26 February 2007

Saying Goodbye to the Dead in Batibo

Batibo is a sub-administrative unit in the North West province of Cameroon. It is mostly a rural environment situated at the boundary between the Savannah and the equatorial rain forest. The majority of the people that currently reside in this area are the Moghamo-speaking people. History tells us that many other people residing elsewhere in the North West province migrated from this area, hence there are many cultural similarities between the Moghamo people and the rest of the province's people.

The Moghamo people tend to be very sociable and they profit from their strong social bond to overcome many challenges by organizing themselves in groups to tackle problems that would otherwise be insurmountable to a single individual. This togetherness plays a very big role when the community loses somebody.

The wailing of women usually announces the passing away of somebody. Typically when this happens, everybody in the immediate vicinity suspends whatever he/she is doing and moves to the compound of the bereaved. Within minutes, a crowd soon forms in the compound and volunteers start doing everything from comforting the bereaved to arranging the compound to receive more sympathizers. Women usually move in with their mats and mattresses to be sleeping in the compound for a week or two to console a wife, a sister or the mother of the diseased. Female sympathizers bring along food while males bring jugs of raffia palm wine known as 'fitchuk'. These items are added to what is prepared in the compound to entertain visitors beginning from the day the death is announced, through burial to the final death celebration. The program can last from a few days to two weeks depending on the status of the person and size of the family. In the past it could take up to a month or more.

Since majority of the people of Batibo are Christians, funeral rites usually commence from the church with songs, sermons and testimonials. After church service the crowd accompanies the coffin for burial (that takes place usually behind the house of the diseased). In the past, some family heads were usually buried in graves dug inside the living room. The firing of ten guns by men usually follows after burial. Loud-sounding guns are appreciated.

Reception is organized for everybody that attended the burial and the Batibo people have become very sophisticated at hosting large crowds and ensuring that everybody is properly fed. Priority is usually given to people that come from afar. They are usually served with something akin to a buffet. Singing and dancing follows the reception. Different people spontaneously tune songs to the crowd while those that are competent at the drums, and other instruments handle them. The songs’ melody and rhythm and the vibration from the drums send a beautiful artistic message that is difficult to describe. To know it, you need to feel it.

A second phase of the ceremony called 'death celebration' usually follows the burial ceremony. It could be organized immediately after burial or put off for another period (even years down the road) because it involves substantial organization and commitment of funds. Close family members of the diseased such as the children, the in-laws, the brothers and sisters all participate in the planning and execution of this phase. Each individual that is supposed to organize a celebration is allocated a day from a string of successive days chosen for the occasion. There are minimum financial requirements to be fulfilled by those involved. For example, you could be required to produce two big pigs, some palm oil, a bag or two of salt and other things. You may next be required to hire a traditional dance group and masquerades for the entertainment of mourners. The items you have supplied will be used to feed people but you may have to make additional provision in case there is a large turnout on your own day of the celebration. In all these arrangements, you will get material support from other people—a support that is usually proportional to your past participation in assisting others overcome similar problems.

The organization of the 'death celebration' is an obligation. If you were to die when you had a pending celebration to carry out, that responsibility will be transferred to your successor. A 'death celebration' is judged to be successful if the turn out of invitees is impressive and everybody present eats and drinks well.

People generally agree that the most positive aspect of the Batibo people’s way of handling the dead has to do with psychological healing of the bereaved. The permanent presence of many people for weeks around the bereaved tends to fill the vacuum created by the departure of the loved one. "I felt the real impact of my husband's departure only after all the mourners had dispersed", said a woman who recently lost her husband in an accident.

Njei Moses Timah is a pharmacist in his country of Cameroon and a citizen journalist writing for OhMyNews and other publications. I appreciate the time he took to write this article for Road|Productions and look forward to future collaboration with him. You can read more from Njei at http://www.njeitimah-outlook.com.

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