The Frafra Mortuary Rites
A Farefari proverb, “Dabeem ka boi yɔɔm de bɔna la bɛ?” when transliterated means ‘If there’s no fear in the grave where else will it be?’.
Death shades the soul and ices the flesh; it is the supreme ruler of every mortal. But as to whether we mortals pay heed to its consequences and aftermaths, only the gods can answer.
Just as with any other belief, the Guresi also believe though death is natural and hence inevitable, it is posited death comes with a reason and it takes beyond mortal knowledge to comprehend the cause.
Such beliefs are not usually medical or out of scientific rationale but mystical and godly. Under this, and to an extent, the manner and cause of a person’s death depend on how they are buried and celebrated.
How Death is Perceived
Just like the normal life pattern, the Guresi holds that death is mostly perceived as calamitous when it strikes persons who are most relevant for social purposes. Panic, grief, and trepidation sweep over the hearts of men when a young person dies. ‘Yelemaala’, they are called make children sleep without the smell of smoke and elders wondering ‘who is next?’.
On the contrary, the death of an infant may have no formal ritual or mourning. It does not require any exceptional burial. More often, the family buries it before informing the head of the clan or the sɔbiisi or the dabɔɔm duma.
From the dawn of reasoning, it is imperative to anticipate why the Farefari people prioritize funeral rites. This is because, unincorporated dead are trapped permanently in the liminal realm, and are often considered as dangerous. These wandering spirits, for whom no funeral rites were performed, may act as hungry ghosts. They yearn to be reincorporated into the world of the living. Since they cannot be, they behave like hostile strangers and consequently must find sustenance at the expense of the living.
Furthermore, it is only after a person’s funeral is performed that he can be mounted by his children and be worshipped as a god (Sɔ/Ma).
As a result, burial is an element of necessity in the Farefari theological belief system and is believed to be the only acceptable option for disposing of a lifeless body. But upon that, it is believed, that death is never final. The person simply goes on to join others who are deceased. The physical body dies but the spirit lives. And a befitted burial consonant with a natural death is the requirement for a healthy spirit.
In the Farefari cosmology, it is believed that a person should die in the hands of a relative or of course, a person assigned by the relatives of the deceased. If the person is elderly, their children, it is believed, should witness their parent called by their ancestors. In this case, one does not need to be fortified or undergo any spiritual exercise but just to hold the struggling being or give them water when life is escaping from their soul.
A person who dies alone without anyone holding him up is termed ‘weele/ weelego’ which is considered abominable. When a person dies of ‘weele/ weelego’, the gods must quickly be consulted and the necessary spiritual cleanses performed. This must be done to enable the deceased to qualify as an ancestor and to prevent future occurrences.
From the dawn of time, the Farefari mortuary rites are a depiction of fate and tradition but sadly, these beliefs are misinterpreted by the outside world as merely ritual and outmoded.
The Ritual Room
Immediately after a man dies, in the Farefari tradition, the body is left in the ‘denya’aŋa’ (ritual room of the house) whilst the family requests the presence of the ‘sɔbiisi’.
‘Sɔbiisi’, in this context, are the collaborative kin of the deceased’s clan who spearhead the transition of the opposite clan.
The ‘sɔbia’, together with the family of the deceased (preferably his children or grandchildren) bath the body and shave his hair to suggest that he must not go home dirty with the ‘sɔbia’ also demanding shea butter to soften the body of the deceased.
The ‘denya’aŋa’ is mandatory for every household. This is the first room of every house and barely use for sleeping. But in a situation where there is a lack of accommodation in the house, the denya’aŋa may be used as a bedroom but when there is a ritual to be performed then it will have been cleared of anything that has nothing to do with the ritual. This room is usually the main room in the house and is built in such a way that it stands in the middle of the rooms that are built in a circular form.
As far as birth and death rituals are concerned, this room symbolizes for the Farefari the beginning and end of life on earth. In the Farefari traditional home, as soon as a child is born and the baby and the mother are bathed, they are brought into this room. The child and the mother remain in this room until after the naming ceremony and the child is officially brought out of the room and then the woman can go back to her usual room with her child.
It is, therefore, in this room that the child receives its first nurture. In the same way, it is from this room that the child upon his/her death hopefully as an adult that he/she will be laid and moved out for burial. It is considered to be the first place on earth and the last place on earth as in the belief systems of the Farefari people.
Nobody enters the ‘denya’aŋa’ where the corpse lies fully dressed. It is disrespectful. Hence one must undress himself including removing any money in his pocket before entering. In a situation where one unintentionally enters but with money or other physical valuables, the items are given to the undertakers (known in FareFari as ‘Bayaasi’) forever, or, purification performs before one can reuse them.
Bɔgerɔ Yesega/Eere (Consulting The gods)
Just like in the hospital where a doctor may want to do an autopsy which is a surgical procedure that consists of a thorough examination to ascertain the cause of the death, the family, likewise, appoints the eldest son of the deceased or any elder, who’s of the same lineage with the deceased to visit the soothsayer in search for justification and assertation.
For the purpose of confidentiality, a family member is always recommended for this task. This is called bɔgerɔ yesega/eere in Gurenɛ. Echoing the motive behind this principle, it is vital to state that the cause of the death might be private and might have been meant for the hearing of the family alone, hence, the need for only a family member(s) to consult the ancestors.
An outsider, may in curiosity, disclose the verdict of the gods hence any other person is not advised at this juncture.
It is to be observed that there are so many factors that command the need to consult a soothsayer before burying the dead. According to the Farefari theological belief system, it is also an opportunity for the deceased to tell how he or she wants to be buried.
In fact, in some cases, the deceased may demand a fresh tomb (known in Farefari as Boko/Yɔpɔɔlegɔ) but not a communal grave or family grave.
Boko/Yɔpɔɔlegɔ (Fresh Grave)
‘Boko/Yɔpɔɔlegɔ’ (known as fresh grave) as in Farefari, refers to a supreme honour given to a person who was the last survivor of a particular family. This does not limit to only men but women as well. However, a fresh grave given to a woman is a derivative of honour to be conveyed to her late husband who died without Boko/yɔpɔɔlegɔ. Or perhaps, a woman who is the only child of her parents could also receive a fresh tomb if only she remained in her parents’ house before her death.
In elaboration, every Farefari clan has its graveyard for burying its members who die a normal death. However, the ‘boko/yɔpɔɔlegɔ’, as it is called in Farefari is never meant for everyone but a person who is qualified to be an ancestor. The person in question, per the Farefari theological belief system, must have grown old to be an elder in the family; controlling all the family and household gods offering sacrifices for and on behalf of the entire family and must have died a normal death.
After those who went for the ‘bɔgerɔ’ had returned with directives and orders from the ancestors, it is time to pour libation and if there is any sacrifice needed as may be advised by the gods before the body is buried. Mind you and depending on the clan and other social factors, these could take two or three days and even up to five or six days before the body is buried. In some cases, the deceased may caution the living on how many days he wants to spend in the denya’aŋa before he/she is buried.
Shrouding For Burial
Now, after the necessary rituals have been performed, it is time for burial. The eldest son or representatives of the family shall be joined by other senior ‘bayaasi’ (undertakers) in the ‘denya’aŋa’ where the body is shrouded and taken outside the main yard.
Inside the main yard is a pure demonstration of power and prowess consonant with prime valours as the contest to who raps the body inside the mat intensifies. Interestingly, traditionally, the Farefari people do not bury in modern coffins. They use a type of mat (known in FareFari as ‘summɛnkɔ’) that is made from elephant grass. Pieces of the stocks of grass are sown together neatly with ropes made from hemp fibre with decorations at the edge. It is long and wide and can easily be folded up.
The sons, grandchildren, and other relatives of the deceased appeared in a war-like array and majestically dance around the shrouded body. The war-like relatives are undressed to show ultimate respect to the dead.
Depending on the clan’s accoutrements style, the war-like relatives dazzle to and fro with all sorts of weapons such as bows, arrows, cutlasses, among others.
The angry dancing relatives, at this time, are puritanically searching for the killer of their beloved and it is at this stage that the term war dance emanates. Galvanizing the wool of vengeance, these weapons are used to chase the ‘death’ out and never to return to the family again to kill anyone.
The dead man, who is halfway through to his ancestors in the underworld will need to go around every edge of his household for the last time for them to pay their last respect. Hence the eldest son holds the head of the ritual mat called the summɛnkɔ through the ‘Yaŋa/Ganɛ’ (gate) outside. Before the corpse is taken outside, a sɔbia, will sit on the ‘lalega’ (a wall connecting to the house gate) and call the deceased’s name louder three times waiting for a response. After the elder’s third call and if there is no response from the crowd, then it confirms the person is indeed dead.
This signifies that the person has given up in life and has lived a worthy life on earth.
The corpse is then taken around the household three times (for men and four times for women) before proceeding to the ‘Dabo-Zuo/Yaaba Daboen’ for burial.
The Distinctive Knights (Bayaasi)
What’s left here is a wheel of supremacy and tactics. The power of fortifications and spiritual valours are respected. At this juncture, mere mortals are not allowed to hold or touch the ‘suŋɔ’ (ritual mat) except few people who have distinguished themselves from mortals. These people are no mere mortals: they fear no death, they have no respect for death and they have no emotions for the dead.
They have no recognition of one another. They are puritanically fortified and socially regarded as heroes. They are the ‘bayaasi’. They are the undertakers.
At the peak of their duties, It is not uncommon to see them beating one another to the ebb of honour. Interestingly, such beatings are seen as normal, and under no circumstances, shall an undertaker, report his fellow undertaker to the chief of police for the purpose of being beaten.
No matter the extent of the beatings. Mind you, every fight must occur during the burial stages and automatically seized abruptly after putting the corpse into the grave without anyone calling for a halt.
With the passage of life and death being annotated by the women in coronachs, as they follow the undertakers to the graveyard, the undertakers with a well-choreographed slalom, tiptoeing pace, with the suŋɔ (ritual mat) placed on the left solder, they plod.
Customarily, an undertaker carrying a corpse is not entitled to talk to anyone even if he is tired and needed change. He could only seek assistance using nonverbal gestures such as hand-waving or eye contact. In addition, an undertaker who pauses abruptly whilst carrying a corpse signifies he’s unable to continue as a result of tiredness or other matters and hence needed substitution.
The Temple of Honour
‘Yɔɔ’, as in Gurenɛ refers to a grave. The ‘Dabo-Zuo/Yaaba Daboen’ in this context, collocates with a common graveyard/tomb designated for a certain lineage. This is a pride home for the dead. It is a temple of honour and holiness. Its spherical consequences of any unfollowed principle are unmeasured. But it must be well stated that not everyone who dies deserves the ‘Dabo-Zuo/Yaaba Daboen’.
The grave is unlike the modern ones. Its entrance is measured with a round neck of a calabash; cropping a circular hole after which the grave widens out dimensionally. Whilst the decision as to who buries the corpse melees to the ebb, one, amongst them (Not necessarily an undertaker (bayaa) but after the burial he must become one) will pull the breathless naked body from the ritual mat onto himself and everyone, therein, comes to order. The ritual mat or suŋɔ then walled the naked body with the ‘bayaasi’ also parading it with no sign of disagreement; this time round.
Climaxing the higgledy-piggledy, the naked being is then given to a senior undertaker in the grave who buries the mortal. In the grave, a man faces east with a woman directed towards the west.
It must be observed that the burier may not necessarily be an undertaker but as soon as he finishes with the burial, the family elders are consulted and the necessary bayaanɛ rituals are performed so he could become a ‘bayaa’.
With their task completed, they wave a final goodbye to the mortal and head back to the funeral house.
To the dead being, his journey to eternity is born.
Plodding their shoulders back home, the undertaker’s dirge.
With tears sweating down the cheeks of women and children, hope becomes a dream and fate fades faster.
Whereas the burier would towel the shroud on his lofty shoulder while reckoning the next step of the survivors, the women, back at home, have assembled their gender on the compound and begin to recite traditional hymns of ancestral connections while waiting to know whether or not their beloved has been accepted by the gods.
Immediately the ‘bayaasi’ are seen in the household, there’s an absolute undivided flood of mourning by everyone. This is a clear indication that the deceased is being laid to rest hence no more with the living.
The ancestors are the supreme emcees during every stage in the Gurenɛ Mortuary Rites, and their directives are never disregarded.
So What Next?
Depending on the social status of the person, and the time of death, a funeral can be arranged anytime after burial. However, if the person is elderly and has taken a fresh tomb (Boko) as discussed earlier, the grave must be graced with natural water (rain) before the funeral can be performed.
The writer Aberiganya Elisha Akolbire is a journalist and a language activist with Gurene Wikimedia Community. He can be reached via 0205679018 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mr Joseph Akakiiri Ayambire edited the script. The proofreading was done by Daniel Abugre Anyorigya.