Fall 2009, #16
       "Woodchuck vs. the Hank Williams Zombie"

The Coffin Trains of Ghana

     by Joseph Blythe

The day of the competition had arrived and Sunday Ashong was nervous.

“ For heaven’s sake stop fidgeting,” mama Obotah hissed as she buttoned the sleeve of Sunday’s yellow school dress.

“ How can I help it?” Sunday yelled back, shoving a crumpled paper into the dress pocket with her free hand. “ Think of the responsibility.” After all, she fretted, how often does a ten-year old girl get to make decisions? Never. And decisions of life and death? Twice times never! Mama Obotah hooked the clasp of the collar around Sunday’s neck, pinching her in the process - her small way of getting the child she’d accepted as one of her own to appreciate the position grandpa Ashong had put her, had put the whole town, in.

Sunday’s grandfather had been a hero in Abono before she was even born. He had become rich abroad but had never forgotten his village, sending money, providing work, even dowries on occasion, and now he had returned home to die. In the manner of all great men he felt the need to remain as large in death as he had been in life. Accordingly, he had commissioned a contest between the two greatest coffin makers in Accra for the honor of crafting his final resting place. It was a mystery to the entire village, but especially to Sunday, why she – the last child of Ashong’s last child – should have been chosen to decide which of the coffin makers’ creations would merit the honor of housing the famous man’s remains. But, as mama Obotah led her from the house and down the wide, red clay driveway to announce her decision, Sunday’s mind replayed the trip she had taken with her grandfather in a noisy white tro-tro all the way to Accra, recollecting the huddled meeting there on Labadi Road at which grandpa Ashong had shocked everyone, most particularly her, by announcing that she would be the decision maker.

It had happened at the Windsor Tea House situated directly between two long rows of coffin makers. He had stood like the referee in a boxing ring between Dede Nuno and Paa Joe, Ghana’s most famous coffineers - for that’s what he had termed them - gone over the rules and concluded by appointing Sunday judge. Then he had simply sent them to their respective corner shops and settled in to watch them fight it out. Sunday still remembered asking why he had chosen her for such a serious task and how his answer had frightened her. Grandpa Ashong had told her that soon men would be gone from the world. Women would soon follow. In a world in which there would only be children Sunday must know how to take action or she herself would be acted upon. She knew her grandfather to be wise and given that her own father and mother had already been taken she sensed, somehow, that he was right, and she was sad.

In the weeks leading up to the contest he would walk with her every day down to the edge of Lake Bosumtwi. It was a short distance but, even negotiated slowly, it took its toll on both of them. Street children, less fortunate than Sunday in having no second mother to care for them, would follow and call out to her, whether in ridicule or envy she was never sure. Grandpa would shush them away and lead her to a spot beneath his favorite tree, the sacred Odum that Njambi, protector of the forest, lived in. He would stare across the lake at the tall stands of mahogany lining the opposite bank, the very trees from which Ghana’s famous hand-carved coffins were made and he would talk about beginnings and about endings.

“ You know Sunday,” she recalled him saying, “ the ancestors of the Ashanti, the Twi, the Dogon, all have been protected by the gods of this lake and of these trees since time began. Those same spirits watch over us always from streaming rivers, and from those far mountains.”

Sunday wanted to ask her grandfather where the spirits had gone when the AIDS devil came. But she did not. She could feel his gaze but couldn’t meet it, looking off instead across the valley at the Obuasi Church of Christ, its whitewashed spire thrusting upwards to the heavens.

“ Yes grandfather.” she whispered.

Ashong wrapped a great paw around his grandchild and drew her in.

“ The gods of our people have called this sinner home, Sunday. Choose wisely in the contest, for my sake.”

It was an awesome responsibility for a child and Sunday took it as such. So much so that for several nights prior to the contest she had nightmares in which Grandpa Ashong appeared before her, already gone to the next world, his flesh attacked now by the spirits themselves, displeased with Sunday’s choice. In the dream her grandfather had cursed her for the eternal torments he must now suffer because of her poor decision. When she’d cried to mama Obotah about the dreams she had only become annoyed, as if this whole business of having a child responsible for adult decisions was bad juju and in some way an affront to her and to the rest of the grown ups.

On the morning of the big day the mood in the house was somber. Mama Obotah led Sunday outside. Both sides of the driveway were tightly packed with people, from village elders to servants, immediate family to distant cousins, friends to strangers all drawn by the spreading notoriety of the occasion eager to have participated in an event of such historical import. In accordance with Grandfather Ashong’s instructions Mama Obotah walked Sunday beneath the huge elephant tusks that formed a white rainbow over the entrance to Grandfather’s estate. There, in the rising mid morning heat she stepped her up onto a crate from which Sunday could look over the crowd and get a good view of the rival coffins as they paraded past.

She stood in the stare of the hot sun listening to a band, off somewhere in the distance, playing frantically. The plastic stitching of the dress label scratched at her neck. Sweat ran down her calves and puddled along the thick rim of the woolen school socks Mama Obotah has insisted she wear.

“ Akwaaba! Akwaaba, Sunday Ashong!”

Sunday mouthed a welcome back to the crowd amazed at such a large number of people in one place because of one man. Women had dressed for the occasion, most in traditional floor length kentes patterned with lined geometric shapes of red, yellow green and black, as if every snake in Ghana had stood on the tip of its tail amongst the crowd to witness Sunday’s decision. Although some had come formal, most of the men, especially the younger ones, were in jeans and t-shirts wearing Charlie Wortes on their feet. Sunday became dizzy and a wave of nausea rolled down her belly and into her legs. She began to sway, visibly. She became self-conscious, afraid her grandfather might be watching disappointed, wherever he was, which only made her more nervous. To mask her unsteadiness she began to move in time to the music, taking up the rhythm of the thronged spectators swaying before her like a field of cassava in the afternoon wind.

As agreed in advance with Ashong, Dede Nuno’s entry appeared first. A collective gasp rose up from out of the crowd. They were stupefied, as Sunday had known they would be. Nothing of its kind had ever been seen before and this, this surely would be spoken of as Dede Nuno’s masterpiece. Rather than a Mona Lisa - a work of art the Sisters at Sunday’s school would often crow about - Dede Nuno had produced a Sistine chapel. Not one coffin but a train of coffins, one to represent each of the spirits of Ashong’s tribe! Sunday watched as the very image of Danh, the snake god led the procession, its rainbow colored body carved into the mahogany in such a way that its mouth held the tip of its own tail. This was followed by Ogun the god of war, whose arsenal of swords, clubs and chains bristled like quills from the spine of the casket. Others passed, each surpassing the last. Oba the river goddess followed, then Yemaya, goddess of the sea her likeness carved on the prow of a pirogue whose three white-and-blue-ringed masts sprouted from the lid of the casket like javelins. Finally Nyami the spirit who carries souls to the supreme god completed the procession.

Even with her hands cupped over them, the noise of the cheering crowd hurt Sunday’s ears. She watched Dede Nuno walk behind the last coffin accepting the accolades of the crowd equivocally, the look of an unpaid mourner about him. As he passed out of sight the crowd was still buzzing, already passing into legend the name of Dede Nuno – until, that is, someone remembered about Paa Joe.

The band began to play a mournful hymn and Dede Nuno’s fiercest rival appeared, walking alone, slowly, down the center of the road, towards Sunday. Several steps behind, two pallbearers in royal robes paced slowly, a third man between them. A low rumble rolled through the crowd as if they thought this might be a ruse, Paa Joe’s aperitif before the banquet. But as the trio continued its slow, forward shuffle the muttering turned to cries and to yells. The man in the middle looked like Sunday’s grandfather. Same height. Same build. His smile was the same. Even his eyes were the same. But he was not the same. His hands lay rigid by his side clasped by those of the men on either side and his feet did not touch the ground. Yells became cheers as those closest in the crowd understood. A deafening hurrah swept through the crowd as they realized Paa Joe had created a coffin in the perfect likeness of grandpa Ashong, that what they were looking at was not the man but the final likeness of the man; not a spent shell but of the strong, proud hero that Sunday’s grandfather had been in life. As the sarcophagus reached the arched tusks, its bearers stopped. The coffin spirits of Dede Nuno parted to receive it then closed in a final embrace around Paa Joe’s living image of Ashong.

Sunday’s grandfather stood before her surrounded by the spirits who would protect him on his final journey. The eyes of every person in the crowd were now on her. Her face began to redden and burn as if with the bites of a thousand fire ants and her heart pounded in her chest. As she fumbled for the paper in her pocket she lost her footing and a groan went up from the crowd. Mama Obotah reached up and steadied her, letting out a loud sigh in the process, as much - Sunday thought - to distance herself from whatever was to come as from that which had already transpired.

“ I am Sunday, last child of the last child of Yeboah Ashong, my grandfather,” she began. “ He asked me to choose and I did. The spirits came to me and fought over him. None would give him up. That is how great a man grandpa Ashong was. I chose Paa Joe because grandfather deserves to make his final journey with his eyes open and standing tall. I chose Dede Nuno so the spirits would look after him on that journey. Buried beneath the sacred odum he will stand tall still, watching over all of us as the spirits watch over him. He knew when he began the contest he would not see its outcome, that the contest would also be his funeral and left it for me to decide. I think I know why but am not sure. I am only a child. If my choice has offended you I am sorry. But today has been a very hard day for me and I am tired. My grandpa is gone. Gone with my father and gone with my mother. I expect I will see them soon enough.”

Sunday Ashong began to cry and mama Obotah pulled her down off the crate.

“ You are a foolish girl Sunday,” she sighed, “ Come home now and I will make you your favorite akwadu.”

Sunday rubbed at her eyes with the heel of her hand. “ With coconut?” she sniffed.

Mama Obotah smiled for the first time that day. “And brown sugar.” she said.