Bayreuth University, Germany
Since Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) groundbreaking characterization of metaphor as vehicles of knowledge, studies in metaphors have taken two paths: the focus on metaphor as a tool of prefabricated conceptualizations and a consideration of metaphor as a tool of emerging, even evolving cultural realities. Following the latter view of metaphor, this study examines the role of metaphor as a resource in the organisation of the performance of traditional public comforting and the cosmologies underlying the Bukusu understanding of death. Traditional public comforting is one of the performances that dramatize the transition of the deceased to the world yonder and the incorporation of the bereaved in the day to day activities. The study analyzes data collected from Western Kenya where the Bukusu people live. The study adopts analytic and methodological principles from genre analysis (Guenthner and Knoblauch, 1995), interactional sociolinguistics and the emergentist approach to metaphor (Cameron and Deignan, 2006). Thus, this study seeks to contribute to the discussions on the role of metaphors in funeral genres.
Keywords: metaphor, contextualisation, genre, ritual, death.
In this paper I will be concerned with metaphor and how it interacts with cosmologies underlying Bukusu understanding of death in traditional public comforting, which takes place in the Bukusu funeral event. The Bukusu people belong to Luhya sub-group of the wider group of the Bantu people, and they live in Western Kenya on the border between Kenya and Uganda. Being speakers of Lubukusu, the Bukusu people number about 1,499,000 people according to a recent statistics (2010). The Bukusu funeral event is especially elaborate when an old man with grandchildren dies, while elaborated performances such as mourning, slaughtering of a bull or bulls and others occur before burial, traditional public comforting, khumaala silindwa the ‘smearing of the grave’ kukhala kimikoye ‘cutting of ropes’ among others are performed after burial. These performances, which principally mediate between the deceased and the spirit world (Turner, 1967:96-7; Bell, 1997:40), continue for many years (Mbiti, 1982:153-5). This paper focuses on traditional public comforting which takes place on the third day after burial.
The expression traditional public comforting was first used by Wagner (1949) to refer to one of the speech situations embedded in the Bukusu funeral event. Also known as khuswala kumuse (trans. stepping on the gathering), traditional public comforting is performed on the third day after the burial of a venerable old man. The performance based on Bukusu traditional religion, and enacted only for male members with grandchildren, takes place in the morning and hardly ever goes beyond noon. The comforter, a man of respectable character selected from a special clan, enters the venue of the performance alone in the morning and walks to the North West (the direction of the Bukusu origin) and back towards South East (the direction of Bukusu migration) while speaking for the entire performance save for a few random stopovers characterised by short exchanges with the participants. The traditional public comforter establishes a path between the bereaved family and the clan elders who sit about five metres to the South West and to the North East of the comforter respectively. The bereaved family, comprising of women and children (and children here means sons and daughters of the bereaved), sits on the ground, according to their age and with their bare feet stretched before them. In the actual fact, the members of the bereaved family are expected to face the morning sun, while the elders sit on stools with their backs to the sun. The comforter speaks while walking, spits sporadically and occasionally engages in controlled dialogic sequences with the participants. The performance lasts between 30 minutes and 2 hours.
Traditional public comforting is admittedly multifunctional, as it represents the entire Bukusu cosmos. However in this paper I argue that traditional public comforting plays three key functions. Firstly, through the performance death is acknowledged as part of human life and the Bukusu history. Acknowledgement of death involves the invocation of the ancestry and sometimes even the enumeration of deaths within the bereaved clan. Secondly, the bereaved clan is urged to accept death in the light of the interaction between the visible and invisible worlds, worlds which constitute the undivided Bukusu universe. Linking the two worlds is the phallus, which transmits ‘life’ to the visible world, and through which the deceased reaches the invisible world; thus, a man and a woman constitute analogies for the invisible and visible worlds respectively. The performance is consequently the enactment of the acceptance of death in terms of the sexual activity, an activity through which human beings continue the creative work of the supernatural being, that is, the clan members enact the sex metaphor and the attendant traditions that promote the making of ‘new’ life, ‘new’ life through which the deceased lives. Thirdly, traditional public comforting plays a normative function as it reinforces the close adherence to traditions that promote the making and nurturing of life, traditions that also reinforce community membership.
Linguistic studies in Lubukusu reveal a considerable amount of work in the area of structural linguistics. Focus has been placed upon phonological, morphological and lexical features of Lubukusu (Austen 1974a,b; De Blois 1975; Downing 2004; de Wolf 2005; Mutonyi 1996, 2000; Marlo et al 2008 and Marlo 2009; Diercks 2010; Nganga 2012). Works in syntax include Austen, 1974, Wasike, 2002 and 2007, Bell, 2004; for overview, see Diercks, 2010. However linguistic studies in the interaction of language with the context are sadly lacking. While admitting that structural language aspects are crucial in the understanding of how Lubukusu works, I contend that structural linguistic aspects are in no way adequate in accounting for how Lubukusu works especially in Bukusu funeral events. This paper aims at showing how metaphor, as a linguistic device, interacts with cosmologies underlying the Bukusu understanding of death in the performance of traditional public comforting.
Two major approaches to metaphor emerge from the research in metaphor since antiquity. Firstly, traditional approaches to metaphor within rhetoric, philology and literature, focusing on language, considered metaphor a ‘künstlerische Redefigur und dekoratives Stilmittel’ (Jäkel, 1997:19). Reserved for use in poetry and drama, metaphorical use was essentially ornamental. Secondly, the cognitive view of metaphor focusing on thought, identified metaphor as ‘einen Zustand des Denkapparatus’ (Coenen, 2002: 208). Propounded in the 1980s as a result of the publication of Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff and Johnson 1980, the cognitive theory identifies a metaphor as ‘a matter of the mind, as a set of fixed, stable mappings between two conceptual domains: the ‘source’ or literal, domain and the ‘target’ domain’ (Cameron and Deignan 2006:671; Lakoff 1993; Lakoff and Johnson 1980). As products of ‘mapping’, target domains are ‘metaphorically structured conceptual domains’ that ‘are embedded in language and culture’ and which play a role in ‘influencing and constraining people’s thinking’ (Cameron and Deignan 2006:671-2; Kövecses 2005). With shift in focus from language to thought, metaphors came to be seen not only as aspects of poetry and drama but as aspects of day to day language; therefore, as part and parcel of the linguistic competence of language users. But then metaphors were seen as essential tools with which cultural models could be arrived at (Jäkel 1997:25; Lakoff 1987). Building on the Lakoff and Johnson (1980) model, the emergentist theory of metaphor firstly approaches metaphor within its context of use and secondly views metaphor as part of, and a product of the ‘dynamics of contextualised interaction’ (Cameron 2006:674; Lemke 2000). Thus, the two parts of metaphor are not static, but ‘interact and co-adapt in the mind to produce something new, emergent, greater than the sum total of its parts’ (Cameron 2006:674). Thus, language and thought are no longer separate but ‘a single complex system in on-line talk’ (Cameron 2006:675). Thus, metaphors are seen not as passive resources within discourse but as dynamic resources that mutually interact with the context organising- and at the same time being shaped by- the context. This paper concurs with Cameron’s (2007: 200) argument that metaphors are ‘socio-cultural’ as they carry ‘values, attitudes and expectations’ (Cameron 2007:42).
The following example that follows an exhortation to the bereaved clan to accept death as part of life, demonstrates the interaction between metaphor and socio-cultural knowledge.
Example (1) TPV1-MET1
01 (akenda) newabikha mayi- (1.8) aba waBIKHA kamaSIka:; (1.8)
(3rd-walks) NE 2nd-PST-keep 1-mother- (1.8) aba 2nd-PST-keep 6-6-tears:; (1.8)
02 neWABIkha papa; (1.4) aba wabikha kamasika
NE 2nd-PST-keep 1-father; (1.4) aba 2nd-PST-keep 6-6-tears
Metaphor vehicles include words such as wabikha ‘you kept’ (lines 1,2) that refers to the topics of life and death. ‘Kept’ is a vehicle term from the domain container; ‘life’ is viewed metaphorically in terms of a ‘container’ in which death understood metaphorically in terms of kamasika ‘tears’ is kept. ‘You’ and the parents (mayi ‘mother’ and papa ‘father’) are analogies of the visible and invisible worlds respectively; the invisible world constitutes the source of life and a symbol of permanence, while the visible world constitutes the receiver of life and a symbol of change. Therefore, the metaphor ‘kept’ in newabikha ‘if you kept’ indicates the child (visible world) as a ‘container’ in which parents (invisible world) is carried. It also shows the child (visible world) as a ‘container’ in which death (invisible world) is carried. That one world contains another world confirms the interdependence between the visible and invisible worlds in the Bukusu universe. The example demonstrates the role of metaphor in showing the Bukusu understanding of death.
Research in sociology of knowledge and anthropology reveal that cultural means of transmission of knowledge can be studied under genre and ritual respectively. Günthner and Knoblauch (1995) argue that cultural performances that are essentially historical and that play a part in solving problems related to communication can be studied under genre. Cultural communication problems, as studies in anthropology have shown, often coincide with the transition of individuals or a group of people from one stage of life to another. Viewed as crisis moments under ritual studies, performances of transition from one stage of life to another were first studied, even classified as life crisis rites, by Van Gennep (1909/1960) who relates the difficulty in communication at such times to the fact that the ritual subject is held ‘betwixt and between’ (Van Gennep, 1960; Turner, 1967; Bell, 1997:36). Studies in ritual have also demonstrated that such performances, as living experiences, have links to religion (Turner, 1967; Maxwell, 1983). Within ritual studies too, the need to focus on ritual as a living experience motivated Turner’s rejection of the categories proposed by structuralism and functionalism. Turner’s view of ritual partly showing that rituals have a religious significance and Günthner and Knoblauch’s view of genre, as a general category for all cultural performances, are similar as they show cultural performances not as static and prefabricated but as dynamic performances. However, viewing funeral performances such as traditional public comforting in the light of genre and ritual, leads to the understanding that the life-crisis performances solve communicative problems of religious nature; they address issues related to how human beings and especially the Bukusu people come to terms with death. Hence, ritual in this paper is studied under the genre theory.
The genre theory, developed by Günthner and Knoblauch (1995), Luckmann (2009), Knoblauch et. al (2010), takes into account efforts within linguistics to study language within its context of use. Within ethnography of communication in the 60s, Hymes (1972) demonstrated that the social context played a role in understanding language. Gumperz (1982) through interactional linguistics -a development of ethnography of communication- demonstrates that language and social context co-determine each other. The shift from viewing genres as monological forms to viewing them as dialogical performances is further developed by Sherzer’s (1987) ‘discourse-centred approach to language and culture’ and Hank’s (1987) ‘orienting frameworks, interpretive procedures and sets of expectations’. Since its inception, the genre theory has been used to successfully study communication transmitted through media and technology (Heath and Knoblauch, 1999), to study hybrid genres, and especially telephone conversation over the radio, messages in the telephone responses and computer visual presentations (Knoblauch and Schnettler, 2007, 2010). Evidence of the application of the theory to study communicative genres from funeral events in Africa is largely non-existent. Similarly, research in interactional linguistics has majorly focused on gate keeping discourses (Gumperz 1982). Thus, this paper uses genre theory, which incorporates interactional linguistics, to study the reflexive interaction between metaphor and cosmologies underlying the Bukusu understanding of death.
As a model, the genre theory proposes an analysis of features under the formal, situative and functional levels (Günthner and Knoblauch, 1995:8; Luckmann, 2009: 274-7) so that while formal (language) features refer to verbal and prosodic (kinetic) features, features of the ‘ongoing dialogue’ belong to the situative level. Functional aspects on the other hand include cultural aspects. The genre theory further proposes that the relationship among the features in the three categories is reflexive, and Auer (1999) concludes that formal and situative features contextualise functional features. Thus, in this study, I examine how metaphor contextualises cosmologies underlying the Bukusu understanding of death, hence the genre of traditional public comforting.
The data that forms the basis of this study includes five video recordings of traditional public comforting performances and two 2-hour recordings of interviews with two traditional public comforters collected in Western Kenya in the year 2011. Qualitatively transcribed data together with ethnographic information is what the study analyses. While admitting that verbal and non-verbal devices reflexively interrelate to create meaning, in this paper I focus mainly on metaphor as a verbal device. A functional approach is used to identify discursive structures that are analysed to show the reflexively interrelationship between metaphor and the cosmologies underlying the Bukusu understanding of death. Metaphor as a linguistic form is viewed as a resource not only for the organization of traditional public comforting but also for its identification. This is in line with what Goodwin and Duranti (1992:31) say that ‘instead of viewing context as a set of variables that statistically surround strips of talk, context and talk are now argued to stand in a mutually reflexive relationship with each other, with talk and its interpretive work shaping context as much as context shapes talk’ (Gumperz, 1982). The relevance of the participants as joint creators of context lies in the fact that participants use contextualization cues to make the context available. Thus, metaphor as is used in this study is a contextualization cue that does not only make Bukusu ideas about death available but also indicates the ritual genre of traditional public comforting.
Examples analysed in this section are drawn from different performances that reflect extensive use of metaphors. In this section I analyse three examples.
The following example introduces a section in which the comforter reiterates that death befalls all people. In the example the comforter narrates his experience while on the way to the venue of traditional public comforting. When he passes through Chwele town people rush to see him.
Example (2) TPV1-MET2
01 (a-kenda. A-lila) M-BIra:: NE-BA-langa-na:; (0.5) mu-ndu wa-bira nd-i- (2.4)
(3rd-walks. 3rd-mourns) 1st-pass:: NE 3rd-call-RFM:; (0.5) 1-person 3rd-PFV-pass 1st-say- (2.4)
I pass as they call each other saying ‘a person has passed’
02 M-bira mu-chwele ba-andu ba-khil-ile n-o-bonekha busa- (1.6)
1st-pass 18-chwele 2-people 2-defeat-PFV NE 2nd-can.be.seen busa- (1.6)
While passing in chwele despite being in a crowd you can be seen;
03 mu-ndu wa-bira::;(.)Tima mu-loL-E::;
2-person 3rd-PFV-pass::: (.) run 2ndPL-see
a person has passed ‘Run and see’
The use of wabira ‘he has passed’ (line 1) signals death in terms of ‘passing’. With bandu bakhilile ne obonekha ‘there are many people but you can be seen’ specifies the ‘passing’: it is individual. ‘To be seen’ implies to be ‘naked’ or ‘exposed’, and ‘nakedness’ among the Bukusu people is metaphorically associated with existence without community ties or being isolated. Death severs links to relations, and by extension to the entire clan in the visible and invisible world; the deceased as well as the bereaved family, in the transition period, are considered ‘naked’ or ‘isolated’. Thus, death implies a ‘journey’ from being a member of the clan to being alone, but it is also a ‘journey’ from the visible world to the invisible world (the source of life). The bereaved family present the deceased to the invisible world represented by the clan elders through the traditional public comforter. The traditional public comforter is a phallic symbol, and while the invisible world transmits life through him, the deceased also ‘journeys’ through him to the invisible world. From this point of view, the comforter and the clan elders represent the invisible world (source of ‘life’ as well as the receiver of death), while the bereaved family constitutes the visible world (the receiver of life and source of death). The bereaved family stands for a woman while the clan elders stand for a man, and the man and woman are entangled in a sexual encounter. Death therefore implies a ‘journey’ made by an individual from the ‘womb’ through the phallus to the ‘testicles’. Thus, death is a ‘journey’ in isolation from community (visible world) through transition (in which an individual journeys alone) to community (invisible world).
Viewed this way, traditional public comforting constitutes a sex metaphor in which death is viewed in terms of the making of life. In the making of life, ‘life’ proceeds from the testicles to the womb, and in death the deceased takes a reverse ‘journey’ to the testicles, a journey whose successful execution predicts the transmission of life into the womb. The making, nurturing, physical termination and continuity constitute the cyclic ‘journey’ initiated and directed by the supernatural being. Hence the cyclic interchange of life and death between the visible and invisible world has the supernatural being as its source. But god communicates continuity through the phallic symbol to the ancestors who hand it down to the elders at the venue of performance. Viewed this way, the ancestors and god participate in the performance in which the deceased is gently pushed to the invisible world, which is also the source of life.
The following example (3) is an introduction to the performance in which the performer lists the recent deaths within the clan (line 1,2). He uses the examples to demonstrate his assertion that death has emptied the world (line 1) and that lameness is preferred to death (line 3).
Example (3) TPV3-MET1
01 (a-kenda) bona si-bala si-a-rama busa- (3.2) luka we-e-khisia; (4.5)
(3rd-walks) imp- see 7-world 7-PFV-remain busa- (3.2) luka 3rd.RFM-PFV-hide; (4.5)
(walking) see, the world has remained empty Luka has hidden himself
02 Simoni WE-E-khiSIA; (3.5) E-ndubi y’-o-mu-LEme::; (3.8) E-KHIL’o-wa-fwa.
Simoni 3rd.RFM-PFV-hide; (3.5) 9-basket 9-of 1-1-lame::; (3.8) 9-defeats wh-1-died
Simoni has hidden himself; the basket of the lame is better than that of the dead
The use of siarama busa ‘it has remained empty’ (line 1) indicates two worlds so that as one world ‘empties’ the other world fills-up. Thus, death is viewed metaphorically in terms of a ‘gap’ in the visible world, and the gap suggests ‘movement’ indicated by wekhisia‘he hides himself behind something’. ‘Hiding’ refers to death metaphorically as a special type of ‘journey’, a journey from the visible word to a metaphorical ‘hideout’. The Bukusu people view the world in terms of divine creation, which is understood using the analogy of sex. Sex is reserved for marriage, which is an analogy of the Bukusu universe. Marriage is also associated with the ‘hut’, in which man (representing god and the ancestry) and woman representing the visible world engage each other sexually to procreate. Thus, in death the visible world represented by the ‘womb’ empties while the invisible world represented by the testicles fills-up, and the movement destabilizes the universe. The metaphor therefore illustrates the gap created by death showing how death upsets the Bukusu universe. By demonstrating the disequilibrium, the comforter enacts the transmission of life as well as induces the clan elders to transmit life in order to neutralize death.
The following example (4) from an audio recording follows a lengthy explanation in which the comforter locates death in the birth, life and death of god Mukhobe (referring to adam). He explains that god Mukhobe’s death coincides and introduces death into the world. In the following extract he asks the participants to explain how death was born.
Example (4) TPA1-MET1
01 LI-fwa li-Sal-wa LI-rie; (1.3) EH! BA-BUKUsu- (.)
5-death 5-born-PASS 5-how; (1.3) eh! 2-Bukusu.people- (.)
How is death born; Eh Bukusu people
02 Li-fwa li-sal-wa LI-rie:; (1.0) li-khuwa Ba-li li-fwa- (.)
5-death 5-born-PASS 5-how:; (1.0) 5-issue 3rdPL-that 5-death- (.)
How is death born; the word called death
03 Li-sal-wa li-riena; (4.4) li-fwa li-o-ng’ene-
5-born-PASS 5-how; (4.4) 5-death 5-alone-
How is it born? death alone
Lisalwa ‘it is born’ (line 1) indicates that death is born, and association of death with birth already indicates how life is made and how life is terminated. In this case, how life is terminated is understood in terms of how life is made, that is, birth and death proceed from the womb through the vagina to the world. The metaphorical view of death in terms of birth in lisalwa ‘it is born’ indicates firstly that life and death are inseparable, that is, every ‘life’ is packaged with, and even predicts its own, death. Secondly, focus on birth as the source of physical termination of life introduces the woman as an analogy of the visible world. The woman metaphorically ‘receives’ life from a man, but she gives ‘birth’ to a child (life) and the placenta (death). While the placenta (death) returns to the invisible world represented by a man, the child dwells in the universe constructed and determined by the union between man (the source of traditions) and woman.
The examples in this paper have demonstrated that communication about death among the Bukusu people proceeds through the metaphors, and the metaphors play two functions: (1) they contextualise the gap created by death and (2) they demonstrate how the gap is neutralized. Research in metaphors has shown that metaphors not only encode cultural knowledge but they also manipulate and determine the way people think (Cameron and Deignan, 2006: 671-2; Kövecses, 2005:6). In example 2 above, death is conceptualised as a break in the social system that is essentially cyclic, and that the participation in funeral genre is intended to repair the broken system (Turner, 1967, 1969; Kollar, 1989; Romanoff and Terenzio, 1998; Hoy, 2013). The social system is threatened by death that not only divides the clan into sets of opposing forms (Turner, 2006:243), but also contextualises the unacceptable ‘aloneness’. This opposing forms involved in, and shaped by, the emerging discourse become ‘complimentary sets of opposite transformations of relations’ which not only hold the performance together but also offer themselves as a gift in pursuit of satisfaction by ‘neutralization’ (Turner, 2006: 242-3). The transmission of life that constitutes the neutralization of death is done by the supernatural being through the ancestry, and, in the performance, the comforter represents the supernatural being and the ancestry; thus it is possible to view the performance as the relationship between the comforter and the participants on the one hand, and the relationship between the supernatural being and the symbolic performance on the other.
Therefore, the ‘journey’ metaphor and its construction of the opposite and metonymic transformational relations contextualise the genre’s ‘outside of social meanings and relations’, and even its transcendence (ibid). The mutual making and nurturing of life takes place in marriage or the analogical ‘hut’, and it is a process and product of a sexual encounter between man and woman. In conception, life proceeds cyclically from the testicles to the womb and in death life proceeds from the womb to the testicles. Thus, the metaphor of death as the ‘journey’ centred upon the movement of the phallus (and the cyclic movement of life within it), which is a product of the analogical view of the interaction between the comforter and symbols in the performance (Turner, 1981), is projected onto the understanding of the relationship between the visible and invisible world. Conventional as they are, the metaphors in which death is viewed as a ‘journey’ are creative too. In example 2, the journey is made from clan to clan through an individual transition, whereas in example 3 it is a journey to a ‘hideout’. The view of death in terms of birth in example 4 indicates the undivided Bukusu universe revealed in the birth itself, and in the bond between mother and father, a bond that facilitates the birth and accounts for death.
The central aim of the performance is to enact, and thereby demonstrate the fact that death can be viewed in terms of the making of life; thus, while advocating the sexual bond between man and woman, the performance is metaphorical, since the comforter interacts with symbols in the performance to enact the sex metaphor through which the deceased is ‘lightly pushed’ to the invisible world and life transmitted. The metaphors therefore play a key role in signalling the source and receiver of life, but they also reveal the ‘movement’ of either life or the deceased or both. Thus, metaphors are integral in the construction and understanding of the metaphorical performance and can therefore not be separated from the functional aspects without damaging the overriding sex metaphor. This view puts to question the adequacy of the genre theory in accounting for a metaphorical performance such as traditional public comforting. This is especially the case because the genre theory advocates the decomposition of genre into internal, situative and external features. However, using the theory, it is clear that metaphor as a linguistic form reflexively interacts with cosmologies underlying the Bukusu understanding of death to contextualize re-incarnation as an aspect that constitutes immortality among the Bukusu people.
( ) description of paralinguistic features
; falling intonation
. deep falling intonation
- level intonation
(.) short pause
Capital letter Loudness
RFM Reflexive Marker
PFV perfect verb
3rd third person pronoun
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Nganga, S. (2013). Metaphor in the Construction of Immortality: The Case of Funeral Performances among the Bukusu of Western Kenya. Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics, Online(open-access), e70081960. doi:10.7392/openaccess.70081960
Nganga, S. “Metaphor in the Construction of Immortality: The Case of Funeral Performances Among the Bukusu of Western Kenya.” Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics Online.open-access (2013): e70081960.
Nganga, Simon. “Metaphor in the Construction of Immortality: The Case of Funeral Performances Among the Bukusu of Western Kenya.” Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics Online, no. open-access (May 20, 2013): e70081960. http://www.open-science-repository.com/metaphor-in-the-construction-of-immortality.html.
Nganga, S., 2013. Metaphor in the Construction of Immortality: The Case of Funeral Performances among the Bukusu of Western Kenya. Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics, Online(open-access), p.e70081960. Available at: http://www.open-science-repository.com/metaphor-in-the-construction-of-immortality.html.
1. S. Nganga, Metaphor in the Construction of Immortality: The Case of Funeral Performances among the Bukusu of Western Kenya, Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics Online, e70081960 (2013).
1. Nganga, S. Metaphor in the Construction of Immortality: The Case of Funeral Performances among the Bukusu of Western Kenya. Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics Online, e70081960 (2013).
Research registered in the DOI resolution system as: 10.7392/openaccess.70081960.