OPEN YOUR HEART Keeping love alive
In Ghana, love isn't just expressed in hugs and kisses. First and foremost, it's about respect. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the nation's vibrant funeral traditions, brought to life in this piece by Benjamin Lebrave, founder of Accra-based record label Akwaaba Music.
I remember the first time I attended a large funeral soon after moving to Ghana. I didn't know the deceased at all-the parent of an acquaintance of mine, and frankly I wasn't sure why I was invited. Even though I considered myself an outsider before entering the house where the ceremony took place, I soon felt touched by the love, the emotion, and the sorrow that surrounded me-"by force" as people often say in Ghana. I didn't have a choice. The place was crowded; people's feelings literally spilled over onto me.
Ghanaian funerals are very powerful: love and emotion literally wrapped up in colorful fabrics, loud music, loads of dancing, talking and laughing among massive crowds. Funerals are a very big deal here. Every neighborhood-I am tempted to say every street or block-has billboards featuring a recently departed person's photograph, and announcing their funeral. On any given weekend, you don't have to go far before you hear the booming sound system of a funeral party. If you're lucky, you might witness a procession, which is always a stunning social gathering filled with drumming, singing and coordinated fabrics.
I remember walking down High Street on a Saturday in Jamestown-Accra's crowded beachside historical center-when what seemed like an endless procession of people paraded through, all of them wearing black and red traditional cloth with golden details. Dozens of young men carried large drums, also black with golden details, on their heads, followed by others playing drums with wooden sticks. Everyone was singing in unison, call and response with the drums. We were all swept up into the funeral.
“If you're lucky, you might witness a procession, which is always a stunning social gathering filled with drumming, singing and coordinated fabrics.”
Everybody is expected to open their heart and make room for funerals. I can't count the number of times someone around me left for their home village to prepare for one. Such trips can last weeks, sometimes months. Death strikes anytime, and life for the various circles of people around the deceased necessarily adapts to it.
One important aspect of funerals is size. This is because in Ghana, a person's importance is practically determined by the amount of people who show up for their funeral. Musician and filmmaker Emmanuel Owusu Bonsu, aka Wanlov the Kubolor, confirms: "When my grandmother passed, my father called me to tell me the funeral was on the 27th of February, then he added I should make sure all my friends know. Funerals are a way for the family members to show how many lives the departed touched, how great the person was. It's all in the numbers. My friends don't know my grandmother, but their presence [would] somehow contribute and raise a certain level of respect.
The amount of people at a funeral shows how important a person was, but also, quite mechanically, it allows for people to unite or reunite. This connection is crucial in Ghanaian society, where many have family members scattered not only around the country, but also around the globe.
I remember the funeral of a neighbor's mother three years ago. The woman passed away at 101, and five generations attended the funeral. People flew in from England, Germany, Maryland, Toronto. Some cousins met for the first time, others reconnected after years apart. All were brought together through their love, and their moral obligation towards the deceased. Rather than focus on the mourning, the gathering was about acknowledging love for each other-a love that very seldom gets to express itself.
“The gathering was about acknowledging love for each other-a love that very seldom gets to express itself.”
I had a very interesting conversation with Raja Owusu Ansah, co-owner of The Republic Bar in Osu, one of Accra's liveliest outdoor bars. Raja is a friend, and I vividly recall attending his mother's funeral two years ago. Raja, born and raised in Accra, the son of an Indian mother and a Ghanaian father, has always had a deep yet detached perspective about Ghana, its culture and customs. He explained a significant link: "In Ghana, the demonstration of love has to do with how respect is shown. If you look at a relationship between man and wife, you will notice a great amount of respect, which is inalienably connected to love. You show love by showing respect."
Raja went on to describe a crucial mechanism, which really tied everything together in my mind: how much of the funeral process is about showing respect in order to show love. "Love at a funeral is expressed through the magnitude of the funeral, and the display of deep culture and tradition. It is expensive to show such [a] display, and we use value to highlight the status of a human being while alive." Value can be money, of course, but it can also take on other forms: helping organize the funeral, bringing drinks, cooking food.
Every aspect of a funeral-the amount of people, the forms of contributions-all amount to respect, which is ultimately how Ghanaians express their love. These procedures provide a gateway for people to open their hearts, experience a wide range of emotions and connect with each other.
I can't help but notice how these traditions are mostly communal, which ultimately means that love is shared and felt collectively, rather than on an individual level. When my grandfather passed away recently, his children chose not to have a funeral. Instead we had a very informal gathering. At first I was afraid this way of celebrating my grandfather's life and death wouldn't really give us a chance to grieve. Yet I noticed similar feelings to what Emmanuel and Raja explained to me. Even though my family is much smaller than most Ghanaian families, my grandfather touched many lives, and people from all sorts of backgrounds came from all over the place.
I for one returned from Ghana to Los Angeles, and saw many faces I hadn't seen in years. The gathering wasn't so dark. In fact, we laughed a lot. My grandfather brought us all together, and his spirit was very much alive through this gathering of individuals. This informal yet intense process worked: after learning of my grandfather's passing alone in Accra, I was able to connect or reconnect with so many of the people he touched, which in turn enabled me to grieve and move forward.
Remembering his grandmother's funeral, Emmanuel says: "[It] was a time and place for atonement, but mostly we enjoyed what she was able to accomplish, which is bringing all these people together. Even family members who are enemies made up. A funeral is like a portal where we play between dimensions of reconciliation, fun, starting new. There is a strong energy permeating the funeral; this sense that one person has gone, one person must come. Many babies are conceived after funerals.
In Ghana, it isn't uncommon for a child to be raised by an aunt, or several aunts, or a grandparent. The nuclear family is not as relevant as the extended family, where love circulates; not through hugs or kisses, but through respect.
It only makes sense, then, that the deceased receive paramount respect. For them, Ghanaian people will stretch their very existence-children accumulate sleepless nights to prepare for funerals, relatives often go into debt, extended family members travel across oceans and continents-all in the name of one final, vibrant celebration of life. These sacrifices only highlight how love flows from the departed through entire circles ofpeople, strengthening their bonds. Now, I truly understand why death is so important in Ghana. It is perhaps the very cornerstone of love.
Benjamin Lebrave runs Akwaaba Music, a label showcasing the diversity and modernity of contemporary African music. He is also a DJ and journalist, contributing regularly for Fader, Thump and Africa Is A Country.
Charlie Kwai is a photographer named to "It's Nice That's 2016 Ones to Watch." He lives and works in London.