That time I went to a funeral

I went to a funeral a couple of weeks ago. My friend Alice’s brother died in October and they were finally having the funeral. It was originally supposed to be held in November, but per usual with anything in Ghana, it got pushed back until the end of March. Alice invited me to the funeral pretty much as soon as her brother died, and of course I said I would go. The brother lived in Berekum, a town about three hours north of my town, and that’s where the funeral was held. I went up with Alice and some other women the day before, bringing lots of food to help with food prep. Like wakes in America, it’s expected that food be provided for those who attend. Turns out we were bringing one last load of extra or forgotten items—most of the food was already there being prepared by about a dozen women. Some of the women, including the woman in charge of everything, had come from Adabokrom to help out because they wanted to support Alice. The others live in the area and knew the man who died and wanted to pay respect to him. All of the women were there voluntarily, spending two full days cooking enormous amounts of food for other people. Ghanaians are really generous people.

I hardly had walked up and one woman was taking my bag from me, another was bringing me a stool to sit on, and a third was bringing me a calabash full of pito (Ghanaian homebrew). I felt right at home. After I finished my beer I walked around to greet and see what everyone was cooking. Some women were working together to make jollof rice, others were stirring and wrapping banku balls. Six women were sitting under a mango tree with boxes of frozen chicken, hacking indiscriminately until they were in small enough pieces. Their children ran around unsupervised, chasing the live chickens, carrying knifes nearly as big as they were, and running dangerously close to open fires. Pretty typical scene around a Ghanaian kitchen.

making banku

making banku

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We stayed at Alice’s sister’s house just outside Berekum. Alice’s other sister came from Upper West for the funeral and stayed with us as well. All three women are successful midwives, running their own clinics. After dinner we went to a local bar, called Sober Spot, and had some beers. Being midwives, the women instantly started discussing different gynecological issues they’ve seen in their clinics recently. Pretty graphic, but also very interesting. Half the time the conversation was in Dagaare, the language of Upper West, so I couldn’t follow except for the few English medical words that don’t translate into local language.

The next morning we went back to the place where the women were cooking food. They were still busy prepping more of the same foods they made the day before, hard at work even though it was still early in the morning. I sat with one of Alice’s sisters and she shared with me boiled moringa leaves. They are literally leaves stripped off a tree, boiled and mashed together into a ball. It looked disgusting, but tasted amazing. Moringa is also an unbelievably nutritious plant, so it was both “delicious and nutritious” as the saying goes. In general, I’ve found that Northerners make much more use of local greens in their soups and stews than Southerners do, making their food in general more nutritious.

moringa leaves

moringa leaves

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We headed over to the funeral around 9 in the morning. In zongo (Muslim area of town) alone there were 10 funerals that day, and when we arrived no one was at Alice’s brother’s funeral. We eventually sat down and I watched three men play marimbas from Upper West for about 10 seconds before the DJ turned on the enormous speakers and completely ruined the moment. Eventually people began to trickle in. It was basically and endless line of people coming to shake hands with the family members of the deceased. Since I was sitting with the sisters, I also had to shake the hands of hundreds of people. After a few hours of this, Alice told me I should follow her to a house. We walked in, and seated in chairs were about 100 people from my town, including about half of the elders and many other prominent people. I was completely overwhelmed, and I had virtually nothing to do with this funeral. Everyone was surprised and excited to see me, and I got just as enthusiastic greetings as Alice did. We made the rounds and shook literally everyone’s hands. Then we sat down, and they all stood up and formed a line to come shake our hands, just like what was happening at the larger funeral. This was a smaller version of the funeral specifically for the Adabokrom people. After all the hand shaking, we ate lunch, brought over by the women who had been cooking it for two days. Alice and I went back to the big funeral, and eventually all the Adabokrom people came and again formed a line to shake hands, and eventually sat down.

women dancing at the funeral

women dancing at the funeral

Around 3 or 4 pm the Adabokrom people got up and announced it was time to go home. They had hired four tro-tros to drive to and from town that day. Though the funeral was a great experience, I wanted the peace and quiet of my house, so I hopped in a tro with them. I apparently picked the wrong one. Not only were we the last to leave, we only drove about 5 minutes before we turned down a dirt road and slowly rolled to a halt. I turned to the man I was sitting next to and asked what was going on. He said, “The car has no brakes. They are going to put on brakes.” Usually I am annoyed by delays. This time, I was completely fine sitting around for an hour if it meant the car would have brakes. I chose to sit with the women, but of course two men came over right away and started asking me to marry them. The women encouraged me to accept the first man; he was very good and respectable, they said. The second man, though, the women shook their heads and one told me the man’s wife would beat me if she knew. “Don’t worry,” I told them, “i definitely won’t marry him.” After hearing this news, the man asked to be excused because he wanted to go smoke a cigarette. I told him smoking was very bad for his health, and everyone joined in discouraging him from smoking. The old man didn’t care, he told me he smokes a pack a day and drinks heavily and is perfectly healthy, and with that he went to go smoke behind the building.

Eventually the car was fixed and we all climbed back in to head home. The old man was sitting in the front seat and pulled out two sachets (bags of liquor containing about two shots) and said in twi what I’m assuming translated to something along the lines of “it’s gonna be a fun ride.” We rode along for about half an hour before the man next to me started yelling for the driver to stop. Some part had fallen off the car and was dragging along the road next to his window, and it was starting to smoke. We stood on the side of the road for about 15 minutes while the driver attached the part. Eventually we got back in the car and drove for another hour, at which point the driver decided to stop for gas. Something I forgot to mention: not only did his car not have brakes and had various parts falling off, it also couldn’t start on its own. Think of the movie “Little Miss Sunshine.” Remember how they had to give the car a push to get it going? Same thing with this tro. The driver pulled into the gas station, but killed the engine while the tro was too far from the pump. He tried to roll backwards to get it going, but failed, and instead rolled us into bushes at the top of a hill. By this time it was well past dark and I and the other passengers sat in silent disbelief at our luck for several seconds. Then, the now very drunk old man in the front seat turned around and started making chicken noises. Completely out of the blue, just to break the tension. It definitely worked. Pretty soon we were all in hysteric laughter, climbing out of the car and sitting on the side of the road yet again. Eventually, the car was filled with gas and we were off. A man wanted to get down at the next town, but the driver wasn’t taking any chances. He slowed as much as he dared and the passenger had to alight while the car was still moving.

We finally made it home 5 hours after we originally left. It was an extremely long day, but full of cultural experiences and wonderful memories.