A Bemba Funeral in Zambia

During pre-service training, we learned about some important customs in Zambia such as funerals, marriage, headmen/chiefs, etc, to prepare us for life here. With 72 tribes living harmoniously in one nation, the customs vary wildly – not only between tribes, but within villages. So my limited experience attending two funerals in Northern Province cannot be generalized to the whole of Zambia. This disclaimer can be noted with pretty much every cultural post I write, actually!

A Bemba Funeral

The day after moving into the village, we attended a funeral, a sacred ceremony that unfortunately, every Peace Corps Zambia volunteer will inevitably attend. This was actually not our first funeral in a Zambian village, but the first one in ours.
When there’s a funeral, work stops in the village, sometimes for a few days. Everyone is expected to attend, even for a few minutes.
During our very first night in our village, we heard faint singing and drumming in the distance all through the night. In the morning, our counterpart and host-mother escorted us down the dirt path eventually leading to the source of the music, the home of the deceased man. There must have been hundreds of people in attendance, sitting in the grass and segregated by gender. Adam and Ba Martin (Ba is polite in iciBemba language like Mr.) sat amongst the men while I followed Ba Grace and Ba Irene to the women’s section, made obvious by the array of vibrant chitenge (traditional fabric) wrapped around their waists and heads. I could feel the stares and heads turning in my direction as I sifted through the crowd. Normally, I would smile and greet everybody as is customary, but at a funeral, one is not supposed to smile, so I awkwardly kept my head low in an attempt to avoid eye contact with the hundreds of eyes in my direction.
We took a seat in the shade and watched the choir belt rhythms and dance in a circle with the drum beat. The whole scene was mesmerizing and went on for over an hour. Afterward, a priest took the stage to preach passionately in rapid iciBemba. I could only grasp a few words here and there. Apparently, the man’s death may have been attributed to his unfaithful wife who has since fled the village. Drama.
Soon, a group of men ran into the house to retrieve the coffin and body. This cued the public mourning. Women of the family began bursting into tears, wailing, and repeating a phrase of sorrow and regret. At times, it was difficult to tell whether they were truly expressing their feelings or if it was more of a show… probably a combination of both.
The drums beat as a handful of men carried the coffin to the center. Little by little, the audience formed a line to slowly encircle the corpse, confronting mortality face on. I’ve only seen a dead body once, so it wasn’t easy for me to gulp this one. I still couldn’t help but stare as I circled the coffin at the steady pace the spectators were moving. He was only in his 60s.
When everyone got a chance to show their respects, the men came again to carry the coffin off-site. At this point, I thought the ceremony was over, but it was only a segue to the next portion. We stood up to follow the crowds to the cemetary.
In Zambia, it is taboo to visit a cemetary at whim. You should have a reason for doing so, such as attending a burial. If someone is caught roaming though a cemetary without good reason, that person may be accused of witchcraft. And it is not uncommon for the accused to flea a village for good.
Though it would be easy for a foreigner to accidentally stumble upon cemetary grounds, as the one we visited looked like an ordinary forest. There weren’t gravestones nor any sign of the dead, at least at the shallow fringes of the woods.
Once again, men and women segregated in the forest. I took a seat on some leaves and watched the ceremony continue. It commenced with a few words that I barely recognized, followed by lowering the coffin into the ground and piling heaps of dirt on top. Men came up to take control of shovels and contribute to the work. People here are quite impressive when it comes to hard work and physical labor, so the earth was flattened in no time. Just before the task was complete, we heard a mesmerizing rhythm in the distance. The haunting sounds grew louder and louder. Following the rest of the crowd, I turned my head to find the source of the commotion. A parade of people were approaching, belting a song at the top of their lungs. There was a line of at least 30 people marching and singing on until they reached the burial site. They intentionally formed a circle and proceeded to bow, wail, and moan excessively. After a few moments of mourning, the circle swiftly stood up, formed a similar queue, and exited the same path from which they entered, this time with tears and wailing instead of songs. The image is stuck in my head and it’s difficult to describe.

I avoid taking photos in the village when people are around to not flash my smart phone, but even if I wanted to, it’s unacceptable to photograph a funeral. Adam, however, has been sketching images from events we’ve been attending to help us visually remember things we shouldn’t otherwise photograph.

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