August 10th 2012 – Where do we lay our dearly departed President Mills to rest? By Ade Sawyerr
The story has been told, I do not know how true, that a former Governor-General of the Gold Coast, who was born in Galt in Canada, was buried twice! One of the chiefs of the Gold Coast, Nana Sir Ofori-Atta had travelled to the Britain and inquired where this great Governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Gordon Guggisberg, who built Achimota School, KorleBu Hospital and the Takoradi Harbour, had been buried and when he was taken to the grave he was not too happy with what he saw. He therefore got contributions from the chiefs and people of the Gold Coast and they buried him in a proper cemetery at Bexhill on Sea. – Oh how we Ghanaians love to honour our leaders when they are dead after giving them so much aggravation when they are alive.
Another head of state, I am told was also buried three times. I suspect that Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah was initially buried in Guinea and then at Nkroful, his home town, but he is now resting peacefully at the mausoleum in Accra, at the site of the Old Polo grounds where he had declared independence for Ghana. This mausoleum gifted to us by the Chinese to signal their aggressive entry into the construction business in Ghana.
How and where we bury our dearly departed President Mills is very important and the fact that it has excited so much discussion suggests that there is a need to formulate policy on what happens when a head of state passes on. Of course, a dead president must be accorded a fitting state burial but this issue of whether the body belongs to the family first, before the state, and whether it is the matrilineal or the patrilineal family that must take the decision needs to be resolved.
It is my opinion that the committee needs to do a lot more work before President Mills is laid to rest and must revisit their decisions yet again after consulting more widely with all relevant interests in the matter of his burial.
Years ago I read an interesting essay in ‘Talking Drums’ a well written news magazine produced by some excellent Ghanaian journalists who were in exile in London. The article centred on what it takes for nationhood to take roots in a newly independent country. The writer had suggested that for a very long time, the township of Tema, built to house the workers that would support the accelerated industrial development policy of the Osagyefo, did not have a cemetery because of the practice of taking people back to their home towns for their final funeral rites and interment. The small cemetery in Tema Manhean was reserved only for the Tormabii or indigenes of this gourd village.
The building of the cemetery in Tema signalled the start of true nationhood in our country because it challenged the notions that people needed to be taken back to their hometown when they passed on. They could now be buried anywhere as the Ga adage suggests – shikponko shikponko ekpooo gbonyo – no ground rejects a dead body. The return ticket you come into the world with does not necessarily mean back to your village or where you were born.
Funerals however are the stuff of Ghanaians, we make so much of a fuss, the quarrels, the demands, the spite, the ultimatums come to the fore as we meet and deliberate on the final obsequies. The writing of the obituary is always a problem, who should be mentioned first, the obligatory mention of the chiefs. who may or may not even know the departed, the order of the chief mourners and whether in the other categories all should be mentioned or just truncated to ‘brothers and sisters’ which has now been rendered to siblings. These days we now have fancy titles such as HomeCall, At Rest, Glorious Rest, Transition, Celebration of Life and several other variations.
The Ga meet three times and dispense with the ‘nawotwida’ and it is a serious offence to leave out a name of a relative, even if the space on the poster does not allow all names. Funerals bring all together to honour the departed but also to meet family and friends that one has not seen for a long time who attend to sympathise. You need to be invited to an outdooring but there is absolutely no need to be invited to a funeral, you hear about it and you attend with the intention to help defray the costs of the burial and to make merry at the ‘gbonyo’ party.
Of course where a person gets buried is important to the family – there is a need to visit the grave to ‘do’ the one year, five-year, ten-year and even the twenty-five year anniversary celebration of the death. So it has to be closer where all the family members can easily congregate. Most young men of my time will remember their parents cautioning them to marry closer to home because they did not want to have to cross many rivers to far-flung places in their journey to attend funerals of their in-laws and other relatives as custom demands.
Now in the spirit of nationhood people can be buried anywhere and the preferred place for most is Osu cemetery whether or not they were born at Osu. No wonder there is no more space in Osu and dead bodies are being buried on top of each other and the older dead are being dug up. Perhaps this is the time to consider building cemeteries for our statesmen and the people.
This issue of matrilineal and patrilineal will not be solved today. The Fante, I am told are matrilineal though the father names the child and so it is the father’s village that the body should be returned to and this has been a source of conflict and expense for some. Very few people are buried without a quarrel with their family or within their family as there is no script regarding wishes of the departed.
In one harrowing case that I know of, an injunction was placed on the body by the children and we attended the church service without the body and because the hall for the reception had already been hired and the food prepared and paid for, some decided to attend the reception despite the fact that the corpse had not been buried. In another case, the relatives came and stole the body after the church service and took it to the village for burial.
A colleague of mine in the UK assumed that because their parents came from the same village, or so they were told, their mother would be buried in the same place as their father in the house that he had built. They learnt with shock that their mother came from the next village and since she had not built a house in her village, they, the children had to build the house before they could bury her. They had to keep the body in the fridge for the two years it took for them to build the house before they could take her home for burial.
It is so sad that the unity of the nation in grief on the death of the father of our nation, President Mills is being broken by the dissenting voices and the cloud of confusion surrounding his burial place. On one hand the people of GaMashie are complaining that the date coincides with their Homowo Festival although, truth be told, Osu will celebrate the festival at a later date; there are others who suggest that the ground is heavy – shikpon etsii, whatever that means, and that the burial has been caught in the traditional Homowo festival calendar nonetheless. I do not have a view one way or the other about the Homowo issue but I am concerned at the speed of the burial and I am also concerned that this discussion of where the president must be buried has spilled into the public domain. Surely this must be a sign that the funeral committee have not been thorough in their deliberations and decision-making.
My little learning in management school tells me that informed decisions are based on experience, expertise and research. Maybe there are many in the funeral committee who have expertise on burials but they should have impressed on the family that the president because of his high office belongs to the nation as a whole and that in death it is the government responsibility to supervise over his funeral and his burial.
What has been the experience of our former heads of state? Nkrumah had a triple burial as I have suggested; I believe that Busia was buried in the United Kingdom where he died and Limann asked to be taken to his village after the state funeral for a burial by his family and Ankrah was probably buried at Osu. The others, Afrifa, Acheampong and Akuffo were shot at the firing squad in Teshie so I cannot speculate as to what happened to their bodies.
Some research on what obtains in other countries may be helpful to enable us adopt and adapt their practices with our tradition. For instance, has President Jerry John Rawlings or President Kufour been asked where they wish to be buried?
The Mausoleum is out, it belongs really only to Nkrumah and his wife. The Jubilee or Flagstaff House is a bit scary knowing that dead bodies are around may distract the sitting president. I mean working in a cemetery or close to a cemetery provides one with a daily reminder of the inevitable and there are those of us who are petrified to the extent that we would not wish to walk by a cemetery at night. A friend was once locked in a cemetery in London and lived to tell the tale though he is now more careful about his timekeeping. I continue to tell him that white ghosts are not that scary, having lived in ‘Blofo ashi e’, Jamestown British Accra where my maternal family house shared a wall with the ‘old white people cemetery’ and where as small boys we developed a cottage industry of sorts fashioning dice for playing Ludo out of the marble stones.
One of the most solemn and dignified funerals I have ever witnessed on television was that of Princess Diana. After the service and the outpouring or gushing of grief, she was taken in the cortege, with the people lining the streets in their mourning attire ,to be buried in their family plot on their vast estate.
I sincerely believe that there is only one choice and this must be made into policy; dead presidents must be taken to their villages for burial after a state funeral. This will serve as an inspiration to others in the village or town to aspire to higher office and the government must ensure that a fitting memorial is built in the village to honour our first president who has ever died in office.
But maybe the decision of President Mahama is an inspired choice after all and Geese Park will in time be developed as a Mausoleum for past presidents.
Ade Sawyerr is a partner in Equinox Consulting, a management consultancy that provides management consultancy, training, and research services in the areas of enterprise strategies, employment initiatives and community development primarily for disadvantaged communities in Britain. He provides occasional comment on politics in Ghana and Africa. He can be reached at www.equinoxconsulting.net or at email@example.com. He can also be followed http://adesawyerr.wordpress.com or http://twitter.com/adesawyerr