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New perspectives on death and dying in Sub-Saharan Africa

Join us for an afternoon seminar co-hosted by the Centre for Death & Society and the Centre for Development Studies.

  • 8 Apr 2019, 2.00pm to 8 Apr 2019, 5.00pm BST (GMT +01:00)
  • 3 East, 2.2, University of Bath
  • This event is free
Wooden door with inscription which reads' Ebola is Real' in Limba
'Ebola Is Real, I Swear to God': The unprecedented outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone reshaped the relationship between state and citizen

This afternoon event will include three talks from researchers who will present on tombstone inscriptions in Nigeria, the funeral industry in townships in South Africa, and the challenges of death and funerals during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.

History Entombed: Gravestones and the Writing of African History

Presented by Dr Shina Alimi, Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria

This study explores how memorialisation of the deceased in gravestones can open new ways of thinking and writing African history. Tombstones and their inscriptions remained the most scarcely explored data in Africa.

Gravestones’ inscriptions comprise complex ideas about death and the memory of the dead by the living. They depict the emotional bond between the living and the dead, human social status, class and context through text, content and physical structure of the gravestones, revealing much about contacts with other cultures, social status of the deceased as well as socio-economic relations.

With particular reference to the city of Ibadan, the largest and third most populous city in Nigeria, the study examines how gravestones reflect social definitions, classifications, narratives and configuration of meanings in African society.

This is supported by missionary records and colonial documents from the National Archives Ibadan. The study concludes that although tombstone inscriptions do not manifest every stage of human history, they constitute a glimpse or window into the life of the deceased, social-economic structure and collective history of the society.

‘Scavenger men’? Cultural entrepreneurism and the township funeral industry in South Africa

Presented by Dr Rebekah Lee, Goldsmiths University

In a nation marked by continued economic inequality and profound AIDS mortality, moral questions over the profitability of the ‘death business’ in urban South Africa abound. Rumours of unscrupulous undertakers and their ‘scavenger’ practices circulate among township dwellers and accentuate their position as potent symbols of a broader and unseemly commercialisation of death.

This paper seeks to provide a historical and ethnographic perspective on the rise of the funeral industry in South Africa, and the role of funeral entrepreneurs within this key ‘popular economy’. The paper considers the particular social, economic and political forces at work in the transitional and post-apartheid periods. It looks at the distinctive features of entrepreneurship within this industry, considering both the challenges and opportunities faced by African undertakers in what is regarded as a highly competitive industry. And finally, the paper examines possible gendered dimensions of funeral entrepreneurship, suggesting ways forward for future research.

This research is drawn from collected life histories, interviews and participant observation of undertakers and their employees at work, largely in Cape Town’s major African townships of Khayelitsha and Gugulethu and secondarily in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape.

“They took them and we never saw them again”: Negotiating death and dying during Sierra Leone’s Ebola epidemic

Presented by Dr Luisa Enria, University of Bath

This presentation gives an overview of the social, political and cultural challenges involved in the regulation of death and funerals during an unprecedented outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone between 2014 and 2016. It firstly explores the social meaning of death and funerary practices in terms of the racialised politics of the humanitarian response and its conceptualisations of culture. Secondly, it considers how state of emergency regulations around funerary practices were perceived within affected communities and what this meant for social reproduction during and after the crisis.

Speaker Profiles

Dr Shina Alimi teaches History at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria where he received his BA (History/Economics), MPhil and PhD in History. His research focuses on the socio-political history of Africa. His current research is centred on history and historiography of death in Africa. The purpose is to understand how death constitutes power of defining oneself and others, explains socio-economic structure of the society and examines the centrality of death and its material indicators in the reconstruction of history.

Dr Rebekah Lee is Senior Lecturer in History at Goldsmiths, University of London. She has published work on South African history and culture, including the book African Women and Apartheid: Migration and Settlement in Urban South Africa (IB Tauris, 2009). Her research interests span issues of gender, migration, urbanisation, health, religion, identity, and material culture.

She is currently completing her second monograph, Death and Memory in Modern South Africa. Dr Lee holds degrees from Harvard University (BA) and the University of Oxford (MPhil and DPhil), and has taught at universities in the United Kingdom, United States and South Africa.

Dr Luisa Enria is a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Bath. Her research in Sierra Leone focuses on crisis, political subjectivities, global health and the tensions and possibilities at the interface between social science and emergency responses.

During the West African Ebola outbreak she was posted in Northern Sierra Leone to carry out anthropological research for the Ebola vaccine trials. Her recent ESRC-funded project, States of Emergency: Citizenship in Crisis in Sierra Leone, studied how the Ebola state of emergency and a militarised public health response shaped experiences and perceptions of citizenship.


3 East, 2.2 University of Bath Claverton Down Bath BA2 7AY United Kingdom


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