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.

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