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Saturday, 3 April 2010

A culture of death?

Elizabeth Ohene has written an interesting piece for the BBC where she considers  Ghana's apparent obsession with death :

We love funerals here and they are a veritable spectacle better experienced than described. The attitude towards the dead and funerals would seem to indicate that a dead Ghanaian is worth far more than a live one. For example, a man is admitted to hospital and he recovers from his ailment. He is discharged but is forced to remain in the hospital because he has no family to pay his hospital bills. After two weeks the doctor sends a message out the man has died. The very next day a group of mourners arrive at the hospital, suitably clad in the obligatory black and red clothes, they are the family, they are ready to pay all the bills and arrange for the body to be put in the morgue until burial. There is no question about there being no money to pay the hospital bills once the man has died.....A mother would find money to buy a funeral cloth whilst keeping a child out of school for lack of money. Keeping a child in school does not earn you as much status as organising a mega funeral. In death it would seem every Ghanaian is a royal; just listen to our dirges and when it comes to tributes, in death, all the mean spirited, lazy, spouse abusing people are transformed into the most generous, loving human beings.
I suspect many would Zambians would identify with the description of the man admitted to the hospital. However, I find Elizabeth’s assessment troubling because it yet again emblematic of reflections by Africans that fail to take into account much broader sets of issues. Undoubtedly African anthropologists / sociologists would point that it expresses the western mindedness of the author. But I found that it actually misses on some basic issues.

First, the article fails to highlight the obvious point that any perceived “African” obsession with death is not fully reflected in government responses. The governments elected by Africans do not care about the “dead” as much as ordinary "Africans" do. We have previously touched on this here. Many of our morgues and cemeteries are in poor conditions. Indeed in many African countries policies relating to burial and post-traumatic stress for victims’ families are not even on the menu of priorities. So at the basic level it simply is not the case that taken together as a whole we praise or revere the dead over other priorities.

Secondly, in so far as Africans have tended to care for the dead rather than when they are alive, this seems to be clearly a case of “one off costs” versus “re-occurring costs”. There’s no doubt that caring for a person alive involves many on-going costs, especially if such actions led to perpetual dependence. When someone dies that is the end of the matter. The costs are more certain and you are therefore in much better position to evaluate whether or not you should commit to them. You can mourn them, dish-out chickens and do all funeral expenses, knowing full well you won’t have to incur these costs again.

Finally, and linked to the second, death solves the collective action problem. When I was getting married, one of the elders from village remarked  that this was likely to be the last time that I was going to see both families in full attendance, that is, until they gather again for my burial! What he meant was that death necessarily  brings people together. It allows people to come together and share costs which ordinarily would only be borne by one person. Indeed we might even go further and say that stigma and other things ensures that everyone does their bit. I don't just mean family members, but also it brings politicians and church bodies. Its therefore not surprising that we see more care for people when they are dead than when they are alive! Its perfectly rational!

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