Pricey vehicles to darkness
The most remarkable similarities between Kenyan and Ghana are not that they were both colonised by Britain. Or that their first post-colonial leaders — Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah respectively — were flamboyant figures whose politics and style went beyond Nairobi and Accra.
Neither is it that the two countries are well known for their beverages — Ghana has some of the world's best cocoa, while Kenya's black tea is legendary on the global markets.
What is particularly striking is the way Kenyans and Ghanaians are keen on announcing the deaths of their loved ones.
It is fashionable for Kenyans to pay for colour pictures on newspaper obituary pages, while Ghanaians place them on the national television, even when those the message is expected to reach have no television sets in their homes.
Dan Jim Selassie, a photographer in Accra, says: "It is a question of family pride and status, and has little to do with informing others of the death."
"There is great satisfaction to hear strangers say your relative was on television 'home call' programme," says Selassie, who regularly takes pictures at weddings and funerals.
Unlike Kenyans, Ghanaians do not talk of 'death announcements'. They call it a'home call announcement'. Once someone has received his or her 'home call', this sparks a string of events that bring relatives together to raise money for a vanity coffin that will enable the beloved one make the final journey in a style unmatched anywhere else in Africa.
Ghana may have been the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to become independent, but it has given the region and the rest of the world another first — an industry in fantasy coffins.
Many Ghanaians are not buried in ordinary coffins but in customised caskets that are increasingly becoming collector items among rich tourists and museums in the United States and Western Europe.
These coffins are produced by Ga craftsmen in carpentry shops in Teshi and Nugua on the outskirts of the capital city Accra. The Ga people live along the coast of Ghana and belong to the Akan confederacy of ethnic groups that celebrate death, life's ultimate journey, in funeral rites that make a statement on how an individual lived.
The coffins are of diverse shapes, including those of snakes, fish, leopards, cars, canoes, Bibles, cameras, pepper, shoes, tomatoes, cocoa beans, cannons, army tanks, planes, mobile phones, beer bottles, turkeys, roosters and a variety of other interesting motifs.
The colourful creations are not the work of jua kali artisans, but of experienced master craftsmen and sculptors of the genre of Makonde and Akamba wood carvers.
Prof Nana Apt, a former chairman of the Sociology Department at the University of Ghana, Legon, says: "These coffins are explanatory and representational symbols of life's work and achievements of the dead."
Recently, when Osei Amankwaa, a local nightclub reggae singer and dancer, died, he was buried in a microphone shaped casket. According to one of his friends, Wisdom Kwesi, Amankwaa's uncle told mourners: "My nephew chopped mike. His family chopped mike. We send him to ancestors in mike."
This meant that Amankwaa and his family lived off singing.
"The debate on what type of casket should Amankwaa be interred in ended and we ordered a microphone-shaped coffin decked with reggae colours," said Kwesi.
Microphone-shaped coffins are very popular among pop singers, church choir members, broadcast journalists and charismatic church evangelists. According to the Akan people, man is a child of his environment.
"The general philosophy is that nothing can separate the individual from his subsistence and survival," says Prof Apt, who is the Dean of Academics at Ashesi University.
Consequently, the quality of the coffin reflects the actual status of the dead or his imagined aspirations. For instance, if a clerk died, he is ceremoniously buried in a black shoe-shaped coffin.
A soccer player, who had aspirations of joining Black Stars, the Ghanaian national team, or had dreams of playing competitive soccer in Europe, is buried in a sports shoe-shaped coffin, fully decorated with Nike or Adidas trade marks.
But asked about international professional soccer players such as Abedi Pele, the retired and respected Ghanaian soccer ace and Kuffor of Bayern Munich, Eric Kpakpo, the manager of Paa Joe Workshop at Nugua, said: "Those are Ghana football heroes. They will go in giant soccer balls complete with club markings as well as the Federation of International Football Association (Fifa) colours."
Bar managers and employees of Accra Breweries Company Ltd are buried in ingeniously crafted beer bottle-shaped coffins, complete with colours and names of the products they sold.
The same goes for distributors of Coca Cola who are interred in Coke shaped-coffins. Looking at the giant wooden bottles, one might think they are advertising products manufactured by the companies themselves.
Experienced golf players are interred in golf-club coffins and cubbies in golf balls.
However, before a coffin is made, a model similar to that made by architects and professional designers is made by a master craftsman, usually the owner or manager of the workshop.
On their part, customers expect nothing but the best. For instance, when a pilot with Ghana Airways died, his relatives went for Kpakpo and took him to Kotoko International Airport to show him the kind of plane they wanted.
But at the airport there was only one old plane belonging to the ailing Ghana Airways. The relatives were disappointed and told Kpakpo: "Our son no commando London, Germany overseas dat plane." But before the relatives could decide what to do, there arrived a huge KLM jet.
"Yes, dat one. Our brother commando dat plane, but Ghana flag."
So Kpakpo went back to the workshop and designed a toy model of a KLM airliner and directed his craftsmen to make an eight-foot long jet coffin, complete with four engines and a fancy tail.
They then painted it with the colours of the national airline carrier, although Ghana Airways has no such jets in its ailing fleet. The model that Kpakpo made is still being used to make coffins to bury employees working with airline companies.
Being buried in an airplane coffin confers the deceased with the prestige and mystique of travel.
Taking into account that the vanity coffins are designed to capture the essence of the departed — character trait, occupation or a symbol of one's standing in the community — fiery politicians and other local leaders, including tribal elders, are buried in leopard, eagles or lion-shaped coffins.
But senior chiefs are buried in royal stool-shaped coffins decorated with the kente cloth, a traditional Ghanaian textile.
A mother who is highly regarded by her children is buried in a huge hen-like coffin, while millers, bakery owners and loaders are usually buried in bag-like coffins.
They are usually decorated in the colours of the commodity the deceased used to carry. In the case of a kiosk owner, he is interred in a stall-shaped coffin, complete with shelves decorated with the goods he used to sell.
A person killed by a crocodile is buried in a reptilian look-like coffin.
The Akan people are very religious and whereas many have for centuries converted to Christianity and Islam, traditional spirits and mysticism dominate their social philosophical thought.
If a traditional priest or priestess, sorcerer or any other traditional religion specialist died, they are interred in a rock python.
However, those who practice witchcraft are buried in a coffin shaped like a cobra in a striking mode.
While Catholic priests and nuns are buried in ordinary coffins, Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist pastors and elders are interred in different versions of the Bible.
Some are put in King James Version, Authorised Version or even in Akan language translations.
"Relatives have just to name the Bible of their choice and we make what they want," says Harvard Sarpong, a coffin craftsman.
About all professionals have their own designed coffins. Carpenters are buried in plane, chisel or hammer-like coffins, while masons are buried in shovel-shaped caskets.
Newspaper reporters and primary school teachers are buried in ball-pens-like coffins complete with the BIC logo on the side.
Editors, owners of cyber cafes and managers of information and technology companies are buried in computer-shaped coffins with selected logos of IBM, Apple, Compaq and Microsoft corporations.
Civil engineers are buried in huge road construction excavators such as graders and caterpillars. Architects and building economists are interred in beautiful models of houses while cartoonists are buried in Mickey Mouse cartoon-like coffin.
Professors and lecturers are buried in coffins resembling stacks of books. A professor of philosophy is interred in a coffin depicting titles of 'General Philosophy, Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Hobbes, Nyerere, Mahatma Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah or sub-titles of courses they taught at university.
A literature professor is likely to be interred in a stack of books coffin depicting men and women of letters such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Daniel Defoe or courses such as African Literature, Africa in Diaspora, European Literature, Theatre Arts and Rise of West African Literature.
According to Kpakpo, the idea came from the sculpture of Dr J.B Danquah, where the father of Ghanaian nationalist politics, lawyer and scholar stands and leans on books.
So when a senior administration official at the Cape Coast University died, his father went to Nugua and told Kpakpo: "My son chopped all Achimota books. He chopped all Legon and all London Danquah books."
In short, the father of the deceased was saying: "My son was educated in Achimota School, University of Ghana at Legon and also did his postgraduate studies at London University where Dr Danquah obtained a PhD degree in 1927."
Kpakpo's mind raced and then he sold the family the idea of building a coffin that looked like a stack of books. The coffin has found a ready market among intellectuals.
A variety of people, including drivers, businessmen, salesmen, taxi-drivers and long distance drivers are buried in cars, buses, and lorries and pick up-like coffins.
However, a Mercedes Benz is reserved for a special category of people among the Akan community.
Kristina Hampton, an art historian and researcher on Akan funeral rites, says: "Mercedes Benz is not just a car. It is a status symbol."
Subsequently, Mercedes-like coffins are ordered for Akan politicians, company chief executives and big business owners. Those coffins are crafted in finer detail in comparison to other car brands of coffins.
A wealthy hotelier who died in Accra recently owned a Prado and a BMW among other vehicles. But Mensah was not asked to make a Prado.
The family ordered a four-door wooden Mercedes Benz. It was to have tinted windows, windshield wipers, rear-view and side-view mirrors with glass, a Mercedes-Benz emblem on the hood, reflectors, sports car rims, a radio and an exhaust pipe among other things.
According to the Akan culture, life is not just a march toward the grave. Death does not sever relationships with the living.
The ancestors are perceived to be nearby and the dead person is about to assume a social rank among the ancestors. However, the best clue to his placement in the ancestors' society is the size and quality of the farewell party tendered him by his mortal friends and family.
An ordinary soldier or a policeman is likely to be buried in a bullet or a kabusi (the ordinary military boot issue), while a non-commissioned officer — corporals and sergeants — are buried in grenade-like coffins.
However, commissioned officers such as inspectors, lieutenants, captains, majors and police superintendents are usually buried in cannon-shaped coffins. Recently when a captain in the ECOMOG troops in Liberia died, his relatives ordered a huge cannon complete with military colours.
According to the coffin makers, colonels and generals are buried in style in huge military-shaped tanks complete with turrets.
However, one of the most enigmatic coffins in Ghana is the Sankofa, the casket that bears the mythical sankofa bird which is an ideographic symbol embedded in the Akan traditional philosophical thought.
"Sankofa bird's neck is turned to look back as a symbol to remember the past in order to build the future," says Prof Nana Apt.
Subsequently, modern coffin makers have perfected the symbol by carving a huge bird with its head looking back. On the bird's beak is an egg that it had laid, just like a mother 'eating her own offspring.'
People buried in sankofa coffins are important people who may have publicly returned to the Akan's traditional way of life in old age. Such persons include drop-out seminarians who thereafter embrace Akan traditional beliefs. Beneficiaries could also include mainstream church elders and pastors who may desert Christianity and pay homage to Akan spirits in old age.
However, some sociologists at the University of Ghana are of the opinion that the sankofa symbol — with its bold message of 'returning to the past in order to build the future' — could be used to incorporate modern ideas of socio-economic development.
In this case, Ghana's fantasy coffins have become the centrepiece of after-death journey preparations.
For example, the leopard coffin signifies a person with power such as a tribal or political leader. The chicken, a frequent subject of proverbs in Akan culture, often represents a mother protective of her chicks.
Even then, Accra's coffin craftsmen know their limits. When this writer enquired what type of coffin would be appropriate for retired president Jerry Rawlings or current president J.A. Kufuor if he died in office, Agyerman Karikari, a coffin master craftsman at Teshi, quickly censored me: "What you talkin' about? JJ, Kofi Annan and Kufuor, dem Ghana presidents. Dey no Kaneshie Market pickin comrades. Dey for Tettie Quarshie Circle."
This meant that the retired Ft Lt Jerry John Rawlings — fondly known as 'JJ' by Ghanaians — UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and President Kufuor are not Accra's Kaneshie market traders, but Ghana's top men and deserve to be honoured and large roundabouts named after them.
Tettie Quarshie Circle is a big roundabout being constructed at the edge Accra's business district to ease traffic jam. It is named after Tettie Quarshie, a 19th century Ghanaian legendary smuggler who sneaked cocoa seedlings from Equatorial Guinea to Ghana.
Every taxi driver in Accra will tell you without asking that Tettie Quarshie Circle is the largest and the only of its kind in Africa. Tettie Quarshie is, however, nationally revered for his role in transforming Ghana's economy and his admirers are keen to enhance his status also in the land of the ancestors.
To the Akan people, death is not an end, but a jump to the spiritual realm of the ancestors. Ancestors are forever considered members of the family.
It is believed that if the deceased are properly honoured, this secures spiritual favour for the family. As a result, a well-attended funeral and lots of food and drink demonstrate the deceased's great wealth, an indicator of the role he will play among the ancestors.
But woe to a stranger or man with few friends and without family. Such a person is buried unceremoniously. No vanity casket is made.
The coffin is made of rough timber hastily nailed together and the procession consists of three or four town or village idlers rounded up by the local chief to serve as pallbearers.
The poverty of his internment serves as a warning to parents that it is not good to die away from the family and the village.
A niggardly funeral testifies a niggardly man likely to be ignored even by his ancestors.
In this case, death has a ring of humour among the Akan. Tears are few as drinks and food are consumed as drums rumble in accompaniment of dances, Christian hymns peppered with Psalms and Akan funeral dirges.
But despite the Akan's proverb that "everybody helps to carry the burden of a funeral", burial practices are lavish and the burden falls on the immediate family.
To make the deceased travel in pomp and style to the next world, the family is markedly impoverished. Whereas the choice of coffins for ordinary people is endless from cocoa beans, shovels, cans, eagles, drums, bibles, peppers, lobsters, lions, tomato, beer bottles, bags, clay-fish and maize-cob, the least one could pay for one of those caskets is more than Sh30,000, the equivalent of one year's salary for some people.
However, special vanity coffins are more expensive: Mercedes Benz Sh90,000, aeroplane with KLM or Ghana Airways markings Sh75,000, Queen's Stool Sh65,000, computer, tractor, military tank, bull and cannon go for between Sh45,000 and Sh80,000 depending on wood and other extras that may be required.
Sankofa's coffins are valued at Sh75,000 just as the chief's stool and boat.
But with the current interest by foreign tourists and museums to acquire the items, Ghana's fantasy coffin industry is scheduled to expand and make some coffins unaffordable to most people.
In December, Kpakpo and two of his master craftsmen will deliver 10 specially made coffins to different clients in the United States.
So far the US National Museum of Funeral History has acquired the largest collection of vanity coffins outside Ghana.
Three of the 10 vanity coffins that Kpakpo will be taking to the US will go to different museums.
Antique shops and private collectors from Germany, Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Canada and South Africa are also showing interest in Ghana's vanity coffins.
Recently, an 84-year-old man who used to work for the Mercedes Benz manufacturing firm in Germany has ordered a special Mercedes collector's item from Mensah's shop.
"It is his wish that he be buried in a coffin shaped like one of the cars he used to make," says Mensah.
The bill for the special item is Sh150,000. Looking closely at the coffin that was nearly complete, it had no features to suggest it was a coffin although it had an underside chamber.
Mensah told this writer it would serve as the resting place for the man as he travelled to his ancestors.
Costs aside, the only inelegance about Ghana's vanity coffins is how the deceased is usually fitted into a medium-sized tomato, camera, pilipili or chicken-shaped coffin.
However, it does not matter how the deceased is fitted into the fantasy coffin. He can be curled like a ball or rolled into a tyre position.
If you appear late for a funeral, you are not likely to ask anyone of the status or the profession of the deceased since the coffin explains it all. But through it all, it is very expensive to die among the Akan, the dominant people along the coast and central region of Ghana.
Just like in Kenya, a lively debate is going on in Ghana as to whether it is good for a family to spend so much for a coffin and other funeral.
However, in a world dominated by mysticism, religion and spirits, it is hard to convince an African, and more so the Akan of Ghana, not to be sympathetic to the past in a bid to enhance the status and prestige of their loved ones among the ancestors.
This was succinctly summed up recently by a sociologist at the University of Cape Coast: "Probably the stare by Sankofa with its head turned backwards is too strong to be brushed aside by Ghanaians no matter their adopted beliefs and modern ways of life."
So far, Ghana may not be the usual African tourist destination, as that honour goes to Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. But its gallery of fantasy coffins is changing all that. Hordes of tourists and other curious foreign onlookers are going to Accra frequently to gawk at those "fantasy vehicles that carry Ghanaians to the darkness".