One of the first posts I wrote regarding our travels this year in Africa was about a meal we had in the Ghanaian town of Teshie.
But food is not the main reason a person heads to Teshie. Nope. It’s the elaborately carved and hand-painted coffins that draw people from all over Ghana, in fact from all over the world, to this town. Some want to buy these ‘fantasy’ coffins and others just want to see them.
Back in 2009, we made a special trip to Teshie just to visit the workshops. But once is never enough for a place like this, so three of us (Poor John, me and fellow traveller, Dee) grabbed a taxi and headed east from Accra.
It was amazing to discover how little some things change. The main workshop is in the same place and looks much the same as it did 10 years ago. Just like in 2009, we were told it was okay to go round the back and up the stairs to the showroom, so off we went. I was surprised to see a child-size fish coffin that had been there on our first visit. Maybe it’s a new one but, judging from the weathering, I reckon it’s been kept for display. Each coffin is made to order.
The custom seems to have started sometime between the mid-1940s and the mid-1950s, and reflects a local attitude to the afterlife. The Ga people, an ethic group in Ghana and Togo, believe death is not the end and that life continues in the next world in the same way it did on earth. So the right send-off is important. (As an aside, West Africans spend a fortune on funerals. I saw banks with signs offering loans for homes, cars, education and funerals.)
The Western world was first introduced to these masterpieces at an exhibit in 1989 in Paris at the National Museum of Modern Art (Musée National d’Art Moderne).
A coffin usually depicts the deceased person’s profession, hobby or passion. Sometimes it indicates their status in the community.
In addition to the little fish we saw back in 2009, we saw an airplane for a pilot, a cow for a farmer, a pencil for a teacher and many more. This time we saw a flour bag, a vegetable, a camera, a truck, a spider and an eagle. Some were complete, some were in progress and some were ancient.
There was also a gorilla’s hand, but this wasn’t a coffin. It was a ‘throne’ made for a village chief. If I understood correctly, the chief was carried in it for a parade.
By the way, we saw a few more coffin-making shops on the side of the road as we drove through West Africa. Not sure which country, but I’ll try to let you know.