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The Diola or Jola are indigenous people which live in West Africa, in the territories of Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, and southern Senegal (the Lower Casamance region).

The word Jola means payback. They call themselves Ajamat, the word Diola is the French transcription.

For the Ajamat, nature is sacred, each of its elements possesses a soul: the humans, the animals, the plants, and the minerals. They own sacred woods, some reserved for men and others for women.

They believe in a God who is the master of the universe, powerful and invisible. The Diola don’t address God directly because they feel insignificant in front of him. To communicate with him, they utilize fetishes, objects of worship that contain the ancestors’ souls. Various ritual ceremonies, including prayers, offerings, or sacrifices, are dedicated to those fetishes.

Diola Fetish

The Diola are not afraid of death. That represents a natural phenomenon, a passage to the afterlife, the beginning of a journey that guides them to their ancestors.

The soul has to be vigorous, in a good shape, on its way to the other side. The offerings and animal sacrifices help the soul to leave in peace and not return to haunting the living. They also enable him to not reincarnate as a beggar or a puny being.

The funeral ceremonies, especially those destinated to the elderly, are festive because they leave to join their ancestors. They avoid crying or screaming. The whole community and many people from the surrounding villages attend the festivities. They sing, dance, and offer presents, to celebrate the deceased’s life and to facilitate his passage to the afterlife.

During these rites, the dancers wear masks and costumes which symbolize the spirits’ incarnation. 

Through the music and the dance, they capture the vital force of an ancestor and thus receive his strength, knowledge, or benefits.

The day after the death, in the morning and throughout the day, they sing several songs glorifying the merits of the deceased, of his ancestors, or the village’s dead. The ancestors are thus warned of his arrival.

Then they sing the same songs, sometimes mixed with specific songs belonging to the singers and the dancers’ villages. These songs are performed later, during future ceremonies, in the fields, each time they want to remember him.

Women which sing and dance praising the merits of the deceased
The body's bearers

The interrogation ceremony usually happens after the funeral dances.

They envelop the body with a white shroud and a loincloth, and take it out of the house. The corpse is carried on a stretcher or in a coffin by four men, in the courtyard of the mortuary house or towards the village square.

In front of the fetishist, the family interrogates the deceased about the cause of his death. That represents the ritual of interrogation through the deceased’s body.

That moment is an opportunity to discover whether the death is related to a sin, an offense, a poisoning, witchcraft, or whether it expresses an ancestor’s call.

The bearers move and turn on themselves, driven by an unknown force, insufflated by death. If the coffin moves towards the questioner, the answer is positive, in case the coffin moves backward, the answer is negative. When the coffin turns back, they face a refusal to answer.

The interrogation ends when the coffin heads straight for the drummers.

The relatives dress the body in expensive clothes. They offer to the soul many gifts: a bunch of rice, a rooster, oxen, palm wine, milk, etc., to live in abundance in the beyond. His work tools are deposited by his side to allow him to work there.

The family lays precious woven loincloths inside the tomb, as the deceased will need them in his other life, in the other world. Sometimes other persons entrust the defunct with clothes or fabrics so that he brings them to their deceased relatives.

Women's dances
Diola couple, early 20th century

The family is not allowed to attend the funeral. This task belongs to some initiated men, the only ones authorized to go to the cemetery. The day after, everyone can gather at the grave.

After the burial, as the cause of death is known, the mourning family may want revenge, resign themselves, or ask for reparation. To prevent any other family member from dying under the same conditions, they have to repair any damage caused by the deceased.

The relatives make offerings such as palm wine or other sacrifices to ask for forgiveness from all those the deceased might have hurt when he was alive. If he has been the victim of a bad spell, they may want revenge or they may not intervene and consider this the divine will.

Six to eight days later, they organize a ceremony in front of the village’s fetish, to facilitate the soul’s departure toward the world of the ancestors.

In front of the defunct’s house, the women compose his song. Sometimes, they take their inspiration from other village’s musics. The words have to refer to the personality and the life of the deceased. Then, they interpret those songs, in front of all friends and family members. From this day on is forbidden to pronounce the deceased’s name.
They don’t give a name to the newborns because, otherwise, according to the superstitions, they rapidly die.

Diolas, early 20th century

Sources:

Louis-Vincent Thomas, Les Diola. Essai d’analyse fonctionnelle sur une population de Basse-Casamance

Eva Rassoul, Enterrement en pays diola : chants et danse pour célébrer la vie du mort

Louis-Vincent Thomas, La terre africaine et ses religions

Lamine Diédhiou, Riz, symboles et développement chez les Diolas de Basse-Casamance

(https://charly221.com)

Louis-Vincent Thomas, Cinq essais sur la mort africaine

(https://fr.wikipedia.org)

Spiritualité Autochtone