Feature Article of Monday, 21 May 2012Columnist: Okoampa-Ahoofe, KwameBy Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D.
Busia would have aptly characterized it as the challenge of indigenous African cultures in a Western-technology dominated world. And by the preceding, of course, I am talking about the reported malfunction – or breakdown – of the mortuary refrigerator at the Tarkwa Government Hospital in the Western Region (See “Corpse[s] ‘Go Bad’ at Tarkwa Government Hospital” Ghana News Agency/Ghanaweb.com 5/19/12).
Of course, in the pre-refrigeration era, about the longest period that the mortal remains of any human Ghanaian would have been kept prior to burial – or interment – would have been three or four days. Fortunately, or unfortunately, these days refrigeration technology allows for corpses to be preserved for months and even up to several years. In sum, this modern facility has in some circumstance added a weighty bit of temporal distortion to our indigenous funerary practice. Such distortion often comes in the form of family members unnecessarily litigating over the succession and/or wealth of the deceased, especially among members of royal stool-houses.
Among the Aduana Family of Akyem-Nkronso, my own family and the Baamu Division of Akyem-Abuakwa, for instance, when my uncle, Opanyin Adoasi – I forget his stool-name – transitioned some ten years ago, it took nearly six years for the old man to find a resting place and for a new Baamuhene of Akyem-Abuakwa to be enstooled; and even the latter occurrence did not draw matters to any definitive conclusion.
It is not that many Ghanaians are not fully cognizant of this patently unproductive engagement of contemporary mortuary technology. In years gone by, only a filthy rich few could afford embalmment technology. Today, like mortuary refrigeration, the technology of embalmment has become affordable enough to meet the wallets and purse-strings of many a proverbial average Ghanaian family. And until he passed on not very long ago, Ghana’s former Health Minister under President John Agyekum-Kufuor, Major (Rtd.) Courage Quarshigah, incessantly and indefatigably called for the reining in of this economically burdensome practice.
The tragic irony is that even here, in the West, where refrigeration technology was invented, the longest period that most human mortal remains are kept frozen is about one week. Part of the irony is the fact that in real dollar terms, it costs several times much more to keep the mortal remains of the deceased refrigerated in the West than in Ghana and other Third-World countries. This is, obviously, why Ghanaians, for example, are able to refrigerate our deceased for relatively long periods of time while many an extremely slow-paced “funeral arrangement” takes place. The latter, almost invariably, comes in the form of renovating the family house and/or arranging for the rental of a more image-enhancing space and place for the funeral, particularly where the deceased was a reasonably well-educated civil or public servant who had simply not been able to acquire their own pad in life, as New Yorkers are wont to say.
What makes African funerals, on average, relatively more expensive than their Western variations, as Dr. K. A. Busia eloquently points out in his postcolonial sociological classic “The Challenge of Africa” (Praeger, 1962), has almost primarily to do with the question of “Ontology,” the sort of philosophical and/or ideological mindset which informs the indigenous African on issues bordering on the Afterlife. It is on the latter score, which heavily weighs on the psyche of the African, that more work needs to be done on the part of religious leadership, both indigenous and non-indigenous.
What has further complicated matters, obviously, is the fact that modern technology has made for rapid mobility, with family, friends and relatives being able to reside in almost every nook and cranny across the globe. It is the longstanding tradition of assembling all relatives of the deceased for the latter’s final farewell and eternal departure into the Hereafter that appears to have remarkably added to the hitherto already considerable cost of funeral rites these days. And it is here that our Ministry of Chieftaincy Affairs, acting in close concert with the National House of Chiefs, of course, could aptly provide the requisite guidance and direction. It is also in this aspect of our cultures that the besieged chieftaincy institution could make itself incontrovertibly relevant.
*Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English, Journalism and Creative Writing at Nassau Community College of the State University of New York, Garden City. He is Director of The Sintim-Aboagye Center for Politics and Culture and author of “Danquah v. Nkrumah: In Words of Mahoney.” E-mail: email@example.com.