Hoisting a red cloth to signal funeral, Zimbabwean culture or what?

July 11, 2022
| Report Focus News

Some of the things we consider Zimbabwean culture and traditions are things founded on rules set by our erstwhile colonisers.

Take for instance the red cloth hoisted or posted at the gate during a funeral wake.

The removal of curtains from windows and taking the furniture out of the house during a funeral wake.

Is this a Zimbabwean tradition or culture?

These are remanence of a brutal colonial system. Our original cultural and traditional practices were eroded and eradicated to pave way for new traditions and cultures by our colonisers.

Indeed, what is tradition and what is culture?

The two terms culture and tradition are interrelated concepts that are unique to different social groups. However, these two words cannot be used as synonyms. The main difference between culture and tradition is that Culture is the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular social group whereas Tradition is the transmission of customs and beliefs from one generation to another. From these definitions, it should be clear to you that traditions are also a part of the culture.

Culture is the collective term to identify the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society. It can be ways of life built up by a group of people. E.B. Taylor, the founder of cultural anthropology defines, culture as “complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

Traditions are the ideas, beliefs that are passed down from one generation to another generation. The Oxford Dictionary defines traditions as “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way”. Unlike rules and regulations, following traditions is not obligatory.

So, how did we end up converting rules and regulations and adopting them as tradition and culture some people in Zimbabwe still hoist or post a red cloth during a funeral wake and they will argue it is traditional and cultural to do so.

How did we end up with this red cloth tied at the gate and how did this start?

Well, according to some elders the use of the red cloth hoisted at the gate as a sign to indicated a funeral wake in Zimbabwe, started during the peak of the struggle when liberation war fighters started infiltrating towns and urban areas to recruit more young people to take up arms and join the liberation war fronts.

As a way to curtail political gatherings used for further recruitment of more freedom fighters the white Rhodesian government ordered that curtains be removed from houses and furniture be put outside, effectively meaning that gatherings at funeral wakes were to be held outside.

It had became evident that the masses were holding banned political meetings and recruiting more people to join the liberation struggle. Therefore in order to make sure that white Rhodesians and their spies kept abreast of all the meetings, a red cloth was to be tied at a gate where funeral wakes were held that way it was easier to distinguish funeral wakes from the illegal political meetings.

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Red was not always the colour

The practice of putting up a signal to notify or alert others of a funeral wake precedes the red cloth.

The red cloth and the idea of removing curtains from windows and moving most of the furniture outside was introduced to curtail illegal political gatherings and make it easier to monitor activities that could be adjudged to be political.

Nonetheless, the red cloth and most of the things imposed by the white regime persist to this day. Many still think all these practices are part of Zimbabwean culture and tradition.

Elders say these traditions have been accepted by different tribes in the country as correct traditional and cultural practices that are authentically Zimbabwean.

However, prior to the liberation struggle, different tribes used different ways to show that there was a funeral wake, the most common among tribes in Northern Zimbabwe were black or blue clothes.

Some tribes held night vigils and parties to celebrate someone’s death.

Sentinels with spears were posted at the gate where there is a funeral wake, while among the BaTonga a blue cloth was tied on a long pole in the middle of the homestead where there was a funeral wake.

Two strong men are stationed at the entrance of the homestead beating two big funeral drums until the funeral was over, this practice was meant to inform members of the community that someone had passed on.

However, today although people mourn their departed differently, the colonially imposed red cloth is still placed at the entrance to warn people that there is a funeral.