Burial Rites During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Rural Africa: The Changing Dynamics


When corona virus diseases 2019 (COVID-19), a respiratory condition caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome, erupted in Wuhan province in China, it was unfathomable that it would cause havoc and disrupt livelihoods in rural Africa. There was a range of conspiracy theories at start such as the resilience of the black skin and the viruses’ inability to thrive in hot weather that made rural Africans feel unsusceptible to the disease. The global media on its part spearheaded somewhat a baseless discourse ranging from Africa’s vulnerability (due to poor health systems) to promoting a warning that Africa would be worst hit by the pandemic due to such factors as population density. It seems that the global community is still puzzled at why the continent with fragile healthcare system has not became an epicenter for disaster[1]. Whereas the prophesies of doom have not seemed to materialize, a significant panic and reality of COVID-19 pandemic has altered important rituals and livelihoods of the African people.

Despite the fact that Africa seemed to have managed the outbreak of the pandemic, thus negating the negative discourses around the media, the continent still received negativity attached to the pandemic. The Nana Otafrija, dancing pallbearers from Ghana, became a social media sensation perhaps as a warning in good will or the fear of the African traditional practices often seen as backward and primitive. Although the focus of this group is supposedly meant to bring joy to the funerals[2], they became a trending video that was used especially by the young people allover the world as a warning through the social media to scare people into taking precautions and observing measures against the contamination by the virus[3].

While the pallbearers were used to serve a warning and also to scare millions allover the world on the one hand, they also were manifesting the odds that funeral rituals have been encountering in rapidly changing Africa. Pallbearers monetize the funeral rites, but also revolutionize the rites from mourning and sadness to joy. The popularization of pallbearing during COVID-19 has, however, been casting new fears attached to the dead bodies in many communities in Africa. And thus asserting that despite low rates of deaths attached to COVID-19 pandemic in Africa, people not only became afraid of contacting the disease, but also how to handle the dead. These fears have caused alteration of the rites attached to funerals in rural Africa, and that has had a profound effect in people’s livelihoods during the COVID-19 outbreak.

This article will briefly to analyze the impact of COVID-19 pandemic to the rural populations in Africa by highlighting how death rituals have been altered and its impacts thereof. To do this, we focused on Embu county of central Kenya, which is largely occupied by the Aembu and the Ambeere (a Bantu group of people living in the slopes of the Mount Kenya in Embu County and minorities in the surrounding counties such as Kirinyaga, and Tharaka Nithi). The two sub-tribes share common cultural values, traditions, religion, language (though with differing dialects), and practices. Majority of the Aembu and the Ambeere are converted Christians (Catholic, Anglicans, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Pentecostals), with a few adhering to the Islam and traditional believes and practices. Before the invasion of Christianity and Islamic beliefs, death was a rite of passage to the next realm of existence where spirits of the dead were believed to continue to live and commune with the families and individuals in the land of the living as ancestral spirits. The contemporary practices during death manifests mourning period as a communal affair and community members are expected to fund and give out resources needed for the burial and its associated rituals. Elders (now mostly religious leaders) conduct special prayers and rituals with and for the grieving family before and after burial ceremony for healing, giving material and spiritual support, and hope.

You can’t just bury the dead: Stigmas of infectious diseases revisited

In response to global guidelines by the World Health Organization (WHO), the government of Kenya developed a protocol on management of burying and disposal of the bodies or tissues due to COVID-19. These measures were ambiguous. They attempted to give honor to the dead, trying to ensure dignity, protection and respect for next of the kin and family of the deceased while also underscoring the safety precautions against transmission of the virus. In the attempt to achieve this ambiguous goal, the Ministry of Health (MOH) Kenya rolled out the strategies that were largely drawn from WHO. One of such guideline pertained when the deceased die at community level, stating that the family members were supposed to inform the county disease surveillance team to relay the message to regional pathologist for more investigations.

The COVID-19 protocols had various effects. Although viewing of the body in the casket before being buried has no known originality from the Embu community, and many rural communities in Africa, it has gained traction recently. Thus the restriction to not view the body was seen as somewhat strict and unbearable. In keeping with the efforts to minimize infections to the vulnerable population, the number of participants in burial ceremonies was significantly reduced and people above 60 years were prohibited from attending the burial activities. One of the rituals that directly involved touching the body of the deceased is embalming. Traditionally, the people of Embu conserved the body using various spices and salt, an activity that had crucial cultural underpinnings. In the contemporary generations, this ritual has focused more on proper dressing of the body several days to and during the day of the burial. The prohibition on who should touch the body has thus been one of the most significant steps that these communities have had to skip. Another significant preventive measure has been that the bodies of the affected should be buried at least 48 hours to avoid community practices that would be a catalyst for infections. As these measures now have fallen into the hands of health officials sanctioned by the state, the community is at loss on what the impact will be in the view that the deceased may not pleased by the handling.

The place and importance of these measures notwithstanding, their actualization has proved the deep underlying fears of the infectious diseases especially in rural Africa. Kenya was not adversely affected by the Ebola outbreak in 2014 that also had sparked widely spread fears and alteration of burial rites. This not withstanding, the treatment of the dead, despite the COVID-19 protocols, has been bringing to light the once forgotten stigmas. Many people have been associating the COVID-19 protocols with the early days of HIV/AIDS related deaths when people feared coming into contact with the corpses for fear of contacting HIV/AIDS. Although there seems to be much better understanding of the burial protocols, the presence of health officials, and restriction on handling the dead bodies has revived memories of those who died of HIV/AIDS in the rural Kenya before the disease was well understood. Infact, some wonder if our future reflections will reveal the bias in handling the COVID-19 death cases.

Two worlds apart?

The treatment, attitudes, and stigma of infectious diseases in dead bodies has manifested differently by different social and economic classes. As a consequence, different bodies were accorded different treatments despite the claim of uniformity of the laid down protocols by the state. Corpses from poor families were buried hurriedly and with utter disrespect of cultural norms or basic human dignity, whereas the affluent corpses seemed to defy the existence of the laid out protocols[4]. On the other hand, the difference accorded to different bodies resonates with the social expectations and the stigma about participating in burial rites that burial ceremonies have been sites of displaying social and economic status as people from rural, urban, and diaspora community congregate. A person in the high hierarchy of the society will attract numerous participants during the mourning and the funeral ceremony. Furthermore, the burial related ceremonies are a time to gather relatives who dwell in the urban areas since besides family gathering burial ceremonies have remained almost the single most powerful tools to make the urban populations travel to their homelands. The gathering during the burial ceremonies can thus bear staunch signals of how people in urban areas experience better life. They travel in flashy cars, most recent fashions, and when they come to the village they demand to be accorded special treatment. It is therefore without doubt that burial rites are manifestations of the divides that exist in the society especially between the rural and urban dichotomy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has however revealed a rather peculiar relationship between the rural and urban divide. Some have claimed that it has become an equalizer especially because both of these populations have had to observe strict measures by the state that blurs the distinction in terms of number of participants in the funerals. However, the equalization view is deceiving as established by both conventional and social media reports that there were instances of differentiated treatment of the people that died of COVID-19 depending on their social status[5]. This evidence recasts the debates on the rural-urban and rich-poor debate as a central theme emerging out of VOCID-19 pandemic showing that little has been done to curb the exacerbation of the rich-poor divide.

The “reggae stopped”? Diminishing sites for political contestation

Burial rites in Kenya have had a strange relationship. The rites have become sites for both the political elites and the grassroots populations to assert influence. As we have stated above, rituals regarding the handling of the bodies of the deceased have had significant changes, most of which are based on new religious convictions. One ritual that has however persisted is macakaya (vigils) that are held several days before the actual day of burial. During macakaya, friends, relatives, and family members of the deceased gather usually in the evenings to show solidarity with the family. Relatives travel from far distances in urban centers and also from foreign countries to participate in macakaya. This is partly because it is seen as a disgrace to be absent during this period. Whereas one can be pardoned for not viewing the body, washing it, or performing any other direct rituals relating to the body of the deceased, those who fail to join the family during macakaya attract wrath from the community, and from the living dead as well.

Macakaya has thrived and shown resilience over time creating spaces for active political contestation and cultural expressions. Thus, it has persisted even in new religious settings as it has offered a place for religious leaders to reach out to the community through prayers and preaching. It is also widely viewed as not conflicting the church doctrines and the native burial practices. In the recent past, macakaya has been a site for political contestation as politicians pursue avenues of getting closer to the electorates. Politicians in Kenya are not elected to the office purely based on their ability to pass good legislation, rather on how well they connect with the electorate, which is often determined by the politician’s ability to meet people’s need. It has therefore became popular for the beginners in politics who usually have no resources and have not leanrt the art of misusing the public funds to take macakaya as their first platforms of connecting with electorate. It is also popular for political class to use one of the stages of burial rites for important political pronouncements.  

Just before the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Kenya, the political momentum was already rife and exciting despite the fact that Kenya’s general election is scheduled for 2022. The political excitement was emerging from “handshake” politics after the opposition leader, Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta agreed to formulate what they have called building bridges initiative (BBI) to spearhead constitutional changes for the purported purpose of making the “national cake” more shareable. The BBI has been seen as threatening the presidential ambitions of the current deputy president, William Ruto. Thus, in spearheading the campaign for BBI, Odinga castigated those opposed to it saying that “nobody can stop reggae” in reference to Lucky Dube’s revolutionary sentiments in his popular song. When the state issued a guideline limiting the number of people allowed to attend burials, and indeed putting a ban on political gatherings, those in favor of the side that is opposed to “handshake” politics claimed that “god” had “stopped reggae” in response to their prayers led by Ruto who had claimed earlier that they would stop reggae (The deputy president claimed that reggae is for criminal gangs involved in drug abuse and that it was ungodly[6]). The stoppage was also celebrated in regard to burials, which are sites where political pronouncements are made. Thus, many people opposed to BBI seemed to celebrate COVID-19 restrictions on burial attendance saying, “Corona has stopped reggae”.

The restrictions on the number of people who can participate in gatherings then “stopped reggae” in that the electorate and the politician meeting points had been somewhat suffocated. The electorate was therefore unable to lay claim for political resources from the local leaders. This also limited the political contestation, as macakaya remained one of the few places where rural populations can meet directly with their elected leaders. This limit has also meant that the electorate cannot test the ground for new politicians. Furthermore, the urban dwellers and the diaspora, who are seen as very important contributors to development in the village, and who in turn are the aspiring politicians, have had a difficult time attending these important meetings.

Although the elite interpretation of political interference with burial rites decries the politicization of these important ceremonies, the rural populations are active actors utilizing the “politicized funerals” as tools for political participation and contestation. Different from other political forums where only able-bodied political characters with mastery of specialized discourses are awarded a chance to address the political class directly, the burials are places where the immediate family members and friends of the deceased cannot be left out in public speeches. Thus, voices that are perceived as weak have unparalleled opportunity to make public pronouncements about political issues that they care about. Furthermore, they can address the elected political leader directly in the presence of his electorates thus choosing to hold them accountable or pressing political demands. In essence, the burial sites differ starkly from political campaign rallies in the sense that the politician has to be seen as sympathizing with the bereaved, and the bereaved has power to assert his temporal authority as a voice that cannot be wished away. COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily eroded the politician direct participation in burial rites, thus limiting the local peoples participation and confrontation with the political class.


The government announced recently that it is revising the protocols of burials related to COVID-19. This news came as a relief to many families who were worried about COVID-19 pandemic eroding the most important cultural practices of sending off family members. The revision will also be a break to precautions that have prevented people to fearlessly express their livelihoods embedded in burial rites. The COVID-19 protocols of burying the loved ones have challenged the rituals around death. One of the outcome has been that majority of people who live off these grassroots lived experiences have once again come to see the centrality of such practices. Thus, although the period before the pandemic was occupied by people calling out politicization of burial ceremonies, which often focuses on the usurpation of these spaces by the political elite, the role of these rituals to ordinary citizens in aiding their participation and active role in political and democratic process has come to light. As African politics seem to be once again endangered by the return of the lifetime dictators, it is perhaps timely to begin re-emphasizing the kind of grassroots practices that are aiding and furthering democratic processes in rural Africa. Furthermore, highlighting these kind of practices during COVID-19 pandemic is helpful in telling the story of resilience in rural Africa’s preparedness to combat the pandemic and overcome the global stereotypes about their inability to handle such unprecedented global difficulties.

[1] For instance see, Harding, A. (2020). ‘Africa didn’t dither but faces long coronavirus fight’. BBC News, 21 May. Available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52741421

[2] Sullivan, H. (2020). ‘ “Why should you cry?” Ghana’s pallbearers find new fame during COVID-19’. The Guardian, 14 May. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/14/why-should-you-cry-ghanas-dancing-pallbearers-find-new-fame-during-covid-19

[3] See BBC, 2020  https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-52503049

[4] Wesangula, D. (2020). ‘Irony of decent funerals for rich as poor wail for respect’. The Standard. 2 August. Available at https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/the-standard-insider/article/2001380887/inequalities-even-in-death

[5] Ibid, and Facebook analysis.

[6] Githinji, R. (2020). ‘Ruto on BBI: We will Stop Reggae’. The Star. 24 February. Available at https://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2020-02-23-ruto-on-bbi-we-will-stop-reggae/

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