Symbolism of red cloth at funerals

Mashudu Mambo

PRISCILLA Sibanda (35), a mother of three from Gwabalanda suburb in Bulawayo, narrated a strange experience when she woke up to calls and swarms of people at her house after an unknown person tied a red cloth on her gate.

“I woke up to condolence messages and calls from people, and I was scared that someone from my family had died but l was unable to figure out who the person was.

“When a group of residents came to my house saying they had come to pass their condolences l was even confused.

“When I asked one of my immediate neighbours what was going on, that is when she told me that there was a red cloth tied on my gate,” said a distressed Sibanda.

Sibanda said the red cloth pushed the panic button in the family and the whole suburb and she had to quickly get rid of it to deal with the situation from her friends and neighbours who kept on phoning and coming to her house.

“I had to go and remove the red cloth from the gate to make everyone aware that there was no funeral at my house,” said Sibanda.

A red cloth is tied on gates to symbolise death in a particular household. Many people have adopted the practice regardless of their different cultural backgrounds.

A red cloth at one’s homestead gate, according to research invokes sad feelings and conjures up sad emotions as it means people are mourning a departed loved one.

According to a traditionalist, Joshphat Moyo popularly known as Khulu Ndumba in Cowdray Park suburb, the use of the red cloth can be traced back to the liberation struggle.

“In the past red cloths were not used during funeral wakes, their use was adopted during the liberation struggle.

“It was a sign to show that there was a funeral wake and when this red cloth was not found it would symbolise that the people were gathered for political reasons.

“The government then said people could gather for funerals but they had to take all curtains out of the house and put a piece of red cloth outside the gate to signal that the people gathered there were there for a funeral wake,” explained Khulu Ndumba.

Khulu Ndumba said in the past they also used a tree branch that was placed outside the gate to symbolise that there was a funeral.

“In our tradition before the adoption of this red cloth, people would take a branch from a tree called umlahlabantu that was placed next to the gate and this would symbolise that there was a funeral at a particular house or homestead.

“The use of this red cloth overtook the tradition of using this branch and many people to date have abandoned the custom of using this tree branch,” said Khulu Ndumba.

He said the red cloth was not just put by anyone but there were specific people who were selected from the bereaved families to place it on the gate.

“The person that was allowed to tie this red cloth was the aunt or any other elderly person that was part of the deceased’s family,” said Khulu Ndumba.

“This practice is prevalent in urban areas, you rarely see a homestead in the rural areas with a red cloth tied to it during a funeral wake,” added Khulu Ndumba.

Reverend Mhlanganiso Moyo of the Presbyterian Church said the practice had grown to become a norm that directs how people behave when passing where there is a funeral.

“This tradition grew and people adopted it as a norm. It has become a sacred norm that directs the way you think and behave when you see the cloth tied to a gate.

“It has also become a good practice that is so sacred, and people tend to respect that red cloth. I believe there is a particular individual that is responsible for tying and removing it, and this makes the tradition sacred,” said Reverend Moyo.

Reverend Moyo said some people had adopted the practice with no clue where it emanated from.
“I am sure there are other people who are following this tradition and have no clue why it is done. From a Christian perspective, l cannot classify the practice as good or bad.

“If we revisit the Bible in the case of the death of Lazarus, it does not say if they removed curtains and tied a red cloth but I am sure there was a way that was used to signify funerals. This was maybe through their dressing to show that they are in a moment of sadness,” said Reverend Moyo.

Chief Khulumani Mathema of Gwanda North in Matabeleland South province said traditions followed during funeral wakes all depend on the beliefs of people from different tribes.

“We come from different tribes, hence traditions of mourning and burials differ among various ethnic groups. For example, in the Nguni culture, we neither dance at a funeral nor shake hands.

“It is also advised that the bereaved families should bury their departed ones in the morning or any time between 2 and 6pm,” said Chief Mathema.

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