It’s only my second day in Ghana, and already I’ve attended a funeral.
There was a DJ and dancing. Laughing. Gifts and soda and beer given out by the family of the bereaved. Theodora, my host counselor from the Tema Rotary Club, brought me with her to a friend’s mother-in-law’s funeral in Adenta, a suburb of Accra. She explained that this is what happens on the third day of a funeral (usually a Sunday). The week before, the family buys creams and perfumes to anoint the deceased’s body, then stay awake all night with them. On Friday, there is a wake. On Saturday, the burial. On Sunday, after church, everyone dresses up in white (usually white with black accents), heads over to the house of the bereaved, and dances.
“It is to show the family that life goes on,” Theo told me. “We wipe our tears and dance.”
Actually, I’d heard of this tradition before. Last spring, CIVIC had 12 African ladies come and visit. One was from Ghana, and I told her I was applying for a fellowship to study there. I remember it clearly; we were in Alan and Mary Brody’s beautiful home, feasting (Mary, too, is from Ghana). “You must go to a funeral!” this woman had said.
I asked Theo if they always wore these clothes to funerals, the white with black details. She said that only on Sunday, the day of dancing. On Friday and Saturday, they wear all black. And even then, white is only worn for those who had lived into old age. This woman, Nancy Maamle Ntreh, lived until 83; I now have a key ring with her photo and name on it as well as her age at the time she passed, a gift given to all the guests to remember her by. Theo told me that when people live this long, it is considered a blessing, so they wear white with black trim on this day. When someone young dies, though, only black is worn. One exception to both these rules is the death of a twin. “To have one baby is considered a miracle and a blessing,” she said. “To have two is doubly so, incredibly miraculous, the greatest gift.” So, she said, they wear all white, even the headdress, because the very existence of a twin is something so miraculous it must be celebrated and not mourned.
Before this foray, I spent most of the day recovering (i.e. sleeping). Theo picked me up at the airport yesterday, after more or less twenty hours of travel. (Hell, I think, resembles a night spent on a transatlantic flight.) She took me to small, quiet hotel in Tema (it’s owned by a Rotary member). The President of the Tema Club, Ben, came to greet me, and then left me to get some much-needed rest. Rtn. Pres. Ben invited me to come to church with him this morning, but I couldn’t drag myself out of bed after my long long long travels. (Rtn. Pres is short for Rotarian President; titles are important here, though they’re used with first names, not last.) Churches are incredibly important social organizers here, and already nearly everyone I’ve exchanged more than a few words with has asked me what church I go to. (“Catholic,” I tell them, though the answer is more complicated than that, as it is for many Americans.) And Christianity seems to permeate everything. On the road today, I saw churches everywhere. And I began to notice that many of the small shops on the side of the road have biblically-inspired names, many of them strikingly creative: “Ark of Noah Motor Repair,” “God First Upholstery,” “Do Good Radiator Specialist,” “Divine Grace General Store,” and my favorite, “All Power Belong to God Water” on the back of a water-carrying truck.
The radio, too, is filled with Christian talk shows, though not the kind you’ll find in the U.S. On Theo’s radio on the drive back this evening, the radio host and his guest, a reverend, were discussing the topic of tolerance. They got into something of a debate on domestic violence and divorce. And then they started on homosexuality. Divorce according to reverend, was permissible, even desirable under some circumstances. Homosexuality, he maintained, was not to be tolerated. I’m sure that’s not the end of the story on those hot-button issues, but there you have my introduction to the moral politics of Ghana.
Theo drove me down the beach road in the darkness. The street vendors and music from places like the “Special Relaxing Spot” gave way to the shoreline. Waves of the same Atlantic Ocean I swam in in North Carolina this summer curling onto the shore. I felt terribly homesick last night, alone and exhausted and coughing hard, unable to sleep. The day with Theo awakened my curiosity, my excitement about learning as much as I can about this place, my enthusiasm for building relationships with them. Already, Theo is calling me her daughter, one of the girls who works at the hotel introduced me to one of the other staff as her “beautiful twin sister.” And the ocean in the darkness further eased my sadness at being again so far from home.