(University of Helsinki)
Paper Short Abstract:
I will present an ethnographic description of Gurunsi widowhood rites and the status of a widow in the “ghost marriage” with her deceased husband. Leaning on ritual theory, I then discuss the possible interpretations of the ongoing debate about the acceptability of these customs in modern Ghana.
Paper long abstract:
Among the Gurunsi in North-Eastern Ghana there is an ongoing debate about widowhood rites and the low social status of widows both during the mourning period and afterwards. Critics (such as NGOs concerned about human rights and modern values, the state and Christian churches) claim that widowhood rites conducted during funerals humiliate the widows and contain moral and physical mistreatment and violence against them. The widows also remain married to their dead husband and are expected to stay in the dead man's compound after his death. Usually a relative of the deceased husband obtains rights for the sexuality of younger widows, but children born from this union are still considered to be those of the dead husband.
Apologetes of the traditional widowhood rites find them to be self evident and inevitable, because this practice is entwined with ancestor cult, rights obtained by the husband's family through bridewealth, with the traditional inheritance system and kinship system.
Widowhood rights can be seen in the vein of Van Gennep's theory of rites of passage. However, the continuation of the relationship between a widow and her dead husband speaks of a strong bond between the living and the dead after the funerary rites as well. It should also be noted that after the death of a wife, the rites for widowers are much less intense and there are practically no restrictions after the mourning period. This shows that the practice is connected to the patriarchal nature of the traditional Gurunsi society.
Mourning, intimacy and the special character of the conjugal relationship