(documented 1853-present)

  1. African Origin Myths: Man Desires Death
    (Hans Abrahamsson)


  1. The Souls of the Dogons
    (documented by Solange de Ganay, 1937-39)


  1. Restraining the Bereaved to Prevent Suicide
    (documented by Jack Goody, 1962)


  1. The Detection of Witches: Ordeal and Punishment


  1. Law and Constitution: A Suicide’s Trial
    (documented by Capt. R. S. Rattray, 1929)
  2. Funeral Rites for Babies and Kings
    (documented by Capt. R. S. Rattray, 1929)
  3. The Price of Intrigue with Women of Royal Blood
    (documented by A. B. Ellis, 1887)


  1. Killing Oneself “Upon the Head of Another”: The Tragedy of Adjuah Amissah
    (documented by Brodie Cruickshank, 1853)


  1. The Prohibition of Death
    (documented by M. J. Field, 1937)


  1. The Criminality of Suicide
    (documented by A.B. Ellis, 1890)


  1. The Kings of the Yoruba
    (documented by Samuel Johnson, 1897)
  2. Yoruba Laws and Customs: Suicide
    (documented by A. K. Ajisafe, 1924)


  1. Evil Spirits
    (documented by Northcote W. Thomas, 1913)
  2. Sacrifices, Death, and Burial
    (documented by G. T. Basden, 1938)
  3. A Murderer Must Hang Himself
  4. An Old Woman’s Prearranged Funeral
    (documented by G. T. Basden, 1921)


  1. The Timely Death
  2. Godusa: The Old Woman and the Antbear’s Hole
    (documented by R.C.A. Samuelson, 1929)
  3. Ukugodusa: The First Woman Who Became a Christian
    (documented by L. H. Samuelson, 1912)
  4. The Burial of a King
    (documented by R.C.A. Samuelson, 1929)


  1. The Ghost of a Suicide
    (documented by John Roscoe, 1923)


  1. The Folktale of the Four Truths
  2. Burial Alive: The Master of the Fishing-Spear


A continent comprising a fifth of the world’s land area, once the central portion of earth’s landmass, Africa was the area of origin for homo sapiens, the modern human, some 130,000–200,000 years ago. Below the vast desert that has come to serve as a cultural divide between sub-Saharan Africa and the largely Arabic regions edging the Mediterranean to the north, the African terrain consists primarily of flat or lightly rolling plains, without a central mountainous core or a broad continental shelf, a continent marked primarily by gradual changes of altitude and a highly regular coastline, rich in mineral, plant, and animal resources.

Within sub-Saharan Africa, forms of social organization range from small nomadic bands of hunter-gatherer-forager peoples, to farming and cattle-herding cultures, to highly urbanized societies. Traditional cultures have been largely rural and agricultural, many with trading networks but largely without centralized governmental authorities; yet Africa has also seen the formation of vast empires, including the 10th-century empire of Ghana, the 14th-century empire of Mali, the 15th-century empire of Bunyoro, the Ashanti empire of the 18th and 19th centuries, the 19th-century empire of Buganda, and the 19th-century kingdom of the Zulu, among many others. Many traditional communities stress both kinship networks with a unilineal pattern of descent and age-graded associations, especially among males. Among many, dowries are paid from male to female (the “bridewealth”), procreation is emphasized, and polygyny is a traditional ideal. However, traditional African societies are extremely diverse, and generalization is not possible. Furthermore, geographic and cultural boundaries do not always coincide, and an overall picture of Africa and its many societies is necessarily complex.

The standard way of classifying traditional oral African societies is by language, though this process is complicated by patterns of migration and language spread and by issues concerning the distinction between language and dialect. Four major language families or phyla contain what Barbara Grimes estimates to be Africa’s approximately 2,000 distinct indigenous languages. Among these language families, the largest groups are the Niger-Congo (including Kordofanian and Bantu), spoken in western and south-central Africa, with some 1,436 languages; Nilo-Saharan, spoken in central and central-eastern interior regions (196 languages); the Khosian family of click languages, spoken in the southern interior (35 languages); and Afroasiatic, including Semitic, Egyptian, Berber, Cushitic, and other languages of the north (371 languages). Among Africa’s huge variety of languages, Hausa, a Chadic language of the Afroasiatic family, and Swahili, an eastern coastal Niger-Congo language of the Bantu subfamily, have played the roles of lingua franca for trade; so have a variety of other languages, including Arabic, Afrikaans, French, and English. Many of the selections presented here are from the Niger-Congo family, which includes languages spoken by the majority of sub-Saharan Africans.

Few of Africa’s traditional sub-Saharan societies have written literatures. However, most have substantial, longstanding oral traditions. Wherever possible, these selections attempt to present traditional African legends, myths, stories, and histories concerning suicide from the earliest documenters of each culture’s oral history. Many of these documents were written or compiled from other accounts by Western explorers and missionaries using native informants. Other documents, however, come from educated Africans who wrote in Western languages but could interview informants in their native tongues.

While it is impossible to generalize effectively over such a large range of cultures in a geographic region as large as Africa, some similarities, Robert Lystad argues, are evident among traditional African values: that human nature is neither good nor evil, but capable of error; that humans should adapt to nature and the universe, rather than seek to alter it; that property is to be shared; and that the solutions to human problems are to be sought in traditional legends and stories. The universe is understood as a unity, not a dualism of mind/body or matter/spirit; the Creator or creative power is distant, though lesser gods and local spirits may intervene in the affairs of humans. Particularly relevant to issues of suicide are the beliefs that there is life after death and that kinship networks include family members who have already died, as well as those who are still living.

Beginning in the late 15th century, European commercial, colonizing, and proselytizing interests began to penetrate sub-Saharan Africa. The Portuguese, British, French, Germans, Spanish, Italians, Dutch, and Belgians all established areas of colonial rule, variously exporting minerals, goods, and slaves. Taking advantage of certain traditional slaving practices, the European slave trade increased from about 275,000 between 1450–1600, to about 1.3 million during the 17th century, about 6 million during the 18th century, and ended, after another 2 million, in the latter half of the 19th century. Brazil, the Spanish Empire, the British West Indies, the French West Indies, and North America were all major importers of slaves; so was the Arab world. Altogether, an estimated 12 million left the African continent as slaves in the European trade; an estimated 10–20% died during the Middle Passage.

The sources provided here largely postdate the era of enslavement and the slave trade, but that era and its consequences were hardly forgotten: As Brodie Cruickshank had commented in 1853 on the comparatively few European forts that remained after the end of the slave trade in the Gold Coast, “. . . there is something exceedingly horrible in the contemplation of the nations of Europe thus clinging to Africa like leeches and sucking her very life-blood, and to find her now almost neglected and forsaken when she is no longer permitted to be their prey.”

As with other oral cultures, accounts of myths, histories, and practices by outsiders, invaders, missionaries, and exploiters may well be influenced by the cultural ideologies of the reporters—in Africa, primarily Christianity and Islam—but they nevertheless offer the closest insight into traditional African culture and its views. A particularly vivid example of the tensions between direct access to traditional cultural material and Westernizing influences is to be found in the accounts of the Yoruba by Rev. Samuel Johnson (c. 1845–1901) (selection #11), one of the earliest and most prolific writers on African history. Johnson was himself a great-grandson of the Alafin Abiodun, the famous king of the Oyo Empire in the late 18th century, but was also a committed Christian, educated in Greek, Latin, mathematics, and Western philosophy and religious studies. A diplomat, missionary, and peacemaker in the disputes among Yoruba groups, as well as between the British and the Oyo, Johnson spoke African languages and was able to interview the traditional arokin, or court historians, in compiling his immense and authoritative History of the Yoruba; yet he reinterpreted Yoruba history as exhibiting its development toward the ultimate end of becoming Christianized. Johnson eventually became an Anglican priest, hoping “. . . above all that Christianity should be the principal religion in the land—paganism and Mohammedanism having had their full trial—[and that this] should be the wish and prayer of every true son of Yoruba.” Such overlays of personal commitment and worldview affect virtually all of the early published accounts of African belief and practice, which are then sometimes taken as sources for later traditions or held to “confirm” the work of later scholars. Yet at the same time, modern scholars like Kwame Gyekye insist that the difficulty of getting at indigenous ideas is not insuperable: he notes that in Akan, as in every African community, there are a few older individuals regarded as wise and steeped in traditional lore, who are able to distinguish between traditional philosophical conceptions and those of Christianity and Islam. Indigenous thinking may sometimes be formulated in Christian or Islamic religious language, but it often survives in comparatively untouched form.

Further risks in the use of early ethnographic sources include the overlay of unconfirmed theories of indigenous belief and practice. In perhaps the best-known example of apparent overinterpretation, it was reported as late as 1910 that the Shilluk (or Chollo), a culture of Nilo-Saharan speakers in southern Sudan closely related to the Dinka presented here, customarily strangled their kings when they grew old or ill in order to save the divinity within, a report that Sir James George Frazer developed in The Golden Bough (1911–15) into the centerpiece of his influential theory of African regicide. However, the practice of ceremonial regicide and the theory Frazer constructed were never reliably confirmed, and despite later modifications by Evans-Pritchard in 1948 and David Cohen in 1972, the claim that the disappearance of the Shilluk kings was the product of regicide or “royal suicide” has not been substantiated. Nevertheless, similar claims are represented here in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s account of required suicide for despotic kings among the Yoruba (selection #11), and in the accounts of live burial by the Dinka of their chieftain, the Master of the Fishing-Spear (selection #23). In such cases, it is impossible to say what was in fact the case in the earlier periods of African civilization, or to determine whether the African kingship was an archaic magical system or a political, bureaucratic, and military institution, but the stories and legends that have been transmitted and collected have played a major role in conveying many forms of African thought. Similar difficulties in interpretation affect virtually all of the ethnographic material for every early culture presented in this volume. Yet despite their biases, the early reporters remain perhaps the most direct source of insight into the issues about suicide and voluntary death under scrutiny here.

The Selections

The selections are ordered geographically and by language-group in roughly counterclockwise fashion,  beginning with the northern areas of West Africa, moving down around heavily populated regions of the Niger delta, then south and east to the region of the Zulu, and finally northeast to the Bantu in what is now northern Zimbabwe, the Ganda in Uganda [check], and the Dinka in the Nile basin of the Sudan.  Sources from written traditions in North Africa and the Nile and Horn region are entered separately in this volume.  Most sources in this section come from West Africa, the region of subSaharan Africa most populated and most fully documented by early ethnographers.

Selection #1, “African Origin Myths”, casts a broad sweep over a wide range of African origin myths serving to account for the occurrence of death, from the Islamic cultures of the Hausa to the traditional Benue-Congo cultures of  the lower Zambesi. Despite the considerable variety of these myths, what is significant is that in many of them  death has come into being because man needs it, requires it, or desires it.

The Voltaic Branch of the Niger-Congo Subfamily
Selection #2, “The Souls of the Dogons,” is drawn from the accounts of the Griaule ethnographic expeditions during 1931-39 to the Dogon, a group whose language is of the Voltaic branch of the Niger-Congo language family and who now live in the remote and rugged area of the Bandiagara escarpment and the Niger bend in southwest Mali. In part because of their isolation, the Dogon have been less affected by colonialism than many other African groups and have been able to maintain many of their precolonial cultural traditions.  Ancestor-worship is an important component of Dogon religion, and the Dogon are famed for their religious masks.  In this selection from Dogon mottoes, a distinction is drawn between the individual soul that may survive in a life after death and the nyama or impersonal life-force, or vital principle, that would ordinarily be transmitted from the dead person to a specific newborn relative. The selection describes the negative implications of suicide for this process.

Also from a Voltaic-speaking group is Jack Goody’s contemporary account of the LoDagaa (selection #3), inhabitants of two settlements in the northwest corner of Ghana near the Black Volta River, who speak dialects of Dagari, a Mossi language. Although they have no centralized political system, the LoDagaa have highly developed funeral customs, including an elaborate set of suicide precautions for bereaved family members, reflecting assumptions about the likelihood, expectedness, and desirability of suicide after the death of a spouse or close family member.

The Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo Subfamily
Moving to the south, selections #4 through #10 are drawn from various groups of Akan, a broad constellation of separate ethnic groups who speak Twi, a language of the Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo linguistic subgroup. According to archeological and linguistic evidence, the Akan have inhabited a heartland in south central Ghana for some 2000 years. Akan groups include the Akan proper, the Ashanti (or Asante), the Fante (or Fanti or Fantee), and the Ga, members of which groups are now living in Ghana (called the Gold Coast in colonial times; now named after the Ga), Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo. Traditional Akan societies, largely agricultural, consist in some seven or eight matrilineal clans, and inheritance, kinship, and succession are all descended through the mother’s line, although some offices and spiritual attributes are inherited patrilineally. After Portuguese traders and colonizers reached the coast of Ghana in the late 15th century, some Akan groups began to trade gold and slaves for European products, including guns.  Beginning in about 1700, the Asante established the most powerful Akan state, dominating the region now known as Ghana until conquered by the British in 1900; this empire, said to be one of the “largest and most sophisticated imperial systems ever constructed without the aid of literary skills,” was particularly known for its sumptuous artistic culture. However, in contrast to many other Akan, the Ga, who inhabited the coast, were patrilineal, though females could inherit property from their mothers; the men fished and raised crops while the women conducted trade.  On one account, the Gã king, Okai Koi, committed suicide in 1660 after another Akan people, the Akwamu, defeated the Ga; on another, he was killed in battle in 1677. The Ga are now among the most urbanized of West African peoples.

Several of the Akan selections presented here describe  the effects of contact  with European colonizers on these traditional groups. Selection #4, from the Akan proper, “The Detection of Witches: Ordeal and Punishment,” alludes to the British colonial government’s efforts to suppress the execution  of alleged witches and the practice of coerced suicide thus generated. From the Ashanti, selection #5,  “Law and Constitution: A Suicide’s Trial,” taken from Capt. Rattray’s monumental attempt to trace the development of Ashanti legal, political, and judicial institutions from their origin in the simple family group under a house-father to their functions in a colonial system under a paramount chief, describes traditional Ashanti (and, more generally, Akan) beliefs and legal principles concerning suicide,  comparing them to European views.  In this selection as well as in selection #6, among others, traditional practices  are seen in contrast to the legal systems administered by Europeans—for example, while  among the Namnan, a small Northern Territory Ashanti tribe, a suicide’s property was to be confiscated by the Chief, much as the British suicide’s property was forfeit to the King, some of his property in livestock might nevertheless remain to the wife and children, and dead bodies are subjected to trial and punishment (selection #5).

The contemporary philosopher Kwasi Wiredu explains these practices  as rooted in the absolute principle of Akan justice that  “no human being could be punished without a trial. Neither at the lineage level nor at any other level of Akan society could a citizen be subjected to any sort of sanctions without proof of wrongdoing.” Wiredu  also points to the importance of the belief that the life-principle is immortal. “Death is preferable to disgrace” runs a characteristic Akan saying; Wiredu notes that defeated generals, taking this to heart, often chose to commit suicide in the field. 

Selection #6, on Ashanti funeral rites, is also taken from Capt. Rattray’s accounts. Drawing on earlier reports and elderly informants, Rattray  first describes the complete absence of  funeral rites for stillborns, neonates, and children who die—no ceremony  at all, and the corpse is merely tossed into the bush—and then the contrastingly  lavish funerals for kings, replete with both voluntary and nonvoluntary deaths of the newly deceased king’s wives, retainers, and captives in order to mark the funeral and continue to serve the king in the afterlife. Whether institutional suicide of those in subordinate social roles  is to be regarded as suicide in any robust sense, or merely conformity to strong social expectation, is an issue in many traditional cultures, both in Africa and elsewhere.

Selection #8, on socially-expected suicide, describes what contemporary suicidologists might call the “get-even” practice  called  killing oneself “upon the head of another”: by committing suicide, one person can visit the same calamity on another  person.  In Fante culture (as in many  others, for example the Tlingit of Alaska), social responsibility for suicide is assigned to an outside party, not to the person who kills himself.  Suicide  thus makes it possible to control the behavior of other parties.  A particularly vivid example is described in the tragedy of Adjuah Amissah, a beautiful young Fante woman from a town on what is now the coast of Ghana, whose sad story comes from the earliest selections in these accounts.  The tale has evidently undergone evolution in its telling: Cruickshank’s account holds that she killed herself with a silver bullet, while Edward Bowdich’s version refers to golden bullets.  The central point remains unchanged, however: Adjuah Amissah’s suicide is attributed to her wish to save her family.  In accord with Ashanti law, her family would be held responsible for the suicide of her suitor and, in effect, must pay in kind; Adjuah Amissah’s own suicide protects them from this penalty.

Selection #9, “The Prohibition of Death,” concerning the Ga people,  raises issues about what counts as suicide.  The traditional beliefs of the Ga about certain types of deaths do not appear to conceptualize them as suicide, but nevertheless do hold people accountable for dying at times or in ways that are impermissible; these beliefs  thus seem to suggest that such deaths are after all in some sense voluntary.

The groups from which selections #10 through #16 arise, the Ewe, the Yoruba, and the Ibo, are also members of the Kwa branch of Niger-Congo and also inhabit areas of West Africa surrounding the Niger River drainage basin—Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria—heavily vegetated areas with high temperature levels, heavy rainfall, and frequent thunderstorms, where population density is high.

The traditional Ewe heartland is southern Togo; the group’s oral traditions tell of its flight from a brutal 17th-century tyrant, King Agokoli of Notsé, perhaps giving rise to its distrust of strong central authority. The absence of a strong central state left the Ewe particularly vulnerable to slave-raiding during the 17th-19th centuries. Selection #10, a British major’s 1890 account of the Ewe-speaking peoples of the coast of West Africa, briefly describes practices in Dahomey, now Benin, in punishing suicides. Striking in this brief account  is the apparent appropriation of European notions—“every man is the property of the king” and exposure  of a suicide’s body to public ridicule, reminiscent of European practices of desecration of the body—coupled with traditional African practices regarding suicide, in particular decapitation.

The Yoruba, in contrast, were highly urbanized before colonial times and formed powerful city-states centered around the royal residence of the oba, or king.  Linguistic and archeological evidence suggests that speakers of a distinct Yoruba language emerged some 3000-4000 years ago in the area around the Niger-Benue confluence in what is now Nigeria.  Patrilineal in descent patterns, Yoruba men farmed and practiced crafts; women dominated marketing and trade. The 13th and 14th-century Yoruba bronzes and terracotta sculptures, as well as an oral literature of histories, folklore, and proverbs, mark the richness of Yoruba culture. Traditional Yoruba religion recognizes a supreme but remote creator-god with a pantheon of lesser deities more directly involved in human affairs.  Internal wars among Yoruba groups and city-states in the 19th century left the Yoruba vulnerable to slavery; exported with Yoruba slaves, Yoruba religion still forms the basis of Santería as practiced in modern Cuba, Trinidad, and Brazil, and homes practicing forms of Santería such as Ocha (“the religion”) may still contain shrines to Catholic saints and at the same time shrines to ancestral African dead. After the British gained control of Yorubaland in the late 19th century, the formerly strong Yoruba kings lost their sovereignty but were permitted to continue to play a role in local government.

Also belonging to the Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo linguistic family, the Igbo (formerly Ibo) have lived for thousands of years in a heartland around the lower Niger River. Unlike the Yoruba, they did not develop centralized state authorities or monarchies, but lived in autonomous, relatively democratic villages each of which was knit together by overlapping kinship ties, secret societies, professional organizations, and religious cults and oracles.  By the late 17th century, many Igbo had become slave traders who sold members of other ethnic groups as well as other Igbo captured in the interior; the British outlawed the slave trade with the Abolition Act of 1807, attempting to substitute for it trade in palm oil. However, the decentralization and openness of Igbo culture seemed to invite missionaries, and most Igbo are now Christian. An ill-fated attempt in 1967 to establish an Igbo state, Biafra, resulted in massive starvation among the Igbo before the state was reabsorbed by Nigeria in 1970.

The lengthy Yoruba selection (#11) from Samuel Johnson’s History of the Yorubas,  completed in 1897, reflects the historical centrality of the king in Yoruba society, and, consequently, the social importance of the king’s lineage  and succession, the king’s immediate  family, and the king’s funeral rites, as well as the forms of recourse available should a king prove  despotic.   Samuel Johnson’s king-histories from Sango onwards  depict many  kings as suicides, including Sango himself.  Family is important but can be too important: in Yoruba tradition, the king’s natural mother is expected to commit suicide, to be replaced by a surrogate drawn from the court.  An interlude concerning beliefs about birth and death suggests that the Yoruba hold that some children about to be born are in fact abiku or evil spirits:  they enter the world only temporarily and then leave it at a preappointed date: though parents may attempt to dissuade them from doing so. This voluntaristic explanation of repeated failures of pregnancy is offered in a culture in which reproduction is held to be of paramount importance:  it is not so much the mother who is blamed, but the child itself if it dies.  In Bascom’s account, the abiku is granted short spans of life by Olorun “because it does not want to remain long on earth, preferring  life in heaven or wishing only to travel back and forth between heaven and earth”—a phenomenon believed to be common where infant mortality is high.  Funeral customs concerning the king are of central cultural importance:  much as in a number of other traditional cultures in Africa, South America, Egypt, China, and elsewhere, the Yoruba considered it a privilege or an obligation  to accompany the king into the afterlife, and accounts of early customs involve both voluntary and nonvoluntary  deaths by wives, retainers, and others for this purpose.  Distinctive here is the practice of “wearing the death cloth,” a much-cherished cloth received by  those who will be expected to die with the king—the crown prince, certain other members of the royal family and some of the king’s wives–a cloth worn on special occasions that  marks them for this eventual honor.  Although such accounts may be challenged as exaggerated and unreliable,  as was Sir James Frazer’s theory of regicide among the Shilluk, they nevertheless appear consistent with traditional beliefs about life, death, and the afterlife. Finally, according to Johnson, whose very early accounts are based on oral histories and on his interviews with tribal elders, Yoruba practice involves expecting a despotic king or one otherwise unable to govern wisely to commit suicide when he loses the confidence of the people. An ill or despotic king is not to be killed by others, but, when the populace so indicates, is expected to die by his own hand.  Less colorful than Johnson’s narrations,  A.K. Ajisafe’s brief account (selection #12), concluding the Yoruba section,  recounts practices he described in 1906 which reflect the ways in which historical attitudes toward suicide were reflected in everyday practice.

Selections #13-#16, concerning the Igbo, conclude  the material  from the Kwa linguistic branch.  In selection #13, a brief passage describes an evil spirit, the akalagoli, who after committing suicide continues to harm those who are still living; selections #14 and #15 describe  rituals associated with suicide and the imposition of required suicide as a penalty for homicide.  Selection #16 is particularly vivid in its description of cooperation in one’s own death for practical reasons:  advance planning for a death that will be carried out underscores the importance of a suitable funeral for continuity after death.

The Zulu, who are believed to have migrated into southern Africa sometime after the second century A.D., speak a Bantu tongue  (Bantu is the best-known subgroup of Niger-Congo, spoken in much of the southern third of Africa) that developed as a distinct language well before the Zulu achieved a collective identity or centralized political structure, which did not emerge until intergroup conflict  arose among Nguni groups over grazing lands and ivory sources in the late 18th century.  Under the leadership of the brilliant strategist Shaka, who became clan chief in 1815 and who introduced such military innovations as the short stabbing spear, the Zulu established a huge kingdom, the size of contemporary Natal Province, within a single decade. They did not become subject to colonial rule until 1883, when the British invaded, and Zulu nationalism has remained a potent force in contemporary South African politics.

Selection #17 describes traditional Zulu attitudes towards timely and untimely death, providing the background for understanding the custom of godusa, “sending home,” (also goduka, ukugodusa, root meaning to go away; go home; die).  The term denotes the practice of killing or assisting in the suicide of an old person, or may refer to a ceremonial feast of farewell to an old relative before assisting in his death. Although the practice was opposed by the colonial authorities and missionaries at the time of the accounts provided here, the two selections display the differing overlays of different observers. The two selections, #18 and #19, are reported by the daughter and one of the two sons of the Rev. S. M. Samuelson (d. 1916), who went to Natal in 1851 as a missionary,  yet are strikingly different:  R.C.A. (Robert Charles Azariah) Samuelson (b. 1858), the son, narrates the story of the old woman and the antbear’s hole  (selection #19), an event that apparently took place in 1869-1870, describing  the practice as one that is acquiesced in, indeed accepted, by the old woman who is its target; she is described as consenting to burial alive and the practice  is said to be understood by the Zulu as humane.  At the same time, his elder sister, L.H. (Levine Henrietta, known as Nomleti) Samuelson (b. 1856), exhibits in selection #19 much more clearly the  repugnance felt by many missionary reporters for the practice of senicide: she sees the old woman’s death as cruel, the culmination of many years of threat with no humane intent.  Selection #20 describes traditional customs surrounding the burial of a Zulu king, involving, as is reported from many other early cultures around the world, the burial of live or newly killed wives and servants to accompany him.

Selection #21 is from the Banyoro, also Bantu-speakers whose language is Runyoro-Rutooro, live in the area of western Uganda to the immediate east of Lake Albert. The Bunyoro has been particularly concerned to uphold the ancient cultural traditions of their ancestors.  This selection describes fears of ghosts—including the ghosts of suicides.

Selections #22 and #23 are from the Dinka, a cattle-herding group who live in the broad savannahs of the central Nile basin in the Sudan and move from dry-season river camps to permanent settlements in the rainy season; they are closely related to the Shilluk. Cattle of are central importance in Dinka culture, and are central in the suicide-related ceremonies described. Selection #22 is a traditional Dinka folktale, “The Four Truths,” in which a threat of suicide not only shows its force in altering the situation, but exhibits the prospective suicide’s own perception of his very modest replacement value as the 6th son, and recognizes himself as a far less valuable member of society than his adult uncle.  Selection #23 describes the practice of burial alive, with full ceremonial honors, accorded the clan chieftain, the “Master of the Fishing-Spear.” Dinka belief holds that the Master of the Fishing-Spear “carries the life of his people,” and that if he dies like ordinary men—involuntarily—the life of his people, which is in his keeping, will be gone with him. In contrast, burial alive, normally at the Master of the Fishing-Spear’s own request, assures the people of their own vitality and success in war. If the Master of the Fishing-Spear were to die an accidental death or death from illness, it could have serious consequences for the whole tribe. The practice of burying the Master of the Fishing-Spear alive is believed to prevent illness among the people; as one Master of the Fishing-Spear is reported to have explained, “I am going to see (deal with) in the earth the Powers of sickness which kill people and cattle,” as well as to settle a family dispute; after three months, the old men of the tribe reported, there was no more cattle-plague. In another famous case in Western Dinkaland, a renowned Master of the Fishing-Spear was reported to have “entered the grave clutching in his hand a tsetse fly, and thereby removed the scourge of tsetse from his people.” Burial alive is reported by various anthropologists, including Charles G. and Brenda Seligman in their expedition to the Sudan 1909-1912, and Lienhardt 1947-1950, though in both cases informants are describing earlier practices not documented directly. Dinka sources also describe the interference by government officials in attempting to suppress such practices and the various sorts of subterfuge the Dinka used in order to persuade the authorities that burial alive was no longer being practiced.

Suicide and attempted suicide were not uncommon among Africans captured and transported in the slave trade.  Accounts of numbers of suicides are reported by some ship captains and slave owners or traders, but wholly without interest in the ethical issues such acts might have raised for the slaves themselves.  A more compelling account of suicides among slaves under transport is to be found in the work of Olaudah Equiano [q.v.], an Igbo born in Nigeria and transported to Virginia. He was later freed; traveled widely, was eventually resident in London.  Equiano published what became an influential factor in Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself  (1789); this work contains accounts of slaves’ suicides at sea and their belief that it would enable them to return home to their homelands.

Additional sources:

  1. Account of traditional African values in introductory section from Robert A. Lystad, Encyclopedia Americana, 1998, vol 1, p. 298;
  2. 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;
  3. see also Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, eds., African Languages: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 1;
  4. 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 [check: vol 2?];
  5. concerning methodological problems, Kwame Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 53-54;
  6. quotation concerning the Asante empire, from Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Medieval Africa 1250-1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 78;
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Also see S. O. Biobaku, Sources of Yoruba History, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973, p. 5.
  12. 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;
  13. 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.
  14. Jocelyn Murray, Cultural Atlas of  Africa. New York: Equinox, 1981-1982;
  15. James George Frazer, The Golden Bough.  A Study in Magic and Religion, New York: Macmillan, 1922.

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