There's a profound yet simple proverb about ethnocentrism in many African societies (e.g., the Baganda, Akamba, Kikuyu, Bemba, Haya, Igbo, and Yoruba). Translated, it means "The one who has not traveled widely thinks his/her mother is the best cook."
This proverb often comes to mind when I hear Americans talking about African food, especially Sub-Saharan African food, in a patronizing, superior way, and also lumping a whole continent together in a way they would never dream of doing for other global locations. A missionary in Ghana once sniffed and said to me disparagingly "They eat grass," when referring to the greens cooked in stews. In Pennsylvania we carefully distinguish among varieties of apples (Rome, Gala, Granny Smith, Red or Golden Delicious, Macintosh, Pink Lady, Ginger Gold, Braeburn, Crispin, Cameo, etc., etc.). In Ghana that discrimination applies to greens, of which it's documented that people savor 47 different kinds. Just because our palates haven't been trained to detect the textures, degrees of bitterness, saltiness, etc. doesn't mean that the food is inferior.
Similarly, people often say that Africans eat some kind of starch, but they lump them all together, without detecting the differences among, say, types of yams, rice, plantains, millets, sorghum, corn, sweet potatoes, potatoes, cassava, taro (cocoyams), even wheat, along with very different methods of preparation (fermented, unfermented, pounded, dried, fresh, boiled, fried, roasted, steamed, stirred, etc.).
Speaking of parting, it is only rarely that dirges are heard in Kawu nowadays. Two factors are contributing to their decline: firstly the fact that many churches discourage their use, preferring edifying hymns instead. The reason behind this, I am told, is that the dirges reflect a pre-Christian worldview and as such are to be eschewed by true Christians. A second factor has been the coming of electricity to the villages halfway the nineties, which has led to loud music taking the place of the dirges during the wakekeepings. Elsewhere I wrote that “culture is a moving target, always renewing and reshaping itself”, yet at the same time I can’t help but lament the imminent loss of such a rich vein of Mawu culture.
However, during my last fieldtrip there were some signs of a renewed interest in the genre. For example, one pastor told me that he had been reconsidering the rash dismissal of the dirges by his church. Realizing how important the dirges had been in containing, orienting, and canalizing the feelings of loss and pathos surrounding death, he felt that the Christian hymns did not always offer an appropriate replacement. Another hopeful event was that I was approached with the request to help record a great number of dirges in Akpafu-Todzi in August 2008. This was not just to record them for posterity (although this was part of the motivation), but also very practically so that they could be played at wakekeepings. I gladly complied with this wish of course. The result is a beautiful collection of 42 dirges, sung by eight ladies between 57 and 87 years of age. The first time the dirges were played at a funeral they sparked a wave of interest.
When I carried out fieldwork in Ghana during the 1960s, I was amazed by how migrants found their relatives, after traveling 500 miles to an unknown city of a million people. They had no addresses or phone numbers written down. When they arrived in the central lorry park, they would look for someone wearing Northern dress and ask him where they could find people like themselves. Directed to a particular district, they would seek out a leading figure in the ethnic community. They might then be directed to someone else from their home village. By all means, within an hour or two, they would be sitting with their relative. These African migrants knew that we live in small worlds connected by fewer links than most of us imagine. They used contingent human encounters and network hubs like local big men, not street maps. Their method was news to me then, but it shouldn’t be now.