‘MADIBA’ GIVEN TRADITIONAL TRIBAL BURIAL
An ox is slaughtered, the deceased is wrapped in a lion skin and a family elder keeps talking to the body’s spirit. The state funeral for South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela on Sunday included these rituals and others from the tradition of the Xhosa people, to whom Mandela’s Thembu clan belongs.
Mandela’s coffin was wrapped in the South African flag, standing atop animal skins at the beginning of the funeral in his childhood village of Qunu. The ceremony was poised to be an eclectic mix of traditional rituals, Christian elements and those of a state funeral.
Here’s a brief look at the Xhosa people and the main elements of their burial traditions:
The majority of the country’s 7 million Xhosa people live in the Eastern Cape province, in the southeast of the nation. Their language, Xhosa, is famous for its three clicking sounds. The Xhosa recognize the presence of ancestral spirits and call upon them for guidance. The ceremonial slaughtering of animals is one of the ways the ancestors are called upon for help.
Following a tradition called Xhosa culture requires a family elder to stay with Mandela’s body and explain to his spirit what is happening. “When the body lies there, the spirit is still alive,’’ said Rev. Wesley Mabuza, chairman of South Africa’s Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the right of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities.
“The body must be informed of whatever is happening before the funeral,” said Nokuzola Mndende, director of the Icamagu Institute for traditional religions.
The deceased must be wrapped in a special garment. For people of a high rank like Mandela, who is the son of a traditional clan chief, the body or the casket is usually wrapped in the skin of a leopard or a lion, according to Mndende. Mandela’s body was wrapped in a lion skin. “It’s a ritual showing deep respect for the deceased,” she said.
Xhosa tradition requires the slaughtering of an animal early on the day of the burial. After the ritual throat slitting, the animal will be eaten by the mourners, usually outside the family house. For people of a high rank like Mandela, an ox will be killed, Mndende said.
“That ox is slaughtered, cooked and eaten all in one day,’’ she said.
A year after the burial, another ox will be slaughtered and eaten by the family to mark the end of the mourning period, in a tradition called “There must be a time when the mourning is broken,” Mndende said.
About another year later a joyous ceremony is celebrated to bring back the deceased into the family so that the person will henceforth be looking over the family and its children as a well-meaning ancestor, in a ritual called Mndende said.