Luanda (Ruy Blanes)

Luanda, Angola, 15 October 2015.

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I sat down with a N., a friend from the Tokoist Church – a Christian prophetic movement – to talk about¬†death¬†and¬†funerals¬†among the Tokoists. N.¬†began by explaining the difficulty of distinguishing if he was talking more as a Tokoist or as a Bakongo. Then he went on to an interesting discussion on terminology:¬†are we talking about¬†death, funeral or¬†√≥bito? For him, funeral refers to the act of taking the body to the¬†enterro¬†(the ‚Äúcaravan‚ÄĚ), while¬†√≥bito¬†refers to ‚Äúsentar na casa da fam√≠lia‚ÄĚ, i.e. the whole ritual and liturgy that someone‚Äôs passing involves. He also made an interesting classification of¬†the different components or dimensions of an √≥bito:

  • √ďbito tokoista
  • √ďbito tradicional
  • Componente civil

Regarding this last point of the¬†civil dimension of the funeral, he was refering to the several necessary steps that¬†engage the event of¬†death¬†with the state apparatus¬†but are in any case inevitable inasmuch as they intersect with the ritual and liturgical dimensions: the contact with the Conservat√≥ria do Registo Civil, the coroner, the police, etc., in order to obtain a Boletim de √ďbito, without which it would not be possible to complete the burial. This is more prevalent¬†in the urban spaces like Luanda, where the cemeteries¬†are state property¬†(unlike in the rural areas, where we have traditional cemeteries, and where the state barely intervenes, it is more the¬†sobas).

In this respect, N. explains that in the urban setting this aspect of the civil dimension of the funerals is more often than not a source of problems, especially concerning the traditional ceremonies involving the traditional authorities and the clans, and their coupling professional commitments, namely in terms of obtaining a dispensa de serviço for about a week, for instance. Public servants need to have a copy of the death certificate in order to be released from work. There is even a certain traffic of these certificates (they make several copies of the same certificate) in order to get the authorizations.

In any case, among the Bakongo in Luanda one could say that there are certain structures and processes that replicate or maintain traditional logics, while others work inversely. N. mentions as examples of the former the fact that the place of the óbito will always be the deceased’s house, as well as the authority of the leader of the clan (maternal clan, that is). In fact, all the Bakongo in Luanda have their chefe de clã. This is the authority that will be invoked to deliberate and organize. If the designated person does not appear, there will be no ritual whatsoever.

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N. was going to start explaining the rituals involved in the¬†√≥bito, but changed his mind and thought that it would be wiser to understand the ‚ÄėBakongo system‚Äô that defines family and clan relationships. Namely, the existence of a¬†luvila¬†(clanic identity, ancestral lineage), a clan leader and the so-called¬†vumua¬†(‚Äúbellies‚ÄĚ), women of the lineage who have descendency. He reminds me that each clan can have up to 50 nuclear families, hierarchically structured into a ‚Äėbranch‚Äė that connects to a main ancestor (the main core branch of the tree), and where each individual changes ‚Äėposition‚Äô changes when there is a¬†death¬†or a birth, for instance. The ordering principle is matrilineal and based on logics of ‚Äėblood‚Äô. Thus for instance, the maternal uncle will have authority upon his sisters‚Äô sons and daughters but bot upon his own children, because they would belong to his wife‚Äôs matrilineage. Within this logic, each member ‚Äėknows‚Äô his or her place, and when there is a funeral, no matter where they find themselves (elsewhere in Angola, or in Europe for instance), they will have to come. Some figures are so central to the process that if they do not come, there will be no funeral.

Within this framework, the clans are also connected to sacred spaces, specific villages, in turn connected to that main ancestor. So there is a necessary intersection of place and memory (as in mazumbo). The space of connection is precisely the village tree, the nsanda, which guarantees its power and safety. This nsanda is planted in the act of foundation of the village, and usually involves foundation rites, such as sacrifices. Within this framework, the inauguration of a village implied the creation of a new clan (or sub-clan, depending on the perspective), and was part of the process of social reproduction, as it were.

It is also in this connection that the¬†communication with the ancestors¬†is performed, through the spiritual leader (mfumu?) of the clan. He explains that traditional Bakongo cemeteries have different sections, one for the common people and one for the kings, sobas, etc., that become ancestors. These will become the¬†representatives of the clan in the kingdom of the dead. Thus in such sections of the cemetery, people make offers in the¬†campas, and obtain answers. And ancestor spirits may be summoned and asked for opinion in given moments. This is telling of how the dead become an active part of the social and familiar structure among the Bakongo. As he said a bit later in our conversation, ‚Äúos mortos continuam a dirigir a vida dos vivos‚ÄĚ.

However, the problem is then one:¬†history. With the colonial administration, and later with the processes of urbanization, things changed, especially in what concerned the relationship with the sacred geography. One dramatic consequence was the end of the production of new clans, precisely due to that territorial disconnection. Also, the processes of mobility and migration have changed these logics. The new generations have a different experience and capacity of mobility than their pre-colony forebearers (who were usually confined to their villages, and would only leave to found new villages in ‚Äėopposition‚Äô to their clan leaders. So we could talk about a process of deconstruction of the Bakongo tradution, especially in what concerns that link to the territory and everything that that implies. Necessarily, the way¬†funerals¬†are held was also affected.

On the other hand, there have been new, ‚Äėmodern‚Äô ways of trying to reproduce the traditional system. One example is the¬†Ngola Yetu¬†radio (where I believe Maturino works), which transmits community information throughout the Bakongo world. This has become a fundamental instrument for the Bakongo in and around Luanda. So for instance when someone passes away in Luanda, no more than an hour later, the information has already reached the mato – and vice-versa. This is why for instance in the rural areas we always see the¬†mais velhos¬†with radios on them. On the other hand, it is also true that in the city, with the generational dimension, there is also a process of distancing of the young urban Bakongo from the traditional system.

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In any case,¬†funerals¬†are still a big thing. N., for instance, interested as he is in all these matters, always likes to record the¬†funerals¬†he attends. So we go back to the¬†procedural aspects of the √≥bito: say someone dies in Luanda. As we just mentioned, the information will quickly circulate throughout the Bakongo world. The first tendency will be for the matrilineal kin to visit the deceased‚Äôs house and ‚Äúsleep‚ÄĚ there (there is also the participation of the political kin, however). And then the first concern will be to define when will the burial take place, so everyone can manage their own agenda. For instance, oftentimes, if there is a¬†death¬†on a Monday, the burial will most probably be next Saturday. There are also differences in timing and dimension that occur if we are talking about an elder or a little boy, for instance, or about someone central or marginal in the clanic structure.

Then there is the issue of the orador, the master of ceremonies, who would usually be the clan leader or someone designated by him. Sometimes someone can be hired to perform the function. Then, the óbito follows different moments: after the communication of the news, there is a period of 3-4 days for preparations of the óbito, to receive people for the ajuntamento and sentada. And then there is the funeral, the burial and afterwards the sentada familiar, which usually takes place either on the following day (taking advantage of the fact that the extended family is present) or 8 days later.

I ask N. about the Tokoist understanding of¬†death, and in what terms it is Christian and/or traditional. Earlier in our conversation he had talked about¬†death¬†very ‘anthropologically’, as a rite of passage. For the Bakongo, there are ideas of life after¬†death, ressurection and the ‚Äėreturn‚Äô of ancestral spirits returning to the world of the living through one of the descendants. He¬†also mentioned the importance of sarcophagi for the deceased.

For the Tokoists, however, things are a bit different. N. says that its theology concerning aspects of death is far more complex. On the one hand, as we already knew, the Tokoists don’t cry at funerals Рor rather, they shouldn’t, this is something that is part of their indoctrination. Likewise, they do not build campas, graves Рa fact that is related to a dark history of incidents in the church concerning rituals in graves and which led to its prohibition. They also don’t celebrate the day of the dead.

More symbolically speaking, he says that the meaning of¬†death¬†among the Tokoists is tied to the idea of life after¬†death. They all believe that in the end of times we will all reach eternal life. N. says that, unlike Jesus Christ (the only doctrinal aspects we find in the Bible are from Apostle Paul),¬†the prophet founder of the church,¬†Sim√£o Toko, did engage in a¬†doctrine of resurrection. He talks about a kingdom of 1000 years, governed by the Tokoists, the very¬†utopian Cidade Santa do Grande Rei, with its own system of governance, rules, etc. In this city, there will be no money, people will only wear one piece of clothes, etc. But this kingdom that Sim√£o Toko talks about is a kingdom that is not abstract or metaphoric, as in the Bible. It is not in the skies. It is concrete, specific, the continuation of our current life, and is (will be?) governed by the Tokoists. (…).

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