October 22, 2013


All I wanted to do was cook some pasta.

If I wanted only rice, I would have stayed home, the concrete walls of my bungalow guarding me from the stifling heat of midday. But I was tired of eating rice.

Instead I took out my yellow Peace Corps issue bicycle and pedaled up the hill and around the bend into town, to the market, to buy tomatoes, onion, garlic, and spaghetti.

Laboring to pedal uphill, I passed women frying plantains and bean cakes along the roadside. The smell of hot oil mingled with the sharper, more pungent odors of salt and chili peppers, sweat, livestock, and sour water.

Nonsara! Nonsara!” Children followed me up the street and into the market, calling out the local name for foreigners. They hopped up and down, their bellies jiggling with excitement, yelling in a singsong unison, “Nonsara, how are you? We are fine, thank you!”

I had lived in northern Ghana for more than a year, and I was almost used to being called out as a stranger and White woman everywhere I went. “American girl, hey, we have brown bread for you!”

“White woman, come buy carrots.”
I pushed my bicycle through the twisting aisles between the market stalls and looked for the women I knew, traders who sold to me regularly. I bought carrots, onions, and a half dozen raw eggs, which I wrapped in a black plastic bag and tied carefully to my handlebars.

Usually busy, today the market had withered away in the heat. It was Ramadan, and some traders hadn’t come at all. Others slept among their bolts of colored cloth and tables stacked high with dented cans of tomato paste. I was surprised when I turned a corner and almost ran into another yellow bicycle.

Let’s Eat!

“Hey, what are you doing here?” It was Chris, a Peace Corps volunteer like me, stationed in a small village a few miles down the road.

“Shopping like you,” he fell into step beside me, “I’m just heading back to the village. Do you want to get lunch somewhere first?”

“OK.” We started toward a local restaurant that was often frequented by expatriates. It was closed. “Oh,” I sighed. “It must be because of Ramadan. The owner is Muslim. Where else can we eat?”

I followed Chris to another eating spot, and another, with no luck. All the Muslim-owned shops were closed. Another was open, but the food was gone. We finally found an open restaurant, sat down, and ordered some sodas.

“Our electricity is out,” the waiter apologized, offering us warm drinks. We looked at each other and decided that warm soda on a hot day was too much to bear. Frustrated, we set out again, heading across town looking for a new place, still hungry.

I was thinking about politely deserting my friend in the bus station, giving up, and heading home to my pasta, when we finally found a fried rice vendor open for business.

We were just trying to eat our fried rice. But the proprietor was determined to involve us in a Bible study, right there in the middle of the afternoon when we all had things to do and places to go.

A Meal and a Message

The owner, a young man, sat to one side reading a Bible. He got up quickly and gladly served us fried rice and cold sodas. Then returned to his study. We were his only customers.

We chatted easily about our respective projects as we ate our fried rice, by now really hungry after wandering all over town.

When he saw that our plates were clear and our conversation was winding down, our server pulled up a chair and sat with us. Slapping his Bible down on the table, he said, “My friends, I want to share a little gospel message with you. I want to tell you about the way.”

I am a Christian. My friend, however, was not. We both knew this about one another, and although our conversations occasionally touched on religious topics, we generally, like many Americans, considered faith to be a personal matter. My friend knew where I stood, that I wouldn’t drink, smoke, or swear, and I was always careful not to seem judgmental or pushy about his own life choices. I am not an outgoing person.

Ghanaians, on the other hand, are extremely expressive and public about their religion. Often, riding on a public bus, a passenger would stand up and offer a prayer for everyone’s safety, or even preach a lengthy sermon. As foreigners, we had trouble understanding this behavior, but we were used to it.

We were just trying to eat our fried rice. But the proprietor was determined to involve us in a Bible study, right there in the middle of the afternoon when we all had things to do and places to go.

“OK,” my friend sighed and pushed his empty plate to the side. To him this was another slightly annoying, but interesting part of life in a strange and foreign culture.

The man launched forward, reading from John: “ ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ ” (John 14:6).

“But, see, that’s what I don’t understand,” argued my friend immediately. “What about Muslims, what about Jews and Hindus? How can you say you have the only way? Would God just leave all of them out in the dark?”

Enthused by the response, our fried rice man flipped through his Bible and pointed to another verse, then another. A second man, overhearing the conversation, joined him, also inspired at the idea of bringing religion to these secular White people. “I’m not a Christian,” my friend was insisting. “But I am fascinated with many different religions.”

Meanwhile I sat quietly. I had no idea what to say, caught between my fellow American and my fellow Christians. I didn’t want to join with the men and make my friend feel attacked or forced. I didn’t want to justify their judgment of him. At the same time, I felt like I should be speaking up or engaging somehow in a conversation about a topic that meant so much to me personally. “You don’t have to preach to me,” I wanted to say. “I’m a Christian too.”

But I couldn’t think of anything to add, and anyway, I could hardly have gotten a word in edgewise.

My friend stuck doggedly to his point, and our two preachers were becoming more and more excited in their argument. They knew they had the truth, but they didn’t know how to make him understand it. They pointed to verse after verse, sweat beading on their foreheads.

We had to go. I knew my friend had to catch a bus to his village soon, and the “little” discussion had all the signs of turning into a heated argument. Finally, seeing that we were ready to go, the two men calmed down and left the issue as a draw, for the time being.

“I am Samson, and this is Benedict,” The fried rice man introduced himself, shaking my hand, determined to part as friends.

“I am Jennifer,” I said.

Samson turned and took my friend’s hand, “And what is your name, my brother?”

My friend, who had spent the last quarter hour insisting he was not a Christian, looked at me, and started to laugh. Suddenly I realized the irony of his situation. “My name is Christian,” he admitted finally.

Samson and Benedict were taken by surprise, then they laughed too. “Well, God will speak to you, my friend!”

With a name like that, they would not give up on this American.

More Questions

Christian and I walked together to the station, where I said goodbye as he boarded the bus for his village.

I walked home in the dusk, after an entirely unexpected afternoon. I wished I had been able to say something to Christian. I, who had been raised my whole life to know what grace was, had nothing to say when he expressed his doubts. As a child I had been taught to seize opportunities to witness to my faith, much as Samson and Benedict had. More than anyone, I understood that they engaged in the discussion because they cared for him as a person, not because they were judging him.

So when Samson said he had something to “share,” why did my stomach sink? Why was I afraid? Was it because I didn’t want to put my personal faith out on the table to be maligned and questioned by another? That I didn’t want to choose between my friend, Christian, and my brother, the fried rice man?

Or was it because it was hot, and I was in the market buying tomatoes and thinking about pasta, meeting a friend, and eating fried rice? I was prepared to set aside my plans temporarily and be politely social, even walk all over town, but unprepared, definitely unprepared, in the bright afternoon sun to be confronted with the Truth.

But then, when is a good time? And when are we prepared?