of the cattle. Next to it were two bulls, a big white one and a red one. They were the whole beasts of the clan-divinities Mon Grass and Flesh. When the hole had been dug, they made two platforms [frameworks] of akoc wood, which had been fetched by the young men of Padiangbar from far away in the forest, as much as a day’s journey distant.

They worked for three days, and the old man was still above the ground. They honoured the bulls with songs for two days, speaking invocations each day in the morning and the evening. Then the masters of the fishing-spear of Pakedang, along with those of Paketoi and Pagong, slit the throats of the bulls at about 10 o’ clock. Deng Deng’s mother was the daughter of a woman of Paketoi and his mother’s father was of the clan Pagong. So they were all there together, to join together his father’s and his maternal uncle’s families (bi panerden mat kek pan e wun).

Deng Deng made invocations over the bulls, and the horns of the first bull, the white one, sank forwards to the ground. When the bull had been killed, they took its skin and cut it into strips, and made a bed from it on the framework. And every day they made a feast (cam yai) and danced inside the cattle-byre during the daytime, and outside at night. And men slept in the byre with other men’s wives, and everyone agreed to this [literally ‘and there was no bad word’].

They then placed a war-shield, made from the hide of a bull of the clan-divinity which had been killed in the past, on the top of the bed. It was a war-shield which had for long been kept in the byre, and which the people had anointed with butter every spring and autumn, during the ‘dividing months’. They placed Deng Deng on the shield and lowered him into the grave.

The red (brown) bull remained. When Deng Deng had been lowered into the hole, they made a platform over him, and so arranged it that the top of the platform was level with the surface of the ground. They sang hymns, and after the singing was finished they made an enclosure of dhot wood around the grave. The enclosure was about twice the area of the surface of the grave, and of such a height that a man could just see over it if he tried. Then they took cattle-dung and partly covered over the top of the grave, leaving part uncovered so that his voice could be heard. From his grave, Deng Deng called the older men together outside the enclosure, and all the women and children, even his own wives, were sent away…

While the master of the fishing-spear still speaks, they do not cover the grave with dung. But when he no longer replies when they address him, they heap up the dung over him. And when it has all sunk in, they make a shrine. Some people may then say ‘The master of the fishing-spear has died’, but they will usually say ‘The master has been taken into the earth’. And nobody will say ‘Alas, he is dead!’ They will say ‘It is very good.’…

The fundamental principle, clear in all accounts, is that certain masters of the fishing-spear must not or should not be seen to enter upon physical death and the debility which precedes it in the same way as ordinary men or domestic animals. Their deaths are to be, or are to appear, deliberate, and they are to be the occasion of a form of public celebration.

…the ceremonies described in no way prevent the ultimate recognition of the ageing and physical death of those for whom they are performed. This death is recognized; but it is the public experience of it, for the survivors, which is deliberately modified by the performance of these ceremonies. It is clear also that this is the Dinka intention in performing the rites. They do not think that they have made their masters of the fishing-spear personally immortal by burying them before they have become corpses or, in some accounts, by anticipating their deaths by ritual killing. The expressions used for the deaths of masters of the fishing-spear are euphemisms for an event which is fully admitted. In my experience they are not even inevitably used, though a Dinka would prefer to say gently ‘The master has gone to the earth’ or ‘The master has gone to sit’, rather than ‘The master has died’, particularly at the time of death. These euphemisms replace the involuntary and passive connotations of the ordinary verb for ‘to die’ (thou) by expressions suggesting a positive act. Similarly (though this point is not specifically made in any of the accounts) when we hear that the people ‘bury their master of the fishing-spear’ it is as an alternative to ‘letting him die’. In other words, the deliberately contrived death, though recognized as death, enables them to avoid admitting in this case the involuntary death which is the lot of ordinary men and beasts. Further, it is not the master of the fishing-spear who ‘kills’ himself, though he requests or receives a special form of death. The action to avoid, for him, the mere deprival of life which death represents for ordinary Dinka, is action taken by his people. And, as we see in most of the accounts given, their intention is not primarily to undertake the special ceremonies for his sake, but for their own.

[#23] Dinka: “Burial Alive: The Master of the Fishing-Spear,” from Godfrey Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961, pp. 300-303, 313-314; quotations in introductory passage from 304, 309.

Additional Sources

Account of traditional African values in introductory section from Robert A. Lystad, Encyclopedia Americana, 1998, vol 1, p. 298; of languages, estimate from Barbara F. Grimes, ed., Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 13th ed. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Texas at Austin, 1996; see also Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, eds., African Languages: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 1; concerning slavery, Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1853; reprint, London, Frank Cass, 1966, vol. 2, p. 27; concerning methodological problems, Kwame Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 53-54; quotation concerning the Asante empire, from Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Medieval Africa 1250-1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 78; quotation from Samuel Johnson, from Toyin Falola, “Ade Ajayi on Samuel Johnson: filling the gaps,” chapter 7 in Toyin Falola, ed., African Historiography: Essays in honour of Jacob Ade Ajayi, Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1993, p. 86. Concerning the Ashanti, also see “Public and Private Offenses,” in K. A. Busia, The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of the Ashanti. London: Published for the International African Institute by Oxford University Press, 1951, pp. 65-71. Concerning the Fante story of Adjuah Amissah, see also “Expected Suicide: ‘Killing Oneself on the Head of Another,'” from A. B. Ellis [Alfred Burdon Ellis, 1852-1894], The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast of West Africa; their religion, manners, customs, laws, language, etc. London: Chapman and Hall, 1887, reprint Chicago: Benin Press, Ltd., 1964, pp. 287, 302-303; and T. Edward Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, London: John Murray, 1819, reprint London: Frank Cass, 1966, ftn. p. 259.   Quotation in introductory passage concern Yoruba abiku in repeated pregnancy failure from William Bascom, The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969, pp. 74. Also see S. O. Biobaku, Sources of Yoruba History, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973, p. 5. Account of Frazer’s theory of regicide and its critics from Benjamin C. Ray, Myth, Ritual and Kingship in Buganda, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 10 et passim; quotation on Akan principles of justice from Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 164-165. Jocelyn Murray, Cultural Atlas of Africa. New York: Equinox, 1981-1982; James George Frazer, The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion, New York: Macmillan, 1922.

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#22 The Folktale of The Four Truths


A man said to his wife, “I want you to arrange my hair in four parts.” The woman did as he directed. Then he went and sat under a tree and invited everybody to come and guess what each of the four parts stood for. Each person was to come with a cow-calf. The person who guessed correctly was to take all the cow-calves. He told his wife what the parts represented: “A wife is a stranger.” “A half brother from a stepmother is a stranger.” “A dog is a loyal friend.” “A mother’s brother is a loyal friend.”

People came and guessed, but no one guessed correctly. Many days passed, and no one guessed correctly. All that time the man remained under the tree. He did not work at home or in his fields.

The Government decided that he was a troublemaker; they decided that he would be hanged if anyone guessed correctly. The man was guarded by four policemen armed with guns.

One day a son of his half brother said to the man’s wife, “Why has Uncle abandoned his home? What is so important about this guessing game that it makes a man leave his wife and his home to sit under a tree?”

Then she said, “He is making much out of nothing. What he wants people to guess is very simple. His four truths are: ‘a wife is a stranger’; ‘a half brother from a stepmother is a stranger’; ‘a dog is a loyal friend’; and ‘a mother’s brother is a loyal friend.’ It is all very simple.”

The boy spent the night at his uncle’s home. In the morning he went and worked in the fields. Then he went and sat under the tree. People continued to guess while he listened. Eventually, he said, “Uncle, may I try?” “Of course you may,” said his uncle.

“Those four parts stand for: ‘a wife is a stranger;’ ‘a half brother from a stepmother is a stranger;’ ‘a dog is a loyal friend;’ and ‘a brother of your mother is a loyal friend.’ ”

His uncle looked down and said nothing. “Did he guess correctly?” asked one of the policemen. “Yes,” he answered.

The man was carried away to Headquarters. The Chief said that he would be executed the following day.

The man begged the Chief, “Please do not kill me before I pay my last visit to my family! Allow me to talk to my wife before I die.”

The Chief allowed him to go, guarded by four policemen. When he got to his house, he said to his wife, “My dear wife, what began as a game has destroyed me!”

“I do not want to hear anything now,” she said. “Who told you to do it? Leave me alone. Go to your death.”

“Won’t you at least give me some milk to drink?” he begged. “I am hungry!”

“No!” she said, “I will not give you milk. Why should I waste my milk on a dying man.”

So he went into the cattle-byre and cried. When the dogs saw him cry, they attacked the policemen, killing two of them. The dogs were then caught and killed.

The other two policemen took the prisoner back to the Chief. On the way, they met his half brother from a stepmother. The half brother said to him, “Brother, has that game really destroyed you? Are they really going to kill you?” “Yes, Brother,” he said, “they are going to kill me.”

“If you are really going to die, then Brother, it would be a terrible waste to go with that beautiful robe you are wearing. Would you please give it to me? I will give you this one to die in.”

“No!” the man said. “Keep your robe. I will die in my own robe.”

So they parted and continued their separate journeys. In the meantime, the man sent word to his sister’s son, saying “I am dying. Would at least one of you come and talk to me before I die?”

His sister had six sons. The youngest said he want to go alone. The eldest said he wanted to go alone. Each of the six wanted to go alone. The youngest said that unless he was allowed to go alone, he would kill himself. So he went. He ran and ran until close to dawn. When he arrived, he found his uncle had been taken to be hanged. He went to the policemen and said, “Let my uncle go; otherwise someone will die with him.”

The policemen said to him, “How can we let him go when the Chief has sentenced him to death?”

“Let us go back to the Chief and discuss the matter there,” he said.

When the policemen refused, the boy told them that if they proceeded with the execution they would be sure to lose one of their own.

The policemen hesitated and then decided to take the boy back to the Chief. When they got there, the boy offered to take his uncle’s place and be hanged in his place: “My uncle is an only son. He has no brothers to look after his things. My mother has six sons. I am the sixth. I can die, and the five brothers will take care of our things. Please, Chief, let my uncle live.”

The matter was debated and debated. Then the Chief turned to the prisoner and asked, “Why did you decide to play such a game?”

“I wanted to prove what has just happened,” the man said. “I gave the secret to my wife, and she gave it away to the only person who guessed correctly. When I went to talk to her before I was to die, she rebuked me. As I was about to be taken back, my dogs attacked the policemen and killed two of them. As I came back with the remaining two policemen, I met my half brother on the way. All he cared for was my beautiful robe. And now you have just seen what my nephew has done. That is what I wanted to prove.”

They saw what he meant. The Chief decided to pardon him without punishing the boy. So both the man and his nephew returned free and happy.

[#22] Dinka:  “The Folktale  of the Four Truths,” from Francis Mading Deng, Dinka Folktales: African Stories from the Sudan, New York and London: Africana Publishing, Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1974, pp. 137-139.

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#21 The Ghost of a Suicide
     (John Roscoe, 1923)

Though there were certain spirits which were feared, there was no knowledge of a spirit-world or of any spirits created apart from this world: the people stood in constant awe only of disembodied spirits of men, the ghosts. When a man who possessed property died, his heir had to build him a shrine in the house near his own bed, and generally dedicated to him certain cows whose milk was daily offered at the shrine, this being the place where the ghost came to visit his family and to take his meal of the essence of the milk. The rest of the milk was then drunk by the owner of the house and those of his children who were unmarried and living at home. No outside person might partake, and even the man’s wife might not take any, for she was of a different clan. If the ghost was neglected or any member of the family did anything of which he did not approve, he would manifest his displeasure by causing illness or death among the people or the cattle. Powerful ghosts might also be persuaded by members of their families to cause illness to some person of another clan in revenge for some wrong. Sickness was always supposed to be caused either by ghosts or by magic; and a medicine-man had to be summoned to find out the cause by augury, for the treatment varied with the cause.

People who had no property and no power in this world were not generally feared when they became ghosts, for they were thought to have as little power then as before, and no steps were taken to keep their ghosts in good temper. The ghosts of some poor people, however, might be dangerous, owing to the circumstances of their death. For example, a sick man who came to beg for food and was refused might, should he die in the neighbourhood from want, cause some evil. If an epidemic broke out or someone fell ill shortly afterwards, the misfortune was attributed to this ghost and offerings were made to propitiate him.

The ghost of anyone who had been wrongfully accused and had committed suicide was very dangerous, even the ghost of a woman being feared under these circumstances. A woman who had been wrongfully accused of adultery would go and hang herself, and her ghost would then be a malignant influence. Her body was buried as near the place of her death as possible that the ghost might be destroyed or confined to that locality. If she hanged herself on a tree, the body was buried just clear of the roots, the tree was cut down and its roots were dug up; the whole was then burned to ashes and the relatives had to pay ample compensation to the chief on whose land the deed had been done.

[#21] Banyoro: “The Ghost of a Suicide,” from John Roscoe, The Bakitara or Banyoro, Cambridge:” At the University Press, 1923, pp. 41-42.

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#20 The Burial of a King
     (R. C. A. Samuelson, 1929)

When a king dies the fact is kept secret for quite three months, and people are simply told that Inkosi Iyadunguzela, “the king is ailing.” So soon as he is dead a black bull is killed and its hide wrapped round the king, all over, and he is sewn into it and as it dries tightens up. Many other bulls of the same colour are killed after this and their hides wrapped round, in turn, over the first one until the hide coffin of the king has become very large and heavy. Towards the end of the third month all the soldiers of the king are called up to where he is lying in state, without being told what for—when they have arrived then only it leaks out that the king is no more. Some of them are sent to cut branches of the Umbambangwe (a thorny bush), others are sent to cut branches of the Umklele bush (a very tough bush) for the purpose of a fence being made round the grave, some, with the household officers of the king, are set to dig and prepare the grave. All the soldiers come to this ceremony fully panoplied. The nobility, consisting of those who were members of his Executive, carry him to the grave—perfect silence is observed while he is being carried to the grave. The grave is a very large one, and a special niche in the side of the grave is cut out for placing his body in. His personal household servants, “Izinceku,” enter the grave and receive him and place him in his last resting place. All attire he has worn and articles he has used are buried with him, but laid a little distance away from him. The king’s favourite wife, an Inceku, “personal servant,” who used to wash his feet, and another Inceku, who used to eat what the king left, are, or used to be, buried alive with the king, sometimes they were killed and then buried. With some kings it is said that a wife holding a mat for making his bed, another holding a snuff-box with snuff, another holding a calabash with water for him to drink, were buried with him. King Mpande’s Prime Minister, Masipula, was arranging to have such women and men buried with King Mpande, when he was about to be buried, but King Cetewayo stopped him doing so.

[#20] Zulu: “The Burial of a King,” from R. C. A. Samuelson, Long, Long Ago, Durban: Knox Printing and Publishing Co., 1929, p. 291.

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#19 Ukugodusa: The First Woman Who Became a Christian
     (L. H. Samuelson, 1912)

There are many, no doubt, who know of the old cruel Zulu custom of “Ukugodusa” (sending home), i.e., doing away with the aged people. If a man was too old and feeble to go to the king’s kraal occasionally, and join his regiment whenever called out, the king would pick out a troop of men and say, “Hamba niye kum’godusa” —meaning “go and send him home.” Then this troop of men would travel miles away to the man’s kraal, taking good care to get there by night, and to surround it, so as to pounce upon the poor old fellow as soon as he came out of his hut in the morning, and take him away to bury alive or otherwise kill him. The victim simply had to go away obediently, knowing it was the king’s order, as well as the custom of his country. So all Zulu men, old and young, used to make a point of meeting at the king’s kraal, “Komkulu” (at the great one’s), especially at Christmas time, to show that they were still of service. If through illness they had to stay at home, and it could be proved that they were indisposed, the king excused them; but they were most careful not to let it happen again.

When women became helpless, and needed looking after, they, too, had to be “sent home,” and that was done by their own people. Even their own sons would order it to be done, and assist in the cruel performance… “Ukugodusa,” one is thankful to know, is out of date now, as well as illegal.

I feel that it would, perhaps, be wise to give one more proof to show that the above was a real custom amongst Zulus, even as lately as in the days of King Cetshwayo. A poor old woman named Madokodo was another victim, besides Mfoto whom I mentioned before. Sometime in the beginning of 1869 Madokodo, on account of her old age, was thrown into a donga, or pit, by one of her sons and his friends, to get her out of the way, or send her home (godusa), as this was called. The poor old body was not in her second childhood (as Mfoto was), but was healthy and strong. She was in this pit for a few days, trying to get out, but kept falling back again. When night came she was in terror of the wolves and tigers which were prowling about the place; but she knew there was a Great God above, and she prayed for His protection. At last she managed to scrape a few holes in the donga with her finger nails, and made steps to climb up by, and the Great Almighty (Usomandhla) gave her strength to get out. Then she went to a great friend of hers, who fed her and kept her in a secret corner of her kraal until she got over her shock and became strong again. Madokodo then went to one of her other sons by night, and he was much pleased as well as surprised to see his mother alive; but, fearing the elder and cruel brother might find her and try to carry out this cruel custom again, he thought it best not to keep her with him long, so he proposed taking her to a mission station and giving her to the missionary. The mother agreed to this, and the two went off together, traveling a good many miles till they reached St. Paul’s Mission Station, the missionary there being my father, Rev. S. M. Samuelson. Arriving at the door of our house, poor old Madokodo, lame and footsore, called out in a pleading voice, “Ngitola Baba,” “Ngitola Nkosi Yame!” which means, “Adopt me, Father,” “Adopt me, my Master.” My father inquired into the matter, and all was related, her loving son supporting her. Nothing could be done but to save the poor old soul from future trouble, and to try to win her for Christ’s Kingdom. My father took her under his care on August 13th, 1869, and the son took leave of his mother and returned home again. Madokodo slept in the kitchen, and my mother took great interest in her, for she was very intelligent, industrious and tidy. After a while Madokodo expressed a wish to join the Catechumen class, and be prepared for Baptism. She was very earnest; for early in the morning, just about sunrise, we children heard her deep, pleading voice in prayer whilst we were still in our beds, “Baba wami Opezulu, ovele wa ngibheka, osangibhekile namanje, ngitola Mdali wami, tola nabanta bami, utetelele nalo ongilahlileyo!” (My Father above, Thou Who hast taken care for me from the very first, and Who art still caring for me, adopt me, my Creator, adopt also my children, and forgive the one who has thrown me away.”) Then she would always finish with “The Lord’s Prayer,” which she had by then learnt. At the end of eight months she was baptized, and received the named Eva. She was, I believe, the first old woman who became a Christian at St. Paul’s, and she was very happy after that, and helped in the mission work by setting an excellent example to the younger converts. News of the aged woman’s conversion and baptism spread all over the country like wildfire, for Zulus, as a rule, are great news carriers. Her wicked son heard of it, for he had hoped she had reached her destination long ago, as he had “sent her home.” The middle-aged people bore her a grudge on account of her having become a Christian at her age, and, fearing others might do the same, clubbed together and made plans to get her out the way; so they accused her of witchcraft and reported her to King Cetshwayo. Eva at this time had had someone to help to build her a small hut, and she was cutting some high grass (tambootie) near a certain kraal, with which to thatch it. Meanwhile, illness (influenza colds) breaking out at this kraal, poor old Eva was accused of having caused this. The King, through his Prime Minister, Mnyamana, granted permission to have her killed. On the 4th of June, 1870 (Trinity Sunday), as we were just coming out of church, we were surprised by a large party of men (thirty in number) meeting us outside the church door, armed with assagais and knobkerries, with a demand from the King that Eva should be handed over to them to be killed! Eva ran to her protector (my father), calling out, “Save me, save me!” and caught hold of him round the waist, and the men pulling her away by force nearly tore his coat tails off. Then my younger brother Robert (R. C. Samuelson) interfered, and took hold of the woman, calling out, “Muyeke bo!” (leave her); then one man, indignant with this interference, lifted up his knobkerrie over Robert’s head, shouting: “Ngase ngiliqumuze ikanda kona manje” (I will break your skull this moment); then, of course, the poor woman had to go. She was driven by these thirty men six miles into the thorn country to river called Idango, near the Umblatuzi river. We sat on the mountain, all of us, watching the long procession, Eva leading, the row of cruel humanity following in a long string. We watched and prayed broken-hearted, for we all loved poor old Eva; but it was a comfort to know she was a Christian! At last when we could see them no more we returned home, too dispirited to dine that day. In the evening someone told us she had met her fate bravely. As she went along she prayed to be received in the Heavenly Home of rest, where all unkindness and cruelty will end! At Idango river they drove her to a very big pond, where crocodiles were often seen; there they lifted up their kerries to brain her. She then said, “Ngogoduka impela namhla!” (“I will, of a surety (indeed), go home to-day!”) They then killed her and threw her into the pond for the crocodiles to eat.

Such was life in Zululand before the Zulu war. And yet on the whole things had, in a way, improved since Tshaka’s and Dingane’s days. The life of a missionary with his family was not at all an enviable one, although the natives had great respect for them, knowing as they did that lived in their country as friends and messengers of the Gospel. They liked the missionary, although they objected to his religion.

[#19] Zulu: “Ukugodusa: The First Woman Who Became a Christian,” from L. H. Samuelson (Nomleti), Some Zulu Customs and Folk-Lore, London: The Church Printing Company, 1912, pp. 11-17.

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#18 Godusa: The Old Woman and the Ant-Bear’s Hole
     (R. C. A. Samuelson, 1929)

Here is an instance of a custom of the Zulus, which civilisation would naturally characterise as cruel, but which, with the Zulus was considered merciful. There was a kraal named KwaMbaza, about three miles fromSt. Paul’s Mission Station, and the chief man in charge was a headman called Mazwi. In this kraal there lived an old woman who was well over a hundred years, whose name was Mfotho. Mother, who was a great walker, used to visit this, among other kraals in connection with mission work, accompanied by one of the mission station Christian girls, taking medicines if required.

This old woman came out to see mother, and the two became great friends. Mother gave her a blanket to keep her old body warm, for she had been provided with very scanty covering. The old lady totteringly danced before Mother and thanked her for the gift, and whenever Mother came thereafter Mfotho used to dance, and, to encourage her, the people of the kraal used to applaud her by shouting “Mfotho.” On the last occasion mother went to this kraal Mfotho failed to appear, so Mother enquired what was the matter with her, and in what hut she was. The cool answer was, “She has gone home, she was placed in that ant-bear’s hole yonder.” This failed to satisfy Mother’s enquiry, so she pressed her question, and this is the account she received. “Mfotho was so old that we decided to help her to ‘go home,’ so one day we told her to come out of her hut and walk to an ant-bear’s hole yonder to be buried; she did not object, but came along with snuff box which had been used by her to hold her snuff many years. When she arrived near the hole, she asked to be allowed to sit down and have a snuff, and she was allowed to do so. When she had finished snuffing she put her snuff box into a small bag which hung from her loins, stood up and said, ‘I am now ready; I am going.’ She moved to the edge of the hole, and was pushed into it and buried alive.” Mother was so shocked that she never visited that kraal again.

It was a general custom of the Zulus to “godukisa” or “godusa” old people in this manner. They never said a very old person had died; but they us to say “Usegodukile,” “he has now gone home.” Anyway, it was not an ideal way of dying or going home. It is, moreover, strange that the Zulu, who had no idea of future home according to our way of thinking, and had no knowledge of the immortality of the soul, except that it lived in Idhlozi, “Snake” should have coined and used that expression. Maybe it was coined at a time that their creed was different to that which they later adopted. It may be, of course, that they referred to the rendezvous of the spirits of their ancestors, the Amadhlozi.

[#18] Zulu: “Godusa: The Old Woman and the Antbear’s Hole,” from R. C. A. Samuelson, Long, Long Ago, Durban: Knox Printing and Publishing Co., 1929, pp. 37-38.


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#17 The Timely Death

The importance of the shades in Zulu life and thinking cannot be overestimated… The few variations in thinking that may be traced are related to differences in rural and urban settings and the tendency for urbanized Zulu to be more sophisticated in their thinking. It is true that the symbol through which thinking is expressed at times may change, largely due to local conditions of life. But the interpretation given to the symbol is, again, remarkably uniform. Zulu living in the stone-covered areas of the Msinga district bury their dead with a stone place at the feet, over the head and under the knees of the corpse, while people in a district where stones are not plentiful will use pieces of broken clay vessels for the same purpose. But both the stones and the pieces of burnt clay are interpreted similarly. “He is like a stone. So we are burying him with stones,” was said in the Msinga district, while people living in the stone-lacking area, defining their symbol, said: “The dead man is like the hard clay which is the vessel. It is stone-like… That is why we bury him with these things. They are no good to us any more. His body is no good any more. The clay and the corpse are the same.”…

The existence and presence of the shades is not doubted. They are a reality which is so strongly interwoven into kinship relations that a world without them is not possible. Faith is not in the first instance approached critically. It is generously inclusive. It is only of recent date that scepticism is finding its way into Zulu thought-patterns and expressed essentially among intellectuals, particularly those in urban settings…


There are essentially two concepts of death. Firstly, a timely death which presupposes a number of children and grandchildren who survive the deceased. Secondly, there is death which is untimely and is regarded as a serious interference in a human’s life. The quality of such a death is included in the English idioms annihilation or extinction. A timely death is in the Zulu language expressed by terms such as ukugoduka, ukudlula, ukuhamba and ukuqubeka, which all give notions of a passing on, a continuation. An untimely death is described as ukufa, ukubhubha, and ukugqibuka which imply a breaking off of life.

Ngema [an informant] was emphatic that physical death, when it comes at the correct time in life, is in itself not evil. It is to be regarded as a natural continuation of man’s existence. “When a man has completed his work in that he is old and of ripe age, then he is happy because things have gone well with him. He sees that there will be those that will do his work for him (ref. to ritual killings) when he has passed on. So he is not fearful because of death. He can even say to his people, ‘No, I am now tired of living.’ He says this because there is nothing more he can do.” Discussions with a great number of Zulu on the issue of death at a mature age indicates that Ngema was not expressing only personal views but ideas representative of the people.

When old people die they are not mourned. “To the old death does not come unexpectedly. We do not mourn them because we knew that it was coming. They were not taken unaware.” People expressing sympathy with friends whose aged parents or senior relatives have passed away show no signs of grief and will say: “We do not say anything. He was of ripe age.” Or they may say: “Do not complain. It was her turn now. Even the teeth revealed that eating was painful.” “You must not weep. Did you not know that he was ready for this thing? So why are you distressed?”

Death of an aged person is not of necessity considered the work of sorcery or witchcraft. It is a natural development and accepted as such.

Literature on the Zulu makes mention of the now obsolete custom of ukugodusa, sending the aged further. Informants who have knowledge of this custom agree that it was by no means common although done occasionally. It was certainly not looked upon as cruel. Informants themselves accepted the custom as intelligible, saying that they did not see anything wrong with it other than that “today the magistrate and the police do not allow it.” An old man who had been messenger at the battle of Ulundi said that one of his father’s brothers had been treated thus. He recollected hearing the man asking his sons to godusa him “since he had no teeth and not even the sun could warm him any more.” After a few days the old man was no longer seen in the homestead and nobody inquired about him, “everybody knowing what had been done”.

[#17] Zulu: “The Timely Death,” from Axel-Ivar Berglund, Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism, New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1976, pp. 78-81.

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#16 An Old Woman’s Pre-Arranged Funeral
     (G. T. Basden, 1921)

Holding the most profound belief in the supernatural, the Ibo is deeply conscious of his relationship to the unseen world, and every precaution must be observed in order to keep the spirit of the departed in a state of peaceful contentment. The Ibo will endure everything demanded of him in this life; will put up with hardships, the misbehaviour of his children, indeed anything, in order to insure that his burial will be properly performed. His whole future welfare depends upon this, and hence it takes, at all times, a most prominent place in a man’s calculations.

In certain districts it was formerly by no means rare to find that a woman had made arrangements whereby she died before reaching the period of enforced inactivity. There was the perpetual dread lest she should be unable to secure a guarantee or leave sufficient property whereby she might be sure of a worthy burial. To relieve her mind she would strive to accumulate the necessary funds and then, divining that the days of her decline were near, she would enter into an agreement with her son, or some other young man, in which he undertook to fulfill all her wishes in connection with her burial, she, on her part, duly compensating him for all the expense and trouble involved. These preliminaries having been mutually settled, the woman either poisoned herself or the draught was administered to her, in order that the final rites in connection with the second burial might be fulfilled with as little delay as possible.

…When men have run their course in this world they return to their master—the Supreme Being—and live with him in the spirit world. In their spiritual state they are endowed with never-ending life, and, until the ceremony of second burial has been observed, they continue to haunt this world, wandering at will in the houses, compound and farms, invisible, yet ever present, and taking a distinct and unremitting interest in the affairs of the individual and the community with which they associated in life. After the rites of second burial have been completed the “spirits” depart to their appointed place and rest in peace until their reincarnation, i.e. as long as they behave themselves.

[#16] Igbo: “An Old Woman’s Prearranged Funeral,” from G. T. Basden, Among the Ibos of Nigeria. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1921, reprint London: Frank Cass, 1966, pp. 117-119

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#15 A Murderer Must Hang Himself

Homicide is an offense against the earth deity. If a villager is involved, the murderer is expected to hang himself, after which the daughters of the village perform the rite of sweeping away the ashes of murder. If the murderer has fled, his extended family must also flee, and the property of all is subject to raids. When the murderer is eventually caught, he is required to hang himself to enable the [daughters of the village] to perform their rites. It is important to realize that the village has no power to impose capital punishment. In fact, no social group or institution has this power. Everything affecting the life of the villager is regulated by custom. The life of the individual is highly respected; it is protected by the earth-goddess. The villagers can bring social pressure, but the murderer must hang himself.

[#15] Igbo: “A Murderer Must Hang Himself,” from Victor C. Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965, pp. 42-43.

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#14 Sacrifices, Death, and Burial
     (G. T. Basden, 1938)

… [the] “Ichu-aja”… offering consists of a selection of the following: food, strips of cloth, a gin bottle, a lizard, a chicken or a kid, and other things up to a bull or, in the past, a human being, according to the instructions of the “dibia”, and as the circumstances demand. A man may be his own sacrificing priest on occasions. When, however, the “dibia” so directs, the “di-okpala” alone can act.

The main objects of “Ichu-aja” are:

(a) to remove fear of the living and the dead;

(b) to secure present and future well-being;

(c) to appease malevolent spirits.

The immediate results are hope, peace of mind and expectations of blessings to come.

Note may be made of other occasions when “Ichu-aja” is observed. The most common occur when a member of the community dies from a noxious complaint which rouses feelings of repulsion, such as leprosy or smallpox; in the case of self-inflicted death, or when a man dies during the time of mourning for his wife, or a woman for her husband. The bodies of such are not buried in the ordinary manner: they are carried out and deposited in the “ajo-ofia” (bad bush). For this sacrifice, not much preparation is required. It is a small affair, the offering demands no more space than a wooden platter, or a makeshift one, cut from a banana (tree) stem, or a fragment of dried gourd (calabash), or merely a plaited palm-leaf dish. The offering is carefully laid at the junction where three or more paths intersect at a spot outside the confines of the village and, usually, adjacent to a path leading to a burial ground. The place selected is known a “Abu-ito” and is near the spot where the disgruntled spirit is supposed to have dwelling.

The person carrying the offering is enjoined to maintain strict silence while passing along the road; not even a salutation is permissible. It is hardly necessary to exercise caution, because an oncoming traveler is usually quick to notice the presence of the platter and incontinently gives way to the bearer. He will do this from fear rather than from feelings of respect, hence there is little likelihood of the bearer being accosted by the other person. Some guidance in direction comes from the fact that the spirit is alleged to be residing at an indicated spot. The presentation of the sacrifice is deemed sufficient to mollifty his feelings and to induce him to cease from troubling the living.

…It is advisable to recall attention to the fact that the Ibo sacrifices for two main reasons. First, because of the pinch of adversity in some form or another. In common with other folk, the sense of sin and evil at work in the world drives a man to seek help from an outside power whom he believes to be his guardian spirit. The insufficiency of man, and his consequent inability to walk uprightly, is recognized by the Ibo. This is really why sacrifices are offered. The terms “Igo-Maw” (“to propitiate (feast) the spirits”) have deep significance for the Ibo. This underlying meaning must always be present in the mind of the student if he is to approach the study of Ibo sacrifice and ceremonial sympathetically.

We note that “Ichu-aja” is offered to malevolent spirits only; there is no form of direct sacrifice to the Supreme Being…

…Sacrifice, in consequence of pollution, is called “Ikpu-alu” = “to drive out abomination”; it may be on behalf of an individual or for the township. The following are some instances for which “Ikpu-alu” is necessary for purification purposes:

  1. A man having carnal knowledge of his mother, sister, or another of his father’s wives.
  2. A man committing adultery with his brother’s wife, or the wife of a member with whom there is blood relationship.
  3. Major misdeeds against Native Law and Custom.
  4. A man committing suicide by hanging.
  5. A man fighting with a “maw”. [a man impersonating a re-embodied spirit] (Vide p. 375.)
  6. A man having sexual intercourse with an animal.
  7. The birth of twins.
  8. A child cutting its upper before its lower teeth.
  9. Abnormal presentation in delivery.

These are examples; there are other offences which demand purification ceremonies; a complete list would absorb considerable space.

…When feast to the “Ilo-Maw” is observed, the procedure is as follows. Before describing it, attention must be called to the fact that, for the most part, sickness is not attributed to natural causes. Instead, it is believed that ill health, for which no visible reason can be assigned, is the result of witchcraft, or that it springs from the activities of spirits who have, in some unknown way, been offended and who display their wrath by inflicting sickness. One of the leading members of the family approaches a “dibia” and relates his story. The “dibia” inquires into the circumstances, the kind of sickness, how and when it began, and so forth. He thus obtains all the information available and derives some foundation upon which to base his diagnosis. He is then in a position to proceed with his own professional part in the business. He does this by divination. The upshot is that, as a general rule, blame is attached to some person, very frequently a woman. Clandestine infidelity is assumed to be a cause of sickness, including rheumatism and other ailments which have no connection with sexual intercourse. Too often, the allegation cannot be denied and, though the woman cannot understand “how” it has come about, yet, being unable to refute the charge, it is taken for granted that her sin is the cause of the sickness. Her one and only chance to prove herself innocent of deliberate evil intention was to pass successfully through a trial by ordeal. This consisted of swallowing the contents of the poison cup. (Orachi = sasswood.) A woman who has unfornate enough to be condemned to this form of trial died, forthwith, unless there was found a way of escape. Not often, however, was a woman rich enough to negotiate successfully with the administrator of the cup. He was most probably quite amenable to a monetary compromise. If made sufficiently attractive he might be persuaded to omit the poison altogether or, failing that, add a potent emetic which would cause the drinker to vomit before the poison could take effect…

The following description of death and burial customs pertains rather to the Awka District; they are not universal in the Ibo country. Each neighborhood has its own peculiar adaptations…

…The cause of death…plays an important part in the question of burial. The bodies of those who die from noxious diseases are disposed of hurriedly. Lepers, and those who die from smallpox, or some cause which cannot be accounted for satisfactorily, are quickly removed. Lepers are wound in their sleeping-mats and, like those who die of smallpox, are not placed in a grave; they are deposited in the “ajo-ofia” (bad bush) very often, indeed, before they are dead.

It is abomination for a dropsical person to die in the house. Death by dropsy is the due result of evil-doing, such as administering poison; the culprit has escaped human detection, but has not escaped punishment at the hands of the gods. People dying as the result of accident; women dying in childbirth; lunatics, suicides and those who have been murdered, drowned or burned are considered as having come to their untimely ends by “Onwu Ekwensu”, that is, by the instrumentality of the Devil. None of these may be rubbed with “ufie”, and they must be disposed of without delay. Should, by chance, any rubbing be done for one of these, it is done with “edo”, a brilliant yellow stain obtained from wood prepared in the same manner as camwood dye. They must be buried outside the confines of the town as befits those whose death is of the Devil. In the case of a suicide, it is essential, too, that the culpit’s house be ceremonially purified.

The corpse of a man or woman who dies during the period of mourning for wife or husband is treated similarly. The privilege of “Second Burial” is denied to all who die “Onwu Ekwensu”, nor is a “Chi” or “Okpensi” set up for them or the slave; they are for ever blotted out of the book of remembrance.

[#14] Igbo:  “Sacrifices, Death, and Burial,” from G. T. Basden, Niger Ibos.  New York, Barnes & Noble, Inc, 1938, 1966, pp. 58-60, 63-64,  271, 276,  416.


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