Reflections from the field by Amisah Bakuri
In May 2017, I went to the “God is good Ministry” in Amsterdam as a participant observer for my fieldwork. Usually I go alone but on this particular day I passed by Sandra’s home and asked her to accompany me to church. Her husband was not at home as he was working that morning and would later join us at church soon after work. Sandra is 33 years old and about a year ago moved from Ghana to the Netherlands to live with her husband. She agreed to be part of this study when we met at a Ghanaian shop the previous month.
“Excuse my bad manners, sit down my sister, let me get you water”, she said motioning me to sit on one of the leather sofas in her living room. The sofas were interspersed by coffee tables and facing a television with a small screen and a stereo which was on. There was a clock and some pictures of the couple hung on the wall, another table with a desktop computer and a wooden glass cabinet with books, saucers and mugs. Sandra returned shortly with a bottle of water, a bottle of malta guinness (non-alcoholic drink), a meat pie and fried chicken wings on a tray and placed it on one of the coffee tables near the side of the Sofa I was seated. “Make yourself comfortable! Eat ooo, you know what time church service starts, so if you do not eat something, you will be hungry and won’t be able to pay attention to the sermon. I have soup, let me make fufu for you after the drink”. “This is more than enough, I can’t even finish it”, I responded, sipping my malta guiness. In the meantime, she went back to one of the rooms in the house and returned with a box containing different things for her make -up and then sat in front of the table with desktop computer, “that’s a lot!” I exclaimed!
Sandra laughed and then started reflecting on her experiences in the Netherlands: “How is it that here you have to schedule weeks in advance just to get a coffee or tea date or lunch invitation with a friend or acquaintance. I just don’t get it. Last February I asked my co-worker if we could have lunch. She picked up her agenda and there was no space for our lunch until April! “You know in the Netherlands,” Sandra continued, “you just can’t drop by someone’s house for a visit. People are too busy—even to talk.”
Sandra was done with her make-up by now and she was trying out her clothes, we joked about how some of the clothes were too sexy and revealing the thighs, shoulders and cleavage, hence not suitable for church let a alone for an elders wife, or they were too casual or appeared cheap. The selection process of what to wear for a particular occasion is very important for Sandra, as it is crucial to avoid “unnecessary” attention and gossip. Also, as the wife of a church elder, she needed to dress well as she is seen as a church leader by default. She tried on several outfits and asked for my opinion on what looked better on her. After several trials, we settled on two outfits. Now, making a choice between the two outfits took more time compared to the earlier process. We started laughing after she narrated to me how her husband always jokes about how she only came in to Amsterdam a little over a year ago and her wardrobe is full to the brim, what will happen in five years? There will be no space for her to put her bed. “Why do men always complain when they have to buy clothes for us? Meanwhile, when I look good he is the first to compliment and even take pictures and he posts the photos on his WhatsApp status”.
A call came in and she hurried for the phone which was ringing from her bedroom. I overheard her saying, “I won’t be late, sister Amisah is also here, rest assured that I will be on time.” She came back from her bedroom into the living room and said “my husband ooo he wants me to be on time. For some time now Pastor Barnabas, our church Pastor, has been complaining about how we, the congregants, go to church late. My husband, as a church elder, worries when I come late. He really complains about it, I am not surprise he called and I won’t be if he calls again.”
“Hurry up then, it’s going to take some time for you to finish, we don’t have to be late.” I said.
She ignored my comment and then continued “As I was saying, back home my husband will be driving me to church, we will not be running shifts with work, but here things are too fast. We have many problems in Ghana. So many people do not have enough money for basic things like good food, clothes and good shelter yet we take our time, ye di konkonsa (we gossip), we joke and laugh and try to help one another. That’s how we’ve been able to survive. You’ve seen it. You know what I’m talking about. Here, no one takes the time to think about what’s going on. We are so busy on our phones…”.
Sandra’s house is approximately 15 minutes’ walk away from her church. Although she often takes the tram when she goes to church alone, today we decide to walk as we continued our chat. On the way, Sandra told me about the difficulty of finding a job in the Netherlands as a nurse trained in Ghana and worse of all with basic Dutch language skills. She works in one of the restaurants as a waitress and she is also attending college to take Dutch language courses. “Sometimes I feel that I should have just stayed home and enjoyed being called burgers wife, my husband used to come yearly and would often send me enough money. I don’t know why I pestered him to speed up the process for me to join him, I called him many times to find out if he had heard from the lawyers. I don’t like to be stressed, I always take my time to do things. Now I am here and I have to do my best to get used to this fast and furious system here.”
We got to the church entrance and walked to the main auditorium. “Welcome my sisters, I hope you are well” one of the ushers beckoned us. In the main auditorium, I observed children running around, people greeting each other and chatting while others stored away the prams in a designated corner, some women change into their high heels, re-tie their headgear or re-touched their make-up in front of the big mirror near the doorway on the adjacent wall. The days sermon talked about the need to live life as a living testimony to many others who may not believe in Christ and God.
This conversation with Sandra touches on many of the themes that emerged during my fieldwork. However, two experiences that are both related to time are the most obvious: Sandra’s experience of difference as a person from Ghana in the Netherlands and her (transnational) religious belonging as a Christian. The first is expressed in Sandra’s reflections on time during our conversation, and illustrated in her choice to take the time to host me while she was preparing for church. The second – Sandra’s experience of religious belonging- is expressed in her extensive preparation to embody being the ‘elders wife’ and in her challenge to be in church on time to set the perfect example.