While in America for 10 days, we saw a bridal party getting their photos done. In Germany for 5 days, we saw a bridal cavalcade, hooting and shouting as they drove past. In Ghana for 7 weeks, the internet cafe I use doubles as a bridal salon, but that is really the only evidence I’ve seen of weddings. And today, by amazing coincidence, is the first time I’ve been here when someone’s actually come in to look at the frocks. (So I had to change the title from 2 weddings etc.) Funerals, on the other hand …
Possibly you’ve heard about the elaborate coffins carved in the shape of Mercedes Benz or fishing boats, but that’s just one local expression of the importance of funerals in Ghana. (You can buy the coffins from a Fair trade organisation, BTW). I’m not sure what the official reason for it is, but funerals here are large, public, important events. Most times I’ve been to Ghana, I’ve hardly been able to leave the village without seeing mourners in the distinctive black or red adinkra print on black cloth, or (black on white) either en route to, or actually at a funeral. Funeral celebrations tend to be open air affairs, with chairs set out in rows under big marquees.
On this occasion I haven’t seen so many funerals, but I have seen plenty of evidence that they are still big. Coffins on display on the pavement opposite Akomf Anokye hospital was one hint. There are coffin and funeral décor shops shops all over the place. If you don’t spot the coffins, you can still identify the business by the large ruched satin frames hanging outside – I think they’re meant for display above the coffin during the viewing of the body.
Coffins in Kumasi are more conservative than the ones mentioned above. Ahantis settle for plump, stylish wooden boxes painted high gloss white or gold, with chrome handles and if you can afford it, a little door that opens onto a glass window with a view of the satin cushions on which your loved one will finally reside. The one I opened smelled of mildew, which I found a little off-putting, although not surprising in this climate. Children don’t get all these trimmings; their coffins are decorated with floral pattern contact paper.
Another indication of the importance of funerals is the number of posters on walls and billboards outside towns announcing deaths and funerals. They include a couple of photos of the deceased, funeral details and usually a very long list of mourners. When pushed for space, the designer resorts to an unfortunate, but often amusing abbreviation of Madam: “… regret to announce the death of Mad. Comfort … Aged 125 …” (It’s also notable how many centenarians there seem to be.)
One of the reasons I started this blog when I did, was a death. Friends lost their teenage daughter (Miss Kitty) suddenly and tragically earlier this year, and if I hadn’t already been familiar with the Ghanaian – let’s not call it an obsession – cultural practices around death, DadaK’s behaviour at the time could have caused some explosions. It was a very clear example to me of how cultural differences have great divorce potential and I wanted to share what I learned from it.
DadaK wanted to go to the funeral. I was a bit puzzled because although he was very upset by her death he hardly knew Miss Kitty, and I knew her parents wanted a fairly private funeral. Just one of those delicate etiquette situations that death can throw in your face. I started explaining the plan for both a funeral and a memorial function but he interrupted me: “Yes, yes, but when can I see her?”
See her? Oh, he wanted to view the body. Now in my culture it’s extremely rare to have an open coffin at the funeral. It’s considered too distressing and a bit over the top. We like our funerals sedate(d), thank you very much. I told him they wouldn’t be doing that and he immediately lost interest in going. It was like a switch had been turned off. You see what I mean about divorce material. It might appear that he only wanted to go because of a ghoulish interest in the body. Given the circumstances of her death, that would have been appalling. It was a moment at which the border crossing of cross-cultural relationships could have turned into an all-out conflict zone.
I didn’t take offence, although I was taken aback for a moment. Then I remembered Ghanaian funerals. Vastly unlike my culture, funerals take place several weeks or even months after the death. The body is embalmed and put on ice so that this will be possible. The funeral celebrations can go on for several days, and the day of the burial begins very early with a viewing of the body, which may go on for many hours.
The whole town attends the funeral. This means hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, many of whom may have as little connection to the deceased as DadaK did to Miss Kitty. We have a video of the funeral of DadaK’s brother Odame, in which a steady, seemingly endless stream of people walked around the coffin, wailing and lamenting. Apparently it’s normal that you have to re-dress the body halfway through the day, as its outfit is getting a bit the worse for wear after so many mourners have passed by.
With all this in mind, I asked DadaK to explain to me why it was so important to him to view the body. And here is what I learned. Funerals in Ghana are acknowledged as a time to grieve. Seeing the body of the person brings home the reality of their death and enables you to grieve more fully. DadaK was shocked by Ms Kitty’s death and wanted to see her so that he could fully accept the terrible thing that had happened. He wanted to feel the grief. Whereas I think most Aussies are quite desperate to not feel it, and we’re not very comfortable dealing with other people’s grief either.
After talking to him it also seems to me that Ghanaians are able to accept that the death of one person may trigger the grief people feel about other deaths in their lives. In my culture, this may be understood but it is not appreciated if you turn up and wail and ‘carry on’ at the funeral of someone you barely know, just because it’s reminded you of your own losses. It’s considered offensive and insensitive. By contrast in Ghana, as I now understand it, funerals are an opportunity for everyone to mourn the universal calamity that is death, to share the grief of the chief mourners for a life lost, and to grieve for their own loved ones who have died. Well that’s my take on it anyway. I think it’s a pretty healthy approach.
In his cultural context, DadaK’s reaction was fine and normal. He grieved for Miss Kitty, and he wanted to participate in the public outpouring of shared grief which he expected to happen. He was also recently bereaved; his mother-in-law in Ghana had died a few weeks earlier, and this would be an opportunity to revisit that sadness. He’s never been to an Australian funeral, so he didn’t know how off-target his expectations were.
So here’s the take-home message: If someone you love, from another culture, says or does something you think is totally outrageous, insensitive or offensive – take another look. Ask questions, listen and learn.
And here’s the segue: given what I’ve learned about Ghanaian funerals, I felt only mildly uncomfortable about gate-crashing one on the way home from Akwasidae. DadaK called me on my way home to tell me there was a funeral party just around the corner from home, if I wanted to pop in on it. He was off to an afternoon church service, so he wasn’t going.
It was the post-burial dance party stage of the celebrations, complete with an army band playing Hi-Life. (I wouldn’t have gatecrashed if they’d been at the burial stage of the proceedings). They’d blocked off part of the street and set up the usual marquee and rows of plastic chairs. I bopped quietly on the sidelines for a while until one of the ladies who was dancing beckoned me to join her. She was a fantastic dancer! It turned out she was a daughter of the man who had died, and wasn’t a local, but there were a few children there who recognised the obruni and knew where I lived. My dancing provided a lot of amusement both at the time and since, when people recognise me as the obruni who danced at the funeral.
Gyamfi contributed to my fame by filming me with his mobile and going home to show everyone the video before I got there (I was delayed by a downpour, during which I sat under the flooded marquee, chatted to the mourners and got very wet feet). ActionMan was mortified, but everyone else enjoyed it. I’ve mentioned before how they find AM amusing; I think they find me pretty funny too.
Fortunately, ActionMan didn’t get to dwell on how embarrassed he felt. Owaruku had been told to take advantage of the rain and fill up the water reservoir in the backyard. Builders were coming the next day to start work on a fence around the property and needed water to mix their concrete (by hand!) ActionMan helped him, but with no idea of the purpose – his goal was just to get a mini-swimming pool for a while, and he had a great time getting very wet.
The day ended with DadaK interpreting a conversation with Nana, in which I filled her in on Akwasidae. She was pleased that I enjoyed it and impressed that I went, but said that even now, if she could go, she wouldn’t. Old fears die hard.