African afterlife beliefs

Authored by: Zayin Cabot

The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying

Print publication date:  May  2017
Online publication date:  May  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138852075
eBook ISBN: 9781315723747
Adobe ISBN:


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The purpose of this chapter is to offer a brief glimpse into the lives of indigenous African peoples as they go about the daily business of death, dying, and interaction with the afterlife. In order to accomplish such a task, we must recognize from the outset that these traditions have been largely invented through colonial and postcolonial encounters. This does not mean that the Kalahari of South Africa did not exist before colonialism, or that the Kalahari do not utilize the term indigenous for their own purposes (Barnard 2006, Barnard et al. 2006, Kuper 2003). Rather, we must remember that as traditional African beliefs have been categorized as indigenous by these globalizing forces, they have been ignored, idealized, infantilized, and destroyed (Mudimbe 1988). African scholar Okot p’Bitek (1973, 91) wrote at great length about Western projects like the one you hold in your hand, and in the end he offers Western scholars like myself a kind of golden rule of dialogue with African traditions: “Shut your mouth and ask no questions. Open your ears wide, and sharpen your eyes” (see also p’Bitek 1970). This may at first sound harsh to the reader, and yet one must realize the long and troubled past that has brought p’Bitek to this conclusion. Efforts to “understand” African traditions have often been guided by colonial and ethnocentric viewpoints.

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