Conceptions of Death Across Bantu Traditions

The Bantu people are the speakers of Bantu languages, comprising of hundreds of different ethnic groups spread out across sub-Saharan Africa. There are approximately 350 million Bantu speakers, which is roughly 30% of the total population of Africa. As is common across the world, various Bantu cultures have traditional stories and explanations regarding death, sharing similar themes and characters (while differing on the specifics):

Unkulunkulu and the Chameleon (Zulu – Southern Africa)

In classical Zulu tradition, Unkulunkulu is the Supreme Creator, creating all animals and humans from an area of reeds. One day, Unkulunkulu sent the chameleon to deliver the message to mankind that they would never die. However, the chameleon was lazy, took detours, and stopped to eat along the way. In frustration, Unkulunkulu sent a lizard to deliver the message to mankind that they would die. By the time the chameleon arrived with his message, mankind had already heard the message of the lizard, and for this reason mankind is mortal.     

Imana and the Snake (Banyarwanda – Central Africa)

Imana is the all-powerful ruler of all living things amongst the traditions of various peoples in Rwanda and Burundi. In one myth, a woman found Death hiding from Imana in her banana grove, and allowed it to hide under her skirt. As punishment, Imana forced Death to remain with humanity in perpetuity. In another folktale, Imana told a man that he would tell him the secret to eternal life if he did not fall asleep. The man was unable to stay awake, and a snake was waiting in the darkness, overhearing Imana’s message. Thinking snake was man, Imana revealed the secret, saying that when he was old he would shed skin and be reborn. It is for this reason that man is mortal, yet snakes shed skin and are constantly ‘reborn’.

By Tre Hunt

(Image: Wikimedia)

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