Visiting a Ghanaian church and gaining more than I expected.
This past Sunday, I went to a Ghanaian church. Now, my relationship with religion is complicated. I’m not religious although my family is quite Christian (e.g. the one book I’ve seen my grandmother read was the Bible). Even so, I wanted to visit a church while in Ghana since religion is such a huge part of the culture. In fact, Ghana is about 70% Christian, 17% Muslim, and the remaining practice traditional religions or none at all. While walking around Accra, it is not uncommon to see taxis and trotros with stickers of Jesus, crosses hanging from their mirrors, and vinyl letters spelling out phrases like “Trust in the Lord” stuck to their back windows. Small businesses often have names like “God Bless Hair Salon” or “He Will Return Bookshop”. Also Muslim Ghanaians do not shy away from wearing hijabs or throbes (long tunics). Almost every Ghanaian you meet will be devoted to their religion, so don’t be surprised when a stranger invites you to their church within the first few minutes of meeting them.
Recognizing the significance of religion, I gladly agreed to attend church when invited by Auntie Jane. Auntie Jane is a seamstress who visits our International Student Hostel twice a week. Every Sunday and Wednesday, she lays out her textiles on the second floor kitchen counter where everyone visits her to order clothes. She takes students’ measurements while they pick their desired fabric and explain in detail the design of a dress, shirt, or shorts/trousers they’d like. Within a few days, she skillfully sews wonderful outfits that the students then flaunt around town.
Several weeks after her invitation, my friends — Auntie Debbie and Sandrine — and I finally had a chance to attend her church. We woke up early Sunday morning and caught an hour-long trotro towards Auntie Jane’s home in Awoshie. Once we got off at the trotro stop, we tried calling Auntie Jane several times, but she wouldn’t answer. We were worried since it was coming to be past 9:00, and she had told us to come by 8:30AM. We wandered around confused and lost. However, with the help of several kind strangers, we found our way in front of a stream near a more suburban area. After calling one last time, we were relieved to see her niece Mary Magdalene appear and guide us towards their home.
Along a dusty dirt road we walked until we arrived at their modest home. Some of Auntie Jane’s daughters had just finished bathing in the small open courtyard by the laundry line. We stepped over the threshold and were greeted by several children of various ages who were hectically preparing to go to church. Apparently, Auntie Jane was already at church. Before heading out, however, one of her daughters escorted us into their cozy living room. An elderly woman who I assume to be Auntie Jane’s mother turned on the TV, and soon after, one of her daughters gave us delicious toast with fried egg. At this point, I was a bit puzzled. I had expected to go to church, listen to a choir and an emphatic sermon, and then head home. Even though I wanted to experience Ghanaians religion, I felt a bit of dread about returning to church after several years. I felt out of place, but the children’s hospitality and the presence of my friends reassured me that it would be worthwhile experience.
And indeed it was. We hurried over to their church called Greater Grace Temple International, House of Purity. Walking through the dirt paths of their neighborhood, we admired each others’ wonderful outfits while trying to learn each others’ names. I marveled at the girls’ poise as they traveled through the rocky roads in heels. We could hear the choir already jamming out as we walked towards the entrance. Flustered by the stares from other Ghanaians, I found my seat and situated myself with the others towards the back of the room. The church seemed like a one-room warehouse with about a hundred Ghanaians of all different ages. The pastor was singing at the front with the choir of five people. Their strong voices reverberated with the echoing drums and piano. After adjusting to my surroundings, I realized that one of the women singing was Auntie Jane! She had undone her braids and wore her hair as an afro. Wearing a white top and a brilliant rainbow-colored skirt, she swayed to the music as her voice harmoniously joined the energetic choir. Shortly after, the pastor gave a booming sermon on humility and how it is a necessary step to doing service for God. Once we endured the long prayers and more singing, we headed back to Auntie Jane’s home.
I expected to simply say our good-bye’s and leave, but Auntie Debbie, Sandrine, and I ended up staying the whole afternoon. We devoured the fried plantains with red red (bean stew) that they gave us for lunch, and bonded with the children. We discovered that Auntie Jane has eight children: Janet, Joy, Blessing, Esther, Christian, Georgina, Abigail, and the eldest son. Unlike many of the surrounding homes, their home did not have a high gate, which allowed several kids from the neighborhood to enter the courtyard to join us. Laughing and talking, we played Chinese jump rope and drew pictures. Joy and Esther braided Sandrine and my hair while the older girls, Janet, Abigail, Georgina, and Mary Magdalene, helped Auntie Jane with chores and preparing food. Auntie Debbie, Sandrine, and I got a chance to pound the fufu (made from cassava, yam, and plantain) which we later ate with some yam. It was quite a relaxing afternoon, and after being stressed out from trying to adjust to Ghanaian culture, it was nice to finally feel at home. When it was time to go home, the children escorted us to the trotro stop. I hugged Joy and Georgina tight and bid Blessing and the other boys adieu before jumping onto the trotro.
Religion is evidently deeply embedded within Ghanaian culture, but equally significant is community. Worshipping together, learning together, making food together, and playing together are the key parts of life. Religion helps facilitate community ties, which makes it easier for me to understand why religion is such an integral part of many Ghanaians’ lives. It was also refreshing to see such tolerance and an emphasis on inclusivity in Ghana. Even though my friends and I were obruni, Auntie Jane’s family and church community accepted us with open arms. Besides my personal experience, Ghana in general observes Muslim holidays nationally, and it’s the norm for everyone to take part in each other’s religious celebrations. So…despite not being religious myself, I truly enjoyed going to church. It reminded me that religion is so much more than hard-headed extremists. Religion is a way of life and a way of connecting people to form a community. Viewing religion from a Ghanaian perspective definitely helped me see how meaningful it is in peoples’ daily lives. I hope to visit Auntie Jane’s church again soon, but for now, I’ll rest my ears from the loud church speakers.