Life in West Africa has its ups and downs, but no matter how you slice it, things are always a little off to the point of hilarity. Like when your waitress takes great pains to recite the special Valentine’s Day dessert options to your table only to end on, “it was very nice, but it is finished,” after she’s got you salivating. Or when you go to a pharmacy for tylenol and you get 50 individually wrapped to-go packets. Or the choice of an English word that might be a little more intense than intended (The microwave, it has deceived me!). Or the sayings that deck the back windows of cabs and trotros: The Same People are Vampires, Who Kwons Tomorrow But God?, Still Big Brains, Let Them Say!
So I wanted to start a series on Ghana weirdness. What better place to start then Fantasy Coffins?
So far we’ve had four visitors and I’ve taken every single one to see the Fantasy Coffin workshops. The first time it was pure selfishness. I had read about them before we got here and was intrigued. I never imagined you could just show up and see them. But one thing I’ve learned since living in Ghana is that nothing is really off limits. You want someone at the grocery store to hold that special shipment of whole milk from South Africa for you before it flies off the shelves? Just ask. You want a restaurant to serve you an hour before they open? Just ask. You want delivery from the place that doesn’t deliver? Just ask. Almost every time you’ll get a yes. Just remember to give a little dash for that person’s troubles. So of course, of course a wood carving workshop is willing to open their doors to a couple of tourists who aren’t actually coffin shopping. Or maybe…
A Tale of Two Erics The first is Eric Adjetey Anang, grandson of Seth Kane Kwei who started the workshop by the same name in the 50’s. The story goes that Kwei first worked on a custom coffin for a village chief in the 40’s. Later, he buried his grandmother, who loved watching airplane traffic from the new, nearby airport, in an airplane-shaped coffin that carried her into the next life – helping her to realize a dream she never could in her earthly body. Kpakpa (Eric) Adotey, who runs a carpentry shop not far from Anang’s, tells a slightly different story in which the chief flew on to the afterlife in the first fantasy coffin (an airplane) and the next coffin, a beloved chicken, was for what carried Grandma on. Adotey was an apprentice of an apprentice of the Kane Kwei Workshop. The Erics are not alone. On the drive out to Cape Coast I spotted a building’s second story packed with coffins: a cobra, bird, coca-cola can, just a few I could see as the car flew by. The fantasy coffin business is booming. And I might have the room for the weight in my HHE.
Coffin o’ Yo’ Dreams
The potential list of fantasy coffin options is endless. Animals, fruit, vegetables, shoes, cell phones, pens, beer bottles, cars, camera, a house, talcum powder…if you can dream it, they can make it.
Fantasy Coffin Market
So you may be asking yourself – is the fantasy coffin market saturated? Not for the entrepreneurial Ghanaian! When my friend and I met Anang he talked to us a little about how he was at a crossroads earlier in his career: he wasn’t sure if he should continue in his father’s and grandfather’s craft or go on to University. His choice to stick with carpentry has paid off. Kane Kwei pieces are all over the world at museums, universities, even in the homes of some private collectors. People around the globe order custom coffins, and something is always under construction in his shop. Adotey brags that he was the first coffin maker to come up with easy-to-sell-to-tourist mini coffins. He sells Star and Club beer bottles, fish, chickens, boats, airplanes – he even custom made two dachshunds for Grandpa and Lala. Suffice to say, they’re both doing ok in the coffin biz.