How to dress for church in Tamale

I know. I know. You may never come to Tamale and so you will never need to know how to dress for church there. So classify this as entertainment.

How to dress for church in Tamale

Worship team in church in Tamale seen from the pews

I am sitting in church in the city of Tamale (pronounced TAH-mah-lay). There are three worship team singers, all women. The lead singer has on a western-style black and white dress. The other two women are wearing outfits of brightly colored African cloth. The floor-length outfit of the woman on the right is by far the more common variation, while the shorter version is taking style elements from Western office wear. So, ladies, if you come from the USA to visit me in Ghana, you can dress in your standard church dress. Or you can have a Ghanaian outfit made. Sorry, no slacks.

Ed trying on smock at the smock shop

The dress of the men on the platform is more varied. First, we have the man on the left with a back suit, white shirt and red tie. He is the preacher for the day. The man immediately behind the women is wearing traditional clothing for northern Ghana.  It is called a “smock”. It is made from hand-woven and hand-dyed cloth. It is traditional, but most definitely not low-class. It can be worn to any dress-up occasion. I really like the way Ghanaians value their culture.

GILLBT board chair in his 50th Anniversary celebration cloth

Lastly, we have the man in the white kaftan and hat. In some areas this kind of man’s outfit is associated with Islam, but in lots of places it is standard fare for everyone, and Christians wear it too. In addition to white, it can be made of the same colorful cotton the women wear, as you see in the photo on the right.

So, if you guys come visit me, you can bring your suit and tie. However, I will wear nice slacks and a nice shirt,  a combination quite common in the congregation, along with suits (rare), smocks (about 20%), some kind of kaftan (about 40%). The nice shirt can be a dress shirt, or it can be made of the colorful cloth the women wear, perhaps with some nice embroidery or cuff links.

Come to Ghana and experience the blending of traditions.

If you liked this, you might also like Cloth and Meaning, Yugu-yugu, or Heart Language.

Introductions

Ghana and Ghana in Africa

Ghana in Africa

I have been told that a study conducted in the United States found that one of the most frequent reasons given for not attending church is the fear of being asked to stand and be recognized.

If you come to Ghana and go to church, you might be asked to stand. What’s more, you might even be invited to go to the front and say something.

That’s what happened at a church I attended in Tamale. Along with other visitors, I went to the front, faced the congregation, where I was invited to explain who I was and why I was in their town.

Unity Presbyterian Church, Tamale

Unity Presbyterian Church, Tamale

Mortifying? Well, a bit uncomfortable. The others introducing themselves were Ghanaian. They seemed to welcome the opportunity. The congregation looked interested in their stories and the greetings they brought from churches in other parts of Ghana. I was seeing the “church” as a nation-wide, even international, community of believers.

If that study were done here, it might show that people prefer to visit a church where they will be asked to stand and say something.

Handkerchiefs are for worship

The vibrancy of worship in African churches is remarkable. One of the key factors in the vibrancy is language. How many times have I been in an African church service which started with staid singing in English or French (depending on the country)  and then sprang into joyous outbursts of praise when there was a song in the local language. It is clear which language reaches the whole person. It is not for nothing that it is called the heart language!

You don’t take your handkerchief out at church unless you really need to. But many Ghanaians like to worship while twirling a handkerchief, although any piece of cloth will do. It adds a nice twist to their praise.

Enjoy the video.
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Odd happenings in church in Ghana

During my June and July 2010 trips to Ghana I had some surprising, interesting and informative experiences in church.

In a beautiful church building in the town of Tamale (shown on right), they took a count of those attending by age and gender.  When an age and gender group was called out, such as all men over 40, all those in that group had to stand while they were counted.  Those counting called the number to the front where it was recorded and then that group could sit down.  Then another was called and so on.  I don’t think that this one will work in churches in the US, at least not for the ladies.

Visitors were asked to go to the front and stand facing the congregation. We were asked to say our name, where we were from and why we were there.  It was rather odd to walk up to the front and stand facing everyone.  In southern Oregon, a church known for this would not get many visitors!  But the Ghanaians, both visitors and the others, really seemed to like it.  I think that there is a genuine interest in knowing the visitors and that the visitors want to be known.

We were asked to break up into “Day-born groups”. At firs I did not understand what I was hearing.  When I asked, I was informed that they are groups to raise money.  Everyone belongs to one according to the day of the week he or she was born on.  I had no idea, but I looked it up my birthday on my phone and found out that I was born on Tuesday.  Everyone else knew.

In June, the World Cup was happening and the Ghana team was still in the running.  During the prayer time we were asked to pray that the Ghana team would win.  The leader was quite insistent that prayer would cause the Ghana team to win.  There was a titter of laughter through the congregation as he went on.  In some parts of Africa such laughter indicates unease about the statements being made.  I was later able to confirm that was the case here.

In the capital Accra (Accra Chapel in photo) and in Tamale the church service was suspended right in the middle for “Christian education”.  The congregation broke into groups which were like Sunday School classes.  They lasted about 40 minutes, then the church service resumed.  In one of the churches, there was a special class for visitors. The lesson was a mixture of “what is a Christian” obviously for leading visitors to Christ, and “what is the church” aimed at helping visitors considering this church as their home church.  On another Sunday, the Christian education was from Nehemiah 5:1-20.  The teachers asked the class the question “What can we do to prevent injustice?” He then added that we should answer only for injustices within the church because injustice in politics “can only be changed through prayer”.

The taking of the offering is a joyous moment involving dancing to the front in a line accompanied by music. One Sunday the music team started singing “Jesus is the Sweetest Name I Know” for taking the offering.  The worship leader stopped them and got them to do something much more up tempo.  It worked.
Just to be clear, the church services were not just full of stuff I found odd or interesting.  There was a lot of great worship and teaching that made me feel connected to the worldwide body of believers.

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N’Djamena church

I went to a church service in N’Djamena with Paul Djideti (pronounced gee-debt-ee). The church is on one of the main boulevards of the city and it is a church composed mostly of the thin Chadian middle class. In spite of the middle-class setting, the women and small children sit on the left side of the church and the men on the right.

The service was to start and 10 AM and be followed by a fellowship meal – something that happens only once a year. We arrived at 10:07. There is a semi-permanent shelter for fellowship events next to the church. It is made of pipes permanently planted in the ground to which are attached very colorful tarps, perhaps made of some kind of carpet.

The men are dressed up – some in suits and ties, some in slacks and nice shirts including shirts made of colorful African cloth, some in safari suites and one or two in traditional Chadian robes. The women all have their heads covered, mostly with very colorful cloth matching their clothes which include a full-length skirt and embroidery.

The church building is quite nice. It has a high roof with open metal trusses and metal roofing. There are very big windows all the way around so keep the air flowing in the hot climate. There are ceiling fans too, but there is no electricity. It is a well-conceived sanctuary in an arc around the platform and the seating is sloped with white plastic chairs on each “step” of the slope. The walls are unfinished and unpainted cement and the floor is uncovered and unpainted concrete.

I am told that there will be a communion service and then the meal. It turns out to be a bit different. There is a station for hand washing near the main entry to the church. Most people are washing their hands before entering. I wondered if this was a reflection of a north African influence.

The service started at 10:20 with the pastor and elders around a communion table in front of the platform. The pastor led the communion service with a number of elders praying and leading songs. Because there is no electricity, there is also no PA system. Like many churches in Africa, there is a lot of movement and little noises during the service. Children make a bit of noise and move around. Some adults have little conversations with each other during the service. It is almost impossible for me to hear what is being said.

The singing is mostly traditional French hymns from a hymnbook which has been around for a ♠very long time. But it is almost impossible to recognize the hymns because they are sung with a strong North African flavor. For two, I only recognized the hymn from the words and then afterwards I was able to figure out that the melody was the one I was used to but with very different harmony and a lot of notes changed. They sang a number of songs. At 10:50 the bread is distributed. It is in loaves and each one breaks off a piece. At 10:55 the cup is distributed. They used about six “common cups” with each cup being passed from person to person.

The men are seated on the right and the ladies on the left. Small children are with the ladies. Preteens mostly had an area to themselves among the ladies. Teens sit with the men or women.

At this point, my pen runs out of ink and I can’t take any more notes! When communion is finished the pastor goes to the platform and the elders back into the congregation.

We sing and there is another prayer. It is now 11:12. The song leader gives us a 3-4 minutes exhortation. At 11:25 they ask all visitors to stand. About 20 people stand. We are greeted but not asked to introduce ourselves (relief!). Another man goes to the platform and makes a number of announcements. Then yet another man goes to the platform to report on an evangelism effort. 63 persons were contacted, 15 made commitments to Christ and six were Christians who repented from not following Christ. Four of the new converts were in the service, others had decided to attend other churches closer to where they live. The four are introduced and church members who live in their neighborhood are asked to stand. The man making the announcements announces that the evangelism efforts need some Bibles in Arabic. At 11:36 the sermon starts. The text was Acts 2:43-47. We are exhorted to continue in the same things the early Christians did. At 11:55 the sermon is over. It was clear, to the point and very well presented. At 11:45 they get the PA system working on a battery (still no electricity) and at least I hear all of the last 10 minutes of the sermon.

We sing a hymn while the offering is being taken. The hymn drags and the song leader stops us and insists that we follow his speed. He taps the cadence on the pulpit and we sing at a good rate. The faster rate works – more people are singing and they seem more engaged.

The final prayer is at 12:06. We each pick up our white plastic chair and take it outside. There are a few tables but not nearly enough. The shelter is not big enough for all of us. I sit with Paul under a mango tree. Things move slowly and my little group is asked to join the serving line at 12:55. The food was amazing. I had “boule” – a kind of very thick millet porridge, fish and greens. We all ate with our hands. A young lady came around with a basin and a teapot. She pours the water over our hands as we wash them over the basin.

The ladies are seated with the ladies, the men with the men and children from about 10 years and up are also together. Things break up suddenly. I am told that we are leaving and all of a sudden it looks like half the crowd is leaving. It is 1:40 PM.

(This was originally posted on a different site. It was republished here in March 2012.)

Easter 2009 in Bunia

The church service described took place at the CECA-20 church “Centre Ville” in Bunia on Easter (April 14) 2009

The services started a 9 AM sharp with a congregational song.  The sanctuary was only about 20% full.  This church normally has a Swahili language service at 8 AM and a French language service at 10 AM, but the combined the two services for Easter and went from 9-12.

The church was decorated for the occasion and extra chairs had been brought in.  The pulpit and pulpit area were decorated with lights, similar to Christmas lights, of various colors in strings which blinked on and off.

There is also sound equipment at the front and instruments: a set of drums, two electric guitars and a bass guitar.  The guitars mostly play Congolese style – quite loud and high pitched.

By this time it is 9:25 and the church is 1/3-full.

A ladies choir of about 20 sang in Swahili.  I know enough Swahili words to figure out that the words say that Jesus is alive forever.  Next is a mixed quartet signing a capela a traditional Easter hymn.  Both groups get applause when they finish.  Third comes a mixed choir of about 25, about 2/3 women and composed mostly of younger people.  They are wearing pink shirts and blouses and dark grey slacks and skirts.  They sing with the all the instruments (guitars, base guitar and drums) and use microphones.  Normally the choirs would sing on floor in front of the platform, but that is taken up with extra chairs, so they are squeezed in behind the pulpit.  They sing in a style so popular in the Congo and which Congolese have made famous around the world.  They also sing in the language of much Congolese music – Lingala – with some verses in French.  I was a bit surprised by this as Swahili is the lingua franca in Bunia, not Lingala. They sing for about 10 minutes – but only one song.

The worship leader exhorts us to continue celebrating Jesus’ victory over the cross.  He switches effortlessly between Swahili and French.

Now it is 9:40 and the church is over half full.

Next is a congregational hymn in Swahili in the style of a Western hymn but with the guitar and drum accompaniment in Congolese style.  EVERYONE knows the words.  There are no hymnbooks, no song sheets and no projection on the wall.  We only sing for about one minute.  There are lots of these little “choruses” during the service.  The worship leader starts singing, often without announcing that we are going to sing, everyone joins in after the first line and sings with the leader.

There is are flags I do not recognize with Scripture on them to one side of the platform and a Congolese flag to the other side.

Children’s Presentations

Now a couple men come up to the platform and move the pulpit back.  A man announces that the children have prepared special presentations for Easter.  The first is the recitation of memory verses.  A little boy, no more than five years old, recites a longish section from Isaiah, maybe 10-15 verses.  Everyone is stunned.  Then follow a series of about 20 children ranging in age from 5 to 13 (a guess) each of which recites a verse or two, occasionally two recite a verse in unison.  All of the passages are about Easter in some way.  All the verses are in French except one girl, Maziga the daughter of a Congolese colleague who studied in the UK, who recites in English.

It is now 9:50 and the church is packed full.

Next follows an Easter skit from the children.  It is the story of the first Easter.  The children act it out while reciting the relevant passages from memory.  The ladies go to the tomb, find it empty, speak with the angel, then go back and tell the disciples.  Two of them go to the tomb, find it empty, speak to an angel and then go back to the others.  Eventually all of the disciples go around telling everyone “He is risen!”.  One of the ladies (played by a little girl) is jumping and dancing and running through the congregation announcing the great news.  Then the skit continues with Jesus appearing to the disciples.

We are then told that the children have prepared a sermon.  A young man about 12 in a black suit with a Bible in one hand and a cordless microphone in the other comes on the platform accompanied by a girl about the same age also with a Bible and microphone.  The young man starts preaching in French and the girl translates into Swahili.  He is telling the story of the empty tomb.  The two have all the right intonations and gestures down.  The boy is consulting note in his Bible.  It is a riot.  He says that people around the world worship many Gods, but Jesus is alive.  They finish (it is now 10 AM) and get a huge round of applause.

Now the children all sing an Easter song in Congolese style accompanied by the guitars and drums.  They wave their hands and sing enthusiastically, as though there is not a shy one in the bunch.  They get a big round of applause.  The man who introduced this segment makes a quick appeal for more Sunday School teachers and the children are gone.  The pulpit is moved back into place.

Now they introduce visitors.  Dayle and I stand up with about 20 others scattered across the congregation.  We are told to only say our name and where we are from.  We all stay standing until our turn comes, then we sit.  Many do not follow the instructions, but add details about the purpose of their trip.  Some speak in French and some in Swahili, but no one translates either way.  Everyone starts out with halleluiah, hello church, or some such greeting.  It is not an exercise for the shy.  The guitars and drums are playing light background music throughout the introductions.

We are seated near the front, so standing gives me my first good look at the whole sanctuary.  It is packed.  The benches are crowded.  It is wall-to-wall people.

Now it is 10:15.

Lost in Worship

Now begins and amazing time of worship.  Four flags are brought in from the back of the church during a very lively worship song.  Each is a different color and has Bible verses on it.  People are swaying to the music, raising their hands.  Many are obviously lost in worship and in the meaning of the words –which are in Swahili.  The flags are brought to the front and waved during the worship.  At one point the worshipers put their arms over each other’s shoulders and form swaying lines.

 

Prayerful worship

Then the mood and the music get quieter and more contemplative.  People are still swaying to the music, but most have their eyes closed in personal reflection.  Some sit and pray with their heads low and in their hands.  The songs are being sung as prayers.

The intense worship ends at 10:37.

Now there are announcements, in both French and Swahili.  The most interesting is that the church has letters to send to Aru and other towns, so if anyone is traveling to those places the church would appreciate the travelers would stop by the church office and take the letters.  The post office is not yet functional here.  In fact in some places it has not functioned since the mid 1980s.

The offering is taken.  Actually, they make a distinction between tithes and offerings and so they pass two different kinds of containers, one for each.  For tithes, it is a cloth bag on the end of a pole that the usher pushes down each row.  For offerings, it is a little basket passed down each row.

It is now 10:50.

An amazing men’s group (about 10) sings.  Their style is like Southern Gospel and they sing a cappela in Swahili.  One of their songs has parts going in an out and up and down a bit like a madrigal.  It was awesome.

Now comes the sermon.  It is on the story of the road to Emmaus.  The meaning of the resurrection was not evident to the disciples, and it is not readily evident to us.  The power of the risen Lord can only be effective in our lives as we hear and put into practice what Jesus said.  The pastor quotes many verses of Scripture without turning to them in his Bible.  At one point he asked the congregation about certain verses and most of the congregation quoted them back to him in Swahili or in French.

The preacher prays to close the sermon at 11:47.  He gives and opportunity to people to come to the risen Christ or come back to him by raising hands or standing up.

At 11:53 the congregation sings a song in Swahili.  There are a couple quick announcements including that there are counselors available for those who raised their hands or stood.  The Pastor and Elders are dispatched to the various doors to greet people on the way out.  Then the choirs go out and then the rest of us, row by row starting from the front (out the side doors) and the middle (out the back doors).  While this is happening the younger choir sings a song in Lingala.  It is now 11:59.  We were done by noon!

(This blog originally appeared in a different format. It was updated and moved to a different blog site in March 2012.)