Culture Shock In My Birth Country: An Expatriate Search For Understanding
By Kofi Norsah
As an immigrant, I straddle between my birth country and my adopted country. This dual sense of place can be a privileged experience, and at the same time pose a unique challenge. Making sense of the sometimes different realities that exist between these two worlds require questioning.
Ghana, my birth country, is where I spent my early childhood. Since living in North America for all my adult life, I have visited southern Ghana on several occasions; this summer’s visit, in particular, came with a series of cultural shock, which made me question my sense of belonging and relationship with my birth country.
After spending a couple of days in two major cities along the Atlantic Ocean, a defining landscape in southern Ghana, it was not easy to ignore the predominance of religious expressions. Ghanaians spend a lot of time praying and listening to ear-splitting Christian sermons and gospel music while at work and even at play. In this part of the world, Christians, as most people describe their religious affiliation, wear their faith on their sleeve. Judeo-Christianity is in the air most Ghanaians breathe; it’s everywhere, inescapable and sometimes stifling.
For Christian Ghanaians, the scripture, as the Bible is magisterially called, explains everything in life and everything that affects life is in the Bible. The world is perceived, understood, and studied through Christian lenses. In fact, “the Christian truth” is deemed infallible. And if one is not allied with the Christian God, one is definitely against God.
Reality is perceived in stark Black and White frames, no shades of grey, and no differences of opinion or interpretations. There is only one way to a prosperous, happy, and purposeful life, and it is through the Christian God. In such an atmosphere, demands for a secular space, for work or socializing, are met with hostility.
There are a couple of general narratives employed by Ghanaians to explain most of what happens in Ghana. They say: “everything is in the hands of God,” “God knows best,” “God’s will is the best,” and “God will save us from everything.” These narratives emphasize God’s strength and diminish human abilities.
According to this train of thought, humans are without agency. Here, human desire for self-determination is stymied because of a (somewhat close) relationship with a powerful (tangible) patron. As part of this view, concepts of self-reliance (inadvertently or not) are downplayed, while fatalistic dependence on God is enthroned.
It was not surprising that during my short visit I was inundated with harangues by people who thought I too should abandon my will to this God. For example, when a friend’s friend died during childbirth, I inquired about the mother’s unexplained cause of death, but was told off because wanting to know the cause of an avoidable death of a mother delivering a baby was perceived as culturally insensitive.
After all, sudden death was part of God’s will, they affirmed. Listening to this (obvious to me) one-sided discourse, I yearned for individuals who did not ascribe everything to God’s will; crediting God for everything that happens to human beings undermine values of self-reliance, individual, and group responsibility.
If God is responsible for everything, then human beings cannot be held accountable for anything. I believe (then and now) that we are “already” endowed with infinite potential, and with creativity, commitment and grace, one can achieve success in life, with or without God.
Attempt to question the mainstay social belief, like how come human will doesn’t play a major role in the scheme of God’s will did not resonate with most people I spoke with. When it did, it was seen as Obrani’s (white peoples’) thinking, as an impractical and culturally irrelevant thought.
This practice of mindless mass conformity is buoyed by an economic situation that is so dire that people turn to beliefs that rational minds will easily call superstitious. Such superstition extends to how they manage their finances. In a rudimentary economy such as Ghana’s, there is little relationship between income and expenses – that is when employment is available and income is reliable.
An average Ghanaian income covers about fifty percent of expenditure. To balance this glaring gap in their budget, Ghanaians beg from family and friends. When relatives are unable to help them, they turn to religion hoping for a magical solution.
Enter an expatriate.
He is expected to play the role of saviour and shell out money everywhere he goes. He rarely finds himself in a conversation where money isn’t mentioned. It seems everyone wants to empty his wallet; this was my experience on my recent trip to Ghana.
Soliciting money from people, known and unknown, takes place everywhere, even at work. On my return flight, an airline security person tasked with verifying my bag wanted to know if I had any remaining “cedis” that I could give him as an offering for his church. (He was not the first.) Disguising his request as a donation for his church made his request seem less selfish and more selfless.
In a sense, he was benefiting from his position to panhandle at work. Fatigued by his blatant gesture, I declined by shaking my head. Can such a person be counted on to be impartial in carrying out his duties? Would he look the other way if I gave him money? Now, recalling this, I sigh, as I have no clear answers about the ethical implications of what I experienced at Accra’s international airport. In North America, if a security staff were to ask me for cash, I would likely view it as an attempt at bribery and corruption. For my birth country, I am not sure how to perceive it, knowing very well that when life is all about survival, irrespective of the place, our professional ethical compass doesn’t always work, as it should.
The greater shock of all was the funeral events. Attending a family relative’s funeral was the main purpose of my recent visit. I arrived with vague memories of family funeral ceremonies I attended as a child. They faded with almost two decades that I lived in Canada. Now, as a naive expatriate, I expected this planned funeral service to last for a couple of hours. I was mistaken.
Programs at Ghanaian funeral ceremonies have gone through minor changes since the pre-urbanization era. Social status, ethnicity and, of course, wealth are all determinants of the size and duration of the event. No single social gathering brings people together like a funeral ceremony – always as a communal event; the concept of a private family affair is largely unfamiliar.
Relatives of the deceased who do not attend face huge social stigma. Accommodation, food, clothing (T shirts or cloths commemorating the deceased) and sometimes transportation are all provided for the guests, some of who have travelled from far, in exchange for their support and attendance.
Also, assuming a hands-on role in the planning and executing of the event are the able hands of the extended family. And in the absence of funeral home services, the extended family handles everything. Memorial services function as a source of informal employment for relatives and friends with flexible timetables. Hence, bigger and longer funeral necessitate more organizers and are therefore profitable for the semi-employed. Interment services in the Akan communities, which constitute the largest ethnic groupings in Ghana, of which I am a member, are very much a cultural event replete with arcane elaborate ritual practices that are upheld by the elders of the extended family.
The actual funeral ceremony took an entire weekend – from midday Friday to Sunday evening. At midday Friday, the deceased body was fetched from the morgue and prepared for public viewing. During “Wake Keeping,” the eponymous first program, the deceased’s body was made available for public viewing so guests and relatives could pay their respects. This went on all night. This was followed on Saturday morning by church services at the city’s cathedral, where tributes and the biography of the deceased were read.
Burial followed with Christian last rites and non-Christian cultural rituals performed by the clergy and a family elder respectively. A send-off party open to the general public at the city hall with free food, drinks, blazing music and dance marked the end of the second day program. The final day was the Thanksgiving Day: early morning church service, gathering of family members to discuss pertinent matters, and collection of monetary donations from guests and sympathizers.
As much as I see the value in some aspects of the Akans’ long-standing funeral practices, such as providing informal employment, I eschew the ostentatious aspects. Too much money and time are spent marking the passing of a person. This gives the impression that there is more value and investment in the dead than in the living.
Another reason for my opposition is that these ceremonies strike me as garish and vane. A friend confirmed this suspicion when he blabbed that his relative’s funeral ceremony was organized to make others feel jealous. I was surprised.
I understood what he meant, but I questioned him to be sure he meant what he had said. I have been wrestling with my own questions about these practices. Some of what pass for funeral cultural practices were once relevant and useful at certain periods; certainly, when they functioned to reinforce the communal ethos. Today, they sometimes seem to be spectacles of one-upmanship.
In a nutshell, religious fervour, economic hardship and excessive cultural practices are linked in ways that can be culturally shocking to the uninformed. Against the backdrop of intense religious expression and gaudy funeral ceremonies is financial uncertainty.
As long as there are unmet financial needs, the hope for magic solutions in religion is plausible. However, given the poverty of the citizenry, such elaborate and extravagant funeral rites seem not to make sense any longer.
Kofi Norsah is originally from Ghana and currently a Social Work student at McGill University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org