Loma Funerals Featuring the Tófái Plant Leaves that “stand between the living and the dead”
The Loma people are found mainly in Lofa County, in northwestern Liberia. The area in which most Loma live is referred to as Wubomai, named after Fala Wubo, the man who founded the Loma tribe. As with every other tribe in Liberia, the Loma have a particular tradition which must be followed during the time of death.
When a death is publicly announced, the sister's sons and daughters (dáábétí) of the deceased gather the family and tie onto their bodies a white, hand-spun thread known as gízíwólÉgìì. The gízíwólÉgìì is a durable, visual token of the death, which family members will wear for the duration of the funeral—a three-day event when a woman dies was opposed to a four-day event for a man. Bereaved women tie the thread around their necks, while the men tie it either around their necks or, much more commonly, their left wrists. According to the Loma, wearing gízíwólÉgìì on the left wrist is merely customary behavior (wölöwölöfai) because they believe that the left hand is like “the hero or the warrior.”
Just before the newly dead is “crossed over the water,” the family members gather at the sight of the grave to speak to the deceased one final time. Standing on the bank of freshly dug earth surrounding the burial hole, the eldest family member among them addresses the deceased “through” a stalk of the tófái plant (Costus zingiberaceae), whose leaves are said “to stand between the living and the dead.” To begin this speech, the elder gathers a stalk of leaves called the “bad-luck tófái” (fáányólofai) in his left hand. Then, while waving the tófái up and down over the corpse, he says: “All the bad things you were doing should remain in this leaf, and you should carry it with you.” This “bad-luck tofai,” a liaison for the bad ways of the deceased, is then broken in two and thrown into the open grave on top of the corpse.
Following this, the deceased is addressed through another stalk of tófái, now held in the right hand: “If somebody has killed you, your one finger should not get rotten before you come for the person who killed you [i.e., you will avenge your death immediately]; when you go, you should go to your father.”
The second tófái—representing care-taking of family and intimating revenge for wrongful death—is not broken like the first. Instead it is placed intact on top of the grave at the conclusion of the burial rite along the gízíwólÉgìì from the necks and left wrists of the bereaved. Once the deceased has been crossed over the water and the gízíwólÉgìì removed, the bereaved are said to have been “freed.”