It was announced at Morning Devotion yesterday, that one of the local headteachers had died just an hour before in Nadowli hospital. Everyone present was shocked and saddened by this news. Philip had suffered a dreadful accident a year ago and had awful facial injuries. He had recovered and was back in school, but was awaiting plastic surgery in Accra, to rebuild his nose. Red strips of cloth were tied to office door lintels, cars and around the wrists of mourners. The Welfare Officer began procedures to move the corpse from the hospital bed in a hastily acquired coffin to the family’s home in Daffiama. I may have attended more Ghanaian funerals than British ones now but this is the first death of someone I knew. He attended recent Heads’ meetings and I shook his hand a week ago.
Plans were made for a deputation from the District Office and schools to attend the funeral this morning, although family mourners will have been wailing and walking around the staged body all yesterday and all last night. I decided to travel with Michael as I would be free to come home when I chose. It is customary to stay and socialise for hours but I wasn’t sure I would want to. The office cars swept past me in huge clouds of red dust and I coughed my way along the road behind them.
When I arrived I found people I recognised walking around the corpse lying under an awning in a raised open coffin. The circling group walked slowly whilst a young man, possibly a son, ran wailing around us and finally prostrating himself on the coffin. Meanwhile a wailing woman was tossing and turning on the ground in the dust until someone pulled her to her feet. We threw coins towards the coffin and also to the xylophone players nearby. The men were almost all in traditional smocks and the women wore either black dresses or usual colourful cloths with black scarves.
Catering on these occasions is a major operation for family and neighbours. We were ushered to an area ringed with chairs designated for teachers and the District Education Office staff. There must have been about 70 of us at any time, with people arriving throughout the morning. The Elders and other members of the family walked around the circle greeting us in turn before sitting down. Then we rose and reciprocated the handshaking. By this time crates of bottled drinks, two huge containers of pito and a mountain of lunch boxes containing rice and fish were deposited in front of us. Donations for the grieving family were collected and the widow was sent for. Money is customarily given to the family, but the widow doesn’t always receive much. The funeral itself has cost a lot and people are looking for reimbursement. There is no Life Insurance here and widows struggle to provide for themselves and their children. Boys often drop out of school when they lose their father young.
While we were “refreshing ourselves”, another wave of wailing voices began and a group of about 60 school children came running up the path towards the coffin. Surprisingly, this was the only really emotional moment. They circled the staged body whilst a Circuit Supervisor was organising something in our midst. This turned out to be something quite normal for teachers’ funerals but an activity I found rather bizarre. A mock school lesson was acted out before the corpse. Chairs were laid out and teachers took the place of students. Everyone gathered round to watch as a teacher began the mock lesson. After a few minutes during which the “students” played up in their roles, the teacher asked where Philip was. A “student” told him he was absent and then that he was dead or “late”. At that point the actors all ran off the “set” wailing. The scene was specifically to mark the passing of a teacher. I found the principle to be sound but the activity itself made me feel uncomfortable. Maybe if the “students” had been real students I would have felt it was more respectful to the deceased teacher.
There was a long wait before the coffin was carried to the church for a Mass before burial. I decided to take the lead back to Nadowli, as the idea of numerous cars and motos overtaking me on a narrow, potholed and very dusty road was making me nervous.
Funerals here in Ghana are so different to those at home. I am wondering whether I should come to Ghana to die…….not yet obviously. There is a different attitude to grief. There are so many that people seem to just take them in their stride. Weekends are times to attend at least one funeral. With all respect, it seems attendance at weekend funerals is planned just as the youth of Britain plan their partying. Funerals are very sociable occasions. Walking around the body is a respectful and more sombre duty, but it appears once that is over the rest of the funeral is a party to be enjoyed at the family’s expense. Maybe some mourners reminisce about the dead man’s life, as we would at home, but I am not aware of that. The whole process is understandably quick, all over within about 36 hours of death, due to extreme heat and decay. It feels to me as an outsider that “mourning” is sudden and intense for a family, but short lived. Life carries on, as it must, as best as it can be managed. There will be another funeral tomorrow, probably.