Accepted paper:

The materiality of death in an Ewe town


Isabel Bredenbröker (Goethe University Frankfurt)

Paper short abstract:

In Peki, a small town in the Ghanaian Volta Region, death is a public affair. It's materiality provides a body for the communal negotiation of loss, governance structures and at times conflicting attribution of values within the community - be they economic, transcendental or political.

Paper long abstract:

Based on ethnography from Peki, Ghana, this paper contextualises the role of materiality for the complex workings of events, places and things around burials and death in the resident Ewe community. Here, the 'total social phenomenon' of death-related practices serves as a political tool for continuing traditions, beliefs and power structures as well as for challenging, negotiating and changing them. Material things, substances and their respective properties play a vital role for these processes, in which values of economic, social and spiritual sort are brought into a common context. Local perspectives on synthetic, durable materials such as concrete or plastic versus organic, locally-sourceable perishables give insight into ideas of permanence, change and preservation that mirror changes in the social organisation of the community. As such, obituary posters from tarpaulin, cellophane foil wrapped wreaths, concrete bricks in graves and frozen corpses are framed as pillars of life against death, their durable qualities highlighted against signs of wear and tear which also befall these things. Seen before a broader historical as well as contemporary political background, the uses of non-native technologies, materials and things that are 'new' or marked as global commodities also demonstrate the continued struggle between native, traditional institutions and assimilated Christianity, national politics and pressure from a neo-colonial world market. The paper explores local ways of dealing with death in the community, highlights the role of material things and their properties and shows how both death and the precarity of life are negotiated by way of material things.

panel P28
Stuff of substance: valuing the tangible in transient states