A Village Funeral in Cameroon

by Christine Swanson

I spent Christmas Eve, 1998 in Cameroon, West Africa, with another Peace Corps volunteer, watching a Nigerian "home movie." These movies are products of studios in Onitsha, about 250 miles from where I lived. The plots often involve fashionable young urbanites who use love medicine or cast evil spells to get their way. In one, a victim is brought home to his village for funeral rites. His spirit does not rest easy, however. The corpse begins to burn. It flies around the village market, frightening the vendors into upsetting their displays of produce as they flee. At first I found the stories bizarre. The special effects lacked all credibility for me. Before I left Cameroon, however, I understood some of the thinking behind the popularity of Nigerian "home movies."

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I was assigned to teach at the University of Buea. One of the students in our Master of Education program died on Saturday, 6 May, 2000, ten days before her 27th birthday. I did not know her well but she was in our department and most of her cohort had taken my course in school-community relations. I felt terrible for the students. They said the family did not seem to know what to do, so her classmates spent the week planning the funeral and just being together.

On Friday, 12 May, most of the teachers and graduate students (probably a total of 40) went to the funeral. We started by meeting other mourners at the mortuary in Limbe, a resort town roughly 20 minutes from Buea. There the coffin was loaded onto a pickup truck. We all proceeded north together, about 15 minutes up the coastal highway, to Wovia. There were probably 400 guests. Metal chairs had been arranged under canopies assigned to various groups of mourners.

The family carried the body into a relative’s house to prepare for reviewal. It was a warm sunny, day and the village was beautiful. There were small burial grounds scattered around the village. Some church leaders have tried to persuade people to bury their dead in cemeteries, but families prefer to keep their departed relatives close by. The place was lush green. Chickens and goats wandered freely. Some people came to the funeral dressed in formal black, others in colorful traditional dress. After the immediate family, we university teachers, students, and staff were invited to enter the house. We walked past our young colleague’s body, then stood outside the house, some wailing loudly, others standing quietly with tears streaming down our faces.

After that, we university teachers went to pay our respects to the chief of the village, who was 95 and very sharp. Then we called on the great uncle of one of our colleagues. Someone ran ahead to tell the family we were coming and rushed back to say they would have to go find grandpa. We were astonished. Where would an 85-year-old blind man go all by himself? They did find him and he was very pleased to meet us. I did not stay in Wovia for the all-night wake, which was sure to involve drums, songs, food, and palm wine.

The next day, Saturday, I went back to Wovia by myself. The burial was scheduled for 1 p.m., but I arrived at 12:30. Knowing that few others would appear for at least two hours, I decided to explore the village and find the beach. People were very nice. Though friendly, they did not press themselves on me. One woman showed me the swimming place. The view of the rocky shore and islands was stunningly beautiful. I smiled, enjoying the scene. The woman smiled at me, enjoying me enjoying the scene. Back in the village some men showed me the boat landing where traditional fishing canoes were turned up on the shore.

I went back to the funeral. The dean of our faculty and two colleagues had arrived. Lovely, sad singing in the Douala language was followed by a brief Christian service in English. When that was clearly finished, we rose for the entrance of the old chief. Two young men in red T-shirts and white wrappas, carrying spears preceded him. The chief was followed by his council in white tunics and white wrappas. Then, we sat to hear eulogies, which were long and powerfully spoken. The deceased was a single mother, community leader, and talented student.

There was much to think about: the beauty of the village, conversations with colleagues and students during long gaps in the proceedings both Friday and Saturday, and new appreciation for my friends, many of whom come from villages like this. I also considered the fact that post-mortems are not routine here. That means we are not sure why our student died. Some said malaria, meningitis, or stroke. Or, maybe she was the victim of a curse. It is believed that some people are so jealous at the success of others that they enter into bargains with evil to cast murderous spells.

In the absence of medical fact, stories circulated as they do in many villages like this one. Why did the young woman come back to this village? Did she not know some people would think her arrogant and go to any length to cut her down? People had been agonizing over questions like this all week. Two of the eulogies called upon villagers to turn away from jealousy, suspicion, and bargains with evil. After the Dean spoke, she returned to her seat beside me, shaking. I took her hand and whispered that she had done well. The tension was palpable, a contrast with the blue sky, green palm and plantain trees, and sultry sunshine. The wooden houses began to look shabby. The many small burial grounds turned ominous. This is the dark side of village beauty and warmth. The young woman’s family lowered her casket into the grave, only a few feet from the house. She rests there together with her parents.

This part of Cameroon has known Christianity since the first missionaries arrived about 150 years ago. But old traditions die hard. Most of these are constructive. In church, people bring offerings of pineapple, bananas, sugar cane, or a live chicken. It is what they have. Songs in the Douala language, accompanied by drums and dancing, enrich worship services. Sermons in Pidgin, the language of the village market, go directly to the hearts and minds of listeners. One of my colleagues has translated into Cameroonian Pidgin the message shepherds heard at Christmas:

The angel tell them say, "Make owna no fear,
me I bring owna plenty good news.
And this news na for all people." (Luke 2:10)

Living in Cameroon, I often made unexpected connections as I tried to sort out my thoughts. The funeral in Wovia was another occasion for this. One of the things that attracted me to Scandinavian literature was magic. For example, the stories of Selma Lagerlof (Gosta Berling’s Saga, The Lowenskold Ring, and others) are permeated with the supernatural. Traditional fiddling tells the stories of encounters with trolls and water sprites. Norwegian stave churches have dragons at the tops of their multiple roofs, just in case the spirits of the Viking ancestors are unhappy with the Christian activities going on inside. Yes, the good news is for all people and we must understand it as best we can. But Christian practice does not entirely displace ancient tradition. Not in Africa and not in Scandinavia. The layering of one tradition upon another enriches life, but not without presenting some contradictions. Perhaps our Scandinavian ancestors had something like the experience I had in that village on the west coast of Africa.