Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Re-in-cur-nation" with George Davidson

When you lose someone, you really need people, and you never forget the people who come through for you at that time. So I won't forget that my buddy George Davidson in Athens, Georgia just sent me a batch of his prints, in the wake of the passing of my father in law, Kpakpo Mensah.

George generally shares my belief in traditional religions, so it was significant that he sent me the print "Re-in-cur-nation," since most traditional religions have the soul being recycled rather than facing judgment and segregation to heaven or hell.

The pun on "cur" (dog) is typical of George, but also affectionate toward me, since my family nickname is "Brother Dog" and George is more likely to call me "Dog" than anything else. I, in turn, call him "Dak," from his old nickname, Dak Maverick.

I also took it as an affectionate reference that this dog-themed poster he designed back in 1985 has my last name on it in the show credits.

This "cur" poster incorporates even more of George's signature imagery.

And yet another dog pun in the band name, the K-9's.

George had already made a thoughtful gesture toward my wife, Karley M. King, regarding the loss of her father. He met her for the first time during our recent Southern swing and was really taken with her and our daughter, Leyla.

George wrote and sent the following poem when he heard the news:

On Your Father's Passage

Take heart
in the joy
that lights your daughter's eyes

and in it
see through
the veil of death's disguise

your Father's soul
is free from the pain
of traveling on this earthly plane

in time
all will pass this way
for now,
that your heart be healed
I pray/

More George

Jazz destroyers, juju masks, scavenged materials
Selected juju boxes of Dak Maverick of Athens, Georgia

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Reception for Kpakpo at the Catholic church in Nima

After the graveside ceremony for my father in law at Osu Military Cemetery, we all returned to Nima, one of the inner-city shantytowns in Accra, for the reception. Our family friend Sela helped to keep our daughter Leyla entertained throughout the long day.

Many times in telling stories of the four-day Homegoing for Kpakpo, I have called it a "marriage" rather than a "funeral" and I think the reception had something to do with that. The reception was held at the Catholic church at Nima Roundabout, and it was a festive occasion - like wedding receptions I have attended, but unlike anything I have ever experienced connected with a funeral. I was enjoying the bottles of wine on every table.

Nahvee was sitting near us in the part of the celebration reserved for what my wife described jokingly as "middle management".

This image of a beautiful family friend should have gone with my initial family, friends and faces post, but here it is now anyway. She also sat near us in the "middle management" section.

My wife, Karley M. King (to the right), tends to inspire fierce loyalties in her friends. I, too, have been blessed with friends, but I have seen people from Togo do things for my wife that go beyond the bounds of any commitment I have ever seen expressed by friends anywhere. Delli and Medard traveled from Lome to Accra for the celebration - an uncomfortable and difficult drive of some hours - and then turned right around and drove back.

Medard is a former longterm boyfriend of Karley's and is incredibly loving and loyal to her, but Delli happens to be more photogenic and was wearing an especially beautiful dress.

Karley's sister Addoley and her sisters enjoyed the reception from a larger area of the churchgrounds closer to the music.

Closer to the music, yet farther from the food, with slightly reduced "services," if we are thinking in those terms. When you are servicing thousands, not hundreds, of people at a reception, I suppose it makes sense to diversify the arrangements in terms of sheer logistics.

As it so often happens, the people in the larger common area were having more fun than the "middle management. Of course, it helped to be closer to the music. I'll get into the music separately, in the next post - it was amazing, as was the food.

Only toward the end of the party did we go upstairs to the more elite section of the reception, which I referred to as "The Chief's Room". I was being facetious, until we did see an actual chief ascend the steps to the room, shielded by an umbrella carried by an assistant. This room was furthest from the music but stocked with what seemed to be endless food and drinks. I suppose I ended up here looking for the last place where someone would serve me a Guiness.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Cops, drugs, conspiracy, fraud and theft in St. Louis

Former City detective pleads guilty to multiple crimes committed on duty

St. Louis American staff

On Friday (August 28), former St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department detective Bobby Garrett plead guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud, making false statements and theft of government funds, according to Acting United States Attorney Michael W. Reap.

Though Reap described it as an "isolated incident," the investigation revealed several City undercover detectives under the leadership of then Police Chief Mokwa committing crimes together on multiple occasions while in the line of duty.

Federal investigators describe a network of on-duty police officers stealing money from purported drug dealers and lying in official documents to conceal their crimes.

Federal agents also described false arrests made as part of the cover-up and obstruction of justice when their crimes were investigated.

Garrett, Leo Liston and Vincent Carr were police detectives employed by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, assigned to the Crime Suppression Unit.

Their duties included investigations involving auto theft, burglary, illegal narcotics sales and firearms offenses and were usually carried out while working in plain clothes and unmarked cars.
According to statements made in court by Assistant United States Attorney Hal Goldsmith at the time of the guilty plea, Garrett aided and abetted other officers acting with him in stealing money from a purported drug courier they stopped on September 18, 2007, and failed to properly report the stop and seizure in order to conceal their actions.

Further, Goldsmith said, in a June 6, 2008 drug raid, Garrett stole money, lied on police reports about the drug raid, and took other actions to conceal the theft, including falsely arresting and charging an individual relative to the drug raid.

Garrett later lied to a representative of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI agents investigating the incident in order to conceal his criminal conduct, Goldsmith said.

In an unrelated June 11, 2008 drug raid, Garrett and other officers working with him seized approximately $12,000 in cash, but only reported approximately $4,000 of the seized cash to the police department. The remaining approximately $8,000 was misapplied by Garrett and the other officers, and a false police report was prepared in order to conceal their criminal conduct, Goldsmith said in connection to the guilty plea.

Garrett, 49, of St. Louis County, plead guilty to one felony count of embezzlement of government property, one felony count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, one felony count of wire fraud, two felony counts of making false statements and one felony count of misapplication of government funds.

Garrett will be sentenced on November 10 in front of United States District Judge E. Richard Webber.

"It is a sad day when a police officer violates his solemn oath to serve and protect, and instead uses his badge and authority to commit criminal acts," Reap said.

John V. Gillies, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in St. Louis, said, "We will not tolerate this type of public corruption."

Co-defendant Vincent Carr, 47 of St. Louis, plead guilty in February to one felony count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, one felony count of wire fraud, two felony counts of making false statements and one felony count of obstruction of justice.

Co-defendant Leo Liston, 35 of St. Louis, plead guilty in May to one felony count of misapplication of government funds.

Carr and Liston are scheduled for sentencing September 8.

The maximum penalties that the defendants are facing:

* conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and wire fraud, maximum of 20 years in prison and/or fines up to $250,000;
* making false statements, five years and/or fine up to $250,000;
* theft/embezzlement of government property, 10 years prison and/or fines up to $250,000;
* obstruction of justice, 20 years and/or fines up to $250,000;
* and misapplication of government funds, ten years in prison and/or fines up to $250,000.

The crimes to which these detectives plead guilty were committed when Joe Mokwa was police chief. Mokwa resigned July 25, 2008 – six weeks after the last incident described by federal investigators in this case was committed.

Mokwa resigned during a scandal over towing operations by a City vendor, S & H Parking Systems, managed by Greg Shepard, a former City detective.

In the police board trial of Police Officer Scott Tillis, Mokwa testified that he had known Shepard for 20 years and had visited him at the tow yard on average every month "for coffee."

Mokwa denied that his resignation had anything to do with the investigation into the tow operation.

Shepard was indicted in June on multiple charges including mail fraud, wire fraud, and bribery.

Earlier this month, former St. Louis Metropolitan Police Detective Kevin Shade plead guilty to mail fraud in connection with falsifying inspections for S & H Parking Systems, a City vendor approved by the Board of Police Commissioners.

Shade, 35, of St. Louis, pled guilty to one felony count of mail fraud. He faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and/or fines up to $250,000, when he is sentenced on October 29.

Tillis, who says he faced retaliation after he investigated S & H and was warned by Shepard that Shepard was "with Joe (Mokwa)," remains on unpaid suspension from the department.

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

Monday, August 24, 2009

Libations to the dead man, down in his grave

When the casket is in the grave and the pastor has delivered his remarks, the funeral is usually over. But then, I had never been part of a Homegoing ceremony in a West African family that still kept its ties to the old ways.

Once the pastor was finished with the Christian ceremony at Osu Military Cemetery, two men from the village - my father in law's cousin and uncle - immediately shifted into action, holding what seemed to be a dispute with a strange assortment of materials in their clutches.

I quickly understood that they were the custodians of a more traditional spirit ceremony, and they were disputing who would lead it and perhaps some details of its observance.

My wife's brother Cheri - who had not shown himself much during the Christian ceremony - was at their side, holding a plastic bag of more ceremonial materials.

They were speaking in the local language, so I couldn't follow the direction of the debate, but the cousin seemed to have won because it was he who hopped dramatically into the grave.

He produced half of what I took to be an avocado and held it aloft to his uncle, who began to unscrew the lid from a bottle of local gin. Libations to the spirit of the dead evidently were in order.

Now I suddenly understood something that had mystified me during the funeral service back at the family compound in the shantytown of Nima, when the cousin came back from the food area with what seemed to be an avocado and showed it with delight to his uncle.

At that time, I thought it was odd for him to be thinking of a snack to carry away from a funeral service. But there was nothing odd about it at all. It was a snack, but not for him - it was spirit food for my father in law, Kpakpo Mensah.

Later I learned that Kpakpo's cousin insisted it was his spiritual obligation to lead the ceremony inside the grave. The cousin said his own spirit would be worried by the spirit of the dead man if he did not care for him in this way. Still, I sensed that the uncle never quite relinquished his own claim to the sacred duty.

I later was told that the sacred vessels for the libations being laid at the foot of the dead man's tomb were not avocados, but pawpaws.

I was deeply thrilled to be present for this ceremonial observance. I have a deep interest and profound respect for the traditional ways; I have studied them and even lived variants of them in my own country in American Indian ceremonies.

My first teacher of African ways was an old man from the West African bush, in what became the nation of Liberia after colonialism. My teacher, Nymah Kumah, had described to me cultural patterns that he proudly declared dated back to the Stone Age and had been adopted, subsequently, by Ancient Egypt.

As the cousin from the village placed spirit food and libations inside the crypt with the dead man, I did indeed feel in the presence of a trembling respect shown to the dead that dated back to the Stone Age and had been adopted by the royalty and scribes of Ancient Egypt.

The relationship of Kpakpo's cousin to the sacred materials of the spirit food was intense and personal. We all know the Catholic concept of the sacrament, when the priest is thought to transmute bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Imagine if you considered it your personal responsibility to send your cousin, your brother, into the spirit world with the nourishment he would need?

Traditional ceremonies tend to have sacred math. I know it in American Indian contexts - everything in fours, like the seasons, or the limbs of a person - I didn't know it in Mina ceremony. But I noticed the repetitions of gestures and knew the villagers were keeping count.

The intensity of the blessing, the breathing of life and language into the spirit food for the dead, who are never dead - who are only as dead as we allow them to be.

It was an important translation, that the living standing on the surface of the earth were passing the sacred materials to the living standing in the grave with the dead. Final transitions were being marked at this moment. We were nearing the time when Kpakpo would travel ahead without us, and we would travel ahead without him.

We all understood the cousin from the village to be basking, to some extent, in the theatricality of the moment, but such is the spirit. We are led, spiritually, by those willing to embody the theatre of the sacred. It is not for everyone, and no one shoulders the sacred with strict purity of motive.

I will never forget the living man reaching from the grave of the dead man for what the dead man would need to travel in peace into the world of the spirit, that awaits us all.

I have to leave these dedicated ministers in mid-ceremony, because it was at this point that someone from the family came to me and told me it was time for me to leave - my wife was in the taxi and it was time for me to go. If there was one thing more important to me than traditional religion in burying my father in law, it was making the Homegoing as easy for his daughter as I possibly could. So I left the grave, the dead, the living ministering the dead, my spirit light with mission, a happy man. The dead are only as dead as we allow them to be.

Pictures are by me. Click them and they get bigger.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A light was going out, A Light was shining

The graveside service for my father in law, Kpakpo Mensah, in Accra, Ghana, began with conventional Christian observances.

My wife and her sister Mary Magdalene, and the rest of the gathered family and friends, prayed and grieved, mostly with quiet dignity.

The pastor, the Rev. Samuel Q. Anagli, who has a congregation in the shantytown of Nima, near where the family compound is located, read from scripture.

I was pleased that one of the family members I know best, our wife's cousin Pafio (in the sunglasses), was able to attend. He lives in North Carolina but was in Ghana facilitating a medical mission.

The powerful symbolism of the dust: whence we come.

The unity of the chief motif fabric, which so many mourners had worn for the occasion to show their connection to the dead man and the family.

The powerful symbolism of the dust: to which we return.

My wife Karley and her sister Mary Magdalene, in mourning black with traditional headwraps.

As I watched the symbolic spectacle of the dirt clods falling on the casket, I noticed an ant wandering in the dirt of the graveyard, and thought of the brutal indifference of nature at that tiny level.

The Homegoing ceremony would not end at the graveside, there was plenty more to come, but this was one ending, today; we would leave the body of the man here.

The body of the man belonged to dust from now on.

As an 18-year veteran of the Ghana Army, my father in law was entitled to burial here in Osu Military Cemetery, with the martial observance of Taps blown on a bugle by a soldier.

The Taps melody is a revision for the military bugle call to "Extinguish Lights": Lights Out.

It was modified from an older signal called Tattoo, which told soldiers it was the end of the day - time to stop drinking and return to the barracks.

I find the evolution from Lights Out to the funeral Taps to be beautiful beyond belief, because we were witnessing the extinction of a light; a light was going out at this graveside

And, yet, the soldier prayed up to the light - to The Light.

For the many Christians gathered at the graveside, a light was going out, but A Light was still shining on high, and our father was joining it now.