The famous Monopoly board game now has its first Africa city edition: Lagos. The Nigerian Stock Exchange, airport, hotels and Banana Island have made it onto the board, thanks in part to Nimi Akinkugbe, CEO of Bestman Games, which produces the edition. South Africa and Morocco are the two African countries with customised versions.
The chance to show off your best black clothes, eat spicy giblet kyinkyinga kebabs, enjoy unlimited free drinks and perhaps meet the love of your life – welcome to funerals, Ghana style.
Such is the love of funerals that they take up most of the weekend, and some Ghanaians want to reduce the working week to make more time for them.
“Funerals used to take up Saturday and Sunday, but now I’d say 90% of churches bury bodies on Friday as well, so people are having to take time off work to go to the service,” said Gabriel Tetteh, an online funeral planner. “With the pressure of having to fit in a visit to the service while working on Friday, and all weekend taken up, when you go to work on Monday you feel the pain.”
President Yahya Jammeh has just made the Gambia the first country to introduce a four-day working week, decreeing that the extra time should be used to devote more time to prayers, social activities and agriculture. Now some are hoping this will spread to Ghana. “The truth is that over here, public-sector workers have always found ways to have four-day weeks if they want,” wrote Elizabeth Ohene, a former government minister in Ghana.
Funerals offer the biggest parties and best socialising in Ghana, and are attended by extremely distant relatives or anyone who has known the deceased (and sometimes those who haven’t). Towns and cities are dotted with signs by the roadside advertising important funerals to passers-by, to attract the maximum number of mourners.
Ghana is also famous for its elaborate coffins, with families choosing to bury loved ones in caskets shaped as beer bottles, aeroplanes or giant shoes.
“We estimate that the cost of funerals in Ghana often runs into thousands of dollars,” said David Dorey from MicroEnsure, a UK-based company that provides life insurance in Ghana. “There is obviously this cultural thing that seems to have spiralled slightly out of control.”
Some Ghanaians have complained that the fixation of funerals represents a prioritisation of the dead over the living.
“We Ghanaians, we love funerals. If you are sick, no one has money to pay your medical bills. If you need money for school fees, no one can help you. But if you die, everyone is running to give money for your funeral – a lot of money! We love funerals too much,” said Seth Akpalu, who lives in the capital, Accra.
“In Ghana, people do spend more on the dead than the living,” said Tetteh. “There are some people, when a relative is living, they wouldn’t mind. But when the person dies, they put a lot of money into it, otherwise other people will be there insulting them.”
Asked why they enjoy attending funerals, young Ghanaians said it was mainly for the social aspects, and the refreshments. “Free Fanta and small chops,” tweeted Deborah Vanessah, a singer and model. “Sexy black clothes,” tweeted another.
“Funerals are grounds to meet new partners if you are unmarried. I have met a girl at a funeral on two occasions,” said Samuel Kofi Nartey, a law student in Accra. “You know, in Ghana our funerals are parties. You get to dance with a person or sit around with them and talk about stuff and one thing leads to another.”
Afua Hirsch for the Guardian Africa Network.
The year is 1985 and somewhere in the United States, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and a posse of their pop star chums huddle into a studio to sing for Africa’s supper.The song is the heart-stirring We Are the World.
Recorded to raise funds to aid citizens of a drought- and poverty stricken Ethiopia, the charity song du jour was accompanied by pictures of desperate-looking African others and ash-skinned children with torsos as thin as spaghetti, very large heads and bones you could count one by one. These were not just people in need of a meal; they were so starved they barely had the strength to breathe, let alone muster the strength to wave away the flies that congregated on their mouths.
There was famine in Africa. So God bless the pop stars.
More than 20 years later those images seem to have raised more ignorance than consciousness. Because, years later, people still perceive Africa as the starving continent. So much so that pop tart Mariah Carey once said she wants to visit Africa, if only for the circumstantial dieting that would be bound to succeed.
Meanwhile, the news that I was planning to travel to West Africa was met with concern by family and friends that I would be afflicted with all sorts of diseases or even starve, though some in my circle seemed to feel that it would help me to shed the excess weight I have carried all my life.
Indeed, after spending a year and five months in West Africa, I am 40kg lighter. But it was not from starvation.
On the contrary, West Africa turned out to be the land of plenty food. There is food around the clock here: from the street chow standard of rice and meat sauce to kebabs, braai meat, fried fish, chips and plantain. The region has so much food, I began to feel as though I was starring in Supersize Me: West Africa.
In Senegal I piled on the lard by way of schwarmas and the nation’s beloved and addictive rice and fish dish, tcheip djenne.
Mali has as many braai and roastmeat outlets as it does mosques. And here, people will chase you down the street to invite you over for lunch. Though polite, Malians do not take no for an answer. They also do not accept that you have had enough to eat unless they see you flatten the mountain of food they put in front on you.
In Burkina Faso tasteless local food forced me into a staple of fried chicken and chips.
This was a mere five weeks into my trip and already I was starting to swell up.
Then came Ghana with its jollof rice, a rice-and-bean dish called waatchi, fried rice and much more that I was only too happy to sample.
On to Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire. It is said West Africans spend a whack of their money on clothes and food. Ivorians are over the top in this regard with Abidjan being Frenchspeaking West Africa’s capital of food, booze and partying. Here, everyone who sells food does it around the clock. And it is not just your standard kebabs and sandwiches.
Some nightclubs have fully fledged outdoor restaurants. And if a plate of grilled chicken and attieke (cassava) are not your thing, take a few steps on to the streets and you can have even more of food you would never associate with a post-clubbing binge, like pork stew.
I was now six months into my trip. My French was starting to pick up. So I could at last understand what Salif Keita was saying in his song Africa. The song is a declaration of the good times that are rolling in our continent, which he reiterates by stating “manje beaucoup” (“eat lots”). He then has a verse in which he lists some of West Africa’s culinary delights, including tcheip, fufu, alloko, yassa, peanut-butter stew and attieke, which also doubles as a breakfast staple served with fried fish, raw chilli and a splash of oil.
I was in trouble.
I even started wishing that there was some truth in the prevailing stereotype of Africa being the land of starvation.
I had to act. This journey started in April 2009. The results have convinced me that anyone with lots of lard to push and some cash to spare should indeed head to West Africa.
The region has hundreds of robust traditional dances and I started to learn them on a rooftop in Bamako.
Thinking I was alone in fighting my lard, I was wonderfully surprised when a teenage girl walked up to me to offer her services as a “jogging partner”.
There is also zero privacy here. So my afternoon dance sessions were a daily spectacle for the neighbourhood, which made people offer tips and encouragement at every turn.
Random strangers in Guinea, Conakry, Ghana, Togo and Benin, where I was scattering my fat, had advice to offer. The region is obsessed with fitness. Noting a fat person attacking her lard, people would invite me to play beach soccer, join their troupe for an afternoon, tell me where to find fresh produce and offer me their kitchens so I could cook my own food.
They turned into a colony of personal trainers and gatekeepers I had to account to. Especially the children. They demanded that I spend many hours chasing after them or teaching them dance routines that they already knew better than me.
I left South Africa open to the journeys that I knew would come out of the act of booking my ticket out of the country. Yet losing weight was far from my mind. And it struck me, as the kilos started peeling off, that Africa is indeed the land of clichés.
The most enduring are of Africans as loving, humane and selfless.
My waist is a case in point.
Lerato Mogoatlhe is a South African journalist travelling around the continent. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper.
We had just settled down to enjoy the journey to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city. We were over the bumpy part of the road outside Accra and the luxury bus was air conditioned. But it wasn’t the long distance ahead of us that began dampening my spirits. It was the driver.
When he got to a shopping complex near a town called Nsutan – just 50km out of Accra – he slowed down, turned off the road and stopped. I did not know it was common for luxury buses to stop for passengers to refresh themselves during a journey. And even if they had to stop, I felt it was too soon. But the driver and his assistant got down and went into the complex, the passengers following on their heels. Thirty minutes later, the driver came and announced: “Let’s move on.”
I was at the beginning of my journey to Ouagadougou to attend a conference of international journalists, which was starting the next morning. I did not want to be late and we still had more than 720km to go.
After the passengers got back into the bus, the journey continued. Buses like the one I boarded abound everywhere in the West African sub region. They are supposed to be comfortable, slow to break down and quick to get to passengers’ destinations.
But things were not going as they should have. At Kumasi, 200km from Nsutan, the driver drove the bus to a filling station and stopped once again. When I asked why he could not just go on, he snapped: “If you’re so desperate to get to Ouagadougou, why didn’t you take a plane?”
It was clear that this was going to be a tiring journey.
After the driver finished refuelling the bus, we headed for Tamale, a town more than 200km from Kumasi. As the bus crawled on, the driver stopped briefly at Tetina to pick up passengers. I discovered this was normal practice for drivers along their routes. I wanted to ask him whether the money would go into his employer’s coffers but I did not. Like bus drivers everywhere, the driver would oppose anyone who questioned his behaviour.
A few hours after we left Tetina, we encountered another bad piece of road. There were gullies, potholes and loose stones in and on the highway. To cope with them, the driver slowed down.
After two hours on the bad road, the bus got to a transit spot called Sawara in Katanpon, about 96km from Tamale in northern Ghana. The driver, who had been behind the steering wheel for 12 hours, stopped the bus, got down and sneaked into one of the joints in the place. After 30 minutes, he emerged, refreshed. His assistant took his position behind the steering wheel. This too, I discovered, was standard practice.
Now that it seemed we were making progress I felt better disposed to appreciate the buses. A 40-year-old Ghanaian acquaintance told me in Kumasi they had been around since he was a young boy. He told me a luxury bus could make as much as 3 500 cedis (more than $2 000) from an Accra-Ouagadougou return trip.
Our bus was typical of thousands of luxury buses that ply their trade in the region. They provide employment for drivers, ticket issuers, managers, clerks and canvassers, rescuing many young men and women from unemployment in the villages or from perpetrating crime in the cities.
Besides, when the buses stop at transit points, they are besieged by hawkers, who offer passengers all manner of goods for sale. The buses also carry traders and their goods around the region. They provide a reliable, regular service and so boost business.
By 8am we had crossed the border. When we drove into Po, a small town in southern Burkina Faso, the driver slowed down and stopped. He said that armed robbers were fond of attacking buses a few kilometres further up the road. He would not continue unless escorted by policemen through the area.
An hour later policemen escorted us past the trouble spot and we closed in on Ouagadougou, thinking there would be no more problems. But there were – the bus hit an enormous pothole just before a narrow bridge some kilometres from our destination. I hit my head against the window, bruising it. But the driver steadied the bus and crossed the bridge.
He stopped the bus at the Ouagadougou International Bus Station at 12 noon, 29 hours after leaving Accra. I was late for the conference, but I nodded to the driver and he gave a thin smile. As I moved towards a street, I sighed. It was the longest journey of my life.
Adetokunbo Abiola is a prize-winning Nigerian journalist and author. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper.