Death’s Digital Etiquette

I originally wrote this a few years ago after the passing of Komla Dumor. The topic it covers seems especially poignant today; not just on account of Major Mahama’s funeral, but because of the departure of yet another witty, intelligent, glorious young patriot who I won’t name for reasons explained in the piece.

Mourn the living today, because the ancestors’ gain is our genuine loss.

If there is one thing that Ghanaians do better than anyone else, it is death. Not dying; anyone can do that. Death, however, is very much ours. Our Nigerian cousins can keep their banquet-like super weddings:

We have Death.

Entire weekends can be spent hopping from funeral to funeral. Cross-country, for those who can afford the time and money. We have bank loans that target the bereaved because that’s how much money we spend sending off the dead. And that’s what it’s all about really: honouring those joining the ancestors. Our funerals involve heavy mourning followed by heavy celebration. We place that much bearing on ancestry. The past. Where we’re from. The white man may have changed our attitudes towards many of our traditions, but they couldn’t touch death.

Death is ours.

You see it in coffins carved to the point of high art along the Ga coastline; or in the absence of obituaries in newspapers, because the space is taken up by funeral announcements. Why focus on one person’s passing when you can take money to advertise ten? We advertise death on mega-sized billboards across the city; not just to show off, but because – although specific details are often kept private – death is an experience shared. Everyone must know so that everyone can get involved.

How then do we do death when sharing is increasingly such a digital experience?

Nothing brings this question into sharper focus than the events online following the recent passing of the broadcaster, Komla Dumor.

As I type, the ancestors are yet to receive Komla, but they have surely heard word that he is on his way to them. I am sure that they are as shocked to receive one so young and so brilliant as we are to have lost him.

Word of his sudden passing started making the rounds early on Saturday the 18th of January. When death happens, Ghanaians call family wherever in the world they are. In an Africa where the mobile phone has become a fixture across space, age, class, and such, text messages, Facebook updates and emails started flying around. One or two websites posted the story. The rapper, Sarkodie, tweeted that he was waiting for confirmation from the BBC. There was something comical here: waiting for confirmation of the passing of a local son from the mouthpiece of the old colonial master. To be fair however, this was a special case: Komla actually worked for said mouthpiece, doing his part to change the popular African narrative of negativity into a multifaceted one telling the story of all the Africas: rich, poor, young, old, north, south, black, white and everything in between.

As the leaked news was eventually confirmed, people scrambled for explanation. Komla was a public figure, savvy (and Ghanaian) enough to have a Facebook page, as well as a presence on the likes of Instagram. While some dug up and shared pictures they were lucky enough to have taken with Komla, others ploughed through Komla’s online photographs. Very soon, someone had posted a picture of one of Komla’s children with the caption, ‘Is this child too without a father?

Somewhere, a line had been crossed.

It would perhaps be crossed again when a Whatsapp conversation between Komla and a close friend leaked out and went viral. The message was recent, ending with Komla thanking God as he walked out of a meeting in which he had landed the job as the BBC’s point man for Brazil 2013. However, it also divulged arguably private details about the state of his health, and pointed fingers at an unnamed few who had caused him considerable stress at work.

Courtesy of an active few, Ghana has a heavy presence across social media. Ghanaians are engaging with the internet – in one way or another – in increasing numbers, from posting pictures on Facebook to holding simple conversations on Whatsapp. We download indiscriminately: not just movies, music and TV shows, but – importantly – images. Few businesses in Ghana use original photography to advertize their wares. Ludacris seems to have had his hair cut at every barbershop in the city. Rihanna, Beyonce and Denzel will each be surprised to find how many little boutiques they have modelled for across Accra. If any law exists here banning the use of anything other than original images in their advertising, it has been broken a million times over. In such a space, what is Death’s digital etiquette?

We share. We share. We share.

But do we feel?

I read a recent piece I can no longer find about a hierarchy of grief; about the right of the bereaved to not hear of (or be assaulted by) their loss from strangers.

I agree.

 

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