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Christianity flavours Ghana’s cultural mix

Touchstone reporter Kate O’Boyle is spending a term studying in Ghana. Here are her observations on how Ghanaians experience Christianity.

Ghana, like much of Africa, is full of contrasts. While wealthy urban dwellers live a lifestyle that resonates with that of the Western World, the urban poor and the rural population retain more traditional lifestyles and beliefs.

Despite these differences and the country’s complex ethnic diversity, Christianity remains a strong force in the daily lives of Ghanaians from all backgrounds. More than half of the 18 million Ghanaians are Christian, and the visual presence of Christianity is everywhere.

However, religion in Ghana takes on culturally specific meanings and practices. In addition to the widespread church infrastructure, and the church’s involvement in development and education throughout the country, shop names and taxi and bus adornments display proprietor’s religious allegiances.

It is not unusual to purchase your milk from a store called ‘Only God Knows Provisions and Cosmetics’ and getting in a taxi with bold stickers stating ‘All for the Lord’ certainly wouldn’t surprise. Indeed, this kind of expression of Christianity is of considerable significance among Ghana’s Christian population.

A relatively large amount of television airtime is given to programming covering worship, theological discussion, Christian soap operas and gospel music. Christian airtime has a huge following and by promoting broad-based programming, they reach a wide cross-section of society. Gospel music, featuring pastors and congregations in locally produced video clips, is particularly popular, as are audio versions of the music.

The world famous percussion of West Africa brings a local edge to worship music here. It is evident in church services as well as audio and video releases.

Evangelical churches see huge gatherings throughout the week, and even the mainline Christian churches incorporate plenty of singing and dancing into their services. In addition, mobile church services bring the gospel to ghettos and more remote areas of the country.

The Christian church is heavily involved in development schemes throughout Ghana. Churches provide financial and practical support for projects that provide clinics, water and other basic services. Private and public schools are often owned or supported by local churches and national Christian organisations.

Foreign churches and Christian organisations too play a hugely significant role in development projects in Ghana. These connections exist for large scale projects but also for such community projects as freelance schools and youth centres.

Elements of traditional religion commonly intertwine with Christian practices in Ghana. This can be seen in events such as funerals, which are of huge significance in the local culture, and can last for weeks. Christian services and burial are critical to an honourable funeral, as is sending off of the deceased with music, dance, prayer and wake-keeping. For some Ghanaians, Christianity and traditional beliefs are more syncretic: both God and spiritual contact with ancestors through juju (voodoo) are important and inform the spiritual life of adherents.

This combination of traditional religion and Christianity does not sit well with all of Ghana’s Christians but it illustrates the huge diversity of local Christian practice. The message of the original missionaries has clearly been taken and interpreted in relation to local circumstances and cultural ideas to produce a variety of locally relevant meanings and practices all based around a fundamental belief in Christ.