Going Home? Belonging and Burial in the Era of Aids

By Whyte, Susan Reynolds | Africa, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Going Home? Belonging and Burial in the Era of Aids


Whyte, Susan Reynolds, Africa


ABSTRACT

In Eastern Uganda, a married woman should be buried at her husband's home, raising questions such as: which husband? were they really married? These questions become urgent when a woman dies at the home of her parents or brothers, a situation that has become increasingly common as women ill with AIDS seek care from their families of orientation. In Bunyole, the ways in which a woman 'belongs' to two different homes are brought out as discussions proceed about where she should be buried. This article uses accounts of cases where there was uncertainty about the burial site to show how people justify the choice of a 'final home'. 'Arguments of cultural rules' are used to underwrite demands about bridewealth, while 'arguments of affection' are put forward in sympathy for women who needed care or were loved by children. The location of the grave provides a vantage point for looking at how home and marriage take on significance for women in distress. The explanations provide a window on the ways families reason about rights, obligation, virtue and compassion. They show the enduring importance of a woman's natal family; in the era of AIDS, mortally ill women are usually cared for by parents and siblings even though their corpses may be carried to a husband's home for burial.

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In many parts of East Africa it is important to be buried at home. That the definition of home may be a matter of contention was brought to public and scholarly attention in Kenya by the 1987 case of S. M. Otieno. The corpse of the well-known Nairobi lawyer became an object of litigation as his widow and his clansmen battled in the courts over the location of his grave--and the identification of his real home (Cohen and Atieno Odhiambo 1992; Ojwang and Mugambi 1989; Stamp 1991). Despite the surge of media attention, however, it is the burials of ordinary women, and not those of elite men, that are most often controversial and in many ways the most interesting (Cattell 1992; Schwartz 1995, 1997). In the patrilineal, virilocal settings of Kenya and Uganda, men should be buried on the land of their fathers. But women should be buried on the land of their husbands--thereby raising questions such as: which husband? were they really married in the first place? and were they still married at the time they died?

The matter of where a woman belongs assumes urgency at her death. In Uganda, where corpses are not usually embalmed and burials are the most important of social occasions, pressure is intense to identify a grave site and funeral venue. The grief, anger and bitterness of the bereaved add tension to the situation. Disputes and despair about the burial of women have been reported by researchers and the national press. A study on maternity care in Mbarara includes the case of a woman who died in childbirth, leaving her cohabiting husband distraught, not just about her death but about the fact that he had never undergone formal introductions to her family, much less paid bridewealth. He knew he could not bury her but did not know where he should deliver the corpse (Neema 1994: 46-7). Attempts by a husband to bury a woman for whom no bridewealth has been paid may lead to violence. Working in Jinja hospital, another researcher met a patient who had been admitted with gunshot wounds sustained while attending a funeral in October 1992. The husband of the deceased (who had fathered a child with her) was determined to bury her. Since he had paid no bridewealth, her fathers insisted that he should do so before placing her in the grave. Apparently he refused. In the ensuing gunfire, her father was killed and her father's brother returned home with the corpses of both father and daughter (written communication from Birungi Harriet). National newspapers carry stories of women's bodies being exhumed and taken away by relatives or held as decomposing ransom, when bridewealth was not forthcoming (Olita 2002; Tumusiime 2002). …

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