Grief process for Africans, the Tutsis tribe

Grief Process for Africans, The Tutsi Tribe

Grief process for Africans, the Tutsis tribe

Death is certain to human existence. Different cultures and communities in the world have different perceptions towards death, believes about life after death and the rituals surrounding death. African communities have many similarities in their view about death. The similarities revolve around the beliefs in life after death and certain rituals that are necessary when a person dies. In order to discuss matters relating to death in an African set up, the paper will consider the Tutsis tribe in central Africa the modern day Burundi. The Tutsi people are the second largest ethnic group in Burundi. The warrior people of Burundi is a nickname mostly used to refer to the Tutsi, and they are a small percentage in other nations such as the democratic Republic of Congo. The names Watutsi, Batusi or Tussi all refer to the Tutsi community, which formed the aristocratic minority in both Burundi and Rwanda. They constitute 14% and 9% of the population in the respective countries.

Theologically, death refers to the separation of soul and body. Most African communities accept death as part of the life cycle. There is a general perception that every death has a cause associated with the supernatural power (Lugira, 2009). The unpredictability and inevitability of death fascinate and frighten many Africans in the Tutsi tribe. No one has a clear definition or an understanding about death in the Tutsi tribe. Though death is inevitable, Africans in the Tutsi tribe both accept and deny this fact. Evidence about this double view about death in the Tutsi tribe is clear in their set of beliefs referred to as reincarnation. Reincarnation refers to the worship of ancestors. The Tutsi people believe the spirit of deceased remains in the world, especially in the community and can come back embodied in another person. According to Twagilimana (1998), this double view about death brings out the African view about death that, life does not end after death. Life continues although there are some changes in the state of a person.

Africans in the tribe of Tutsi believe that, the death of a person is the beginning of another life. The double view about death shows the fear in the African setup when it comes to matters relating to death. People cannot accept it to be part of their daily life. To African people specifically the Tutsi, death is a state where a person will have a deeper understanding of both the visible and invisible environment. To the living, a dead person will become an ancestor (Twagilimana, 1998). To become an ancestor in the afterlife is the main goal. The Tutsi’s view about death finds its grounds in the African traditional religions. The African religious believes define the views that a community has towards life and death. The beliefs of life after death and worshiping of the ancestors is the core to understanding the African religious setup. Asuquo (2011) notes that, death in the African setup especially in the Tutsi community, is a process that removes an individual from the current situation to the past. After the death and mourning, the deceased people are now the ancestors of the community.

The community agrees that death removes a person from the physical world after a particular period. It is a transition to the land of spirits and not a separation from the physical family of a person. The spirit may come back to the family and society. The African religion in the Tutsi tribe acknowledges that death is God’s plan and serves the purpose of removing an individual from the physical world when one’s time is up. Death does not completely separate a person from the world but transforms one into a spirit capable of observing both the invisible and visible environments. Asuquo (2011) states that, the notion about life as a spirit are based on beliefs and perceptions like dreams, visions and hallucinations which cannot scientifically or independently be verified. The Tutsi believes that a dead person is not completely off from the society as they can appear in their dreams or human interactions. The purpose of their reappearance can be for giving life instructions, valuable information, or warnings. The spirits of ancestors can explain the misconducts of the community and may punish them. The Tutsi people name their children using the ancestors’ names to express their belief about the return of the dead. This shows that people believe that the dead are not completely gone, and they are reborn back to the society.

In relation to the views about death, the Tutsi tribe believes that not all people can become ancestors of the society. Bad people who do evil in the society do not become ancestors. The society believes that the final destiny of a man depends on how the individual lived on earth. These are indications to how the Tutsi people strongly believe in life after death. Being one of the Bantu groups in Africa who strongly believe in the afterlife, the Tutsi community also believes that death does not annihilate life. The departed members of the community continue to exist in the hereafter. According to Gehman (2005), the Africans use of particular terms to refer to the dead people shows their strong believe in life after death.

Many African societies, the Tutsi in particular use terms such as “he has gone home,” “home going” or “escape to join the ancestors” to express the presence of life after death. In an African setup particularly among the Tutsi, death is necessary for joining the spirit world. Gehman (2005) asserts that, African perceives death as a way of reducing the population of the living and increasing the population in the ancestral household. He further explains that, without death, the living could not rise to their position in a particular society as a ‘living dead’ to be venerated. Although the Tutsi believes in life after death, death remains the most fearful part of the daily life. Death is an enemy and greatly resented. It takes time to reconcile the fact that a dead person is no longer a shadow but a ghost. This fear increases in the society because a person does not return in the human body. The society’s belief that the dead become the living-dead does not remove the sense of loss or fear of death from the members of the Tutsi tribe. The community seeks explanation to any death that occurs. They believe that every death has a cause behind it.

Apart from the beliefs in reincarnation, the Africans in Tutsi tribe believe in transmigration. This refers to the changing of a person into an animal. The community believes the dead can transform and inhabit particular animals after death. Depending with the initial status of a person, they may transform into certain animals that suit their characteristics. The society believes that a ruler may appear as a lion, leopard, or any other fearful animal. Dead people may also inhabit totem animals of the community, and in most cases, the totem animals are fearsome. This reappearance may symbolize the punishments that the dead can inflict on the living if the community does not uphold the required moral values. Due to the powers that the dead can have upon the living, the community accords a respectful burial procedure for the dead. The burial follows particular rituals, which aim at uniting the dead to the ancestors and the living dead.

The society believes that if a dead person does not receive an appropriate funeral, there is a high possibility that the person can become a wandering ghost and bring danger to those who are still alive (Twagilimana, 1998). In this regard, the society carries out a peaceful burial and asks the dead person to protect the family from any harm. According to the group’s traditions, the burial rites mark the end of mourning. Depending with the relationship of the dead person and the living, burial may take place near the homestead or far away. People who are not acceptable in the society such as witches, thieves or other evil doers, the community does not accord proper burial to them and are buried away from homesteads. The purpose of this is to avoid harm to the family in case the dead person returns. In typical cases, those attending the burial farewell are very attentive to give the departed a proper farewell. The Tutsi community acknowledges the necessity that the spirit of the departed be content in the world beyond and not come back as a dissatisfied ghost to cause harm to those left behind (Lugira, 2009).

The society simultaneously mourns for the dead and celebrates life in all its abundance. The purpose of this is to reduce the effect of death especially to the close family of the deceased. Although the community mourns equally for all dead people, the death of a young person is not easy to accept and more painful. Death in immaturity requires special explanation. In the normal running of the society, a person should grow up, raise a family, and help the society in all desirable ways before dying. Gehman (2005) explains that, unless it occurs at old age, death is not explainable by natural means alone in the African setup.

A life cut short is an interruption in the regular running of events. The society perceives this as a sign from the ancestors or a punishment for misconduct by the family or the surrounding community. As part of a burial ritual in the Tutsi community, people take meals after the burial of the dead person and may undergo cleansing. Cleansing can take the form of washing off the dust from the graveyards with the implication of removing bad luck. The Tutsi burial rituals involve throwing of some soil and flower petals in the grave of the deceased before the burial is complete. The Tutsi community’s traditions specify the deceased burial. According to Hinton & Good (2009), the deceased burial takes place on the same day of death. This is preferably when the body is still warm.

Postponement of burial beyond the onset of swelling is an abomination. If swelling takes place and results in bursting, the community perceives this to be negligent and great humiliation to the deceased. There is a belief that the deceased may come back and harm the negligent relatives and community members. An elaborate traditional burial procedure avoids the coming back of the deceased and causes harm to the living. This procedure entails the placement of the deceased body in the grave and the objects that represent gentleness such as wool from sheep that must go with it. According to Hinton and Good (2009), the objects have the power to pacify the deceased spirit; to render the deceased spirit powerless to come and harm the living. These objects and rituals aim at preventing the harm that the deceased can cause if not pleased. The objects and rituals also help to invoke the spirits to offer support, care and promote prosperity to the families and community left behind.

After the burial and before the end of the funeral, the rituals require a declaration of the heir of the deceased property. The family members of the deceased split the properties according to the community’s traditions. The graveyard is a holy place and selected community members regularly visit to communicate with the ancestors. The graveyards are also places where particular rituals that please the ancestors take place. In case of misconduct in the community or a family, elders use the graveyards to invoke the spirits and ask for forgiveness.


African cultures have a unique set of beliefs about death. The Tutsi being part of the larger African culture embraces many cultural norms that express their perception towards death. The Tutsi do not accept death any stage of life. Although at old age death is understandable, the society still questions its occurrence and believe there is some power behind it. The society strongly believes in life after death and acknowledges the importance of proper funeral for the deceased member of the community. This is due to the belief that the dead are more powerful and can cause harm to the living. Although the society believes there is life after death, there is still fear of death. The society view death as a way of transforming and joining the spirits’ world. In the spirit world, a person can have a deeper understanding of both the visible and invisible worlds. The Tutsi traditions specify how burials should take place and the placement of the deceased body in the grave. In conclusion, the Tutsi tribe has a proper organization in matters relating to death. The traditional organization explains how they handle their deceased members of the society. Their view about death and beliefs in afterlife define their religion and cultural aspects.


Twagilimana, A. (1998). Hutu and Tutsi. New York: Rosen Pub. Group.

Asuquo, O.O. (2011). A Rationalization of an African Concept of Life, Death and the Hereafter.

American journal of social and management sciences, 2(1), 171-175.

Gehman, R.J. (2005). African Traditional Religion in Biblical Perspective. Nairobi: Autolitho


Lugira, A.M. (2009). African Traditional Religion. New York: Infobase Publishing.

Hinton, D.E & Good, B. (2009). Culture and Panic Disorder. California: Stanford


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