Economic costs of some cultural practices

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Tankiso S. Phori

Funerals in the context of poverty 

Tankiso S. Phori

LET me begin this article by saying I always wanted to challenge some of our cultural practices that are no longer relevant to most of us today, especially young generations and those who are yet to be born.

My arguments against some of the practices were based on the economic challenges that families and communities face including the evident poverty in most families. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 57.1 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line. The country also has the second highest HIV prevalence in the world, reportedly standing at 23 percent – of course based on the size of our population.

Around 365 526 children were left orphaned by HIV/AIDS out of the 1,072,974 total population of all children (National Strategic Plan on Vulnerable Children, 2012). “Approximately 10 -13 per cent of all children are considered to be vulnerable children”. And these children are growing up in a poverty-stricken environment as their families (caregivers) struggle to make ends meet. The unemployment rate in Lesotho is over 25 percent which is another critical factor causing poverty in our families and communities.

One of the most important things negatively affected by the high poverty rate is children’s access to education. Although there is a lot to celebrate on education, we still have a long way to go. The Millennium Development Goals Status Report (2013) showed encouraging results on access to primary education as the net enrolment rate reported in 2010 was 82 percent. However, the majority of children completing their primary education are not able to continue to secondary and high school or to complete their high school level largely due to financial challenges in their families. Again, most children who are in school do not have required school materials including school uniforms. Access to health care services is another challenge for many families because they cannot afford the money paid for available treatments.

It is in this context that I would like to talk about culture and how it affects economic growth in the country, focusing on one aspect of some cultural practices – funerals. Culture is one of the most important things in our lives as it provides a framework of how we should live, conduct ourselves or do things in general.

The British Anthropologist, Edward Tylor (1832-1917) defined the concept of culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired as a member of society.” Culture is some that we learn from those that came before us and it is shared. It is also a social heritage of people. We also know that culture is not, and should not be stagnant. In other words, cultures change – “new cultural traits are added, some old ones are lost because they are no longer useful or relevant”. Cultures of the world including our culture as Basotho are influenced by a number of things including the following:

  • Geography – influenced by the physical environment
  • Discovery and invention – finding different solutions to different problems or challenges
  • Isolation – if left isolated and without access to new technologies developed by other countries or people, people tend to find ways to survive or have their lives defined by what they have.
  • Basic values – conceptions of what people or a society consider as important or good for them.

All these things suggest that we should not hold on to things even if they are no longer important or useful in our lives given the circumstances. And for me doing away with some of the funeral practices is urgent if we are to emancipate our poor and vulnerable families and communities from the chains of poverty. I know this can be controversial as people have a freedom to choose how they want to bury or organise funerals for their loved ones based on what they can or cannot afford. But I strongly think we need to change the way we do things – our culture on funerals.

Money/resources spent on funeral food:

It is a common practice in our society to perform rituals such as killing animals (cows, sheep or goats) to bid farewell to our loved ones who have departed from this planet. When we talk to our elders, they tell us that Basotho used to kill animals to ‘accompany’ their loved ones and that if they did not perform such rituals ancestors would be angry at them and haunt them for the rest of their lives. I find it unfair and unreasonable for any family especially the poor to feel social and cultural pressure to buy a cow and other foods in order to have a ‘proper funeral’ for their love one. These animals are very expensive these days and Basotho no longer have as many animals as they used to have hence in the past it was not a problem to kill animals for their deceased and also to feed people who come to mourn with the affected families. These days a cow can cost you between M4 000 and M7 000, and for most families this is lot of money which can be used to invest in more sustainable things to grow the family’s economy. The cost of the cow or any other animal combined with the costs of other foods can amount to up to M15 000 or M20 000 depending of the financial muscle of each family. I think there a lot of less expensive ways that can be explored and still have a decent funeral service. For example, chickens are not that expensive and they can be used if Basotho feel that there is still a need to kill an animal as the ritual important to them.

Money/resources spent on daily evening prayers

It is also a common practice to have daily prayers where neighbours, friends, colleagues, and relatives come to offer their prayers or have joint prayers. These daily prayers are usually held few days after one has passed away until the day before the burial. They usually last for a full week. During these daily prayers the affected family would prepare food or snacks to feed visitors who came to mourn with them. Some families spend over M3 000 per day for five days. I think that’s a lot of money that can be spared for other things such as children’s school fees or health care services etc.

Memorial Services

I think the concept of a memorial service is a great idea as it gives people an opportunity to bid farewell to their loved one and celebrate the life of a friend, son, daughter, colleague, or a relative especially for people who are not able to attend the actual funeral service. However, I do not think we can afford to continue spending so much on memorial services in terms of money or other resources given the economic challenges. Rather we can invest part of the money on more sustainable things to build the economy of the families and ensure that those left behind will not suffer after the funeral.

Time spent during funeral services

Time is the most precious resource for any family, community or country to build its economy. While people need time to mourn the loss of their loved ones so that they can move on, I hold a view that the time we spend in most of our funeral services is painfully and unnecessarily long. Our funerals usually start at 10:00 AM and last until 15:00 to 16:00 in some communities. This causes a lot of pain and inconvenience to people who travel long distances to attend the funeral – sometimes having to travel at night to return to their different places. Sometimes the long time spent at the funeral service is attributed to some rules set by the traditional leaders (Chiefs) that in our culture or tradition a body of the deceased cannot be taken to the graveyards in the middle of the day (mid-day) as that can bring bad luck or something bad in the community. Again this is something to do with the beliefs that Basotho superstitiously used to hold, they are not relevant anymore to some Basotho especially the young generation. The programs are also unnecessarily long due to poor time management; long speeches; long church services; and lastly a practice of chiefs to share the platform, allowing all chiefs of neighbouring villages to speak to pass their condolences to the chief and people of the affected community or village. And the question is do we really need that? Usually when people have been kept for long hours they end up not listening to speeches being made by the selected speakers. So I think we could use most of the time that we spend at the funerals on other things, being productive and growing the economy. I know very well that in the process of these many and long speeches those affected by the loss get healed, but I really think we should reduce the time spent at funerals.

Burying animal skins with the deceased

Basotho have a practice to bury animal skins with the deceased saying it is part of the ‘blanket’ to keep them warm as they leave this planet. This practice is mostly common with the cow’s skin. Other animal skins such as sheep or goat skins are usually thrown into the grave without necessarily covering the coffin with them. This practice to some extent is a shift from the earlier practice whereby Basotho would use the cow’s skins as blankets for the living or bedroom mats or carpets. Now with the skill of treating animal skins for household use as mats or carpets increasingly disappearing, these skins are now thrown away or buried with the deceased. These animal skins can be used to make a lot of products including shoes, bags, mats etc., thus creating a lot of employment opportunities for Basotho. This is another practice that I think we should change – burying animal skins with the deceased.

In conclusion, I think I should indicate that I am not against culture, but I think we need to revisit some to the cultural practices and ask ourselves if they still add value to our lives today. Culture has a lot of positive things that we are cherishing today, and we are who we are because of the culture. The social cohesion, family bonds, and a sense of community that we have all exist because of culture. But we need to redefine certain aspects of our cultural practices if we want to get our vulnerable families and communities out of poverty and to prevent those who are still financially secure from falling into the poverty hole. When we review our poverty reduction strategies we need to take these conversations into consideration.

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