I am, by nature, compulsively on time. Even in Ghana, where people tend to be an hour late, I cannot stop myself from arriving earlier than we had planned to meet. It means I’m often annoyed or disappointed, but I am unable to stop. I want to be there on time. I want to know what happens on time.

When I am teaching or directing, I make it a point of arriving half an hour early. This is a Power Thing. I do it to case and take possession of the joint, or to put it in terms more generous to me, so that I will be settled in and connected to the space by the time the people I am leading enter it. I become part of the space, in a sense.

It has become a ritual in my JHS class for Mefia, Sophia and Letitia to arrive early. Occasionally someone else is there, Thelma or John, but those three are the constants. They even stop in to visit before the primary class on some days. The half hour we are there together before class starts is usually spent on scrutiny and interrogation. The scrutiny is about my appearance, in one way or another. “Madame, now your hair is longer! Will you cut it again?” “Madame, today you are wearing earrings! And also a necklace!” “Madame, this is the first time I have seen you in trousers!” I started to wonder if adolescent obsession with appearance was a cultural universal, but I’ve since come to believe that the cultural universal is adolescent *scrutiny*, the sudden close observation of the world around you. I’m sure an adolescent psychologist said it long before I did, but every now and then we must figure things out for ourselves.

The interrogation consists in the three girls asking any question that comes into their minds. These range from, “Madame, are you a virgin?” (they asked that very early on, and being unsure of my relationship with Ghanaian culture at the time, I was unsure how to answer;I have since concluded that the correct answer would have been, “No, I am not. May I ask why you’re asking that question?”) to “Do they have funerals at your place?” to “So, Madame, why do white people always have cameras with them everywhere they go?” I answer these questions in as much detail as I possibly can, sometimes too much. Last week Sophia asked me why, when I said the word ‘what,’ it sounded like ‘whad’–why I didn’t pronounce the ‘t’ clearly to Ghanaian ears. Now, one could just say “I have a weird accent”; unfortunately, I’m a compulsive teacher and studied linguistics for a period in college. As such, I gave a brief lecture about the “flip” phoneme, which can sound something like a ‘d’ or a ‘t’ or an ‘r’ in English pronunciations, and which tends to show up a lot in transcribing American accents. It’s flattering, though, that the three girls always seem intensely interested in my answers.

This week the interrogation included from Letitia the question, “Madame, since you have been here, have you been going to church?”

“No,” I answered.

Mefia and Sophia looked startled. “Why not?” they said, almost simultaneously.

“Because I am not a Christian.”

All three gasped. I had had occasion to share this fact with Juliana, and she took it with equanimity, but Mefia, Sophia and Letitia were deeply shocked. “Madame, why are you not a Christian?”

Every Ghanaian with whom I have discussed religion has asked me this, and I still have not found a worthy reply. “Because it is not what I believe,” is what I answer, and what I answered here.

“But you believe in God?” Around this point, John walked in.

“No, I do not.”

“Madame,” John exclaimed, “are you joking?”

“No, I’m serious,” I said.

They stared at me. “Madame, how can you not believe in God?” Mefia asked.

“Do you believe that God created you?” asked Letitia.

“No, I do not.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t see any evidence or reason to believe it. But I respect that you do.”

“Madame, does your mother believe that God created her?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Ah.” That seemed to clarify a few things for Sophia and Mefia.

“What are you, Madame?” Mefia asked.

“I guess if I were anything I would be Jewish. My family–my ancestors were Jewish. But I don’t really think of myself as religious.”

“Your parents are Jewish?”

“Not my parents, my great-grandparents.” I took a moment in Teacher Mode to explain about the persecution of Russian Jews by the Cossacks and the early twentieth century influx of Jewish immigrants through Ellis Island. They all nodded with a focus and solemnity I have come to rely on and will miss terribly.

“But Madame,” said Sophia, “Jewish people believe in God.”

“Yes,” I said. “That is why I’m not entirely Jewish.” They were very confused by this notion. I guess it is, all things considered, pretty American. “Why are you Christians?” I asked.

“Madame, because we believe in God.”

“But why?”

“Because of our parents,” Mefia said. “Our parents are Christians, so they have taught us.”

They were startled to learn that some people in the United States change their beliefs from those the parents raised them with. I tried to give several examples, leading John to respond, “Madame, then you are all confused!”

Eventually the idea of atheism became too much for them, and they started asking me about Jewish rituals, about what it was like to go to synagogue. I’m no expert and I had to compare everything to church, in which I am even less of an expert, but I explained things in the piecemeal way that I could, describing rabbis and cantors, the Jewish commitment to learning and education, its openness to other religious beliefs (I learned all about the Noachide laws from reading Faye Kellerman novels, go me), the observation of Yom Kippur. These girls love learning. I will be destroyed if they do not go to Senior Secondary School.

This conversation allowed me to realize, finally, that not everyone is trying to convert me or assault my beliefs in Ghana. Many are, but some aren’t. It’s just beyond the experience, beyond the imagination, of a young person who has spent his or her whole live in Southern Ghana that people might have different beliefs. There are Christians, there are Muslims. *Maybe* there are traditionalists, though in the Greater Accra Region even those are few and far between. But Jews, and people who don’t believe in God, are simply unimaginable. How could you not?

People are trying to understand.

My turn.

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