Since 1979 the writer Philip Graham and his wife, the cultural anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, have lived off and on in small villages among the Beng people of the West African country of Côte d’Ivoire, which they first chronicled in the award-winning Parallel Worlds. Now a second volume of their memoir, Braided Worlds (University of Chicago Press), has just been published. Through interweaving narratives, Gottlieb and Graham recount unexpected dramas of cultural contact, including a religious leader’s declaration that the authors’ six-year-old son Nathaniel was the reincarnation of a revered ancestor, Graham’s late father being accepted into the Beng afterlife, and the deepening and increasingly dangerous madness of a villager.
The following excerpt, from one of Philip’s sections in Braided Worlds, recounts the village funeral ceremony in absentia Philip gave his father, the news of whose death in the U.S had arrived too late for Philip to return home.
The royalties from Braided Worlds are dedicated to the Beng people.
Darkness had long fallen when Amenan’s older brother Baa arrived in the courtyard, guitar at his side and accompanied by a group of friends, to sing some of his songs in honor of my father’s death.
Neighbors strolled in slowly, followed by villagers from compounds farther away, far more than I’d expected. When an old person dies, Beng funerals celebrate a long life lived, and my father’s 75 years seemed to qualify him. So the crowd had come out of respect, but I guessed that people were also drawn by the promise of Baa’s performance. I had recently asked Amenan why the usual village evening dances hadn’t been performed since we’d arrived in the village. “We dance when we’re happy,” she’d said, adding, “these days no one is happy”—words that revealed yet another cost of the country’s continuing economic troubles. Well, I thought now, at least my father’s funeral would offer the village some temporary pleasure—Baa’s jaunty music was popular, and not all the songs tonight would be sad.
As the crowd grew, Amenan and her daughters brought out extra wooden stools, chairs, and straw mats from the compound’s various buildings. Then she left for a few minutes and returned, carrying a liter of the heady homemade brew called kutuku that she must have bought from a neighbor, to pass around among her guests—another good reason for a large turnout. Yacouba entered the compound, and I rose to greet him, so grateful he’d biked all the way from Kosangbé for this ceremony, grateful for the support of his embrace as he said with real feeling the Beng phrase of condolence, “A kunglia.” I nodded to André when he arrived—thankfully, he had forgiven my rudeness from that first evening of our return to the village.
Kokora Kouassi sat on a stool facing the guests, a gourd holding water in one hand, a shot glass holding kutuku in the other. Amenan turned to us and said, “Aba is about to pray and invoke the spirits.”
His head bent to the earth, Kouassi began to speak:
Dear Grandfather Denju, spirit of our ancestors,
Here is water for you,
Take it and drink
Kouassi paused, then tipped first the gourd, then the shot glass, dripping water and the clear alcohol onto the earth.
Father of Kouadio, you who are dead,
Here is water for you,
Take it and drink
Again, Kouassi made his offerings, then set the gourd and glass on the ground before continuing.
Father of Kouadio, your son is among us
To share with us your funeral rites
He doesn’t forget you,
He will never forget you
Rest calmly, the earth
Will be soft for you
Give good fortune to your son,
His wife and child
The nearly full moon glowed softly, casting night shadows over our growing circle. Tall and lanky, Baa stepped forward with a calm demeanor I admired because it was the opposite of my usual noisy internal traffic. Baa strummed his guitar, his friends clanged iron bells quietly, rhythmically, and as music filled the cool night air, I huddled with the comfort of my wife and young son in the middle of the compound and listened to the lilt of the songs. Baa sang too quickly for me to make out individual words, but Amenan, sitting beside us, whispered quick translations.
Our only father, he’s gone, he’s died,
He has been snatched from our hands,
Look: my only father, who fed me, is dead,
Snatched from my hands
I stirred uncomfortably in my chair at these words. If only the grief they embodied could be so simple. My father had worked hard all his life, each day framed by a grueling commute to and from New York City. As a child, I don’t think I’d ever appreciated the sacrifices he made to offer his family a middle-class life. Yet once home, he began drinking before dinner and by nine o’clock he could barely recognize anyone in his family. Perhaps that had been his intention. My parents’ marriage had long ago become a misery, punctuated by my mother’s frightening bouts of rage. When I grew older she turned that anger on me, and the habit of my father’s long-suffering ways made it impossible for him to step in. Was my leaving for Africa this summer my way of paying my father back for his inability to defend me? I squirmed in shame.
Baa sang again, a humorous song about a young woman who argued with everyone. Glad the evening had finally begun to offer lighter moments, I continued to nurse my glass of kutuku. Then Amenan began murmuring the lyrics to another song:
As long as you’re not dead yet,
Problems will always follow you.
Problems will always follow us in this world,
Even if you have money,
As long as you’re not dead yet,
Problems will always follow you
In this world of people
The time had come for me to give a speech, and I stood, cleared my throat with a cough, and in halting French said that my father had worked hard all his life, loved his family, and knew of many of the villagers there tonight from the letters I had written to him from Bengland, and that he would be happy that they had come tonight to the ceremony. As Amenan translated, I felt more and more the fraud for pretending all had been well between my father and me, and I couldn’t have felt more relief when Baa and his friends started another song.
Before I’d left for Africa this summer my father had complained about a sentence in Parallel Worlds that mentioned “my unhappily married parents.” Though now I wished I had apologized for causing him pain, at the time I’d said, “But it’s true, so why be so upset?”
“Because now everyone will know,” he replied simply, disappointment palpable in his voice. My father had struggled with the necessity of my writing the truth as I saw it, especially when the emotional details of my short stories cut a little too close to home. Tonight I felt his reply the way a Beng person might hear a parent’s curse, as the sort of words that might make someone go mad.
Across from me in Amenan’s compound Yacouba nodded his head to the music, and I remembered that of course the Beng mask their own dramas through ritual. Yacouba’s father had died since our last visit to Bengland. I could only imagine my friend’s conflicted feelings during what must have been an animist religious funeral, since Yacouba had converted to Islam as a way to reject his father, whose drunken wanderings through the village had shamed him.
Nathaniel had collapsed into sleep on the mat beside us, and he looked so peaceful, eyes shut, mouth half-open. I wondered if we should wake him so he could take in this latest phase of an African funeral for his grandfather. No, there would be more ritual moments in the days to follow, let him get his rest now, since he’d spend tomorrow playing hard with his friends under a harsh summer’s sun. Baa continued his singing, Amenan continued translating his verses about backbiting friends, a wife’s erratic behavior, but I no longer followed closely, lost in words of accusation, apology, even of comfort, that I’d never again be able to say to my father.
Kokora Kouassi had arrived early in our compound to make a pronouncement, and he sat across from us, his nearly blind eyes staring into the distance, the morning air chilly from last night’s rain.
“Welcome, Aba,” we greeted him.
Speaking through Amenan, Kouassi began, “Kouadio, I had a dream last night.” I nodded. “Your father appeared to me. From wurugbé.”
From wurugbé, the Beng afterlife. I didn’t know how to respond. It never occurred to me that my father, after his Beng funeral, would become a member of the culture’s afterlife. In wurugbé the dead are also supposed to understand every language, and I could only shake my head at the idea of my father now speaking Beng easily, considering my years of struggle to learn it.
Noting my silence, Kouassi added, “In the dream, he and your son met.”
“Ehhh?” I said, slipping into the Beng style of encouraging a speaker to continue, wondering what he would say about Nathanial who, considered by the Beng as the reincarnation of a revered ancestor, was now known as “Grandfather Denju.”
Kouassi then recited what Amenan said was a Beng proverb, before translating: “You need two hands working together to wash the back.”
I glanced at Alma, but the slight frown across her otherwise amazed face—and what did my face look like?—told me she didn’t have a clue either. She returned to scribbling furiously away in her notebook while I waited, guessing that what followed would clear up the mystery.
“In my dream,” Kouassi continued, “your son told his grandfather that he had come to visit us with his mother and father, and that he had been named for N’zri Denju.” Kouassi paused, stared in my direction. “Your father agrees that this new name for your son is all right.”
The original Denju then appeared in the dream as well. Kouassi said, “Your father and Denju are both proud of your son.”
I shared that pride, though it left me a bit dizzy: my father and Nathaniel and I were now united within the nurturing dreams of my old friend Kokora Kouassi. As I listened, I felt multiplied into mourning son, doting father, and respectful “grandson” all at once. But Kouassi wasn’t finished.
“Kouadio, in my dream your father asked for a favor. He’s new at death. He misses human food. He’d like you to leave an offering outside your doorstep tonight. He just wants a taste, to remember.”
I assured Kouassi that I would do this, though I wasn’t certain what to offer. I said, “Aba, my father doesn’t know Beng food, it’s different from what he ate in America.”
He smiled. “He’ll like it,” adding that the original N’zri Denju, apparently, would be joining my father for this snack. Kouassi suggested that we collect four empty cans of tomato paste, fill two with palm wine and the other two with bits of cooked yam. This was just the sort of meal, unfortunately, my father would have enjoyed when alive, his diet always low on vegetables and high on starches and alcohol. It might very well have contributed to his cancer. Yet what harm could it do him now?
“When you wake in the morning,” Kouassi cautioned, “don’t be disappointed if the food is still there. Remember, your father is an ancestor now. He can’t really eat. But he can take in the food’s essence. That will be enough.”
I thanked Kouassi with a rush of affection for his message. I’d known this gentle man for nearly fifteen years and only now realized the depth of his friendship. Kouassi wanted to bring my father to me, a mourning son far from home and family, and this desire had given him his dream. What I didn’t say was that Kouassi’s words didn’t ring true. My father had barely noticed my son, hadn’t even called for days after the birth of his first grandchild.
I listened to Nathaniel’s whistle on the other side of Amenan’s compound—he and his friends were back to building a little house made from discarded mud bricks. How quickly he’d entered into the life of the village. Knowing that the Beng believe the dead exist invisibly among the living, I found it comforting to think of my father’s spirit hovering in our compound, finally able to appreciate Nathaniel. Leaning into the fiction of it all, I could believe my father was finally able to openly express affection, from the emotional safety of the afterlife.
Kouassi stood to leave, then stopped and, resting on his cane, concluded with, “_Wurugbé_ is for white and black people—in wurugbé, people are the same. They all live together.”