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Dancing With the Widow (reprint of an essay from 2000)

Like the others, she's clad in skirt and blouse with an extra yard of fabric wrapped shawl-fashion. Unlike the others, she wears a coarse rope around her waist. Sometimes another woman leads her by it, into the dancing, out of the dancing. Sometimes it just dangles. We are in the town of Medie. The bound woman is a new widow: the dancing is her husband’s wake.

Medie is a village not far north of Accra, Ghana's capital city. Medie is not a place many Westerners visit, although that may change in time. We are there because the elder brother of a close friend has died of lung cancer ("He wasn't Y2K-compliant," jokes our friend, familiar with the Y2K bug although he's never used a computer) and we are there for the last six hours of his two-day wake.


Xylophone music in Medie. A few years after this funeral.

Under a large shady tree, several dozen men in embroidered bata kari (the smocks traditional to Northern Ghana) cluster together singing. Three men play balafon, the Dagadi xylophone with wooden keys and buzzing gourds. One man plays sticks; one man drums. The combination of rhythms is so complicated it sounds like chaos to my untrained ear.

Every now and then a throng of women exits the shade of the women’s tent and dances, shuffling steps and rhythmic pauses, bent forward, arms out like birds' wings. It is a dance everyone seems to know. A few of the women wail, including the roped widow.

An old woman pulls my arm and brings me into the dance. The children laugh: I am a spectacle, the white woman who doesn't know what she's doing. "Follow me," she says, and starts moving. "Follow me."

FortuneFortune. Photo taken in 2004.

Our friend Fortune is with us, acting as cultural interpreter. "Funeral traditions vary depending on the tribe," she explains. "In some peoples, the widow must go barefoot from when the husband dies until the end of his funeral and wake-keeping. Some widows must wear black. Some must wear rope."

Fortune is a smallish woman with hair pulled back and laugh lines around her eyes. She befriended my husband when he lived in Ghana, six years ago. Once she was a trader, buying and selling beads and cloth in Nigeria, Togo and Ghana. These days Nigeria is unfriendly, Togo is questionable, and she doesn't have the necessary capital to trade anyway. She knows everyone, and speaks at least four languages (English, the national tongue; Ewe, the language of her people; and the additional tribal languages of Ga and Twi). Fortune is divorced, a rarity in Ghana.

"There are remarriage rules for widows," Fortune tells us. "Often, if the woman has children, she must marry a man from the husband's family, so that the children stay in the family." There is a pause. "Of course, if a woman dies the husband is free." She doesn't roll her eyes at this, not exactly, but her expression and tone have the same effect. 'Go figure,' she seems to be saying. 'When a man dies his wife gains restrictions; when a woman dies, her husband can do anything he wants. Where is the fairness in that?'

Osu. Photo taken in 1993.

The wake ends around six. As the tents are dismantled, dark clouds gather: we are sure it's going to pour, but the rain never comes. We return to Accra, to a neighborhood called Osu, where Fortune and her husband Patrick used to live. They're down on their luck at the moment: she's living with her mother, he's sleeping on a cot in an Osu furniture storage shed.

We arrive to find their living room set outside the storage shed, on the dirt floor of the compound. We sit on their sofas, under the starry sky, and talk about politics: the upcoming Ghanaian election, Hillary Clinton's run for the NY senate seat. Fortune disappears into the shed. When she emerges she bears a feast: omo tuo, twice-cooked rice balls, with a spicy groundnut stew. It is among the best meals I've eaten anywhere. Prepared on a single charcoal brazier, behind closed doors.

The day—the longest one of our trip—ends with our dinner at Fortune's. By the time we reach our room it has been night for hours. We have cleansed our palates with fresh pineapple; once we climb the stairs to our room we are almost too tired to brush our teeth.

When I close my eyes Africa swims around me. The sounds and smells and images, everything my brain has stored up from the day, closes over me like the ocean.

When I close my eyes the old woman beckons again. "Follow me," she says. She is leading me into the funeral, into every sprawling market, into the homes of our friends, into the world I want to understand. "Follow me."

I am still following.

This essay was published in the now-defunct The Women's Times in February, 2000. Reading Ethan's recent post Ghanaian Ambitions made me want to dig this up; it's amazing to hear about how Accra has changed. I hope to return there someday.

All images courtesy of Ethan's flickr stream.