In Africa, Funerals Use Rituals of Joy to Ease Sorrow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 22, 1997; Page A01
Last in a series of occasional articles
TESHI, Ghana -- The white wooden Mercedes-Benz is listing. Eight pallbearers wobbling under the custom-made coffin -- with the hulking body of Sowah "Holala" Nortey filling nearly every square inch -- struggle down a rocky slope that descends into this city's public cemetery.
The pallbearers steady the Mercedes coffin, to the relief of the sea of mourners behind them. The mourners return to quiet conversation as the procession snakes past the Victory Spot Bar and the Congo Cafe and the Step By Step Restaurant.
Bystanders crowd the roadside. Many grow still. Others cross their arms or put surprised fingers to their mouths. And others smile.
Teshi, just outside Ghana's capital, Accra, has seen such spectacles before. Indeed, throughout sub-Saharan Africa, funerals are profoundly important rituals -- creative, colorful affairs that affirm the continent's most powerful traditions and beliefs.
At funerals, children of the deceased are bestowed new parents and mourners hold long, passionate conversations with the dead. The poorest and most divided of families usually scratch together enough funds to provide a decent ceremony even if it buries them in debt.
It is not unusual for an African to attend more than one funeral over a weekend. Yet despite the pervasiveness of death -- or perhaps because of it -- funerals are anything but ordinary on this continent. Far from being morbid, funerals are seen as a celebration in many cultures.
Celebrating a Life
Holala, with bulging shoulders and tree-trunk girth, weighed well over 200 pounds. He wore a stern visage but won dozens of friends during his 63 years. His relatives say he worked hard to gain friends because he was an only child, a rarity in Africa.
He had four children and 10 grandchildren. He married, and divorced, three times.
Holala loved to wager on the national lottery every week and helped create an informal group that would pool money to play. Once he even won the equivalent of $35.
He also loved to eat. He was especially fond of fresh fish, fried in lots of fat, and he could not stay away from a dish known as fufu -- cassava and plantain pounded into a smooth white ball and served in palm oil soup.
He suffered a stroke three years ago, and doctors warned him to eat healthier dishes. He ignored them. A few hours before an apparent heart attack killed him in September, he had a bowl of fufu.
Holala was a taxi driver at a hotel in Accra for 30 years. He had used an old Mercedes-Benz sedan most of his career, and when he died his relatives decided to honor him by burying him in a replica of one.
A Mercedes-Benz coffin would symbolize his love for his work as well as the numerous friendships he nurtured over three decades.
"Every taxi driver in Accra knew who Holala was," said Kingsford Nortey, who with Dorzy Nortey were the cousins charged with organizing the funeral. "He was very popular. He had been around a long time."
The Norteys sought the services of Joseph Tetteh, who has become world famous crafting designer coffins. It is not uncommon for foreign tourists to stop by his workshop and buy them. Two years ago former president Jimmy Carter visited his shop and bought three: an eagle, a fish and a bell pepper.
Tetteh, one of several makers of custom coffins in the Accra area, has made attention to detail his trademark. As he prepared Holala's four-door wooden Mercedes, he included windshield wipers, rearview and side-view mirrors (with real glass), an antenna (apparently taken from a radio), a Mercedes-Benz emblem on the hood, exhaust pipe, reflectors and tags (GG7155).
He leaned over the Mercedes, shirtless and sweating. His fingers were flecked with white and black and red paint as he used a small, thin brush for the finishing touches.
Tetteh, a stout man with an easy smile, sells his coffins for about $400 apiece. Sometimes one well-off son or daughter will take responsibility for the coffin; on other occasions, a number of relatives will pool money to pay for it.
The deceased may have been poor in life, Tetteh said, but "when they die, no more poor."
A Ritual Bath
The number of people who retrieve a body is significant, Kingsford Nortey said on the way there. "Holala was very popular, so a lot of people are coming," he said. "But sometimes, a person dies and it's just a driver by himself who comes for the body."
A blue and gray hearse -- preceded by a videographer who will record the funeral -- carried the corpse to the former home of Holala's mother, where a group of older women prepared his body for burial.
The seven women were arguably the most important participants in this occasion. Their job was to make Holala suitable for the spirits by cleaning and bathing him. Their faces were strong and creased, their eyes sad as twilight.
One of Holala's aunts brought to the porch enamel bowls overflowing with cotton, numerous bars of soap, sponges, razors, talcum powder, camphor balls, a plastic drinking cup, a spoon, a white cotton T-shirt and two large pieces of fabric.
"We are giving him everything, so that he needs nothing" in the spirit world, said Dorzy Nortey, the cousin helping to organize the funeral. "If he wants a cup of tea, he has a cup. If he wants cocoa, he has a spoon. If he wants to look good, he can comb his hair."
Shouting erupted on the porch. The aunt stood in the midst of the women, eyes ablaze, palms out, trembling with anger.
"Please, you must accept!" she shouted. "You have to take what we've given. What do you mean it's not enough? You have to take it. Please."
Dorzy, at the bottom of the porch, explained that there were only two pieces of fabric. Apparently one of Holala's former wives had sent none; hence the shouting.
"It's not enough!" one of the women yelled at the aunt.
"They are afraid that the spirits will say, `Where is the other one?' " Dorzy Nortey explained. "The women who are doing the bathing will be blamed. . . . They don't want trouble with the spirits."
The older women won the argument, but the tension did not ebb. Veronica Nortey, one of Holala's daughters, joined the older women on the porch with her three sisters. The women wanted to know if the daughters knew them: If Veronica and her sisters had been sufficiently faithful in attending funerals of other relatives, they would know the older women's names, their histories.
The daughters knew their faces, but not much else. So the women told the daughters they could not watch the bathing ceremony unless they paid a fine.
Veronica and her sisters huddled against a nearby wall and decided they wanted to pay a $5 fine. The women wanted more. The two groups negotiated a payment, and the daughters were allowed to watch the ceremony.
"If you don't come to other people's funerals, it catches up with you," Dorzy Nortey said. "They'll get you sooner or later."
The seven women bathed Holala, then splashed him with camphor and talcum powder. They combed his hair, beard and mustache. In the sweltering room, they grunted and clenched their teeth as they bent his stiff limbs. The daughters sat on stools watching, quiet and pensive.
The women wrapped him in three layers of garments, the first a pair of gray pinstripe slacks and a gold-and-blue print shirt -- a combination that Holala used to wear to work.
After he was dressed in the other layers, mourners filed in with money. Some women brought as little as 50 cents, others the equivalent of $10. Lartuy Naadu, a thin, wide-eyed woman, took Ghanaian cedi notes from each mourner and wrapped them in a brown-and-orange scarf. She waved the money over Holala's face.
"This is from Fatma!" she shouted. "She's giving 1,000 cedis," about 50 cents. And so on for each of the half-dozen mourners who gave.
Then four men brought a stretcher into the room and carried the body through dusty gray alleys, past goats and cooking fires and music playing and people sitting on porches, to the Nortey family compound.
They deposited the body on a brass bed in the wake room, overflowing with silk flowers. That night and the next day, hundreds of people shuffled through, some peering into Holala's face, others slumped with sadness.
One older woman in a tan-and-black striped dress fanned him, scattering flies. She wiped tears from her eyes, and soon her body swayed and bent. She dropped her fan and rested her left hand on the bed.
"Holala, you promised to pay my debt!" she said, her voice thick with sadness. "So who will pay my debt? Who will replace you?"
She stumbled around the room. "You are living under whose care now? Tell us, so that when we die, we can come to be with you!"
A short, stout woman entered the room filling out small rectangular lottery sheets. Sweat poured off her. She filled out each yellow sheet with a pencil as she made her way around the body. She scattered 10 of them around Holala: on top of his chest, at his sides, along his legs.
To the Cemetery
An older woman led the way, splattering distilled palm wine on the ground. People parted as the pallbearers approached. Goats trotted out of the way.
As pigs feasted at a neighboring dump, two young men at the cemetery quickly dug a grave. Then the carriers, after much maneuvering, awkwardly dropped the coffin into the sandy hole.
"May your ancestors receive you," one of the family elders prayed. "May your mother and father receive you in peace."
The next morning, the family elders returned to the Nortey compound. The first order of business was funeral expenses. The coffin cost about $400; they had rented the brass bed in the wake room for $135; mortuary fees came to $130; decorations totaled $130. Family members estimated that the funeral ultimately will cost about $1,400, and they had collected less than $100 so far. But no one seemed worried.
"We'll get more donations during the coming week," Dorzy said.
Next they debated who should become the Nortey daughters' new father. They wanted someone sensible and responsible, a family elder explained. They chose Dorzy.
"You will respect him. . . . This man is now your father," said one elder, Emmanuel Sowah King, nodding toward the daughters. "Anything you need, you go to him." Laughter and applause echoed in the courtyard.
Quiet returned, and the chief mourner, Numo Okoe Nenkese, pronounced one final blessing. He poured one last libation and prayed for Holala's children. "May you have long life, riches and children," he said.
And then Nenkese said: This celebration is over.
Everyone shouted "Amen."
This series of occasional articles chronicles the joys and struggles in the everyday lives of African peoples.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company