Wednesday, August 26, 2009
'You cannot tell the goat story without the cow'
My wife is reading along as I post pictures and stories from her father's Homegoing ceremonies in Accra, Ghana, pointing out mistakes and ommissions, which I have been going back and correcting.
A couple of days ago, I wrote about one of the traditional ritual elements of the services, when a goat's throat was slit on the threshhold of the family compound where the body was being viewed, just before the casket was carried across that threshhold to the cemetery.
Karley critiqued this post in a characteristically laconic email.
"You cannot do a goat story without doing a cow one. The cow was as important as the goat."
I find that hilarious, somehow.
Indeed, before the goat there was a cow, which also was ritually slaughtered out back of the family compound, along an alley of the shantytown Nima.
When I say "ritually slaughtered," by the way, please don't imagine some sort of death cult in spooky hoods. A local butcher did the work, with the help of some of the men in the family, similar to how the cow would have been butchered for food on any occasion. This occasion happened to be funereal and embued with ritual significance relating to the safe travels of the dead man's spirit.
The problem was, as my wife knew, I wasn't present in Nima when the cow was butchered. So I didn't have a picture or a story. I first encountered the animal as deliciously seasoned meat at the reception following the graveside ceremony, which is why (we agreed) I am inserting the cow story here, between the grave and the reception, because "You cannot do a goat story without doing a cow one."
The cow in the picture I snapped above, my wife assures me, closely resembles the cow the family bought and butchered ceremonially for the funeral. She had her sister M.M. drive down a side street in Nima specifically so I could document this apparent kin to the animal whose blood and flesh participated in the ritual element of our father's Homegoing.
It is one of the funky elements of life in Accra, the jumbled coexistence of human and animal lives - how, right in the teeming inner city, the equivalent of Harlem or East St. Louis, you will see a cow standing by the side of the road, or a herd of goats come trotting along, trailed by chickens.
I see this as related to the survival of traditional ritual elements, even as the culture continues to adapt to consumerism and monotheistic religions imported from elsewhere. In the old ways, humans and animals are more jumbled up together, our existence is imagined as a coexistence on a continuum, which is one reason why the flesh and blood of animals are used ceremonially.
This more grisly aspect of traditional religion has a more ethereal counterpart in the concept of a spirit animal, where one prays to the Creator through the intermediary of an animal spirit, much the way a Christian prays through Jesus. It's funny that my wife is from a more traditional culture, though she is Catholic, and though I was raised a Methodist in an American steel mill town, I'm the one who prays through animal spirits and pours libations to the dead.
In fact, this series about Kpakpo's Homegoing should have begun, for me, at a tree in our back yard back in St. Louis, where I took our daughter Leyla to pour libations and pray through the tree for the safety of her grandfather's spirit and his assistance here on Earth as we move forward without his physical presence.
More in this series
Libations to the dead man, down in his grave
A light was going out, A Light was shining
The flag, the casket, and the cross
One last journey to his final resting place
Blood on the threshhold and on the butcher's shoes
"Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him"
A fine farewell to a father in law
Family and friends at Kpakpo Mensah's Homegoing