This weekend was a bittersweet one. Friday was my birthday, but it was a day celebrating both new and old…it’s a birthday I’ll never forget, not just because I turned 30, but also because it was the day of an important funeral, that of former president of Ghana, John Atta Mills, who passed away July 24th, while I was in Ghana.
When speaking to locals, it sounded like Atta Mills was respected and loved by many. He was described as a man who was soft spoken, thoughtful, and modest and known to be a peacemaker. I have learned that there were some who felt Mills was too weak; this belief was lead by former president Jerry Rawling, also a member of Mills own political party called the NDC, the National Democratic Congress. Him and his wife felt strongly against Mills, crticising him for being too weak and too slow. Nonetheless, he was loved and respected by many. President Obama visited Mills while he was president, and commended the country and Mill’s work, complimenting it as a model of democracy and stability. Obama told Mills, Ghana has become “a wonderful success story economically on the continent” (www.cnn.com).
Mills was President of Ghana since 2009. I learned that presidents in Ghana remain in term for 4 years; this began in 1992. Mills represents the political party NDC. He was the third president of the Fourth Republic of Ghana. The president’s death was the first death of a president ever before in Ghana. Mills died just a few days after his 68th birthday, and 5 months before he was up for re-election. It is said that he died from cancer, however his death came unexpectedly. One of the former president’s last words, which I found to be touching, were “”There are ups and downs in life and they should be expected but at the end of the day know that we are doing the right thing. The people of Ghana will have to support you.”
When someone dies in Ghana, black and red is worn during the mourning period out of respect of the lost one.We saw lots of people wearing all black outfits, or red bandanas on their arms, legs, or hanging off their cars, bikes, etc, and I told the volunteers that they could wear black to work the next day, if they wanted. I myself wore a black shirt, and a bracelet with the Ghana colors to show my condolences to the country as well. Though it was a sad event, it was so special to me to be in Ghana during this time, and I tried my best to soak in everything I could learn, from people, news..anything that was around me. Particularly I learned that one in Ghana called “Se-Asa” (meaning “it’s ended), was the most fast selling cloth in the market during the mourning period leading up to Mills’ funeral. One report stated, the cloth was “adopted as one of the funeral cloths by some party faithful because they alleged that it was due to incessant criticisms on the policies, programmes and administration of the government that led to the demise of the President” (www.ghana.gov.gh). The cloth’s meaning of “it’s ended” then, has significant meaning to this population of people wearing it. The news talked about how this cloth was being sold only to particular vendors. It became so popular, that there were alternate vendors selling look-alikes, selling other designs. The news reported that this particular material has been on the market for over a decade, but once it became popular during Mills’ death, the cloth was sold at a higher value.
Often in Ghana, funerals are celebrated like parties. Flyers are made to announce the event, and to get as many people together at once to celebrate the life of a lost one. People party all night long, with music, dance and alcohol. Kids are even actively part of these events as well. At first, it felt wierd to hear that people get drunk and crazy when someone dies, but after taking time to think about it, it fits perfectly with the positive perspective Ghanaians have on life. They celebrate positively rather than negatively. They place such a high value on life, and appreciate every little thing they recieve in life. As I blogged about last year, they make do with what they have, are SO resourceful with even the smallest things (that most Americans would just throw out or not think twice about utilizing for something); Ghanaians are genuinely happy people. I feel like they are even happier than people here who “have” so much more. It makes sense then, that Ghanaians would commemorate one’s death, with a happy celebration. It really makes me appreciate and love the Ghanaian culture that much more.
Mills’ funeral took place Friday, August 10th. It was reported to be a massive event. I wish so much that I was still in Ghana, just to see the live news footage, and perhaps to even try and visit. Chiefs, kings, dignitaries, and locals all came to pay their respects to Atta Mills on his funeral day. Hillary Clinton arrived as well . There were drummers, and dancers, and although most funerals are celebrated with high spirits, it sounded like overall this one was the most somber of them all. Ghanaians came dressed in black and red attire, from all parts of Ghana; more than 10,000 people reportedly gathered, according to BBC news. People were waiting in Accra several hours before, some slept by overnight near Independence Square, to ensure they were able to get a spot at the funeral. There were lines up to 6 miles outside the State House in Accra! During the funeral, people lined the streets, crying, smiling, chanting, and remembered. I heard that some people had even climbed up trees to try and get a better view. Former President Atta Mills was buried on the grounds of Osu Castle, the location where Mills had lived and worked since he became president.
Pictures from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-19214464
Elections in Ghana are held in December. At the time we were in Ghana, there was heavy campaigning going on for the 2 candidates that were running for president, one of them being Nana Akufo-Addo, a member of the NPP (New Patriotic Party), and his opponent, who’s name I am unsure of. Akufo-Addo lost to Mills in Ghana’s 2008 elections.
It was a really unique experience to witness. Some afternoons, on our way back to Axim from one of our camps, we’d see people piled into trucks, all wearing shirts of one candidate. At other times, we’d see people marching in the street, all campaigning for the other candidate. It was really awesome to see. One thing they all shared in common was their happy energy; they were dancing, waving flags, clapping and marching.
One experience that was most memorable for my team and me, was one night at our hotel. We were just finishing dinner at our table, when we noticed that one of the presidential candidates was sitting at table right next to us! It was really cool and felt like such a privelage. We just kept seeing more important looking people go sit by him..we knew for sure we saw a king of some sort, because they were wearing a very royal gold outfit, and there was a person standing next to them holding a cushion for them to sit on. Every day is a new learning experience in Ghana 🙂
We found out the president had died, that day after seeing the presidential candidate; it felt like such eery timing. We were out for the day, and when we got home the news was all over every tv channel. I quickly texted some of Ghanaian friends to apologize for their loss; they all seemed deeply saddened by this news. I watched the news report for a bit of time, just to get a sense of what this president was like and what his death meant to the country. Within a few hours, it was announced that the Vice President of Ghana was going to be sworn in as President, John Dramani Mahama. Mahama will have a chance to extent his opportunity as president; he was selected by the National Democratic Congress to run as a candidate in December’s elections. We were told that the campaigning for the presidential candidates would be ceased during the mourning period, out of respect to the former president’s death and to his family. I thought this was really impressive.
Before his death, former president John Atta Mills wrote this:
“I came to serve; I have finished my time here on earth and have moved on to everlasting rest and celestial duties with my heavenly Father. As you leaf through these pages of my life’s story, I pray to God that it touches you in many positive ways. Weep not; for I am not dead. I am alive and awake in the Lord. Ghana will not die; Ghana will live to declare the works of the Lord. As I rest in the perfect peace in the celestial realms with my Maker, I pledge to always uphold and defend the good name of Ghana. Remember the Lord in all your ways, and He will protect you. Stay well my brothers and sisters, for I will always be with you.”
Rest in peace John Atta Mills. Though I am far away now, I mourn the loss just as much and am thinking of all my Ghanaian friends, and the entire country of Ghana. Always in my heart.