Stephen Savage makes an unforgettable journey to Ghana
In April I have a special birthday. To mark the year and make it memorable I decided to do some ‘special’ things.
Here in Leeds I meet many people from Ghana, most from Kumasi, the second largest city. For ten years I have longed to visit the country about which I have heard so much. In 2012, Ghanaian friends did me the honour of naming their son after me and inviting me to be his godfather. This is an important and life-long role in Ghana, not some kind of social convention lasting only one afternoon. I had a major responsibility in the baptism service and at the reception afterwards, and my involvement continues. We in Britain have a lot to learn. There are some countries in Africa which regularly feature on the news in the UK. As Ghana is peaceful it gets overlooked, despite having a massive need for aid for the development of its infrastructure. Those who leave have good reason, being concerned for the future of their children, but it is not easy.
Two years ago, I attended a lecture about the Church in Ghana given to the Anglo-Catholic History Society (www.achs.org.uk) by Fr Andrew Grant, a canon of Kumasi, who worked in Ghana for many years and is now retired and living in London. Later I learned that he was organizing a trip and with alacrity I registered my interest. He enabled me to achieve my ambition in February. I am enormously grateful, and still reflecting upon and recovering from a fascinating tour. I loved it, and would like to return. The people are welcoming and keen to talk about their country, of which they are proud. I enjoyed their food, climate, landscape, the ever-changing street scenes, and their company. Most, however, live in desperate poverty. Their government is investing in education, but what is there at the end of it? Jobs are few. The young find joy in football, music, dance and church. They are so friendly and yet there is a sadness about many of them—I saw it in their eyes—as they can see no bright future. They subsist, but can see no possibility of things improving. Despite all that they walk upright, smartly, with a sense of personal pride, not slouching or sullen. The country’s most valuable resource is its young people.
There are many churches of all shades of opinion, well-attended, with lively, enthusiastic, totally committed Christian people. The Anglican Church in Ghana has a definitely Anglo-Catholic style, mainly because of the lasting influence of two Bishops of Accra: Mowbray Stephen O’Rorke (1913–23), who is commemorated at Walsingham, and John Orfeur Aglionby (1924–51). We attended an unforgettable Sunday Mass at St Justin’s Church, Nkawie, which began at 9am and ended at 12.30. Fortunately, the priest, having given his all, did not have to race off elsewhere to do a repeat. The church was full and the decibels mighty. Twice I went out to rest my ears! It took all afternoon to recover, but I am not complaining. It was an amazing mix of ancient and modern, of characteristically African and traditional CofE, partly in English and partly in the Twi language. Everything was done decently and in order. There was a form of Matins, leading into the Eucharist, a revised rite, west-facing and with absolutely impeccable serving. During the Introit a server dusted the altar quite thoroughly. The thurible was crammed full of charcoal, there were dense clouds of incense and more 360 degree swings than I ever saw, or did myself. There was African music and dance but also Anglican chant and even some Merbecke, a small organ, large drums, keyboard and more. In order of the day of the week on which one was born, the people danced forward at the offertory to present their gift with joy and danced back to their seat. This took quite some time. I was pleased to be kofi (born on a Friday). What did take me by surprise was the second offertory, for which I was totally unprepared.
At Afari we briefly toured the Diocesan Training Centre for Women, which was helped considerably by the Diocese of Southwark. Unemployed girls receive training in catering and dressmaking in the hope that they might become economically self-supporting. On Ash Wednesday, Kumasi Cathedral was full at 6am and again later. The servers, of student age, so impressive in red cassocks and well-ironed cottas, had been drilled to military perfection, doing everything with absolute care and genuine devotion. They glowed with pleasure when I thanked them for their efforts. I was pleased to meet Archbishop Daniel Yinkah Sarfo, who studied at Leeds University, and the Dean of St Cyprian’s Cathedral, Isaac Kojo Anokye, who was so friendly and gave us a tour of the modern cathedral. How wise of their predecessors to have chosen an African to be their patron saint.
On arrival, I sat in the nave, naturally, but we were expected and a grandly robed verger appeared to lead me up higher, into the chancel. It was an acting out of the Gospel story! Over 650 schoolchildren received the Imposition of Ashes. I was handed the microphone and asked to address them, which I did for 10 minutes or so, having had no time to worry about it. The spirit does give utterance! Fr Kyremeh, Diocesan Director of Education, as we would say, was beside me to translate my words into Twi. As I left, for tea and freshly baked bread in the Dean’s office, the younger children wanted to ‘high five,’ with vigour! Altogether it was a unique and unforgettable experience.
Incidentally, all the children, in perfect school uniform of shorts or dress and a colourful shirt, are at school at 6am every day for ‘cleaning time.’ There is no argument about this. Doors and windows are open all day because of the heat and this is a dusty environment. Schools cannot afford to employ cleaners and so the students of all ages do it. It is just accepted as part of the regular routine. Lessons begin at 8am.
Close to St Cyprian’s Primary School is the old St Cyprian’s Church, once used by the monks of the Order of St Benedict (OSB) of Pershore and Nashdom, who worked here from 1923 to 1931. Dom Bernard Clements is the best known, working mainly as Principal of St Augustine’s College, the seminary, for five years. He was effective, and 19 priests were ordained during that time. Dom Gregory Dix arrived in 1925 but returned to England because of ill health. The seminary and the buildings used by the monks still stand, partly used as diocesan offices. Generally they are in a poor state and redevelopment is planned.
At Cape Coast we were invited to tea with Bishop Victor Atta-Baffoe and his wife, at their house. This is on the same site as the cathedral and school, with the seminary in which he does some teaching quite nearby. On another day we travelled north to Mampong. As the Sisters of the Order of the Holy Paraclete (OHP) Whitby, had founded the Babies’ Home, crèche and St Monica’s School I was overjoyed that our group had the conducted tour, and a generous lunch. The complex is extensive, also containing a Teachers’ Training College, Maternity Hospital and School of Midwifery. The OHP went to Ghana in 1926, invited by Bishop Aglionby, and by 1967 there were 20. They gradually withdrew, transferring their projects to Ghanaian management, and finally left in 1982. They are remembered with gratitude and affection. The Diocesan Administrator lives in the former convent and the chapel is used by the school.
The Bishop of Asante-Mampong, the Rt Revd Cyril Kobina Ben-Smith, was very welcoming and pleased to show us the cathedral. As in Kumasi and Cape Coast I was able to convey greetings from St Hilda’s, Leeds, which was appreciated. We share a common devotion to St Hilda, who they do know about. The work continues, but without the Sisters, is still vitally necessary, and they need funds. Our group presented a generous donation, mainly from the people of St Laurence, Catford. Today two sisters of the OHP are at Jachie, where they run a much-needed eye-clinic, treating patients and testing vision in village schools to pick up defects.
At the castles in Cape Coast and Elmina, we heard in graphic detail about the dreadful conditions in which the slaves were kept whilst awaiting a ship to take them across the Atlantic. At Elmina, we observed the tremendous activity surrounding the arrival of the fishing boats. This must have occurred daily for centuries. It is a vitally important source of employment and of food. At Cape Coast we saw the grave of the Revd Philip Quaque (1714–1816), the first African priest in the Anglican Church. He is commemorated on 17 October. The era of the slave trade was a most shameful episode in European history. We owe them more than anyone knows. I was interested to read recently that the beautiful Sneaton Castle, Whitby, the Mother House of the OHP since 1914 was previously owned by a Col. James Wilson who owned a sugar plantation, worked by slaves. How things do go full circle!
Stephen Savage is a church historian and writes from Leeds.