As some of you may know, Ghana’s President John Evans Atta Mills died about 2 weeks ago while still in office. As it is an election year here in Ghana, the sudden death of the president, who was planning to run for a 2nd term, has caused a lot of news throughout the country. Since Mills’ death, people have been wearing red and black, a sign that you are in mourning. In Ghana, the president’s body is owned by the state, therefore the state gets to decide where the body is buried, not the family. After much deliberation and weeks of arguments between officials and the family, the state decided that President Mills would be buried in Geese Park, a park right next to the president’s residence, known as The Castle.
Monday, I was assigned to go out with a reporter in our office, Jefferson, to get more information on the funeral preparations for the funeral. Because the funeral will last 3 days long, there are multiple venues that will be a part of the ceremony. After stopping at the state house and Independence Square, where dignitaries and the public are invited to attend the various funeral festivities, we quickly drove past Geese Park. As Jefferson drove, he asked me to take note of what was going on in great detail. We saw bulldozers, tractors, a cherry picker, and cement mixing trucks. Among them were Ghanaian and Chinese construction workers and a few flocks of white geese.
Because the security was tight around the park, we were unable to go inside to talk to any of the workers. This did not seem to discourage Jefferson at all. Instead, we parked the car right off the main street and walked around to the houses near the park. We came upon an older woman sitting outside of her house. Jefferson walked right up to her and asked her what her name was and if we could talk to her about her opinions on the president’s funeral. She told us that her name was Sara and started to share that she had lived in this particular house since 1942. The house had been there since before Ghana’s Independence and now she and her extended family occupy the house that overlooks Geese Park. We asked her how she felt about the president being buried so close to her home. She responded that she believes that the park would be a wonderful and peaceful resting place for the late president and that she was proud to be able to see it every day.
We started walking away when Jefferson looked back at the house and said, “Boy, it would be great if we could get a look at that top room that overlooks the garden, wouldn’t it?” I agreed so he turned around and we started walking back towards the woman. We asked if she could show us the top room and she told us that there was a young boy inside who could show us. We walked into the courtyard of the house, where rows and rows of laundry were hung up on string. A young boy met us in the courtyard and took us up a flight of creaky wooden stairs. When we reached the top, he showed us the large open room that overlooked Geese Park and Independence Square. We peered out the windows as he told us that he felt sad about the president being buried so close to his house.
“Every day when I wake up, I will be reminded of all that the president has done for Ghana. He provided shelter and better education for the children and families. I will be sad, but it makes me proud to be a Ghanaian.”
At only 16 years old, I was astonished at this young boy’s remorse for his fallen president. It had me question if at 16 years old I would have had the capacity to feel half as strongly if my president had died. From my perspective, in Ghana there are fewer distractions for young people. There’s less junk on television, less access to the Internet, I’ve never heard anyone utter the word “video game,” and if the focus is not on school, it’s on work and helping the family. These are kids who don’t have time to watch the Olympics because they are busy working at their parents’ shops or taking care of their younger siblings. Kids like this boy have to have an opinion on their politics because it directly affects them. They are the people who see the changes in their everyday life, whether it be a rise in the price of plantain or a new building at their school. It was refreshing to witness such profound feeling from a 16 year old boy, instead of getting the silent treatment from one plugged into his iPod.
When Jefferson got the recording he needed, we thanked the boy and he led us down the stairs. We then crossed the street to find more residents in the area to talk to. We came upon a small garden bordering the fence that surrounds Geese Park. There, we met Fred, a 59-year-old farmer and musician. We asked him how it would feel to come to his garden every day, where he has grown lettuce, cabbage, green pepper, and carrots for 35 years, and see the grave of President Mills. He responded that while he will always be reminded of the great man that Ghana has lost, he believes that his death and his burial cite is a way to bring the people of Ghana together in mourning, but also gratitude for the man that Mills was. When he told us that he was a musician on the side, Jefferson asked him if he would sing a song to the late president for us. He began to sing a traditional song in Twi and Jefferson recorded. I was told later that the man was singing, “And one day we will all meet again.”
Jefferson and I thanked the man and walked away feeling satisfied with the material that we had retrieved. I was pleasantly surprised that Jefferson chose not to try to talk to the people AT Geese Park building the grave. Instead of seeking out the brains of the operation, the important people calling the shots, or even educated looking businessmen, he specifically looked for ordinary citizens who would be directly affected by the sight of the grave every day. This unique choice paid off in the end as we walked away with 3 beautiful raw moments from 3 wonderful, insightful, and ordinary citizens.
Not only was I able to learn more about the funeral process and the feelings of the people whom it would impact, but I walked away with the knowledge of how to tell a beautiful and effective story. As a reporter, you cannot be afraid to ask the right questions or the right people, and sometimes the unexpected choice, like asking the woman to let us see her home or asking the farmer to sing for the president, proves to be the most effective one.