The "Working in Ghana" Project

Coffin Maker

[Pa Sam has been making coffins for over 15 years. Before that he worked several years constructing boats. His workshop and showroom are on a busy road on the outskirts of Accra. He is in his early fifties, married, and has six children. Ebenezer Mensah and Pa Sam spoke in the coffin maker's workshop.]

I am a carpenter who specializes in making coffins of all kinds and shapes. I make coffins to suit the deceased--his class level, the work he does, or the clan that he belongs to. There are people who are fishermen, so when they die, I make a coffin designed in the shape of a fish, to depict the profession of the deceased. And every clan has its totem or symbol. Some have the elephant, others have the parrot, the crow, the cock, and so on. Depending on the clan of the deceased I design a coffin in the shape of his symbol.

As a coffin maker, I have designed a few coffins for display at the roadside where my workshop is located. When someone dies, the family members come to me with the type of design they want. I tell them the charge for the design selected and after some bargaining we settle on a sum that is reasonable for both the family and myself.

I take some of the money and start buying the materials needed. Then I start working on the coffin. Depending on when the coffin is needed, I may have to work hard with my apprentices to make sure that it is ready in time. I also make some types of furniture when someone comes to me for some design. But I make many more coffins than pieces of furniture.

The work of a self-employed carpenter is not so difficult as working under somebody. The only frustrating aspect is when you have a lot of requests within a short period of time. You have pressure on you, but the joy of getting huge sums of money will keep you working.

Carpentry requires a lot of self-discipline and hard work if you really want to keep getting customers. If you are the lazy type who likes to delay work, you end up disappointing your clients, that is the end of you. You need not pile up work. Always get yourself working when there is work to be done. There are times when you have to work deep in the night to make sure that you finish a job for your customers. And to make sure that you make something durable and of high quality, you have to take time to do the work properly. Then the customer will be satisfied.

There are a lot of coffin makers in this town. They do many designs and so there is competition in the coffin trade. This calls for strategies to attract customers from within the township and from afar. Because I satisfy my customers, I get jobs and requests both from Ghana and from France. Until quite recently I was exporting some of my coffins to France. I had an agent who imported them for exhibitions there. This gave me some money to erect my showroom near the road, and a workshop under it. Before that I was working in the open air. When the sun was high at mid-day, I would get very uncomfortable. Now I can work whether it is raining or shining, and day or night is no longer a problem to me. My workshop and the show room are near the main road so people passing in cars can see what I have made. This brings them in whenever they need coffins to bury their dead relatives.

I use very simple tools in my coffin designs. Most of them are available and made here in Ghana. I do not use any machines to shape or cut anything. The work is best done when you use your hands to cut and shape the wood. As someone who has been a boat builder, I know that coffin making is a rather simple kind of carpentry.

I used to have a lot of boys (apprentices) who were understudying me to acquire skill in coffin making. Many of them learn the job only half way. If they feel they can design coffins they run away (leave) without impressing me. Normally when an apprentice completes his studies, he has to perform some rites for his graduation. This involves some payments and expenses. Most of them run away before that time so they will escape these rites and duties. I don't pursue them, since I don't want to have a confrontation with either the culprits or their relatives. Some master carpenters take such issues to court or to the chief of the town for redress, but I feel there is no need worrying the poor boys. However, the few boys who have remained are very helpful. They are very new and I am hoping that they will have patience to stay longer and learn the trade very well. I encourage them to stay on and learn the job properly.

When the boys come in to learn the trade, I collect 10,000 cedis (then about twenty dollars) from them. We make a written agreement specifying the number of years they are to stay on the job to study. In addition, I collect money worth 5 bottles of beer, 6 bottles of minerals (soft drinks), cigarettes, and matches. These are specific things we collect as part of the initiation rite. I am Christian, so I don't perform most of the rites. I collect money for these items, but not for others that are part of the rites.

When somebody comes in to request that a coffin be made, I take from them a bottle of schnapps (gin) for some rites. This is in addition to the charge for the coffin. When the coffin is finished and ready to be picked up, the drink is used for pouring libations before the coffin is removed from the shop. I still don't know the meaning of this but it is done by most coffin makers and designers.

I am trying to raise funds to enable me to expand my business but the situation in Ghana, with the banks not giving loans to private businessmen, is what is preventing me. In fact it is very difficult getting a loan from the commercial banks.