How they do it in Zambia

Charles No Comments

In a delightful article in the Sunday Times of Zambia titled Food at Funerals in Zambia, which doesn’t actually get around to talking about Zambian funeral food at all, the writer describes current funeral customs in that country. 

In the countryside, the old customs are alive and well: When death occurs, news spreads very fast. It just takes one or two full-blooded women to wail lungs out. Thereafter, people from all walks of life will gather to commiserate with the bereaved, even when the dead person might have been their ‘worst’ enemy – death is death! It is to be feared! It is an equaliser, people unite, and no arguments arise about its inevitability – some call it ‘kukomboka’/knocking off!

In towns and cities, funeral traditions display western influences, though it’s difficult to see what they are. The following is extracted:

Inevitably the web of all known relatives will also be used to communicate the sad news, and before you know it they will converge at the funeral house from all corners of the country.  

The grief-stricken closest relatives – parents and others – sit on the floor, mourning, and sobbing in the living room. As relatives arrive they start mourning with a rising crescendo; some may even roll on the ground in their lamentation. 

Duties, especially in the area of feeding of the mourners, will be given out. Customarily, the kitchen brigade is made up of traditional cousins of the deceased.

As the food is being prepared the brigade members will pass jokes and make a mockery of the deceased family who by an ‘unwritten law’ cannot ‘hit back’ then; they will bide their time until perhaps when a funeral occurs in the ‘attackers’ family. This is not ill-intentioned but the practice has its roots in history when the Ngonis and the Bembas fought pitched battles, with no clear victory for either side. Consequently, the truce that followed sealed an enduring peace to this day.

Now enter the professional mourners! In fact there are three main types of professional mourners: the first type is made up of people with their ears to the ground and are usually the first to learn about any funeral that takes place anywhere. They usually arrive first and kick up a raucous of loud mourning enough to wake up the dead. They then find their way to the place nearest where the food is being cooked. This is the real reason they attend funeral after funeral.

The second type of professional mourners is the story-tellers. They will behave like the first group, except that as they tear at their hair and amid sobs and copious outflows of grief they will tell cooked up stories about the deceased. For example they would say that the deceased was a good person, their late uncle, who had managed to educate most of his nine children, now who was going to look after the remaining three younger ones? Yet in fact there were no children, the marriage having taken place only two weeks ago! When all is said and done, the story-teller makes a beeline for the nearest food spot, consuming big potions so as to catch up with those that started eating earlier than they did.

Then topping the bill are some relatives who will mourn in a special way, punctuating the sobbing with pointed comments about the property: “What shall I do with the Toyota Cressida you have left behind? I don’t know how to drive.”

Another relative might answer: “Mutale will be driving you, my sister.” Or, “The deep freezer… It’s so big. How will I take to my village? No Zesco there!” The answer might be: “Just sell it and we can share the money.”

Such a parody of mourning can go on and on until all the property is shared in this manner or until after the burial when during the ending rituals (Isambwe lya mfwa: kutsiliza maliro) a brave/wise uncle will put a stop to the squabbling. Where there is no wise person all the property will be taken away and later the case will end up in court.

Full story here


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