Friday, July 31, 2009

Being Accepted into the Family Kane

I am now called Michael Adjei Kane Kwei. Early during my stay here Eric asked me if I would like to visit the Kane family village, Asuokor-Odumase. It is located about two hours north of Accra in the mountains. I was of course very interested. Adjetey, Eric’s uncle, and Eric’s father, Cedi, both spoke about wanting to go. In fact Uncle Adjetey said that the clan may be interested in accepting me into the family. I was first taken aback by the gravity of the suggestion, but then became intrigued with the prospect of joining the Kane family.

When I first thought about traveling to Africa I had little idea who I would meet or what I might learn. I knew I wanted to find out as much as I could about Ga coffin making and I knew in order to do that I must meet someone who was a master coffin maker. And with great luck I was introduced to the grandson of the man who started the whole thing. Eric turned out to be very helpful, knowledgeable, and exceptionally generous, as was his family. I was invited to live in Eric father’s (Cedi) house, indeed I was given Eric’s room. I was made very welcome and comfortable from the beginning.

Time passed during my stay and I was wondering if visiting the family village was going to happen. Eric offered to take me on Sunday of the same weekend as the funeral but I was exhausted. So, we planned for the following Sunday. We (Eric, Cedi, Uncle Adjetey, and me) left early and the usual place Eric and I ate breakfast was closed. Eric asked if I “would take porridge”, and thinking of a hot bowl of oatmeal, I answered “Sure. Let’s make certain there’s some coffee, too”. I was getting my stomach all set for breakfast. About an hour later, I tapped Eric (who was driving) on his shoulder and asked if there was still porridge in the near future. They all laughed and said, “Soon, soon.” About 15 minutes later we stopped in a gas station in a small town and Eric said “We will take porridge”. I looked around and at this point not having had my morning coffee grumbled something disparaging about porridge in a gas station, but Eric said “No, no not here, across the street.” On the other side a woman sat on a stool in the street, behind a huge kettle. The stool was so low, all I saw at first was the top of her head. I assumed the oatmeal was bubbling away inside the pot and she would ladle out some for my breakfast. I asked for one serving and she proceeded to pull out a small, soft plastic bag, open it up with one hand, and spoon out a gray, soupy liquid from under the lid of the kettle with her other hand. This was done with the slight of hand and dexterity of someone who had done it many times before. After the interest in her prestidigitation wore off I realized that I had a tepidly warm softly, squishy plastic bag in one hand and three bean flour fritters in the other. My experience with this form of container was very limited. In fact the last time I ate from one of these soft plastic bags I bit into a corner, which you are supposed to do and began to squeeze the bag from the bottom, which you are not supposed to do. This created a rather flat geyser of liquid that spread out all over my clothes. I did not want that to happen again. I held onto it gingerly as we searched for my coffee. Coffee in Ghana is Nescafe, which is dried coffee crystals mixed into warm to hot water. But that is just the beginning. Then half a can of evaporated milk is poured into the cup followed with 3 to 5 spoons of sugar. I have figured out how to ask for no sugar but when it comes to the evaporated milk it seems to be all or none, so I usually give up and take the usual amount of milk. But in this case no Nescafe could be found.

So, grumpy and warm bag in hand I cautiously got into the back seat of the car and off we went. I had to figure out how to use this bag. I knew the corner had to be bitten off, but I also knew I had to support it somehow because there is no integrity to the bag once the skin is broken. Swerving and bumping down the pothole infested road the ride did not help me either. I cupped my left hand around the bag with my fingers cradling the sides and bit off a small part of the corner. The gray liquid stayed inside the bag, but now I had to figure out how to get it out. It was a liquid and not the oatmeal paste I am used to eating with a spoon, so I tried slowly squeezing the bag. This worked as long as my fingers supported the sides of the bag. The taste was strong of ginger and the consistency was a bit like I imagine library paste might be if diluted with warm tap water. It actually complimented the bean flour fritters and helped the dry bits slide down comfortably when I swallowed.
Once that was over, still not having had my coffee, I tried to concentrate on the beautiful country we were driving through. We were approaching small but steep mountains on the left of the highway. They were dotted with large trees that had dark green tops leaving open space in between so one could see the gray and white granite outcroppings showing brightly in the sun. As the highway progressed we began to climb into the hills and the plants became more lush and thick. Then we abruptly turned right, onto a red dirt road and continued to climb. The road was so narrow and closed-in with vegetation that when we met anyone walking they had to back into the tall grasses and plants and in effect disappear as we slowly passed by. After twenty minutes or so we came to a fork, turned right and soon were driving into an opening with a small settlement of mud houses (15 or 20) that were scattered over a flat ridge. We drove by three or four places then stopped. We got out and walked around a house to meet Wofa (uncle) Anang. Adjetey and Cedi sat and talked with him for a while then we all got up and walked between a few more houses and a hundred yards or so, to an opening next to a building, then through two court yards into a final courtyard and met Wofa Nyangkpo. Wofa Nyangkpo is the elder of the village and the one who would perform the ceremony to accept me into the family, if that is what they decided to do. So, after introductions, we all sat down and had a lot of discussion between everyone, including much lobbying by Adjetey. It was decided that I was indeed worthy to be made a member of the family. We could have one of the sheep rams that had been left for ceremonies by other family members for a sacrifice to the ancestors and the ceremony could happen.
Things had to be prepared and arranged, so, Eric, Adjetey, and I walked into the cultivated areas behind the village that were thick with vegetation. There were plantain and banana trees, coconut palms, and cocoa pod trees, all densely packed together, sometimes each variety growing right next to other. On the edges of the cultivated areas were densely packed trees and grasses and shrubs. Very unlike Mr. Klu’s pineapple farm there were no vistas here. Every view was close and verdant. This was repeated in the courtyards. The intimacy created by the buildings surrounding the small cooking and/or gathering areas was complimented by the inclusion of an ancient tree or two and when you could see over a rooftop the giant trees of the forest seemed to be bending in.

When we walked back we went into one of the first courtyards we had walked through to meet Wofa Nyangkpo who greeted us standing next to a huge umbrella of a tree. It covered most of the area touching three of the four roofs that bordered us. This courtyard had great grandmother’s house on one side and great grandfather’s house opposite, and in the corner was the entrance to the village shrine. This was a very important spiritual center of the village. In fact great grandmother had wed a man from another area that had strong juju and had brought it back to this village to begin the shrine.

Wofa Nyangkpo and a man, Satchimo, who would help with the ceremony, led us to a raised area at the entrance to the shrine where they sat. In front of the raised platform there were five chairs arranged for Adjetey, Cedi, me, Eric, and Wofa Anang. We all sat down and Wofa Nyangkpo began prayers to the ancestors and spilling libation (schnapps) to honor them. Since there are many ancestors this took several minutes. We then all drank and spilled libation on the ground to honor the ancestors. Then Satchimo produced a large wooden bowl in which he had placed a tightly woven wreath of leaves and vines that he had gathered from the forest. These plants have strong spiritual power for the village and were to be used to pass the family’s juju to me as well as Cedi and Eric, much to their surprise. Satchimo poured water over the leaves and vines and began to work up a greenish froth from the mix with his hands . Once done, more prayers were said and the ram was sacrificed. The blood was dripped around the bowl of plant froth to honor the ancestors and seek their support.

Cedi was led by Satchimo to the other corner of the courtyard where Cedi took off his shirt and sandals. He was asked to bend at the waist and receive the froth in his hands and rub it on his body as if he were bathing. This covered his skin with the plant froth. Eric was next and did the same, but he cupped his hands and took some of the liquid to his mouth and drank. Now he was asked if he wished to have cuts made on his skin to allow the juju of the plants to enter into his body. This was something that we had discussed for me, but not something Eric had planned for himself. He decided to do it and this allowed me to see what I was about to do. Satchimo produced a new razor blade and took it out of its wrapper. He delicately pinched a bit of skin from Eric’s chest with his left hand and cut 4 or 5 very shallow quarter inch long cuts with the razor in his right. Satchimo continued the same process at each of the top of Eric’s wrists, side of his elbows and shoulders, each side of his chest under his arms, once at the base of the neck and twice at the lower back, left and right. Afterward a black, chalky substance, later described as medicinal plant material that had been burnt and crushed, was shaken out of an old bottle and rubbed by Satchimo into and over each wound.

After Eric sat down it was my turn and I went through each step as they had done before me. When it came time to do the cutting Satchimo was very gentle and careful. He left and returned with another wrapped razor blade, but before opening it, he cleaned some of the bits of leaf and vine from my hair and skin. His touch was gentle and firm. The cuts were minimal. In fact I have had figure pricks for blood tests that felt more invasive. The process as I had seen with Eric took a while and as Satchimo was close to finishing I began to feel the lightheaded sensation associated with shock. The blood was leaving my head and draining to my body core. With a bit of disbelief I was laughing to myself thinking, “This can’t be happening”. Satchimo finished, and as he reached for the bottle of burnt herbs I leaned forward trying to get my head lower then my body core. All the while I was trying to explain to everyone the symptoms of shock and how cuts sometimes initiate it and that I may need to sit down. Someone brought a chair, I sat down, leaned my head forward while Satchimo rubbed blackened leaves into the cuts.

This was the end of the ceremony and Wofa Nyangkpo and Anang left. Cedi and Adjetey went off in search of gin. Eric and I sat, cleaned off, and put our shirts and sandals back on. I was now part of the family Kane. Satchimo asked me if I would like to go into the family shrine which I could not do before as a non-family member. I took off my sandals and followed him in. It was a very sobering and I felt honored.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

To See a Craftsman’s Work in Use

It is another thing for a carpenter to walk around a town and see the new entryway he designed and built for that store, to learn from a direct experience and from chatting with others of its functional and aesthetic achievements and shortcomings, and to modify future work in accordance with this running feedback that is picked up in the course of daily activities.
Talbot Brewer
"When the maker’s activity is immediately situated within a community of use, it can be enlivened by this kind of direct perception. Then the social character of his work isn’t separate from its internal or “engineering” standards; the work is improved through relationships with others. It may even be the case that what those standards are, what perfection consists of, is something that comes to light only through these iterated exchanges with others who use the product, as well as other craftsmen in the same trade. Through work that has this social character, some shared conception of the good is lit up, and becomes concrete."
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work, by Matthew B. Crawford, The Penguin Press, New York, 2009. Pg. 187.

Eric had promised early on in our communication with each other that he would arrange for me to be present at a funeral. With that in mind he talked to a family that had ordered a canoon, the wooden fishing boat of Ghana, coffin for their elder, Ataa Annoh Kow’Bzo Afan, who had been a fisherman in Teshie. The funeral happened this last Friday and Saturday.
Eric had met an anthropologist (Silvia) and invited her and a friend (Charlie) to join us for Mr. Afan’s funeral. She is from the Ontario Museum in Toronto and is interested in commissioning a coffin from Eric for the museum’s African collection. Charlie is an MFA student from U. of Michigan. We sat for several hours in the heat waiting for the in-coffin-ment of Mr. Afan. During this time many people dressed in their best streamed through the tent which held Mr. Afan to pay respects. While this was happening, a fellow dressed in red with a red scarf tied around his head seemed to be playing the fool or a comedian as he sat on the concrete at the corner of the tent. He would occasionally attempt to wash someone’s shoes or feet with a small broom dipped into a bowl of water. Eric later explained that he was an herbalist or a medicine man (not to be confused with a fetish priest) and it was not uncommon for him to be a bit of a comedian while doing his tasks.
The four of us were surmising that Mr. Afan had long retired from fishing, being in his 80’s, but this was his town and fishing was his life and that is why the family had chosen the canoon. Even so, Eric understood that there was some controversy surrounding where he would actually be buried. Mr. Afan’s wake and the initial placing of his body in the coffin were to happen in the courtyard of his house. His interment, on the other hand, was planned to be in Accra, because that is where the main part of the family lives. But the faction that lived in Teshie was lobbying hard for the local cemetery. It was resolved by having a Fetish Priest get in touch with Mr. Afan. In a trance, she contacted him and answered the family’s questions about placement. Mr. Afan told them that he definitely wished to be buried in Teshie. This was all done at the last minute. We didn’t realize that they would stay in Teshie until the young men in the family began to maneuver into position to carry the coffin through the streets of Old Teshie. If the burial was to be in Accra there would have been a short informal march carrying the coffin through the neighborhood near the house, and then it would have been placed inside a van or truck and off to Accra.
So, as serendipity and unexpected hospitality stepped in, we, Charlie, Sylvia, and I, were physically pushed toward what was jointly considered by the family elders to be the most advantageous photo positions (right at the end of the coffin) and we proceeded to video and photograph every aspect of the funeral from invoking support from the ancestors through spilling libations (gin) on the ground, to witnessing several women priests go into trance and call on the ancestors to greet and help Mr. Afan as he was about to join them, to sacrificing a sheep and spilling the blood over the coffin (both Charlie and I had to jump back to avoid getting red stains all over our clothes), to dancing through the neighborhood with the coffin on the heads of four rather testosterone-filled young men, to parading between old buildings along a narrow winding road in old Teshie to the other side of town and finally to the cemetery for burial, a trip of a few miles.
As they danced and paraded with the coffin many young men were running alongside singing in answer to continuously yelled out call-songs initiated by one or another of them. Those carrying the coffin would occasionally be replaced by other young men just as pumped as the originals. Every now and then the ones carrying the coffin would bring to a halt their dancing march and turn the coffin in a circle stopping the whole procession of several hundred people. At one point, early on, a group of drummers accompanied the dancing and parading for a short block. All the streets were lined with others watching as we made our way through winding turns and under tents that occasionally covered the narrow roadway.
Every now and then Charlie and I would catch each other’s attention and we would exchange looks of disbelief or big smiles on our faces. Being swept along with everyone was exhilarating and there was always a feeling that something unexpected could happen from the dancing, to the fetish priests in trance, the drumming, to the spontaneous twirling of the coffin in circles, to the final placement of the coffin in the grave. As we came to the cemetery we proceeded right through and headed down a trail into a thick grove of trees. We hurried to catch up as the coffin disappeared behind some trees and just arrived as the canoon was rather quickly and unceremoniously slipped into an open grave. Some enthusiastic souls started pushing sand and clay onto the coffin and some even slipped into the grave. Order was quickly restored and an elderly gentleman began a prayer. But that was no sooner done then the young men around the grave grabbed whatever they could including using their feet and hands and began filling up the grave.
The day was long, the heat always present, the waiting made longer by not knowing when or where things would happen, the dancing procession bracing, and the final burial almost anti-climatic in its quick and almost un-noted summation. I was exhausted. When we got home I laid down to rest and woke up 12 hours later.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I Am Seeing Spirit

This week has been an experience of a combination of hard work and being knocked on my ass, physically and spiritually. The beginning of the week we began work on a hammer coffin that needed to get done quickly. It was ordered by a family, apparently for an elder who just died who was a carpenter. This provided new opportunities for me to learn some very different things.

The first was construction of a new form. And by new form, I mean it was new to the crew as well. They have an old hammer coffin in the display area that is about 25 years old, which puts it in (grandfather) Kane Kwei's era. The problem with this older form as seen by Eric and his father, Cedi, is that it is too heavy and bulky in form. It is heavy for the coffin bearers to carry and too heavy in shape. They wanted to lighten up the form and make the proportions more true to a real hammer. Another problem that has to be considered is that you have to also place a body within it once it is fabricated. So, they brought out a brand new 16 oz. claw hammer and placed it on a bench and gathered everyone, including me around it and asked for suggestions as to how to proceed. A lot of conversation was carried on without my knowing what was being said. But pretty soon someone got out a piece of wood and began ripping 5 inch wide, 6 1/2' long boards. Still not understanding what the process was, I stood back and watched while the senior apprentice, Adjetey, took the four boards and began to measure and mark them into segments, all the time looking at the hammer. Once all the segments were marked similarly on each board, another apprentice, Aigbei, took one of the boards, placed it flat on the bench, took the cross-cut saw, and started cutting the first line across the width of the board. He stopped just short of cutting all the way through and kept from cutting into the bench which I assumed was going to happen. The next thing he did started to make sense to me. He started another parallel cut just a quarter of an inch to the right of his last cut. But the angle of the saw was pointed to the bottom of the first cut. When he finished the second cut he had made a 'V' cut ¼" wide at the top and stopped just short of going through the other side. I have done similar cuts with plywood that I wanted to bend. By relief-cutting the back of the plywood board every so often it allowed the board to be bent to a tighter curve. What was happening with this piece of wood for the hammer was that cutting each segment, anywhere from 10" to 18" apart, either on the front or the back allowed the board to be bent in a zigzag sort of form resembling the ins and outs of the hammer handle edge as it ran up from the bottom to where the hammer head would be connected.

Once four of them were made, each section was bent in its appropriate direction and nailed across the bend to hold its shape. Then again a big group discussion happened, and by group I mean the masters - Eric and Cedi- and all the apprentices from senior to the last. The discussion centered on the size and shape of the ends of the handle. A lot of measuring of shoulder widths and round or oval or truncated square shapes discussed. Once that was decided I was given two boards and told to edge nail them together. This became one of the ends after I cut the shape that Cedi drew on it and I smoothed the cuts with a hand plane into a roughly circular shape. Someone had cut the other end and shaped it. Now we placed the two end pieces on the ground about 6 ½' apart and laid the ends of the first zigzag board on the top edge of each end piece. The hammer was taken out again and held at arms length toward the edge the zigzag board and the board was deemed accurate, so it was nailed on to the end pieces. The other three boards were nailed on a ¼ turn from each other so that they were equally spaced around the ends. This gave the skeletal outline of the handle and all the information needed to fill in the spaces in between with the cut and fitted pieces. This process was similar to the one I had done for the airplane coffin.

Now, I was given my second lesson. Since, this a rush order, two other apprentices and I were asked to fill in all the space between the four boards to create the handle shaped form. I felt only minimally competent in creating the individual pieces, from my leisurely, learn-as-you-go experience with the airplane. Now, I was expected to contribute not only competently, but with speed, as well. I felt very intimidated, not by the speed and competence of the two other apprentices but by my expectation to do well and not make mistakes. This is where I found more of the kindness of fellow apprentices. They would step in occasionally and point me in the right direction and at other times allow me to take my time by working around my section and going to the next. I found the time used to do self-conscious analysis of each step and the need to figure what action to take each time created pressure that slowed me down. But then things became a bit easier, less thinking was going on and my pace began to pick up. So, repetition, under pressure forced me to be less self-conscious and more action-conscious, uncomfortable but successful.

And, in retrospect, the third lesson I took from the building of the hammer was the power and empowerment of collaboration. The energy, both creative and productive, was huge. Problems were solved and acted on in a very short period of time and the result was a more proportioned, sleeker and lighter hammer coffin which was the task asked of the group. This does not come from a group of individuals that work independently. These guys eat together, they joke and laugh with each other, they finish each other's work, they trust each other.

The hammer head was designed and built in a similar manner and things slowed down a bit as all the voids and spaces were filled in to finish the shapes. This was a lot of work in a very short time and I was exhausted each night, going home to bed and sleeping 8 to 9 hours each night. And then Wednesday night I was feeling extra tired I decided to have a quiet night of reading and writing and go to bed. In the middle of writing for the blog the glands in my neck felt swollen and sore. Five or ten minutes later I felt a chill, very strange for 80 degree weather. Then more and more chills. I turned off the overhead fan because the breeze felt too cool on my skin causing more chills. I went to bed and covered up, having always slept on top of the sheets since I arrived. The night before, Tuesday, I remembered that I had taken breakfast at a different place on that morning and I did not remember taking my malaria pill, Malarone. This is a daily dose of malaria prophylaxis meant to prevent any traction of the parasite in my body if bitten by a carrying mosquito. Believe me I have been advised and practice many defenses against mosquito borne disease. I got out all my Malarone pills and counted them three or four times and then compared my numbers to a calendar and figured I had taken it and just hadn't remembered doing so. But on Wednesday night, fever and chills running through my body, I was not so sure and was thinking more and more this could be malaria. Malaria is easily managed and rid from the body if you get it treated soon after symptoms start. So, the next morning, Eric took me to a doctor who specializes in malaria. After a lab test of my blood which took an hour to process, during which time I could not stay awake, the doctor explained that I did not have malaria but an upper-respiratory bacterial infection. The lab test showed that I had a high white blood cell count, and the doctor said from that information that three things were true. It was not a viral infection and it certainly was not malaria, unless bacterial infection and malaria were happening at the same time (highly unlikely). The third, she said, was that the high white cell count showed my body to be 'robust' and very healthy for someone my age! Thank you, very much.

Well, with a gazillion pills in hand I headed back to my bed some 20 minutes away and once there proceeded to sleep through 24 hours. The pills began to help, as well as, the sleep and by Friday I felt like going out to eat something. Saturday I went to the workshop for a short while, doing errands with Eric. This Sunday I finally felt like myself and I look forward to going back to the shop on Monday to work again.

While all this was going on and I was drifting in and out of sleep, I was having very vivid and odd dreams for me about death, bodies, and dead spirits. My usual dreams, if I remember them at all, are typically very benign and low key. I have been around and witnessed death and its process. It is not a frightening thing for me. In fact I see it as some of the hardest work a person can do. Especially for someone whose body is healthy, but the spirit is working to leave. It is the last, hard process we go through, both consciously and particularly physically. I don't fear my own death. On several occasions I have stopped and looked at my life choices, what I have learned and experienced, and have felt very lucky and whole. There are things I regret, but those experiences helped me grow and made for more informed choices later in life. So, if my life were to end I would be greatly saddened for the loss of my relationships. I wish those could continue forever, but I have had a good life and it could end today. So, these dreams didn't seem to be coming from a death anxiety. They were dark and colorful and if I step back and look at the content, rather gruesome. Other strange things about them are that they seemed to occur while I was in a transitional sleep state, between deep sleep and wakefulness, and the gruesomeness wasn't apparent to me while in the dream. I did not feel threatened or in danger.

I told Eric about them and he sucked in a breath and said that I have to be very careful, that these sorts of dreams tell the truth and I have to be careful how I deal with them. He went on to say that there are people who, through no cause on my part, may wish me ill will, and they can cause spirits to do me harm. He said both he and his father have felt these forces and have had to deal with them. Eric went on to explain that most of this is related to the work we are doing, creating containers for the dead. Dealing so closely with the dead opens us up to all kinds of spiritual powers. He said some people use the church and their Christian belief to help them deal with these forces and some use Ju Ju, the traditional practice to balance spiritual energy. Some, he said, suffer physical pains and stress and that is how they deal with it. He went on to say that since he has been heading the business, making it stronger, more successful, and well known, he feels protected. He feels that his ancestor, Kane Kwei, is protecting him and the shop. This is why when there are celebrations, initiations like mine, and significant things that happen with the shop and the family, Eric and others, when drinking to celebrate a special time at the shop first will first spill libations (gin) on the ground to share with his grandfather. This is why the sheep was sacrificed and the blood dripped on my feet and then to the ground to include and honor Kane Kwei and connect me with Kane Kwei, to let him know I was here and why. These tributes honor him and the ancestors, and acknowledge their protection of the shop and what the shop does and, further, their protection of the family and what they do.

I felt uneasy and a bit circumspect about my dreams as he first spoke and then more assured and then included and protected as we finished talking.

I have had no dreams since.