In the small, rural community of Ave, in Ghana’s Volta Region, the majority of the citizens know best not to sneer at the old customs of their village, which are all steeped in the traditional religion of their Ancestors. Most of the five hundred citizens, including the elders, profess a belief in one of the various Christian religions that now proliferate in their village since Franciscan missionaries first arrived in the Congo in 1491. Many of the villagers are ‘baptized’ and proudly call themselves Christians. Of course profession of their Christian faith does not negate the fact that the majority of them still respect the old Afrikan religious beliefs on which Togbi Kotor founded the village. While he was alive no one had doubted the reasoning for Togbi Kotor’s tenets. He was a traditional priest. Everyone had simply accepted that his words were direct instructions from the divinities and the Ancestors; the tenets had to be adhered. Thirty years after his death, the community continued to revere his words. But Kwaku Adza was of a different mindset.
Kwaku was a devout Christian. He believed his strict adherence to his Christian faith gave him an elevated status above the rest of his community. Many from his Seventh Day Adventist Church touted their belief in the church’s tenets but regardless of the numerous times the pastor reprimanded them they could not resist the lore of the shrines. While he chided those hypocrites Kwaku had often blamed the pastor for the congregation’s continued faith in the shrines. Kwaku believed the pastor could have easily had the backsliders excommunicated but he had sensed the pastor was more interested in maintaining the size of the congregation for the collection plate than he was in saving their souls.
Kwaku was always seen early Saturday mornings walking the short distance from his house to the thatched roof, mud church building that served the small Adventist community. His white shirt and black trousers were almost threadbare from wear but were always impeccably ironed with cassava starch; the seams were razor sharp. Actually, because of constant wear, his sole dress shirt, once white, had taken on a yellowish tinge and newcomers mistook the colour of his only formal black trousers for an unusual shade of grey. Kwaku used to be the first to arrive at church and the last to leave regardless of what was happening. From the time became a church member in his late teens Kwaku’s dedication to his Christian vows was so obvious that the pastor had given him charge of the church keys. Of course, Kwaku’s coveted seat in church was on the front pew directly in front of where the pastor stood to deliver his sermons. He regarded the spittle that always landed on his face when the pastor became animated as literally, showers of blessings.
Although Kwaku had never discussed this with anyone, it was assumed that his highest aspiration was to be a pastor but because he was illiterate in both English and his native Ewe, he was forced to delay achieving it. The village rumour was that he had not completely given up on his dream. Every dry season Kwaku attended classes with the kindergarten students but apparently he was such a dunce, he could never retain the alphabet in any language. In quiet circles he was known as ‘Repeat’. The nickname could have had to do with his constant request for the teacher to repeat the alphabet for him to try it again or the fact that for almost five years he kept ‘repeating’ the kindergarten level.
At 25, when he came to his unfortunate demise, Kwaku had not started a family. He had constantly complained that the calibre of the young women he knew fell far below what he needed in a wife and the mother of the five boys he planned to have. Whenever he was admonished for not being married at his ‘old’ age his defence was always, “I’m waiting for the good Lord to improve on the quality of the young ladies. What we have just will not do for me.” Kwaku had lived on the family compound with his paternal aunt who had recently died. His barren aunt had taken him into her care when he was slightly over eleven months old. As was typical of the villagers, Kwaku was a subsistence farmer but augmented his meagre income by selling charcoal. He had reluctantly attended the family meeting that was called an early morning to discuss the arrangements for his aunt’s funeral. The meeting was held under the huge almond tree that grew in the compound’s yard directly in front of the house where Kwaku lived. No one questioned his unusually late arrival or his silence during the meeting; they assumed his uncharacteristic behaviour was caused by the great loss he must have felt for the woman who had raised him as her son.
During the meeting Togbi Amefia, the head of the family, made it quite clear that although he was capable of paying all the funeral expenses, custom required that all family members were to make a cash contribution, regardless how much, or to provide some form of assistance with the funeral expenses. The meeting was the opportunity for all to offer their contribution. Mostly everyone had donated cash; others had promised to help with providing food and drinks for mourners during wake and after the funeral. Some had volunteered for a task. Kwaku had remained silent. He was the only one to do so. No one seemed perturbed that he had not offered to help Togbi. The family’s silence had not been unusual.
Rarely do the individuals intercede in matters where it is obvious that an adult knows what is expected of him even when it is an intimate family issue such as Kwaku’s obligation towards his deceased aunt. The attitude was that when one chose to deviate from the norm he must have a good reason; if he didn’t, he was well aware the invisible eyes of the offended divinity or Ancestor missed nothing and the wrath of either was also swift. But the brazen manner in which Kwaku had defied the rules that accompanied the dead tree he had cut down in the cemetery to make his aunt’s gravesite prompted one of the village elders to speak to him. Not long after setting fire to the wood from the tree in his charcoal pit Kwaku was summoned by Dada Akous. She earned the title Dada, or Old Woman; she was eighty-seven years and nothing important took place in the village without it being immediately brought to her attention.
“What exactly have you done with the tree from the cemetery?” Dada asked Kwaku just as he sat on the bench in her veranda. Dada remained standing. She had not exchanged the customary greeting. Her lithe physique and wrinkle-free face seemed to defy the ravages of her octogenarian years. Her small stature showed no sign that Dada doubted she could easily outdo Kwaku’s towering well-defined muscular figure in a physical tussle.
“But Dada Akous, you know what I do on the side to help me eat,” Kwaku responded nonchalantly. The clipped tone with which Dada had spoken should have told him that the issue at hand was not a trivial one.
“I will ask you one last time,” Dada said in the same brisk voice as she tightened the traditional cloth that seemed to be permanently tied around her waist. She placed both hands on her hips. The actions must have indicated Dada was preparing to go into a battle with Kwaku that he was sure to lose. He quickly lowered his head to avoid eye contact with Dada while his face acquired a solemn look.
“I used it to make charcoal.” The response was barely audible.
“Did you offer anyone firewood before doing so?”
“Kwaku, are you telling me that at your age you do not know what is expected of you when you remove something of value from the cemetery?”
“Dada you know I’m a Christian and do not observe—”
“You boldly sit in front of me, your grandfather’s mate,” she pounded on her chest, “and admit to desecrating what you know is scared to the village?” Dada continued as though Kwaku had not spoken. “You knew you were to share this wood with the village for us to do as we wish. Did you plan to instead sell it to us as charcoal?”
“No Dada, of course not!”
“So you choose to add more transgressions to your list by lying to me? Was it not you who told Sista Afi when she pointed out your wrong doings that the dead are no longer alive and have no power to harm you, therefore you intended to sell the charcoal to whoever came to ask for their share of the wood?”
Kwaku’s head drooped lower but he remained silent.
“Am I to assume your silence is a respectful way of saying Sista Afi lied about you?”
“No Dada,” Kwaku meekly responded.
“Remove yourself from under my roof before your calamities befall you here!” She shouted at Kwaku and promptly turned a back towards him. As Kwaku hastily left Dada’s veranda she loosened her waist cloth and spat loudly over the veranda. “And do not expect me to ask anyone to appease the spirits to intercede what is surely coming your way since a devout Christian like you do not believe in matters of the shrine!” Dada yelled at Kwaku’s retreating back. A streak of blue lightning flashed across the skies with a clatter of thunder. A sudden eruption of rain followed as if punctuating Dada’s words. She did not invite Kwaku to return for shelter from the rain.
Dada’s ‘discussion’ with Kwaku had occurred two days after the funeral meeting. Kwaku had cut down the tree the day before the discussion. Exactly 48 hours after leaving Dada’s veranda he was found stiff dead in his bed. Kwaku had forewarned his family about his imminent death but they had dismissed his words as delusional ramblings. Many accepted his death as retribution from the Ancestors for his flagrant disregard of the custom following his removal of the tree from the cemetery; others believed it was compounded by the life insurance issue.
The morning after Kwaku died the family went to the shrine to do the customary divination to determine his cause of death. At the shrine they explained that in the early morning, two days before his death, Kwaku had awoken complaining about a terrible headache. Later in the morning the headache was accompanied by severe abdominal cramps. Kwaku was in such obvious pain that by noon he was rushed to the hospital. At the hospital Kwaku was thoroughly examined but the doctor was unable to find any cause for his pains. He was given painkillers and kept overnight at the hospital for observations. The next morning Kwaku’s pains had persisted but the doctor had merely prescribed more painkillers and authorized his immediate discharge. He had explained that there was nothing he could do for Kwaku since his pains were obviously psychological. Kwaku had arrived home by evening.
“I won’t be staying long; I have only come home to say good-bye because the people are waiting for me,” Kwaku had pronounced to those at home. Those who heard the statement assumed Kwaku was reacting to the side effects of the painkillers and ignored him. Next morning when his eldest sister had arrived to see how he had fared in the night, she found Kwaku dead.
After hearing the events prior to Kwaku’s death the Diviner threw down the Afa beads. No one was prepared when he revealed the details of the life insurance policy Kwaku had been paying up until the his aunt’s death. For years, the Diviner said, Kwaku had made monthly payments on a life insurance plan he had contracted in the name of his aunt. When she died, he had collected an undisclosed amount of money from the insurance company. Kwaku had already collected the money prior to attending the meeting concerning his aunt’s funeral arrangements. Kwaku’s mother, Sista Esinam, who understandably seemed more jarred than others by the revelations, began weeping the moment the Diviner threw the beads and shock his head while forebodingly muttering, “tsk, tsk” as he studied them. At the end of the reading Sista Esinam demanded the beads be thrown again. She refused to believe her son, an ‘almost’ deacon (but for the fact that he was illiterate), could have been so deceitful and money-loving. A hush fell in the shrine; never before had anyone so doubted a divination that the Afa beads needed to be thrown more than the Diviner thought was necessary.
Togbi Amefia, who headed the delegation to the shrine, hastily gave instructions for Sista Esinam to be removed from the shrine but the Diviner intervened. He threw the beads again; the reading was the same but this time the Diviner disclosed the name of the insurance company that carried the policy and the exact amount that Kwaku had collected upon his aunt’s death. After a pronounced silence Sista Esinam briskly wiped her tears and in a solemn voice denounced her deceased son. The consensus in the shrine after the Diviner’s startling revelation was that Kwaku had been capable of paying the full cost of his aunt’s funeral expenses and furthermore, he had blatantly ignored the customs of the village when he refused to share the wood of the tree he cut from the cemetery. In Sista Esinam words, the spirits had dealt with him accordingly; everyone in attendance agreed.
As was the villagers’ custom for such premature deaths, Kwaku was hastily buried away from the village without the usual fanfare that accompanied funerals regardless if one was a Christian or practitioner of Afrikan traditional religion. Weed would be allowed to overtake his gravesite, unlike in the cemetery that was constantly tended. The seven-day observance after a death as was demanded by custom was not observed for Kwaku. To have provided Kwaku the normal burial process or to maintain his gravesite was regarded as inciting the fury of the spirits and inviting calamities unto the village. At least, that was the traditional belief of the villagers. Togbi Kotor had dictated it so and irrespective of what dogmas had been brought to the village by various Christian sects, no one, including Kwaku’s pastor, was willing to forgo the norms of village traditions to ensure Kwaku Adza’s soul at least made it to heaven’s gate. The firewood was still simmering in the charcoal pit when he was buried.
Afua is a native St. Lucian who moved from Toronto, Canada in 2006 to a small fishing village in Ghana, where she is researching Afrikan Traditional Religion