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A funerary rite in Congo

Threne of a sister who is mourning her brother

"Where do we find the voice for a prayer dedicated to a brother sharing the same tree as you?
O cat! You know how to feel sorry for yourself, lend me your meow in front of this cowardly brother .
Who has laid down even before his elder sister .
At a time when every woman only counts on her brother, You, my brother, withdrew openly .
Who do you want me to become, if I remain ... if I remain lonely into this wide world?
And if you leave in the prime of your life , who should I count on tomorrow?
I prepared for the future with your many promises And here you are, committed before the hour, knowing that you are the only man. Have you ensured your progeny as your mother is menopausal?
Reveal to us the identity of the one who ate you so that your death doesn't remain unpunished .

This threne (an ode or a speech of lamentation for the dead sung at funerals in the Greek archaic period) illustrates the relationship that the Tégué people, located in the northwest of Congo-Brazzaville, have with death.

Tégué people consider death as the result of an act of aggression of an outside executing agent , a sorcerer or a fetish man among others. It is generally a member of the family.But it also happens that a person outside the family acts with the complicity of a close friend of the family. This outside agent sacrifices the deceased for various reasons: longevity,successful hunting or fishing ,personal enrichment , professional success ... The funeral rite is built on this certainty.

When someone dies, the family assigns a messenger the task to inform the members of the tribe in the surrounding villages. They arrive generally in the early evening. The funeral laments of the women can be heard in the distance. They are greeted by other mourners. Then the group of women go into the funerary room, around the deceased. They sing threnes in his honour. Other women come out of the room. They form a column around the wife, the mother, the cousin or the sister of the deceased. They leave the courtyard and walk up and down the main street of the village. Their rythmic threnes accuse the cowards who ate the soul of the deceased. They vow him to avenge his death .

'On the other side the men discuss details relative to the burial. The body must be buried within three days. A notebook is circulated among the people. Each of them gives a sum according to their ability. The money is used to buy the coffin and the white sheets that will be wrapped around the body of the deceased .

White is the colour that symbolizes death for Tégués. This why in the days following a burial, some night walkers say they have observed a strange phenomenon of white figures being draped by white clothes prowling around the cemetery. It is said then that the gates of Lounga, the land of the ancestors, are closed to them .

On arrival at the cemetery the coffin is put down near the grave so that the nearest and dearest can cry, dance, speak to the dead for the last time .

The coffin is carried by four men. An Obela, some kind of mediator between the living and the dead, speaks.He tells the deceased that he is going to his final place of rest. This is when he asks the deceased if he wishes to lead the pallbearers to the home of the one who ate his soul before going to the cemetery. The singing crowd follows the coffin. The pallbearers seem to become possessed by the spirit of the dead. He leads them by the paths he chooses, sometimes running or slowing down their march. Whoever is designated by the deceased as responsible for his death often suffers the verdict of the crowd.

On arrival at the cemetery, the coffin is put down near the grave so that the nearest and dearest can cry, dance, speak to the dead for the last time .

After the earth burial, they all return in silence to the house of the family where the wake is held. They wash hands to show they are back to the world of the living. Nobody will go to the forest that day. Groups are formed to share ideas, discuss.

At night, they dance around a big fire. The day after those who came to help the family go home to get some sleep. The following days they will bring food. The relatives of the deceased will sleep on the floor for 1 month. This is how they mourn. The widow or the widower must not wash during the bereavement period. In the case of a young people's death, the mother will be the one who is deprived for 1 month .

The end of the mourning period is an opportunity to bring together the whole tribe .

Claude-Alexis Ngolélé, March 2018