Turn left out of my house and you will come across a Presbyterian Church, a Seventh Day Adventist, an Assemblies of God, Rama, and a Charismatic Evangelistic Ministry, all within 3-minutes. If you turn right and walk across the main road, you will get to a public school, which is distinguished by a large park. Every night, the park is taken over by a mass of people who hold all night prayer services. Recently, construction began on the only undeveloped plot of land opposite my house. Can you guess what is being built? Yes, you are absolutely right, it is another church. This proliferation of churches is replicated on many other streets in my community.
The majority of Ghanaians describe themselves as Christian. Mosques are not dotted all over the country in the same way churches and prayer camps are, although approximately 18% of Ghanaians are Muslim, with just over 5% practicing what is described as ‘traditional’ religions. In practice, a significant proportion of Ghanaians combine traditional practices with theist religions. Ghana designates key events in the Christian and Muslim calendar as public holidays, and it is very common at state events to officially start events by pouring libation, followed by a Christian prayer, and a Muslim prayer…often in that order. I wasn’t surprised at all when I heard a couple of years ago that Ghana was the most religious country in the world.
How do we do it?
So what are the sexual habits of people in the most religious country in the world?
My friend Akosua is a member of the leadership of her church. She is especially gifted at organizing fundraising events for her church, she is articulate and can read the bible in English as well as the Ghanaian languages of Twi and Ga, and is often selected to deliver a bible reading during church service. Akosua also happens to be dating the choirmaster, who is married with 4 children. The choirmaster’s wife lives in another town, so Akosua and her beau often attend church together. Recently, Akosua told me that another leader of the church had said to her, “You’re a fine woman, eh? I want to have a child with you”. If you’re wondering whether this church leader is also married let me save you the trouble, yes he is.
I often wonder how people manage to live with what I assume will be a battle of values. The supposedly Christian values of ‘one man, one wife’, versus the reality of any number of sexual combinations: ‘one man, a mistress and at least one girlfriend’; ‘one woman, a steady partner, and several transient lovers’; ‘older man, a wife and his student girlfriend’. All these sexual combinations abound in Ghana, and invariably people involved in these relationships are religious people who attend church or some other religious institution regularly. Invariably the majority of these relationships are socially sanctioned. People tend to turn a blind eye when the ‘big man’ attends a party with a young woman whom everyone knows is not his daughter. The married man and his long-term girlfriend attend events together. People have casual sex on Saturday night whilst ensuring they wake up bright and early for a 3-hour church service on Sunday. That is the state of sexual relations in the world’s most religious country.
With the scenarios described above, one might easily jump to the conclusion that Ghana is a libertarian country with progressive views on sexuality and sexual relationships. That’s very far from the truth. Last year, the President of the Ghana Institute of Journalism urged journalists to adopt an anti-gay stance. Sexual education campaigns are still very much limited to the ABC (Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use a Condom) approach, even though this mindset has been ineffectual against protecting a large number of Ghanaian women from HIV in a context where being a married woman can be the single highest risk factor where HIV is concerned.
Sex in the world’s most religious country occurs in a context where in the ‘public’ domain conversations about sex are largely conservative, yet in the private sphere anything goes down. I have come across groups of young men watching pornography, yet no one openly acknowledges homoeroticism. Child sexual abuse is a huge problem, but families cover up abuses to protect their reputation. Young people who are sexually active or curious about sex have no spaces where they can get access to comprehensive sex education let alone free contraceptives or * cue shock horror * advice on how to negotiate safer pleasurable sex.
A new openness
Yet there is hope. Or rather I choose to believe there is hope. In 4 years of blogging about sexuality, I have had numerous open conversations with Ghanaians about sex and sexuality, and I can say for sure that there is definitely a lot going on beneath the surface. Perhaps a lot has always gone on behind the façade of conservatism and religious fervour. In the conversations on the blog I curate (‘Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women’) I see openness about sexual desire and the diversities of sexualities that are not reflected in the public space in Ghana. ‘Adventures’ has also provided a space for young women like Frema who are wrestling with their sexuality in the world’s most religious country. Yes Ghanaians struggle to balance their beliefs with their sexual desires but the anonymity of the internet seems to offer Ghanaians the freedom to be themselves, a freedom they don’t seem to feel they have in regular life.
All photos (besides the lead image) courtesy of the author.