The father of one of the school boys had died and some members of staff invited me to accompany them to the funeral. In Ghana funerals last three days, always starting on a Friday, with the burial on Saturday and a church service on Sunday. We were going along on the Saturday, to the ceremony prior to the burial.
I was told to dress in red or black, and having nothing black I wore a bright red sarong and top. The others in our group all wore black, apart from the teachers, who wore their school staff shirts made in a colourful African print of bright green, yellow, blue and black. After a long taxi ride with five adults, a baby and the driver all crowded sweatily together, we arrived at a place where four long gazebos had been set up around a courtyard, each shading rows of seated guests. The scene reminded me a little of a marae, with the bereaved family gathered on the porch of a building in the front, but the guests were around three sides and the casket was displayed right in the centre of the open square. Everyone wore predominantly prints of grey or red patterns on a black background. The immediate family wore shirts and dresses all made in the same material.
The casket was ornate, painted in a metallic pale pink, with large brass fittings. A sound system had been set up, so that the speakers, singers and drummers could be easily heard.
Soon after we arrived, the singing and drumming began. It was time for the visitors to give their contributions to the family. From three directions lines formed and made their way to the metal bowl in the centre of the square. They reminded me of conga lines, as people were jigging to the music. As each person reached the bowl they dropped in some money and then made their way back to their seat.
A man took the microphone and spoke for some time in Twi and then one of the sons of the deceased spoke in English about what a good man his father had been. I could see the younger boy, from our school, crying on the porch as his brother spoke.
Then there were some hymns, delivered very loudly, as it seems everything is, in Africa. After that things went quiet for a while. Someone brought around bags of drinking water and later a bottle of soft drink for each person, while some individuals went up to a little table and sat down to talk and write something down. Then the preacher started reading out names and amounts of money. Soon after this, people began coming up to me and shaking my hand and saying “Thank you” and “God Bless You.” Not knowing what was going on, I was rather alarmed. They were acting as though I was donating a large sum.
A member of the family came over especially to shake my hand and asked me for my full name. He asked me to come over to the table and write my name in the book. This is when I found out that the people going to the desk were writing down their names and pledging money to help the family. I asked if he wanted some money and he said no, since I was already paying for their child’s school fees.
As I walked back to my seat, one of the teachers explained that they had told the gathering that the white woman was offering to pay the child’s school fees, but they did not expect me to do so really. Instead they would simply allow the child to come to school for a term for free. (The normal fee would be 150 Cedis for a term.) This was their way of helping the family without advertising the fact that they could offer free tuition. What a relief that was!
I then had a photo taken with the school staff and family members, standing by the coffin. The photographer had a little portable printer, so it was printed on the spot. Seeing the photo made me realise how much I stood out with my white skin and red clothes, amongst so much black.
Next, a vehicle came to take the casket for burial. I had seen funeral vehicles before. Far from the slow and stately funeral processions we know, these black vehicles towed the casket on a trailer, blaring a siren to let people know they were coming. In this case, though, the vehicle was a battered old ambulance. A crowd of pallbearers loaded the casket into the back, then piled in after it. Immediately the ambulance began sounding its siren. Three taxis arrived to take the family members to the burial. I was told the burial would be in the man’s home town, some distance away, so we would not be going. One of the elders threw water in front of the ambulance and it started on its way, followed by the taxis.
At this stage things were extremely noisy. Music was blaring over the sound system, the siren was sounding and people were moving about and shouting to one another. For some reason the boy from our school wasn’t going in the taxis. Our group went over to say goodbye to him and he was so upset it brought tears to all our eyes.
I feel very lucky to have experienced something like this after just two weeks in Africa and I’m grateful to the school staff who looked after me so well.