Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sermon on the bus

He seemed like a mild-mannered fellow when I sat down beside him in the front seat of the tro-tro. I was on my way to the refugee camp where I do volunteer work. As we sat there waiting for the tro-tro to leave, I read the newspaper, and he the Bible.

When the tro-tro filled up and left the station, the man stood and turned to face the rest of the passengers. Hunched over because the ceiling of the bus was low, he began to preach – in a no-more-nice-guy kind of way.

“This vehicle is awash in the blood of Jesus!” he said, punching words like “blood” and “Jesus” as if he were a preacher from the southern U.S.

I knew he was making reference to Christ dying for our sins, but his analogy – albeit an apt one - was really freaking me out. I didn’t like the image of the tro-tro being awash in the blood of anyone. These rickety-old mini-buses terrify foreigners; we don’t like being reminded of how dangerous they are, especially when you’re in the front with no seat belt!

He preached non-stop all the way to the camp, which is 45 minutes outside Accra. This is a very common occurrence here. Sometimes a preacher will hop on for just a minute to bless the bus and the passengers, which he believes will give a reasonable assurance of a safe journey; other times he’ll (they’re always men) will ride the whole way, and give a 20-minute or three-hour sermon, depending on how far the bus is going.

Many foreigners are surprised - and often irritated - by this practice because they're so accustomed to secular public spaces in their home countries. In Canada, a “man of god” would not be welcome to preach to a captive audience on a bus, where he would be forcing people with different beliefs to listen to his message.

Here, though, people are reverent and attentive. They nod their heads and say "amen" throughout these impromptu public services.

Muslims and Christians alike are very dedicated here; expressions of faith are public and very much part of daily life.

Earlier this week, I was taking a bus to the south of the country from the north, where most Muslim Ghanaians live. At a rest stop, I sat down on a bench under a large tree. To my right sat a pair of chickens (farm animals are also very much a part of life here, even in the cities); to my left, many of my Muslim bus mates were laying down prayer mats on the ground. They pray five times a day, no matter where they happen to be. In cities and towns in the north and south, the Muslim call to prayer can heard over loud speakers as early as five in the morning.

The morning after my bus ride, I awoke to a sermon by a man who seemed to be right outside my window. “You will dominate your life with the word of Jesus,” he said.

“In the name of Jesus, we pray,” he said. Then I heard people mutter “Amen” and “God Bless.”

I lay in bed listening for a while, wondering where this was coming from. Eventually I got up to make some coffee. I stepped outside my door, and saw five pairs of sandals sitting outside my neighbour’s room. The sounds were coming from inside. They were holding a church service with five people, in a tiny one-room apartment at seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning! I hear people grumble about being woken up at 5 am by the call to prayer; would I be now be awoken by my neighbour who had apparently turned her apartment into a chapel?

I used to get annoyed by these public displays of faith (they were so loud I considered my neighbour’s private service to be a public one), but I’ve grown relaxed about it over the months, mostly out of respect for Ghana’s right to be different from the West in this respect.

I could do without the sermons on the bus, though. They put the fear of God into most of the passengers, but they put the fear of tro-tros into me, and I still have to ride them for the next month before I go home.

- Mark


Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

I can just picture you being woken up by the sound of praying early in the morning and then (of course!), now that you're up, the next thing you do is make coffee. We can't wait until you come home.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,
What an interesting story. I can only imagine how you must feel when these people want to give sermons on the trotro. They have their own beliefs. Also to hear them in the early hours of the morning. You will have many stories to tell when you come home. Take care of yourself.
Love, Mummy and Daddy

Anonymous said...


Great piece.
By the way, I have disk to fit that Sony recorder. Is it anyway possible to send them to you? When are you back?


Janet & Mark in Ghana said...

Hi mom, Jen, Patrick, thanks for the comments. Don't worry about the tape Patrick. Thanks for letting me know but we'll be ok. It would probably take a couple of years to get here!