ghana casketFor a country that takes its funerals rites as serious as its football matches, Azonto music and Kente cloth, it is little surprise that “fantasy coffins” have assumed a booming business, augmenting the farewell ceremonies of loved ones. Most people in the country believe in life after death. As a result of this, they try everything possible within and at times, above their means, to grant dead people an elaborate and extravagant funeral. The aim is to ensure that the dead person is sympathetic towards them. But some people living along the country’s coastal line, specifically, the Gas, have added an­other form of touch to funerals in the country. This is in the form of “fantasy coffins” known in the lo­cal dialect as ‘abebuu adekai’. These coffins often symbolize the dead person’s profession and come in a variety of shapes, ranging from animals, insects, fruits, tools etc.

History

In European cultures, less prominence is attached to funerals. In some part, dead people are cremated or buried in simple pine boxes. But among the Ga folks in Ghana, aside the funfair associated with burials, coffins are a lot fancier and meant to the deceased. Such demand of extravagant coffins was usually the request of dead traditional rulers, clans’ heads, fetish priests and priestesses as well as the very influential in society. The genesis of these coffins is widely attributed to Seth Kane Kwei. But some historical sources debunk this and trace its roots to one Ataa Oko from La, who is said to have begun making these customized coffins and palanquins for departed chiefs in the early 1950s. It was Kane Kwei who subsequently joined the trade and succeeded in popularizing the branded coffins.

The coffins were traditionally envisioned to represent the lives and livelihoods of those tucked in its belly — for example, a design of fish or crab for the fishermen or fishmongers, cocoa pods for the farmer, a hammer for a carpenter, etc. Since the advent of these coffins, the number of artists associated with the trade has been on the increase. One of the artists located at the epicenter of this trade is Daniel Mensah, who is a beneficiary of the tutelage of Paa Joe, the first apprentice of Kane Kwei.

Story of Daniel Mensah


Over the last 14 years, Daniel Mensah has been making these coffins after he spent fifteen years with Paa Joe, one of the earliest Kane Kwei. Born in 1968 in Accra, he has participated both in Ghana and in some Popularly known as ‘Hello’studio “Hello Design Coffin the very site where Kane Kwei. “This is the home of coffins,” proudly of his work and its beyond. Boasting a legion both locals and foreigners, with excitement, how, as a at the brilliant works being and his apprentices. “Any time they were working, and admired Paa Joe and his entrusted me in his custody me this art when I grow up. school but started off with unfortunately passed away earliest apprentices of in Teshie, a suburb of in various art exhibitions some European film projects. Hello’, he opened his own Coffin Works” in Teshie at Kwei first began the art. coffins,” he speaks rather its impact in the country and of customers, including Daniel Mensah recounts child, he used to marvel being churned out by Paa Joe working, I sat on the bench his boys. My father later custody and told him to teach up. So I didn’t really attend this profession. My father not long after but because my mother was aware of his wish, the necessary traditions were performed and I began my work with Paa Joe in 1984.”

Daniel Mensah drops his tools at this stage and opens up about these fantasy coffins which always tell a story. “If you can dream it, Hello Designs will surely craft it for you, he says.” Taking a break from his latest project, of designing a fish for a deceased fish monger, Daniel Mensah takes the Weekend Sun through the past, present and future of the coffin-carving craft. They are generally made from the wood of the local Wawa tree and normally takes between two to six weeks to produce, depending on the complexity of the construction. In his workshop are the very simplest of tools to aid in the making of the coffins without any form of sophisticated gadget or electrical appliance. He explains that these coffins are only produced on order. His first ever project when he got into this trade, was a lobster, a hen and a fish.COFFIN car

Since then, he hasn’t looked back and has produced six trainees and currently training an additional five. Mr Mensah proudly proclaims that he has no regrets since he took over this profession. “I don’t have any regrets getting into this profession because I’m happy doing this. I have not regretted at all because this has taken me to places out of the country. I also live quite comfortably and take good care of my aged mother, siblings, children and other beneficiaries. If you see some of my friends now, they don’t have a job to do. But this job is a great job, not all carpenters can do it. It’s great and I’m so happy with this,” he says brimming with smiles. Midway in the conversation, an ex military man, Dodzi Adzika, pops in to check the progress of his project. He tells us that the reason for the fish shaped coffin is to symbolize the profession of his late mother who was a fish monger. As Mensah, continues with the interview, he recounts how none of his over 300 works have been rejected by any of his clients.

He speaks about his memories before perfecting the art and narrates that a Police Officer shaped coffin gave him sleepless nights as he tried after several failures to craft that art to a final product which later became the cynosure of all eyes. With a supportive wife and four kids, Mr Mensah believes the future has even greater fortune lying in wait for him. This may be responsible for his decision to engage his eldest son who is now learning the trade. Depending on the urgency and nature of art work, one should be sure to part with between GH?1,500 and GH?3,000 before taking any of these coffins home. The booming funeral industry in the country makes coffin-carving a very attractive job for many young men who hitherto might have considered the option of pursuing farming, fishing, or the normal traditional carpentry.

Despite his modest surroundings of a two storey workshop still undergoing construction, some of his works are on display in various museums across the world. He takes us through some of his art works which includes, a canon camera, fire truck, a bic pen and other weird, bizarre but very splendid works. Bringing the interview to an end, he chipped in that he also prefers to bow out from the world in style just as he helps people do. And guess the design on his mind: “A chisel or hammer.”

http://thesunonlinegh.com/2015/07/how-ghanaians-celebrate-the-dead-with-branded-coffins/