#9 The Prohibition of Death
     (M.J. Field, 1937)

This [ceremony] is jointly performed by the La Kpã priest and the Osabu priest. Osabu is a senior of the Kple gods, La Kpã the chief of the later comers and the present head of the whole town.

The La Kpã priest begins by taking a hoe newly decorated with both red tuŋ and pairs of white stripes, and dances from La Kpã’s tree to Osabu’s tree hoeing the air with great spirit and singing one of the many Kpã songs which begin: ‘Gba` ye pɔtnepɔ yo’, a phrase in a language no one understands. It is an amazing sight, this white-bearded dignified old man transformed into a flying confusion of white calico, skinny legs, and brandished hoe, whisking down the stony street. The Osabu priest stands waiting in silent dignified contrast under Osabu’s tree, takes the hoe from the La Kpã priest and hoes to the place of Nyoŋmɔ Tfawe and back, returns the hoe and the La Kpã priest hoes back again to his own tree.

This ceremony inaugurates a period of worship. The gods have come to the town—normally they are supposed to live on the hill of Adzangote a dozen miles inland where the Labadians stayed temporarily before settling on their present site. The gods stay six weeks in the town, and most of that time a Sabbath hush prevails: no drums except the gods’ own may be beaten, no private dancing, noise, shouting, or celebration is allowed. Formerly even whistling was forbidden. Furthermore, no one may die in the town during these weeks. If he does, he has committed the monstrous crime of Owu Kase or the blasphemous death. All burial rites are denied him, no one mentions that he has died, he is buried furtively in the bush, instead of under his own house, without any mourning or wailing, and his family have to make sacrifices and be purified from the pollution. The whole of his property is confiscated by the goddess Nã Yomo’—the goddess of births.

The ideas behind this prohibition of death in the presence of the gods are not quite so simple as those one might foresee. Knowing that priests may not touch or see any dead body, and when mortally sick themselves must be taken away from the gods’ premises, one at once leaps to the conclusion that the life-giving gods abhor death and that this is the whole story. Perhaps it was once, but the theory which the people themselves now offer to account for death prohibition during a feast is that the gods are much more interested in one newly dead person than in a townful of living ones. They will neglect their annual business with the living and go and talk with the newly dead. The ritual for the people is therefore spoilt….

… There are two kinds of death which are (literally) unspeakably disgraceful. The first is death during Hɔmɔwɔ when the gods are in the town; the second is the death of a pregnant woman….

…The death of a pregnant woman, whether early in her term or whether in childbed with the child still undelivered, is held to be due to her own wickedness, and by failing to deliver her child she is accounted its murderer. If she dies in childbed after the birth of the child, or if she has a miscarriage, she is treated as merely unlucky and is given ordinary burial; but if she dies together with her unborn child she is buried secretly without mourning, weeping, wailing, or any ordinary rites in Ko Σa, the accursed grove, outside the town.

For a woman buried in Ko Σa special rites are performed by the people of Afiwe (Nã Yomo’s worshippers) and the property of the dead woman is brought to Nã Yomo’s gbat fu and after snipping or chipping off a tiny scrap of each article to put in the gbat fu for Nã Yomo herself, the Nã Yomo wulɔmɔ distributes the rest. One of the wɔyei works herself into a possession fit and tells whether the dead woman owed or was owed anything, and payments or demands are accordingly made on behalf of Nã Yomo. After this a musu kpãmɔ purification ceremony is performed by the priest to take away the curse from the household. The family is finally purified with water from Nã Yomo’s pot.

The accursed grove, the burial-place of these dead women, is on the north side of the town and is a much dreaded spot. A waterhole not far away is believed to be haunted by these restless and wretched dead. These ghosts may be seen, I am told, in broad daylight looking just like living people, washing their clothes and the small clothes of their dead infants. The mere sight of them in the distance brings on a severe headache and fever; to meet them at close quarters is to be belabored with blows by them and thrashed nearly to death. My informant was prostrated with headache the day after merely telling me about them and showing me the accursed grove—though he had only stayed uneasily outside while I went inside to see if there were pots, stools, or any ceremonial apparatus—and he deemed it wise to ward off a possible worse fate with rum and panic-stricken apologies to the dead and to Nã Yomo.

[#9] “The Prohibition of Death,” from M. J. Field, Religion and Medicine of the Gã People, London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1937, pp. 44, 59.

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