The Afterlife of a Suicide (Excerpt)
Forthcoming in The American Scholar, Fall 2020
When the Queenmother phones to relay the news of the death of her brother the Chief, I send a memorial gift for the library room in a building she wants to construct in his honor. Just a year later, when I receive the news of Nana Frema's own death, I respond, impulsively, that I would like to attend her funeral as long as the family would welcome my presence. The Queenmother's daughter doesn't hesitate either.
After too many hours in the white air between New York and Accra, the confetti of corrugated rooftops creates a multicolored mix of red and green and blue, matching the clay earth or the tropical vegetation or the ocean we've crossed. Since my last visit the airport has been upgraded to generic, but I know where I am by the embracing way the arriving passengers are welcomed. One of Nana Frema's eleven granddaughters introduces herself and guides me and my husband, Jim, to the adjacent terminal to get our Africa World Airways tickets for the connecting flight to Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti Empire. The extended family is assembling from far and wide for this royal occasion.
Sentimentally, I've packed the long black dress that I wore for my first reunion with the Queenmother after a thirty year absence, and Jim will wear the first black suit he has bought since leaving the priesthood nearly fifty years ago. We've been asked to provide a comprehensive list of our measurements and told that formal outfits will be sewn for us from commemorative fabrics. But that's all we're given to imagine about what will be five ritually choreographed days of mourning and celebration.
In Kumasi we are brought from the airport to the home of a Busia family friend to wait for a car to bring us to Wenchi, and when the car arrives five hours later we are usefully reminded that it's useless to anticipate the future when the present is itself uncertain.
A parallel message is reinforced the next morning at breakfast when in the open-air restaurant of our newly-built hotel—where a pair of peacocks stroll through our breakfast—I admire the classically draped fabric worn by the extroverted man at the next table, who introduces himself as Nana Frema's nephew. His Adinkra cloth is stamped with the Ashanti symbols I recognize, and when I tell him I have a favorite proverb, Sankofa, he hands me the book he travels with. The Sankofa proverb—Sanko ("go back") and fa ("take")—teaches "the wisdom in learning from the past, which helps in building the future."
Dressed in our own black-on-black, Jim and I are taken to the Queenmother's house for a second breakfast of tea and eggs and meat pastries and two kinds of porridge. This is offered with an insistent hospitality, while on the adjacent balcony is an extensive buffet of African food that will be provided meal after meal for the family and their guests but is understood as not our cup of tea.
The walls along the lane are draped with red and black bunting, and it's a short walk to the largest of the houses in the compound, where rows of red and black folding chairs are set up on both sides of the spacious verandah. This is the home of the Queenmother's eldest brother, Dr. Kofi Abrefa Busia, Ghana's first Prime Minister, whose Progress Party won a landslide victory in Ghana's first democratic election in 1969, but who was ousted after three years in a military coup and died in exile. The building had been seized for use as a police barracks, and only recently released to his children for restoration.
Our translator and interpreter for the proceedings is Nana Abena Busia, the daughter of the late Prime Minister. I am meeting her for the first time but know of her as a poet and professor at Rutgers University. She speaks in still very vivid detail about her father's death, with a mix of bitterness and resignation. But I note that next to his marble monument at the center of this family compound is a mature orange tree in full fragrant bloom.
As we follow Nana Frema's daughter around the freshly whitewashed perimeter we too shake hands with each of perhaps a hundred people sitting in the front row. This is a custom that will be observed all this day and the next by a steady stream of people who shake hands coming and going, as they file by to view the body.
We're told that in the tradition there is a particular family whose designated role is to prepare the bodies of royalty, but this fact is by no means adequate preparation for the display of Nana Frema's body lying on a high brass bed under a blanket of flowers, her entire exposed right arm ringed with gold bracelets and with large gold rings on all her fingers. Stands of white flowers form a headboard, and though she is protected by both ceremonial crossed swords and real sword-bearing guards, a number of the mourners take advantage of the opportunity for a souvenir photo, even a selfie.
For these customary preparations to be made, seven months have passed since her death. So I am startled, and impressed, by what I can only call the lovely quality of the Queenmother's skin, and by her peaceful expression. Indeed, to my surprise, what I feel in seeing her is a transformative tranquillity that endures throughout that day and the next, as we process by several more times to witness her body dressed in an exquisite series of different traditional cloths. In a corner of the large room, a conventional dark wooden casket with metal handles sits ready, and looks quite out of place. ▣