From the Bay to the Blue Ridge, Take Photos Leave Footprints

A Boot or a Camera….

By Scott Dicken

A Boot or a Camera….

Have you ever dreamt of spending the afterlife buried in a giant shoe? Perhaps you’d prefer a luminous orange fish, or a miniature Boeing 767? I thought not. Nonetheless, those are just some of the infinite fantasy coffin options on offer in the Ghanaian suburb of Teshie; a mere 20-minute drive from the center of Ghana’s capital city, Accra. This small town has found itself at the center of Ghana’s custom coffin business. A place where the term “going out in style” takes on a whole new meaning!

Fantasy Coffins – An ‘Eternal’ Market

Funerals in Ghana are not the somber, morbid affairs so many of us are used to. They are a celebration of life and a toast to the departed. With hundreds in attendance for even the most humble of events, and with costs stretching upwards of $25,000, Ghanaian funerals are also big business!

On a recent trip to Accra I played witness to Ghana’s festival-like approach to death. Huge billboards announcing recent bereavements littered the walls and lampposts of Accra’s suburbs. What appeared to be roadside celebrations featuring live DJs, dancing, an abundance of alcohol, and BBQs turned out to be the Ghanaian equivalent of a wake. But going beyond the common extravagance and pageantry of the event itself, one thing clearly stood out above all else; the tradition of what in Ghana are known as “Fantasy Coffins”.

The trend for elaborate coffins can be traced back through several decades of Ga community tradition to a man better known as the founder of the custom coffin craft, Kane Kwei. The craftsmanship behind the intricate designs, better known as Abebuu Adekai (“boxes with proverbs”) by the ethnic Ga, has since been passed down through generations of trained apprentices. Paa Joe, who is probably the most famous successor to Kane Kwei, has since toured the world exhibiting his designs. The UK’s Independent newspaper went as far as to describe him as the man who “puts the ‘fun’ back into funeral”. With Kane Kwei now laid to rest (no doubt in one of his own elaborate designs) a whole host of apprentice workshops can be found in Teshie.

As a result of what I can only describe as a classic case of morbid curiosity, on the second day of my visit to Accra I found myself sitting in the workshop of one of these very apprentices.  While I gather that afterlife conversations are not usually the preferred vacation activity of the average tourist, I soon found myself engrossed in deep conversation on the finer points of coffin design, interior coffin linings and cost estimates (international clients like myself apparently pay more because they generally request higher quality materials).

But my visit to Teshie, it seems, was not all that unusual. In fact it puts me alongside other esteemed (and “somewhat” more notable) tourists including Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

But what draws people to paying anything up to $5,000 for something that will ultimately be buried in the ground?

For Ghanaians it all boils down to the firm belief that life continues beyond death. More than that, it assumes that the deceased will wish to continue their day job in the afterlife. Admittedly, the thought of an eternity sitting behind an office desk writing reports does little to inspire me. Nonetheless, in Ghana at least, fantasy coffins are designed as a reminder to the recently deceased of their life’s work (just in case they forgot their vocation whilst passing over to the other side). It’s therefore of little surprise that you’ll see a wealth of coffins shaped like fish (for fisherman), shoes (cobblers), and farm animals (farmers and herders).

One thing’s for sure; it’s a cultural eccentricity that shouldn’t be missed if you visit Accra!

Practical Information

If you’re located in the middle of downtown Accra then Teshie is about 13km east of the city on the La/Teshie beachside road. With typically problematic Accra traffic that translates to a drive time of about 30-45 minutes. My advice is to hire a taxi by the hour and make sure it knows exactly what you’re looking to see. After canvassing a host of taxi drivers, 95% seemed to have taken tourists to the fantasy coffin workshops in the past and knew where to find them. That said, they aren’t exactly hard to find. Once you’re in the center of Teshie on the Teshie Road you’ll see the coffins roadside; just keep your eyes peeled on both sides of the road.

It’s highly unlikely that you’re actually visiting to buy a coffin and more likely that you just want to take a look at them and see the craftsmen in action. In other words, you probably won’t spend any money but will want to engage with the workers and take a good nose around. As such, and as was recommended to me by my driver, it only seemed fair to tip the workers for taking the time to show me around the workshop and for letting me take pictures of their artistic exploits. You may wish to consider doing similarly.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, as the author of the ‘Take Photos Leave Footprints’ website I was reliably informed that I should be buried in either a boot or a camera!

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