GHANA – THE BURIAL TRAIN OF MR. ASHOK
“Mr. Ashok says he is going to die,” Mama Kwaku said, stirring the pan on her cooking stove, her 12 year old son Kofi looking on.
“Why?” Kofi asked. “I saw him walking in his yard this morning,” pointing across the dirt road from where they lived.
“He says he has some incurable sickness,” Mama Kwaku said. “Mama Ashok told me, too. He can die any day. Dede Nunu and Papa Joe are making coffins to show him and the best coffin wins and makes a lot of money.”
“Wasting money,” Baba Kwaku, Kofi’s father, grumbled. “Now everybody in the village is going to do the same, and borrow money they can’t pay back. And then they beg their relatives in London and America to bail them out. Rubbish.”
Mama Kwaku took her pan from the cooking stove and filled a large platter in the middle of their hut with fufu, fried plantain and goat stew. They sat around it on cushions on the floor.
“Dede Nunu has announced he’ll show his coffins tomorrow Saturday, in the morning,” Mama Kwaku said, while they were eating.
“I’m going to look at it,” Kofi said, taking a handful of fufu, dipping it in the goat stew and pressing it into his mouth. “I’ll tell my friends. When is Mr. Ashok going to die?” Not waiting for an answer, he ran out.
“Come back in time, boy”, yelled Baba Kwaku after him.
* * *
“They are coming, they are coming,” screamed Kofi the next morning to his friends, playing soccer barefooted on the village square, shadowed by a monumental balboa tree.
They sprinted to the dirt road, their white shirts fluttering around their slim bodies, hearing an oncoming band playing THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN. They wrenched themselves in front of the villagers that had streamed out of their huts and assembled along the dirt road, dressed in colorful reds and blues. Heavy drums filled the air. A long parade loomed up from the distance, slowly approaching, growing larger and larger. Behind the band of black uniformed musicians, tractors pulled wagons carrying coffins in all shapes and forms, leaving dust behind in the sweltering sun. Dede Nunu walked up front, with his chest heaving to heaven, proud as a peacock to show his craft.
Mr. Ashok, dressed in an orange Kaftan and a matching Kufi hat, stood straight on the balcony of his white-painted two-story house, the only one along the dirt road. It was surrounded by tropical trees, but all the other trees on his property had been cut to make room for agricultural land or to sell for village development. At the side, drummers had gathered to conduct a healing ceremony for Mr. Ashok, who seemed otherwise quite healthy looking on. The healing drummers, sitting on wooden chairs, soon overwhelmed the drummers of the marching band. It was an infernal noise. The high-pitched voices of female singers and rattle shakers petrified the ears of Kofi and his friends.
The band and the coffin train moved forward slowly. The first wagon showed a white coffin in the shape of a huge wooden statue of the god Onyame, the god Kofi was told in school was not talking to the simple humans anymore. The second wagon carried a coffin, toting a wooden statue depicting the god Anansi, the one Kofi and his friends liked best. On top a gigantic spider spread out its thorny limbs more than three feet long.
“Spiderman, spiderman!” jeered Kofi and his friends. Bystanders told them rudely to shut up.
The third wagon carried a large coffin with the face of the God Nyame, his left eye in the form of the sun and his right eye in the form of the moon. Since it was morning, his right eye was half closed.
The last wagon showed a coffin with a figure personifying Asase Ya, a beautiful goddess of fertility that would bring Mr. Ashok much pleasure in the afterlife. It also honored his fifteen children that his wife had miraculously survived. Kofi, as a single child, ruminated how much more fun it would have been living with fourteen brothers and sisters.
The coffin train came to a stop in front of Mr. Ashok’s house. Kofi gazed intensely at Mr. Ashok and, agitated, jabbered to his friends in the midst of the drummer noise. Was he going to make his choice? The whole village was staring at the balcony while the drummers kept drumming and the band played Chopin’s Funeral March. Dede Nunu seemed sure of his money. One of these coffins would be Mr. Ashok’s. He had a snotty smirk on his face, shifting his feet impatiently in the sand.
Then Kofi saw a three-wheel bike nearing Mr. Ashok’s house. The man on the bike was Papa Joe. The buggy behind the bike carried a huge lion coffin, its bushy mane gilded and its frame worked from smooth dark teakwood. On the side it said “Roaring to the afterlife”.
Kofi stared at Mr. Ashok, whose eyes were fixed on the giant sphinx.
“Papa Joe!” Mr. Ashok yelled, lifting his arms. “You got it, man!” And he dropped dead on the spot.