Introduction by Bridgette Greenhaw, Literacy Bridge Program Director.
Something as simple as washing your hands can save tens of thousands of lives but it is not a common practice in most remote rural communities including Ghana’s Upper West Region. Literacy Bridge works in partnership with Ghana Health Services on educating the rural poor to adopt this critical health practice, which prevents disease, including diarrhea, the second leading cause of childhood death.
While the benefits of handwashing with soap touch many aspects of life in rural Ghana, this is particularly vital when observing traditional funeral rites, an important part of culture in the Upper West Region.
Literacy Bridge’s Field Coordinator Fidelis Da-uri shares with us his observations of a typical funeral in rural Ghana and why education about hand washing – and other hygiene practices – is so important.
Some of our deaths are preventable but because of culture, ignorance, illiteracy, and of course poverty, many of my people die every day.
Many people in rural villages here have a rich, warm culture which brings them together as people. But they also have some cultural practices that need to be stopped or changed. The victims of these outmoded cultural practices are people who can’t read or write and they form the majority of the population. In many communities, when a person dies, particularly an elderly person, the corpse is laid on a stage for about two to three days and funeral rites take about a week. Not only is this region one of the poorest in Ghana, but illiteracy is also very high as well. These corpses will be rotten and smelling, with house flies hovering around the corpse. People will often times touch or hold the corpse of a loved one without covering their hands with gloves or other protective clothes.
One interesting type of grave is the Master Grave (Bogsullee). This is a permanent grave that is used to bury as many corpses as possible until their bones fill the entire grave and there isn’t any more room.
Eye Witness Report:
During a field visit I encountered a Bogsullee and wanted to share my findings.
As customs demand, it is important to always sympathize with people you know when they undergo difficult times. After having a short meeting with some farmers, I decided to go and mourn with the grieving family.
On arrival, I saw the corpse hanging on a wooden stage locally referred to as Paalaa. Cooking pots, local pots, basins, calabashes, bowls, and clothes were used to decorate the deceased in order to show she was a woman and a potter. I first thought this was great, but then began to wonder how they could possibly wash all of the pots and clothes being used for funeral rites. I then noticed some water like fluids coming from the body of the corpse and pouring inside one of these pots. I stood still to observe what was going on. Then a man came and took one of the calabashes, went to fetch water, and start immediately drinking from it without washing or even rinsing the calabash!
Later some men came with a hoe. They took away a huge underground pot covering the entrance of a grave. That was the master grave. Graves must be at least six feet deep to prevent the smell of rotting corpse from rising up and attracting scavenger animals.
One of the men went inside the grave and spent close to thirty minutes inside gathering bones of dead bodies to prepare room for the recently deceased, using nothing to cover his hands, mouth, or nose. This man came out of the grave and, without washing his hands, went to fetch some groundnuts and began chewing on them.
After the corpse is taken into the grave, there is a rite of passage for children called “grave entering” where children are sent into the grave to sit with the corpse for a period of time.
As family and friends gathered around the corpse, I looked around. I did not see any of them that could read and write and the following questions came to mind:
1. What really kills my people?
2. What kind of diseases did these people inside of the grave die from?
3. Is this a good cultural practice worth continuing?
4. Is ignorance, illiteracy and lack of education the cause of these cultural practices? Again, people go home infected with diseases from the funeral ground.
Who Can Help?
The people need a lot of education on this subject in their own language at their convenience and in their free time. It’s lack of knowledge that cause people to die. The Talking Book will take some time but it will bring about great change.