An African Funeral or Two...

You haven't partied until you've attended a funeral in Ghana - or, at least, in this region of the country where I've spent the last month.  Apparently, celebrating the dead is the main social event that takes place here.  They don't do birthdays and I haven't heard mention of a wedding, but I've seen more funerals than I can count.   

It is hard to miss them because they are three-day public affairs occupying the village center or some such prominent location to which, it seems, everyone is invited, regardless of their connection - or lack thereof - to the deceased.  

A week or so beforehand, fliers are dispersed and large posters are strategically placed around town or at road junctions bearing a somber picture of the deceased, age of death, as well as the particulars of the event.  Things usually kick off on a Friday when the body is transported back to the village accompanied by a convoy of cars, open trucks packed with singers and a band. Welcomed by mourning relatives on arrival, it is placed in state, as it were, for viewing.  The next day begins with a lengthy service, followed by drumming and dance that can last well into the night or even into the following day. Another service, this time at the deceased's church and sometimes more drumming take place on the third day.  Relatives who have traveled from afar will usually return home at that point, though some may stay for as long as a week.

I attended two funerals during my stay, tagging along with my host Emperor or his family, and briefly observed a third as well, all on the second day.  The first was a Christian observance for a member of his extended family.  It began with a pastor or two, a gospel choir accompanied by a very out of tune trumpet and a number of other speakers who went on for a few hours before the drummers and dancers took over for the main event. 

Not understanding more than two or three words of Ewe, the local language, during the service my attention was drawn to the handful of village drunks circulating through the crowd.   One such fellow, a very short man with a serene smile, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he cavorted around, breaking into dance and greeting anyone who'd look his way.  Another angrily strode center stage in front of the speakers, reining abuse on them and actually shouting down the local assemblyman who was about to speak but demurred under the barrage.  A third commandeered one of the large drums and pounded it furiously for the entire duration of my attendance.  His cadences weren't all that bad, although it did set off a bit of a row presumably with the man whose drum he had appropriated.  

After a few hours enduring the service and a few more observing the dancers, my curiosity as well as family obligations being satisfied, we packed on home. Then the next week, although Emperor himself couldn't attend, he insisted I go with other family members to a non-Christian, 'traditional' funeral.   As promised, it was a much more memorable affair. 

It's easy to get the impression that everyone here is a fervent Christian.   People speak openly and often of their devotion, shops and vehicles are adorned with religious slogans, and Sunday mornings resound with the preaching and hymns from the surrounding places of worship.  Within a short stroll's distance either way along the road in front of the clinic, there are numerous churches of all denominations: Pentecostal, Evangelical, Methodist, Baptist, Jehovah's, Mormon, Catholic...  

For the most part, these are simple structures without adornment; there is no glass in the windows or doors at the entranceway, and sometimes there are no walls as well.  The exception is the Catholic mission a stone's throw away.  Founded by two Italian missionary brothers in the mid-19th century and still staffed by priests from the mother country (who are patients of the clinic), it is a relatively impressive compound that includes dormitories, a school and a large courtyard with a crèche-like statue of the Virgin Mary.

Becoming a pastor is a favorite vocation here.  The charismatic ones draw large crowds of the devout and, no doubt, make a good living at it.  For others, perhaps the majority, it is a part time calling and a way to augment their typically low paying day jobs.   One of the students attending courses run out of the clinic is one such fellow.  A sincere and thoughtful man who cuts an imposing figure, he presents an interesting trifecta: a physics teacher at the local technical secondary school on weekdays, a pastor on Sundays, and a homeopath-in-training during whatever spare time he can muster. 

He was not the first to ask me about which church I attend.  Usually there is a puzzled look when I reveal that in fact I'm not a Christian at all, though I'm a descendent of his tribe. "Then why can't you accept Jesus as your savior?" has been the common response - to which I only reply, "It's complicated."  Emperor also is not a churchgoer.  In fact, taking his favorite seat under the mango tree by the side of the clinic when there are no patients, he loves to rail against the pastors and their monetized faith. 

Anyhow, until attending the traditional funeral, the deep strain of pre-Christian culture and spirituality that runs through life here had not been apparent to me.  I have no idea what percentage of people adhere to it rather than Christianity or even whether they are felt to be mutually exclusive belief systems.  However, the differences, at least when it comes to funerals, is pretty stark.

To begin with, instead of being confined to a casket, there was a small tent in which the deceased was seated as if on a throne, welcoming the mourners and observing the celebration.  Dressed in a flowing white wedding-like gown and headpiece, she was attended to by a woman on either side fanning away the flies along with a changing retinue of woman seated along the side.  Periodically, people would gather in front of her to pay their respects.

There was no service that I was aware of, but nearby a troop of youthful, mostly female singers and dancers as well as a group of male drummers were already ramping up.  The dancers would come out one pair at a time, playing off each other as they rhythmically gyrated to the beat of the drums.  Every so often a larger group would emerge to perform in a circle or rows. Gradually, the intensity of the drumming increased and was matched with increasing fervor amongst the dancers. The crowd too became more animated and some adults began dancing with the youths.  Every once in awhile, someone would run out amongst the dancers to stuff money into the clothing or attempt to stick it to the sweaty forehead of a dancer they particularly appreciated.  The most popular was the only boy in the group, a remarkably vigorous and gifted dancer who couldn't have been more than ten to twelve years old and was being showered with cash.  

At first I wasn't sure, but the movements increasingly seemed to be taking on overtly libidinous overtones. When the aforementioned boy started making pelvic thrusts over his semi-recumbent female partner, there was little left to the imagination.  Then an adult male began dancing in a similar fashion, climaxing, so to speak, as he positioned himself behind his partner who was now on all fours.  It wasn't long after that the energy started to recede, and the crowd began to disperse as the music and dance came to a halt.

What I just witnessed, I later realized, was the junior varsity - a prelude to the main event that was just starting up under a large tent across the way. Strolling over, I was offered a chair in the second row of the crowd that had congregated around the tent's edges.  A group of women were assembled in one area, singing to the accompaniment of another troop of drummers.  

Two men handsomely dressed in native style suits and caps seated in front of me, just to the left and right, also caught my eye.  

Although only in their 40's and certainly not elders, they maintained a self-possessed air and were treated deferentially.  I assumed they might be village chiefs, but later learned that these were priests of the ancestral religion whose ceremony was unfolding before me.  Variously called 'fetish' or 'Juju, we are more familiar with 'Voodoo', the faith that was brought by African slaves, many of whom came from this part of the continent and still practiced in the Caribbean by their descendents.   Amongst other things, New Orleans style funerals are also rooted in the same tradition.

In the meantime, the women were beginning to sway and dance - not in an organized, rehearsed fashion, but as individuals in random patterns.  One woman, bare breasted and shouting wildly, suddenly appeared.  Others tried to control her to no avail.  Then another woman who had been sitting in the crowds seemed to faint straight out, and when helped to her feet began dancing, no doubt, possessed by a spirit. Bare-chested men in grass skirts were now emerging dancing with the women or on their own.

The bare breasted woman made her way over to one of the priests and, still shouting, pulled on his arms and knelt down at his feet.  Then, to my horror, the woman who had fainted made a beeline toward me and began yanking my arms violently up and down - first one, then the other and then both.  Digging my heels into the sand to prevent from being pulled out of my seat, I was thankful both that my shoulders weren't being dislocated.  As the only 'yebu' - white person - in attendance, I assumed the spirits were extending their welcome. 

Soon more women were removing their upper garb, falling into trances and dancing. By now many dancers of both sexes were appearing in white face, casting a ghostly visage onto the festivities.  I was soon to learn that it was merely sweet smelling baby powder as later one dancer came over and dowsed me in it. It was altogether riotous scene, fueled, I noticed, by spirits of another kind that were being passed around in a bottle.  The drummers, who all along had been performing furiously without pause, in particular appeared to be imbibing.

The priests were the focus of much of the activities with dancers, male and female, making their way over, grabbing their feet or bowing before them. At one point, a large woman swooned into the lap of the one to my right.   Semi smothered, he held her patiently until she bolted upright and danced away.  A few times someone would etch something in the sand with their fingers in front of a priest, presumably a message from the spirits.  The priests took great care in reading them, even to the point of documenting them with his cell phone.  At other times, an entranced woman would grab the priest by the hand and the two would make for the exit and disappear for a while.

Clearly, being the yebu conspicuously seated between the two priests made me a little too visible.  I was getting more than my share of notice with multiple full body handshakes and invitations to join the fray.  On top of the baby powder, my hands and arms became covered in a bluish fluid courtesy of a woman with a crazed wide-eyed stare whose entire body seemed to be drenched in the stuff.  

After a few hours seated on the hard plastic chair, I began to go into sensory overload and decided to excuse myself from the festivities.  Not long thereafter, my companions came out and suggested it was time to leave. Returning home, there were howls of laughter as my initiation into the faith was recounted to Emperor.  Well into the next day the scene was gleefully re-enacted because, apparently, it was so hilarious that one telling wouldn't suffice.