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    Posted April 3, 2013 by
    San Francisco, California
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    The Africa we don't see

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    Ghana: Death and Witch Doctors


    As a volunteer in Ghana, West Africa, I’ve always maintained that I ended up receiving far more than I gave. Not because helping people can be rewarding (though it certainly was!), but because it afforded me a valuable entrée into a country, and an intimate experience with its people that a tourist seldom has, and a guidebook could never promise.

    My assignment took me the Volta Region-- a beautiful, rural area in the southeast part of the nation, where I would be assisting small scale cassava farmers acquire microloans. I was there by myself- a small, blonde girl with a big smile, and an impossible chance of ever blending in or keeping a low profile.  Instead, I thrived. I made friends with everyone I encountered, and I learned a great deal about the richness of life in Ghana. What I hadn’t accounted for, is how much I would also learn about the grandeur of death.

    My first lesson was a fun one. Ghana has a unique custom when it comes to building coffins that are constructed to symbolize and honor a loved one’s death. For example, if someone had been a fisherman, his family might choose to bury him in a giant wooden carp. And if he were especially fond of cigarettes, a giant pack of Marlboro’s would be custom built as his resting place. In the photographs above, you see a young man meticulously carving the wooden pieces for a giant Coca-Cola coffin, which will take several weeks to complete, and cost more than $500 USD. In the next photo, a boy stands beside a large bird coffin, presumably designed for a nature enthusiast’s final journey into the earth.

    Most people in Ghana cannot afford such expensive coffins, though it doesn't make their rituals any less interesting. With a mixture of both Christian and traditional customs, coupled with a penchant for festivity, Ghanaians honor their dead with abundant fanfare. So, imagine my great fortune and tremendous enthusiasm that while living in Ghana, I was invited to attend a funeral!!!  I don’t mean to suggest that I'm happy someone died. My friend lost his brother in a tragic bus accident, and my heart ached for him. But another part of me was excited. I had been invited to a funeral in Africa, the pinnacle of any cultural experience! And I wasn't going to miss a thing!

    I arrived with the others to the mortuary- a small, unassuming brick building, which sat beneath a mango tree. There, we gathered to watch the corpse be carried outside; his body wrapped in a simple straw mat, lifeless, with his dirty legs dangling below. In the above video, the mourners scream loudly as the body is loaded into the van. I was instructed to get into a waiting car with my friend, and we drove in a caravan to the neighboring village. It was intense and surreal as we slowly made our way up the road in a long procession of cars which followed the van.  Nobody spoke, but we listened to African funeral music along the way,  just as the sun started to set behind the green banana trees.

    Nearly a thousand people were waiting in the village to receive the corpse. They were dressed in black and red, the funeral colors of Ghana; many of whom were howling, wailing, and collapsing in grief as the van finally approached. In the next video, you see a band playing; circling quickly down the street and beating their drums loudly. People danced wildly in the road, frantic, drunken, and overflowing with emotion. I couldn't help but feel the anguish of each and every person that my eyes met, as my heart became heavy with their pain.  I stayed for just a while that evening. I was the only white person present, and people were understandably distracted to see me appear suddenly in their village, but were welcoming all the same.

    The next morning, seven people, including myself, were crammed into a four person car, and driven to the village. The corpse had been with the mortician overnight, and was now on display in a white lacquer coffin, decorated with ribbon and blue silk flowers, as seen in the photo above. I can only guess that funereal technology in rural Ghana is a bit outdated, because the dead man looked alarmingly grotesque. His nose was propped open with cotton, his eyebrows were drawn with pencil, and his face was encrusted in layers of dull, black wax that looked anything but flattering. I was frightened when I looked into the coffin, and I desperately wanted to cry.

    An argument ensued between the dead man’s family and the tribal council, who had differing viewpoints on the proceedings, and it took nearly three hours of tense negotiations to reach a solution. During this recess, I was ushered to a variety of locations, including people’s homes and backyards, so that my presence as an outsider did not create a commotion.  In one such place, I noticed an old man sitting on a porch, with a grossly swollen foot, being treated by two witch doctors. In the photos above, you can see the witch doctors offering a libation to the patient before the procedure commences. They have mixed a special potion from a number of bottles, herbs, and powders, and applied it to his foot.  A small fire is lit, and the man is instructed to hold his foot above the smoke, while the witch doctors produce a razor blade, slicing his foot four times, allowing the medicine and smoke to enter his body. Blood dripped onto the rocks beneath him, as the man sat in silence. He bravely continued to hold his foot over the hot coals for nearly an hour.

    After the village negotiations were complete, it was finally time to continue with the ceremony. We gathered under a tree, with the family and me on one side, and the chief and village elders on the other. As a guest of honor, I was asked to sit in the very front row, which made me feel acutely nervous. Whatever was about to happen, I didn’t want to sit too close.

    A sacrificial lamb was carried out, and placed onto a stone before me. It had already been stabbed in the abdomen, and was bleeding onto its fleece. The village chief poured himself a cup of palm wine, which smelled sour and pungent, like vinegar. He began chanting, and pouring the liquid into a small puddle on the ground; drinking the remainder. And then it happened. They held a knife underneath the sheep’s head, and slit its throat-- right in front of my eyes. Blood poured from its neck, and they carried it away, still kicking, to a nearby ditch, as a trail of dark red fluid trickled alongside on the dusty path.

    After gaining my composure, it was time for the church service, held outside in a beautiful grove of trees. The mourners sat on wooden benches and plastic chairs, as the casket lay at the edge of the courtyard. In an above photo, a mourner in traditional dress relaxes in the shade during the ceremony.  I didn't attend the burial. The cemetery was too far to walk, and I wasn't feeling up to riding along with the corpse. It had been a long day, and I wanted to go home. I found myself a taxi, and remained silent the entire way back.

    A few weeks later, while walking around town, I heard some drumming, and followed the enticing sounds to a stranger’s home, where I was welcomed in by a crowd of people dressed in red and black. I discovered that I had wandered into someone else’s funeral celebration, and that they were dancing the Borborbor-- a traditional Ewe cultural dance, shown in the above video. The mood was cheerful, with a group of men playing drums, encircled by a row of women who danced around them. The crowd beckoned me to join the dance procession, but I declined. Instead, I soaked in their merriment and their resilience, admiring their strength while knowing they had just buried someone they love.

    Experiences like these, which are hidden away from tourists, are what make the inner essence of Africa come to light.  Being invited to glimpse behind the curtain is a privilege I will always be grateful for. And my fortuitous introduction to the customs of death, witch doctors, grief, and joy became one of my most favorite lessons of Ghana

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