Ghana: last journey, in happiness
15 February 2023
by Jasmina Trifoni
At sunset, when the heat gives some respite, the inhabitants of Accra go to the beach. If you’re around, do the same. But unless you have a thing for tepid beer, glass-gobbling performances or acrobat groups creating human towers in an unlikely Bulgarian circus replica, the place isn’t much. The beach is decorated with rubbish and populated by vendors of any kind: I have been insistently offered to buy a mutt puppy vaguely resembling a poodle and be saved of the soul from the flames of hell, by a preacher of one of the thousand one man churches that proliferate in Ghana. As for the Atlantic, a swim is out of the question. The waves have a thick, menacing gray color.
Just behind the beach and the long asphalt coastal strip, however, there is a place that alone is worth the trip to Ghana. It’s Teshie, a fishing village that has now become a suburb of the capital, famous for its coffin-building craftsmen. But it’s easy to say coffins, and they have a story that deserves to be told.
It all started in the fifties of the last century, when a talented carpenter from here, Seth Kane Kwei, was asked to build a palanquin to carry the head of the village in procession during one of the community festivals. And so he made one, which reproduced a cocoa fruit, Ghana’s main agricultural export product. It was so beautiful that when the headman died on the eve of the festival, the villagers decided it could not go to waste and used it to carry his body to the funeral. And then they buried her there as well.
A short time later, the carpenter’s grandmother also passed away. The woman, who had lived on the edge of an esplanade on which the British had built the airport, had been so fascinated by those flying machines that she had repeatedly dreamed of getting on them and seeing the world from above. As a tribute to that wish, Seth made an airplane coffin for her. From
then, the inhabitants of Teshie began to commission vehicles for their last journey: a fisherman asked him for one in the shape of a fish, a farmer for one in the shape of a chili pepper.
Fantastic coffins – or abebuu adekai, “proverb boxes”, in the local idiom – are one of Ghana’s most curious traditions, studied by anthropologists, exhibited in museums around the world and sold at prestigious auction houses, from London to New York. Today, between Teshie and the adjacent Labadi, there are about ten shops where, sheltered from the scorching sun under corrugated iron canopies, an activity that knows no crisis thrives. Since the belief that the deceased will continue to carry out his occupations in the afterlife is widespread here, the coffins that identify the profession are the most popular.
During my visit I saw – just to name a few of the more curious ones – a coffin-sack of flour for a baker, a coffin-mobile phone for a cell phone dealer, a coffin-wad of dollars for a money changer, a coffin-hairdryer for a hairdresser, a coffin-slice of cake for a pastry chef and a coffin-camera for a photographer. As for the fishermen, they choose boat-coffins, or even in the shape of a lobster or an octopus, where for obvious reasons the body is placed in a fetal position. Others, on the other hand, prefer to make the final journey in coffins that remind them of their passions, in the hope of being able to indulge in them even up there.
Here then is a coffin-sneaker, complete with the Nike logo, for a jogger, and coffins that reproduce beer and whiskey bottles. There are even those who exaggerate their optimism about the pleasures promised by the afterlife, choosing to enter a coffin that reproduces the always generous shapes of a naked woman. Finally, the (niche, actually) market of coffins is aimed at the most pious.
Bible, in a concession to the authorities of the numerous local churches which, at least in principle, had judged the fashion for fantastic coffins to be blasphemous.
In the workshop that belonged to Seth Kane Kwei I met Eric Kpakpo, the nephew who inherited it, who told me that the coffins – at a cost of the equivalent of a thousand euros: a considerable amount, in Ghana – they are normally commissioned by those who will use them. Proud, he said he receives many orders from abroad, mostly from Ghanaian expatriates.
«In that case», he explained, «I build a model of it, which I send for approval before proceeding with the construction of the right size one». And he showed me a mini-coffin ready to be shipped: it’s for a Ghanaian who is a gynecologist in Minneapolis and reproduces, in bright pink, a uterus complete with fallopian tubes. Observing the good taste of the subject, I expressed to him that it is a pity that such remarkable works are destined to disappear underground. But Eric has also thought of that, and creates coffins, so to speak, double face. Like the one on display, in the shape of a beer bottle: «It can be used as a sideboard, then when the fateful day arrives, just remove the shelves and it’s ready to receive the body».
Before taking my leave, I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask him which coffin he would recommend for my last journey in style. «For journalists», he replies, «the pen-shaped coffin is perfect. The Bic model is in great demand. You only have to choose the color of the cap. Blue, red or black.”