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Taking the bus from Kumasi to Accra is a religious experience, and I'm not talking about praying to get there in one piece. If the Sahel is obsessed with Allah and Mohammed, then Ghana is obsessed with Jesus and the Bible, and its obsession is a very public one; Ghanaian Christianity is like American Evangelism with all the fake sincerity stripped away, and it's so powerful it pervades every single aspect of society. In Ghana there are twice as many Christians as Muslims, with the Christians mainly in the south and the Muslims in the north, and as you burn south along the Kumasi-Accra highway and into the heart of Christian Ghana it's like having your own personal baptism. Welcome to Jesus, Ghanaian-style.
I brushed against Ghanaian Christianity in Kumasi; I drifted off to sleep and woke up again to the sounds of gospel singing, exuberant preachers and congregations in which everyone was actually singing, a novel concept after the lacklustre and somewhat threadbare flocks you come across in England. But it's in everyday conversation with the Ghanaians that you realise just how important Jesus is round here, as I found out on the Sunday morning before leaving Kumasi. I felt so terrible I asked the concierge at the Presby if it would be possible to see a doctor, thinking this wouldn't be a problem in a major city like Kumasi.
'Ooh,' he said, sucking his teeth. 'No, that would not be possible, as they are all at church at the moment. Maybe you can see a doctor tonight, but not now.'
'What, there are no doctors at all on Sunday mornings?' I asked, amazed.
He just smiled an understanding smile. 'I pray that you will get better,' he said, and that was the end of that. I guess the moral of the story is that if you get sick on Sunday morning, prayer is your best option.
But the full impact of Ghana's obsession with Christianity hit me on the Kumasi-Accra bus. It was dark when I arrived in central Ghana a few days ago, but today the bus left Kumasi at noon, and the full glory of God was there for me to behold, right by the road. There's the odd mosque or Hindu school en route, but the vast majority of Ghana's roadside signs point to churches or shops, and it doesn't take a theologian to conclude that Ghana is completely Jesus crazy.
Hallowed Be Thy Name
Ghana's church names are relatively staid, though the lack of repetition between names is surprising; in England most churches are named after saints, but not so in Ghana. The Redeemer's Victory Church sits down the road from the New Testament Christian Centre, just along from the Apostolic Church of God and the Miracle Temple, which are opposite the Voice of Christ Church and the New Church Study Centre. You'll rarely see two churches with the same name, but even the church names pale into insignificance compared to the shops. Oh my.
In Ghana, you just ain't cooking with gas unless your shop has Biblical connections, and as the bus bounced along the road, I read every shop name religiously, because they really have to be seen to be believed. The 'Opener of Closed Doors' Hair Salon promises to change your life with a snip of the scissors, while 'God Will Provide' Engineering Supplies no doubt use that as their excuse for non-delivery. The 'Jesus Never Fails' Chop House (a 'chop house' being a basic Ghanaian restaurant) looks like it's fed far more than five thousand, while the 'In God We Trust' Communication Centre sounds like a ready-made excuse for being cut off. The 'God is Able' Chemical Store sells the products of a modern atheistic science, while it's unlikely that the 'Joy of Peace' Hotel provides anything of the sort. Similarly the 'Paradise' Spot (a 'spot' being a pub) sits on the edge of a busily polluted highway, and the 'More Grace' Estate could do with exactly that.
Some shops, meanwhile, are happy to plunder the Good Lord's book for awful puns, with the 'Staff of Life' Bakery, the 'Healing Hands' Clinic and the 'Almighty' Cold Store making the most of the theme. Others just sound bizarre: 'Thy Will Be Done' Snacks and 'God is King' Brakes are just about acceptable, but when you start getting too keen, you end up with mouthfuls like 'The Lord is My Light' Beauty Salon and the 'God is My Redeemer' Fashion Store, while it's anyone's guess what's for sale at 'Father's Love' Enterprises.
As we shot along the highway, I searched in vain for the 'Jesus Saves' Bank and the 'Burning Bush' STD Clinic, but the only thing I could find that came close was the ubiquitous and blatantly untrue Guinness slogan, 'Guinness Brings Out the Power in You'. I guess alcohol is one of those things you just can't sell with the Son of God.
Off the Road
The buses and trucks that ply Ghana's highways don't escape quotation fever either. They too are plastered with Christian epithets, like 'Go With God', 'In God We Trust', 'Jesus Never Fails' and 'Perseverance', but in the 255km journey from Kumasi to Accra we came across three serious crashes, two involving overturned trucks and one involving a minibus that had ploughed a 20m-long furrow straight into a field of banana trees, proving that the Son of God may never fail, but 'The Lord is My Shepherd' brake pads can. One wonders if the drivers were running on Guinness power; it would explain a lot about driving standards in Ghana.
For this very reason I chose to go to Accra in an STC bus, as I'd been told that STC drivers don't try to overtake on blind corners. I was in good company; the bus was full of obviously well-off Ghanaians, as was evident from their pressed clothes and smart luggage, a complete lack of chickens and goats, and good English. But the most obvious indication of their status was the large number of mobile phones, which kept ringing and ringing as if there was no tomorrow. Ghana is still at the stage where having a mobile phone is a serious deal, so people let them ring a little longer than is strictly necessarily so others can see that they have one; they then shout into the mouthpiece so everyone can hear their conversation, however banal, and they haven't yet tired of testing out all the ring tones one by one, just so everybody can see how rich they are. It's intensely irritating, but that's progress for you.
It will be interesting to see if the power of Jesus is strong enough to take on the growing lure of consumerism and win. Given the nationwide levels of addiction to Christianity in Ghana, my money's on the Son of God; the side with the best ad agency will win in the end, and Jesus is already off to a flying start.