Tuesday, August 14, 2007

religion, churches, and proper good-byes

My time here is rapidly coming to a close. I'm leaving my district this week. I'm heading to the south starting on the weekend. I leave Ghana on the 21st. I reach Toronto on the 22nd. I reach Winnipeg on the 26th.

I'm feeling a combination of sadness to leave the people that I've met over the past 3.5 months and extreme excitement to see my friends and family again. The biggest shock that I felt was realizing that I can be both sad and excited to leave, while the people that I've become close with, especially the family that I have been living with for the past 3.5 months, are only sad to see me go.

I realized it at church this past Sunday. I attend with my host family, who are conveniently enough, also Catholic. Church here in Ghana, and religion in general is really quite an experience. I have been to three churches since I've been here, and all have been very different from each other.

The first church I went to was on the first Sunday I was in Ghana. Janna, Holly and I woke early on Sunday morning and made our way to the Presbyterian Church in Tamale that was near where we were staying. The service, much to our dismay, was in Twi (the language mostly spoken in the southern, Ashanti region of Ghana) but we stayed anyway. People were ecstatic that we were there, and were volunteering to translate for us. In the middle of the service, people divided up into bible study groups and they made ours to be in English. The service went on for four hours -- something that I would have hardly noticed because there was so much going on all the time except for my growling stomach. They invited newcomers to the front of the church and asked us to introduce ourselves so that they could give us proper greetings.

The thing that blew me away the most, though, was the singing. These people had such power and strength in their voices. They prayed as they sang and they danced as they prayed. The energy that came out of the instrument area was astounding, and everyone was out of their seats and into the isles dancing. At one point I joined a conga line. Then, at one point, the choir rose to sing and everyone else -- musicians included -- sat silently waiting for them to begin. They sang a song with such beautiful harmonies, power, and grace that I was blown away. They sang with such belief that some parishioners were moved to tears. I only wish that I could hear it again.

In the middle of June a co-worker invited me to her church in Tamale, and since I was going to be in town anyway due to a workshop, I agreed. I showed up at the Baptist Church right before the service started and searched for my co-worker, but didn't see her, so I grabbed a seat near the back so I could watch everything that was going on. The biggest difference that I saw with this church was the music. While the first church had a definite West Africa feel mixed in with the gospel music, this church's music was nothing short of a mixture of pop and rock. And their voices were also amazing, except that they were out-fitted with microphones and speakers! After the first song my co-worker joined me, tears coming to her eyes that she was so happy to see that I accepted her invitation to be her guest.

Maybe it's just that I've never been to a Baptist church before, but I was unprepared for the way that they prayed. At one point I clasped my hands and bowed my head quietly, but I was surrounded by people with their eyes closed and arms out, calling out their prayers at the top of their voices with an amazing amount of conviction. The music was still playing and I was pulled away from my silent prayers, and just watched instead. This mass only lasted about 3 hours, which was once again too long for my growling stomach.

Usually, though, when I'm in Savelugu I attend a small (60 people at the ABSOLUTE max, usually about 40 people) church that's priest is from Mexico City. I like going to this one the best -- the music isn't as good or well prepared and the only musical instrument is a pair of drums by the back, but when I'm there, I belong to the church just as all of them do. The mass is almost the same as it is at the church I go to in Canada. I'm not the white person that gets stared at, I'm just one of them. We share the same faith and they all accept me for who I am. I've made quite a few of the friends I've made here through there.

Yet, at the end of Sunday's mass I was almost yelled at. After the mass I went to a friend that helps with litergical services to say that it was my last Sunday there, and to say good-bye. He was outraged. "You should have told us before. We should have given you proper good-byes. We didn't pray for your safe travels! We didn't thank God for sending you to us for this short time!" He went on for some time before stopping, grasping my hand, and saying, "oh, we will miss you."

It was then that I realized the impact of me leaving. That I'll probably not see these people again. That I really will miss my friends and the small church that I went to with the Father with a great sense of humour.

Despite being to three very different churches, the majority of people in my region are Muslim. The interesting thing is that whenever I discuss religion with any of my Muslim friends they always say the same thing, "we pray to the same God anyway." In fact, in Dagbani there seems to be just one word for any god: Naawuni, and it is used in many every day greetings. Naawuni son tuma (May God bless your work) Naawun' a ti bi ow (May God bring us tomorrow) Naawun' ni lubsina (May God bring us together again). The answer to all these is Ami. These greetings are said to Christians, Muslims, and Traditionalist alike. Where I live, there is no animosity between religions. People want to live in harmony. They want to understand each other instead of attacking them or hating them.

I think the world has something to learn from the people that I've spent time with this summer!

I begin travelling south on Saturday. The summer has both gone by as fast as lightening and as slow as I could ever believe; yet, the end is drawing near. I'll still be posting, so don't abandon me yet! I'll be very excited to see everyone again, but for now, I'm going allow myself to be sad about leaving.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The sights, sounds, and smells of Ghana

The day starts before the sun. I awake to the morning calls of the nearby mosque, the voice chanting over the speakers telling people to start getting ready for morning prayers. I desperately try to fall back asleep and it sometimes works, but the hen in my compound is about to wake as well with her 10 baby chicks. They start chirping just as I'm starting to drift back off, and I'm forced to admit I'm not going to get any more sleep.

I take my buck of water to the bathing room, pausing briefly to step around the scuffle that just started between the puppy and the mother hen. I finish bathing, get ready for work, and hop on my left-leaning bicycle and peddle into town, the opposite direction of the district assembly so I can visit my favourite eggs and tea place for breakfast.

I ride uphill most of the way, dodging goats and sheet that are searching the gutters and fields for their morning meal and passing many people shouting their greetings. Desiba! (Good morning) Nnaa Toomasin? (How is the coolness of the morning?) Nnaa A gbihiira? (How did you sleep) Gom beni (I slept well) Tuma be wula? (How is your work?) Alaafee (It is well).

About once a week there are workers cleaning out the open gutters, removing trash that has both blown and been thrown inside and piling it on the shoulder of the road, allowing it to dry. When it dries they will dispose of it by burning it, as it is done with all rubbish in the north, so the smell of burnt plastic and molding fruit permeates the air. I reach the stand by the side of the road where the lady makes the fried egg sandwiches and tea and sit at bench behind her. I greet her and she goes about making it right away. I'm a regular, and she likes me. I talk with the other regulars and they make me laugh, even though they are usually just asking me to marry them.

I hop back on my bicycle and go to work, getting calls all the way. "Malititi!" they yell and I wave my greetings and continue on -- I don't have time to stop for everyone that knows my name.

I reach the district assembly and snake from office to office greeting people along the way and taking a minute to play with the baby that stays with her mom during the day; Amina is too little to stay without her mom for the day. Her mom works as the district assembly cook, which means that whenever there's a workshop or meeting which needs food, she takes the orders, goes to her house, makes the food, and delivers it back. Meanwhile, if there is no food that needs to be prepared she sits with some assistants and relaxes for the day with her small child.

I reach my office and am told exciting news: that day we are going to a rural community to re-educate their WATSAN committee and make sure it is still active. A WATSAN committee is the group of people in the community that looks after the borehole pump, collecting dues from the people that use it and contacting area mechanics if it breaks. They also promote hygiene and sanitation practices in the community.

I grab my motorbike helmet and climb onto the back of a motorbike and we set on our way. The road starts off paved but we quickly turn off to the red dirt roads filled with potholes and bumps. We reach our destination in about 45 minutes and go straight to the "Chief's Palace." We remove our shoes, enter and squat before him. As he greets us and we answer "Nnaa", we clap quietly and rhythmically. He is satisfied with our greetings and offers us the traditional gift of kola nuts, a bitter nut that has a caffeine content that can ease hunger and stain your teeth if eaten too much. It was the original ingredient for cola drinks, though now they use artificial flavours.

The chief knew we were coming and gathered the WATSAN committee and other community leaders to the meeting spot in the village. We listened as the members talked us about challenges they were having (me through an interpreter) and asked us questions about certain situations. We asked them about the status of their accounts and money, and if the children are using the hand washing station that was just donated and set up outside the school latrines. Our time is quickly up (we have one more community to visit that day), but my co-workers are satisfied with the information we got and we promise to return a month later to see how their new initiatives are being implemented.

The second village we go to is much harder. The WATSAN committee has fallen into disarray, so we re-form it and start to give them some small training. We'll return when we have more materials to train them properly, funding for those materials, and a plan on how to train them and who has which tasks.

We return to the office just in time to jot down some notes and leave for the day, albeit early. We'll write our full reports tomorrow. It's market day, and that takes priority.

Before I reach the market I can feel the excitement and I hear many goats and sheet baaaing and making noise. People are holding them tied to rope calling out prices, and holding closed baskets that are filled with chickens and guinea fowl. I weave between them and pass a butcher feeling slightly nauseous from the waft of raw meet. I enter the market proper and get overwhelmed again by how many people there are and how much stuff there is, but I don't plan to stay long, I'm on a mission. I need batteries for my flashlight.

I complete my mission, eating a few treats along the way, and make my way back to my compound. I see a few more friends and stop to talk to them, so by the time that I get back to my room I'm tired and it's starting to get dark. The kids call me to come play some of the card games that I've taught them. The eldest son has just returned from Senior Secondary School (which usually boards its pupils) so he's still shy around me, but it's not long before we're laughing and teasing each other playfully.

The smell of the charcoal stove outside automatically makes me hungry and go to see what she's making. She's stirring a large pot of a dough-like material and I can tell by the smell and texture that we'll be eating TZ tonight -- a starchy dough made from maize and cassava flour that is a staple of northern meals. The soup, or thing that you dip the TZ into will be okra soup and I'm excited -- it's one of my favourites. It's much less slimy than what we had while in Toronto.

We finish quickly and it's almost time for bed; the morning comes early and it was a busy day. My family doesn't want to let me go yet, though, they instead entertain me with funny stories and ask me my plans for the following weekend or how I found the market that day.

I finally have to leave as I'm getting too tired to continue. The air is now cooler and I walk across the courtyard to my room sleepily. I crawl into the bednet that shields me from mosquitoes while I sleep and I smile. It was a good day, and tomorrow will be the same.