Monday, August 17, 2009

Family and friends at Kpakpo Mensah's Homegoing

Funerals - or, more optimistically, Homegoing celebrations - are in many respects dedicated to the living and their needs, rather than the dead. So I will begin what will be a long series of posts about the Homegoing of my father-in-law, Kpapko Mensah of Accra, Ghana, with pictures of people who attended the services.

The funeral ceremony proper was held on a Saturday in the compound that had been the home of my father in law's mother; the old man was actually living in another part of the city when he passed, and he owned properties in several places. His ancestral compound where we held the ceremony is in Nima, a shantytown in the heart of Accra, the capital city of Ghana in West Africa.

The closer family members were packed into the courtyard of the compound.

That itself was a large crowd - as large as the entire attendance I have seen at many funerals in the U.S.

People mostly dressed in traditional clothing for the ceremony, though you can see there was a mix of deep tradition and not so much, with some Western clothing sprinkled in.

These two men - Kpakpo's cousin and uncle - traveled from the deep ancestral village of Anaho in the neighboring country of Togo. My wife's family are Mina, an eclectic group of people whose common name derives from the Portuguese word for "mine," as in gold mine. Their home villages are divided between what became Ghana and Togo after European contact and conquest, and subsequent independence.

A small alcove behind where the pastor preached, and immediately before the old man's former bedroom where his body was arranged (magnificently) in state, was occupied by the widow, Mrs. Victoria Tetteh, and her family.

The crowd sprawled outside of the courtyard. These mourners are actually sitting on the property of a neighbor, a Hausa family. The Hausa are a mostly Muslim people from Nigeria who have come to dominate Nima. Nima comes alive at all hours with cries of Muezzin calling people to prayer, though our family is mostly Christian.

People were lined all down the dirt alley separating the family compound from our Hausa neighbors.

This alley would later become an important ceremonial space for one of the traditional rituals that were worked into the mostly Christian Homegoing ceremonies (come back for that later!).

Mourners also crowded into the dirt alley that led out to a paved road and, heading the other way, deeper into the shantytown.

We set out some sun cover on the paved road and piped the sound of the ceremony out there for people to hear. It is a large family, and the Mina in general have a good name for sticking together and uniting for traditional ceremonies.

My father in law was a veteran of the Ghana Army; he retired as a Warrant Officer II after more than 18 years of service, including a couple of years in the colonial service under British rule and some hot times during a coup. The Army represented well at the Homegoing.

This is my wife and her sister, Mary Magdalene Mensah, who did most of the work in arranging a very complicated and ambitious four-day set of ceremonies, and their senior sister. M.M., as we call Mary Magdalene, is a senior official in the Ghana Customs Service and knows how to get things done.

It was deeply meaningful for Karley and me that we could share this experience with our daughter, Leyla Fern. She saw a lot and participated very actively.

I had to pose Leyla Fern with one of the senior Aunties (the Mina word for Auntie is pronounced "NAH-vee") who bears a strong family resemblance to my wife. I definitely see Nahvee's features in Leyla's face.

This is Karley's oldest living brother, Eric, in a photo taken from the last day of ceremonies. Eric is a visual artist and musician - this image suggests something of his fire. The plastic bottle here contains the local moonshine we used in the more traditional aspects of the ceremonies. I have a terrific libation sequence I will post later.

Leyla with Addoley, a sister with whom Karley is particularly close because they grew up together in Lome, Togo. Karley was born in Nima, in Accra, but sent to be raised by an Aunt in Lome when she was a small girl.

Eric's son, our nephew Jesse, bears the same traditional name as my father in law, "Kpakpo," which means "first-born son". The traditional West African religions tend to favor regeneration of spirit, rather than ascendancy to Heaven. These traditions place strong emphasis on a grandson who bears the name of a grandfather who has passed into the spirit world. Jesse is well aware of all that.

M.M.'s daughter, Vida, helped her mother get through the ordeal of arranging the ceremonies and was a big help in childcare back at M.M.'s house in the suburbs, in Lashibi. She also helps to manage the beauty salon M.M. owns as a side business.

This shot of Karley at the cemetery gives a good look at one of her closest cousins, Pafio. Pafio continued the family tradition of military service, but with the U.S. Army. We often stay with his family neart Fort Bragg.

Afi is a cousin with whom we are all close, because she did domestic work for M.M. during one of our extended stays at her house in Lashibi. You also can't forget that West African women still carry their babies around on their backs as they go through the many varied circles of life.

Afi's oldest daughter, Natasha, is very, very seldom this quiet - trust me on that!

Leyla and I met this niece, Gifty, for the first time on this trip. It's a beautiful family, and no one in it more beautiful than Gifty.

Gifty lives in Nima, the gritty shantytown. She has three small children and is only 22 herself - with no husband to help her.

Leyla setting out for the Homegoing with cousins and family friends. It's common for a family to decide on a fabric before a Homegoing and for everyone to have outfits sewn for the occasion - a striking show of unity that could be imitated by other cultures.

Anita is a seamstress in M.M.'s neighborhood in Lashibi who sewed the outfits in our immediate family. She has two girls near Leyla's age, so Anita and I became close on this trip as we arranged for many activities for the girls to do together before and after the Homegoing ceremonies. She is Fante, rather than Mina.

I was proud to wear a shirt sewn from the family fabric, which has a Chief motif. My father in law was not an enstooled Chief, but he was a man of status and a patriarch, and no one would question the family's decision to evoke the imagery of a Chief in celebrating him. Karley took this picture. That is our niece Agnes to my left.

Leyla took this picture of her cousin Agnes. They drew close on this trip. I think Agnes' serious look indicates something about the struggles of life growing up in Nima.

I wanted to end this funerary story in pictures with a gesture of life - Leyla clowning with family the night of the wake.


Unless otherwise noted, the pictures are by me, Chris King. Click on any picture, and it gets bigger.


HMDean said...

Thank you so much for this amazing taste of culture. It was fascinating and beautful, and I'm already looking forward to more.

Anonymous said...

I came into work this morning to find out that a colleague of mine lost his 13 year old son over the weekend, and then I saw this post. Maybe I'll tell him about spirit regeneration.

-Dave M

Jamala Rogers said...

Mama Africa is never really far away thanks to those who share their experiences with us. Thanks, Chris.

Torchandtonic said...

Wonderful photos and culture, eagerly awaiting more....
(I love the name GIFTY, it rolls nicely, not sure what it means, if it is local, or a nickname or ?)