But what does religious tolerance actually mean?
I remember the description of Canada as a ‘mixed salad’ in Grade 10 Geography class. Canada is a country of people from different backgrounds, countries, speaking different languages, and practicing different religions. I think most could be proud in Canada for religious tolerance and acceptance. But what does religious tolerance actually mean?
I have absolutely failed in my education on this topic; it is absolutely embarrassing to admit. I grew up going to an Anglican church, but learned more about the Church of England by watching the fictional TV series The Tudors on HBO. I remember a unit in my World Affairs class we did on religions of the world; I remember thinking Sikhism sounded neat. I know I did a project on Islam, but all I could probably tell you is that there are five pillars, the Qur’an is the word of God, there are different sects, and I could name off some mostly Muslim countries and that’s about it. I grew up in one of the most multicultural cities in the world (Toronto), but religiously sheltered; I couldn’t tell you of knowing anyone practicing a religion outside of Christianity and Judaism – I’m positive I knew people that practiced other religions, but I never asked or explored.
In university, my sheltered bubble was, thankfully, burst. My first roommate explained the beliefs and history of Mormonism, evening study sessions were put on pause for the breaking of Ramadan fasting in residence, I learned about different styles of turbans and started to ask more questions. But everything still remained very ‘extra-curricular’. I never had to think twice about religion in my own personal planning, schooling etc.
My version of ‘tolerance’ in Canada, was ignorance and maybe indifference.
I think the most amazing thing to me in Ghana is Ghana’s version of religious acceptance. As a whole, Ghana is largely Christian (around 70%) but in the Northern Region of Ghana (where I call home), Islam is practiced by about 60% of the population (20% Christian, 20% traditional). My interaction with religion in Ghana has been very different.
I wake up at 4am to the Call to Prayer. I can hear at least four different muezzin reciting the call to prayer over loudspeakers from nearby mosques. I fall back asleep before my alarm goes off.
I head to work and my landlord wishes my journey well, God willing, and I reply with ‘Ami’ for Amen. I look out the taxi window: women mostly have their heads covered with colourful Ghanaian cloth, wear long skirts/dresses, and, if they’re married, carry a lace shawl. I pass at least six mosques on my way to work and new ones are always under construction, I also pass several large churches. Central Mosque, appropriately placed in central Tamale is by far the largest.
My morning meeting at the office begins with an official prayer to Allah in Arabic. Everyone responds with Ami. The same meeting is closed a prayer to Jesus, the son of God. Everyone responds with Ami. I ask for follow-up on a report that I’ve asked for not completed yet, but Insh’Allah (God willing) it will be finished soon. The afternoon sees most of my colleagues leave for Friday 1pm prayers at the Central Mosque. Someone asks me if I believe in God. I’m invited to go to another colleague’s church on Sunday.
I head home, passing the “Jesus is Coming Cold Store – for your frozen meat” store on the way, my host family members are washing their feet to prepare for evening prayers. The call to prayer begins again as the sun fades.
Here Christianity and Islam are practiced in harmony (to say perfect would be an exaggeration). Religious considerations – time for prayer, breaking of fast, thanking God etc. – are designed into programs and schedules. It isn’t a big deal which God you pray to, as long as you pray to some God. (I’ve had to skirt around a few awkward conversations on the topic of atheism.)
I have to remember not to call colleagues around 1pm. I have to find someone to lead prayers to open and close meetings. I wear more conservative clothing. I’ve learned how to thank God in Dagbani. I have to remember to pack a lunch during Ramadan because many food sellers close up for that month. I know my convenient store (stall) will be closed for church on Sunday morning. Religion is not ‘extra curricular’ here. It isn’t inconvenient, it’s just how it is.
Here, tolerance means acknowledging and making considerations for those practicing different religions.
Whereas Canada, in my experience, has been embracing secularity, in Northern Ghana it seems to me that non-secularity has been embraced. I can’t help but wonder, in a world where it seems like religious beliefs are oft misunderstood, or generalized from extremist views, if it wouldn’t be better to live in a society where different religions are more visible? It feels like religion in Canada has been relegated behind closed doors: to the home and places of worship, or prayer rooms. But, I ask you, wouldn’t it be better to learn about a different religion from a practicing neighbour versus the media?
I don’t know what the ‘right’ answer is – I suspect there isn’t one. I just wanted to share with you what my experience of religious tolerance has been in Ghana, and how different that has been from my definition coming from a Canadian context. I continue to be woefully undereducated in world religions, but hope to continue my education in that regard here and wherever my life takes me next.
I would love to hear what you think on the topic!