“You’re giving us the skulls, but where is the flesh?” asks political activist Ueriuka Tjikuua as twenty ancestral skulls in Berlin return to Windhoek for a memorial service on 5 October.
For Festus Muundjua, patron of the Ovaherero Genocide Committee (OGC), returning skeletal remains of one’s ancestors belongs to the “decolonisation process of Namibia and signifies one more step in the repatriation process between our two countries”. According to Muundjua and fellow activist Tjikuua, such acts of repatriation are both political and personal (TimesLive, 1 October).
However real or symbolic this “homecoming” may be, not all people share their point of view. For some a skull is just a skull and—like ash left after the fire—it tells us nothing of the passion that once burnt within. For an agnostic, the soul has departed and a skull thus serves no more purpose. For a reincarnationalist, the skull is merely the temporal vessel since we return to live in other bodies and with other families, even among other races and other religions. The skull is not the ancestor.
Historically, there are also those who believe the soul dwells within our head; giving rise to the age-old cult of the skull as trophy, chalice or talisman. They believe that possession of a skull empowers the devout and victorious. And then, too, there are those who see skulls as relics and those who view skulls as specimens; for them a skull either focuses belief or promotes scientific knowledge. Alas, it can seldom be both.
But what of the families left behind—albeit Herero, Khoekhoen, German or Portuguese? How do they feel about the skulls of their ancestors? In most traditional societies a skull proposes a relationship between the living and the dead, between our present and their ancestral past. This relationship has been most memorably demonstrated by Shakespeare and explains why Adam’s skull is such a powerful symbol in the Abrahamic religions. Likewise, a skull is an important symbol among the diverse and widely distributed Bantu in Africa.
A parable from West Africa
We all know the Yoruba folktale wherein a man finds a skull mounted on a pole outside a neighbouring village. To his astonishment, the skull speaks and so he asks why it is there: “Because I talked too much.” Appalled, the man enters the village and asks to speak with the chief. Taken to the royal enclosure, the man describes the abomination he has seen—a talking skull—until the chief replies: “Show me this marvel or regret your lies!” The man is escorted back to the pole but now, of course, the skull remains silent. So the chief has the poor interloper beheaded and mounts his head in place of the skull. (KoS p.239)
Well, if that’s what happens when we interfere in the affairs of others, then I’d better confine myself to the skull of Francisco d’Almeida, former Viceroy of Portuguese India, and an unfortunate victim of the first recorded battle (murder?) in South African history.
Skulls in Knot of Stone
As a murder mystery, Knot of Stone begins with the chance discovery of a mass grave below Table Mountain. Among the buried remains is a severely scarred skull, identified as belonging to Almeida, and showing signs that he was struck below the chin by a steel-bladed sword or lance. This dramatic discovery sets off a chain of events with disturbing consequences.
The book’s long and complex narrative deals with several skulls: First, the relic skulls of Saint Lazarus and the Virgin Mary in France. Secondly, the skull of Chief Hintsa kaPhalo, killed in British custody during the Cape Frontier Wars of 1835 and, thirdly, the skull of Muhammad Ahmad which Lord Kitchener kept as a war trophy in Khartoum. Fourth and fifth are the stuffed heads of Badu Bonsu, an Ashanti king, and El Negro the “Bechuana Bushman” whose body was stolen after burial and taken to the Cape Colony—both from the 1830s. Sixth, but not least, is Sarah Baartman, the spectacular African Venus whose remains were repatriated to her homeland admid much controversy. While only some of our ancestors have made the long journey home, thousands more remain in scientific-medical collections across Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
To whom does a skull belong if the dead don’t own their bones?
But the converse is also true. Many a skull was left behind to protect territories acquired through conquest and possession. At the time of Almeida’s own death, King Manuel of Portugal refused to repatriate the bodily remains of his governors. The king was superstitious and declared: “as long as their bones are there, all India is safe”. Yes, skulls do seem to bring out the more bizarre side in us.
Whatever our reaction—devotional, superstitious or scientific—the one question these skulls all pose is: “To whom does a skull belong when the dead don’t own their own bones?”
“South African museums must be decolonised,” says President Jacob Zuma on news24.