Every Sunday, early in the morning when the air is still cool and fresh, Kissehman gets in a festive, almost excited mood. Men in suits or traditional African clothes and women in colourful, elegant dresses, often purposely sewn for this occasion, pass by followed by their kids. Stores, food stalls and restaurants are deserted and locked. Wherever you go, there’s music: The sounds of gospel choirs waft from the numerous churches and fill the air.
Sunday is church day in Ghana, and most practicing Christians in Kissehman take their religious duty very seriously. According to rough estimates, about 60 percent of Ghana’s population is Christian (Ghana is the only country in West Africa with a Christian majority).
Many of them are devout believers and church structures their everyday life: While Sunday services are decidedly the religious and social highlight of the week, people also attend services on various evenings on weekdays as well as occasional all-night services (which involve studying the bible from 10 in the evening till 3 the next morning). Many also take part in social activities organized by the church which becomes the main place to socialize and to make friends.
Going to church in Ghana is as much a religious act as it is a social event. Local services are spiritual and energetic happenings involving lots of enthusiastic singing, dancing and praying that can last as long as three hours – and they have nothing to do with religious services as you might know them from European churches.
The church I went to is some sort of wooden construction without walls, covered by an aluminum roof and furnished with white and blue plastic chairs (church in Ghana can take place basically everywhere: Some services are held in abandoned buildings, other church communities can apparently finance spacious and air-conditioned buildings).
Long before church officially starts, the musicians begin their performance and people start pouring in to sing and pray. About 9 am, the service at our church starts with a bible lesson: The audience is divided into smaller groups and assigned a teacher to discuss a certain topic with reference to the bible (ambitious church goers take a pen and a notebook with them to write down what their teacher says).
Afterwards the groups reunite and the main part of the service starts with a handshaking ceremony (you randomly walk around church and shake hands with other people).
The next hour is dedicated to passionate praying, singing and dancing: A whole orchestra consisting of several gospel singers and drummers, a guitarist, a trumpet and a keyboard player performs on stage and makes the audience – men and women alike – get up from their seats and dance in front. It’s a big, joyful party and I can see why people like going to church so much here.
When the pastor finally takes over, after two hours of intensive worshiping, people still don’t seem to get tired. While he is preaching, shouting and gesticulating until sweat runs down his face, people are with him, shouting affirmatively and clapping their hands at the right times (at times it has more in common with an agitated political speech than with a church service).
Pastors play a somewhat controversial role though. People often admire and venerate them like stars and the services of the more popular pastors are announced on big advertisement panels on the streets. While some of them are surely committed to helping their communities, others seem to misuse their status to enrich themselves by offering services such as prophecy and healing for money.
Another point of controversy is the use of the donations given by people who often struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes they don’t only finance the air-conditioned church buildings and lots of staff, but also the pastor’s luxurious lifestyle. This is by no means true for all churches, but it seems that there are cases of misuse – just like everywhere. Many Ghanaians I’ve talked to are generally critical about these issues, but trust in their own church and pastor of choice.
Towards the end of the sermon, I catch a few people trying to stifle a yawn – three hours worship are tiresome. However, after church you can buy refreshing drinks and most people stay for another hour of chatting and socializing before going home – where they take this energy from remains a mystery for me.