To Cross the Final River, a Fitting Vessel

In Ghana, the dead sometimes wait for months to ride into the afterlife in a coffin made by the carpenter-sculptors of the Kane Kwei family.

Entering the city of Teshie (a suburb of Ghana’s capital, Accra), immense agglomerations of fishermen’s shacks sprawl along the Atlantic coast. Along the main avenue, women sell smoked fish at the best prices in the region. In this place, one is either a farmer or a fisherman.
Facing the fishermen’s shacks, on the left side of the grand avenue, a two story building rises: the Kane Kwei carpentry and sculpture workshop.

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Photo CC: Radio Nederland Wereldomroep

Here, the craft of building decorative coffins is a family trade. Ossa, the baby of the Kane Kwei family, is 20 and has found his inspiration in design. There, a coffin sculpted in the form of a bible; and here a coffin carved into the shape of a cocoa bean pod. “This one is my masterwork,” he says with much pride.
Like his older brother Eric Adjetey Anang, Ossa wants to continue in the craft of building these decorative coffins, invented by his grandfather nearly 60 years ago now.
Coffins in the shape of beer bottles or coca cola cans, coffins in the shape of onions, and even in the shape of fish…or pens. Prices vary between 300 and 800 euros (up to $1000); all of the designs are now created by Ossa.
“I love this job, and I will try to do it even better than my father did it,” he says with enthusiasm.
It all began in the 1950s, when their grandfather Seth Kane Kwei first carved a coffin in the shape of a cocoa pod, in honor of an uncle who had been a prominent farmer in the village. The grandfather died 20 years ago, but his son Ernest Anang Kwei continued the work with his own sons. The work attracts hundreds of tourists every year who come to hear the story:
“One day, a great man died in the town,” he says. “And since he was a great fisherman, people wanted to honor his memory through his job a last time. People came to see my father to ask if he could do something. My father suggested a coffin in the shape of a fish. They were happy with the idea and this is how my father’s work started to become known.”

 

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Photo Jean-Michel Rousset

And the story goes on: after that someone ordered a coffin in the shape of an airplane: the relative who had died had dreamed of one day getting on an airplane. The requests continued, the shapes becoming more and more eccentric. “Then my father died when he was 70, and I decided to continue his work, because it is a noble work,” says Ernest.
Today the Kane Kwei have received a request for a coffin to be designed in the shape of a grinding mortar. “It is for someone’s aunt who had a restaurant, and who died a month ago.”
Historian Irene Odotei at Accra’s Legon University has studied the Ga people’s burial practices.
“When the time comes to put someone in the ground, the tomb has to be marked in such a way as to serve as an everlasting reminder that this person worked hard throughout his life, and that although he is gone, he has left something behind,” she says.
The Kane Kwei family seems to be looking for more international recognition these days, a task that has been taken on by the eldest son, Eric Adjetey Anang :

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Photo CC: huanqiu.com

“The last couple of years, I have traveled a lot,” Eric says. “I have taken coffins to Belgium. I went to Russia and built two coffins on location. Then I came back to Ghana, but not for long; shortly after that, I traveled to the USA. I also teach students to make these coffins.”
Eric’s students learn the craft during an apprenticeship of two or three years. Some go on to launch their own business.
Nowadays, more than thirty workshops in the area build decorative coffins.

Bruno Sanogo