To get to the Sukuma family, we crossed a plain with some trees. As we went on, little by little, the road disappeared. A Sukuma boy, who had gotten in our car at Chunia, guided us until we arrived at our destination.
Sukuma’s houses were no different from those I had seen before. They were built with bricks and had the usual thatched roofs. One of the barns was made of kneaded mud and a wooden frame. In that place, there were four houses, some corrals and shelters for animals, and two earthen silos for storing grain, maize, and forage.
We were served ugali, dry potatoes, and chicken. We ate with our hands, after having washed them carefully, even though the water we washed our hands with was grayish! The Sukuma used that water even for drinking. But for us, who were guests, they served mineral water, not that kind of water. We took some ugali with our hands and kneaded it to make small balls with a little hollow in the middle. Then we dunked the little ball in
a sort of oil with crumbs similar to mince. Both the oil and the crumbs were made from milk.
After lunch, we remained sitting around the table for a while. The head of the Sukuma family invited us to ask him some questions about their culture. David prompted me to
say something. I was the guest of honor, and the trip had been organized just for me. My questions should be in Italian, then David would translate them into Kiswahili, and in turn, Antonia would translate Kiswahili into the Sukuma language.
“Ask something!” David insisted.
“I’d like to know something about the burials in the Sukuma tribe.”
“Can’t you choose a more pleasant topic? You could ask, for instance, something about their weddings.”
“For me, the important question is how their burial rites are. First, I want him to answer this question, and then I’ll ask something more cheerful.”
“When a person dies,” said the Sukuma man, “the families have a meeting to decide the spot of the burial. The grave should be in the corral, according to our culture. Once the decision has been made, the families take a bull to the corral if the dead person is a man, or a cow if the dead person is a woman. Then, the animal is killed by hitting it with a stick. After having been cut into two equal parts, it is skinned. The two halves of the skin
are taken from the animal and put on the front and back of the dead man. Then, a pit is dug as deep as his height. A burial niche in one side of the pit is made. The dead man is placed there. The pit is covered with earth, but before it is done so, a big stone is put on the grave. The stone partly stands under the ground and partly stands out to indicate that there is a grave in that place.
“When the burial is over, the friends, relatives, and family members of the dead man eat the animal. The families will stay at home in mourning for two days if the death happens in the rainy season, or for three days if it happens in different periods of the year.
“Now, let’s talk about the funerary practices in your country, in Italy.”
“I can tell you about the burials in my hometown, since traditions vary from one town to another in Italy.
“Once, the dead were buried inside the churches, but after Napoleon’s edict, this practice fell into disuse. These days, the graves are only in the graveyards, far from the places where people live.
“In my hometown, a tomb is considered the second house, the last resting place. According to his means, everyone tries to build a family mortuary chapel as luxurious as he can. Inside the chapel, there are some burial niches. The dead person is put into a casket made of rich wood. Then the casket is sealed hermetically. One day, the manager of the cemetery of my hometown said to me that, according to her, the practice of sealing the dead in caskets is barbarous. But she had to abide by the regulations. Those who can’t afford to build a mortuary chapel make a small grave or buy a walled niche to put a coffin inside.
“I remember an uncle of mine who built a very big and luxurious family mortuary chapel. It was made of granite and rich marble. Inside the chapel, he made double burial niches so that husband and wife could lie together after their deaths. He had the illusion that death is the continuation of life!”
While we were chatting, a new man came in. He belonged to a different tribe whose name I could not catch.
“Do you want to ask some questions to the newcomer?” David said to me.
“Yes, I’d like to know his opinion about whether the buried dead man disappears into thin air or if his soul survives.”
“The person buried underground is not dead. Only his body dies, but he is still alive and wanders from house to house and from village to village. In our houses, there is the custom to leave something to eat for the guests and for the souls who may pass by,” said the newcomer.
“What is your religion? Can you describe something about your religious practice?”
“We have a holy tree and often go to pray there.”
“What’s so special about that tree? Why is that tree holy?”
“I don’t know. Our ancestors taught us to pray like that. We have prayed at the foot of that tree since time immemorial, and we will keep praying in the future, too.”
After our talking was over, some Sukuma boys and girls appeared with two long horns that seemed to me to be antelope. On the wider part of the horn, there was an extension of some material that I didn’t know. It served as a sound box. Playing those musical instruments, they performed traditional Sukuma dances.
This is an excerpt from Travels of the Mind
Ettore Grillo, author of these books:
– A Hidden Sicilian History
– The Vibrations of Words
– Travels of the Mind