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The power of the community

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A few years ago Hope, buried a young nurse from Ghana. Because this woman had married a wonderful man in Hope’s parish, she was living in the US – until she died unexpectedly and far too soon. Many of her family came to the funeral from Ghana. Their hearts were broken, but they knew what to do when a loved one dies. Their life in Ghana was a kind of liturgy (which means the work of the people) in itself, a life ordered and supported by the community and by tradition. The Ghanians knew how to say their farewells at the casket, what songs to sing and dances to do; they had a special ablution ceremony and customs to sustain the grieving husband and children and parents-in-law.

On our visit to Tema, we saw where the strong foundations of this “liturgy” came from. We went first to the Palace of the Tribal Chief. This palace sits in the middle of a residential district. Now “residential district” is a gentile euphemism for a terrible slum that extends for miles, with a “residence” consisting of three walls and a flap all covered with a tin sheet. By contrast, the “palace” was therefore astounding: a large stucco building with many rooms, surrounded by a wall and an ornate gate guarded by two lions. It had electricity, fans, and upholstered sofas and chickens scratching in the dirt. We met in the reception hall. The chief was not present as he was in mourning for the death of his son. Ten tribal elders were present on his behalf. These included his linguist (the elder who spoke for the chief and wielded a large gold wand), the chief warrior, the chief fisherman, the historian, etc. Their flip-flops were stunning!

On our behalf, our interpreter (named Elvis) asked permission for us to visit the community. The historian delivered quite a long saga on the tribe's origin in Israel and its move, as a lost tribe of Israel, across the Red Sea and Africa. We obeyed the local etiquette: shake with your right, receive with your left, don’t cross your knees, let the elders speak first. We introduced ourselves, had a ceremonial signing of the book, drank water, received a sculpture given to the ship, and said a prayer for the chief’s son.

Then we visited the Tema Manhean School where the children had assembled in their uniforms even though it was a Sunday. They sang to us, presented a play about baby-naming and then clustered around each of us to practice their English. Bill’s students wanted to know how his hair got white and whether President Trump was really making everyone walk around without clothes. Not everyone had desks in this school; the class size is about 40; books are in short supply, and the students are very eager learners.

Next we went to a fish smoking facility, actually a large area in the midst of the slum housing. Stone fireplaces were buried in the sand, and a large shed held hundreds of racks for the smoking process. This endeavor was managed by Auntie Beauty, an older Ghanian woman who bought the day’s catch of herring, sardines, anchovies, etc., washed them and spread them on racks, put the racks over the fire, turned and turned the fish and rotated the racks, added sugar cane to the fire, and finally produced smoked fish that would keep for a year in a basket. (There are few refrigerators here in Ghana.)

Next door was a gari processing “plant,” another dirt area with stools in a circle. There cassava tubers are peeled, washed, and grated, and the product (gari) toasted. The waste product is tapioca, used to thicken soup. It didn’t look like Kraft pearls.

Throughout these experiences, the people talked of how their forbears had taught them their ways – and how they were passing along the customs, too. Some of their children were choosing other paths, and that seemed to be okay. Some of these traditional “ways’ seemed eminently sensible. Here’s one: tribal leadership. From the beginning, the chief has come from one of four families, who serve in turn. The King serves for life, and when he dies, the King Makers (from another family) assess candidates to see if they have the virtues and character of a King – moral probity, kindness, strength, wisdom, and patience. This process continues so that if each King reigned for 40 years, it would take 160 years for the first family to have another monarch. In the meantime, everyone is focused on being truthful, wise, kind, etc.

Here’s another custom: At an annual spring festival, the songmaker writes texts commending tribal members for their good deeds, contributions, and successes and also condemns the notorious behavior of others. Another: when life gets difficult and the elders have to pray and think, the chief issues a ban on noise, so that people walk quietly, children don't shout, no drums or musical instruments are played. We visited in the middle of a three week noise ban, so the children clapped our welcome instead of singing to us.


Posted by HopeEakins 05:24 Archived in Ghana

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