In closed humidity, amid summerish heat of 32 degrees, and a cornucopia of distant sounds, the sun finally turns its golden yellow and begins to surrender for the day. In its diminishing glow hidden in a cul de sac, a convoy waits.
We have arrived early and are obliged to patiently stay motionless for an hour or so on the outskirts of a village, Asokore, near Ghana’s hinterland city, Kumasi.
We wait because it is forbidden to come forth in daylight with one of the village’s returning sons — a respected man from a lineage of popular figures in the days, some of whom were chiefs.
We wait some more, before the sun disappears over the horizon and the convoy and lead car purr their engines and slowly make their way snaking on the potholed roads. We are here. Onlookers crane their necks and whisper.
Written from the perspective of a British journalist, this ritual seems endearing, if perhaps amusingly bewildering. What might anyone, with a lack of knowledge of customs and the culture, transported to this spot, have made off all of this?
This is a funeral about to begin its run of three days. The returning son is my father, born in Asokore, who became a police officer, and then sought a new destiny with my mother in the UK.
Several years later, he has returned home. Sankofa , a well known Twi maxim means “go back and retrieve”. It is almost a fitting prose for what we are to experience.
Everything about my father’s home coming had been a system of processes — several business ends in the UK ensuring his safe passage. But it is also a metaphor, alongside others, for sonorous journalism. Let me explain.
Now in Ghana, rituals that have lasted many years — some extruded to accompany Ghanaian’s penchant for lavish funerals, have now taken hold.
It’s said of Ghanaians that it’s at funerals where you’ll find your future husband or wife. Three days affords you some time within the solemnity of the occasion. This is so far removed from the clashing of cymbals and gyration of hips to some genre of music in a night club in London, Croydon — where you rendezvous to find your future soul mate.
During the three days my family and I will perform many rituals and sermons. I have to brush up on my Twi — the language of the Akans — which is rich in metaphor. Death is described as literally turning your head to face the wall. I remember saying this and drawing nods of appreciation. “He’s done well” said one elder afterwards. And then this which has forever stuck with me.
On the final day fifteen clothed elders gathered in a room. It is time, a relative tells me, to take gifts to thank them for their time, for their support, and for the appreciation of one of their own through his children.
For brief moments I lose my guard as a family member, and become a storyteller, a journalist. How might this feature be relayed so it’s less a curio from someone not knowing local customs?
I have flashbacks to being in Soweto with white journalists friends who’s parachuted into South Africa’s election from the UK and saw men toying with clubs. They looked fearsome, but you’ve nothing to be afraid off. I think back to SUS law arrests in the 80s/90s in which police accosting a black man, would interpret his actions as “shifty”, were he failed to look an officer in the eyes, whilst shifting his weight, head titled.
Were white police officers aware that there were generations of men whose idea of respect was not to “eye ball” their fathers, officials or elders? “Don’t be eye-balling me son” was not an uncommon refrain in some households I knew. Or that further back in time these fathers’ fathers did similar. Under their publishing company X-Press Dotun Adebayo and Steve Pope would release a book Yardie that the met police implored its officer should read.
Fiction and non fiction merged to unveil a culture unknown to Police. This was the 1990s.
Standing in front of the Ghanaian elders, they asked the seminal question. How much did all this cost, the flight, the laying on of food, the gifts to other members and Dad’s resting bed, a patterned gasket. There was murmuring and darted expressions when we told them.
Translated into English, with the customery ooms and aams, the eldest of the elders spoke. He thanked us for doing one of their own right and thanked some more, and then told us, you in the West are crazy. You’re crazy to spend all this money on the dead, when the living are suffering. Look what we do he said drawing attention to his faith. We wrap our loved ones in a shoal and then commit them to the ground the very next day or after.
Instead he continued, you’ve given rise to a business — a thriving one for those who are pass on. There’s a passage in Around the world in a trillion dollars a day, where senior financiers from South East Asia assail the Americans who attempt to sell a new package of debt swaps. No more packages, they say. In modern parlance, the world has discovered and developed and intricate set of business ends that bamboozle, bind people even as they take their last journey.
“We need in this kingdom only priests and school teachers, and no merchandise, unless its wine and flour for the Mas”, said King Alfonso I in a letter to the King of Lisbon in 1526.
Alfonso, elaborately portrayed in Hochschild’s King Leopold Ghosts is lamenting the business of human slave trade taking place at alarming rate in his Kongo (spelt Kongo). He is tired of merchants.
Hochschild tells us what makes stories of the Kongo gripping is that for history, journalism first draft of accounts, whites exploiting the land are not the only authors. Their white narrative sees the native Kongolese as savages, but for once there is a historical account of that era from a black man, learned and understanding of customs.
The centuries ahead, greater emphasis placed on commerce and business becomes a measure of a nation’s status, its place in the world, as opposed to greater recognition of its priests, school teachers and medical personnel; architects, artisans and artists.
Centuries ahead too, the Western world would invent a story form called journalism through which events are comparatively largely recorded through the eyes of those visiting, unaccustomed to customs and rituals. They interpret events as curios. They can’t be mindful of the gravitas of events if they lack in its experience. Yet the world is told through their eyes.
If learning is about being liberated, then vast swathes of knowledge are entombed through ignorance or otherwise complicity.
Alfonso’s letter was met by Belgium’s king with a rebuke. The king’s emissaries, he said, tell him Kongo is a vast place and there are many potential slaves, such that the trade will not run dry.
One Kongo king’s version against another, the King of Belgium. One version of events against another. One who understands his culture against a King, Leopold who never once set foot in Kongo, but raped its riches and people, brutally.
Of all the definitions and frameworks put together to sow together a divine model of journalism — few ever cite how culture is integral. That at the heart of our exchanges is in an attempt to make sense of cultures; super, supra, boardroom and community et al. Storytelling of a kind called journalism represses the super, between people, profoundly, whilst cinema saw stories through the eyes of the beholder who knew their apples, and could offer nuanced interpretation. Cinema! Reportage‘s stories are more muted. Why?
Because, perhaps to those who offer its craft at the highest pedagogical level, from circa 1700s there was no other culture, but the one worthy of note. Rebooted in the 1980s by a Prime Minister it became there’s no such thing as society. It’s as if you’d asked a fish the temperature of its water. How would the fish know? It’s only occupied one realm.
In the 1700s onwards, culture was one, mono, undifferentiated. There were other people from different places e.g. Gold Coast, but their numbers were insignificant, though not unimportant to contest there existed varying cultures, and as such an expressiveness in contemporary storytelling.
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story appears in Hamilton the musical. Victors tell the stories, journalism is about power, and the power to shape narrative. Hamilton is pure juju for reworking the agents of American’s founding fathers performed by a significant black cast.
Andrew Marr’s My Trade a well written book on a short history of British Journalism underscores this mono narrative. It doesn’t purport to be a history of journalism, for it reflects events of white Anglo-Saxon heritage. EH Gombrich, one of the highest authorities on Art, behind the knowledge expanding Story of Art did not see why he should features black or women artists, believing they were not important.
You can’t begin to understand how the world shaped by television and opinions hewn by news, reduces customs and culture to generalisations. It’s obvious through not only the lack of diversity in programmes, but of different people, from different cultures, being on the tables that decide what we eat.
Culture matters. It matter a lot. Yet comparatively few intellectuals acknowledge its profound impact in storytelling alongside objectivity, impartiality etc. Prof Michael Schudson speaks of journalism as the following:
Journalism practice is a cultural construct, dependent on societal changes and literary traditions. To story tell requires understanding those cultures. My father’s burial, as much as how Covid-19 is blighting black communities are stratas of culture — that require exegesis in play.
The sun is appearing on the 4th day ending our ritual. In the future across the world we see the prospect of a new dawn. I carry forward my father’s legacy and new knowledge for new ideas and co-creations as cultures meet.