Make a Joyful Noise
This is installment #11 about my experiences in Ghana, West Africa, as a Peace Corps Volunteer working with cashew farming families from December 2011 to December 2013. It’s part of an essay collection Kabile, which starts with an introduction here.
Every Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana faces a decision about going to church.
In almost every town, there’s an expectation that the volunteer will want to participate in some sort of religious service. It’s very rare for someone to have no religious affiliation. During training we were told that Ghana is about 60% Christian, 30% Muslim, and 10% “Traditional”. In Kabile, it seemed to me that the town was about 70% Christian, 30% Muslim, and 90% Traditional…with the older spirituality, traditions, and communication with the ancestors continuing to underly everything and, for the most part, coexisting.
Going to church can be daunting. Church goes for hours and hours. The first time I went during training, with my homestay mama, she took me home after the first three hours and made me lunch before returning for the afternoon. With services in the local language, you can’t really blame any volunteer for becoming weary of it.
I start going to the Catholic church just to make my counterpart and neighbors happy. “You may be a Buddhist in America,” Stephen told me, “But here you are a Catholic!”
My plan is to go for a while and then figure out how to decline politely later. But, very oddly, it becomes one of the highlights of my week.
Eventually, I go because it’s fun.
The Catholic church here has something that none of the other churches in Kabile have: a brass band. The band is loud and raucous. And I mean LOUD. My assigned seat is in one of the “wings” to the side of the church. The band sets up in the other wing, facing me. It’s like a blast when they start up.
There are three or four choirs. They rotate; one Sunday will feature the Youth Choir, another the Senior Choir, another the Singing Band. All of them are accompanied by congas and other percussion instruments, though the Singing Band usually includes more percussion and is my favorite. Here they are, performing for my camera somewhat more sedately than usual:
Usually the choir of the week comes in at the start of service. They enter the church singing and bouncing and swaying, forming a lively double line that the officiant walks through before going to their seats. No matter how many people there are (often the church almost empty at the start, and fills as people arrive in a steady stream on “Africa time”), their voices fill the church. No one avoids singing because their voice isn’t good enough or because they are embarrassed in some way. Singing is fun. You just do it.
The brass band usually doesn’t come in until the last part of the service. When I see the big bass drum being put into place, I know it’s time for the collection. Or collections. There is usually a general collection and one or more special collections.
I love collection time, and get the feeling that everyone else does, too. We don’t sit while a basket is passed. Nope.
For collection, a basin is put at the front of the church on a pedestal. The brass band fires up, as loud and fast as they can manage, and then we dance.
To an American, it seems like bedlam. Most people bring white handkerchiefs and wave them around wildly. Some are lost in happiness in the music. And this is not the kind of dancing you might expect to see in a church. This is a sea of rounded curves bouncing in tight dresses, sleek muscular arms aloft over traditional robes or tight t-shirts and sunglasses. It is bodies dancing without inhibition, with abandon. Bodies in praise. Bodies of joyful expression.
An officiant yells into the microphone over it all. “Kwasie, Akosua! Kwasie, Akosua!” People exit the sides of the pews or side doors and go to the back of the church to line up…all of the Monday-born people, men named Kwasie and women named Akosua. (A name has three parts in Kabile…birth order, day of the week, and a Christian name. I am Yeli Ama Teresa—first born girl, born on Saturday).
Then all of the Kwasies and Akosuas dance up the aisle, waving their hankies and deftly depositing their coins or cedis into the plastic basin on the pedestal.
When they finish, a female usher removes the basin and replaces it with another. The officiant yells over the microphone again. “Kwadwo, Adwoa! Kwadwo, Adwoa!”
All the Monday-borns line up at the back and dance forward to make their contributions. The woman with the basin takes it to the corner near where I sit, dumps it noisily on a table (I only hear it over the band because of proximity), and the men of the church committee begin a chaotic counting of it, chattering and shouting as they deal with a sudden press of other church-goers who need to make change before they can put their contribution in.
The cycle repeats for all seven days of the week. It’s a competition…the men counting the contributions note how much each day contributes, and at the end of the service, the top days are announced and cheered.
Often people who return to their seats after their turn don’t sit down, but continue to dance. On any holiday, everyone is up dancing in place.
On Christmas day, collection took over an hour and a half. Ghanaians have stamina that I will never match.
I am still reluctant to dance, and for weeks simply walk up to the basin from the side, embarrassed.
But Esther and some of the other women keep encouraging me. Esther is Wednesday-born, an Akua (also sometimes a “sugbo”, or goat, as Wednesday-born people are sometimes called…because those born on Wednesdays are thought to be particularly stubborn and troublesome. Sunday-born are blessed, and white people are often called by the Sunday-born names regardless). Sometimes, though, she comes to get me when the Saturday-born are called, trying to show me how to go about it, leading me up the aisle.
It takes months for me to loosen up to any degree. Finally, a little girl insists on sitting on my lap during services, and when collection time comes, I just scoop her up and take her with me. Somehow, dancing with her makes it easier for me to dance myself.
Everyone is delighted when I do finally dance and bounce around a bit. The town is abuzz with the news. Honorable (our district assemblyman, and a Presbyterian) sees me during the week and says, “They say that you danced in church on Sunday. If I had known, I would have come there.”
I am mortified. But I keep trying trying. Like singing, I decide that it should be a matter of fun. After that, I dance up with the other Amas and Kwames every week. I clumsily lumber along, a heavy thundering stared-at giant among the graceful, tight, confident bodies around me. Often Josephine, the little girl, or Stella’s daughter, Queensta, dance up the aisle with me and make it easier.
Like I said, I sit in a wing of the building to the left of the altar, which is usually full of younger single women, some with babies bouncing along on their backs. While collection is going on, they are usually all on their feet, dancing in place, hankies flailing, until it’s their turn to go up to the basin.
Sometimes I sit, smiling, and just let it all that enormous energy of sound and activity wash over me. There is one song in particular that reaches a blasting crescendo where everyone sings out “Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!” and the dancing intensifies. One Sunday, one of the girls in my section is goofing off with her friend most of the time, and during the dancing I see her grab her own tits and do a furious shimmy down and then back up. She catches my eye and laughs in recognition that I caught her pushing the boundaries of what might be acceptable. But she kept dancing with joy. And then does it again.
So I go to church. I don’t follow along very well, though mass itself is quite familiar. It becomes a sort of meditation for me, a time to contemplate being in this place.
But also I am trying to learn. Learn how to get out of those thoughts. Out of the thoughts and down into my own round belly, where I can feel the drums and the horns, and learn how body can make its own joyful praise to all creation.