I once heard someone explain that Africans invest in the past at the expense of the future. This statement, as controversial as it is, has some truth to it when put into context. The remark relates to how Africans spend so much money to honor the dead through lavish funerals and elaborate burial rituals. Exorbitantly priced funeral rituals are a common phenomenon in Africa and it doesn’t stop there, African immigrants living in Western countries (aka neo-African diasporans) adhere equally to native tribal and religious traditions which undeniably inflate the cost of bidding a beloved one eternal farewell.
In addition to the cost of paying last respects, neo-African diasporans have to contend with the cost of repatriating a body to the motherland. This often adds up to much more than what the immediate family can afford and often, it takes a community coming together to raise funds towards funeral and repatriation expenses..
The benevolence of African communities is amazing. When someone within the community loses a loved one, people will swiftly congregate to mourn with the family. Community leaders work closely with the bereaved to ensure their needs are met, which typically includes coordinating emotional, spiritual, and material support. Mourners express their support by showing up to comfort the bereaved family and by making financial contributions towards funeral arrangements. As a result, most funerals in African communities are covered through “social insurance”, courtesy of supportive friends and family members.
But this admirable system is not without challenges. There are times when the frequency of bereavements stretches our goodwill. For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed like each week, a fellow neo-African diasporan was dealing with loss within their inner circle. You give towards several causes a week and before you know it, the contributions become a significant drain on your earnings. At this point, you start contemplating whether to give and how much to give without falling over the fiscal cliff. The motivations for giving vary, some being more rational than others.
Motivations & Strategies
Mostly, people give as a way to build social capital. Contributing positions one to call on others when you are faced with a need in the future. Giving is also done out of habit, it is a tradition that has been carried over from the African culture. While in the West people show support by sending flowers or contributing to a charity of choice if requested, the love language for Africans in this kind of situations is to show up in numbers for a vigil and give a monetary contribution towards a funeral, and sometimes towards settling pending medical bills.
Social media platforms such as WhatsApp seem to have made it easier for people to raise money for different causes. Often, people give because they were added to a WhatsApp group which creates social pressure to give. Like all things that come with social media, there is the good, the bad, and the ugly. On the positive side, social media platforms like WhatsApp are helping people tap a readily accessible network. Conversely, some of the tactics used to solicit contributions can be quite aggressive with some folks using social media platforms to exploit others.
Innovation to the Rescue
Due to concerns about exploitation and the long-term viability of traditional funeral support systems, some neo-African diasporan communities are exploring innovative approaches to formalize giving. In recent years, I have come across several funeral insurance schemes established by neo-African diasporans to mitigate the individual burden of funding funerals. A common approach is to set up a collective fund where members of the platform contribute a fixed amount towards supporting someone within the group who has had a qualifying loss. Subsequently, the benefiting member receives a lump sum payment towards funeral expenses which can go a long way in alleviating the stress of making burial arrangements.
I really like the evolution of funeral insurance schemes though I am not convinced that they are a replacement for the traditional system of contributing towards funeral expenses. This is especially true for close friends and relatives of the bereaved who even though they may contribute through the funeral insurance scheme, they will most likely feel an obligation to show up in a special way beyond what’s being done through the scheme. It will be interesting to see how such schemes evolve over time, this might be a fascinating area of research in the future.
I have also seen efforts to encourage diaspora to sign up for life insurance, the idea being that it would off-set the funeral expenses. However, life insurance payments take a while to process and may not serve the immediate needs to cover funeral expenses. At the same time, diaspora often feel inclined to contribute towards a loss as an act of kindness regardless whether the person had life insurance or not. Life insurance can nevertheless reduce the desperation of those left behind to raise funds to meet outstanding bills related to the loss.
Another area of concern is having a lack of accountability on how funeral contributions are used. People will come up with a budget and can be very open about the items and costs they need to raise money for. They will also announce how much they have raised and plea for more support if there is a deficit. Once the money is disbursed, only the committee will know how it was spent. If there is excess, it will be allocated to other needs that are considered relevant but there has never been a situation where the money was given back to society because it was more than what was needed. These kinds of concerns can be a disincentive to give for those of are wary of people’s intentions.
Overall, the tradition of people coming together to contribute towards funeral expenses for someone within their circle is an important facet of how we love and build more cohesive and resilient communities. Fundraising through social media has become prevalent and concerns remain about transparency and exploitation. Formalized funeral insurance schemes are on the rise and so is a movement to have diaspora buy life insurance to offset expenses after a loved one passes. Trends in giving are changing but the need to uphold the social cohesion that binds diaspora communities together remains unquestioned.
As usual, our goal here at Neo African Diaspora is to engage African immigrants in the West and their stakeholders to join the conversation as we script our journey. We would love to hear your views on this topic.
- How often do you contribute towards funeral expenses within your diaspora community?
- What influences your decision to give towards funeral expenses?
- Do you believe that the investment Africans put towards funerals is justifiable?
- What innovations are you seeing within your diaspora community on how to meet funeral costs?
We welcome you to share your views under comments or engage with us through social media.
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