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From sacred to clinical: how the lack of proper burials during the Covid-19 pandemic affected communities in Uganda

When Covid-19 started spreading across the globe, the World Health Organization issued strict burial guidelines in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. In Uganda, the national health department took over the burial of Covid-19 victims, interring them quickly and without adhering to proper cultural and religious procedures. In a country where death rituals form a central part of the grieving process, the undignified burials that took place during the pandemic have had severe psychological consequences for bereaved families and communities.

In the Global South and in Africa particularly, most development studies research concentrates on survival issues; economic needs and death/loss are generally discussed in relation to poverty or AIDS, while the few available bereavement studies focus on the grieving experiences of individuals or groups.[1] However, injustices are also apparent in processes of grieving; unpacking the way in which grief is collectively and individually experienced is a necessary first step in addressing these injustices. Here, I show how the strict burial guidelines imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic were received in Uganda and why we should take note.


The many facets of death rituals

Death rituals, defined as “forms of expressions and connections performed by individuals, groups of people or communities in communication with the living-dead and the Supreme Being”[2], connect the dead and living in Africa. These rituals serve to mediate between the physical and spiritual worlds as the spirit of the deceased crosses between worlds. Many African families for example have a graveyard within the compound they live in because they believe that the dead remains part of the living family.[3]

During death rituals, the bereaved family plays a direct role in preparing the body, washing the body and shaving the deceased’s head; domestic animals are also slaughtered for ritual purposes. Slaughtering a sheep, for example, is meant to please the ancestors so that they do not demand another death.[4] And a death is communicated to the entire community as part of the ritual. A study of death rituals in Bugumba in Uganda shows how community members participate in death rituals once a large bonfire has been lit in the compound of the deceased to communicate bereavement to everyone in the community.[5]

Other death-related rites and beliefs include a belief among the Ethur of northeastern Uganda in life after death, with the spirit of the dead person travelling to the realm of ‘Obanga’, as well as the common belief that the dead are spirits that can send curses if disturbed.[6] Not performing death rituals would be considered one way of disturbing the dead. Similarly, in northern Uganda, a harmonious relationship between the living and dead is maintained to avoid ‘cen’, or vengeful spirits, by performing rituals.[7]

Death rituals are considered so important that in cases where a bereaved family lacks adequate resources to perform crucial rituals, community members may contribute the required resources – something that is reciprocal. In studying bereavement, the concept of Ubuntu[8] helps us to understand how cohesion and solidarity are maintained during and after burial through communal rituals and mourning. People travel from far away to participate in death rituals or attend funerals because death comes with misfortune for those who don’t participate in rituals. Paying close attention to the rituals while maintaining solidarity is a key healing factor from loss due to death.[9]


The inability to say goodbye properly

Limitations on death rituals during the Covid-19 pandemic and the interment of Covid-19 victims by health authorities thus caused great distress in Uganda and beyond. During the pandemic, following protocols issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) to curb the spread of the virus, strict guidelines for burials were issued by the government of Uganda under its Ministry of Health. They included limiting the handling of the deceased body to health/burial teams only, wrapping the body in waterproof plastic bags before handing it over for burial, and preventing the public from seeing the body. Family members and other mourners had to stay two meters away from the body.

Many district governments came up with further burial guidelines that included the time at which the burial was to take place, the prohibition of death announcements over radios to prevent the burials from attracting crowds, and ensuring a burial would take no more than two hours. The burial team, dressed in white wellington boots, full plastic protective suits, goggles, face shields, and gloves besides preparing the body secured the burial sites, dug the graves, and conducted the burials. They were nicknamed ‘Angels’ because they appeared mystical to the community members.


Indignation and defiance

Besides leading to personal suffering, these clinical burials also led to political dissatisfaction. The burial teams were heckled and some attacked for not following burial traditions. This is because in Uganda, a dead person is very special to the community and must be treated with full respect during the entire burial process. Burials were considered undignified because of the rough handling of the dead and the mourning of those close to the deceased in isolation, when this would usually take place as part of the burial process.[10] The departure from the traditional rituals led to psychosocial suffering (distress for bereaved families) that affecting healing, since no space was provided to express grief.

The community felt that the creation of distance between the deceased person and mourners, the wrapping of the body in artificial materials, and the handling of the body by seemingly alien entities did not ensure sufficient respect. The mystery and criticism was inspired by a deep distrust of the government during the pandemic, leading to allegations such as government’s burying of empty coffins and speculation that Covid-19 deaths concealed the trafficking of individuals.

“How could the spirit of the dead be reached and engaged when it is so trapped? Can the spirit be able to escape its ‘plastic prison’ and join the ancestors, or remain locked in captivity?” asks Brian Mukalazi in the Daily Monitor newspaper, describing how the burial of Covid-19 victims in a ‘scientific’ way angered the communities and led them to defying the burial guidelines by secretly exhuming the bodies to conduct decent burials. Communities such as the Budaka in eastern Uganda, the Buikwe, and the Palissa who resorted to this claimed they needed to ensure decent burials for their departed kin since their spirits had started disturbing their living relatives and some community members.



It is clear from the above that the suffering stemming from the loss of a loved one can be compounded by the lack of proper treatment of the deceased, in this case by the absence of proper burial rituals. However, these emotional impacts of injustices linked to bereavement processes on those close to the deceased and their communities are not yet sufficiently understood. It is crucial to address the psychosocial needs of those that lost loved ones to the pandemic. To prevent recurrence, and to help the bereaved find closure, academic research should focus more deliberately on cultural and psychological needs that arise during bereavement processes.


[1] McCarthy, J. R., Evans, R., Bowlby, S., & Wouango, J. (2020). Making sense of family deaths in urban Senegal: Diversities, contexts, and comparisons. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying82(2), 230-260.

[2] Baloyi, L., & Makobe-Rabothata, M. (2014). The African conception of death: A cultural implication.

[3] Umoh, D. S. (2012). Death is not natural: The African story.

[4] Haram, L. (2021). Bodily grief work meets Christian interiority: The Meru case. Death studies, 45(1), 51-60.

[5] Vokes, R. (2018). Before the call: Mobile phones, exchange relations, and social change in south-western Uganda. Ethnos, 83(2), 274-290.

[6] Wayland, E. J. (1931). Preliminary studies of the tribes of Karamoja. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland61, 187-230.

[7] Kembel, A. S. (2015). When the Dead Are Not Silent: The Investigation of Cultural Perspectives Concerning Improper Burials in Northern Uganda.

[8] As a theoretical perspective, Ubuntu is expressed in many languages in African communities but with the same meaning (Mugumbate and Chereni, 2020). Ubuntu caring solidarity translates to Uganda’s context through a saying which literally means “today it’s me, tomorrow someone else”.

[9] Lee, R., & Vaughan, M. (2008). Death and dying in the history of Africa since 1800. The Journal of African History, 49(3), 341-359.

[10] Lubega, M., Nakamya, C. S., Namugumya, E., & Najjemba, J. (2022). The effect of COVID-19 public health guidelines on the funeral traditions and burial rituals among the Baganda, a tribe in Central Uganda. PAMJ-One Health7(7).







Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Henry Okidi Okoth holds a MA Development Studies degree from the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Currently, he is a researcher and consultant with Collaborative Social Change. His research interests are death and bereavement studies from a decolonial perspective, marginalization and poverty, gender, conflict, and human rights.


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Why history matters to understand rebellion: the Rwenzururu Movement in Uganda by Martin Doornbos

About the author:
pasfotoMartin Doornbos is a retired professor of the ISS, and this post is based on his new book The Rwenzururu Movement in Uganda: Struggling for Recognition, published by Routledge in 2017.


A few years ago, the self- styled kingship of the Rwenzururu movement in Uganda was recognized by the government. When in 2016 armed clashes between the Rwenzururu king’s bodyguard and a patrol of the Uganda army erupted, the new king was held responsible and he is currently being kept under house arrest. Fascinated by this movement that few people outside Uganda know about, I had set out to explore and write about the origins and evolution of this movement.

The Rwenzururu movement was a case of sub-nationalism emerging in the early 1960s and seeking liberation for the Bakonzo and Baamba people from Batoro overrule, all of these representing ethnic groups in Western Uganda. It soon gave rise to a highly complex and in some respects spectacular situation which would endure for decades to come.

The Rwenzururu movement originated on and around the Mountains of the Moon, on the borders between Uganda and Congo (DRC). At the establishment of British rule in the early 20th century, Bakonzo and Baamba had been included into Toro Kingdom, which became a district within the Ugandan colonial set-up together with three other (neo-traditionalized) kingdoms. The Bakonzo and Baamba constituted sizeable minorities (just under 40%) in this district that was dominated by the Batoro. Throughout the colonial period Bakonzo and Baamba had been treated as second-class citizens by the dominant strata of Batoro within Toro kingdom. They lacked equitable representation and were seriously neglected in terms of educational opportunities and elementary government services.

Unsurprisingly, as independence approached and a possibility of redrawing of district boundaries seemed in reach, the two groups joined hands in a movement of protest, Rwenzururu, that first sought recognition of equal status within Toro. When this was refused they demanded a separate district. At the micro level at that time, a separate district was perceived almost like attaining independence. As these demands received negative and rather high-handed responses from the Toro district government and the central Uganda government, protest soon gained momentum, and in subsequent years led to numerous violent encounters with Batoro militias and Uganda government troops.

One wing of the movement took the more radical step to secede from Uganda and set up its own, rudimentary government. Its leader, Isaya Mukirane, first became President, later King of Rwenzururu. Upon his death in 1966, his young son Charles Wesley Mumbere was nominated to succeed him. The other wing of the movement continued to struggle, under considerable hardship and harassment from both Ugandan army and police forces and from Rwenzururu militias, for equal recognition within the Uganda political framework by way of a separate district.

In 1967, the Uganda government of Milton Obote abolished the (neo-)traditional kingdoms within Uganda, thus removing the Toro kingship which had been one of the sources of discontent and envy to Rwenzururians. The next government, that of Idi Amin, resolved another key source of frustration by granting the Baamba and Bakonzo a separate district each. Then, after the toppling of the Idi Amin regime and the (controversial) return of Obote as president in the 1980s, the secessionist Rwenzururu kingdom, now with Mukirane’s son Charles Wesley as its leader, showed itself responsive to overtures for reconciliation and agreed to a settlement. The deal involved the ceremonial laying down of arms by Rwenzururian forces and the resignation of Charles Wesley as ‘king’, in return for promises of development funds for social welfare and education. For the ex-king himself there were material incentives including a bus, a shop, and a government scholarship for study abroad, which was to materialize in the United States.

The Rwenzururu saga continued, however, for mainly two reasons. One, not all secessionist Rwenzururians were supportive of the idea of reconciliation and some who had initially been in favour slipped back into armed resistance, lured by larger profits and powers offered in an environment ideally suited for contraband and guerrilla activities. Second, Uganda in 1986 once again saw a change of regime with Yoweri Museveni taking over. Having its power base in the National Resistance Army, his new government in due course felt it had to accommodate pressures from Buganda(the largest of the neo-traditional kingdoms incorporated within Uganda) pleading for restoration of its kingship. As it is legally difficult to restore a single kingship where all had been ‘banned’, parliament in 1993 passed a ‘un-banning’ order allowing the restoration of ‘cultural leaders’, provided ‘the people so wish’. In emulation of the restoration of Toro’s kingship and out of a strong wish to be at par with that, however, Rwenzururians claimed that their own kingship, albeit a novel institution, should also be restored. Thus a popular movement swell to have Rwenzururu’s ex-king, Charles Wesley, return from the United States where he still lived and be recognized by Museveni’s government. He did indeed come for a visit in 1998, but this was not immediately followed by official recognition. Charles Wesley at that time preferred to return to his job in the United States.

But Rwenzururu involved much more than the kingship issue. Many or most other Bakonzo and Baamba, living in the more accessible plains and on the lower mountain spurs, were equally strongly engaged in ‘Rwenzururu’ without subscribing to the idea of secession or the newly invented royalty. Associating Rwenzururu mainly with the secessionist wing and its (indeed spectacular) history amounts to a narrowing of perspective and leaves underexposed the struggles fought at another level, and with altogether different objectives, by a majority of Bakonzo (and Baamba) for whom secession was no realistic option or target.

More broadly, looking back at the conditions in the region at the time the Rwenzururu movement emerged, there can be little doubt that these were then just ‘ripe’ for a rebellion to break out and would have spurred that in one way or the other, just like they did elsewhere in Uganda at the time – in Sebei, Ankole, and Kigezi, in particular. Such social dynamics are of crucial importance in understanding why a protest movement emerges and what course it may take. In the case of Rwenzururu, it is interesting to note that decisions made about the future shape of ethnic relations and ethnic subordination at the time of the establishment of colonial rule in Uganda, would now, more than a century later, backfire and lead to renewed ethnically inspired violence between the groups concerned and even involving the central government.