Christian missionaries have never known a greater success than Ghana.

There’s a substantive Muslim population as well, yes. But there is a church on every corner, dozens of varying sizes and levels of formality and denominations in every neighborhood, and more than that, “Muslim” is considered the only justifiable excuse for not being a Christian.

In the town where I work, three of the four government-run elementary and junior high schools are named A.M.E. Zion, Roman Catholic and Methodist, and the private schools have such names as Good Shepherd, Celestial Light and Glorious Child. Worship is taught in every school; among the songs sung by a kindergarten class I observed several weeks ago was “My head, my shoulders, my knees, my toes, they all belong to Jesus.” Most small business names have something to do with the worship of Jesus (or occasionally Allah), as you’ve seen and will continue to see, and most people are deep, passionate believers.

Including my kids.

This has been a tough transition for me in the last several weeks: to realize that I cannot simply dismiss religion here as brainwashing. It’s an important part of everyone’s lives, one that I have to respect, however little respect is shown to my beliefs.

I’ve called myself an agnostic for a while, but I’m frequently called upon here to explain my beliefs, and as I go into detail, I realize that I am an atheist. But the error that many, including myself, have made is to think that “atheist” is equivalent to “not believing in anything.” I deeply believe in human beings, in the power of their connection to one another and the equal, but less world-building, power of their negative feelings towards one another. I believe that people’s passion, be it for God or for one another or for ideas, is what moves and changes the world. I believe that what happens after death should be irrelevant, that focus upon it is counterproductive to any existing life on earth. If at any point there was a deity who created the world, which I’m willing to entertain because nobody can prove anything one way or the other (unless quantum physics, of which I understand next to nothing, advances suddenly and dramatically), I don’t believe it has been around since aforesaid creation, and I believe the focus on “who created the world” often precludes the discussion of what is sustaining it.

I say bits of that when I have to explain–as I do, frequently–why I do not attend church, why I do not pray, why I don’t think that the only two things in the world are right and wrong. They normally gain something akin to eye-rolling or outright laughter. A few people, blessedly including Amadou, are willing to have an actual conversation, as is Andrews in the office. Andrews’s co-worker Joseph, however, wants to talk only to respond to every point I make with the phrase “are you sure?”, which is Ghanaian schoolteacher code for “you’re wrong.”

I went to church with Lucy and Joyce on Sunday, as we had been planning for weeks. I tried to go as an anthropologist, but frankly I wanted to run away halfway through the ninety-minute speech claiming that God wanted you to pledge two hundred and fifty cedis in the next ten months to add a roof to the new building. I know that not all Christianity is like that, and that’s why I have accepted Joseph’s invitation to go to church with him in a few weeks, against my better judgment.

If I didn’t believe in anything, I don’t think I would mind attending church. But I have very passionate beliefs that directly contradict what is preached.

Respecting the views and beliefs and ideas of my students is relatively close to the first tenet of my religion. And it’s rough going when those come up against yours.

Before my JHS class began last Friday, Annie, Peggy and Juliana were telling me about the game of netball they had played that morning. I asked them about the rules of the game, and when they explained it, said it sounded similar to volleyball. I told them the story of when my sister broke her finger playing volleyball and we made the cast, which looked as though it had a mouth, into a puppet named Binky, which was then attached to my sister for the better part of two weeks. The kids laughed, but then Juliana said seriously, “We will pray for her.”

I was confused, then explained that the story had taken place eight years ago. “But thank you,” I added. I believe in the power of kids’ prayer, and I knew the gesture was sincere. But it was nevertheless jarring.

And then, today, Laurence, the oldest and most magnetic student in that class, suggested that we add to our rule contract an opening and closing prayer. “Does everyone agree to that?” I asked before I could think.

They nodded in unison.

“Will you object if I do not pray?” I asked.

They all stared at me blankly. Then someone, I could not even distinguish who, said, “That is what you believe,” or something along those lines. I wrote the rule into the contract, all of us signed it, and I sat outside the circle while Thelma led the closing prayer thanking Jesus for allowing us to come and go in peace.

I cannot condescend to the Christianity here as something painted on by an ethically wrong and therefore dismissable colonialism; it’s much too deeply rooted for that. Nor can I dismiss my kids’s intellectual prowess–which is great–by considering them brainwashed from an early age. Nor can I change my own beliefs just to accommodate every single Ghanaian acquaintance (I don’t quite have friends here, and Amadou and Joyce are the only ones who come close) who wants me to. And I have less and less control over my anger when I am pressed by an evangelizing Ghanaian, which happens a minimum of three times a week.

This is not going to be easy.

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