Monday, October 26, 2009
Four Countries and a Funeral
In the last six weeks I have been a good Bedouin and trekked ever on, pitching tents in the UK, France, Eire and Ghana. Now I am back in Accra where birds have idiosyncratic sets of hoops, hollers, screams and warbles, where the temperature is in the mid thirties and where the pool is the place for exercise each day because even walking two metres to the car makes you want to change your shirt. In this land of the permanent fan (we eschew air-conditioning on environmental grounds) I am settling again to running foreign affairs by email and Skype, while helping to manage a factory of fifty folks, who – I hasten to end any speculation to the contrary – earn up to six times the national average wage as dressmakers, cutters, ironers, packers etc. Certainly no sweat shop. Chanel 4 came once to try to nail the company as a typical UK-driven exploitation, only to leave with no story and a lot of expensive egg on its face. So, anyway, there is always another issue to resolve here. More work to do. Maybe I will illuminate factory life in a later email.
Given that the trip was, as always, work-oriented and the reason for going to France to my house and to a Cork hotel, was to do some deep thinking about business strategies in differing locations, for inspiration, it was a successful time away. The beach in Cork was delightful and the temperatures held up remarkably for October. But it is now an expensive location with the euro matching the pound and prices for the visitor seeming to have trebled as a consequence. It was the same story in France, though my place there is designed to be as cheap as possible. When you travel, you feel recession in palpable ways, that, when you are embedded in a society, are not so noticeable, unless you become unemployed. In London, for example, there were still big crowds on the pavements outside bars in Marylebone and Camden market was chock full, despite it being a Tuesday when I was there. I didn’t visit Seven Sisters or Croydon or Southwark where there might have been a violent contrast, but the moneyed seem still to be flashing their cash in the more genteel environs. Also in the UK, the postal strike was in full swing. My socialist leanings are torn apart these days when I see appalling management practices (why can’t they be coached by experts to handle disputes?) and an old-style labour leadership which seems equally intransigent and willing to destroy the organisation whose teats it sucks. Creative intelligence in modernising a company seems non-existent.
Meanwhile, BA have introduced bigger, flashier jets for their Ghana flights, after years of old tin cans, occasionally rude service and, for the passengers, a distinct sense of racist scheduling. A 777 brought us into Accra and within a few days, reintegrated and acclimatised, we went along the coast for a funeral. This is how it was organised. The deceased, an active lady in her village and beyond, attracted a congregation of several hundred people in a marquee. Everyone was fed at the following feast, which comprised tilapia (fish), goat-light soup (big pieces of goat in a very hot liquid), roast chicken (always done to a deep heavy duty crisp, which puts the emphasis on extremely well preserved molars and incisors), jollof rice, yams and salads. The funeral service lasted a couple of hours and had some eulogies, lots of singing and praying, dancing (there is a tradition among the Ashanti that if you dance before all the congregation you do not need to contribute to the event). In this case, everyone danced and everyone contributed. The dress code was black and white as the deceased had had a long life. All the women, of whatever size, wore figure-hugging dresses in traditional black and white patterns. Most of the men wore black, satinised cotton shirts and black trousers or traditional cloth lengths, wrapped round their bodies and slung over their shoulders. Buckets were placed around the square, a very eccentric brass band built up steam and we all conga’d to make our offerings. These events have to be fronted with cash, which can run into thousands of pounds, and this is a way of reimbursing the backers. There are even those who make it their skill to underwrite weddings and funerals and take a return on their investment – by sharing any excess of income over expenditure. All in all it was not the most exuberant of events, compared with some that occur elsewhere in the country but it had a focus and commitment from everyone that seemed more appropriate to saying goodbye to the dead, than in many a western church or chapel. Maybe it was the way that the evangelical church had been grafted on to something older, more pantheistic and more determined to let people vent their emotions.
I should have introduced this latter section about the funeral by saying that all this took place in perfect sunshine, with views of the sea through palm trees.