Before I came to Ghana, I was told Ghanaians were very religious. Previous students warned us that our coworkers will probably ask us about our religion at some point during our internship. This was definitely not a conversation I wanted to have and I planned on avoiding it at all costs. Even at home, I tend to avoid this subject so I don’t accidentally say something I don’t mean to someone I care about. I’ve learned from previous experience that discussions about religion do not always end well and usually end in unnecessary conflict.
Three weeks had passed and I still hadn’t been asked the question I was avoiding most. Until now. I went out on assignment with a coworker to a photography contest at the National Theatre. Before the program began the MC asked if everyone would stand up and join him in prayer. I stood up with the rest, bowed my head, and even said “amen,” when he was finished. My coworker turned to me and asked,”are you a Christian?” There it was. I should have been prepared for this but for some reason I was completely caught off guard. I replied with a simple “no” trying hard to disguise any sort of emotion. I told him my mom grew up Catholic as if that somehow made up for my lack of Christianity. He didn’t seem phased and then asked if I believed in God. I told him I didn’t know because I didn’t want to have to explain my agnostic beliefs in detail.
He began to tell me how Ghanaians were very religious people and believed in God. He didn’t seem to mind that I was different that most people he knew and he even seemed interested in what I told him. I expected a much different type of response. I expected disapproval and maybe even a lecture on how I should change my life and turn to God before it’s too late. Trust me, I had a whole speech prepared for that reaction. Luckily, he surprised me. I made a judgment about him and he proved me wrong. I assumed any Ghanaian who knew I wasn’t religious would look down on me. He seemed genuinely excited to tell me about his religion and it reminded me to continue to see the world with an open mind rather than assume I know someone.
Each morning at work, a coworker leads the group in prayer and every single morning I cross my fingers that they don’t decide to call on me, knowing that I will have to awkwardly explain that I don’t want to or know how to lead a prayer. I am still hoping this day doesn’t come… If it does, at least I know not everyone will be judging me, and if they do, I know I’ll be fine.
I thought back to when previous students told us that they often lied when asked about their religion. I could see how this might prevent conflict, but that just isn’t my style. I’m glad Melvin and I talked about it because it not only challenged the stereotype I made about Ghanaians but showed me that religion doesn’t always have to be a touchy subject.