Sunday, December 5, 2010

Death Among the Kasena

The elder brother of a Burkinabè colleague died a few weeks ago. A bunch of us from work went to pay our condolences to the family. Last week, my colleague came in to thank me for that. He said it made a big impression on the family that such high level people from the organization he worked for would personally come to offer condolences. Apparently this does not often happen.

I asked what would happen to the widow and her children. I well remember the time one of our employees died following a motorbike accident. He was from the Mossi ethnic community and his family immediately came and wanted to take possession of the man’s house, belongings, and children, and throw the wife out into the street! Had our administration not intervened, they would have succeeded. In Mossi culture (as far as I understand it), the wife is never truly a part of the husband’s family. She is always regarded as a stranger who has been allowed to come in as a wife and the mother of the children. But even the children ultimately belong to the husband and his family. However, my colleague, who was from the Kasena community, said that this was not their practice. The wife and children could continue to live in the family compound as if it was their own, but on one condition: the woman had to remain a widow.

What happens if she decides to remarry? Then she has to move out of the family compound, leaving everything behind except what she has purchased with her own money. The compound remains the property of the children.

I asked if this ever happens. Sometimes, said my colleague. However, she should never marry one of her dead husband’s brothers. He said that this is severely frowned upon and the unlucky man would not have long to live!

Another interesting feature of the Kasena is that anyone who had anything to do with the care of the person that died is required to wash himself or herself with water in which certain leaves had been boiled. This is done as a group (men & women separately) following the person’s death with the purpose of neutralizing the odour of sickness and death that has contaminated them. If this is not done, the one contaminated is also fated to die sooner or later. I decided that this was perhaps not the best time or place to point out that most people die sooner or later anyway! How could they know whether someone died because they were thus contaminated?

I guess we all have cultural customs and practices that make perfect sense to us but may seem bizarre or nonsensical to people of other cultures. Someday I’ll follow up on this one :)

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