In the rat race for survival and fulfillment in Ghana today, it is not only the privileged applying ways and means in beating the heat that the system throws at ordinary, decent people. Possibly leading the pack among the lowly in that race today are our dreaded mortuary attendants, our investigations reveal.As you read this piece, there continues unabated the spectre of these glum-faced human beings daily wheeling into the mortuaries the dead, poor and rich, ignorant and wise, lettered and unlettered.
Not many people would ordinarily love to enroll in such a vocation, and yet, very few know that within the turbulent climate in which health workers generally operate, breeds a silent trade, in which the major beneficiaries are not your average decent health workers or the bereaved weeping family members. The real beneficiary entities are these glum-faced messengers of death, who pace up and down from hospital wards into chilly, dark mortuaries with human cargo as their 'loot.'
In this environment, in which the respected dead are consigned to the chilly embrace of mortuary attendants in an unholy friendship, the deceased family members count only one loss – that of their royal – which affords our messengers of death some enduring comfort. How does one, indeed, compare the loss of a royal to a bead on the waist, ear-ring, wedding ring on the finger, or brazier and panty on a woman's vital parts? And yet, that is a gold mine most hospital staff or the general public may not be aware of.
Instructive in this revelation interestingly, is a phenomenon in which most beneficiaries, who have been cited in the trade, have turned from humans into dummies. Years of horrid trade have reduced them to a semblance of physical life, but inwardly diseased and spent, awaiting a similar call by a doctor or nurse to a colleague attendant to ferry him to join those he looted in the name of playing lawful scavenger as a legitimate hospital personnel.
Quiet investigations by The Chronicle have established that from doctors and nurses at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, Okomfo Anokye Hospital, Pantang Psychiatric Hospital or any other you know or can imagine, come on a daily basis innocuous messages to mortuary attendants asking them to pick a dead body to the morgue. This is after certification that the person had lost the battle for life and is a regular, routine hospital duty.
Within minutes, up pop these men in ash with their wheels to carry out the duties they cherish. As far as the doctor or nurse is concerned, what matters most at this point is that they have made assurance doubly sure that the person in question is medically and truly dead. Beyond that, what matters to the dead body is of little consequence to them. The responsibility then is passed on to the mortuary attendant. Between the message to the mortuary attendant and the journey to the mortuary, there are no procedures for taking stock of items like, necklaces, ear-rings wedding rings, beads, braziers, panties etc.
This signals the beginning of a trade that has existed for nearly half a century, according to doctors and nurses who are friends to The Chronicle.
Ali, a cemetery attendant of yesteryears, who plied his trade at the Osu Cemetery and is now joined to the thousands of bodies he had previously buried as local government officer and state undertaker, once told this reporter in 1996 that he does not understand why people kept calling on him asking for things that may only be found at the mortuary. Ali, I am told, was a very good friend to the revered Second World War and Congo War veteran, Gen. J.A. Ankrah, head of the first military government of Ghana.
My undertaker pal was a devout Moslem, who would not desecrate the dead or his religion. This reporter didn't understand Ali then, when he 'partnered' people like him and mortuary attendants seeing to burials and related duties as part of his responsibilities as Communications Officer for a leading Pentecostal denomination in Ghana, before entering the wicked, turbulent landscape of political journalism in Ghana.
Ali had confided in me then: “I don't sell human [dead men] nails; I don't sell wedding rings and I don't sell dresses worn by dead people…” Were today's mortuary attendants in Ali's shoes, it would have been a 'windfall hurray.' Ali would have then been described as stupid, though he knew, like a book, where all the nation's military veterans and leading luminaries were buried at the Osu Cemetery, including the very affluent.
The truth, as revealed by insiders at the Korle Bu mortuary and the La General Hospital, is that there are occasional requests coming to mortuary attendants from faceless merchants daily to supply finger nails, pubic hair, human tongues and dresses that had been worn by dead people. Also included in the horrendous list are beads, wedding rings etc.
Hospital authorities hold that when a person is dead, he is dead, including everything on his body – hence the understandable virtual write-off of such items. I was told it is not the hospital authorities' duties to read into spiritual matters like what people may do with discarded beads and panties. “When we ask a patient to come to the theatre, we demand that items like beads, panties, wedding rings etc. are removed…in the same breadth, when a person is dead, only the naked body is whisked to the mortuary after we have certified that the person is truly dead…” our doctor friend told The Chronicle, pointing out, however, that “family members have a right to demand such items.”
“We don't have other processes and procedures apart from these…These are conventional practices the world over. As far as we are concerned, these things are meant to be incinerated, when a person is dead. They are rubbish, and may even be infected. I should be surprised if anyone finds a treasure in such items. Our job and those of our nurses ends at inviting mortuary attendants to pick up corpses to be sent to the morgue…that's all we do,” our medical officer friend intimated.
Our mortuary attendant sources, however, in confirming the story, add that on the way to the mortuary, panties and braziers or ordinary dresses are singled out and washed to be sent to people in our markets who buy and sell just anything – “if faceless merchants don't even turn up.”
“We have two markets. One is that we have on our markets people who buy and retail anything…they come for it…but the better and bigger market comes from those who order wedding rings and beads or nails and pubic hair…”
The theory and suspicion is that there is an underworld of the wicked powerful and rich who thrive on occult rituals, and who support their grisly activities with rituals in which such items are sacrificed on altars, It is a veritable case of the law of the jungle existing side by side with conventional law created for you and I, and which necessarily do not bind these elevated elite and their political animal cronies.
Like our doctors, the mortuary attendants find nothing wrong with selling what they also consider rubbish. Mortuary attendant, Dagger (not real name), insists that patriotic people like him are only helping family members to keep the mortal remains of their royals intact until the day they come for them for wake keeping and burial rites. Again, like the conventional health staff at the hospitals, he queried: “What about those who prepare corpses outside the confines of the mortuary and those who finally bury them. They should be the worst sinners, because they see more expensive rings, panties, dresses and beads, including the pubic hair and the finger nails, and rest being referred to…What about the decent pathologists who do worse things on the body..?”
Two Moslem priests and Mallams I spoke with denied using such items to pray or conduct divination rites. According to them, Moslems use cowries and ordinary sand or kola and chicken etc., for their spiritual invocation rites. “We can't create human beings, so we don't desecrate human beings. We respect the dead…”
According to Dagger, it is not his business to find out what the person buying the item needs it for, since, in his thinking, what mortuary attendants trade in is mere rubbish, “which not even the family members need.” According to him, “anybody who buys rubbish to dispose of should be appreciated rather than deprecated.”
Stories about cemeteries being raided and corpses being desecrated are no longer strange to the ordinary ear in Ghana. Awash in social media are gory pictures about dead bodies hidden under construction profiles for chapels. On police dockets are records of cases of young men who had butchered vulnerable women, and yet other equally heinous cases of men arrested for carrying human parts on them. It has not been too clear how these cases have ended, in terms of prosecution, but also in terms of unraveling any rings associated with the phenomenon, to enable a decisive preventive national strategy.
Our insider sources propose a theory: items like beads and panties are claimed to enhance womanhood in a marriage when a spiritualist applies it as a prayer point; pubic hair signals enjoyment in a relationship in which the male spouse's affection is 'captured' perpetually, and footwear and fingernails, fulfillment and fruitful direction in life. The tongue, on the other hand, is meant to enhance and enable credibility and acceptability for the applicant seeking the aid of a shrine or cult in business, or the fight into a leadership position.
In a nation, where institutional commitment to policy or law and order exists only in the minds of technocrats and politicians, it will take only God, perhaps, to trace how such transactions fester and linger, and the ends to which the items being traded in are put, in establishing if such practices are not injurious to the nation's emotional, physical, mental, psychological and spiritual health.
Dagger has built for himself a decent house along the Kasoa stretch and eats and drinks good; another colleague, Obrempong, who lives along the same stretch towards Bawjiase in the Central Region, also lives comfortably, save, like his pal Dagger, he wears almost on a regular basis an expression of absent-mindedness on his face when he is outside the mortuary premises. It appears that his soul is at home only when he is within the dreary premises – among the silent dead.
Both are due for retirement but have managed, over the years, to scale down their true ages for vocational profit.