Ghana’s matrilineal culture comes to life in Apam, Ghana, with the death of a 103 year old man but is tested by those who claim the culture has outlived its relevance.
Most Ghanaians are not expected to live longer than 50. This is what the United Nations, UN, life expectancy Index, 2007 says. Even though a lot of them actually live to surpass that benchmark of threescore and ten as stipulated in the Bible, most are not proud carriers of the longevity gene. However, the death of George Bruce, at 103 years broke that jinx recently and certainly was one good reason for Ghanaian ancient drums and cymbals to be rolled out to orchestrate the event. This was Saturday 18 October, in Apam town, Ghana.
The man who had died was a typical Lagosian through and through, despite his Ghanaian roots. Born and bred at Akoobirem-Apam on 13th October 1905, he worked briefly in Ghana in the automobile industry, specifically the United Trading Motors, UTC, in Winneba. Much later, he was transferred to UTC Motors Lagos, Nigeria with his German boss Herr Steiner. It was while he was in Lagos that he blossomed. However, pressure from his kith and kin at his home town in Apam compelled him to return home to Ghana. Before he did, 10 of his 11 children had already found their way into Nigeria’s prominent higher institutions like the universities of Lagos, Ife, Ibadan and Benin, to study choice courses like pharmacy, accountancy and the medical sciences. So when the sun set for Bruce, most of them who had gotten married to Nigerian women and had children in Lagos, were not too much at a loss concerning plans for the burial of their father.
Ghanaians are strictly matrilineal with their dead. Gigy Bruce, son of the deceased told the magazine that when his father was alive, he told him a strange tale concerning this. ‘My father said that there was a certain king who was desperate to solve a problem that involved human sacrifice. When none of his warriors or brothers was brave enough to offer himself for the propitiation, the king’s sister offered herself and helped to solve the problem. It was from that time that all of a Ghanaian man’s property, even his body became the belongings of his mother’s or sister’s family. To get to that stage when the body is laid in state, the new patriarch of the Bruce clan had to take especial care to adhere to any demand made by the family of the deceased’s wife. ‘We have to be careful about this because it is tradition left for us by our forefathers. They try to put all sorts of obstacles in our way but because we were more interested in giving our father a decent burial, we had no choice but to obey their every wish’, Bruce said. These conditions involve curious demands of curious things like special soaps, ornaments and rare apparels, and very large amounts of money; the man who handles the intricacies that come with this kind of burial is a skilled ‘consultant’ of family tradition who brokers peace when both parties cannot come to any amicable settlement concerning the demands made by the matriarch of the family. In the Bruce family scenario, there were problems with the amount of money demanded by the matriarch, but the consultants stepped in and proffered a solution. They advised the Bruces to state their case that most of the children of the deceased were equally older people who had retired and are already living on and taking care of their families with their retirement monies. That clinched it, even though there were several lose ends that could have led to a fracas if not for the maturity of the persons concerned. ‘We expected them to come and tell us that they appreciate our huge financial contribution to the successful burial of our father. But they didn’t. That is also part of the tradition’, a family member unrelated to the matriarch sad.
What was also a part of tradition in the entire burial ceremony was that it was the responsibility of the children of the deceased to present the corpse to their mother’s family, who should make yanga or accept it right away and prepare it for church service and for burial. The families of the matriarch in this case are Methodists, who promptly received the body from their kinsmen, embalmed and bedecked it with rich clothes specially handled by skilled craftsmen. They also adorned it with gold bangles that TELL found out that were rented, perhaps to show the deceased as a man of means. If the deceased was not a Christian before passing on, another elaborate process involving the entire village and its environs, together with the full brunt of local rituals and sacrifices should have ensued. In the past, most of the dead were plundered because of the precious ointments and jewelry that went into the grave with the dead. Apart from the account by Gigy, Ghanaians generally trace their matrilineal origins to Yaa Asantewaa, a queen. Legend had it that when her brother died in 1894, Asantewaa used her right as Queen Mother to nominate her own grandson as Ejisuhene, the regent. But the British exiled him along with the King of Asante, Prempeh 1 and other members of the Asante government. As soon as the British succeeded in deporting Prempeh, Frederick Hodgson, governor general of the Gold Coast, demanded the Golden Stool, the symbol of the Asante nation. Sources told the magazine that this disrespectful request led to a secret meeting at Kumasi to discuss how to secure the return of their king. In the disagreement that ensued, Asantewaa was reported to have said that she was appalled at the cowardice of the Ghanaian men. ‘Now I see that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it were in the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye and Opoku Ware, chiefs would not sit down to see their king taken away without firing a shot. If you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. We, the women, will. I shall call upon y fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields’, she had said. She took the fight against the British but was defeated and exiled. Her name however is etched in Ghanaian politics and traditional lore as a heroine.
The traditional practice of giving a dead man’s property to the family of the mother or sister comes with a great price and casts a pall on the community. Every weekend, Apam town experiences more than ten burial ceremonies. As early as 10am till dusk of that particular weekend, TELL reporter in Apam town witnessed the loud wailings of a dozen ambulances that conveyed bodies to the town for burial. The mourners come from far and near. In the case of the Bruces, the sons and daughters of the deceased together with their grandchildren from the United States, US, and Nigeria took the town by storm. ‘The lessons of life that you passed on to your children have been passed on to your grandchildren and are being passed on to your great-grandchildren. We will make sure never to break the chain, so that you always live on’, one of the grandchildren wrote down in the family brochure. Apart from that, most Ghanaians said that they have an aversion to consuming salt produced in that town because of its eerie reputation as a place that accepts as many as ten dead bodies every week.
If Ghanaians hold their matrilineal burial rites of inheritance dear, ditto for many Nigerians who ordinarily are used to observing the patriarchal version of inheriting a dead man’s property. Among the Ibos in Abia State who hail from Bende and Ikwano local communities, tradition forbids them from ever inheriting anything from their father. Rather, if a man dies, people from his mother’s family show up at once and swoop on his property. On many occasions, family members from the matrilineal side of a family usually insist on bearing the cost of educating children born to their sisters and mothers, such that some bear certain names like ‘Nneka’, ‘Nnenna’, names for daughters among the Ibo, literally meaning that a daughter is the mother of her father. ‘In our village, my uncle, rather than my father is regarded as my father. You may also find some of us with very light skin. This is not an accident of the way we are created. We are like that because we are free to marry our cousins and nephews from our mother’s side so that we could maintain our inheritance’, an Ikwano lady who did not want to be named told the magazine.
George Owor, a satellite communications expert in Lagos who was also in Apam for the Bruce burial, said that it was about time for practices such as this to be discarded. According to him, these practices have medical as well as social implications. ‘People can hardly grow if they always think in terms of inheriting a dead man’s property, rather than working hard to make their own money. Cant you see how poor these people are?’ he said. But whether or not his views mean anything leaves much to be desired. Residents of Apam who spoke with this reporter are adamant in their claim that even though a child bears his father’s name in Ghana, all the training and glory that will become of him belongs to either his sister or to his mother and her people, and insist that their mother is supreme. Ikechukwu Odunfa, a banker who lives in Lagos agrees totally. According to Odunfa, women who have been brought up to know that there is an inheritance waiting for them cannot settle down in a matrimonial home. ‘My former wife was from a community in West Africa. I didn’t know about this custom of theirs until she began to order me around in my own home. She behaves rather like a man most times and with the birth of our only daughter together, she wanted to call the shots by naming my own daughter after her grandmother. Even though this was not what led to our breaking up even before we were married, it contributed a great deal to it’, he said.