Elton John couldn’t describe it better when he wrote ‘The Circle of Life.’ Africa is constantly in a tumultuous cycle of birth and death. Live and let live and never take more than you give. Nowhere else is the experience so vivid as many Africans can experience extreme poverty and wealth in the same lifetime.
There are various diverse cultures in South Africa and even though each partakes in their own peculiar qualities they all share almost common rituals and customs when it comes to funerals. However, the one thing that is communal among the many customs is the sustenance of South Africans. The Xhosa culture gives a good example of African rituals and customs after the burial of a loved one.
Xhosa Customs and Rituals
The most world-renowned culture in South Africa is the Xhosa culture. Despite the fact that it has many interesting rituals and customs it is not globally popular for this reason, but for the fact that Nelson Mandela was in fact a Xhosa man.
In the Xhosa custom, the departed are transported back to their place of birth to be buried. By means of a ritual, an animal such as a cow or an ox will be slaughtered for the deceased if he was an important person – or a goat if he was a normal individual. This is done by cutting the throat. The blood is an offering to the Ancestors and is meant to help the spirit of the deceased move on easier into the afterlife – This ritual is known as ‘Umkhapho’ and is practiced so that it will be easier to call the spirit back from the afterlife as an Ancestor. The meat will usually then be prepared for the mourners without the addition of spices and must be consumed before any other food is eaten.
This practice will happen again in a year’s time to mark the end of the mourning period in a ritual called ‘Ukuzila’.
After the mourning process is over, a third and final ritual may be initiated called ‘Ukubuyisa’. This ritual is performed if the deceased was an important family member – such as the head of the household. During this ritual, the Ancestor can be brought back into the family almost as a ‘guardian angel’. Ancestral spirits have a distinct connection with the living, as they bring both success and safety to their living relatives at large. In this way, the Ancestors stay with the family not only from birth to death but beyond death as well.
With the burning of the fervour in the background, many families in South Africa have transitioned to more western traditions. Yet in so many ways it is during the celebration and engagements of communities, that families in South Africa still remember their roots and origins. Just like the birth of a new life is celebrated, so too the death of a loved one or friend is celebrated in the aw of these well remembered customs and rituals.
This is a guest post by Rene Nel