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May 19 / Douglas Mack

My experience with religion in Ghana: by Douglas Mack

Before the trip to Ghana Africa, I consulted a religious leader of my Catholic faith on the following questions.  How should I deal with going to Mass in a foreign country on a school trip? Also, what are my boundaries when it comes to outside religions, like Vodu?  The answers I received respectively were, go to Mass in a Catholic church if possible, and if not then to say the Act of Spiritual Communion.  When it comes to other religions, I am more than welcome to observe so long as I don’t participate in the ceremony.  Happy with the responses I received, I found myself approaching the Sabbath while in Ghana and, well aware of my options, began trying to identify if going to church would be an option.  Luckily for me our bus driver, Joseph, happened to be Catholic and told me he would be able to show me where the Catholic churches were.  At this point I knew roughly what I was going to do.  I would be going to Mass in Ghana, and be observing the Vodu ceremony later on our trip.  However, I would need to utilize the information my instructors have given me and what the Rosenthal book explains about the Catholic and Traditional African Religions in Ghana.  This information in combination with maintaining civility, as learned and reinforced from the book Choosing Civility by P.M. Forni would be the adventure and challenge that I looked forward to with the religion aspect of my trip.

Christianity, or for that matter most religions, in Africa often don’t exist in the way Westerners see religion; Christianity begins somewhere between the 18th and mid-19th century when missionaries entered the Gold Coast and “aimed to supplant indigenous Vodu worship with Christianity” (Rosenthal pg. 20).  However, what ended up happening was a sort of blending of new and traditional religions.  The way Professor Montgomery describes it, a Catholic priest, upset with the low turnout at the church, might go to a Vodu priest to by some magic that will increase the number of participants at the Mass.  This way of religious life was also described by Rosenthal who wrote of African people who attend both Christian services, but also “take care of the family or village vodus” (Rosenthal pg. 20).  For this reason, I needed to stay aware of my surroundings at church looking for anything that jumps out as being not Catholic.  I also needed to think in advance how to remain civil in situations I may encounter.  The inclusive culture would likely have me participate, especially as an outsider, and I need to know how to politely and assertively decline if need be.

Joseph, our bus driver, on a Saturday evening, after letting everyone off the bus offered to take me to the Catholic Church, to show me where it was at.  I knew he was tired, and I knew that I would not be able to navigate my way to any area within the city with no street names whether I saw the Church or not.  However, civility challenges us to accept the good intentions of others, so I did, and off we went into the night.  The second Church we went to was offering a Mass that fit the schedule of our group and after taking pictures of the junction, Joseph drove me back to our Hotel.  The next morning I woke before 5:30 to catch a taxi.  Long story short, he got me close and did not know exactly where to go from there.  I thought I knew and ran down the road for about 2 miles before I realized I was in the wrong direction.  I ended up making it to the 6:30 Mass instead of the 5:30.

Before I walked in I prepared myself to see a Catholic Mass like nothing I had ever seen before, with more movement, shouting, and more.  I greeted the priest who was sitting just outside the door, and walked in to take my seat.  Upon walking in, I was immediately shocked at what I saw.  This building with a high ceiling, stain glass, chandeliers, and pews with kneelers, all looked incredibly similar to a typical western Catholic Church.  What was more, the alter was three steps off the floor, the ambo (podium where gospel is read) was off to the side, the priests chair was behind and off to the side of the alter, there was a drum set and other instruments off to the right, a tall Easter candle, and three altar servers.  Nothing looked out of place, different, or even a little off.  Although the setup was surprisingly similar to back home, what was possibly more surprising was the way people behaved as I walked in.  I was the only nonnative white person in the whole church; I had my camera and recorder out (with permission from the priest), wearing very different clothing; yet… no one stared at me, not even the young altar servers were interrupted with their seemingly daily pre-Mass-run-through.

I arrived a little before Mass began, and all in attendance were in the middle of the rosary.  Although the whole thing was in a different language I could tell from their cadence where to pick up, and I started quietly saying Hail Mary’s along with the other women to my left.  I felt comforted that even in a country so far from my own I could still fit in and know what to do.  When the Mass began, there was no excessive moving, yelling, or other craziness as I anticipated, but the normal precession with a choir-like Hymn bringing in the priest and servers.  Many of the women had what looked like wood sticks that they all clapped in unison along with their song.  That was perhaps the only part of the entire Mass that seemed to hold onto African roots.  Drums and metronomic rhythms are huge part of the African Tradition religion and culture.  However, I doubt very much that they saw the clapping rhythm as a tie to the Vodu or some variance; rather, it’s more likely an ingrained form or worship.  In Vodu the drums are the spirits, which are the vodu, which are song and sound, which are all related.  It is possible that the same frame of mind was at work with this simple rhythmic, slapping, beat.


As singing and Mass continued on, I was able to recognize all the transitions from the first and second readings, to the Gospel, to the Homily, to the monetary offerings, to the preparation of the body and blood of Christ.  There was one section, however, where I was unsure of exactly what was happening.  Before the Gospel people from the pews started saying things one after another so the whole crowd could hear.  It seemed like prayers possibly, or each person saying something for the rest of the church to keep in their prayers.  Through this point in Mass and through many others all I could do was listen, try to understand, and pray.

Unfortunately, being an hour late due to the morning craziness, I thought I was running late to get back to the hotel.  Without cell phone, I did not want to make the others worry.  So, I left even before I had the chance to experience communion.  The tragic thing about leaving when I did is that when I returned I discovered that I was reading my watch incorrectly and it turned out I had an hour to spare.  I wish I could have seen everyone take communion, the closing prayers, and had a chance to talk with the priest after Mass (who spoke English).  However, I did see and experience a lot, and for that I am grateful.  I was not able to make it to Mass the following week due to our busy schedule, but I was able to say the Act of Spiritual Communion in its place.  Going only off of what I saw in the part of that one Mass it would be difficult for me to say if those attending were devout Christians in the Western sense, or if indeed they still held to any part of the Traditional African Religions.  In my opinion, it seemed to me that this group of parishioners were Catholic, practiced their faith, and had a true belief in God.

Rosenthal, Judy. Possession, Ecstasy, and Law in Ewe Voodoo. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998. Print.

Forni, P. M.  Choosing Civiligy.  St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 2002.  Print

One Comment

  1. Liberty / Jul 12 2011

    I rkecon you are quite dead on with that.

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