Religion in Ghana
Religion in Ghana is a little different to what people in the west are used to…
In Australia, we all have our own ideas about God, spirituality and faith, but largely we keep it to ourselves, going with the phrase “I don’t care what you believe, just don’t push it on me”. And whilst nobody that I encountered in Ghana was actively trying to convert me to a particular faith there’s certainly no shying away from what God means to people here.
Every second shop or stall on the street is called “God is Great Motors” or “The Lord is my Shepherd Lubricants” – I kid you not, and its no surprise, as Ghana is ranked the most devout country in the world. An impressive 96% of Ghanaians count themselves of followers of a religion, whilst only 2% claim no religion, which in comparison to Australia’s 37% observance of religion, this is a seriously large difference. Its no wonder that my response of “no religion” really shocked people here.
This 96% breaks down into almost equal parts of Christian, Muslim and Traditional Religions.
Interestingly, the majority of Muslim Ghanaians are located in the north of the country, where Islam is the dominant religion, and the majority of Christians in the south, where Christianity is more prevalent.
I found this odd initially, with my basic understanding of Christianity being based in Europe (for the last 1500 years), and Islam in the Middle East, and Ghana doesn’t really fit into either of these.
I knew that throughout Africa, since its colonization, there have been significant efforts from Christian missionaries to spread their gospel to their new colonies, and so I had expected to find at least pockets of Christianity, but I didn’t think it would be so geographically defined.
Perhaps one reason for Christianity being far more prevalent in the South, comes from the importance of the trading ports on the coast – cities such as Cape Coast, which was fought over between the British, Dutch, Portuguese, Danish and Swedish for over 100 years. Not only was Cape Coast an important city for the trade of goods such as gold, pepper and ivory, it was also a large exporter of slaves to the new world – a practice which persisted for nearly 400 years.
I think it’s an interesting contradiction that the European colonists brought the Ghanaians both the promise of salvation in the next life, and also the damnation of a life of cruel, inhuman servitude in the present.
This jarring juxtaposition was no more evident than inside Cape Coast Castle, a former European slaving castle, where hundreds of thousands of slaves where kept in dank cramped dungeons, to be led down dark passageways, out the “door of no return” onto ships bound for the new world.
The picture above is of the male slave dungeon, where up to 1000 slaves were kept for months at a time, with no light, sanitation or water, living amongst human waste and the bodies of deceased captives. This dungeon was strategically located directly below the castle chapel, and reportedly church-goers were instructed to sing loud enough for the prisoners below to hear.
Today, posters like these are plastered over almost every available wall or billboard in the south, advertising seminars and presentations from the “Resurrection Ministry” or “Survivors Convention” – kind of like those late night TV shows in Australia, on a very big scale. So many harvests to be reaped!
As trade brought Christianity to south Ghana, its likely that trade also brought Islam to the north, as Muslim merchants reached further south, seeking gold and salt as early as the 8th Century. Over time, these merchants brought with them scholars, and parts of north Ghana began to start practicing Islam in around the 15th Century. Northern Ghana also contains the oldest Mosque in West-Africa, in a small town called Larabanga, which has an entirely Muslim population of around 3000. I was fortunate to be able to stay for a night with a family in Larabanga, a highlight of which was sleeping on the roof of their family home – waking up super early with the call to prayer.
Despite the geographical and ideological divide, there are no tensions between Muslim and Christian Ghanaians; the tensions of the Middle East, and even close neighbours Nigeria, do not seem to effect the good natured manner with which everybody deals with each other.
Nevertheless there are considered to be some socio-economic differences between the two religions, as traditionally the Christian schools provide a European style of education, which was and is considered to be of greater value to employers – particularly in government jobs.
Despite the strength of Christianity and Islam in Ghana, so-called ‘Traditional Religions’ persist, particularly in remote communities that have escaped colonizing efforts. Traditional practices refer to the exist of one Supreme-Being called Nyame or Mawu, who is removed from everyday life, and many lesser gods who are manifest in physical objects such as rivers, mountains and trees.
It is believed that a person’s ancestors are their most direct connection to the spiritual realm, and are present with believers in everyday lives. These ancestors can be reincarnated through the birth of a child, and it is believed that to neglect ones ancestors could spell disaster for the lineage of ones family.
Followers of these religions usually do not attempt to contact Nyame, instead they attend temples belonging to specific to lesser god, and attempt to commune with their ancestors for spiritual and every day guidance.
One of these traditional religions you may know – at least by name. When slaves from Africa arrived in the Americas, particularly in Haiti, they brought with them Voodoo, which has its origins in Ghana, Benin and Togo. Whilst the more aggressive forms of voodoo (ie. curses, voodoo dolls, etc.) are technically more part of a religion called Bo, it is said that practitioners of voodoo would have some basic understanding of Bo concepts.
On my trip to Ghana, I was treated to a voodoo performance who performed many ‘acts’ along with the group Salaka. The act that stuck in my mind was the voodoo witch-doctor, priest or practitioner sawing at his stomach, tongue, eyes and throat with a seemingly-sharp blade. To the majority of the Ghanaian audience, this was watched with horror, intrigue and disbelief. Being a little more cynical, it looked to me like a guy trying to sharpen his bendy plastic sword with his eyeballs.
Here’s a very average picture of him getting his stab on.
And just one final interesting tidbit, there is a community in a very remote area of Ghana that practice a religion entirely unlike any other religion around them. They believed themselves to be the only people in the world to practice this religion…until they discovered that it was practiced by millions of others all around the world. Sefwi Wiawso is home to the only Jewish community in Ghana, who reportedly practice the customs and rules of Judaism very…ahem, religiously. They claim that they are descendent of Jews from Israel, who wandered North and West Africa for hundreds if not thousands of years avoiding persecution. They reportedly even pronounce certain words in ways that are taught anymore, implying that they are in fact descendents of ancient Jews. I don’t know much about Judaism, or its practices, but this guy does, so click here for more about this weird and interesting story.
According to Google Maps, its only a 108 hour drive from Jersualem to Sefwi Wiawso…
Despite the differing views of these religious groups, Ghana is not a hot-bed for religious violence. Quite the opposite, people are free to practice their own beliefs free from persecution and violence – an ideal situation for any nation.
To finish off the post for today, we have a religious recording – rather sneakily taken during a Catholic service in Tamale – the largest city in Ghana’s north. I met the Catholic Priest who was conducting mass the night before at a bar (quite a hip priest) and he invited me along the following day. So on my first ever motorcycle ride ever, I did what every good boy does when operating a vehicle without a license…I rode to church.
This recording demonstrates that whilst foreign religions make take root and influence Ghana, the culture of singing, dancing and participating persists and helps to re-interpret potentially stale material into something more alive, and quintessentially African.