Being brought up in a very loosely Christian family the church has always been in the background but not part of daily life. St Cuthbert’s at Sessay served as a place for the family to celebrate rites of passage and mark the various seasons. I was christened there, as a child it played host to my school concerts whilst in the last two years I have attended two of my sibling’s marriages and a solitary harvest festival. In short attending church for me has been part of observing tradition rather than signalling any deeper religious conviction. With the exception of a few years of atheisms in my adolescence I have never been too sure, or particularly bothered, if god exists or not.
In Ghana (and in much of Africa as a whole) this position just does not compute. Unlike the unassuming St Cuthbert’s with its gentle woman vicar religion here is brash and all encompassing. Everyone believes in either God or Allah and they want you to know all about it. Whilst there is a large Muslim population in the unfortunately named Pig Farm (a neighbourhood due north of where I live), the population in Accra is overtly Christian.
Christianity has a firm presence in everyday life in the city. Billboards adorned by sharply dressed “Apostles” line the Nkrumah ring road whilst passing Tro-Tros are often branded with religious slogans like “Thank You Jesus”. Many shop names also make reference to God. Ali, one half of a British couple interning at CHRI, saw a shop called “Jesus loves fashion” whilst I have spotted a place called “The Blood of Christ Beauty Parlour”. I was disappointed to walk past and see a solitary woman having her hair braided rather than been dowsed by buckets of holy blood.
In this religious atmosphere it easy to feel a little lost as an agnostic. Conversations in Ghana quickly turn to religion and any attempts to explain my lack of religious conviction is met by either suspicion or attempts at conversion. This routine can get tiresome and I now prefer to just avoid the conversation or claim that I am a practising Christian.
I don’t have a problem with Christianity per se but I do resent seeing rich preachers and poor congregations. In Swaziland I was amazed that the pastor of Mhlanbanyatsi church was flying out to Zambia for a conference just at a time when the local community were facing the closure of the pulp mill, the one major source of regular employment in the country’s Western Highlands. Last Sunday’s trip to the Holy Hill Chapel with Eric and George further cemented my negative stance towards the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in Africa.
The Holy Hill Chapel is not a chapel in the traditional sense but rather an open sided marquee in a yard close to work. It holds services every Tuesday evening and Sunday morning. The Sunday morning service is a three hour marathon of singing, dancing and a long and energetic sermon. Unlike back in Sessay the service is very interactive and the congregation regularly get up to dance to the music and shout in response to the pastor. Throughout his address, which made passing references to trips to London, there were regular interjects of “amen!”, “powerful” or, my favourite, “push it!” from the crowd.
“Push it!” in a thick Ghanaian accent sounds awfully like “bullshit!” which meant I spent a lot of the time holding back childish sniggers. However it was a word that came to mind a few times. Three times within the service the congregation were asked to dip into their pockets for the “good of the church” and on each occasion they dutifully did.
The first collection was as we just arrived. The pastor, turned out in a sharp suit, came up to the microphone and pulled out a ten cedi note (lunch money for a week and half) held it in the air, placed it in a basket and encouraged everyone else to follow. One by one the congregation dutifully followed and crumpled notes were extracted from pockets, held aloft and placed into the collection basket.
Half an hour later we were then directed to the envelopes sitting on the chairs. In these we were instructed to place out tithe money. Again, everyone did as they asked.
At the end of the service the pastor then went on to introduce why he really really needed our money this time. In July the church was due to go out onto the streets of Accra and hand out pamphlets about the light of the lord. I am not exactly sure why this was strictly necessary as it seems that I am the only non believer in the city and I was right in front of him. Nonetheless the congregation seemed excited and all too happy to fund it. The pastor held up a new bunch of envelopes and instructed people to come and collect them at the front before filling them at home. Donors were called up in batches. First he asked for those who would give 50 cedis (a 1/3 of a monthly wage for a low level Ghanaian office worker). A few came up to a ripple of applause and the pastor gave out the envelope, named the individual and thanked them. Later he called on those to give 20 Cedis, again the applause and the naming, then 10, then 5. By now the majority of the congregation had been to the front and been named. Just to make sure that no one had escaped, the pastor again waved his envelope and everyone followed. As the envelopes went back and forth the pastor animatedly talked about the importance of this divine mission. I looked around to see that I was the only one with my arms still folded. As he reached a crescendo a thick “Push it!” went out from behind me. Push it indeed.