This is funeral month here in Togo, so I asked a friend of mine to explain in English the background of this month dedicated to honoring the dead and why participation in this celebration is unchristian. I have tried to only make minor changes to the text to make it a little easier to read. As missionaries, we have to be students of their culture in order to best understand how to disciple them in the midst of their very unique circumstances. I hope you find this glimpse into some of the traditions of their animistic world interesting. He chose to focus more on the background (the why) rather than on all of the practices (the what). So he did not mention how prayers are offered to the deceased that they might, for instance, bless the fields of those that are honoring them. The rest of this blog is his explanation.
The Kabiyè people have many traditional rites and initiations from birth till death. When a child turns twenty they are initiated into manhood or womanhood. This initiation is called Evala for men and Akpéma for girls in Kabiyè language. It is a ceremony that involves both families. They have to be in agreement because during this traditional ceremony the uncle of the teenage boy (Evalou) or girl (Akpénou) is the one who will buy the dog that the boy will eat. Eating a dog is a delicacy here. Before the time of the ceremony the boy will have never eaten dog meat before. The girls never eat dog meat at all so the uncle will buy an animal such as goat or sheep instead.
This initiation is to tell the boy or the girl that he/she is a grown man or woman and can now get married without a problem. So during this ceremony the boy has to struggle with other young men of his age to really show that he can enter into adulthood. This shows his endurance and strength to face the future. Things are a little different for the girls, as they have to walk nude in the eyes of everybody without shame to show that they are mature and ready for life.
Five years later the young man goes through another traditional initiation, which is called Kondona. From this initiation, everybody in the community will start looking at him as a man of experience. They will start counting his age after each five years, which is called a Waaa. So after every five years they count another Waaa. After living long enough to have counted 10 Waaas, the man now is reached the age of 75 years old, which is called a Wassi.
When the man succeeds in living till that age, then family and friends will dance during his funeral. This funeral will be a festival and the family organizes the festival. All the children and descendants will participate for the success of the ceremony, which is the honor of the family and the dead. During the ceremony they have a ritual in which the spirit of the late will be taken into the house. They will build an idol in his name. He becomes an ancestor who can protect and defend the living family, his descendants, that he left back. In future years when honoring the deceased they will sacrifice animals and add a new idol.
If the deceased attained 75 years of age, but did not bear children then they would not dance at his funeral because the tradition considers the person as a child still. They will just bury him and finish. It is the same for young people who die before the age of 75. During their funerals, people are not allowed to dance because the person is still a child in the traditional context.
These funerals, in Kabiyè culture, take place in the month of February. Funerals have at least three objectives. 1.) They celebrate funerals to bring the soul of the deceased back to his house. 2.) They want to keep the person as an ancestor in the family and never forget him. 3.) They would like to honor the person. This honor is to mark the humanity of the person. Funerals for humans let them be seen as different from animals. At the same time this honor goes to the family too. It raises the name of the family. If a person dies and the members of his family don’t celebrate his funerals, it is an insult to him and his family. For that reason some go into debt in order to avoid dishonoring the dead.