Death and the politics of tribute in Ghana: Focusing on the Akan

Kwesi Amissah Arthur 12 Late Kwesi Amissah Arthur

Sat, 28 Jul 2018 Source: Charles Prempeh

I have spent much of today (July 27, 2018) behind my computer watching the obsequies of the former vice president of Ghana, Kwesi Bekoe Amissah Arthur. His death came as a shock to many Ghanaians, who thought he was such a robustly healthy person. I felt deeply moved by the many glowing testimonies that were said in his memory. A lot of issues came to my mind when I was listening to all the tributes. But the one said by his widow, Matilda Nana Manye Amissah-Arthur, struck me most. Because what he said about his husband and the way Ghanaians related to him resonated with what Ernestina Naadu Mills, the widow of Prof. John Evans Atta Mills, late president of Ghana, said upon hearing the death of her husband. Her famous expression: ‘Se asa’ (now it is over) was customised as a cloth. Both widows made comments that touched on the perceived hypocrisy of Ghanaians. Both felt that their husbands had been maligned and treated with contempt when their husbands were alive. In Ghana, we hardly say evil about the dead; it is therefore, difficult, if not impossible, for us to use tributes read at funerals to appraise the life of a deceased person.

There are many reasons that explain the glowing tributes said in memory of the dead. Primarily, we have a vision of inspiring the living to be humane in their life, as we recount the good things the deceased did when he/she was alive. In a society where we are struggling to find stalwarts of morality and also ensure moral order, we always take advantage of tributes to enjoin the living to emulate the goodness – real or imaginative – embedded in the departed. There is the trepidation that the moral compass of the world is drifting out of its axis, and so it is important that we embellish the tributes of the dead to help the living find a balance in a perceived morally corrupt world. And in politics, which is marked by vindictiveness, which sometimes torpedoes peace, tributes of politicians are measuredly laced with juicy words to engender sanity in the political landscape.

Indeed, there is everything to gain from tributes that socialises, but my own inclination is that the tributes we say about the dead actually feeds into the worldview of many Africans. Among the Akan, there is no rigid demarcation between the material world and the metaphysical world. The two worlds are united and the boundaries dividing them are very fluid. There is always crisscrossing of spirits from one realm to the other. It is believed that the spiritual world is the real world of the material world (which is only a shadow). The forces in the spiritual world have deeper influence and say in the mundane world. All the spirits, malevolent and benevolent, have the power to punish and reward the living. The ancestors, who are part of the spiritual world, are said to be the guardians of morality. Since they are believed to have formulated the values of society, they stand on guard to ensure that the values are protected.

Since the spiritual world is said to be the ideal world, and since it is only good persons, canonised as ancestors, who make it to that world, it is the ambition of many Akan people to join the ancestral world. Even so, there are many factors that can disqualify one from becoming an ancestor. Any person who lived a morally corrupt life is not admitted into the ancestral world. Any person who died accidentally (‘atofowuo’) is also not admitted into the ancestral world. The deaths of the first Asantehene, Osei Tutu I and Tweneboa Kodua, are exceptional scenarios to this qualification. Finally, any infertile person is hardly canonised as an ancestor. One qualifies as an ancestor if one has the reverse of the above. The notion of ancestorship among the Akan is informed by the Akan’s philosophy of death. I will return to this soon.

Death remains an enigma that has inspired many speculative philosophies. Among evolutionists, death is one of the natural flows of life. It is part of the evolution process. Among some empiricists and materialists, death is nothing but a cessation of life. This was succinctly articulated by the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, ‘When I am alive, I am not dead, when I am dead, I am not alive.’ Some mystics also see death as nothing but an illusion.

Among the Akan, death is not extinction; death is a transition from the mundane world to the spiritual world. The Akan believes that death marks the journey to another realm of existence, and that there is continuous interaction between the living and the dead. This is to the extent that the Akan cosmology is a constituent of the living-dead (to borrow the expression of John Mbiti), the living and the yet unborn. There is unbroken interaction particularly between the living-dead and the living. It is this philosophical disposition that informs the many euphemisms Akan people have about death. A typical example is: ‘He is gone to the village,’ which is used when a chief dies. Similarly, that death is a transition informs the name for the dead, ‘Saman’. ‘Saman’ is a contraction of the Akan expression, ‘Wa se sa ne man’, to wit, ‘he has changed his abode of existence.’

The belief that death is only a transition informs many of the funerary rites among the Akan. In the past, prominent chiefs were buried alongside some of their wives and servants. Objects, including the best clothes of the deceased, were/are added to the burial materials. In some cases, coins are put into the coffin to help the deceased pay the cost of crossing the river that supposedly separates the mundane and the spiritual world.

The climax of funerary rites is ‘eyie’, which is a contraction of the Akan expression, ‘aye yi ye,’ to wit, ‘to praise’. Among the Akan, funeral presents the opportunity for all the good things the deceased did while he was alive to be recounted. Through the weeping and other forms of expressing sadness, the good things the deceased did were/are recounted. In some Akan areas, there are professional mourners, who sing in praise of the dead. My late maternal grandmother was a professional mourner, who performed such funeral rhetoric. It is, thus, clear that reading tribute was not alien to the Akan. It was always part of the Akan funerary rites.

The force of ‘ayie’ was such that it became a taboo to say anything evil about the dead. This was because of the assumption that saying anything about the dead could impede the deceased’s entry into the covetous world of the ancestors. But also undergirding this ‘say no evil about the dead’ taboo is the fear that the dead could harm the living. At death, the deceased is said to acquire a cultic power that transcends every known power of the living. This power could be capriciously used. In some cases, a spirit of the deceased if not properly buried according to laid down burial practices could become a haunting ghost (samantwentwen). Since haunting ghosts do destabilise society, every effort is made, including glowing and flowery tribute to lay the dead to rest.

Much as the Akan the philosophical foundation about death forbids saying anything evil about the dead, we must also be very critical in appraising people in our posthumous rhetoric analysis. Usually, openly romanticising a dead person could portend endorsement of lies in society. If we hear good things said about a very bad person, we might not be inspired to even live morally accepted life. We might even become callous if we know that no matter how bad we live, nothing evil would be said about us. It is in this light that I propose that we need to be critical, much as we may not want to offend bereaved families and friends, about what we say about the dead.

But in all things, we must remember the words of Paul as we go through the journey called life: ‘Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things’ (Philippians 4:8).

My deepest condolences to the people of Ghana and the families of Kwesi Amissah Arthur.


Charles Prempeh (prempehgideon@yahoo.com), African University College of Communications, Accra

Columnist: Charles Prempeh