KINYUA, Laban Kithinji, Ph.D. Global Studies
Department of Global Politics, Hosei University
Burial Rites During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Rural Africa: The Changing Dynamics (Part 1)
This is the first part of an article explaining how the burial rites have been changing in rural Africa due to the strict observation of measures to combat and control the spread of COVID-19. Although each part could be read independently, it would be more rewarding to read part two as a continuation of part 1.
Health officers help bury a COVID-19 victim in Runyenjes constituency, Embu county in central Kenya.
When coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), a respiratory condition caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome, erupted in Wuhan province in China, it was unfathomable that it would cause havoc and disrupt livelihoods in rural Africa. 'A range of conspiracy theories were rife at the start, such as the resilience of the black skin and the viruses' inability to thrive in hot weather, which made rural Africans feel unsusceptible to the disease. On its part, the global media spearheaded a somewhat baseless discourse ranging from Africa's vulnerability (due to poor health systems) to promoting a warning that the pandemic would worst hit Africa due to such factors as population density. It seems that the global community is still puzzled at why the continent with fragile healthcare systems has not become an epicenter for disaster (for instance see, Harding, A. (2020). 'Africa didn't dither but faces long coronavirus ' fight'. BBC News, 21 May. Available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52741421). Whereas the prophecies of doom do not seem to have materialized, a significant panic and reality of the COVID-19 pandemic has altered important rituals and the African people's livelihoods.
Despite the fact that Africa seemed to have managed the pandemic's outbreak, thus negating the negative discourses in the media, the continent still received negativity attached to the pandemic. The Nana Otafrija, dancing pallbearers from Ghana, became a social media sensation perhaps as a warning in goodwill or the fear of the traditional African practices often seen as backward and primitive. This group's focus is supposedly meant to bring joy to the funerals (Sullivan, H. (2020). ‘ “Why should you cry?” Ghana’s pallbearers find new fame during COVID-19’. The Guardian, 14 May. Available at https://bit.ly/345gvTN). However, they became part of a trending video that was used primarily by young people all over the world as a warning through social media to scare people into taking precautions and observing measures against the contamination by the virus (See BBC, 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-52503049).
While the pallbearers were used to serve a warning and also to scare millions all over the world, they were, on the other hand, also manifesting the odds that funeral rituals have been encountering in rapidly changing Africa. Pallbearers monetize the funeral rites but also revolutionize the rites from mourning and sadness to joy. The popularization of pallbearing during COVID-19 has, however, been casting new fears attached to the dead bodies in many communities in Africa. They have, thus, been asserting that despite low rates of deaths attached to the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa, people not only became afraid of contacting the disease, but also how to handle the dead. These fears have caused alteration of the rites attached to funerals in rural Africa, which has had a profound effect on people’s livelihoods during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The pandemic has therefore been further complicating the evolving politics and changes around death in Kenya. Since the arrival of the Europeans in Kenya, the beliefs and practices around funeral rites have constantly encountered changes as traditional structures governing such rites have been replaced or heavily borrowed from other cultures (see Mbugua, J., & Getui, M. (2016). Funeral rites reformation for any African ethnic community based on the proposed new funeral practices for the Agikuyu. Resource publications). Before the invasion of Christianity and Islamic beliefs, death was seen as a rite of transition to the next realm of existence where the dead's spirits were believed to continue to live and commune with the families and individuals in the land of the living as ancestral spirits. Nevertheless, the contemporary practices during death manifest the mourning period as a communal affair, and community members are expected to fund and give out resources needed for the burial and its associated rituals. Elders (now mostly religious leaders) conduct special prayers and rituals with and for the grieving family before and after the burial ceremony for healing, giving material and spiritual support, and hope.
You can’t just bury the dead: Stigmas of infectious diseases revisited
In response to the global guidelines by the World Health Organization (WHO), Kenya's government developed a protocol on the management of burying and disposal of the bodies or tissues due to COVID-19. These measures were ambiguous. They attempted to honor the dead, trying to ensure dignity, protection, and respect for the next of kin and family of the deceased while also underscoring the safety precautions against the transmission of the virus. To achieve this ambiguous goal, the Ministry of Health (MOH) Kenya rolled out strategies that were primarily drawn from WHO. Like many other governments, Kenya has been relying on past experiences such as China (SARS), Middle East (MERS), and West Africa (Ebola) to inform the strategies for handling the remains of COVID-19 victims. One of such guidelines pertained to when the deceased dies within the community, stating that the family members were supposed to inform the county disease surveillance team to relay the message to a regional pathologist for more investigations.
The COVID-19 protocols had various effects. Although viewing of the body in the casket before being buried has no known originality from the several rural communities in Africa, it has gained traction recently. Thus, the restriction to not view the body was seen as somewhat too strict and unbearable. In keeping with the efforts to minimize infections to the vulnerable population, the number of participants at burial ceremonies was significantly reduced, and people above 60 years were prohibited from attending the burial activities. One of the rituals that directly involved touching the body of the deceased is embalming. Traditionally, the people of Embu in central Kenya conserved the body using various spices and salt, an activity that had crucial cultural underpinnings. In the contemporary generations, this ritual has focused more on the proper dressing of the body several days to and during the burial day. The prohibition on who should touch the body has thus been one of the most significant steps these communities have had to skip. Another significant preventive measure has been that the bodies of Covid-19 victims should be buried in at least 48 hours to avoid community practices that would be a catalyst for infections. As these measures now have fallen into the hands of health officials sanctioned by the state, the community is at a loss on the impact of the view that the deceased may not be pleased by such handling.
The place and importance of these measures notwithstanding, their actualization has proved the deep underlying fears of the infectious diseases, especially in rural Africa. Kenya was not adversely affected by the Ebola outbreak in 2014 that also had sparked widely spread fears and alteration of burial rites. This notwithstanding, the treatment of the dead, despite the COVID-19 protocols, has brought to light the once-forgotten stigmas. Many people have associated the COVID-19 protocols with the early days of HIV/AIDS-related deaths when people feared coming into contact with the corpses for fear of contracting HIV/AIDS. Although there seems to be a much better understanding of the burial protocols, the presence of health officials and the restriction on handling the dead bodies has revived memories of those who died of HIV/AIDS in rural Kenya before the disease was well understood. In fact, some wonder if our future reflections will reveal the bias in handling the COVID-19 death cases.
Two worlds apart?
The treatment, attitudes, and stigma of infectious diseases in dead bodies have manifested differently in different social and economic classes. Consequently, different bodies were accorded different treatments despite the claim of uniformity of the laid down protocols by the state. Corpses from low-income families were buried hurriedly and with utter disrespect for cultural norms or basic human dignity, whereas corpses of the affluent seemed to defy the existence of the laid-out protocols (Wesangula, D. (2020). 'Irony of decent funerals for rich as poor wail for 'respect'. The Standard. 2 August. Available at https://bit.ly/3j6ofJh ). On the other hand, the difference in the treatment accorded to different bodies resonates with the social expectations and the stigma about participating in burial rites, that burial ceremonies have been sites of displaying social and economic status as people from rural, urban, and diaspora community congregate. A person in the high hierarchy of society will attract numerous participants during mourning and funeral ceremonies. Furthermore, the related burial ceremonies are a time to gather relatives who dwell in the urban areas since, besides family gathering, burial ceremonies have remained almost the single most powerful tool to make the urban populations travel to their places of birth. The gathering during the burial ceremonies can thus be good indicators of the rural-urban dichotomy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, however, revealed another rather peculiar aspect of the rural-urban divide. As a result of the requirement to observe COVID-19 protocols, some have claimed that the pandemic has become an an equalizer, as they have blurred the distinction in terms of the number of participants at the funerals. However, the equalization view is deceiving, as it has been established by both conventional and social media reports that there were instances of differential treatment of the people that died of COVID-19 depending on their social status (Wesangula, D. (2020). 'Irony of decent funerals for rich as poor wail for ' respect'. The Standard. 2 August. Available at https://bit.ly/3j6ofJh ).
This evidence revives the debates on the rural-urban and rich-poor divide as a central theme emerging out of the VOCID-19 pandemic, showing that little has been done to curb the exacerbation of these social dichotomies. It further poses essential and challenging questions around death, such as cremation. This complication creates interesting trajectories of inquiry into the social, political, and administrative reconfiguration of sub-Saharan African communities.
(To be continued).