Sunday, February 18, 2007

Black Saturday

As our tro-tro pulled into the bus station on the outskirts of Accra, we were met by a sea of black. Women wearing impressive black dresses and men wearing traditional black cloth thrown over their shoulder milled about waiting for a bus to take them into the mountains, an hour’s drive from the city.

We had been invited to attend a funeral in the mountains by a man named Eric. The funeral was in a town called Larteh where his mother and father had grown up. He had been raised in the city, but because his father had five wives, and his mother had 14 siblings, he had many aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters residing in the area.

In Ghana, funerals are community events that only happen over weekends. They last three days, and during this time, anyone connected with the family or wishing to pay respect, wears black. We were told we were welcome to accompany Eric to the event as long as we wore black.

Mark and I searched our closets and came up with black golf shirts to wear. We weren’t nearly as elaborately dressed as everyone else, but at least fit the theme.

Following the flow of black onto buses, we too found a seat and started the journey into the hills. We arrived before 9 a.m. as we’d chosen to travel early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day.

Larteh is perched on the top of a small mountain overlooking a large flat plain that stretches into Accra. As our bus pulled into the town, I was surprised to see a place that looked more like an ancient European settlement than an African one. Houses are built out of concrete and are closely connected to one another by a maze of narrow alleyways, also made out of concrete. Walking through the town was a treat following weeks of walking along dirt paths in Accra. The place seemed clean, prosperous, and friendly.

The streets were filled with people dressed in black. It was clear the entire town had come out for the funeral. We were soon told there were three different funerals all happening on the same day. People from the same tribe will travel up to 5 hours to attend a funeral so the town had likely doubled its weekday size to accommodate all of the travelers.

Eric led us to his grandmother’s house where we met some members of his family. We were then ushered to a local bar, where other relatives, including his mother, were gathered together drinking Guinness. The bar was full of people dressed in black. We were offered a drink, but as it was only 9 a.m. declined the invitation and settled instead for a Fanta.

Eric guided us around the town, pointing out places of interest and introducing us to a continuous stream of relatives. There didn’t seem to be any kind of schedule for the day, and everyone seemed to be casually strolling from one place to another without any clear direction.

Mid morning, Eric told us we should follow him to meet the family in mourning. We followed him blindly through narrow alleyways, past throngs of people in black, until we reached a small room. Inside the room lay the body of the dead man. He was covered with luxurious cloth and surrounded by plastic flowers.

We were ushered into the small room and stood on one side of the bed. On the other side of the bed was what I presumed to be two of the man’s wives. We were instructed to approach the bed and touch the man’s chest three times. Each time we touched the chest, we were to say “I’m sorry”. My eyes widened at the instructions, but I did what I was told. We were also told our words would help whisk away the spirit. I looked back at Mark hoping he could go through with the ritual without fainting. (Editor’s note” Little did Janet know that Mark had grown up Catholic and been exposed to dead bodies at funeral homes at a very young age. His uncle John works in a funeral home. He can still remember the time, when he was very young, that he stumbled upon a body being prepared for burial).

Near the end of the day close to 500 people gathered at the town cultural centre. At one end of the square, five men on various sized drums beat out a rhythm to summon people to the ceremony. The drumming became more frantic as the crowds grew. Once the area was full of people, a woman dressed in elaborate clothing danced around the square. Her goal was to collect money from the mourners to help pay for the funeral. She would move in and out of the crowd, while people placed money in pouches she had hanging from her dress. Funerals are very expensive because of the number of people who attend, and we were told if they don’t collect enough money, the eldest son is handed the burden of covering the shortfall.

During the drumming ceremony, periodically the dancing money woman would take a break, and a group of women would come forward with gifts for the family. All the gifts were elaborately wrapped in shiny steel pots. They included things like candy, alcohol, and various other food items. We were told the groups of women coming forward are often the dead man’s wives and her children. It appeared that women from other families came forward as well.

The last group we saw offer gifts brought a goat. The goat’s eyes were covered with a blind fold and he frantically tried to run away. At one point a man came forward, grabbed the goat by the fur and thrust it in front of the family. Mark and I were worried they would sacrifice the goat in front of us. Thankfully the blind fold was only intended keep the goat calm.

It looked as though the drumming and dancing ceremony would go on until the early hours of the evening. We needed to head back to the city, so after a quick visit to meet the Chief, we boarded a bus back to Accra.

Editor’s note: Janet omitted the story about our visit with the local chief. Just as we were about to leave town, I whispered in the ear of Eric’s uncle, “is the chief here?” Eric’s uncle took this to mean that I would like to meet the chief. The next thing I knew we were being led through alley ways and into the courtyard of a housing complex. We sat down in Chairs lined up in a row. Ten minutes later, the chief emerged from behind a door that had strings of beads from the top of the door frame to the ground. He sat down beside us and we were introduced by the uncle. He made a point of chastising his nephew, saying he should have known to bring us over the moment we arrived in town.

In a communal gesture, we all had to down a shot of Schnapps. We were told that if ever we came and ran into trouble, the chief would be there to help us out. He was also the go-to guy if we wanted to acquire a piece of land for a house, a school, or anything thing else we might want to construct (one of the responsibilities of the chief is distributing land to citizens and newcomers).

We were ushered out when people from the funeral party popped in for a visit.

- Janet

Janet gives her address to a few children in Larteh who want to write to Canada

Eric, our host, sits beside Mark on the porch of a house his uncle is building

One of Eric's uncles at the local bar

A young boy moves to the rhythm of the drums during the funeral ceremony

Crowds of people watch the drumming ceremony on the main street of Larteh


Anonymous said...

Hi Mark and Janet,
This is quite a story. Ican't wait to show it to Uncle Johnny.
What an experience you had. The pictures are great too. They make the experience you are having so much easier to relate to.
I can't beleive seeing so many people and so much support for the family. It must have been overwhelming some of the time. The two of you look great.Love Mummy and Daddy

Anonymous said...

Hey Guys,

What a day you had! Eric's family would even outdo the Doyle clan!!! It looks like life in Ghana is treating you both well. Take care,


Katie Wallace said...

I saw a story move on the Associated Press newswire on Valentine's Day about how fair trade chocolate from Ghana is being promoted as an ethical gift for lovers. It made me wonder how many of the plantations are co-operative/fair trade?

Anyhow, happy belated chocolate day! (one of Rich's new year resolution is to eat chocolate daily, so every day is chocolate day here!)