Tradition vs. Life – What Do You Value?
Given the choice between honouring strong traditional beliefs, or maintaining your health and safety, what would you choose? To many Westerns, the notion of choosing a belief over their own health sounds radical and unnecessary. However, a recent article from Religion News Service demonstrates that this is the obvious choice for many African people of strong religious faith, raising the question, “Should religious beliefs be valued over one’s own life?”
The article, titled “Kissing corpses is helping spread Ebola, expert says” explains that a tradition in some African regions of touching and caring for the deceased, including eating a meal with them, is spreading Ebola from the deceased host to living grievers. According to the article, “Churches across the region have been closed or have altered some worship rites, including shared Communion, in a bid to stop the spread of the disease”, however, the traditional burial is being carried out normally in many areas.
This likely stems from the African belief that in death, one becomes an Ancestor, a supernatural being who visits the waking world and interacts with future generations through specific signals. Being an Ancestor is valued in African tradition, and the traditional burial is thought to ensure transition into “the other world”, as it is described in the article. An African person may believe that if they conceive Ebola, it is one of their Ancestors expressing discontent with them.
While it’s important to value these African traditions, it’s also crucial to prevent the spread of Ebola. However, it seems that the Western media is unconcerned with appreciating these beliefs, and uses biased phrases including “kissing corpses”, portraying African religion as vulgar and uncivilized. The article also does not state which part of Africa this belief is from, making it sound ignorant to the wide variety of African religions. It also demonstrates the striking contrast between North American and traditional African thinking, making it more difficult for each group to accept the practices of the other.
One of these major differences is the separation of supernatural and natural worlds, which occurs in Western, but not African thinking, and relates to the notion of separated “sacred” and “secular” units. This creates a huge difference between these groups’ understanding of religion, and makes it easier for Western media to portray African tradition in a negative light, merely because of the Western misunderstanding of African religion.
I think it should be one’s own choice to put religious beliefs before their health, providing this choice doesn’t negatively affect others. However, as contact with the deceased is spreading Ebola and puts more people at risk, I think tradition should be put aside in order to contain the disease more effectively. That said, accommodations should be made for the African people to allow them to grieve, and ensure passage of the deceased into the “other world”, without putting the living at risk.
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