One of the many cultural differences between and America and Ghana is the treatment of death. Weddings are different too, but yesterday I didn't go to a wedding to celebrate a new beginning; no, I went to visit my counterpart and show my support for him and his family after his grandfather passed away. I don't think the death was sudden, and for most present the attitude was that at 91, he was done living the good life, and it was on to better things.
But oh the details of it all.
Firstly, this funeral was naturally in the deceased's home town which is decidedly not Hohoe. My counterpart, Destiny, said all along that one day he would take me to his hometown (my guess is that 40 - 50% of Ghanaians will want to take you to their home town) and this was my chance to make good on that offer. He lives rather far south, close to Anloga near the rather large lagoon in the Volta region. I had never been there before but with the help of our math teacher Mr. Eric Kakraba, the two of us made our way out of Hohoe and down the road a piece to reach his village. The directions we had were easy enough, and the biggest landmark Destiny could give us was the one traffic light on the road that we traveled. It wasn't working, but sure enough, it was there watching traffic sail underneath it without so much as a flashing yellow light in order.
We made it to his grandfather's house by about 1PM but we had left six hours before this from Hohoe. Just the usual slowness of transportation which I will refrain from repeating here. Needless to say, when we got there we were immediately welcomed by the mourners present in the house. Destiny was not there so the two of us mingled for a little bit with people we had never met before, most of them in good spirits. It was noted to us that since his grandfather was old and had lived a happy life, we could wear white clothing to show off the celebratory mood of the funeral.
90% of the mourners were in head-to-toe black. Eric and I looked rather gleeful in our nice white shirts while the somber crowd chatted. And I very much wanted to wear the funeral shirt that I had made over a year ago.
Really though, people were in a bit of a festive mood and we were treated to something to drink and some food. After wandering those many miles from home neither of us had anything to eat and we dined on some fine banku and okro stew (the slimy stuff) that had quite a kick to it. You will never look at spicy food the same after living here for a while, that is for sure.
Sufficiently fed, we then met up with Destiny who was incredibly busy with all the affairs of the burial itself. The funeral starts on a Friday with family gathering at the homes of the dead one and paying their initial respects. I think that first day has a bit more sadness than Saturday. One small aside at this point, the deceased has probably been kept at the mortuary for the better part of a month (sometimes much longer) so that preparations can be made. I must confess that this has to be a relatively new trend in funeral services - the waiting part. I can't imagine anyone waited a month or longer to bury their relatives in say 1900 or even 1950.
Back to the story. Saturday is more of a day for the whole entourage and extended family and friends to make their presence known. It is also the day of the actual burial so by 4PM Destiny was on his way to the funeral grounds where they would lay the man's body to rest in the grave. Before that time though, I was escorted from the grandfather's actual house to what seemed like another village altogether which was described to me as the family's house. It was bigger and had more of a compound feel to it (self-contained houses next to each other). I briefly was introduced to a few friends and then I made my way around a corner through the main courtyard. Among the dozens upon dozens of plastic chairs occupied by morose-looking older women I saw on my right a tent of sorts. Black cloth, someone sitting inside looking out... oh. There is his grandfather. He was in a nice suit looking comfortable but quite a bit different than the photograph used to announce his death - a very drawn appearance to the skin and the features were much more lifeless (obviously) than the robust and regal man I had seen in the photos. Still, that is quite customary I believe to put the dead person on display so that all may pay their final respects. I chose that moment to keep the digital camera in my pocket and not take his picture.
Our final stop was to the main area where shade had been set up and people were seated in rows and rows of those same plastic chairs. As I think about it, the main tent-area had fabric which looked to be from giant rice sacks which were opened up and stitched together. Under this tent people had formed a circle so that they could sing a funeral dirge for the mourners gathered around. Eric and I sat down in a back row and just listened and watched. I would lean over to Eric and ask a lot of questions but I had trouble listening as I was drawn to back to the performers who continued their song. Soon the really large African drums were being played, and the songs were getting a bit more lively.
I could see that those gathered were starting to smile a bit more, greeting everyone that they hadn't seen in a long time, and rearranging their cloth so as to take part in the traditional dance of the region. I would say that the dance reminds me of the chicken dance a little, but not really. For one, I can't ever get the movement right and I have had some practice trying to adopt new dances so this traditional dance isn't easy. But when you do it right, it is a lot of fun, especially by the looks of the faces of the dancers. Several stopped by to encourage me to go try it, but I felt that it would be more of a spectacle, "Look, the yevu is trying to dance!" and may not be honoring the man as much. Then again, I bet if I had met Destiny's grandfather he would have smiled and laughed too at the sight.
Just the same, I didn't dance and both Eric and myself started to look at the time with a bit more apprehension. It was getting close to 4 and we knew we had a long journey ahead of us. We said our goodbyes to Destiny and made sure to get back to the station to find a quick car back to Hohoe. It was quite nice to be close to the coast though, and the day will be one where I can think back to my first real funeral here. It seemed to me that Saturday wasn't a day for the dead, it really was a day for the living. I am happy I went on the journey.