(Funeral activities in Tanzania. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)

Imagine you’re in a rural village in Tanzania. A group of women are slowly making their way towards a house, each of them carrying a small gift of firewood and maize. Inside the house, another group of women are bustling about arranging large quantities of food. A few men have also come around. In each of their pockets is a small envelope with about 1,000-2,000 Tanzanian Shillings, less than 1 US dollar. The men write their names down in the small registration book set up outside of the house as they step in one by one. The smell of the cooked food starts getting stronger and the chatter gets louder as more and more villagers enter the house. More men make their way toward the house, this time carrying shovels. There is mourning alongside the chatter.

“It’s all our funeral—not one man’s funeral.” – A 22-year-old farmer in Kijima

As the hypothetical story above illustrates, funerals in some rural villages in Tanzania are large social gatherings for the entire village. Interviews and focus group discussions conducted in Tanzania illustrate that funeral rites are seen as a social affair where people gather to show support and community solidarity, not just to mourn the dead. Not only is everybody in the village expected to attend, they are also required to contribute in some way. Gifts can range from food to fuel to finances. Often, a register is kept outside the house to meticulously keep track of households that have attended the funeral and contributed to the mourning family.

This semester I interned with Leah Rosenzweig, MIT GOV/LAB research fellow, to code and analyze over 100 qualitative interviews conducted in Kijima, Mwasubi, and Ngeleka villages in Mwanza, Tanzania. We investigated the ways in which community members cooperate to better understand social interactions in rural Tanzania. These interviews were conducted to try and shed light on social norms that help to explain high voter turnout in rural Tanzanian communities. In doing so, funerals came up as a point of interest in many of the interviews, providing insights into how residents of these three villages cooperate with one another in times of need.

Research assistants conducting a focus group discussion in Tanzania. Credit: Leah Rosenzweig.

The practice of contributing to and attending funerals is strong in the villages where interviews were conducted. Several interviewees mentioned that if you cannot contribute to a funeral in Kijima, you need to go to the wanazengo (a group of household heads in the village), apologize, and give reasons for why you did not participate. If the reason is not accepted by the wanazengo, then you might be shunned by the village and isolated so that you are prohibited from participating in social events.

In Mwasubi, the repercussions to not attending a funeral can be harsh. A 53-year-old business owner claimed, “if you didn’t pay [the] fine you will be called by the village committee, and if you resist they will isolate you, but they will come to your funeral to bury the body, but not engage in other activities”. Despite the isolation that a person would have to face, the norm of attending funerals is so strong that the villagers who shunned him while he was alive would still attend his funeral.

“There is no one in the community who doesn’t need the community.” – 29-year-old in Kijima

From funerals to farms to facilities

Studying the interactions around funerals provides a glimpse into how people depend on one another in these communities. In the same way people pool money for funerals as life comes to a close, people also pool their money to start something new in the village. Looking beyond funerals, we see that development in villages such as Kijima and Ngeleka has come from within the village itself.

Based on the interviews, boreholes, primary schools, roads, and even homes are sometimes built collectively using money and resources that the community puts together. These projects are organized by the local government and co-financed by community members. Women and men gather a few of their friends and work together in their farms; they come together and contribute their labor to build community resources and facilities that can be shared.

The repercussions of not contributing to a development project are similar to not contributing to a funeral: if you do not contribute, then you will have to pay a fine. These practices help to hold households and individuals accountable to the community. In fact, the interviews showed that the reason most people care about your contribution to a project (or lack thereof) is because the development projects benefit the whole community. Questions about who reviews the contribution ledgers and how these norms evolve more generally, relate to political behavior and should be explored, as they begin to unpack the role of the community in both supporting, and possibly punishing, from birth to death.

Neha Rajbhandary (nrajbhan@wellesley.edu) is a sophomore at Wellesley College majoring in Political Science. She interned with MIT GOV/LAB in the spring of 2018 through the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).