“Are you Christian?”
But even a week and a half in Ghana taught me better than to expect Western traditions to travel below the Sahara. I recovered and did my best to condense some serious contemplation into a timespan short enough to pass unnoticed. Chewing on small fish bodies pinched with kenke – a starch-based commonplace of Ghanaian cuisine – I rifled through the dozens of religious beliefs I’d been introduced to in the past, debating if “Christian” came the closest to describing me.
In Ghana, religion saturates your daily experience. Ghana is the most religious country in the world, with 96% of citizens claiming to be “religious”, according to a 2012 study by WIN-Gallup International. So many cars featured religious bumper stickers that I could count those that didn’t during my six-week stay with my fingers. Even if it meant putting an image of Jesus next to a pot-smoking baby – which happened a lot more than you’d imagine – I watched hundreds of holy cars pass by me every taxi ride home from Downtown Accra. Even food stands evoked god in their name, with signs like “His Goodness Fruit.”
My own religious history left me with a jaded perspective on the whole ordeal. A wide spectrum of beliefs within my extended family allowed me to understand some strengths and weaknesses in all of them. My parents encouraged whichever religious trend I happened to entertain during a given week of my childhood (usually corresponding to which grandparent had most recently visited).
In the foggy reel of childhood memory spinning through my internal cinema, I often see my mom responding to a question during a bright afternoon car ride, “Is Jesus inside the Sun?” My mom’s response: “Well, what do you think?”
After joining a church for the social benefit of inherent friendships within the congregation, I did not find the same tolerance of critical thought. Beliefs were clearly defined. Entertaining ideas outside of such definitions meant another sin to repent for. The breaking point came when my youth pastor “invited” a Muslim woman in to share her tradition with us and then used her brief introduction to Muslim culture as the perfect set up to slam dunk our souls into the spiritual hoop at the Christian side of the court. The dumb, goofy grin stayed plastered on his greasy face through her ten minute overview of basic Muslim tenants (the value in ritualistic, daily prayer, the symbolism behind unique staples of Islam like hiyabs). She left and his cartoonish face glazed over with stern worry as he picked out specific points to tear apart as outlandish and savage for the audience of suburban 14-year olds. Still, he seemed genuinely concerned that we might burn in Hell after giving this woman ten minutes of uninterrupted attention. This experience, as well as social trends that equated homophobia and right-wing politics with religious duty, turned me off of religion in the United States.
But Ghanaian spirituality, like other initially familiar culture traits, shares little more than names and points of reference with its Western counterpart. This doesn’t make itself known until some level of immersion has occurred. From an onlooker’s perspective, Ghanaians could seem like fundamentalists. Religion is unavoidable, omnipresent. Ghanaians wear their beliefs on their sleeves with the energy of a new devotee fresh from the baptism pool.
Then I began to break through my own shell of cultural bias. I stopped focusing on what I saw, and started focusing on what Ghanaians saw.
My internship at Public Agenda, a social justice newspaper based in Ghana’s capital city of Accra, helped force that immersion. My Obroni face and mannerisms stood out like tie-die alongside the Obibinis at work. I couldn’t lean on my Oregonian housemates to ease my cultural discomfort. I couldn’t compare bits of pop culture to celebrities back home, or lament Ghana’s lack of Mexican food. I could only listen and learn. I was all in, whether I liked it or not.
The newsroom itself prevented any isolation. On any given day, up to a dozen writers, editors, and page designers crammed into a room just big enough to fit a continuous desk that lined the two sides and back wall. If any more than 12 journalists showed up, the work flowed out the door onto chairs in the front reception area, like a party spilling out the front door on a late night. Atop the desks, stacks of old Public Agenda issues towered over laptop computers. Every hour or two, we in the newsroom would trade the three power cords amongst ourselves, making sure no one’s computer went dead. Fans at either end of the room circulated hot, humid air. Outside the building, children played in a nearby schoolyard, vendors sold meat pies, and cars rolled slowly down the road blaring propaganda for their parties’ presidential candidate.
Each member of the Public Agenda team helped me understand different aspects of their society. Laud introduced me to a lady who mixed avocado in with her joloff rice for an extra fifty pesewa (25 cents). Patrice turned on the TV during slow news days. Fred brought me up to speed on Ghanaian school, water distribution, climate control, and natural resource institutions.
And everybody told me about their god.
Nothing stood out to me right away. Their need to share their faith with me matched that of bumper stickers like the one I read earlier in the week on a bleary-eyed morning commute – If God say yes, Who can say no? Their vigor echoed spirited voices that blared through radio stations like Joy.FM. What caused me to rise above my cultural prejudice was watching the devout intermingle.
Kapini, a Muslim staff writer, sat down every day next to Philo, who worked on layout design and kept the most recent issue of The Watchtower on her at all times (a monthly magazine meant to assist Jehova’s Witnesses in their ministry and public outreach). After learning this I figured it was only a matter of time before the feuds fired up.
They must have established a temporary truce about religion for the sake of comforting the foreigner, I selfishly decided.
Politics, for example, regularly reduced the office to a shouting chorus. Though there are currently over 20 registered political parties in Ghana, their members are all fiercely dedicated. Ideological divides during office debates became physical ones, managing to split about 12 feet of floor space into a visual breakdown of opinion. Having declared independence from Britain less than 60 years ago, citizens feverishly defend their democratic values, most often the right to voice an opinion.
But spirituality never entered the arena, and as time went by my curiosity grew. I often walked to Circle 37, the public transportation hub, with Philo after work. After learning her three-day process for making Banku, my favorite Ghanaian dish, I asked her whether religious fights ever happened at work. She didn’t understand the question, so I explained the inherent tension between many faith groups in the United States as she and I dodged small goats playing in the gutters and taxis hugging the curb on turns.
“God wants us to focus on him with a family, not by ourselves,” she explained. “And I could never judge another’s family.”
“Why would we argue?” Kapini laughed the next day when he heard the question I asked Philo. “We worship the same god. We just learned different ways.”
He went on to explain that Ghanaians value submission to a higher power, not the chosen rituals of an individual. Even traditional medicine men found acceptance in local fundamentalist Christians, as long as they emphasized the holy spirit they worked with, and not their own holiness. Leave the ego aside and praise the unknowable goodness of god, the Ghanaians say, personal religious affiliations included. Their differences are cultural, not spiritual.
In the words of Ken Kesey, “I’m for mystery, not interpretive answers… The need for mystery is greater than the need for answers.”
The realization broadened my cultural understanding like Aldous Huxley’s valves of perception dilating wide-open. I understood how the Islamic chants of prayer hour played without a single protest during cramped commutes in a majority Christian country. I understood how intellectuals embraced the spirit of religion, instead of tearing apart gaps of logic in parables. I understood how not one instance of religious tension filled news pages during my month-and-a-half in Ghana.
It goes further than Ghana. If we can see beyond the political and social divides that piggy-back onto religious institutions, we find a global community clumping together in a dedicated effort for spiritual contentment and the comfort of community, whilst staring down the unknowably massive mystery of life and existence; the whole story, beginning, middle and end; God, to English-speaking Christians; Onyame, to the Akan people who populated central Ghana long before the British came.
But I didn’t know any of this when my editor, Mr. Hansen, asked if I was Christian. I didn’t understand the cultural implications the question held, or the philosophical ones it lacked.
Cracking through the salty skin and spine of the fish on my plate, I searched for some sign of what he wanted to hear. His lips curved into a subtle smile and his eyes shone in wonder. His lap contained the same breakfast I had before me, his treat. Left to my own devices, I imposed onto Mr. Hansen the religious workings of my own home country. I rendered myself useless to his cultural inquiries, despite all the insight he gave me into his own.
I mumbled, “I don’t know.” His face fell in confusion, and the conversation went nowhere.
Thank God I had 5 more weeks to learn what he really asked.
Schuyler Keenan Durham is a writer and musician from Portland, Oregon. He has a passion for art, culture, and social justice around the world. His words about such things appear on his site, Locals Only. If he isn’t writing or playing music with Blind the Thief, Schuyler’s probably hugging a tree, riding a skateboard, or playing with a dog.