A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about ceremony

Funeral of a Queen Mother

Because when are you ever again getting the chance to attend a African Queens funeral?

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Line to see the Queen

Line to see the Queen

As we’re walking past the corpse of the queen mother, an official’s angry hiss gets my attention. "Remove your glasses!" Apparently, it’s not allowed to wear glasses as you pay the queen her last respect. Just another cultural difference and traditional taboo that’s impossible to predict for an outside like me.

My family have returned to Denmark. I’ve instead been join by Bo – the founder of Globespots.com, for which I sometimes do some writing – who’ll bee travelling with me for about a month. Together with a couple of German travellers, we’re attending the funeral ceremony of the Ashanti, Queen mother. The second most important position in the ancient Ashanti culture, after the King of the Ashanti.

Bo to my right

Bo to my right

If you don’t know the Ashanti, here’s the ultra short background. Ashanti means "because of wars" and the kingdom offered the toughest resistance against the British in Ghana during the early colonisation period. So great was this kingdom that their former territory now forms an entire region in central Ghana, simply called the Ashanti Region.

Dressing up

Dressing up

The death of the queen mother is a once-in-a-generation experience. So it’s a lucky coincident that the five-day ceremony fits perfectly with our trip. Thousands of people had gathered on the palace grounds and in the surrounding streets. Most wearing all black – including our two German friends who had have special clothes made in the market earlier that day. Some combined black and dark red (the royal colours), and a few came in whatever black or red clothes they had. Both Bo and I struggled to find anything that could go with our black t-shirts, but most people seemed to forgive our brown pants.

A ceremony like this one – we found out – tend to be rather rowdy. One thing is the heavy drinking. The funeral is held a few months after the queen mother’s death. So the moarning had been replaced by something more fitting a goodbye party, which I guess fits well with a funeral. More problematic was the dancing and competition. Let me explain.

Chief's entourage

Chief's entourage

All the regions local chiefs attend this funeral. With full entourage. These entourages, complete with weapons for noise-making, tend to compete in creating the loudest and wildest presentation of their chief. One thing is the firearms for making noise, but the dances and shouts mostly arrive from old worrier and war dances that are very aggressive in nature. Having a bunch of armed bodyguards competing in being the wildest loudest and most aggressive, doesn’t necessarily create what I would call a ‘nice atmosphere’. It was rather a spectacle.

Funeral drummers

Funeral drummers

Having mostly untrained local bodyguards to act as crowd control didn’t improve the situation further. Local dancers would approach us white people and make a dance move where they would rather aggressively head-bud a money bill. If we were meant to donate money to the dancers, I don’t know, but being singled out by these guys weren’t fantastic.

Village chief

Village chief

At this point, some local guy felt pity for us and used most of the rest of the funeral on showing us around and trying to explain us things. Including getting us into the lines that would walk around the dead queen mother’s body as a sign of respect. No shoes, no jewellery (including watches), no hats and apparently no glasses. I’m just happy that I’m only 0.5 myopic – so it wasn’t a problem to actually see the body. Had I been near blind it might have been a problem not to accidentally step on one of the many members of the royal family who was sitting on the ground around the corpse.

Rowdiness and the aggressive vibe aside it was an enjoyable experience. Only one real low point was that both Bo and I suffered an attempt to pickpocket us. This is the first time in my ten months here in West Africa I’ve experienced it, but crowds like this are prime locations for thieves, so I’m not surprised. Both Bo and I are experienced travellers, and none succeeded.

Funeral crowd

Funeral crowd

I’m mostly a bit offended by how stupid “my pickpocketer” though I was. He got my zipped pockets opened and tried to go for my phone. I feel his hand around my pocket, grabs it with my left hand and pushes him away by planting my right hand firmly in his chest. Accompanied by a loud, “keep your hands out of my pockets!” You should think he would get that message, but no. A second later he tried to open my zipper on my small camera back strapped to my belt. Again, I manage to push his hands away and just before I turn around some locals shout out to me that he’s a thief and he loses himself in the chaos.

Priestess dancing

Priestess dancing

However, he was wearing a blue and white jumper. In a crowd of all black. He was the easiest guy to spot, and I manage to spot him across the crowd. I simply refuse to get pickpocketed by someone so amateurish that he doesn’t even dress to disappear into a crowd of people all dressed in black. If you want to pickpocket this white guy, you simply need to make at least a minimum of an effort!

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:04 Archived in Ghana Tagged travel king queen ceremony ghana travelling mother funeral chief west_africa drumming asante ashanti pickpocked Comments (2)

A Royal Audience

Or rather two audiences and a big ceremony

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Ouahigouya

Ouahigouya

Early evening, on the same day I finished my Dogon Country trek, I left Mali to the relative safety of northern Burkina Faso. More precisely a town called Ouahigouya. Entering a new country means finding a new way to quell my Internet addiction, i.e. buy a new local sim-card and load it with data. Sure, travelling through West Africa would be a good way to get “off the grid”, but I’m not leaving the Internet behind for a whole year. Besides, the mobile 3G is the only internet down here fast enough for me to actually update this blog. Wi-Fi and internet cafés are painfully slow.

Royal Yatenga Grave

Royal Yatenga Grave

Walking into the nearest mobile company office, little did I know that I wasn’t just shopping a sim-card. I was making a friend. The guy selling me the sim-card, Sissoko, decided to help me out once we’d finished the formal business. He offered to take me to the guesthouse I wanted to stay in, so we jumped on the back of his scooter to find me a place to sleep. Things were pretty full, so we had to shop around. Having finally found a place, he not only paid for the first two night (so smoothly that I didn’t realise it and thus couldn’t complain/stop him), he also bought me dinner and paid my beer.
We met up the next day so that he could show me the town. As you might have guessed, he insisted on driving me around seeing stuff. Passing by the traditional king’s palace, I casually mentioned that we should go and visit the King. You know, as a sign of respect from a traveller passing through his lands. Sissoko wasn’t as keen as I was. Bursting in on the King unannounced apparently isn’t something you do here. He’s quite the powerful guy. Let me explain.

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace

In Burkina, the old pre-colonial kingdoms still exist. The most powerful are in Ouagadougou – the capital. The second-most powerful is in Ouahigouya, and a third is in the eastern part of the country. These kings sort of have the role of civil society leaders. While they are all decedents of the original, pre-colonial kings, the modern state’s president and other political leaders wield the official political power. The Kings, wield unofficial power. They hold sway over dozens – if not hundreds – of village chiefs, who then have the respect of their villages. So the government have to consider their opinions during policy making.

The King and His Spokesperson

The King and His Spokesperson

Despite the unannounced nature of our visit, the King was happy to see us. Once he’d woke up from his nap, that is. So we had to wait a few hours. We used them pro-actively and did another tour of the town. When it was time to see the king, he was sitting in his courtyard on a white plastic garden chair. A few other guests were sitting on mats on the floor. This humble throne was the only thing physically distinguishing the king from his guests. As a foreign visitor, the king ordered for another throne to be fetched, and I was honoured with a white plastic chair opposite the King’s. Between Sissoko’s decent English and my basic knowledge of French, we did manage to tell the king that my visit was a show of respect. However, we didn’t get much further in the conversation. Asking questions about a Burkina king’s skillset, the secession order and the size of the realm were a wee bit too complicated with the languish barrier. Instead, the King asked us to come back the following morning with prepared questions and told his grandson to accompany us back to town so that he could answer some of my questions. Hashtag: Hanging out with a prince.

Sissoko (middle) and Tiraogo (right)

Sissoko (middle) and Tiraogo (right)

The king’s grandson, Tiraogo, had a bit better command of English, than Sissoko, and with a bit of help from Google Translate, I got explained, among other things, how succession works here. Not surprisingly, it’s agnatic primogeniture, meaning that the oldest legitimate son will take over the throne once a king dies. Interestingly though, an interim mourning period lasting between six weeks and six months have to be upheld before the new king can take to the throne. In this time the senior woman of the royal family will take over leadership of the kingdom. The senior woman being either the deceased king’s oldest living sister or his oldest daughter.

Extended Royal Family

Extended Royal Family

Returning to the palace the next morning, the King had changed his attire to a more royal rope. Formal audiences are held in a small building in front of the courtyard. Here the king was launching on a mat on a raised plateau, while his guests were sitting on mats on the floor. Again, I got a plastic chair. We exchanged some diplomatic pleasantries, like me thanking the king for his time and willingness to answer my questions, while the King expressed gratitude of my interest in learning more about the kingdom. Then, through Sissoko and Tiraogo, I had a chance to ask questions about the role and skillset of the king, the importance of the institution, and how it co-exists with the more formal political hierarchy. I’ve already summed up the answers in the beginning. The king also invited me to attend the “year’s first” ceremony that afternoon. My plan was to leave town after my meeting with the king, but I don’t know when I’ll be invited to a royal ceremony again and decided to stay for another day.

The King and Village Chiefs

The King and Village Chiefs

That afternoon me, Sissoko and his English teacher, which he had brought along to explain to me what was going on, once again returned to the royal palace. Traditionally the year in Burkina starts at the end of the rainy season. It is the king’s duty to scarifies and talk to the ancestors, in order to secure a good harvest during the rains. Thus, at the first part of the ceremony the king’s village chiefs thanked the king for the good harvest and donated some of it’s result to him. Either in the form of millet, firewood or cash. The king was back on this white plastic throne, wearing a white dress of peace (there’s also a red dress of war) and a red hat. Surrounded by his ministers, close family members and bodyguards, he took centre stage while a hundred or so village chiefs were sitting on mats and roughs to his sides. Like in a proper court. A few hundred spectators, mostly kids and women, had gathered to witness the ceremony and were standing on the edges of it all.

Royal Ceremony

Royal Ceremony

During the second part of the ceremony, the chiefs (on behalf of their villages) and individuals who wished to, could ask the king for good luck and safety for the coming year – at the token of a small donation. This pretty much worked out like this: gifts of money were handed to the king’s spokesman who would then announce the person’s or village’s name as well as the size of the donation to the crowd. Some social competition is a huge part of this. Figuring out that it would give the crowds a thrill I donated the equivalent of 3€ (about the median of the donations given) to the king and asked for protection, hospitality and good luck for any travellers, who is going to pass through the kingdom the rest of the year. Loud cheers and laughs from the crowd insinuated that I hadn’t been wrong about my participation being well recessive.

Fire!

Fire!

In general, this was a ceremony clouded in smoke from some heavy guns his bodyguards were carrying. Otherwise, everything was done in a quite formal and professional way. Every person taking part in the ceremony having specific and designated roles. Ceremonies here in Ouahigouya is apparently rare. But the king in the capital Ouagadougou hold a short ceremony every Friday morning should some feel like visiting.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 21:17 Archived in Burkina Faso Tagged traditional travel king ceremony meeting travelling west_africa burkina ceremonies naaba audieance Comments (0)

Animist Africa

Traditional kings, sacred forests and festive circumcisions are best enjoyed with some new quality company.

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Boys walking to their Ceremony

Boys walking to their Ceremony

We arrived at the village without much idea of what to expect. Our guide from the day before had simply told us that there would be a festival taking place. From the back seat of the motorbikes that took us there, the very first thing we spotted was a tent selling beers and soft drinks. Very much like a festival back home. The next thing, however, not so much. Around fifteen boys, the youngest under ten and the oldest in their early twenties, was led into the village by a village elder. The elder was dressed all in red, while the boys – walking, very ceremonial in single file – were dressed in nothing but skirts of dried leaves.

Astrid also like beer

Astrid also like beer

But first thing first. I’m writing “we” because I’ve picked up some semi-perminant company. I’m lucky enough to have some adventurous friends, who don’t mind flying down to Africa to visit me (and don’t mind roughing it either), so I’ve picked up Astrid in Banjul’s airport about a week ago. I know Astrid from university, where we both worked for the student union. Besides that she has a big travel heart – particular for Nepal. As she has already visited the mountainousness country once this year, I have managed to talk her into joining me in Africa. Thus I have company for the next month. After a few days of resting, we headed out of the Gambia, into southern Senegal and the Casamance region.

Ceremonial Dancing

Ceremonial Dancing

Like the far southeast, southern Senegal is far from the glitter and glamour of Dakar’s fancy nightlife (and equally far from the misery of Dakar’s shanty towns). Here are as many – if not more – animist believers than Christians or Muslims. The traditions here are thus far from what I have experienced anywhere else I’ve travelled. Or back home for that matter. Here is a culture traditional to Africa. Maybe even to West Africa. Without any influence from it’s northern neighbours – both Arab and European. Astrid and I thus had some difficulties deciphering what is going on around us, but have managed to get a somewhat comprehensive idea pieced together by asking locals on site.

Boys of the Festival

Boys of the Festival

What we were attending was a circumcision ceremony for the village boys. It’s a huge, two day festival drawing crowds from many of the neighbouring villages. It’s especially celebrated because it’s a rare occasion. Our guide said that this particular village had not held such a festival for the past 20-30 years. However, based on the age-span between the youngest and oldest boys it’s is more likely to be 10-15 years since this village last circumcised its boys. Neither Astrid nor I are supportive of the idea of circumcision for any other than medical reasons, but we are also not gonna walk into an African village and disapprove of their customs or traditions. These traditions are part of why we went to Africa in the first place, part of the experience whether we like them or not.

Large festival crowds

Large festival crowds

The circumcision is also celebrated because it’s a coming of age ritual. These boys and young men aren’t allowed to marry before they have gone through the ritual, so some of these guys must have been looking forward to this day for years. The ritual is not just two days of festival. The festival is just their sending away party. The festival finished with the boys leaving the village, together with the elders, to go live in the bush for an entire month. This, I should add, with bleeding penises as the circumcisions are performed in the beginning of the month. What they are going through exactly is still clouded in mystery, as we wasn’t able to find any answer to this. Most of the people we talked with simply lived in other villages, were the rituals are slightly different, and none was willing to disclose their own rituals as they are traditionally hidden from strangers and outsiders

Traditional dancer

Traditional dancer

The festival itself consisted of a lot of drumming, dancing, and drinking. More than once we found people who’d just fallen over from where they stood due to the drinking. Most people, though, were on their feet. The boys in particular were leading the dancing. With the drums in the middle they danced their tribal dance around the drummers, with plenty of villagers and guest joining them, with an even larger crowd of spectators standing in an even larger circle around them.

Mortar flower box

Mortar flower box

Common for everyone – to our surprise – was the weapons. Most people were carrying large sticks and clubs, plenty had machetes and some were yielding large knifes. Two guys even carried around mortar launchers (though we didn’t see any grenades). When we asked about all the weaponry, the only answer we got was that it was “for protection.” We hope it was against evil spirits, but with all that drinking going on and a rather rowdy atmosphere, we couldn’t rule out that they were simply carrying weapons for personal protection. Sincerely hoping that it wasn’t for the latter reason, we thankfully never saw anyone acting aggressively.

Village Elders leading the boys

Village Elders leading the boys

It was all rather chaotic, and Astrid and I managed to get lost from each other on multiple occasions. Once when the entire festival suddenly began moving towards the bush in one big wave of people. Women and outsiders are generally not allowed to be part of the ceremony’s ‘bush-parts,’ so separately we both got into trouble for walking too far out towards the bush. Astrid got yelled at before an old woman kindly brought her back to ‘safer’ grounds, while my turning back was a bit nicer. A few guys came up to me, indicated that I wasn’t allowed any further and then, as a way to lure me away from the ceremony, offered me tea in their house on the opposite side of the village. I declined and instead went looking for Astrid, who I manage to find close by before having a last beer and leaving the festival behind.

Animist King (of 17 villages)

Animist King (of 17 villages)

As if this circumcision ceremony wasn’t enough animist experience for one day, we manage to secure a visit with the local animist king once we’d returned to the larder village we stay in. It’s not especially easy to arrange such a visit, as there is proper procedures and traditional rituals that must be followed when requesting an audience. But somehow, with the help of a couple of locals, we were brought to the sacred forest in which the King lives. The king is chosen by the village elders, for life, on a rotatory system between the areas’ three eldest families. It’s not necessarily a desired role, as the king has to give up his planned carrier and is not allowed to travel (ever) beyond those seventeen villages that this traditional kingdom consists of. His role is to act as advisor, broker, conflict manager, social security (if villagers go hungry, they can ask for rice from the king’s field) for the villagers, who seek audience. He is also somewhat of a representative for the area to the regional and national elected politicians and governments. We didn’t ask for any rice, but simply tried to learn more about the traditional role of the king – and then we shared a few trivia about the Danish king, who to everybody’s big surprise is a woman.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 04:21 Archived in Senegal Tagged traditional travel king africa ceremony festival ritual celebration west_africa animist senegal circumcision africa_village elders Comments (0)

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