Fearing Desecration, Congolese Resurrect Ancient Burial Rites

In the DRC, families increasingly send the remains of deceased loved ones back to their home villages rather than bury them in the city. It is both an age-old tradition and a way to protect against irreverence.

A traditional funeral ceremony in Duakombe Village, DRC.
A traditional funeral ceremony in Duakombe Village, DRC.
Mathieu Mokolo

MBANDAKA — When a shopkeeper from the Bikoro territory died suddenly earlier this year, his body was rapidly repatriated by his family to his native village to be buried there. A few weeks earlier, two other bodies took the same direction. One of them was returned on a motorized boat to Bomongo, more than 300 kilometers north of Mbandaka.

Watching the funeral procession heading towards the village with watery eyes, a sixty-something Ekolo Paul promised himself, "I, too, would like to be buried beside my relatives. As soon as I get my pension, I'll save a bit of money to organize my funeral." These past few months, being buried at home has become a ritual for those living in the town of Mbandaka.

M’bokolo Elima, who works for the state and lives in this capital of the Equateur province, explains that the gradual return to this tradition can be explained by better roads but most of all by the lack of respect some city residents have for the dead. "It is now possible to drive to locations that used to be isolated and afford the luxury of burying family members there," he says.

A "journey" for wealthy people

Very popular in the past, the custom of burying loved ones close to home became very rare in the 1990s, after the Congo's socio-economic situation broke down, particularly in the Equateur province. Paul still remembers the years when the wish of any member of the community who wanted to be buried beside their relatives was respected.

"At the time, we had an association regrouping people from the Bikoro territory," Paul says, nostalgic. "Thanks to contributions, we had enough funds to cover the funeral costs. It really didn't affect us financially. Even children who died in town were buried in the village."

The custom has now returned, but only certain wealthy and privileged people and those who belong to clans with a large number of members can afford this "journey." In some cases, regional politicians help families.

The wish for an eternal ancestral connection is why families choose to repatriate mortal remains to home villages. According to Samuel Kinda, another Bikoro native, many people ask that, when they die, they be buried beside their parents, children or other relatives.

"In this case, the wish of the deceased must be respected," he says. "Otherwise there could be a curse." Another factor is that people fear the obscenities and profanities that can happen during mourning or the funeral, which is very common in the city.

"Here, the dead are buried, and people desecrate the graves," Kinda says. "In the village, it's not the same. Respect towards the dead is a principle there. Graves are sacred and are treated with great care. They are considered as true places to rest in peace for eternity."

In the collective mind, being buried in an "Elali" (a clannish cemetery) is the sign that the dead belong to a community that entitles the deceased or their family to certain rights in case of land-related disputes or during the creation of a remit with investors.

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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