27 November 2012

Uganda: Commit Suicide in Buganda, and Get a Dog's Funeral

No mourning, no prayers, no eulogies, no speeches, no wake, no food, no refreshments - that is what charaterised Moreen Ndagire's send-off in accordance with what Kiganda culture prescribes for people who commit suicide.

On the night of November 19, when news broke that Ndagire had died and that police had taken her body to Mulago hospital, family and relatives lit a fire and prepared to hold a vigil at their home, but cultural advisers quickly dispersed the crowd and put out the fire.

Then, the advisers cautioned Ndagire's parents and siblings not to mourn or weep if they did not want any more suicides in the family. By 2pm on November 21, mourners had gathered at Mzee Nkugwa's ancestral home in Kiwanga, Seeta in Mukono district, to pay their last respects to a girl that had prematurely ended her life.

Little did many know that this was no ordinary funeral. In fact, according to culture, a few cousins (abajjwa) of the deceased are supposed to participate in the burial and even then, in a very subtle way.

Indeed, at Ndagire's graveside, there were only a few male relatives and daring drunkards.The mourners that arrived late expecting several speeches and a mass were surprised to find a different setting.

"What is happening? I thought the ceremony was to start at 2?" a woman in her 30s asked.

"Yes my dear, it did start at 2, but it was so brief. Don't you know what happens in such circumstances?" an elderly woman asked the confused woman.

Ndagire's sorrowful mother with a rosary hanging around her neck, trembled with suppressed grief as she moved from one small group to another, painfully mumbling: "banganye okukaaba, banganye okukaaba, banganye okukaaba," (I have been barred from weeping, I have been barred from weeping, I have been barred from weeping) - and that went on for hours until the mourners left. Ndagire's siblings too were the picture of indescribable grief as they fought back tears.

When the small truck bearing Ndagire's remains approached the home, there was someone waiting to direct it to the grave. According to culture, such a person's body is not to be placed in the house or even the compound.

"In the past, such a person would be buried at the very spot where they hanged themselves, but in this case, it was impossible since she committed suicide in a rented house," a woman in her late 70s said.

According to this grandmother, in the olden days if a person committed suicide where they could not be buried, the body would be dragged, not carried, to a boundary and be dumped in a quickly dug grave. Still that would be done by only a few cousins, amidst different rituals.

"This girl is very lucky; ordinarily she would not have received a coffin and her body would not have been washed. In our days even if one committed suicide after digging, they would be buried with their dirty feet and clothes, and no bark cloth would be used to wrap such bodies," the old woman explained further.

In Ganda culture, this practice goes as far as digging a grave directly under the hanging body, before it is caned and then severed from the branch to fall into the grave like a dog's carcass. The grave is also not marked.

The policemen that removed Ndagire's body from the house where she hanged herself, reportedly also first caned the body before cutting it down, in respect to the culture.

This practice, according to Ganda culture, is meant to break the jinx, but senior Baganda explain that it was also aimed at scaring any relatives of the deceased, who may have harboured similar thoughts.

The mourners had earlier been coached that at the end of the burial, someone would raise an alarm similar to that made when thieves attack, and with that, mourners were to run away from the unfortunate home without looking back.

But once the body was lowered into the grave, an inattentive drunkard raised the alarm prematurely, causing a stampede which resulted in three quarters of the mourners leaving. Eventually, when the real alarm came, the few people that had stayed walked away too, discussing the dynamics of this rich, but quite restrictive culture.

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