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STATE FUNERALS OR STATE CARNIVALS?

By: Winstanley.R Bankole Johnson

I was aged six (6) years in 1957 when I witnessed my very first State Funeral in Sierra Leone. So you can imagine what lasting impressions the little I saw of that ceremony metaphorically engraved in my mind. Several others have since taken place I agree, but on reflections, it would appear that the longer our march into post-independence (and possibly civilization), the more retrogressive is becoming of our manners – or sensibilities if you prefer.

Din-Gabs Studio

I can’t quite recall how we got there, but our vantage point to watch that State Funeral for the late former Mayor of Freetown (1925 -26), former Police Magistrate, member and (the first ever Sierra Leonean to sit as) a former Vice President in the Legislative Council (LEGCO) as the precursor of our House of Representatives/Parliament was known – Sir Ernest Beoku- Betts (1895 – 1957) – was right in front of a building we “Easterners” used to call “Din-Gabs Photo Studio” (operated by the late Mr. Din-Gabisi)  located along Kissy Road, just after the junction of Bombay Street.

Of course even for that era, huge crowds milled into all the major routes identified for the funeral procession from the St George’s Cathedral right unto the Kissy Road cemetery. But even beneath the undercurrent jostling of onlookers and murmuring crowds, somberness and serenity could be discerned, as we all calmly and patiently but also very anxiously awaited the passage of the funeral cortege. There were metal and wooden Police barriers in abundance in those days, including visible police personnel positioned at reasonable equidistance from each other throughout the routes, to restrain the crowds from surging into and blocking off the streets

Pa Kabba Funeral2

Reverential Deference

First it was the booming sounds from the base drum of the military brass band we heard from afar. Then the sound of solemn funeral musical dirge from their instruments, rhythmically interrupted by the crunching stomping of soldiers’ boots making intermittent but symmetrical contacts with the tarmac, like cantering horses. Those troops, from the military and the Police (in that order) were in neat and squeaky clean ceremonial uniforms and in a quintessential formation unheard off and as never seen before, spanning the entire breadth of the selected routes. That sight was as awesomely breathtaking as if to seemingly compel humanity to briefly suspend their respirations as the corpse passed on, in reverential deference to it.

Immediately at the heels of the forces formations was a Gun Carriage bearing the casket encasing the mortal remains of the deceased, draped with the Union Jack. Yes the Union Jack because it was before we attained independence in 1961.  Next in line were the Governor General, others in LEGCO, Senior Government functionaries (on invitation of course to attend the funeral), the immediate family members and sympathizers and a stream of vehicles – presumably at the ready to ferry “Senior Service” personnel back home from the cemetery.  And it was not until after the last vehicle in the procession had past, that people began crisscrossing the streets to convivially exchange their different glimpses and perceptions as they retraced their steps homewards. Being naturally barred from making our inputs at that age, we carefully listened to and pondered on all what was being said in our hearts, so as to extensively embellish them with much salt, pepper (and magi if you please) to later on recount those experiences on the next school day.

Institutional Structures

Perhaps reference needs to also be made (as far as I can recall) to the various preparations leading to the day of the State Funeral.  Back then, immediately a decision for that is taken, family members are only contacted so as to make their inputs insofar as the obituary announcements, family viewings of the corpse and quantity of invitation cards they would require for the funeral service were concerned. Institutional structures existed within the State for all arrangements by the State for State Funerals. For example, it was axiomatic that the venue for the Church service was the St George’s cathedral, the recognized “State Church”.  Unlike today, far fewer Bishops Apostles, Saints and Confessors existed then, to be confusing successive Heads of States with prophesies into their future electoral political successes, none of which predictions has ever come to pass.

Interferences by the political parties to which the deceased belonged are subsumed, to preclude anyone from exploiting the occasion, either to propel personal vaulting political ambitions or to transform what should otherwise be a solemn funeral occasion into a “pa-o-pa” political campaign rally. Equally, there were no public broadcasts vaunting wealth or the quantum of cash and livestock donated by the government to the bereaved families. Such exchanges if they ever took place were transacted with decorum and civility. Never publicized; because they were not intended to guarantee a “happily-ever-after” life for the surviving spouses – but rather to allow them the privilege and privacy to observe the remaining traditional funeral obsequies of their traditional and religious beliefs.

Contrast

Let me now contrast the recent disorderly State Funeral procession for late former President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah from the National Stadium to the Kissy Road cemetery with as narrated above from my vantage view of the St John Church Brookfields axis.  First there were neither Police metal or wooden barriers, nor police presence equidistantly positioned. All our Police metal barriers have been exported as scrap metals, whist the wooden and plastic ones have continued to be leased out to operators of beach bars, streets and corners bars to partition the roads and block off interferences into their clients privacy (some of school-going ages) as they booze endlessly into the night whilst watching international soccer tournaments or blue movies or whilst playing devils.

Hamelin Tormentors Carnival

So by the time Pa Kabbah’s funeral cortege reached the St John roundabout, the crowds had become uncontrollable. Add to that specter of Brig. Gen. (Rtd) Maada Bio’s belligerence to barge his way through Savage Street with his band of “Hamelin Tormentors” in total contempt and disregard for orderly Police directives whilst chanting “Tejan Kabbah aye! Aye aye!!  Le God gee you good road; You don lef gee we Bio; we go vote for am tae go!!”   Instead of solemn funeral dirges, they transformed the event into a Carnival.  And that went on until a brave female Police Officer at the East End Police axis “tormented” the “tormentor” into regaining his senses. Those who shouted themselves hoarse for public show of sympathy and respect for the corpse of the late former President were the very ones who desecrated his memory. But there was I, transfixed, as I watched Maada Bio’s charade in utter disbelief. In fact gob smacked!!

 

Chaos

All hell was let loose from then onwards. There were no processional formations – neither by the forces nor by government functionaries was expected at State Funerals.   The military brass band and other soldiers were in combat fatigues – not in ceremonial uniforms – most of which either had seen better days or were overdue for a rinse in water with a packet of cheap “africana” detergent.  From my distance, the Police band members fared better in appearance, perhaps because of the colour of their uniforms. Both marched on with much speed and far less reverence befitting the occasion, with a poorly draped tri-colour “gun carriage” bearing the remains of the late former President following. Their haste was more to avoid the surging crowds blocking their paths than to avoid reaching the cemetery late. And By the time the St Edward’s School Brass Band reached the St. John axis it was complete chaos and a free-for –all time for pick pockets. Traders also mingled freely within the processing crowds of mourners loudly marketing their wares of “witch cake”; “roasbeef”, “pop corn”; “cold wata” etc..etc. See how far we have degenerated!!!

 

Finally; Adieu Pa Kabbah!!

But all is not lost. A poignant moment for me was when I heard the military brass band playing the hymn: “Safe in the arms of Jesus” for Pa Kabbah.  I have always suspected that the late man would one day posthumously escape my wrath by seeking refuge at the place where no harm can befall any soul. And what better place than on the gentle breast of Jesus Christ. On hearing that tune my Christian spirit yearning for reconciliation through His blood immediately reflected on Romans 8:39 that in this transitory life – “….nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus….”   Neither death nor life……. nor height ……things present …..nor things to come – not even his “bad heart” towards me whilst serving as Mayor of Freetown under his watch, should be able to separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus.

 

And if it be so, then so be it.  So finally, adieu Pa Kabbah. All is forgiven!!

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