- 'Interroger les morts pour critiquer les vivants, ou éxotisme morbide?'Encounters with African Funerary Practices in Francophone Anthropology
In the past decade, there has been a flurry of ethnographic and historical writing about death and dying in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa published no less than thirteen articles between 2001 and 2009 on African ways of death, and other journals such as African Studies Review (2005) and the Journal of African History (2008) have dedicated special issues under the rubric. Additional scholarship has also appeared in edited volumes (Droz and Maupeu 2003; Jindra and Noret, forthcoming), tempered by a surprisingly limited number of published monographs (de Witte 2001; Ngimbi 1997). Taken together, this is a striking output and raises several initial questions about academic vogue, on the one hand, and historicity, on the other.
To attend to the first question, death is a 'sexy' subject, in quite a number of theoretical and empirical senses. But it is also exceptionally difficult to study, no less so than sexuality. Louis Vincent Thomas, francophone theorist of funerary ideologies in African societies, explicitly made a connection between l'ethno-thanatologie and sexuality without leaving an ethnographic guide to this intimate relationship (Thomas 1982). As far as ethnography goes, sexuality enters into African death practices in new and emergent conduct at funerals in Kinshasa (Ngimbi 1997) and the politicization of sexuality in post-apartheid South Africa (Posel 2005), just to recall a couple of examples. However 'sexy' the topic may be, I am not convinced that death's current place in African studies is simply a matter of being in fashion. If the volume of recent research is anything to go by, then it can be said that something is happening in Africa that commands our attention. [End Page 455]
With respect to the current visibility of death in Africanist scholarship, the question, 'Why now?' must also be asked. The transformations in how death and dying is managed, alongside the politicization of funerals themselves, are striking in the ways in which they depart from precedent, that is, the domain of knowledge and action all too readily recognized as tradition. Severe dislocations in the meanings of death among Africans have been reported, suggesting a source not only in the continent's generalized political and economic crisis, but also in a more acute moral and spiritual one (de Boeck 1998, 2005). Death and dying are being re-imagined in ways that are unsettling the received wisdom of older ethnographies, and directly challenging the methodologies of newer ones. As an organizing concept, death derives its popularity from the manner in which its conceptual breadth can bring together elements of these crises that would otherwise appear inchoate. The meaning of death is, at this conjuncture in African history, quite elusive in the ways in which the 'African crisis' is mediated and represented.
The emotional and empathic distances created by media images of death in Africamake it easy to entertain what Coulin (1997) has called a 'morbid exoticism', but exceptionally trying if one seeks a well-balanced understanding of the lived relationships to death in African everyday life. Much harder still is comprehension of the interpellation of the living and the dead in such contexts of crisis. Famine in Darfur, AIDS deaths and HIV infections everywhere, the four million Congolese war dead, the Rwandan genocide, gun crime in South Africa, and the under-reported human costs of malaria and malnutrition portray Africa as a 'space of death' in the Western press (Vaughan and Lee 2008: 241). Historically, this representation of Africa as a foil of human suffering has precedent, most notably in the British public's morbid late-nineteenth century obsession with the death toll of the slave trade.
My interest in...