Monday, December 10, 2012

Religion in Ghana

As I sit here, listening to the culmination of another week filter its way out of church windows next door, I realize I've never explained the phenomenon that is church (and religion) in Ghana. In general terms Ghanaian dedication to the Almighty is mind boggling. (And I grew up in Colorado Springs, which was featured in the documentary Jesus Camp.) I’m not sure the missionaries understood the kind of goldmine they’d found in Africa - I don’t think anyone can prepare for that kind of dedication - but they couldn't have been more successful had they shown up with pom-poms and Sue Sylvester from Glee.

Now, at this point, you probably think I’m being facetious and, while I admit to approaching this blog with the same humor I approach most blogs, I want to give you a few examples to illustrate my point:

 When I was younger, I was invited to attend church with my family in South Carolina – we’re talking once a week, two hours at most – and I wouldn't set foot in that church without an adequate supply of notebooks for hangman tourneys, tic-tac-toe, and note passing. The highlight of these Sundays were the cookies I got once it ended, I was a kid after all, but I observed plenty of adults who still couldn't get through an entire service without checking football scores or nodding off at least once … and that was before the iPhone. 

Fast forward to modern day Ghana: the church next door is testament to the fact that a lot of Ghanaians attend church seven days a week. If you've ever attended a service on Sunday you know  to carve out at least seven hours (no I’m not exaggerating) and sometimes Fridays are equally important, though it’s hard to predict when. Last Friday I thought I’d watch a few movies on my laptop; when I removed my headphones at 12:30am, I was startled to realize the church next door was still in full swing. Okay, I thought, I could probably watch some Mad Men. They’ll be done soon.

Ha! Hahaha, oh rookie me …

I was still holding a pillow over my ears at 3:30 am, weeping and convinced - in my hallucinations - that I could actually understand what was being spoken in tongues (which at that point was a very lively conversation about the poor sap living next door, trying to get to sleep over the glory of God). So when I say ‘mind boggling’ above, what I mean to say is relentless … obviously.  

When it comes to religion in Ghana, there are two: Christianity and Islam. That’s it. If you don’t claim one or the other then you are grievously misinformed; if you don’t attend church then there must be something wrong with you. I happen to fall under both of the categories above and I’ve honestly had people react to me the same way I would react to terminal cancer. On the up side it’s sparked a lot of great conversations about things like the Inquisition (my counterpart  made a comment about Muslims being terrible, wicked people so I introduced him to Google and gave him a history lesson), but requires a constant awareness that admitting my heathenism will always be met with strong curiosity. 

“God willing” is a common phrase here, but it’s the dedication to it that’s foreign to me. A student will pray to get better grades in school without taking the time to study for exams; a man will pray for money without improving his work ethic; a mother will pray for her child’s health without taking them to the clinic to be diagnosed … God willing … It makes me feel like I’m in a Greek play. For the most part, this is because Ghanaians take the Bible very literally. Every word. They aren't simple minded people, but their education system is based on rote memorization and very little room for debate.  Things aren't meant to be interpreted, things are directly as the Bible says and the Bible is the only book anyone ever reads. I say that last part because any book I happen to be reading (right now it’s A Game of Thrones) will undoubtedly be referred to as my Bible (because every other book I see will undoubtedly be concerned with Jesus). If this doesn't give you an idea about religion in Ghana, then I don’t know what does.

All of this being said, churches do a lot of really great work in Africa, but I honestly don’t think anyone could have predicted just how popular Jesus  – a blond haired, blue eyed, Jewish carpenter – would become in even the most remote villages. It’s like watching a Bieber concert. It’s also one of the reasons white people are referred to as ‘Sunday born’ in their local languages, are met with constant enthusiasm, and are given an almost immediate declaration of church before anything else. (Honestly – I met a guy the other day who told me he was Pentecostal before he told me his name.)

Considering my hometown, this shouldn't surprise me as much as it does and, considering my occupation, I see it as an opportunity. As a Peace Corps Volunteer it’s not only my job to educate you about Ghana, but to teach Ghanaians about America. Being an over-achiever, I also consider it my duty to teach them about the world at large (starting with a few choice Google searches) and so we talk about church and dying traditionalism, but we also talk about gay rights and Judaism and why some people in America don’t eat meat (this last concept, by the way, is absolutely mind blowing to them).  

I've run across Ghanaians who ask me if I know who Jesus is - like it’s Pig Latin. They adopt him so thoroughly here that they often forget Christianity is a foreign implant. It's amusing every time. I figure my trade off for listening to sermons on the bus, on the street, on Facebook, and from my neighbor next door is being able to sing Broadway show tunes at the top of my lungs at any given time and call it cultural exchange. 

So, sure, King Solomon (yes, this was his name), I’ll come to church with you – I appreciate the unique cultural experience it presents me – but when you’re laughing at my exhaustion eight hours later, remember: next week we’re having a Harry Potter marathon and I’m going to tell you a little about what happened to witches in the Dark Ages.