By Jonathan Ng
Often praised as an oasis of peace and stability in West Africa, Ghana seems on the surface like most of its neighbors. The country features a predominantly Christian population and Muslim minority as well as wealthy urban centers in the south near the coast and poorer rural areas in its north. These qualities exist similarly in other countries such as Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and Togo, which used to form what was known as the “Gold Coast” of Africa. Yet, unlike its neighbors, Ghana has an uncommon story, being the first country in Africa to become a democracy in 1953 and upholding that democracy consistently into the modern era. A crucial crux in this stability has been the relationship between communities, specifically religious communities. My vignettes and interviews while in Ghana will attempt to stitch together a possible explanation for harmony in the country.
Stepping into the streets of Madina is overwhelming. Madina, an outer-lying district in Accra situated north of the city center, reverberates with the same energy as much of Ghana’s capital. Its streets are swarming, perfuming, sensing, and performing—dried fish filed carefully on stands, tubers and grains overflowed over the slight lips of the gray metallic bowls, and cloth and household appliances displayed for the casual passerby. All the while, women and men alike balance a cumbersome collection of wares. Two storied flaxen-colored walls run along either side of the street, half paved and congested with cars, bodies, various fabrics, and produce: all seemingly compressed into a domain ordered by chaos.
Turning left onto a side street, the taxi weaved through narrow, mud-walled alleyways only large enough for the side mirrors to slither through the path. The clamor simmered to an echo, and chickens, goats, and dogs scampered away from the foot of the taxi. We stopped at a large mosque with the letters inscribed on a plaque “Kuwait Islamic Central Mosque.” A green band of paint ran across the bottom half of the mosque, coloring doors, walls, and its arched windows. In the Islamic faith, green is a sacred color, one associated with paradise as we would later learn. The taxi driver pointed to a corrugated metal gate where he said the Madina Islamic School was located.
Rahim Naaninche, my fixer at the school, greeted me at the gate and led the way into the school. The entrance opened to a compound where children ran in the dusty school yard and were served at low tent-covered tables to the right of the gates. Rahim led me to a woman sitting with a white and yellow-flower patterned hijab perched on her head and garbed in a yellow and red patterned kente–the school’s supervisor, Madam Issifu Adamah.
Madam Adamah’s office is in the administrative wing of the school, an approximately 300 square feet room with offices separated by plastic wall dividers. As we gradually observed, the Madina Islamic School was a community based school that housed a variety of students.
About the distinction of the school as strictly an “Islamic” one, Ms. Adamah explained that the school’s mission is to educate all students in the area regardless of religion. The only thing that Ms. Adamah stresses is the fact that students must adhere to the dress-code and the rules of the school, which require students to behave cordially towards each other and for girls to wear hijabs.
Madam Adamah ensured that: “As long as students have an open mind for learning, we welcome into our school with open arms. For those students who cannot pay, we offer scholarships for those who are unable. We want everyone who wants an education to be able to achieve one.”
As a school associated with and connected to the “Kuwait Islamic Central Mosque,” furthermore, the religious leaders—Sheikh Ahmed Ladan, Sheikh Yusuf Sakib, Sheikh Awais, and Sheikh Suleiman—of Madina whom we met a few classrooms over reiterated Madam Adamah’s assurances of community despite the school’s association with the place of worship.
The four men agreed that their priority as religious Sheikhs in the community was to work with local chiefs to help people in the community connect with one another. Adding to this Sheikh Ahmed Ladan commented: “First, the chiefs are the ones who work with the people and then religious leaders usually support these chiefs. In addition to these religious leaders and chiefs, government officials ask and respect the community leaders [chiefs] for guidance in many matters. There is a lot of dialogue between those working intimately with the community and those in higher bureaucratic positions.”
The unity that Sheikh Ahmed Ladan and his colleagues emphasized struck me. A few blocks away from the urban slums that ensconce the Kuwait Islamic Central Mosque and the Madina Islamic School is the Presbyterian Boys’ Secondary School (PRESEC). Known as one of the best secondary schools in the area with many of its students scoring highly in national and regional exams. Its well-manicured spaces, sprawling buildings, and high white walls that surround its perimeter stand in contrast to the plastic dividers that etch out spaces for those in the Madina Islamic School, emphasizing the disparity that exists between not only those living in the Madina region in Accra but also the seemingly better funded institutions. Even though PRESEC does not discriminate towards Muslim students, as 15 to 20% of its students are Muslim, it emphasizes the disparity between Islamic and Christian institutions in Ghana.
According to Pastor Gabriel Asenso who is a youth minister at the Trinity Baptist Church, which is a congregation across the street from the secondary school, many of the young men from PRESEC visit their congregation, and Asenso further asserts the inclusive nature of both the school as well as the church to outsiders:
“Anybody who wishes to worship at our congregation is welcome to come. If a Muslim wanted to enter into our church, we would welcome them. We are always looking to extend our faith to those who will listen.”
Even with an approximately 71% Christian demographic in Ghana, Accra is a metropolitan and diverse city. Yet, the urban and multicultural city can be a place of religious tension.
Four days before my meeting at the Madina Islamic School, I met with Khadijah Abdul-Samed and Rahim in the University of Ghana Legon. In a café off of the main quad at the university, we sat around the corner of a rectangular table lined with plastic, patterned table cloth.
There, Khadijah—a communications master’s student and prospective MPhil and PHD student—recounted her experience as a woman from Tamale, located in the country’s north. Proudly emphasizing her northern roots, Khadijah is the “girl from Tamale” to her peers. Having gone to a Catholic school in the greater Accra region, Khadijah believes that the “thin line” between Muslims and Christians is often tested in schools.
Brought to Ghana through trading routes by Berber traders in the 15th century, Islam in Ghana eventually settled in the North, whereas Catholicism was spread around the same time but through Portuguese and European missionaries. By setting up schools like St. Mary’s—Khadijah’s alma mater—and PRESEC, Christian institutions initially centered their religious teachings in classrooms and towards the youth.
As Khadijah bemoaned about the services in these Catholic secondary schools, “One of the ways that these schools create friction between faiths initially is the fact that services are required. And something that deepens this divide is the issue of the veil because it is a very core tenet of [the Islamic faith].”
In many Catholic schools in Ghana, the strict code of conduct around uniforms often unintentionally marginalizes Muslim female students who wish to wear veils or scarves to cover their heads because it is against the school’s uniform. In schools, tensions are high not only as a place where the youth of Ghana could be more easily manipulated but also as a possible well-spring of tension in the future.
Even despite this seeming divide in schools, the rates of interfaith marriage between Christians and Muslims in Ghana are relatively high as mentioned by Khadijah and a number of others in Ghana. Though not officially recorded statistically, “a number of governmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) promoted interfaith and intrafaith understanding” according to the US Department of State’s Ghana “International Religious Freedom Report 2005.”
Tamale—Unity through Spirituality
Reverend Solomon Sule-Saa’s gray pickup truck with the Northern Presbytery logo stamped on its side rolled into the compound in the mid-afternoon. Clouds painted the sky mackerel. A storm loomed.
Stepping from his car, Dr. Sule-Saa—the chairperson of the Northern Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana—strode with his approximately six feet three-inch frame across to the worn red door greeting his colleague, Alhaji Dr. Hussein Zakaria. Dr. Sule-Saa in his maroon patterned dress shirt and Dr. Zakaria in his yellow kente led us into the office. A number of diplomas hung on the wall, and stacks of university papers and documents concealed Dr. Zakaria’s desk. A fan spun wildly overhead.
An expert in Sufism and well-respected in the Tamale community, Dr. Zakaria has become a spokesperson for many Ghanaian Muslims. With a lower income population than the south, the North of Ghana has worried many Ghanaian national security officials as often times economic instability leads to riots and desperate action. With Tamale and its surrounding regions being primarily Muslim, the trend seems to mirror the situation in a closely adjacent country to Ghana’s east.
With the rise of insurgency by Boko Haram in neighboring Nigeria, Dr. Zakaria’s voice has become paramount in the discussion not only between religious scholars but also between civilians as well. Dr. Zakaria describes the Boko Haram insurgents as practicing “fake” Islam.
“In our experience across contemporary times, we have encountered so many people, Muslims, non-Muslims, Christians, who have shifted our understanding of who a religious person is and who is not. It has helped to identify who are really professing a particular faith and who do not, and who use that faith as a centrifuge to do what they want to do.”
In stark contrast to the more radical forms of Islam, Sufism pervades much of Tamale and preaches personal development and spirituality. As a way to integrate the Muslim minority, Ghana distinguished many Islamic holidays, like Eid al-Adha and Ramadan, as national holidays. Being a driving force for Muslims in Tamale and many communities in Ghana as well as West Africa, Sufism coexists as a peaceful and unifying faith.
“When we believe in Islam or inclusivity and provide health services and education and promote social services, these things provide the color for your religion. The central aspect of [Sufism] is to promote the central understanding of your spiritual being for yourself and for others around you. Sufism promotes spiritual development more than the mundane issues related to that religion [Islam in other forms]. The understanding of Sufism helps many people to be able to understand their relationship of the individual to his creator and people external to him.”
Even outside of these social programs, Sufism stresses a more ethereal connection to others and even to objects around them. As Dr. Zakaria further elaborated:
“We [Sufis] need to understand the relationship between their own individual selves and their relationship to other human beings, to the trees, to the plants, to the animals. We need to understand the commonality of all creation and be able to identify with that. Those who practice Sufism are therefore very much less violent. The Sufi sees himself as just a ray out of a pool of light from the sun. There are so many ways out of equal significance. Seeing that belonging to one origin, the Sufi develops a loving relationship to all the components of the universe.”
Unity according to Sufis is not bound to the technical workings of the community but from within the individual. Even though the Ghanaian government as well as NGOs like The King’s Village Project provide programs that give the poorer Northern regions economic, healthcare, and social help, Ghanaians above all else follow an unspoken connection that is ideologically Sufi—one that allows the rays of community to shine on all Ghanaians.
Jonathan Ng ‘18 is an English and Political Science Major in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.