Ghana and the afterlife

Bear with me here…I bought a book called “Travel Writing” and reading it in combination with hot-season boredom led to this article about a funeral I attended in January. If you actually want to know about what I’m doing, I’ll give a brief update now: sweating, stressing about the halt in progress of the Vocational Department I’ve been attempting to create for the past year, attempting to fit various parts of my body into a mini-fridge, and enjoying the company of my 406 absolutely perfect students. Now, moving on to my attempt at real-person writing…

The loud music oscillates as the wind carries the sound to and from my approaching ear. The drums have been replaced by speakers, the musicians by never-ending mp3 playlists, yet this tradition of playing music at exorbitant volumes to alert neighbors of upcoming festivities, has remained. The volume of the music deceives me into thinking we are closer than we are, but after twenty more minutes of bumpy dusty driving on a road that disappeared long ago, we finally arrive.

The blasting music is now accompanied by the smell of the freshly killed goat being prepared for a stew, and the familiar (but friendly) stares of a mass of Ghanaians, wondering who brought the white girl. A giant baobab looms like a creature above the traditional mud compound, reaching its arms as if to protect it from the expansive surrounding bush.  I’m surprised at the size of the crowd that has already assembled, given the fact that it’s just after 8 am, until I’m told that the majority of guests came the day before to take part in an all night drinking and dancing celebration. That explains the reek of booze on people’s breath and the familiar droopy-eyed pallor of a party that lasted too long. This must be rural Ghana’s version of a frat party.

And then I turn to see the reason why we have all congregated at this remote compound on the very edge of northern Ghana – the body of my friend’s late mother wrapped in the traditional straw mat, waiting to be brought to her final resting place.

Carrying the bodies to the grave site is harder after 5 shots of Apatesche

Carrying the bodies to the grave site is harder after 5 shots of Apatesche

This is not the first funeral I’ve attended over the course of my two year stint in Ghana, and definitely won’t be my last. Unfortunately, malaria, motor accidents, and medical care that leaves much to be desired, are constant reminders of the fragility of human life. However, Ghanaians have proven their resilience and have found a way to shed light in the shadow of ever-present death. Funerals are….well…! They emphasize celebrating a life more than mourning a death, and are one of the few remaining events held in today’s Ghana, where genuine traditional beliefs and practices are still very much alive.

First of all, despite the recent development and urbanization of Ghana, people still maintain the “come one, come all” attitude of a small village. Everyone is invited and, in fact, encouraged to come even if they have no relation to the deceased or the family. Funeral size has become a sign of wealth, power and standing within a village. More affluent families hang posters and billboards around town to announce the funeral, much like concert posters adorn telephone poles of American college towns. “Come Join Our Thanksgiving and Burial Celebration for the Late Pantia Kolog Nyog-Naab!” Coffin shops line the streets with their colorful creations like the birthday decoration aisle at Michael’s; pepsi can caskets, race car caskets, caskets that look like a disco ball.  Once you arrive at the funeral, informative pamphlets are handed out like playbills. “Part one: musical interlude, opening prayer, tribute of family. Part two: Short Exhortation, Wreath presentation.”  Apatesche (the locally made hard alcohol) flows endlessly out of 3 gallon jerry cans, and the DJ makes sure the upbeat, bass-heavy hip-life music can be heard for miles. A typical celebration usually lasts from 3 to 5 days, depending on the wealth and stamina of the hosts, and it’s common for families to set aside more money for funerals than they do for university or insurance.

Of course, each funeral has its own flair depending on the tribe and traditions of the hosting family. In the mostly Christian south, funerals tend to be bigger and every attendee sports the traditional red and black funeral attire. They’ll sometimes wait six months after the death in order to spread the word and draw the biggest crowds. In the north, where tribal culture is more active and religion tends to be a blend of traditional beliefs and either Islam or Christianity, funeral traditions vary slightly from village to village. In some, mostly naked men baring bows and arrows do a War Dance – a beautiful, extremely athletic dance that mimics fighting – all around the family compound in order to scare away evil spirits. In others, the women do the dancing. They stomp their feet, gyrate their hips and flail their hands, while onlookers clap and chant rhythmically (the DJ is kind enough to turn Chris Brown down for this portion of the days’ events). The one thread that unites nearly every  funeral I’ve attended is the sense of jubilation, not sorrow, of life prevailing over death. The only exception is the death of a young child – an occurrence that is universally tragic.

It is now time to bring my friend’s mother to her grave, and a clan of shirtless men lift her body effortlessly and lovingly to their shoulders. To my surprise another bundle of straw is then lifted to another clan’s shoulders. Before I have time to even ask who the second deceased is, my friend leans over and explains to me that in their Frafra tribe, no one goes to the grave alone. They exhumed the body of the deceased’s best friend so that they could take their last journey together. I look to see how intimately that 7-months-dead woman’s body is lying next to the face of her carriers and squirm. It might take me longer to adjust to some traditions than others…

Men and women of all ages dancing in front of the body

Men and women of all ages dancing in front of the body

We parade to the grave site, bodies carried aloft, among more dancing and celebrations. Toothless women, whose ages were forgotten decades ago, leap into the middle of the circle, throwing their still-limber bodies into the throes of the rhythmic, athletic moves their people have been dancing for centuries.  They’re not dancing for cameras or tourists, they’re dancing for their friend, mother, wife, teacher, stranger or sister, who died, yes, but more importantly, lived.