Happy Farmers Day! In Ghana, the first Friday of December is set aside as a national holiday to honor all farmers, and to award the “National Best Farmer.” Schools are closed, shops have reduced hours and 1000s gathered for this annual celebration. Twenty-two years ago, the top award was a pair of Wellington boots, and a new machete (or cutlass, as it is called), but today and for the past several years the top award has been an oversized “key” to a yet un-built three bedroom house. Second prize was a new SUV, and third prize, a tractor.
Thanksgiving passed us by, but not without giving us much to be thankful for. Grace is all better now, in fact over the week-end she played in a two day varsity soccer championship tournament, and her team preserved their undefeated record. Over the week-end was Fox’s play, a British comedy form called “pantomime,” where he had one of the lead parts in Sleeping Beauty. He did a great job and we were the proud parents, one of us being there each night. On Friday, Anna had her “best ever” sleep-over with two friends, one from Peru, the other from Guinea. Since it was a load shedding night, we took the girls to the pantomime, and then it was home for sleeping out on the screened in porch (we had moved two matrices out there). So now the play is over for Fox, soccer practice is over for Grace, the after school pick-up games have tapered off, and Suzanne’s teaching load is beginning to ease up…so our family is back together again, and it is wonderful.
This Saturday, we gather with many of our Ashesi friends for an “American Thanksgiving,” which will be a cook-in of international types who have always wanted to experience an American Thanksgiving (last time we cooked together it was food from Cuba). I’ve ordered a turkey, and we’ll make all the fixin’s at the party so the only thing I’m wondering about is where we’re going to get a football game to watch afterwards so we can fall asleep.
It is amazing to me how dates and events that would be huge in the US pass us by here, almost un-noticed. Dates like September 11, Halloween, Veterans Day, and now this week, Thanksgiving. It is about his time of year that I start humming that Joni Mitchell song, “Its coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees…” and if you know this song, then you are either dating yourself, or a regular Public Radio listener. Is the time when the stores start decorating for Christmas, except here the madness started September 1st. The obrunie market we frequent was invaded by Christmas Trees and ornaments, and all sorts of tacky decorations that would never make it into my house. I gather Christmas is a big deal here, which doesn’t really surprise me since special events are often bigger than life.
Take funerals. In our local newspaper, The Daily Graphic, several pages are devoted to the funeral announcements and memorials every day. In today’s edition, there were 12 announcements, the two largest being a half page each, one recalling Kwami Aidam, who’s life is remembered some 30 years ago after his death and the other Nana Kwame Ntaoa IV, who died in Cape Coast June 8, 2006. Funerals take time to organize, raise the money, make the arrangements, and make the cloths. In fact, in some of the more famous funeral towns, there are entire shops devoted to the creation of funeral fashions. Black for the day of the burial and White for Sunday and close family member wear red.
The events for Nana Kwame Ntaoa IV will begin Thursday, November 30 with a performance of traditional dancing and drumming at the family house. On Friday there is a non Denominational Church service; Saturday, there is a burial service and funeral rites (at the Methodist Church), and then Sunday a Thanksgiving Service at the local Catholic church. Protestant, Catholic and non- Denominational, services, so I figure they should pretty much have it covered.
In the announcement there are 27 children listed, each with their name, residence (including quite a number residing in London) and if it presidous enough, place of employment. Grandchildren (50), then Brothers & Sisters, Nephews & Nieces, and finally the longest list of them all, the Chief Mourners. Rachel Naylor, in a 2003 Oxfam report observes “Funeral announcements read as a who’s who in terms of which people the deceased is connected to, rather than what his or her personal achievements are. Their status is reflected in the positions of others within the clan, and the advertisement also reads as a clan roll call in a time when clan members may live in different places around the world.
The next Saturday, there is a half page article about the life of Nana Kwame Ntaoa IV (also known by the last name Eyiah) written by a business associate who recalls that he “never allowed his inability to read and write to be a barrier in whatever he set out to accomplish…” At times it almost feels like a eulogy, like when the author quotes a proverb Nana would share in challenging times “it is bent and not broken” or a word of caution, “the dead should not be a hindrance to the living”. I feel like Nana is not a complete mystery to me now, and wish I could have attended at least one of the events of last week-end.
David Maranz writes in African Friends and Money Matters, “It is difficult for most Westerners to understand the degree of importance that Africans place on attending funerals and other family ceremonies.” He observes that Westerners are seen as insensitive if they do not take a “day off to attend the funeral of a friend, or that a Western employer would not allow an employee to take one to three days off with full pay to go to his native village to pay his respects.” I can relate. As a pastor I was frequently exasperated when a honored member of the congregation would die, and only a few members from the church would attend their funeral. As part of a church family, I taught that we are expected to attend the funeral, or Celebration of Life of people we know. It is how we support each other, and it is an important thing that we can do for that person, be there for them. Somehow, somewhere our society has lost sight of that communal aspect of attending funerals. We think it is optional, or that our work is too important for us to take time off from doing it. It is not. Even if you don’t know the person that well, it is still a chance to reflect on the larger issues that each of us will soon have to deal with in life. Issues like “who am I when I’m not doing what I do?” Funerals give us a chance to reflect on how others, and even ourselves may answer that question. But many folks couldn’t see beyond the own importance of their lives to the day when they might need others, and then there was Judy, who took time off to come to every funeral, “its just how we were brought up,” she told me once.
Here, the funeral, and even the funeral dinner on Sunday are important community events. “Akans (the largest people group in Ghana) believe that from the physical world the deceased would move to another world and he or she could carry the respect accorded him or her to that place. Funerals, therefore occupy a very significant position in the culture and tradition of Ashantis” and so they make them big.
Closer to home, Daniel (our night guard) asked for a loan of ¢500,000 (about $50) to help with the funeral expenses of his niece (or is it his daughter?). You see family members are expected to help with the funeral expenses. Daniel estimates the total cost to be around seven million cedis ($700). Repayment of loans is, in African circles, is the responsibility of the creditor, not the borrower, so we will see how this goes. About six weeks ago I lent Emmanuel ¢250,000 to repair his cell phone and today, as we were filling our LP Gas cylinders (for cooking) I wondered out loud “It seems you have forgotten your loan.” I was not sure if he had forgotten or was just waiting to see if I had.
While we may think that $700 seems like a relative bargain for a funeral, (and it would be in the US), here it represents seven months pay for the middle income wage earner, and more than two years pay for the average worker. But total cost is not a part of the thinking process right now. “It is the belief of Ashantis and indeed all Akans that the departed need to be accorded all the respect they deserved since death is not the end of man” and so it is understandable, at least from a culturally perspective, that even though this is not the end, the departed need all the respect the living can afford.
The dead are not alone, I think that Farmers also deserve all the respect the living can afford, so it is a great tradition that Ghana sets aside a day to honor them. So Happy Farmer’s Day!
 Naylor, Rachel, GHANA: the background; the issues the people, an Oxfam Country Profile. 2003, p39
 Daily Graphic, Sat. Nov. 25, 2006 p10
 African Friends and Money Matters, p95-96
 Average pay is $1/day. Our guards (middle income) make $3/12 hour day.
 Boadu, Kwame Asare Funeral dinner craze hits Kumasi,The Daily Graphic, Nov. 1, 2006, p29