If Josephine Adjeley Asumang were around she would be helping her husband Benjamin Asumang tie his aquajung, a traditional cloth worn by Ghanaian men, before leaving the house. Today he’s burying her instead.
It’s 9:30 on a Saturday morning and a sea of people cram Benjamin and Adjeley’s family home. The women wear fine black fabric dresses (some made special for the occasion) and the men wear aquajungs, traditional Ghanaian cloth that men wrap around their bodies, leaving one shoulder exposed.
I awkwardly pick my way over rocks outside the Asumang home as I enter the funeral site with my landlady, Joyce, who is a cousin of the deceased. My very Western black top and bottoms make me stick out like a sore thumb among the finely dressed Ghanaians, of which there are over 500. It was standing-room-only for this woman who died of cancer almost three weeks ago. No one mentions that she died of cancer though. Cancer is a proverbial Voldemort in Ghana, much like AIDS. It’s ‘that which shall not be named,’ as it’s sometimes believed the person did something evil to deserve dying of the disease.
Benjamin sits in the corner of the room I’ve been shuffled into. Guests cram into the courtyard outside and are entertained by a band and preachers. The immediate family of the deceased sit inside, near the wake. The immediate family of the widower sit in a third room. I sit and watch people moan and cry or stare into the distance as tears well up and lumps of sadness are swallowed before the floodgates open.
In front of me sits 20-year-old Jessica, Adjeley’s paper-thin daughter. Her spine pokes out through her beautiful black dress that stretches to the floor. Joyce tells me Jessica was the only daughter who stayed with her mother in Ghana as the rest of the children
moved to London “for a better life.” By tomorrow Jessica and her
father will be putting on their game faces and combatting the
extended family of the deceased.
“Once your husband or wife passes, their family appears out of
Nowhere,” Joyce says.
I ask her what she thinks about that.
“I think it’s very sad,” she adds, as the corners of her mouth turn down. “The family comes back and starts taking, taking, taking everything from even the children. They say it’s because it’s their child and therefore they are entitled to whatever their child had and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”
In fact, a law recently passed in Ghanaian parliament states the family of a spouse is now more legally protected and potentially entitled to everything right down to the broom the deceased used to sweep with. But few know their rights. When the tears dry,
the gloves come off in many a Ghanaian household in the wake of a funeral.
I’m nudged to go see the body. I don’t know why I balked at this slightly, I suppose I didn’t feel I even had the right to be the white elephant in the room let alone the obruni (white person) who goes to stare at the dead body of someone I’ve never met.
I go to see the body.
The shoebox-size room barely fits the size of the coffin and some of the larger people have to settle for paying their respects outside of it. I’ve heard in Ghana some dead are displayed in fantasy coffins, coloured and shaped after a certain object, like a fish, crab, boat, and even a sports car. I pray this woman will be displayed in something like an airplane but I’m not disappointed when its a simple blue coffin. I’m slightly in awe. The tradition is to walk around the coffin in a circle, to stare at the frozen face of the deceased, and say a prayer. Adjeley is dressed head-to-toe in what looks like a wedding dress. Silver details that look like paper snowflakes catch the sun and make my hard face light up.
I stop and become almost transfixed by what some Canadians would say is a gaudy show, but I’m so taken with it. I’m nudged to finish walking my circle.
I feel especially foreign today, and painfully awkward.
I traipse back over the rock-strewn dirt floor and I leave with Joyce.
As the sun beat down on our black clothing, we make our way
through a day of serving the more than 150 guests that attend an party for one side of the family. On the other side of town, another 150 guests eat, drink and swish their black fabric to music, all at the expense of the family.
“People would rather have serious money problems than shame their family by not providing a good funeral,” Joyce says.
I see this first outstretched hand twenty minutes later when guests from the other side of the family show up and crash our funeral party. They demand a second meal, drinks and chairs. One woman spits out a piece of rice from a meal she most likely just finished in the other family home as she barks out something in Ga, one of Ghana’s local languages.
“She’s demanding she be fed,” Joyce sighs as she flicks the still-warm rice off of her dress.
The woman joins her posse now corralled around her. Together, they resemble a school of elderly prom goers. Their taffeta dresses rubbing against each other as they stare down the other side of the family, waiting for someone to cross them.
I see the hopelessness in the family’s eyes. There will be more that will come, they’ll bring nothing and take a much as they can with them.
Tomorrow when the tears dry and the black dresses and aquajungs are hung back on their hangers, Benjamin Asumang’s wife will still be dead.
He will be congratulated for not turning anyone away at her funeral.
I walk home with my maize wine (made of ground-up corn and sugar), arm and arm with Joyce, who’s exhausted by the death of her cousin and the advent of her afternoon.
“’Till we meet again,” I say. “Mama, may your soul rest in perfect peace, Amen,” Joyce says as the sun starts to set on Accra. “That’s what we say, S.J.”
Her words echo back to me in my head as we turn into our compound to show my respect to a woman I never knew one last time to her widower, but these people gave me the opportunity to just have a glimpse, and they don’t even know my last name.