One of my favorite experiences in Ghana was attending the “General church” service for the Okomfo Anokye Secondary School. I know I already mentioned it once, but I wanted to expand on it. I went on three different occasions, but my favorite was my first time with Shelley. They call it “General Church” because everyone comes from every range of faith, which is very typical in Ghana. Everyone attends church, but most are divided on what one. Our host family was a typical example. All five children attended a different church service than their parents. No matter if you are Christian or Muslim (the two dominant religions in the area), God is an important part of public life in Ghana.
The meeting started at 7, so that involved waking up at five to get ready and walking there for all you nine o’clock church haters. By the time I arrived I was sweaty and dusty, and there was no sign of Michael, who swore he would be at the gate to meet me. We awkwardly stood and waited. Having time to observe, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone was dressed in clean, white Sunday best. I was in my newly made orange dress. I felt like I was wearing tie-dye on a white canvas—as if my skin wasn’t discrete enough. At last, Michael showed up, lead us into the dining hall where the meeting was held, and sat us on the privileged bench at the very front of the room with the prefects and the preachers.
At this point I got out my jot book, something I can always hide behind when I get uncomfortable. I started scribbling down the chain of events to the best that I could follow. Opening chants. Prayer. Dancing. More dancing. Prayer. Preaching, and on like that, but Shelley would not have it. She yanked me from my comfort zone and launched me into the real experience of the meeting by inviting me to dance.
It turned out to be something between the best sacrament meeting of my life and a punk rock concert from high school. I am the backbench kind of church person. Long ago I used to be that kid who opened my bedroom window to sing for the neighbors, but that got trampled by a more mature Sunday decorum: Sit Down > Fold your Arms > and be Quiet. Happily, that window singing kid resurfaced in me- reminding me of the days when I didn’t care what I looked like—which is why I think I needed that meeting, reminding me that the root of “reverent” is the word “revere.” Not to discredit our way of worship, but I can’t help but admire the way these teenagers do it. Not a person sitting, hands flying in the air, a few wailers, some fainters, a soloist with a crackling second-hand microphone, and a bongo accompanying the steal drums. Everyone in their own world, and not a soul cared that I am no dancer, that I was white, or that I might have been wearing an orange tie-dye dress. It felt genuine and personal, and it was a treat to lose myself in that spirit for that moment.
The meeting ended with another song and an offering. I danced my way up, dropped in 1 cedi, and noticed that there was only loose change in the bowl. Since it was a school, the typical offering was lower than what you might find at another church in the village. I felt a little silly about my bill floating in there, but if anyone noticed they did give any indication of it and left it private. It guess it really was personal, not just the hope or illusion of the romantic anthropologist. After the offerings, a prayer was given and everyone headed to town to attend a church service in their own religious denomination. Their dedication was admirable.
Of course this experience would not have been the same without Shelley. I may not have the most detailed account of the meeting to offer, but the feeling and the image was somehow more powerful to me. I hope you agree. Here is a video I took the third time I went.
(Field Notes 55.7, 60.2-.7, 67.1-6, 74.2)