Commonalities with Continents between Us

by Lisa Angermeier


The person I interviewed for this assignment is a 37 year-old, black male who is originally from Sierra Leone, West Africa. I will call him Charles. He is married, Catholic and a graduate student. He is the oldest of three children. Most of his early life, from the age of 7, was spent as a "mission boy." Being a mission boy meant that his education and basic needs were taken care of in anticipation that he would become a Catholic priest. He made a gesture with his hands indicating that he had come quite close (within inches) to becoming a Catholic priest. We met in a coffee shop at our school's union building. I was approaching this interview with anticipation that since Charles was from Africa his conceptualization of death would be at the opposite end of the spectrum from mine. I am a white, middle-class, Midwestern, graduate student. What was surprising to me is that our ideas about grief and death are not worlds apart. I actually found many similarities.

The Interview

I began by asking him about traditions and rituals associated with death. He explained how intertwined culture and religion are in his country. I was trying to make neat, orderly groups, and he corrected my inaccuracy. He said that religion is like a secondary culture. The basis of rituals related to death lie more in the culture itself. The culture provides the ground for sprouts of religion to poke through depending on the families beliefs. He mentioned that there are three major groups: Muslims, Catholics, and Atheists. The cultural practices focus more on what he termed voodoo. I have a problem with using the word voodoo. When I hear it, I think of all of the stereotypical images from movies of people poking pins into dolls. Using the word voodoo makes me feel as a westerner that I am making a value judgement on his cultural practices. Maybe he used it, because he thought that was a good way to explain the practices to me.

When someone dies in his culture, the cause will be attributed to a curse from someone else. For example, if you got into a fight with your neighbor and then you get into an accident and die, you died because your neighbor put a curse on you. When Charles was explaining this, he seemed a bit uncomfortable. He laughed a few times and tried to distance himself from these "unrealistic" beliefs. I should tell you that Charles is a health educator, so at this point in his life he is interested in health issues and causes of death from a professional and educational viewpoint. He said that families with more education tend not to believe on the curses as cause of death. Religion plays a role also. For Muslims and Christians, death might be attributed to sin or God's will, but the overall cultural beliefs will be weaved throughout the grief process.

Charles described the rituals surrounding the death. When a person dies, the elders of the family will care for the body by bathing it and getting it ready for burial. The women are in charge of these tasks. People in his culture are members of what he called "societies" or "clubs." These societies have burial areas and are in charge of burying the person. If the family has some money, then a coffin will be built. If not, the person will be placed on a mat and then buried. This takes place shortly after the death, because there is no embalming to preserve the body.

During the time immediately following the death until about a week afterwards, family members and friends gather to support the family of the deceased. Those who have money will contribute money to the family. Others will bring food and offer emotional support. Charles noted that this is a way that in his culture bereaved people are supported. He gave an example of a young woman's husband dying to illustrate this support. She has a forty day mourning period in which she expresses her sorrow and talks with others. Her life during these forty days is "centered in her loss." After that time, the elders in the community take her to the river and bathe her. She will take off her mourning clothes. This seems very symbolic to me, cleansing away the sorrow and grief. She then returns to the community and can remarry.

Charles spoke of deceased members of his family always being with him. When he has "big event" in his life or just needs support, he says a prayer and believes that his family members are with him and will answer it. As he was describing this, I imagined little angels sitting upon his shoulders to answer his prayers. He believes that life continues after death in the form of spirits. For example, when a person sneezes, this is an anscestoral spirit wanting recognition.

Another ritual that takes place happens when crops are harvested. A special meal will be prepared and offered to the deceased to share in the harvest. The food might be placed in a corner of the house or at the burial site. Cola nuts are highly valued commodity in Sierra Leone. The cola nut symbolizes respect, open doors and bonds between people. You might offer a cola nut to your bride's father for her hand in marriage or to an enemy to make amends. Cola nuts are used as an offering to the deceased. Charles once again distanced himself from his culture by saying that for him, Cola nuts are merely a source of caffeine.

Gender expectations in his culture struck me as quite similar to expectations in our culture. Men are not expected or encouraged to openly cry to express their grief. He said if men cry, it is okay, but in order to "keep your manhood" you try not to cry. In order to do this, the men gather together and drink to avoid feeling. Women are expected and almost forced to cry. Even if a woman does not feel like crying, she must force herself. Women gather together, separately from the men, to support one another.

Charles mentioned that death either brings people together or tears families apart. Many family feuds are settled during the time of mourning. This can tear families apart when the cause of death is attributed to a curse from a friend or family member. For example, if I believe that my grandmother's death was caused by a curse from my uncle, I would avenge her death by putting a curse on him.

Healthy grief for Charles is accepting the death, paying your respects and moving on with your life. Unhealthy grief is denying the situation, making things worse by blaming others and trying to avenge someone's death. As I listened to him talk, I was wondering how much of the distancing from his traditional culture is due to the Catholic, western influence on his life and how much is due to him living in the United States. I wonder when he began feeling this way about some of his cultural practices. Was it when he lived in the mission? Was it when he moved to the United States?

Private and public grief are positively correlated in his culture. Your private grief will determine how you express your public grief. If you are very distraught privately, you will be very distraught publicly. Again, gender will play a role in how much of this grief can be outwardly expressed both privately and publicly. Charles noted that public grief might be an artificial expression especially if the deceased is wealthy or influential in the community. He described it as "shouting loudly with dry eyes." Buckets of water are provided for mourners to wash off their faces after crying. The dry-eyed people might simply splash water on themselves to look like they have been crying. This reminded me of people in our culture pretending to be upset to gain favor with family members. Public grieving will last longer and involve more community members when the deceased is more prominent. The position of the family in the community will determine the public display of grief.

I asked Charles what he thought of our American death denying society. The first thing that came to mind was our youthful mentality. Anything that challenges that we want to push away and deny. He also mentioned the funeral industry and how it buys into the haves and have nots of our society. In Sierra Leone, a burial plot costs just a few dollars, in the United States, dying is an expensive endeavor.

What I Learned from the Interview

What strikes me most about my interview with Charles is how similar people are. I thought everything he would tell me would be different from my experiences and conceptualizations of death and grief. They have ceremonies and bury the deceased. Families and community members gather to support the bereaved. Gender issues seem to cut across cultures. Women are expected to act a certain way and men are expected to act another way. People in his culture fake emotions to put on a good show just like they do in our culture. The major difference I found was in the "voodoo-like" beliefs that Charles described. Though even in this I found similarities with our culture. Sometimes when someone dies we will attribute it to the way he/she lived his/her life or how he/she treated other. "She deserved that because . . .." I also learned that you must work within the framework of a person's culture to educate, counsel, whatever. I can't go to his country and teach from my western, white perspective. I must learn as much as I can about his culture in order to be effective. This has been a very fulfilling exercise for me. It has made me see that people from different continents share many ideas, traditions related to grief and death.

Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F317, Spring semester, 1996.
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(C) 1996, Lisa Angermeier. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at