Innovation and diversity – lived religion in Ghana

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Fieldwork carried out in Ghana by an anthropologist from the Jagiellonian University gives us deeper insight into the phenomenon of contemporary African Catholicism.

Anna Niedźwiedź, PhD, is analyzing the phenomenon of African Catholicism based on materials obtained during ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Ghana. The research project that has been carried out since 2009 will soon result in a publication summarizing the first stage of studies. The book entitled Life and Religion: Catholicism Lived in Today's Ghana will reveal the connections between the lives of contemporary Ghanaian Catholics and their religion. These connections will be discussed in relation to the transformations of Catholicism in its global scale. But first of all they will be analyzed in light of rapid cultural and economic changes that are currently shaping the development of African communities.

Global and local perspectives

In today's dynamically changing, globalised world the Catholic Church is an example of a worldwide organization (and socalled "world religion") with an established, historically shaped structure. However, the fact that this church is historically rooted in "Western culture" does not mean that it has remained unchanged. Currently most Catholics inhabit or originate from the "global South". The Pope is Argentinian, and cardinals from Africa (including Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana) were mentioned among the papabile during the last Conclave.

"I am interested in the nature of contemporary African Catholicism, in its position within the 'global Church‘, its continental specificity and in whether the African voices are being heard on the global arena. On the other hand, probably the most important aspect for me as an ethnographer is to focus on local and even personal perspectives. I am trying to understand what it is like to live in today's Ghana and how the lives of Ghanaians are shaped in relation to religion," Anna Niedźwiedź points out. She is conducting qualitative studies attempting to reveal how the intense transformations and global processes which affect today's African societies are reflected in individual biographies and everyday experiences of people.

Drummer during a funeral, January 2010. Photo: A. Niedźwiedź


Dancing at a funeral

Anthropology as an academic discipline emerged as a result of encounters with other people and from the interests in their lives as well as from the will to hear and understand their voices. "Ethnographic knowledge", which is the core of anthropology, is obtained in the course of intensive fieldwork based mostly on the participant observation method. This method is particularly demanding due to the fact that during ethnographic field research the scholars are usually affected by their own emotions, beliefs, cultural habits and routines, as well as individual tempers or personality traits, and simply by physical conditions, connected for example to getting tired with a different climate or diet.

"I remember when, during my first trip to Ghana, I was asked to dance at a funeral. I felt embarrassed at first. On the one hand because I just couldn't dance as well as my Ghanaian peers and everybody kept staring at me as I was a visitor 'from the outside'! But what confused me more was the fact that I did not understand what was going on. I could not understand why people were laughing and dancing during a funeral ceremony. In my culture such behavior was simply hard to fathom… Only after some time did I come closer to understanding what the unique, loud and festive Ghanaian funerals can be and then I started to appreciate the deep wisdom hidden beneath many days of celebrations," explains Kraków ethnographer. The Ghanaians take festive, dancing funerals for granted. The only way to understand the meaning of such festivity is to have it experienced many times: to participate in the dance, cry, laugh, and simply be with people who share their lives and family experiences. Funerals appeared to be very important in relation to the conducted project. Catholic funerals, which combine Christian elements with local traditions and beliefs, have become one of the major areas of research. The author devotes a whole chapter of her book to these rituals.

Mosaic of beliefs

Narrowing the scope of research to a single, specific religious denomination does not mean that the project ignores the religious richness and dynamics characteristic both for Ghana and for the whole of West Africa. "When walking among the houses where I conducted my field research, for example in a typical small town in central Ghana, one easily encounters more than just places of traditional ritual sacrifices and libations. There are also minaret towers, buildings of at least a few various Christian congregations, banners advertising prayer meetings organized at night at the school playground or road signs pointing to socalled prayer camps," describes Anna Niedźwiedź. Apart from the Catholic Church and numerous other "historical Christian churches" present in Ghana (e.g. Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and so on) a whole variety of newer forms of "indigenous Christianity" are dynamically developing. African Christianity is dominated by spiritual and Pentecostal churches that are increasingly referring to the concepts of "African tradition" and "African worldview". Each year many new congregations and churches emerge in Ghana, some of them of a very local nature. They are often founded by charismatic prophets who are attracting believers. Scholars analyzing the intensive development of contemporary Christianity in Africa emphasize its "pentecostalization", innovativeness, as well as the tendency to adapt elements of local cultures to the language of Christianity. This is also noticeable within the Catholic Church, where charismatic movements and ecstatic practices are becoming increasingly popular. It goes along with the inculturation process which combines traditional African symbols and beliefs with Christian dogma. One should also remember that, next to thriving Christianity, Islam is strongly present in Ghana, as it is in other countries in the region. There are also numerous followers of "traditional religions" among the Ghanaians.

Women and youth from the "global South"

The continuation of ethnographic fieldwork is planned for the nearest future. This time, research will be carried out in various locations in Ghana characterized by different economic, ethnic and religious conditions. This part of the project will particularly focus on the position of women and young people in contemporary African Catholicism. Additionally, the events connected with the World Youth Day organized in Kraków in the summer of 2016 will provide some new material. Scholars are planning to conduct ethnographic research among young pilgrims from Africa and from the African diaspora who will be visiting Kraków.

The project may significantly contribute to the development of methodology and theories of Polish anthropology of religion especially in studies related to lived Catholicism. It enables the application of tools developed in the context of studies on Catholicism in Poland to the reality of contemporary Africans. Thus, it introduces the voice of Polish scholarship into the studies of contemporary issues within international contexts.

Research conducted by: Anna Niedźwiedź, PhD