“We are the world” was playing from a teenage boy’s cell phone. Local Ghanaian music was blasting from the speakers. The guests were dressed in red and black, traditional funeral colors here in Ghana. We were secluded from the rest of the funeral guests, sitting under a canopy as one of the family members introduced the other family members and important guests.
As Alex was extremely busy with stuff at the orphanage, Roland, one of Alex and Raymond’s brothers traveled to Ho with me for Jennifer’s funeral. Funerals don’t always occur so quickly after a death here in Ghana so I felt lucky that Jennifer’s was taking place so quickly after her death. I felt this way selfishly as I knew that attending her funeral would bring me some closure.
As the man was talking, the guest sitting to my right whispered that he was talking about me. I was told to stand up as John, the father of the family further introduced me and told the family members how this white girl, the only white person of the hundreds of funeral attendees was associated with their family. As he talked in Ewe, I couldn’t understand most of what he said, but it really didn’t matter. I understood when he introduced me as Nicole Pampanin and then proceeded to tell everyone that I am also Nicole Dogbey, part of their family. I was then told that they wanted me to come and see the corpse. I had been doing pretty well until then and suddenly burst into tears.
Prior to arriving at this compound where all the guests were gathered, we went to Klepe, the village where the family lives. As we arrived in Klepe, I noticed huge groups of people on the side of the road dressed in black and red. The children were dressed in their green school uniforms and had red scarves and cloths tied around themselves. We were in a pick up truck and went to pick up some of the guests so that they didn’t have to walk. The scene was overwhelming. I had attended funerals in Ghana before but this one was different because I actually knew the person who died. It meant so much more to see all the people standing out there, dressed in black and red and it touched my heart to see that so many people cared about Jennifer and were mourning her loss. One of the things I have learned in Africa is that if something happens, whether good or bad, positive or negative, it affects the whole community. When a marriage occurs, the community celebrates together and when a death occurs, the community mourns together.
When I was told that I was to go and see the corpse, I turned to Roland and asked him if the casket would be open or closed. He told me that he was not sure as this practice varies from family to family. I was nervous, scared that the casket would be open. I was hesitant to go into the room where the casket was but I was pulled in regardless. Once again, I burst into tears. The casket was open. Jennifer was lying there, dressed in a beautiful dress. I turned away after about two seconds. I couldn’t look at her. It was real. Seeing her body laying there in the casket made it real.
Being in Hohoe, while Jennifer’s family was in Ho made it difficult for me to really comprehend Jennifer’s death. I cried when I heard the news of her death but I was alone. I had support here in Hohoe and from home, but no one else knew Jennifer. It was something that really only affected me. Therefore, it didn’t really seem real. I didn’t see anyone else crying over her death, I was distant and it made it easier for me to pretend that it wasn’t really real. Even as Roland and I traveled to Ho on Friday morning, I was still hoping that I would arrive and be told that it was all a joke. Seeing all the people in Klepe mourning Jennifer’s death began to make it more real but it wasn’t until I saw her corpse that it became reality. It finally clicked. There was no turning back. Jennifer’s death was real and I just couldn’t handle it.
I turned and was hugged by Peace and Dela, two of Jennifer’s siblings. They walked me out of the room as I cried my eyes out. I was walked back to my seat and just sat there, unable to think, move, or do anything. I watched Jennifer’s biological parents, whom I had never met before as they cried and wished that I could just give them a huge hug and wipe their tears.
I don’t remember what happened next. I was in such a daze. I tried to be present but it was so difficult when all I could do was think about the fact that Jennifer, the bright, somewhat quiet but funny girl whom I had gotten to know and love over the past few years was gone. I thought of her as one of my sisters. And now she would no longer be there when I came to visit, I would no longer be able to talk to her on the phone, or play Uno with her and share laughs with her. I thought about the fact that I was so lucky that I had never before had to attend the funeral of a child because I did not know any children who had died (besides Nyanuie, the child from Christ Orphanage who died last year while I was in East Africa) and hoped that this would be the last funeral of a child that I would have to attend. But with doing work in Ghana and knowing so many children and people here, I have to be realistic and realize that however sad it may be, I might be living in a dream world to think this way.
Peace and Roland sat with me. Peace put her arms around me. And I put my arms around her. I knew that I needed her love and support just as much as she needed mine. I felt sad for Jennifer’s parents, for John and Annie who had cared for Jennifer for longer than I had known her, and for her other friends and family members, but I felt the most pain for Peace. Peace is 17 years old and is the other teenage girl in my adopted family. Although Peace and Jennifer were not biological sisters, they were ‘sisters.’ They grew up together, lived together, played together, and loved each other’s company. Although Peace was staying strong, I knew that it must have been very difficult for her, something that became very evident at the gravesite.
I was escorted to the pick up truck and told to get inside as about 20 men jumped into the back. The men sang in the back as we drove to the cemetery. The weight of all the men began to take a toll on the vehicle. We eventually had to stop at a gas station and put more air in the tires but that did not fix the squeaking and other noises that the vehicle was making.
We arrived at the cemetery and had to walk past a number of graves to get to the gravesite. As we were walking, we witnessed a fight which had broken out between some of the family members. Apparently one of the men was upset that he did not get to help carry the casket from the truck to the gravesite and decided to make a scene. I know that he wanted to be a part because he loved Jennifer but it saddened me that they were fighting and making such a big scene at her funeral, at the gravesite.
The casket was laid on top of the burial plot as some words were spoken in Ewe. Amidst my crying, I tried to comfort Forgive and Peace who were also crying. The casket was lowered into the grave and the tears escaladed. If seeing the corpse didn’t make it real enough, this did. And the thumps as the dirt was thrown on top of the casket made it even more real. She was gone. She was really gone. I was a mess. Hearing the dirt pound on the casket killed me inside. I was pulled away and taken back to the pick up truck. The men were already crowded in the back of the truck and I was seated inside. The ride back to the family’s home in Klepe was quieter than the ride to the cemetery although there was some singing.
We arrived at the family’s house in Klepe. The compound had been rearranged to accompany three large tents and dozens of plastic chairs. The elders who could not attend the actual funeral were present and the events of the funeral were described to them in Ewe. Melody and Richmond were both there and I just held them when they came and sat with me. Alcohol was served and some other proceedings that I did not follow took place.
When there was a break in the proceedings, I talked to John to try to fully understand how Jennifer died. I was confused and had questions that I wanted answered. As I knew, Jennifer was taken to the hospital on Sunday night. She was given an IV and died when receiving the third bag of medication. She had been to the hospital earlier that week and received medication for the malaria but apparently she was very stubborn about taking medication and had to be forced to take it. I am not sure if she actually ended up taking the medication as she was supposed to or if that is the reason she ended up getting worse and had to go back to the hospital. No one seems to be very sure. However, they know that Jennifer began loosing a lot of blood during the IV and became anemic. Apparently it is very easy to get blood from the blood bank (something that Jennifer’s parents investigated after her death) but the doctor was upset with his nurses and did not order the blood. It is due to this that Jennifer ended up dying. Hearing this made me upset. How could the doctor neglect to do something as simple as order some blood for this young girl? This blood would have saved her life. I turned to Roland and asked if anything would happen to the doctor due to his negligence in this case. He just shook his head and asked if anything would happen to the doctor if this happened in America. I couldn’t believe that the doctor would be able to continue practicing medicine as if nothing had happened, as if he was not at all responsible for this death, as if he had no role in Jennifer’s death. I know there is a lack of doctors here in Ghana but this was upsetting. I wished there was something I could do, but I know that I can’t fix everything. I can try my best to make an impact here but there is only so much one person can do.
Jennifer’s death inspires me to keep working hard and serving the community here in Wegbe. I know that my presence here brings joy and hope to the locals and right now, that is all I can do. I will do my best to continue making their lives a bit brighter with my presence, help to provide food, education, and healthcare to their children at Christ Orphanage, and work even harder to keep raising funds back home so that we are able to continue providing for these children. They are the future of this country. They are the hope of Wegbe, Ghana.