Friend or Foe in a City We Don’t Know

By the time we left Accra early Tuesday morning, I was in love with the city. Ranked as Africa’s second most liveable city, I loved how Accra was the best of Africa and the best of the West. Roadside market stands sold everything from yams to microwaves, yet supermarkets rivaled any American supercenter with fresh produce, appliances, and a great selection of frozen food. The people of Accra were very friendly, and didn’t seem to notice how white our skin was in a sea of beautiful black faces. The Wesleyans have a 24-hour clinic just outside of Accra that I could easily fit into. And even though I have lived in the Bible belt for many years now, I was surprised that Jesus was incorporated into almost everything in the city. “Lion of Judah Taxi Cabs,” “Light of the World Bicycle Shop” or “Higher Ways Hair Salon,” were just a few examples of faith statements in local business. What surprised me even more was that even American companies adopted Christian slogans, “Start the day God’s way: Nescafe” or “Blood of Jesus: Coca Cola.” The steeple of a church rose above surrounding buildings on nearly every block. Obviously, there was no separation of church and anything!

But Accra wasn’t the only place we were to visit during our time in Ghana. We also were to visit Tamale (pronounced TOM-ah-lay). We were going to be visiting with the pastors there, but also evaluating Tamale as a place we might potentially live. Tamale is the capital of northern Ghana and is the fastest growing city in all of West Africa. While Accra was clearly Christian, Tamale is predominantly Islamic. Muslims and Christians tolerate each other, and under the best of circumstances can even be friends. I was anxious to see how this relationship worked in person.

The plane landed on the runway of Tamale Airport early on Tuesday morning as the arid sun pierced the landscape. We taxied toward the single-gate airport, and witnessed the massive earth-moving machines constructing a new international airport to support the growth that Tamale is experiencing. As we parked on the tarmac, I noticed that there was a crowd dressed mostly in white on the other side of the fence, just yards from our plane. As we stepped off the plane, the crowd erupted with shouting and heart-piercing African drumbeats. I was close enough to recognize traditionally dressed Muslim men and women. Hijabs and kufis adorned every head.  As we exited the airport with our luggage the still-screaming crowd pressed in on the sidewalk, yelling, hands waving high in the air, with drumbeats underscoring the tension. There was no way for us to exit the tiny airport other than to walk straight through the crowd.

I was wearing very conservative clothing, but not compared to a Muslim woman. I had on short sleeves. My ankles were visible below the edge of my maxi skirt. My head was uncovered. I was clearly not one of them. This was my first time in an all-Muslim crowd. An all-black Muslim crowd. In Ghana. In a predominantly Muslim city.  I had no idea what to expect. Would they fight me? Push me? Ignore me? The only way to find out was to push through the shouting crowd to get to the parking lot beyond. I took a deep breath and stepped forward.

The crowd shuffled aside to let me pass on the sidewalk, but their cheering did not stop. Rather, it ramped up in volume. It took me a minute to understand what they were saying.

Wait, what was that?

“Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!” they shouted as the women lightly patted my shoulders. The drumbeats somehow seemed less ominous, and somewhat more celebratory. I looked into their faces and saw excitement, and even kindness.

My new best Muslim friends

The crowd of Muslims leaving the airport after celebrating our plane’s arrival.

As I exited out of the other side of the flock of my new closest Muslim friends, I smiled in relief, and hoped that the rest of my visit to Tamale would be just as pleasant.

Unfortunately, Tamale had a few more surprises in store for me.


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