Death and the Left Hand: Islam, Gender, and "Proper" Mandinga Funerary Custom in Guinea-Bissau and Portugal by ProQuest


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Death and the Left Hand:
Islam, Gender, and “Proper”
Mandinga Funerary Custom in
Guinea-Bissau and Portugal
Michelle C. Johnson

abstract: This article explores Islam, gender, and “proper” Mandinga funerary “cus-
tom” in Guinea-Bissau and Portugal, specifically the contradictions and debates
between men and women about Mandinga custom and Islam as they play out in
the ritual of shaking with the left hand, wailing at funerals, and visiting healers to
investigate the nature of particular deaths. It suggests that far from constituting a
“crisis of modernity,” these contradictions and debates have long been central to
how Mandinga imagine themselves in a changing world. They have become intensi-
fied, however, in the transnational era, in which continuity among identity, place,
and death has been ruptured.


One afternoon while I was conducting field research in Portugal, I accom-
panied two of my main informants, Alaaji, and his wife, Aminata, to a fu-
neral in the Lisbon suburb of Bobabela. Alaaji parked the car on Amilcar

African Studies Review, Volume 52, Number 2 (September 2009), pp. 93–117
Michelle c. Johnson is a cultural anthropologist specializing in religion and ritual in
   Africa and the contemporary African diaspora. She is an associate professor of an-
   thropology at Bucknell University. She has conducted fieldwork in Guinea-Bissau
   and Portugal and has held fellowships from the U.S. Department of Education, the
   Social Science Research Council, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Her recent
   publications include “The Proof Is on My Palm: Debating Ethnicity, Islam, and Ritu-
   al in a New African Diaspora” (Journal of Religion in Africa 36 [1], 2006) and “Making
   Mandinga or Making Muslims? Debating Female Circumcision, Ethnicity, and Islam
   in Guinea-Bissau and Portugal (in Transcultural Bodies: Female Genital Cutting in Global
   Context, Rutgers University Press, 2007). E-mail:               93
94    African Studies Review

Cabral Street, and when he turned off the engine we could hear wailing
coming from an open window of a nearby apartment building. Aminata
had called me on my cell phone early that morning with the news. Musu-
kuto—a middle-aged Mandinga woman and member of the Badim Clubo,
a prominent Mandinga women’s association in Lisbon—had just lost her
twenty-year-old daughter to tuberculosis in Guinea-Bissau. “The most dif-
ficult thing about it,” Aminata told me as we walked up the steep cement
staircase to the apartment, “is that Musukuto hadn’t seen her daughter in
more than ten years.”
     When we arrived, Musukuto’s small apartment was already packed wall-
to-wall with mourners. Musukuto sat on the floor on a foam mattress cov-
ered with a white sheet, her back against the wall, her head covered with
a white scarf, and her cell phone clutched tightly in her right hand. Ami-
nata and 
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