A Party and a Funeral

3 November 2008 at 10:21 2 comments

I take a break from my normal broadcasting about microfinance to discuss a special event. This weekend I had an invitation to attend a funeral a couple hours away in a part of the country I have never been to. I was invited by my friend and co-worker Lawrence, but I live with Lawrence’s mother’s twin sister and her family. Lawrence’s grandmother had died at the age of 86, so it was going to be a family affair.

At first I was really excited about going—I had gone to part of a funeral once but knew there was much more to it than I had first experienced in the few hours I had spent before. I did have one big worry about going—I just pulled my calf muscle and could barely walk. I was worried about going, but I was more worried about being stuck in my house in Cape Coast alone all weekend with no access to food or water—since I don’t have any food in the house and am almost out of water. I figured that I might as well go, rest my leg as much as I could, and experience something new.

Lawrence, his Aunt whom I live with, her 7-year-old son Francis, and I left Friday at the end of work to drive what was supposed to be two hours. I brought pillows to elevate my leg on and was excited to enjoy the view. About two hours in, however, we picked up a woman who I learned was Lawrence’s older sister. The car was at that point full of people and luggage. I had my bag with my laptop and my purse on the ground at my feet and was holding two pillows and a blanket on my lap. My legs were squished together, and I knew that this wasn’t going to be good for my calf. But, hey, we were close so I could do it.

Two hours later, we finally arrived at our destination: a city in the Central Region of Ghana called Breman Asikuma. It turns out that we had taken an entirely different road to pick up his sister and had gone quite a bit past our destination. We then had to turn around and go back south and quite a ways more east. Most Ghanaians are not the most explicit of people, and on top of that they don’t usually speak in English unless they are speaking to me, which makes it difficult for me to know what is going on. I have learned a lot of basics, and as I learn them I can question Ghanaians on what they are saying, but otherwise everyone just keeps speaking different languages (there are many that are spoken). By the time we arrived, I could barely walk. My calf was so swollen and cramped I literally stumbled and needed someone to hold my hand to walk.

I quickly hit the couch and elevated my leg, but everyone else wasn’t so lucky. They began getting dressed for the wake, a ceremony that involves a service and seeing the deceased one last time. It starts around midnight and goes on until daybreak—this one in particular ended up going until 3 a.m. Because of the shape of my leg, I decided not to go and rested instead.

The next morning, I woke to the sounds of voices—many voices. I went to the backyard and saw about twenty women cooking all sorts of dishes. I watched for a while and then they put me to work. I saw that some women were preparing the meat—fried fish and chicken mostly along with intestines and other meats that were meant for their soups. I also saw them making giant bowl after giant bowl of one of my favorite dishes in Ghana: Jollof Rice. Jollof Rice is a dish similar to (and thought to be the origin of) the dish called Spanish Rice in the United States. The women were pouring the sauce, which they had previously made, and then added rice and water to the mix. The giant bowls were on small outside ovens consisting of charcoal and at times rocks that they took from the backyard. My job was simple: fan the ovens. It was pretty easy, but it was much more work than we have when we use an oven in the United States. In the meantime, I got to spend time talking to all the women, which was really fun despite the language barriers (English is the official language in Ghana, but that just means that only officials speak it and only when they are at work. Anyone who has gone to school speaks it, but there are quite a few people who don’t know it.)

We made giant bowl after giant bowl of Jollof Rice, and after we finished one bowl it was dumped into a cooler and the bowl was washed so we could repeat the process. As we finished the rice, others had already started making the stew, made with fresh vegetables and lots and lots of vegetable oils, that we would serve with fufu and preparing the cassava to make fufu with. Fufu is made by boiling cassava and plantain and pounding it into a glutinous mass. It is served with a soup or stew and meat. Others boiled yam, a food similar to a potato that is served boiled and with meat and palava sauce (a sauce consisting pretty much of oils, vegetables, and sometimes meat. and still others cooked the plantain, a food very similar to a banana but less sweet that in its boiled form is eaten with the palava sauce as well.

Fufu being served with stew and meat

Fufu being served with stew and meat

By the time all the other foods were finished, it was fufu-pounding time. Pounding fufu takes hours and is not for the weak at heart. It involves one person using a large thick stick with a wooden masher at the end to repeatedly pound on the cassava while another person continues to add more and more cassava, constantly putting their fingers in danger of total havoc. I have no idea how long it took them to pound as much fufu as they were making (enough for at least 100 people and probably more than that), but pounding fufu for one person usually takes about 15 minutes.

Each piece of cassava in the bowl gets pounded one at a time

Each piece of cassava in the bowl gets pounded one at a time

I guess I should step back and say that all this food the women were making was for guests of the funeral—and it was more food than I have even seen at weddings that I have attended in the United States. In Ghana, when someone dies, people are expected to come and pay their respects—and usually they leave after having eaten and danced. In front of the house, there was a large sitting area set up where people, clad in traditional black and red African clothing to properly mourn the death of Auntie Dadzie, aged 86—people also wore black and white to celebrate her old age, something guests can do if the person who died was more than seventy. Various people were on hand to serve a variety of drinks filling two refrigerators to all the guests along with the food that we had slaved over all morning.

At about this time, we headed over to the other part of the funeral in a large outdoor area that included three large seating areas complete with canopies all facing a canopy under which the band was playing. In between all the canopies in a center area was a dance floor, at times aptly inhabited by numerous Ghanaians strutting their stuff, sometimes too much stuff for the many men who had simply had too much to drink.

When we arrived, people in t-shirts with the deceased women’s photo on the front and the words Demirefa Due (Respect is due) sprawled across the back. Some of them handed out small pieces of paper with Lawrence’s grandmother’s photo and information on it along with pins so guests could pin it on their bodies. In the center of one of the canopied seating areas was a donation table where guests could give back to those who planned the entire day and who had paid for the band, the food, the drinks, and the renting of the chairs and canopies among other things. I gave the equivalent of $5, and in exchange for my donation I received a keychain of the woman along with her information and when she died.

I couldn’t help but to thinking in the midst of all the chatting and planning that if Ghanaians could organize such a great party, they surely have what it takes to organize revolutionary change at great magnitudes—aren’t the two always related?

Despite my injury, the weekend was full of learning new words in new languages, learning to make new foods, learning to live with a family very different from my own, and learning to see a funeral as more than just goodbye. Next month, I will be going to another funeral (this time the funeral of a chief and one of my friend’s fathers—it is planned out so far in advance to allow ample time for people to prepare to come and attend the event, not to mention ample time for the family to save up enough money for the event)—and I am excited for the chance to learn more. In Ghana, funerals are more than just a funeral or a party or a gathering; it is Ghanaian culture. Ghanaians love to dance, party, and relax, they have a culture that is very hospitable and caring about others, and they strongly believe in taking care of their children. And once children are grown, they have the responsibility of taking care of their parents, even in death.

Dancing the day away

Dancing the day away

The next day was Sunday, and although I spent the day at home resting my leg some of the others had another event to man. After church, there was another celebration that lasted for many hours—the final in a weekend ode to a woman whom I’ve never met but whose family made sure I would never forget.

Entry filed under: Christian Rural Aid Network (CRAN), Ghana, KF6 (Kiva Fellows 6th Class). Tags: , , .

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  • 1. BerryFine  |  7 April 2009 at 19:20

    What a delight to read! We went to Ghana for two weeks to visit my daughter who was there for a semester through UC Berkeley. We took a trip around the country and I remember passing crowds of people in black headed for a low building, obviously for a funeral. They did seem in high spirits!

    We also enjoyed visiting the coffin shop outside Accra where the coffin artisan would create anything you wanted to be buried in, like a Coke bottle, a tiger, a Mercedes or your favorite brand of cigarettes!

    Thanks for sharing your experience so eloquently!

  • 2. milena08  |  6 November 2008 at 12:41

    I laughed when I read that despite your swollen, sprained ankle, the women still put you to work in the kitchen.

    I hope your ankle recovers! And I hope the borrowers you interview in Ghana are nicer than the militant artist in San Fran. 🙂

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