From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Peeling the onion

From News Service <newsservice@CTR.PCUSA.ORG>
Date Tue, 27 Feb 2007 11:29:29 -0500

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07096 February 16, 2007

Peeling the onion

A PC(USA) missionary letter from Ghana

by Leigh Bonner Young Adult Volunteer

KANESHIE, Ghana - Time has flown the last couple of months. Coming out of the culture shock slumps and then falling back into them has been pretty exhausting. Work is back in full force since mid-January, and I'm gradually integrating into my little Ghanaian world.

Sarah is my "host mother." Her mom passed away of advanced cancer a week before Christmas, so it was a hard season for us all. The latter half of December and the first part of January, even during the Christmas season, were full of funeral preparations and people passing through the house to pay their respects to Sarah.

In Akan culture, funerals are held sometimes months after the person dies because the family takes time to gather and mourn and prepare for the burial and committal. The most immediate family members prepare the body, and the eldest child of the deceased (which is Sarah) is responsible for purchasing all the items for the funeral, gathering all the family and other mourners, printing the obituary, and getting all the details together for the church and graveside service.

Funerals are huge events here, and the cost takes a toll on the families. The family members prepare the body for burial themselves, and the next day, there is a church remembrance service and a graveside service, followed by a huge meal, complete with music and dancing, at the deceased's house. People attending the funeral donate money to help cover the cost, but the full cost is almost never recovered through donations.

I have a lot of trouble with this aspect of Ghanaian culture because I don't understand why the societal norms require that a family spend so much money and do so much planning when they are so bereaved.

I'm beginning to understand some, though. I think God uses everything for a purpose, even when people do things against God's will. I've noticed that in the preparations for the funeral, gathering people for family meetings, calling caterers and pastors, printing obituary notices, and preparing the funeral bulletin for the church service, Sarah came through her mourning process more easily.

Keeping her mind on honoring her mom instead of thinking about her mom and crying all day seemed to give her a purpose and a way to deal with her grief. The people passing through the house serve like counselors for the bereaved, providing a listening ear and a way for Sarah to work through her feelings, and the family meetings allowed her to share the same feelings with her brothers and cousins. I had to stop and think about the great benefit that can come from such a seemingly burdensome task.

When we finally reached the funeral weekend, I was not only privileged to experience an essential event in Ghanaian culture, but I was also privileged to meet and enjoy Sarah's extended family. Her brothers, cousins, nieces, and nephews all crowded around, welcoming me, explaining what to do and how to act, feeding me, and teaching me more Twi language. The hospitality of the Ashanti people is unparalleled!

We spent the entirety of Friday and Sunday performing traditional funeral rites - which involve mostly dancing, music, and eating - at Sarah's family home in Kaneshie, and I felt more than included in that family home.

I went that Saturday with Sarah to spend additional time with her family, and it was then that I discovered what amazing people they are. Having about 10 women and boys around me simultaneously teaching me Twi and the Adowa dance in front of a traditional drum ensemble, plus about 200 funeral attendees looking on was overwhelming, but it definitely gave me that warm fuzzy feeling. I now feel that I've reached the point where I can honestly say that I belong here.

Even though at the end of the year, I'll barely have begun peeling back the first layers of the complex onion which is Ghanaian culture, I will have sat with people who feel like family, learning their language and dances, their customs and their rites, their laughter and their sorrow.

In short, I'm happy.


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