When I arrived in Accra, Ramadan was just beginning. The zongos, particularly Nima where I spent most of my time, are full of Muslim community members as well as multiple neighborhood mosques. Every day, one could hear to melodic, almost hypnotic, calls to prayer five times a day. The imams would project their voices through loudspeakers perched on the roofs of the mosques, calling repeatedly, “Allahu Akbar!” The vegetable stand in Nima Market where I spent most of my time was located right across the street from a local mosque and each day, the calls to prayer would reverberate throughout the streets, ushering people in from the bustling market to pray.
When I first started reading about zongos in Accra, it seemed to me that these communities were overwhelmingly Muslim and Hausa speaking, but what I found in Nima was a much more complex and diverse picture. While there were at least three mosques in Nima alone, there were also countless churches affiliated with various Christian sects. And while Hausa served as a lingua franca between some individuals, other languages like Twi seemed to often fill that role as well, especially in non-Muslim spaces. The extent of this diversity seemed to be magnified by my presence there during Ramadan, during which time most Muslims fasted from sun up to sun down. While the group of women I spent most of my time with were predominantly Muslim, some were Christian and some were excused from the fast for various reasons including needing to breastfeed infants. Therefore, while the fast was certainly an overt marker of one’s religious identity as a Muslim in Nima, there are a variety of ways in which one might experience Ramadan differently and not join the fasting.
When newcomers to the vegetable stand would notice me sitting with the usual group, they would ask me “Kina azumi?” which means, “Are you fasting?” I found this was a constant method by which individuals would inquire indirectly about my religious affiliation. When I would reply, “Ban azumi ba,” or “I’m not fasting,” I would often be met with (typically lighthearted) prodding as to why on earth I wanted to learn Hausa, but not participate in the fast, further evidence of the perception of Hausa’s somewhat isomorphic relationship to Islam. People were consistently curious about the apparent disjunctures that surrounded me. This was magnified when my interlocutors decided to apply lele, or henna, to my hands and feet. While many women apply lele during Ramadan to prepare for Eid, it is also common for new brides to wear this henna as well. Since I had been married within the past year, my interlocutors excitedly insisted that I should participate in the hand-dying early to mark my marital status. This application of lele was promptly followed by a staged “wedding photo” in which I was instructed to pose in a friend’s white shawl, while everyone involved looked on, amused, and took pictures of the amarya, or new bride.
During my walk home that day, I was suddenly privy to the ways in which certain identity markers function in Nima. I was stopped at least ten times by strangers inquiring about my lele. Often it began with a surprised or amused interjection from the sidewalk, “Oburoni, ta sa lele!” meaning, “The white lady has put on lele!” Often I would laugh and say, “I, na sa lele!” meaning, “Yes, I have put on lele!” This response in Hausa would usually result in a shriek or laugh from my addressee, followed by someone rushing up to me to further investigate. Floods of questions often followed, such as what was I doing there, who had dyed my hands and feet, was I a Muslim, and was I married? I remember one woman in particular responding with an exaggerated sigh when I told her I was married, saying, “But my son! He needs a wife!” My lele was usually met with humorous responses, but acted as a practical physical marker that flagged me, or at least those close to me, as being most likely Muslim. Other markers of Islamic affiliation appear in Nima in the form of head coverings or prayer veils loosely draped around the heads and shoulders of women and the babban riga, or long shirt and cap worn by men. Some women would wear these veils all the time and some would only don them when heading to the mosque. Others still would sport gold teeth or gold fillings between their front teeth, additional markers of Muslim identity.
While Islamic iconography and other identifiers are present across Nima and other zongos in Accra, the presence of Christianity is almost equally represented. The family I spent most of my time with at the vegetable stand was a wonderful microcosm of this pattern because some family members were affiliated with Islam and others with Christianity. It seemed like a non-issue to those I spoke to about it. In fact, when on this topic, values of unity and acceptance were consistently conveyed to me by community members. People were often very explicit to state this ideology to me, often attempting to impress upon me that egalitarianism was a quintessential Ghanaian value.
This value of egalitarianism certainly appears to have been applied to the religious sector relatively successfully, but its manifestations in other domains seem to be causing some issues. For instance, economic egalitarianism seems to be hindering countless small business owners in that no one feels as though they can ever get ahead. I remember talking with the owner of one of my favorite food stands in Nima and he expressed a frustration with the government for not supporting small businesses to the point where he felt so bogged down by just making ends meet every day for his restaurant that making any significant economic gains seemed like a pipe dream. It seems as though this sentiment is pretty wide spread in Nima, as most small business owners or other participants in informal sector businesses appear to be struggling to make ends meet along with everyone else they know. In this sense, everyone in Nima is relatively equal economically, but this stagnancy, especially in such a low income bracket, is widely frustrating for residents.
Based on the above accounts, I in no way mean to romanticize or demonize this ideology of equality, but merely wish to point out that its realizations may be more complex than is often reported by residents. Especially with regards to religious, ethnic, and linguistic equality and acceptance, I can’t help but wonder if some inconsistencies might appear once I’ve spent more time in community. It can be easy to take someone’s word for it with respect to purporting accepting viewpoints, but putting that into practice is another story.