Nhial Bol

KHARTOUM, Jun 8 1997 (IPS) - Funerals among the Acholi ethnic group in Sudan were once a time for singing, dancing, eating – and the brewing and drinking of copious quantities of beer.

For three days, mourners would sing and dance to traditional Acholi dirges, giving a festive air to what, in most cultures, traditionally is a sad affair. These days, however, Acholi funeral rites are more sombre.

The culture of this Southern ethnic community , now living in displaced camps in and around Khartoum, has clashed head-on with the Arab culture and tenets of Islam in the North of Sudan.

For example, ‘maraisa’ (beer) plays an important role in funerals and other Acholi rites. But it is illegal, according to Sudanese law, to prepare or consume beer whether for rituals or for pleasure. This regulation has sent Acholi funeral rituals underground, since the displaced ethnic community fears the long arm of the law.

The Sudanese police have been known to suddenly appear at a camp and put an abrupt halt to funeral preparations. Recently in the displaced camp of Jebel Auilia, 40 kms south of Khartoum, police confiscated beer and food being prepared for a funeral.

According to family members, one and a half barrels of beer had been brewed and a ram slaughtered for the funeral, which was to have taken place later that day. The police arrved on a routine inspection, and despite the family’s pleas, took away everything.

The loss of these traditions is painful for elder members of the ethnic group, who are slowly watching the demise of their culture.

One woman told IPS during one of the rare funeral rituals held here recently, that it is often at these sad gatherings that an elderly man and woman, who had been friends, renew their old friendship.

“Look at this old man dancing with a support stick pointing to the back of the house,” said the woman. “He is signalling to his old lover to retire with him behind the house to relive the good old days for some minutes.”

She said the old people really enjoy the funeral dances, because it is a time for remembering the old days. During the funeral rites, “we drown our sadness in the merry-making.” The anxiety of death and sorrow which follows the death of a loved one is purged by the light-hearted atmosphere during the funeral ritual, the woman explained.

The difference in burial and funeral customs has even led to violent conflict between Northerners and Acholi. Most of the Acholi still recall a serious clash several years ago between members of one of their communities and Northern Muslims who tried to bury a woman whose dowry had not been paid.

In the Acholi custom, if a married woman dies before the full bride price has been paid, then she cannot be buried until the final payment is made. According to police here, the Muslims decided to bury the woman, who was their neighbour, after three days, when her husband, who was away at the time, did not return.

After consulting a doctor, they proceeded to the graveyard where they were followed by Acholi men who tried to prevent them from burying the woman during the husband’s absence.

A fight broke out between the two groups and two of the Muslims died while three policemen were wounded. The body was confiscated by the police and several Muslims and Acholi were arrested.

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