Criste, quod corpus
Alistair Blunt, warden, recently returned from Ghana, where he was working and living for almost four years, writes…
Ghana is a country where approximately 80 percent of the population are Christian and the rest Moslem, with some animists. The first thing one notices in attending any meeting is that it is started and concluded with a prayer, sometimes a Christian one and sometimes a Moslem one, sometimes one for each end of the meeting, which shows a tolerance that is much to be desired.
Religion is much more an integral part of life. In any conversation, quotations from the scriptures are used and appreciated. Drivers and watchmen, are frequently seen studying the holy texts, while waiting for the work day to end or the next call from their employer. On Sundays, the turnout is large and the services long, often two or more hours. But most are much more colourful affairs than we have in Warsaw and most European communities. The men wear suits and ties or traditional robes, while the women are dressed in their finest dresses or brilliantly coloured prints or traditional kente cloth. The dresses are usually long and many a wearer is dressed to catch the eye of a potential suitor and husband, with hip hugging cuts designed to maximise the assets of the young woman. Choirs sway, drums beat, the congregation dances often quite literally. It is a spectacular demonstration of faith. However, my favourite true story occurred at Catholic cathedral in Accra, where the priest despairingly remarked in his address to the congregation that he hoped some of them would display a little less of these assets, for as he said: “It is very difficult for me as a priest – and as a man – whilst giving you the host, saying ‘The body of Christ’, I am really thinking ‘Christ, what a body!’”
I am sure most of us remember with a smile ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, but in Ghana the impression is that the film would have been entitled Four Funerals and a Wedding. Funerals are the major social event of most weeks and as such result in much intra family tensions and disputes as we often find with the arrangements for weddings in European societies. Funerals are seen as obligatory social events. One does not need an invitation, rather the arrangements are often advertised on billboards. But if you knew the person, you should attend, for as it was once explained to me, you must turn up to ensure that when you die, people will come to your funeral. Funerals are expressions of status just as weddings often are in Europe. The family must throw a big party for the guests and often put themselves in considerable financial difficulties as a result. To cover some of the costs, guests are invited to make contributions when they arrive. Announcements are made by the master of ceremonies acknowledging the contributions made, so important personages are encouraged to be generous. And a funeral must be attended by the chiefs and if possible the District Chief Executive and MP. Guests arrive, dressed in black or earth red colours, sometimes with a banderol in bright red wound around their head and pass down the line of important family members, before being invited to inspect the body of the deceased, either in the coffin or in a great bed. It is important to realise that this is not always possible as the person may have been dead for some months, awaiting agreement on the funeral arrangements, so the body has a sort of shrunken mummified form. Each mourner greets the family who may be dressed differently from the other guests in white or white and black, to signify that the person who has died is the first of the children to die.
Slowly the crowd swells and the drummers entertain the Assembled crows sitting in the shade but sweltering heat. Finally, the Chief arrives. The Chief will take the most important position and often comes to the Funeral feast escorted by a brass band, dancers and wearing his fine black or earth red toga, carrying a staff of office, usually with a carved bird or animal as its head. His fingers and toes will be ringed with gold and his head adorned by a post box hat with more gold symbols, stars, animals and the like, crowning the head. The chief will be accompanied by his retinue, including the umbrella carrier, the ‘voice’ and the ‘Queen Mother’ and in some cases, also by the teapot carrier. The chief is seated on a stool or throne, raised above the other attendees, shaded by the large ornamental umbrella that reflects his status. A traditional funeral will have a large number of drummers who welcome the chief with frantic beats. The chief does not speak. Instead he converses with his people through the Voice. The disputes arising from the funeral arrangements will be put to the voice, who will comment on what he is told. After a time when the dispute reaches some compromise, the chief will indicate his approval by raising his hand and gesturing with two or three fingers. The Queen Mother, whose task is to choose the chief, but not to be the literal mother of the chief, will often take a lead role in the debate between the different parties.
Traditional funerals involve much dancing, drumming and crooning, but all with some significance. Speeches are given by family, friends and colleagues, some of considerable length and gravity. After that, the male members of the family and close friends make their way to the cemetery where the body is interred. After that the feasting can begin and a good deal of beer and stronger spirit flows releasing the tears of the family and the feet of the dancers, for to dance is expected, a form of respect.
I only attended one wedding, somewhat dull in comparison. Thinking back on it, weddings are less special occasions. Traditional weddings involve an exchange of gifts for the brides family. Divorce is easy, and a man may marry several times, and have several wives at any one time. But a man only has one death, and as such, the funeral is a far more important occasion.