Mourning rituals among the BaTonga


FOR the BaTonga, the death of a relative or community member is a very sad affair.
From the death to the burial of any deceased member, there are strict traditional rituals that are followed to make sure the grieving period and final send-off is dignified.
Funerals are among the most important and visible observances of the BaTonga cultural life.
The BaTonga mourning rituals reflect the beliefs and attitudes towards death and as such they begin immediately after the family member has been confirmed dead.
When a death is announced, the family is immediately regarded as ‘polluted’, which implies a negative shadow which also means that the family is thrown into a state of disequilibrium.
A family death is believed to contaminate the relatives of the deceased and anyone who touches the corpse will also be regarded as such.
The period preceding the burial is accompanied by certain rituals that include the smearing of the window with ash to reflect a gloomy atmosphere.
The BaTonga also believe when a death occurs in a family, the family members have been symbolically crushed by a mud wall and need to be released.
This imaginary wall surrounding the survivors symbolises their bereavement.
As a result, they may not take part in the normal life of the society until they have been purified or cleansed through performance of a ritual.
As soon as the husband or wife dies, the body is prepared by the chief mourner helped by other married women or the matriarch in the case of a woman.
Burial usually takes place on the day after the death.
The body is buried as soon as possible in order to avoid decomposing; the region is very hot.
To avoid a bad smell, the body will be covered with tree branches that emit a strong aromatic smell like mint.
On the eve of the burial an overnight vigil is held (wake).
The function of the night vigil is to support and allow the community members to say their last goodbyes, even testify over the deceased. Ritual slaughtering of a beast also takes place the night before the burial to provide food for the mourners.
In the past, the skin of the slaughtered beast would often be used to wrap the corpse for burial since there were no coffins then.
The killing of a beast is also performed as a sacrifice or an offering to the ancestors.
At the break of dawn, on the day of the burial just after the night vigil, there is the final viewing of the corpse.
Burials are usually preceded by a family diviner who will go to the grave before the burial and perform a traditional ritual.
After the burial, the community will then be invited back to the family of the deceased for a meal.
All the community members must wash their hands with water that has specially cut aloe leaves.
Special traditional herbs will also be used to cleanse the tools used to dig the grave and those who carried out the burial.
The BaTonga people have traditionally used their homestead as a final resting place where their dead are buried.
For example, a man would be buried in a cattle kraal in the yard of his homestead.
This was done because there was a specific meaning attached to the dead being buried in their home.
It is also believed among the BaTonga that every person has an environmental past that consists of places, spaces and property which have served instrumentally in the satisfaction of one’s biological, psychological, social and cultural needs which serve as part of the socialisation process during which self-identity is developed.
For the BaTonga, to die is to go back home and join one’s ancestors.
The mourning period is usually longer for the family of the deceased.
The mourning period prescribes to the family what is or is not acceptable behaviour.
Behaviour regarded as taboo in traditional African societies during the mourning period included overeating, losing one’s temper, talking or laughing loudly. During this period, all things are done in moderation.
For instance, a married woman whose husband died is said to occupy a sacred mourning physical space.
This could mean being isolated from the community for the period of mourning.
The chief mourner, whether a male or female, would usually be in the main bedroom on a mattress or floor or on the traditional mat made from baobab tree bark.
The chief mourner would be covered with a blanket and only married women sit with her.
The widow wears a black garment or mourning attire which is a dress specifically designed for mourning.
The widow will continue to be isolated from contact with the community before and after the burial for a culturally stipulated period.
The stipulated period for a widow to be in mourning is usually a year.
During that time, the widow and other bereaved members stay at home and are not allowed any social or sexual contact.
They do not participate in any social activities or public gatherings like weddings, funerals and parties as they are believed to be contaminated.
The end of mourning for the widow is usually marked by a ritual or a ceremony where she will take off the black garment and is symbolically restored back to normal life in the society.


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