I’ve been in Ghana for 4 days now, 3 of which have been official funeral and burial days for the late President John Atta Mills. The mourning period began on July 24 with the president’s death, and officially concludes today (Friday) after state funeral ceremonies. Without warning about my timing, I managed to arrive into the middle of this nation’s history.
Here’s the story.
My Tuesday arrival seemed normal when passengers applauded as the plane landed smoothly. As I deplaned, I noticed the jet way seemed to be more pristine than when I visited in March. I also noticed 2 real plants decorating the corridor, a touch I had not remembered. The windows were swathed in red and black fabrics, cultural distinct funeral colors I knew from March, and one wall had a fresh new billboard celebrating the life of President Mills. I knew the president passed away several weeks ago, so these signs of honor generally made sense. But when I entered the customs area, I saw a large sign instructing “Official Funeral Delegation Gather Here,” at which point I knew Ghana was on the verge of a final farewell. By the time I claimed my bags and watched several clergy check every black duffel’s number (presumably looking for someone senior’s luggage!), there was no doubt that I had arrived just before a funeral.
Wednesday, Thursday and today have had continuous Ghanaian television coverage – the president’s body being formally moved from the military hospital to the state house for public viewing, citizens filing past by the thousands (and cuing for hours to do so), choirs and bands nationwide performing, and by today dignitaries from more than 50 countries in attendance for the burial. (Secretary of State Clinton represented America. Needless to say, given the embassy staff’s intensive preparation activities, we agreed to delay my Fulbright orientation with them until next week. Side note: Mills was once a Fulbright fellow, apparently the first to go on to become a head of state!). Today (Friday) is a national holiday for mourning.
Because of the national holiday (therefore school’s closure), I’m in Accra today for the long weekend with an ex-patriot/teacher family. Their cultural translations have really help me make sense of this week in a way I cannot imagine through observation alone. They are the ones who told me everyone here has been wearing black and red since the president’s death, even the Ghanaian Olympic athletes at the Olympic opening ceremonies! (I quickly got as close as I could, fashionlessly wearing a navy blue top and black skirt this week…I thought I was being so careful by leaving my black clothes at home knowing it was primarily a funeral color here…ophs).
I noted in a previous post the significance of Ghana’s peaceful transition between then president Mills and then vice president Mahama. Lots of pride is coming through about the government’s ability to refer to their constitution for a process (rather than fight it out among contending parties). Today’s ceremonies included diverse perspectives, another indicator of inclusion. As an American, I easily take that discipline of peaceful and cooperative government transitions for granted.
Finally, I’m learning more cultural significance to funerals — timing matters. In America, we bury people quickly. Here, a family waits until they have enough money saved — even if that takes years — in order to bury someone with elaborate ceremony. Doing anything else, even if you were estranged from the person who died, brings dishonor to you and your family today as well as to the spirit of the person who died. For rulers, a new ruler has to be in place to declare (and pay for) burial of the previous ruler. So a village chief (or national president) can’t be buried until the elders find and declare a new chief. Apparently, the current peaceful transition of power from Mills to Mahama, followed by an elaborate state funeral only several weeks later, culturally reinforces quick and solid commitment to the new administration.
So my arrival in Ghana has been rather spectacular in ways I could never have anticipated. The late president Mills had a Fulbright Fellowship in his earlier days, the first Fulbrighter to become a head of state. Now, my Fulbright orientation has been delayed so his country can properly honor him. I’m appreciating that no one delayed my arrival to coincide with their convenience.