Ghanaian Coffins Prove Design and Craftsmanship Boost Incomes

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

In many parts of the world, indigenous ingenuity and craft skills are finally getting the recognition they deserve. The quirky but very inventive gadgets and solutions featured on the Afrigadget blog (http://www.afrigadget.com) never fail to inspire and amaze. The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) fashionable gentlemen (http://www.henryherbert.com/gentlemen-of-bacongo/) grabbed the attention of – and inspired – European fashion designers with their creativity and flair. And then there are the Africa Maker Faires, gatherings of clever and innovative thinkers and inventors who get down to work generating solutions to today’s problems.

Beyond the grim stories of development failures and human tragedies, there is another Africa full of creativity and can-do attitude.

Amongst the Ga people (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ga_people) of Teshi, Ghana there is a tradition with a twist: custom-designed coffins. A Ghanaian pioneer has been transforming the way people deal with that most sombre and respectful of rituals, the funeral. Coffin-artist Paa Joe is drawing on a modern-day tradition in Ghana dating back to the 1950s. Coffins – which are normally made from wood and follow the standard template of a narrow, body-length box – are transformed into grand and lively statements about the deceased person’s life.

Designs have included a giant pink fish, a Ghana Airways plane, a souped-up Mercedes Benz and an African eagle.

“The Ga people (http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/tribes/ga.php), from the south-east coast of Ghana, revere their ancestors and give great importance to funeral celebrations,” Jack Bell, a London gallery owner exhibiting the coffins, told The Observer newspaper. “Their tradition of creating beautifully carved figurative coffins originated in the 1950s.”

Paa Joe was born in the Akwapim hills north-east of Accra in 1945. He is considered the top sculpted coffin maker of his generation. He apprenticed with the pioneer of the craft, Kane Kwei (http://www.culturebase.net/artist.php?153) – the man who began this unique vocation in the 1950s. The skill and artistry involved is now recognized in museums around the world, including London’s British Museum.

The community had a history of highly skilled woodwork and elaborate carvings were regularly created for village chiefs – giant eagles or even the surreal spectacle of a giant cocoa pod.

The bespoke coffins are an example of how long-standing skills were applied to a new product. The idea of making custom-sculpted coffins begun by Kane Kwei evolved from being a livelihood for Kwei to an apprenticed craft passed down to younger craftsmen. When Kane Kwei’s grandmother died in 1951, without fulfilling her lifelong wish to fly on a plane, Kane made a plane-shaped coffin for her. This coffin was admired by others and Kane got the idea of setting up a workshop and making custom-designed coffins symbolizing the
deceased’s status and achievements in life.

“Families commission the coffins – sometimes to a brief designed by the deceased – to represent the aspirations or achievements of a deceased relative, or to characterize their personality: a car for a businessman, a cocoa pod for a farmer, a bible, or even a camera,” Bell said.

For people with modest means, there are simpler designs of boats, canoes and books. Prices are negotiated with the coffin maker.

Where there were none, now there are multiple workshops providing custom coffins for funerals. Traditional Ghanaian funerals are lively, colourful events, but the coffin sculptures of Teshi are a modern phenomenon and proof that innovation and good design can transform the most sombre of items into something special.

Resources

  • Afrigadget: Afrigadget: ‘Solving everyday problems with African ingenuity’: This blog never ceases to amaze and fascinate. Website: http://www.afrigadget.com/
  • E-machine Shop: eMachineShop: This remarkable service allows budding inventors to download free design software, design their invention, and then have it made in any quantity they wish and shipped to them: Amazing! Website: http://www.emachineshop.com/ 4) Maker Faire Africa 2010: Catch up on the last Maker Faire Africa. Website: (http://makerfaireafrica.com)
  • Afrigadget: ‘Solving everyday problems with African ingenuity’: This blog never ceases to amaze and fascinate. Website: http://www.afrigadget.com/
  • International Development Design Summit: The Summit is an intense, hands-on design experience that brings together people from all over the world and all walks of life to create technologies and enterprises that improve the lives of people living in poverty. Website:http://iddsummit.org/

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