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Dignifying Death: the Politics of Burial in Bulawayo

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image of Journal of Religion in Africa

There has recently been much more recognition of the African role in the making of the colonial cities of southern Africa. Nevertheless, many kinds of action have still seemed to be impossible for Africans living in tightly controlled municipal townships. Among these is the political and symbolic management of death. While literature on West African towns celebrates 'mausoleum politics' and the struggle over the burial of dead men under the floors of their houses, in colonial Southern African cities it has been assumed that Africans had no choice but to accept the constraining rules of drab municipal cemeteries. Similarly, the initiative and agency, which we know rural Africans in Southern Africa to have exercised in their encounters with mission Christianity, have been much less documented in the towns. In short, it has been assumed that the Southern African town—and particularly the black townships—represented colonial control at its most intense and oppressive, allowing little room for symbolic or practical autonomy whether in social life, politics or religion. This article tests such presuppositions in relation to Southern Rhodesia's second largest town, and major industrial centre, Bulawayo. It argues that from the late 1890s there has always been a black Bulawayo, expressed first in the absence of municipal or state control of the Location and expressed later by the emergence of varying influential men and women there with the capacity to take cultural and symbolic initiatives, perhaps especially in the sphere of death, burial and commemoration. It discusses the successful performance of rites to 'bring back the spirit' a year after death despite missionary and municipal prohibitions; it discusses the role of the innumerable Burial Societies in colonial Bulawayo; it discusses the efforts of educated young men to erect memorials for African kings and chiefs; it discusses the varying focus of three types of African urban Christianity—missionfounded churches, 'Ethiopianist' independent churches and Apostolic prophetic churches—on rituals of death. By so doing it opens up many questions about the social, political, cultural and religious life of an African Location in colonial southern Africa.


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