Return to NURELWEB or BOOKS AND THESES or AFRICAN RELIGIONS or Atoms and Ancestors

Copyright F.B. Welbourn 1968


The living dead-the web of kinship

and the ancestor cult

Two recent events raise a number of issues which will be taken up in turn:

A. In 1963 a traditional healer, practising not far from Kampala the commercial capital of Uganda, was consulted by the parents of a boy who was later diagnosed as suffering from acute anaemia. He advised them, 'The cause of this trouble is the ghost of the boy's paternal aunt. Take him to the Government hospital and see what they can do for him. Meanwhile I'll deal with the ghost'. It was estimated that ninety per cent of patients admitted to the children's ward of this hospital were first taken to a scientifically-trained doctor as a result of advice of this kind; and that the parents would report back to the traditional healer when hospital treatment was complete.

B. Dr. Lambo, a Nigerian psychaitrist, tells the story of a fellow-Nigerian, a graduate of a British university and raised to high rank in his own civil service. After initial success, his work began to deteriorate and he suffered from severe headaches. Scientifically-trained doctors were unable to help him. Then, one night, he dreamt that he was visited by his father's ghost, demanding the sacrifice of a hen. He made the sacrifice, his headaches disappeared and his work returned to its old efficiency.

Both these stories have a ghost as the primary causative agent of sickness. But, although ghosts are constantly used to account for sickness, and ritual directed to them is successfully used to cure sickness, this is not their primary importance. When ghost-stories are told in British society (and there are still sane and intelligent Britons who believe that, if they have not actually seen a ghost, they have at least felt its presence), there is usually an atmosphere of horror; and the ghosts are probably malicious. But in many African societies, they are felt to be an integral part of society, deeply concerned for its welfare, interfering (it is true) if they do not receive the attention which is their due, but expecting to play their part in its smooth running.

The Buganda are members of an ancient kingdom at the north end of Lake Victoria. Before the kingship developed, it is almost certain that they were organised in a number of clans, each divided into a number of sub-clans and sub-sub-clans; each division headed by a mutaka and living around its traditional burial grounds. Each clan, and each division, was descended through the male line from a single ancestor; and although they were exogamous (finding their wives from other clans), all those living in a particular area were related. There was a very strong sense of social solidarity. 'Home' was always 'at ours'. 'James and I went to Kampala' became in their language, 'We went with James to Kampala'. For a male every male clansman of the same generation was muganda and every female of the same generation mwanyina. (The only way to specify a brother by the same mother was to say 'brother of the stomach'_. Every clansman of the father's generation was 'father' ... and so on through a large number of kinship terms each defining a particular relationship on the father's or the mother's side. It was normal practice, after weaning, for children to be sent to live with a relative - they grew up as members of the clan rather than of an individual family; and the father's sister had a special claim on her son's children. She was known as 'Sir' and was an oppressive and authoritarian figure.

At death the body had to be brought - from however far away - to the clan burial grounds. The ghost was thought first to visit Walumbe, the spirit of death, and then to return to the clan grounds. The funeral ceremony varied according to the importance of the deceased. But it consisted chiefly in burial on a pile of barkcloths to provide comfort for the corpse. Mourning might last for up to six months and was ended by the mutaka, who also, in council with the clan, approved the heir. At the end of this time, with much singing, dancing and drinking, the heir was formally installed. The grave was thatched with grass' a man's grave was cared for by some of his widows; and a shrine was built for each ghost, supplied regularly with beer and firewood, since ghosts felt thirst and cold but not hunger.

The heir was normally appointed by the deceased before death. In the case of a man, it would probably be a nephew or grandson; and one who appointed his own son was thought to be 'disowning his clan'. It was the eldest son who became responsible for his father's other children. The heir succeeded primarily to his ritual duties - his presence was required at the children's betrothal or marriage or if they gave birth to twins. Every deceased person (even a child) required an heir; and failure to install him might incur vengeance from the ghost. He was formally announced as 'the heir of X, son of Y, grandson of Z - perhaps with the mention also of other distant ancestors and, finally, the original founders of his sub-clan and clan. He was, seen as an essential link in a three dimensional structure which included not only the living but the dead. Without his appointment the whole structure might collapse.


This sense of belonging to a kinship group, of which ghosts as well as living members were integral parts - of having rights and obligations in respect to all - was essential. The group could not exist without its individual members, each playing his proper role as heir to the past. Neither could the individual exist without the group. Burial in the clan grounds was essential so that the ghost could be with its clan.

The same sense of solidarity was expressed in the naming ceremony, which was held for several families together, at the house of the mutaka, when the children were about two years old. The umbilical cord was kept carefully from birth and floated on a mixture of beer, milk and water to test the child's legitimacy. If it sank, the child was illegitimate; and, though it might continue to live with its mother, it could never inherit from any member of the clan. Over each legitimate child the paternal grandmother called the names of its clan forefathers until the child laughed. It was then given the name at which it laughed - a name specific to the clan - and that ancestor was expected to be its especial guardian. (Another custom, probably of later development, was to name a child, in addition, after an outstanding dead man of another clan, in the hope that his ghost would take the child under his protection. This departs from the principle that ghosts were very much part of the family or clan and suggests a time when the clans were coming together more closely to form a tribe. But it helps to show the benevolent character of ghosts).

A mutaka was responsible primarily for allocating clan lands and for administering the rights of succession within his clan. He was the living personification of all his predecessors, so that a contemporary mutaka may say, 'I moved my village from X to Y' - an event which is known to have taken place four hundred years ago. Quite recently a Christian mutaka said to the author, 'This is where I used to make human sacrifices' - something which certainly had not happened in his life-time. At the same time, he might hold communion with his ancestors through their lower jawbones which were sometimes removed at death and kept in a special shrine. (In all cases, the lower jawbone was the part of the corpse to which the ghost particularly clung). Through the mutaka the solidarity of the clan was, therefore, asserted not only in the active presence of ancestral ghosts but in historical continuity with the past.

It is this assertion of solidarity and continuity which seems to have been the first function of belief in ghosts. If their shrines were properly cared for, they cared, in turn, for their descendants; and they might be asked to help, for instance, in obtaining a wife or finding favour with a superior. To use a contemporary word, an old-time Muganda (singular of Buganda) was fully satisfied to declare his identity as 'son of X, grandson of Y, such-and-such a clan'; and this sense of belonging, of identity, was further reinforced by the clan name - Lion, Leopard, Monkey, Otter, etc..... Any member of the clan killing or eating this animal would automatically die, although members of other clans would suffer no disability. Each clan also had a characteristic drum-beat, used at the birth of twins, the installation of an heir and other ceremonial occasions of significance to the clan.

Ghosts carried over into the next world the characteristics which they acquired in this. A man caught thieving might ask to be killed, rather than have his hand cut off, lest he should enter maimed into the world of ghosts. Thus it was not surprising that the ghost of a paternal aunt (always, in life, an oppressive, authoritarian figure) was frequently thought to be the cause of sickness. But fathers and grandfathers, in life, also expected respect; and their ghosts became angry if their shrines were not properly tended. In similar vein, special precautions were taken to avoid the ghosts of abnormalities and social misfits. Children born feet first were killed at birth and their bodies buried at crossroads. Women passing the grave would throw bits of stick or grass on the grave to prevent the ghost entering them and being reborn. Twins were buried in wasteland and their graves specially marked for the same reason. The corpses of suicides were burnt at cross roads; and sorcerers were burnt alive outside the village. Those who in this life disturbed its proprieties must be expected to continue their disrupting activities from beyond the grave. To take precautions against them was, in a negative way, to assert the solidarity and continuity of the clan which appears to have been the positive function of the ancestor cult. Diagram I on page 12 is a simplified scheme of a clan society of this sort.

Conceived in this way, ghosts could also be used as explanations of sickness, and the cult developed to cure such sickness. But that must be the subject of another chapter.

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