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Body Paths

The city, for many African immigrants, offers a horizon of hope, but also the fear of a death ‘out of place’. To die away from ‘home’, ungrieved and without proper burial, is for many to risk metaphysical itinerancy. But the return home for burial is uncertain and often impossible.

In Johannesburg this gives rise to economies of death involving a host of agents: burial societies; repatriating funeral parlours; friends and relations; and transporters. There are multiple nuances and cosmological contestations, yet, a similar motif emerges across the continent, as the following trajectories testify.

Body Paths


The body’s sojourn does not stop with death. It continues with its wonderings and border-crossings, and remains bound by the bureaucratic banalities of travel.

The possibility of returning home after death for burial is for many migrants uncertain and often just not possible. The city is thus, in the view of many migrants, inhabited by many souls that cannot rest. It is haunted by the ghosts of those who have died and had their bodies abandoned in the city morgues, those who have died away from their families who have not brought them back home or returned to pray for them.

In Johannesburg this fear gives rise to extensive economy of death, an economy based on the need to deal with bodies and their spirits. This involves burial societies; repatriating funeral parlors key; transporters; families – a host of agents revolving around the risks involved in a death out of place.

These economies are ways to manage spiritual risk – for the unsettled spirit can continue to cause harm and misfortune to the family in their home and — as some who know of wandering souls assert — can even demand in dreams the exhumation and relocation of the body.

Of course one cannot generalize, and there are multiple nuances, subtleties and cosmological contestations; however, a similar motif emerges across various parts of Africa from Johannesburg to Bulawayo to Bukavu as the trajectories we present here testify.

The prayers, rituals, paths and economies of the corpse can also be considered a rebellion against the misfortune of the city, a reclaiming of meaning under often arbitrary or tragic circumstances.

To pay attention to the pathways of migrant bodies as they return ‘home’ is thus not to assert that migrants belong in a particular territory or cannot find a place in the city but is rather a call for an awareness of the predicaments of a migrant journey that doesn’t not stop in death

To trace body-paths of contemporary migrants is to sketch, in the thinnest lines, the threads of meaning which cross borders, the city, the bush.


Lorena Núñez is a Medical Anthropologist and Senior Researcher at African Centre for Migration and Society, Wits University.

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is an AW Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow working with the Migration, Displacement and Health project at the African Centre for Migration.


 Chronic + Chronic Books

This story features in the April 2013 edition of the Chronic which includes a series of maps, compiled by Lorena Núñez and Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon from ethnographic research and illustrated by Graeme Arendse, that reveal the predicaments of immigrant journeys – which do not stop in death – and their impact on both the deceased and those left behind. To journey with them, get copy of the Chronic from your nearest dealer, or order it online.

Buy the Chronic

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