Monthly Archives: November 2013

Gye Nyame Blog Post

Jesus Never Fails Kitchen Business signI have never been so enveloped by religion as I have been in Ghana (and Uganda).  I say this having spent time in Lhasa; Varanasi, India; Jerusalem; and Colorado Springs, Colorado.  (Before you ask, no, I have not been to Vatican City yet.  I can’t go to Mecca.)  The pervasive presence of religion in Ghana really isn’t that surprising.  A recent Gallup poll ranked Ghana as the number one most religious country with 96% self identifying as a religious person.  (Iraq adds up to 88% religious and the US comes in at 60%.)  It’s not surprising, but it is unfamiliar.  Even at divinity school there was not such a deluge of religious language, symbols, and places of worship.  

Redeemer Beauty Saloon signIn Ghana I can hardly walk a block without seeing a church or mosque.  Within a block of the office where I am working there are a dozen businesses with religious names that are unrelated to the service they provide—Jesus is Lord Mechanic, Christ Man Machine Repair, Blessed Salon.  The only business I’ve seen in Ghana where the religious language has anything to do with the business is Let There Be Light Electricity.  

If Not God slogan on car windshieldIn addition to the numerous churches and business signs the vehicles on the road add to the religious cacophony with the religious slogans plastered on the windshields or bumpers.  Many make sense—”Jesus is King,” “Allahu Akbar,” “God is Great,” “Am Blessed,” “Gye Nyame” (“except for God”).  These seem to be simple affirmations of faith.  Some, rather than give a slogan, only reference biblical or quranic verses or passages.  Others are more cryptic—“Enemies are not God,” “1+1=3,” “Manchester United.”  (That last one may be worship of a different kind.)  One windshield asked me, “1+1=4 But Why?”  I don’t know.  Taxi, please tell me why.  I do get one of the math ones—“1+1+1=1.”  That’s definitely the math of the Trinity.  Testimony on car windshieldOne taxi merely states “Is God.”  No punctuation or capitalization.  I am at a loss.  Is God what?  God is?  Is the taxi or taxi driving claiming to be God?  Because I do believe that may be blasphemy.    

Many windshields give me direct commands.  “Be Humble.”  “Repent.”  “Sin No More.”  “Testify.”  “Witness.”  “Stop on Red.”  Wait.  I think that one was on a street sign.  

These kinds of commands are not unheard of in the US.  I lived in Colorado Springs for four years.  I’ve driven across Texas a dozen times.  I’ve seen the billboards that command me to repent and remind me that the Kingdom is at hand.  I’ve been behind vehicles with every rendition of the “Jesus fish” there is.  There were bathtub altars in my neighbor’s yards growing up.  There is no denying that in the US religion is everywhere.  Yet, as a nonreligious person, I can go days, sometimes weeks, without hearing or seeing religious language.  Blessed Food Joint kiosk(But let’s be serious.  I don’t go weeks.  I love talking about religion.)  In Ghana I can’t go outside with out being reminded of God.  I guess that’s the point.  

But as much as we argue about what separation of church and state means, as much as we, mostly nonChristians, complain about being bombarded by religion in the US, as much as we worry about when to say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” or just say “Good morning,” the US is a relatively easy place to be nonChristian and nonreligious.  I’m not saying it’s perfect.  I’m not saying the US is not a place where people are discriminated against, sometimes violently, for their nonChristianity.  I’m not saying we need to stop working toward equality and true interbelief existence.  I’m saying that living in a place where I am continually and constantly reminded on my religious otherness highlights how far the US has come toward that existence.  It’s useful to have a reminder now and again.  

It’s also useful to remember that some of this religious language can be uplifting for even a nonreligious person like me.  My favorite business name is the restaurant where we eat breakfast and dinner every day and lunch most days—Aroma of Christ Restaurant.  How great is that?  Everyone just calls it Aroma.  I get the aroma connection to good food.  But what exactly is the aroma of Christ?  I never learned that at divinity school.  Should that have been covered in New Testament or Christian theology?

Silly Obruni

Ghana is blue.  I don’t mean it is sad, I mean it is tinted blue.  So many light bulbs here are blue.  I’m not talking in bars and clubs other places that are trying to achieve a certain atmosphere.  I’m talking small shops that sell laundry powder and tomato paste.  Blue light bulb seen through a doorway. I’m talking the bedroom at the guesthouse where we are staying.  If we hadn’t exchanged the white light bulb from the bathroom, I think I might have gone mad from a week living bathed in blue light.  

When we arrived at this service location in Ghana, the Alliance for African Women Initiative (AFAWI), the co-ordinator, Philip, gave us an extensive cultural orientation.  His most pressing advice was to greet everyone.  Even strangers on the street.  Especially old people.  He said that if we don’t greet the shop owner next door when we pass on the way to the office and then need to do business with them, they might not acknowledge us.  So for a few days we greeted literally everyone we passed.  That got old fast and we’ve become more strategic.  But Philip was right.  The older people clearly appreciate and like it when we greet them.  This is part of the culture of respect in Ghana.  Philip explained that most Ghanians are a proud people who would rather take a dirty job than do something disrespectful like steal.  Therefore they expect and deserve respect.  I agree.  Though Philip did warn us emphatically to be weary of pickpockets.  There are always people willing to steal.  

Ghana is loud.  At Aroma, where we eat dinner every night, our conversation is accompanied by music blaring from the front of the restaurant and telenovelas dubbed into English blaring from the back.  While we tried to hold a Teen Club meeting—our service project here, working with a local junior high school after school program—I could barely hear the students talk because of the roar of the students playing outside.  I could be wrong, but none of the Ghanians present seemed affected by this noise pollution.  At Aroma one of the servers likes to dance to the music while watching the television.      

People really do carry things on their heads here.  That image of Africa turns out to be true.  In Uganda I saw people carrying bags five and six times the size of their heads on their heads.  I saw women hauling full jerricans of water.  With water splashing back and forth inside I don’t know how they kept balanced.  In Ghana what is being carried on people’s heads constitutes an even greater level of impressiveness.  Many people carry whole trays of food that they are selling.  I’ve seen buckets of water and soda bottles.  One man was carrying a table with the four legs hanging around his head like tassels.  That’s right a man.  That image of Africa—of women carrying heavy loads on their heads— turns out not to be the whole truth.  Women and men alike engage the practice.  Impressively I’ve seen a man carrying a sewing machine on his head and a woman carrying five trays of eggs stacked on top of each other.  What’s most impressive about the eggs is her confidence to carry them.  We went to the beach one day and there were some acrobats performing for money—beach performers if you will.  One of their stunts was for one to stand on the other’s head.  A woman in the market carrying eggs in a see-through, square container on her head. It was impressive, but I wonder if it was less impressive for the Ghanians in the crowd for whom carrying things on one’s head is just a part of everyday life.  

Just like in Uganda children are excited by our white skin.  They yell the Ghanian equivalent of muzungu, obruni, and wave when we pass.  Philip told us the adults really want to be our friends.  They will want to be very hospitable to us.  But, he warned, for their sake rather than ours, if they say, “you are invited”—in other words ask you to eat with them—they don’t mean it.  They are  being hospitable, but if we sat down with them it would likely be a hardship for them.  If they insist on you joining them they genuinely want you to eat with them.  The pervasive desire to be hospitable to whites is a legacy of colonialism.  Because, he said, colonialism was not viewed as oppression.  It was viewed “as an opportunity to see another color.”  

To conclude our orientation Philip warned us not to use the word “silly” explaining that it is a great insult here.  I don’t want to insult anyone and silly is an not exceptionally common word in my lexicon.  But ever since he told me I can’t say silly, every circumstance I encounter cries out, “this is silly.”  I find some of my greatest joys in silly things.  And I find blue light bulbs, carrying very breakable eggs on one's head, and telenovelas constantly broadcasting in Ghana excessively silly—in the American English sense.  I do believe my silly tongue will get me in trouble here.