The First Time I saw God
The first time I saw God, I was eight years old.
I had seen him plastered on posters hanging on the walls, but not inches from my face so I could trace his straight nose and mustache. My breath cut off.
Son of God.
Three people in one person.
And he was gazing at me out of soft blue eyes, his long blond hair glowing from the sun’s rays behind him. A man with custard colored skin, facing me from that most precious engagement gift of all: a white Bible.
My sister’s betrothed had bestowed it on her as tradition demanded. It could fit inside her handbag, though I doubted she’d dare take it outside the home and risk smudging it. She would probably buy an ordinary one, black or brown, for use in church. I understood that the white Bible, its pages protected by a golden zipper, housed not only God’s words but God Himself:
Which is why they said my sister was engaged though the engagement ceremony was actually her traditional marriage. Our community being Christian, she wasn’t married unless she’d worn the White-styled gown, walked down the church aisle up to her Whiteman-clothed groom, and said I do in the White language. Until then, she could only hope that if she humbled herself as a wife was supposed to, her husband would one day honor her with the loss of her family name and elevate her to the status of Mrs: Wife-Of. The fact that Mrs used to be short for Mistress (a high society woman with servants) and now refers to the unmarried lover of a married man is beside the point. When a woman is so honored, Fantes say “W’asↄr no.” Asↄr is derived from “rise” and is also a synonym for church. It’s not surprising then that when my body transformed from twigs to curves, two distant family members discussed my prospects:
“She must be wedded in church.”
“She won’t be¸ all her older sisters were merely engaged.”
“Ah no. They should make an exception for her. She got a Grade One with distinction and is headed for university. Ↄ sɛ dɛɛ wↄ sↄr no.” She must be raised/churched. As an educated woman, I was worth the ultimate glorification through a church wedding, a remnant of colonial philosophy.
Christianity was the psychological arm of white colonialists. When the Asantes refused to accept British “protection” and fill the coffers of her majesty with their gold, the British urged missionaries to set up outposts in Kumasi. They burned traditional places of worship, forced people into churches and schools. Despite the brutality of Christianity, the allure of education beckoned.
While African families provided excellent cultural education to their children, the goal was to raise good citizens, not academics. Missionaries like J. G. Christaller, who studied traditional languages and reduced them to the alphabet before translating the Bible into said languages, insisted education had to be in English, and Africans nodded. This was in contrast to nations like South Korea that insisted on receiving education in their own language. By subjugating native languages, missionaries diminished Africans. Like church services, school attendance required Christian names and western clothes. Those who refused were whipped. Some children were encouraged to leave their families and move in with their missionary saviors who tasked them with cleaning their toilets and cooking their meals. Missionaries equated intelligence with the ability to speak English. The etymology of the Twi word, “wo abↄn,” (you’re not smart) means one who can’t speak English. Today, we still ridicule fellow Africans who mispronounce words or speak stilted English.
The superiority of whiteness per Christianity has seeped so deeply into the African psyche that we aren’t even aware of it. In fact, “good” is Middle English for God. When Christians declare God is the only one who is good, we can take it literally. If God (goodness) is whiteness personified, black can only be sinful and thus inferior. Until recently, Mormons, people who refer to their religion as Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, believed that humanity was supposed to be white and that the purer you grew in virtue, the lighter your skin would become. Never mind that no black had turned white. This principle has only recently been eliminated from their texts. It is therefore startling that Mormons have made in-roads into Ghanaian society. On the parade route used to escort dignitaries, the same road by which stands the presidential residence, a Mormon temple rises high, its Caucasian, gold-gilded angel glinting above, a poke in the Ghanaian sky.
It is egregious that some African Christians would choose even a racist white over their own. After Trump declared himself a Christian who opposed abortion and read the Bible at Liberty College of the entangled Jerry Falwell Junior, Ghanaians applauded his piety. Never mind the Two Corinthians bit or the pussy-grabbing. Trump was God’s anointed who had repented of his sins, hallelujah, and Hillary? Well, she wanted to kill babies. Even then, when he won, I thought my woke colleagues would erupt with texts of despair. After all, Ghanaians had protested against apartheid in South Africa, burned effigies of Reagan and Thatcher for supporting that evil regime. In 1986, when America bombed Libya, Ghanaians took to the streets to shake their fists at the American Embassy, even though Ghana has always maintained good relations with USA. Now Trump had disparaged Mexicans and immigrants in general. Surely, Ghanaians would have their arms crossed over their heads in mourning. Au contraire, some rejoiced. Their reaction demonstrates why even now, a church in Nigeria is trumpeting and waving pro-Trump banners on the streets of Lagos. It’s colonization 2.0. Thanks to missionary cultural eradication, colonialism through the church has never left.
Such is the white-ification of virtue and excellence that private schools headhunt for teachers from Western and Asian countries rather than recruit qualified instructors locally. Foreign teachers earn up to four times the salary of their Ghanaian counterparts. While Ghanaian teachers scramble for servant-quarter dwellings because they can’t afford better, foreigners enjoy free accommodation with free electricity, water and free cable television. The rationale behind this is that non-black foreigners need to pay their mortgages abroad. As a British expat teacher once said to me, “It’s a good life.”
School administrators tend to extend privileges to white students. For instance, girls in public schools are required to cut their hair short, but white girls aren’t. The idea of white girls with shorn hair is horrifying, but black girls, well, a little uglifying never hurt anyone. It’s also the reason many parents punish their children with the rod. Contrary to popular belief, traditional Africans weren’t in the habit of whipping their children with furor. They learned from the missionaries who flogged Africans, who praised parents who flogged liberally while the colonialists pampered their white children. Thus older Africans have memories of parents taking children to teachers for a proper whipping. Sometimes, whites saved themselves the trouble by using blacks to flog their own.
Today, there is a younger generation of Africans pushing back against these practices. Even then, they are swimming against a current of entrenched culture. Though Africans are boisterous when cheering at soccer matches, they tend to complain about injustices under their breaths. After all, the Bible teaches, “Slaves, obey your masters,” a quotation that served colonialists well. Don’t mind your oppressors, don’t fixate on your suffering, salvation will come from God. The Akan have a Twi saying, “Ɛnyɛ hwee, fa ma Nyame.” It’s nothing, give it to God. For some, prayer has become an abdication of responsibility for their own freedom. In fact, religious colonization has led to a form of self-flagellation.
At a Catholic churchyard in a rural town in Ghana called Tepa, a colorful sculpture stands over a man’s grave, commissioned by the deceased before his demise. It consists of a blond-haired, winged white man in a costume reminiscent of a Roman soldier, standing with one foot on the crotch and the other on the head of a black man, a sword raised high, ready to strike. The sculptural composition represents the order of St. Michael and St George, a depiction of good triumphing over evil. The racism was lost on the parishioner, and, despite social media outcries, the sculpture remains. The pastor and his congregants remain proud of what they see as the deceased’s victory over sin and entry into heaven, even if that sin is represented by a man who could pass for a family member.
It is heartrending that Sunday school children continue to learn that the devil is black, sin is black while angels and goodness is white. At Christmas, Ghanaian Santas with black arms don pink masks with fixed grins that send kids screaming in fright while their educated parents try to persuade the children that Santa is in fact the bearer of good gifts. African lawyers and judicial officers continue to wear blond wigs, people remain ashamed of their Ghanaian names and languages, and the cycle goes on.
The killings of blacks in America and evangelical support for racists should be a wakeup call for Africans. The good principles of religion should not fetter us from resisting racist manipulation. But more than rantings on social media, the work must begin within: an internal, deliberate eradication of mental colonialism. It’s a difficult task, but one we must undertake.