I still vividly remember the first time I attended church in Ghana and, although it wasn’t entirely through choice, it is something I am incredibly glad to have experienced. Religion has always been on the periphery of my vision, as it were, but something I have never been drawn to, nor have I ever felt a curiosity to explore it. However, this was about to change.
In Ghana, nearly everyone has a religion (it’s either Christianity or Islam), and atheism is a concept that is practically unheard of (I think the total sum of those who identify as atheist amounts to 4%). I was informed prior to leaving for Ghana that to say that one is atheist would rouse questions from locals, and if ever asked I should say that I’m agnostic at minimum. So that is precisely what I did. I remember one of the first questions I was asked by my host-mum was whether I was a Christian. So, as advised, I told her I was agnostic. Although I don’t know what response I was really hoping for, an awkward silence was definitely not one of them. Feeling an urgency to dig myself out of the hole I had just created, I went on to explain that although I had been Christened — and was therefore a member of the Church of England — I hadn’t attended church in quite some time. I can only assume that something was lost in translation, because this was the moment that I inadvertently led my host-mum to believe that I was a practising Christian.
When the first weekend with my host-family rolled around, the topic of going to church on Sunday morning was discussed. Whilst I was slightly reluctant to sacrifice my precious Sunday morning lie-in, not going with my host-mum to her church would have been disrespectful. Churches in Ghana are nothing like the ones we see in the UK — they are far more modest and closely resemble your local village hall, yet services are an affair unlike anything I have ever seen. Looking at a small congregation outside, church-goers really dress for the occasion. It seemed as though everyone was subconsciously embroiled in a battle to see who could wear the brightest and loudest items of clothing possible. The phrase ‘Sunday best’ certainly came to mind and unfortunately my modest knee-length skirt, baggy t-shirt and practical walking sandals were not going to steal the show (I think that award went to a lady wearing a tangerine coloured, tightly-fitting peplum dress with navy coloured birds printed all over it).
I took up a chair, which had been meticulously laid out by the church boys, on the right hand side of the hall which was reserved for English speakers, while the left was reserved for those who spoke the local language of Dagbani. What I didn’t realise was that I had turned up for Sunday school, ill-equipped, no Bible to hand and no idea of what to do! After an hour of sitting listening intently to Bible transcripts and lessons to be learnt from them, Sunday school ground to a halt to allow for the service to kick off. The pastor took to the stage and began with a reading. His voice resonated passion and had a kind of fierceness to it, although it was not necessarily unkind.
And then the band started playing! While my experiences of church in the UK have been a somewhat dreary affair, I can definitely not say the same for church in Ghana. Swap an organ player and ‘Come All Ye Faithful’ for a four-piece band comprising of a guitarist, bassist, keyboard player and a drummer, add a gospel choir and you have, for me, one of the defining moments of a church service. The room was far too small to house the enormous and penetrating sounds of the band as they reverberated around the hall. Looking around I saw that the entire congregation were on their feet, dancing and singing along with the gospel choir, whilst I stood awkwardly, making a poor attempt to dance (by this I mean swaying slowly on the spot and throwing in an occasional clap). It was people’s reaction to the gospel choir that really left me in awe.
Around me women were crying loudly, so overcome with love and gratitude for their Lord. I have never known of any music that could invoke such a reaction in a person and I have certainly never seen it first hand. For one woman in the row in front of me it was all too much. I watched as she made her way to the front of the hall, only to lie on the floor in front of the stage and writhe around, sobbing and calling out to God with her own personal prayer. After a few minutes, a couple of women were then called to the front so they could swaddle the woman in blankets in an attempt to control her. A man then staggered forward to drop to his knees and bow down to the pastor on stage, and this is where the man stayed.
Initially I was a bit bewildered; I had never seen a church service like this before. Loud, vibrant and incredibly emotionally-charged; but the music would not stop for anyone and instead just built up tempo, getting louder and louder until I could feel the vibrations through my feet. If it weren’t for the tightly packed rows of chairs, they would have been having one hell of a party! After roughly ten minutes the band finally ground to a halt to allow for the service to resume. What followed in the next three hours were sermons interspersed with performances from the gospel choir and supporting band, the opportunity to shake hands with the people around you, and to give donations to the church.
Church in Ghana is both mesmerising and exhausting. I left the church feeling physically drained from a four hour service (including Sunday school) and also from riding a sort of euphoric wave at having seen a gospel choir perform. Although I was far from becoming a convert to Christianity, I had been drawn to the Ghanaian church, and Sunday service was an event that I wanted to attend again.
Featured image © Mike Norton