Monday, April 5, 2010

A Ghanaian Funeral

A quick note of apology for taking so long to post something new. Jeremy visited, then Lindsay visited, then work got busy. I know excuses are lame, and I was thinking of you guys the whole'll never happen again.

I was informed last month that Charles’ mother, Dora Poku, passed away, and that he would be out of the office for much of the next few weeks planning the funeral with his family members in his home town: a small village in the Brong Ahafo region of central Ghana, about 7 hours drive Northwest of Accra. After a week, a date had been set, and a noticeable buzz of anticipation filled the office with each passing day. The anticipation was a foreign sensation for me, as a funeral in the America is not usually looked forward to. Also, it usually happens less than a week after the death, so there really isn’t a whole lot of time. But in Ghana, it is another ballgame. Funerals are scheduled weeks and often months ahead of time, so that all family members and friends have ample heads up to travel back for it.

poster outside our office notifying people of the upcoming funeral

About a week before the event, we had a little meeting to decide who would/could/wanted to go, how we would get there, and what an appropriate gift would be for the family (It is customary in Ghana to give money as a gift for the bereaved family.). I definitely wanted to go, both to support Charles and to experience a Ghanaian funeral, and so did Dennis, John, Jonas, and Vivian, our executive assistant. It was decided that we would be taking a big coach bus, and that everyone in the office would chip in some cash for the family, with another monetary gift also coming from PSGH itself. A typical Ghanaian funeral spans an entire weekend, so the five of us left on Friday night after work.

The main “bus station” in Accra is basically a huge parking lot across the street from the much smaller government-run bus transportation hub. It is filled with hundreds of buses and vans of various sizes crammed in, in what seems like no particular order. These informal buses supplement and now completely dwarf the insufficient fleet of public transportation options. When we turned into the main entrance to the “station” we were met by dozens of men yelling at us, asking where we were going and steering us in the right direction: their right direction not necessarily being our right direction. But, for the most part, they were extremely helpful, and like many things in Ghana, something that seems to be lawless chaos turns out to have its own very clear order, if not completely observable at first sight. Vehicles going to particular areas around Ghana all congregate in certain areas of the lot on a first come first serve basis. Nothing leaves at a pre-arranged time, but rather when it is full, allowing the next vehicle in line to begin taking on passengers. So, the tickets Jonas bought for us earlier in the day said 8:30pm, but really, it could be any time before or after that, depending on the demand.

We got there around 8 to find our big coach bus about 1/3 full, which meant that we would need about 50 more people before we could shove off and would most likely be leaving well after 8:30. In the meantime, the mobile hawkers selling food and others goods from baskets carried on their heads were in full force at our windows. By the time we ended up leaving around 9:15, I could have purchased a used book, a toothbrush, ice cream, a bandana and so much more. Around 9 we were treated to a full 10-minute sales pitch from a medicine salesman who actually boarded the bus. I was sitting next to John, our accountant, who provided the color commentary for me. He said “It’s quite sad, but watch how many people buy his products when he is done talking.” And John was right. When the salesman went around to collect the fruits of his labor, at least a dozen people bought something.

our trusty red coach bus

When we finally pushed off, I thought we were done with the hawkers hissing and banging on windows and could enjoy several hours of hassle-free peace. But it was not so. As soon as we started moving, a woman in the front row stood up and began addressing the rest of the bus. I didn’t really need John’s translation (but enjoyed it anyways) to know that she was preaching the gospel. John told me that this was very common. She would probably go on for at least half an hour, and then collect whatever money the passengers gave her before getting off and boarding another bus heading back to the station to do it all again. It wasn’t so much the unsolicited preaching that surprised me, but it was the passenger’s reaction to it that really hammered home the whole Christianity in Ghana thing for me. Whereas my reaction to having more religion shoved in my face was to get extremely annoyed and contemplate heckling, everyone around me seemed to really enjoy her presence. They would sing along to the hymns and songs she led, follow perfectly in the call-and-response portions and repeat obedient “Amens” when appropriate. Religion in the parts of America where I have lived really only pokes its head out around holidays (e.g. Easter and Christmas Catholics and High Holidays and Passover Jews) and takes a back seat at most other times in the year. But here in Ghana, religion is everything. It is intertwined with every single facet of life, and it is because of god that everything happens and it is with god that all things are possible. I can’t really stress that enough.

The bus ride was fairly uneventful, where they showed Mel Gibson’s extremely violent “Apocalypto” followed by a new Ghanaian movie called “Chelsea.” Most Ghanaian movies are fairly unwatchable, where the production quality provides ample opportunity to play a game out of searching for the background lights, microphones and wires that should not have made it into the shot, but did. 95% of them are about a love triangle, and in this regard, “Chelsea” was no different. However, the quality was much higher than usual, and the main character of Chelsea, center of the love triangle, was gorgeous, by all standards, which made it much more watchable. (I would later learn that she once dated Ghanaian soccer superstar Michael Essien…obviously.)

The bus dropped us off in Mim, the town next to Charles’ hometown of Bediako, at about 4am, just in time to hear the first Muslim call to prayer over the town’s PA. (Around 10-15% of Ghanaians are Muslim, with much higher concentrations the further north you go.) We caught a lucky tro-tro to go the last 10 minutes, where we were met by a smiling Charles and his brother. Despite the hour, loud African pop music could be heard over the town. As Charles and his brother showed us to the one-room house where we would be staying, we walked by hundreds of plastic chairs arranged in neat rows, as Dennis turned to me and excitedly exclaimed “This will be a great funeral.” The house’s one room sported a big bed and two full couches. We all entered the one room, got settled onto the couches, and then Charles and his brother stood up to face their guests. Charles spoke in Twi, so I was pretty lost, but Dennis provided translation. He explained that it is a formality that needs to be performed the hosts ask the guests why they have come. Dennis responded that we have come to mourn with our good friend and co-worker over the loss of his mother. We then presented the monetary gift from the 5 of us and were instructed to present the other gift, on behalf of PSGH, at the ceremony tomorrow afternoon. With the formalities out of the way, Dennis, Jonas and I stayed there to sleep, while Charles took John and Vivian to other quarters.

A few hours later we were awoken by Charles, telling us that the ceremony would begin around 8am. We took turns taking a bucket shower, my first, (Bediako lacks running water), and then I followed Dennis’ lead by wearing a black suit, feeling slightly vindicated for bringing one with me to Ghana. As we followed Charles’ through the streets of his boyhood town, Bediako by daylight seemed very cozy. Small wooden houses and mud-bricked huts lined the narrow red-dirt roads. We came upon the same lines of plastic chairs which we had walked by the night before, but this time they were all full, whose occupants faced the entrance to what was a walled courtyard. Inside the courtyard, many more rows of plastic chairs lined the walls, all facing inward towards a closed tent. As we entered the courtyard, it was customary to shake hands with everyone already seated. This would turn out to be at least a hundred people, most of who looked at me like I was not unlike an alien. I tried to return their gazes with a strong handshake, eye contact and a solemn nod of my head. There was a microphone wielding MC whose job it was to announce the current arrivals to everyone already seated. This helped somewhat, as they explained that we were Charles’ co-workers who had traveled from Accra. We then took our seats along the back wall of the courtyard (with a nice booklet on each chair), and the next half hour or so was spent receiving others (more handshakes). Most attendants wore black, with all family members wearing shirts and dresses of a color-coordinated orange-patterned fabric, and most spent this time crying. After a while, the family members folded up one side of the tent to reveal the body lying on bed with the casket behind. Everyone then formed a line to circle the body and pay their last respects. This lasted another half hour or so, and it was a little after 9 when we departed back to the house.

I learned that it would be another couple hours before the next part of the ceremony: the church service. At the house, we ate a late breakfast of eggs and bread and then slept a little bit more. At about 11:30, we were again woken up by Charles to go to the service. Charles led us to the intersection of the two main roads at the center of town. The hundreds of plastic chairs had been rearranged in four big groups under tents all facing the main tent in the intersection, under which was the casket, flanked by the family members and the reverend. What followed was the church service, which consisted of the normal choruses, scripture readings and sermon, but which also included a nice biography and then three tributes: from Dora’s generation of family, from her children and then from her church. All of these could be easily followed along in the booklets we received earlier. There was a lot less crying, and a lot more reflection on life and death in this part of the ceremony, and I was amazed at the turnout. There were easily over 300 people there; pretty much the entire town came to a halt so that everyone could pay their respects to their fallen village member. I was personally befriended by a group of children who would not leave my side for the entire service. John got a kick out of it, and kept stealthily snapping off photos, reminding me that there was a good chance that I was the first white person they had ever seen in person.

When the service was completed around 1, everyone got up and walked up a short hill with the casket to the graveyard for the burial. This was actually the shortest part of the whole thing, and only took about 20 minutes. After that, Charles said that it was time for lunch, and he led us to another house, where we were served fufu with light soup and grasscutter meat. Let me do some translating. Fufu is a spongy dough ball of sorts usually made from pounded cassava and always served in soup. Light soup is the standard fare, and just means a tomato-based slightly spicy broth. Grasscutter is the name of a type of bushmeat, a local delicacy from an animal that looks like sort of like a porcupine (but, according to Wikipedia, with the much less appetizing name of a "greater cane rat"). All in all, it was pretty tasty, and we ate in the nice, airy house, drinking fanta and watching another Ghanaian love triangle movie.

throng of people heading up the hill to the burial site

fufu in light soup with grasscutter meat...yum.

After about an hour, we went back to the sleeping house to rest a little bit more before the last bit, which was the formal presentation of gifts to the family. We vegged out and napped a little bit until about 4, when we got dressed (this time without our suit coats!) and followed the sound of the drumming to a street that had again, been lined with the plastic chairs and tents. (At this point, everywhere I walked, I was being followed by little children, yelling “obroni!”, and coming up to me to shake hands or high-five. At one point, a little boy just came up alongside me, put his hand in mine, and walked with me indefinitely. This went on for about 5 minutes, until his mother came and grabbed him apologetically.) On one side of the street, there was a troupe of about 5 or 6 drummers beating away non-stop. There were traditional drums held with your knees and played with hands, stand alone drums played with straight sticks and then a very cool drum in the center which was played with sticks bent at a 90 degree angle. Directly across from the drummers was the family tent, where they all sat, some still dressed in orange and others in regal, flowing red fabrics. They sat behind a wooden folding table atop of which was a glass display case into which all of the gifts were being deposited. Again, the MC was there to announce the arrivals, as well as the gifts, and again, we did a big round of hand-shaking, stopping to give Charles a big hug, before taking our seats.


I spent the next hour or so, shaking a lot of hands and watching the drummers, as they played for what seemed like twenty minutes at a time. It was very clear that we had now moved from sadness to reflection to celebration, and those crying eyes were replaced with bright, cheerful ones above wide, laughing smiles. Along with the drummers came a lot of dancing, and I successfully parried several attempts from people trying to pull me up to dance. Before we knew it, it was 6 o’clock, time for us to make it back to the neighboring town of Mim to catch the bus back to Accra. As the five of us crammed into a taxi, Charles and his brother approached carrying huge burlap bags filled with yams, cassava and plantains (about 20 pounds for each of us!). They were gifts from the family to show appreciation for us coming all the way to Bediako and for our generous gifts.

It turned out to be the exact same bus that we had taken coming there, so we were again treated to “Apocalypto” and “Chelsea”. We had to stop over in Ghana’s second biggest city, Kumasi, to pick up more passengers, and another sneaky woman came on to subject us to another hour of unsolicited preaching. This time it didn’t seem as bad as before, perhaps because I was very glad to have had the opportunity to experience a Ghanaian funeral. I was able to tune out the preacher and reflect on the past day. So much of international development has to do with quantifiable variables like income, school attendance, and disease prevalence. And while it is of the utmost importance to measure and quantify these things, there are many other variables like the importance of community, ceremony and family that are much more difficult to quantify, but that Ghana and many other developing countries have in spades. All I know is that if that many people show up to my funeral, I’ve done something right.

1 comment:

  1. I've only gotten a few snippets from Lindsay, but sounds like you too had a good time. Glad my namesake was able to provide a bit of entertainment on the bus. I only have a few more weeks in NY then Cal and I are doing our own road trip to Chicago Budget truck-style!. Any tips?