Call to Prayer

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.


central mosque Tamale


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!


5 thoughts on “Call to Prayer

  1. Great post, Joyce! From your experience, would you say that the religious belief is more cultural than spiritual? (i.e. people participate in activities more out of peer pressure than out of some inner convictions)
    Is participation uniform among the rich and the poor? Do you think you’re missing out on understanding some facet of the culture by not being religious?
    Awesome post! Now I’m all curious about all these other things. Oh it brings me back to the 5 am prayer times in Indonesia…

    • Hmm… I don’t think I would feel comfortable judging cultural versus spiritual religious convictions of Ghanaians – even the people that I know well. But I do think there is a strong social (incl. family) pressure to BE religious.

      I do not know enough about the poor/rich religious split. I would imagine that more poor people would practice traditional religions though – I read an interesting article about how religion-based schools have affected the dichotomy between rich and the poor. And even the split in Ghana (rich, Christian south and poorer, Muslim north) – many northern Muslim families chose not to send their children to school because often the only ones were (Christian) faith-based schools. You do see lots of Islamic schools in the north now, though – many with placards like “Funding from the Republic of Iran”, which I find very interesting – gets me thinking about the actual role of foreign aid and what beliefs/values we attach to it (knowingly or not) (or more strongly, impose?) as a donor country…. but that is definitely a whole other can of worms.

      I do think I am missing out a bit on the culture by not being that religious, although attending a few different church/marriage ceremonies have been some of my favourite, most spiritual, experiences in Ghana.

      Thanks for the great questions Jeff!

  2. Being an Indian living in India, I could identify with your experiences. The spirit of secularism in India is it’s inclusiveness, religious pluralism and peaceful co-existence. Unfortunately, it is politics which time and again proves to be divisive, and not religion.The medieval society in India was more religiously tolerant as it was non-competitive. The modern Indian society, has turned out to be more divisive due to competition for scarce resources and opportunities. Competition becomes more intense if (rapid) development is uneven and unjust. Let’s hope African societies do not have to go through a similar phase in future.

  3. Very interesting thoughts! I wonder how much of us not seeing religion has to do with the fact that more people in our generation seem non-secular? I know of lots of friends that grew up with a religious background, but themselves do not follow it as carefully as their parents may have. Or is the fact that it appears that way (that we don’t hear the words “god willing” in sayings, etc.) because people are trying to fit in with what they see “Canadian” culture to be? Because they came to the country to start afresh, and want to blend in? All of these hypotheses could be wrong … hm. I just looked it up on Stats Can, the 2001 census says for the 3 highest population groups: 13 mil are Catholic, 8.6 mil Protestant, and 5 mil have no religious affiliation.

    And to add on to your example of Iranian sponsored schools in Northern Ghana … a Bosnian lady sharing a bus with me to Sarajevo remarked that more young girls were wearing hijabs now, because their families had struggled after the war, and Saudis were paying women to wear hijabs, these women being happy for the extra cash. I’m not sure how much of that was rumour, since I haven’t found a source for it … but it certainly is more of a factor than I ever considered.

    Great post 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s