By Agona Apell
It was American president John F. Kennedy who said: “Never tear down a fence until you know why it was erected in the first place.”
Since our earliest encounters with Europeans, Africans have been discarding their ancient customs with gusto in a reckless attempt to look more like their erstwhile conquerors.
Little attention is paid to the matter of why these customs were instituted in the first place and whether or not they still serve a worthy purpose.
The latest customs to face this assault are our burial customs. Africans generally have elaborate burial rituals, and when death comes, funerals take precedence over matters of everyday life. President Yoweri Museveni says this is not how things should be. Funerals activities should be confined to weekends. Never mind that even weekends are becoming working days for most of us.
I would have expected our cultural institutions to be the first to respond to such proposals on the modification of culture. But they are all quiet.
Therefore, I will assume their responsibility. It is important to note that the ancient Africans had also noted that their funeral practices interfered with developmental issues like work.
But rather than shunt funerals to lazy days on their calendar as it is now being proposed, they went the opposite direction: they ordered that when a funeral is being held, all work in the fields in that particular village should be suspended! Therefore, for them, where a funeral conflicted with work, it was work not the funeral which had to give way. Were they foolish to take this stand?
To answer this question, we must note that our funeral rituals serve a twofold purpose: to prepare the departed for their new life in the afterworld and to impress upon the living the sanctity of life and the importance of living an honourable life.
And what better way is there to impress upon people the sanctity of life than to show them the sacrifices you are willing to endure when a loved one dies? So the bereaved will sacrifice their income by suspending work and sacrifice their dignified composure by wailing. Children watching these demonstrations of sacrifice will be very deeply impressed about the sanctity of life.
That is why African cities and schools have some of the lowest murder rates in the world in spite of the fact that our societies have undermanned, ineffective, and corrupt police forces. We don’t hear of children killing each other in schools and on the streets, and of passengers killing each other on public transport as happens in the more civilised, better-policed Western cities.
South Africa is the exception, but that is precisely because the ancient customs that impressed upon people the sanctity of life were shredded by the strife that the population lived through in the days of apartheid. Even our murderous dictators have never come close to the scale of killings attained by European dictators.
The president often quotes a Kinyankole saying which goes: “If death is not ashamed to kill, we shall not be ashamed to bury.” The ancient Banyankole might have also said: If death is not ashamed to kill on weekdays, we shall also not be ashamed to hold funerals on weekdays.
The writer is an engineer