Thursday, February 24, 2011

Friends, Ghanaians, countrymen…

In early December, one of the ladies at the hospitals where Steffi and Dorella worked in Kumasi gave them an invitation that read “Farewell service for Rev. & Mrs. Ansah*”.  The card had pictures of the Reverend and missus on it, with a quote from 2 Timothy 4:7-8 7, the Bible quote that starts with “I have fought the good fight ….”  The event was being held at a Baptist church that was described as being on “Church premises behind the Anomangye Market” in Kumasi.  As strange (and insensitive) as this might sound to my readers back home, we were looking forward to attending our first funeral in Ghana.  Funerals are a big deal here, making it a key cultural event that we wanted to experience.     

On the Saturday in question, Steffi, Markus and I dressed in our finest black clothing and headed out the front gate to find a taxi.  We showed a taxi driver the invitation and he told us he knew were where it was.  After agreeing on 5 cedis for the price, we were off.  The journey to the church took us far from any part of Kumasi we had visited before.  After Markus spotted a sign for the church, the taxi driver asked a local about it and found a rutted dirt road up to a hilltop overlooking Kumasi.  The journey seemed to be much further than the 5-cedi price would imply, but we paid him the agreed amount and climbed out.

Behind the church was an open field.  Three large tents of the sort that are used for outdoor weddings were arrayed along three sides of a rectangle, with the fourth side being taken up by the band to the left and a stage to the right.  As we walked up, the lady that had invited Steffi and Dorella, Mary*, came up to us and gave us a hearty welcome.  She quickly handed us off to a beautiful young woman named Cynthia*, who led us to seats in the front row of one of the tents, a great position for watching the proceedings. The very beautifully done program, announcing that we were at a “send-off service” for the Reverend and his wife, indicated that the time for the event was “10:00 prompt”.  The sign on the tent across from us read “9:00”.  Thus one of the key mysteries of life in Ghana was solved: Ghana Mean Time is one hour behind the clock time. 

Or maybe not.  Even though it was past 10 o’clock, people were still showing up.  Looking at the people coming in, I was a little surprised that very few of them were wearing the traditional African-style black or black-and-red dresses or funeral cloths that we saw people wearing every Saturday at the tro-tro stops.

Markus being the professional photographer, I nominated him to ask about taking pictures.  He decided that Cynthia would be a good person to ask.
“Would it be okay for us to take pictures?” 
“Of course.”
“Okay.  Just let me know if there’s a problem.”
And with that, to our surprise, we were given free rein to take any pictures we wanted.

The festivities started as all events here seem to start: with a prayer—rather fitting in this case since we were at the church.  Then the dancing and singing began.  The choir strutted and shimmied around the square as they sang in honor of the couple.  Markus was off taking pictures of the band.  I became bold enough to leave my seat and stand to the side of the tent to take pictures of the choir as they sang and danced.  Who knew that there would be that much cavorting and merry-making at a funeral?
Any organized event in Ghana tends to have many parts listed in the program.  In this case, there were 20 items, starting with a processional hymn and ending with… I’ll give you three guesses but the first two don’t count.  (Kudos to all those who guessed “a closing prayer”.)

During one of the parts where a pastor was rambling on in Twi about the man we were there to honor, I was staring at the program and decided that the picture of the reverend on it bore a striking resemblance to the man who had been dancing around the square with Mary.  Maybe it was his brother?  Then I looked more closely at the woman on the program.  The hair was different—as it often is on the Ghanaian women, who change their hairstyles drastically every few weeks—but I became convinced that this was the same woman, Mary, who had greeted us at the start.

I thought a bit more about the situation.  No one wearing traditional funeral clothes…a ceremony honoring two people, at least one of whom seemed to be alive and well… the ebullient nature of the event.  Then it dawned on me.

I leaned over to my right and whispered to Steffi.
 “Steffi, I don’t think this is a funeral.  I think this is a retirement ceremony.”
“Yes.  I realized that Mary is on the front of the program.  And that must be her husband.”
We looked at each other and I started laughing quietly.  Eh, Ghana.

We made sure to share our epiphany with Markus, who had also come to much the same conclusion.  After that, I was much okay with taking pictures of anything and everything.  I also felt more comfortable wandering off to look at the views of the city instead of staying glued to the ceremony in a language that I barely understand.

I have yet to attend a ceremony that lasted less than three hours, and this was no exception.  Snack bags had just been handed out around 1:30, which usually means an event is coming to an end.  Steffi needed to get home to get some work done, so around 1:40 when Mary came over, we let her know that we needed to leave.  The wheels were set in motion for the quickest exit I’ve ever seen.  She hurried us over to a building where we were handed two more snack bags and put into a taxi that would take us up to the main road to catch another taxi home.  We were out of there before we even knew what was happening.

This story encapsulates much of my experience in Ghana.  In a nutshell, I show up some place expecting one thing to happen only to find out that my expectations are completely wrong.  The silver lining is that most of the time, it’s the as positive as this experience: showing up to mourn at a funeral quickly becomes celebrating someone’s retirement.

*Names changed to protect the obibinis (since obruni means “white man” I’m sure you can figure this one out)


  1. Glad it wasn't the other way around. I was wondering from the start about a joint funeral for a couple and was expecting it to be more of a symbolic death for the one of them who was still alive.

  2. Here in Ghana, people often celebrate the 5-year or 10-year anniversary of someone's death. That was what I thought was happening when we thought it was a funeral.