The politics of death in colonial Kenya and Ghana

A coffin shaped like a chili pepper
A fantasy coffin from Ghana

I came across two interesting articles recently that noted how much colonization changed burial practices in Kenya and Ghana.  At The Elephant, Patrick Gathara writes about burial practices as strategies for claiming land in Kenya.  He notes that among the Kikuyu, before colonization,

In some cases, folks of high status had elaborate funeral rites … [but many] individuals were simply left out in the bush to be devoured by wild animals, at times being led out when sickly to a clearing to die.

So why and when did burial become universal? … The British had been trying to get the Kikuyu to stop tossing bodies into the bush without much success until, in February 1933, Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiu was able to demonstrate to the Carter Commission, set up a year earlier to investigate African land claims and grievances, that land grabbed by an English settler actually belonged to his family by exhuming the remains of his grandfather. Suddenly bodies were no longer just the unclean detritus from a one-way ticket on the ancestral plane, but were now effectively transformed into a title for land, and burial “into a means of ascertaining control over property… Burial became a means to assert one’s modernity and to mark out inherited property: a new concept of land ownership was born”. Where land was once a communal resource, it now became the basis of private wealth and completely transformed social, economic and class relations within the society with attendant consequences that Kenyans continue to pay for to this day.

The logical endpoint of using burial grounds to claim land is then demonstrated in colonial Ghana, where burying the dead was more common.  As Sarah Balakrishnan writes at the Metropole blog, 

Creating private property in Accra required cemeteries. Graveyards relocated ancestors to the public domain, making it possible for Gold Coasters to sell their property to interested buyers.  British colonists had long understood that communities in Accra would never sell their land if it contained the remains of their elders.

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