Parks, Beads, and Coffins: Visiting Heritage Sites in Ghana’s Eastern Region

After visiting Elmina and other heritage sites in Ghana’s central region, the workshop participants returned to Accra. On Thursday, our last day of site visits, we traveled to Ghana’s eastern region and visited Shai Hills resource reserve, Krobo mountain, the Cedi bead factory in Odumase, and a “fancy” coffin workshop in Akuse.

Shai Hills Resource Reserve

Our first stop on Thursday morning was to the Shai Hills Resource Reserve. Located northeast of Accra, the site became a reserve a few years after Ghana’s independence from Great Britain in 1962. Ghana’s forestry commission currently manages the reserve. A family of baboons greeted us at the entrance area near the roadside. Many families of baboons make their home at the reserve, along with monkeys, antelopes, ostriches, and other animals. A guide from the reserve introduced workshop participants to the site at a reception area and joined us for our tour.


Shai Hills consists of grasslands, quarries, and hills where the Dangme organized settlements around the foothills and hilltops. We drove through the park, stopping in an open area near one of the hills where William Gblerkpor, lecturer in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at the University of Ghana, shared more about the site’s archaeological importance: the site’s history dates to at least the 14th century; radio carbon tests suggests that the site dates to the 11th century. The Dangme first built settlements around the foothills. But during the 1300s, the settlements expanded upward on the hilltops where some terrace structures remain. The archaeological record at the site indicates a continuity of ceramic traditions used at the court or for puberty rites, in addition to burials and shrines dedicated to the gods. In 1892, the settlements were relocated from these ancient sites to an area 8km away, but some rites continued to be held at the ancient sites.

Next, we visited an area of the reserve that features a large open-air building. The World Bank built this structure as a “museum” in the mid-1990s. But the building has to yet to be realized as a functioning museum or to serve any other purpose. Instead, it is unfortunately an example of an unsuccessful heritage site. In its current state, the building is in poor condition from not serving any function other than a home to some of the animals living in the reserve. Consequently, this sparked an important conversation among participants about the factors and decisions that have resulted in the building’s current state. Additionally, it led to discussion about the site’s potential and possible ways to start using the building. This discussion centered on three important issues: first, this building exemplifies a common problem when outside companies take action without local involvement. Second, it also indicates the problem of maintenance at heritage sites when business plans are not made or upheld. For example, the World Bank did not seek local collaboration to build the structure or to develop a management plan, which prevented the community from using the space after it was constructed. Lastly, the building’s open-air plan and layout raises important conceptual issues regarding its intended function as a “museum.”

Krobo Mountain

After leaving Shai Hills, the workshop participants continued north to visit Krobo mountain. But en route to Krobo, maintenance problems with the bus returned and we were forced again to make impromptu arrangements. Luckily, two tro-tro buses came by that were nearly empty with only a few passengers. Tro-tros are refurbished minivans that are independently run and form the main bus system and the most affordable transportation option for Ghanaians. Instead of waiting for the bus to be repaired before we continued, we requested to have the tro-tros take us to Krobo mountain before they resume their normal route. After leaving our bus behind and boarding the tro-tros, we continued our journey to krobo mountain.


Arriving at Krobo mountain, we drove into the park along a winding gravel road. We soon reached an open clearing at the base of the mountain. William Gblerkpor introduced us to Krobo Mountain, the primary site of his PhD dissertation field research. Some of the workshop participants then hiked up the mountain to view the terraces that William described in his discussion of the site’s archaeological record. But the mid-day heat and steep, rocky terrain kept other participants from joining the hike, as they opted to explore the area surrounding the base of the mountain.

Cedi Bead Factory in Odumase

Our bus was still being repaired when we completed our visit at Krobo mountain. So we continued our travels in the tro-tro buses to Odumase, a town in Krobo known for glass bead making. Odumase features a large market selling glass beads and a bead festival (since 2009) that draws customers and visitors from throughout the country and abroad. Glass beads are important objects in Ghana’s archaeological record and have a long history as trade commodities in exchanges between Africa and Europe. In Krobo society, beads are important family heirlooms as they symbolize status and are often used in dipo puberty rites for girls entering womanhood.


During our visit to Odumase, we stopped at the Cedi Bead Factory to meet bead maker Cedi. He learned the trade at a young age from his family, and has since continued the family business. Cedi is actively involved in the economic and cultural dimensions of Krobo’s bead making industry: he serves as president of the Manya Korbo Bead Association and is a founding member of the Ghana Bead Society. During our visit, Cedi explained the processes involved to make glass beads. He demonstrated how to make five different types of beads: recycled antique beads, recycled transparent beads, recycled glass powder beads, glazed painted beads, and bodom beads.

The Royal Senchi Hotel

Following, we took a break for lunch at the Royal Senchi Hotel, a luxury hotel recently built in 2011 along the Volta River near Somanya and Denkyenyam. The hotel’s serene environment and upscale appeal as one of only a few four-star hotels in Ghana sharply contrasts daily life outside the hotel’s entrance gate. Its architectural design suggests broader reference to “African” design and its interior décor seeks to celebrate Ghana’s heritage as it features adinkra symbols, woven kente cloths, carved Akan wood stools, and wall hangings referencing akua’ba dolls. While we enjoyed the gourmet buffet lunch, we also discussed important issues that the hotel raises regarding heritage tourism in Ghana, including: the “invisible boundary” that separates access and involvement from the local community, and how heritage is visualized and commodified through reference to Ghanaian and African cultural practices.


“Fancy” Coffin workshop in Akuse

Following our lunch, we stopped at Cedi’s bead shop located separately from the bead factory along the roadside before traveling to our last site visit: a “fancy” coffin workshop in Akuse, a small town near Odumase-Krobo. “Fancy” coffins, sometimes referred to as “fantasy” coffins, are painted wood caskets carved to depict the deceased’s occupation or aspirations. At the “fancy” coffin workshop, participants had the opportunity to speak individually with the carpenters to learn more about the trade and view examples of their work on display. For example, some of the completed “fancy” coffins on display included: a bible, car and taxi, and a two-story white painted house. Other popular examples include cocoa pods and sugarcane for farmers, cameras for photographers, airplanes and other animals. Funerals are important religious and social events in Ghana, but the expensive costs associated with “fancy” coffins limits their use to elite families. The workshop we visited also manufactures plain wood caskets, a more affordable option for local customers.

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“Fancy” coffins have also garnered international recognition for their creativity and imaginative designs. Consequently, these objects have gained additional roles as they are displayed in museum exhibitions and attract tourist visitors to their workshop. In addition to Akuse, “fancy coffin” workshops are especially prevalent along Accra’s coastal towns of Teshie and Nungua (notable carpenters include Kane Kwei and Paa Joe).

After visiting Akuse, we concluded our site visits for the day and returned to Legon. The range of our visits today – from natural, environmental heritage sites at Shai Hill and Krobo, to artistic cultural heritage practices at Odumase and Akuse, and lunch at the new Royal Senchi hotel – provided workshop participants with dynamic experiences to consider how heritage manifests in different forms.

*Blog entry by Allison Martino, University of Michigan


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