September 30, 2009, Baltimore, MD
In 2001 at age 20, Chelsea Strayer escaped cultural pressure to marry young by following a childhood dream: She bought an airplane ticket and enrolled at the University of Ghana. Chelsea spent the past year living in Ghana again, studying the healing ceremonies of traditional spiritual priests for her PhD dissertation research. She discusses the abundance of divergent but equally good choices in her life and how she’s learned to be true to herself.
In my life, there are consistently contrasting realities where both side are right. I grew up in a very traditional Mormon family: my dad’s a Church Education System seminary teacher, my mom’s a stay-at-home mom of eight kids. But I also have this crazy life in Africa. I see those as two different lives, but there’s one thing that runs through it and it’s this idea that there is more than one “right”. Both of these lives are good. For some reason I’ve been able to tap into a guiding confidence in my own ability to know which of two good paths is right for me.
I was an extremely obedient girl and I never did anything wrong but I always had different opinions. I remember a specific time when I was in kindergarten and my dad came home from work. I climbed on his lap and he asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I thought, and I finally said, “I want to be the President of the United States!” And my dad said, “Well, you can’t. Your husband will have to be president, cause you’ll be watching the kids.” I was just this little kid but I remember so clearly that I said, “No, I can do it. He can watch the kids.” I absolutely loved and respected my dad, but I knew even at that age that his answer didn’t seem right to me.
Another example occurred in grade school when my family went to a production of West Side Story. We were all laughing afterwards because I had a crush on one of the Latino characters — I think his name was Chico. My parents were trying to teach me a lesson and they teased me: “We don’t think interracial marriage is good. Why do you always like the ‘Chicos’?” And I remember thinking, “What’s wrong with that?” It had never crossed my mind that that was a bad thing. This was a long time ago, but those sentiments were in Mormon thought at that time. They have since changed, but even at that time I felt opposing impulses. I loved the Church and was obedient, but another part of me knew these pseudo-doctrinal points weren’t right.
These opposing impulses played themselves out when I got to Brigham Young University for college. I met this wonderful guy: cute, return missionary, from a wealthy family. He was my first real boyfriend. But I was unsure I wanted to marry him — it wasn’t that I thought it was wrong to marry this boy, it was just that I was unsure. After the first six months of dating him, I started receiving intense pressure from my church leaders and peers to marry him. My bishop called me into his office to tell me marrying this guy would be a good thing. I heard, “You’d marry him if you were a better person.” “You’d feel right about it if you were living your life right.” My grandma actually said to me, “That boy is the best thing about you!” Can you believe it!
In my mind I knew it wasn’t bad — how could it be bad? But it didn’t feel right. I wasn’t receiving support from anyone in my culture. There was no narrative that allowed me to say, “Yeah, he’s perfect, but I don’t feel right and it’s okay for me to feel that way.”
This went on for a long time — back and forth — and I continued feeling trapped. In my mind, it was this huge moment and I had to somehow break away to figure out what I really felt in the face of a culture that was so intent on pushing me one direction.
The only way I could figure out to break free from this pressure was to retreat to a goal I’ve had since I was a little girl: I wanted to go to Africa. I had wanted to go ever since my mom had rented Roots from the library when I was a little girl. I used that as my excuse to say, “I can’t get married until I’ve accomplished this goal.” But the problem with that was that people reinterpreted my own goal to fit the cultural expectation: “Well, you two can go on a mission to Africa together someday.” Eventually, I felt so trapped that in 2001 I bought a ticket and went to West Africa by myself at age 20, having never left the country before.
You were still enrolled at BYU at this time. Did you go on an official study abroad through the school?
No, I applied to the University of Ghana as an independent student. It was scary. I just flew over hoping it would all work out because email was still so bad over there.
My goal was simply to experience Africa. I had no idea it would go beyond this initial visit. I thought I would just get married. I had never envisioned a future for myself. And Africa was chaotic — it wasn’t this beautiful, planned thing. It was a stupid, silly girl who wanted to do something different and felt trapped. It was more of a lifeline. I just had to do it, I had to exert some control over my own life.
Did you remain active in the Church in Ghana even though you felt these tensions with the culture regarding marriage?
Yes, very much so because I felt like they were both right. I love the Church and the members. I never felt abandoned by Heavenly Father or felt like my prayers or my personal experience were ever diminished, like I did by the culture. In my personal prayers I felt very confident that the Lord loved what I was doing. So there was that conflict between what other people thought was good and what, deep down, I knew was good for me.
When I got back from Africa, the answer from the Lord came as, “You’ve got two choices, and they’re both great. You can get married and live a life that you know already: marriage, kids, staying at home. That’s something good and you can have that. Or you can have a life you don’t know anything about. It’s a blank slate. Who knows if you’ll find someone else to marry, who knows if you’ll succeed at anything.” I went with the blank slate and decided not to marry the boy. I just took a step off the edge.
So how did you follow up on that answer? What were your next steps?
After I got back, it was almost three years before I dated anyone else. I almost felt betrayed: Why did I feel impressed to follow this path if there was nothing or no one else for me? Looking back, I realize that was the gift: I was able to finish and take the next step without the distraction of boys. I wasn’t confident enough yet to pursue my dreams. I didn’t have any examples in my life of women who worked or had advanced degrees. My realm of possibilities was so limited. I had applied to graduate school when I met the man I would eventually marry, and I remember in my mind thinking, “I applied and got accepted, but maybe I won’t actually go, or maybe I won’t finish because I’ll have kids. Or something will come up.” My husband was raised by a single father in a completely different home, and he said, “Well, why won’t you go? Why wouldn’t you finish?”
I’m curious about your church experience in Africa across the years you’ve been going there. What was the Church like in Ghana in 2001 when you first went, and how has it changed over the past eight years?
When I first got there in late 2001, the headquarters for the entire West African area were located on one floor of an office building called the Gulf House. In fact, when I got there I had to ask around even to find where it was. There were just a couple of missionaries in the cities. This past year I spent there, there are over twelve stakes in Accra alone. We have buildings: an entire huge church building in Madina, multiple in Kumasi, multiple in Accra. A whole compound that now houses the West African area offices with an Missionary Training Center that I helped open. I don’t know the specific numbers… I just go there and see the buildings grow! A lot of the men who were the elders quorum presidents and bishops when I first went there are now the stake presidents and area authorities.
What are some of the striking characteristics of the Mormon women in Ghana? What is their greatest contribution to the Church there?
To answer that, you have to know something about how church structure is perceived there. The hierarchy gives people a place, a traditional structure that is being lost in their villages and certainly their cities. So as people move into cities, they are no longer part of their traditional “queen mother” or “village elders” structure that holds people together. The Church really has stepped in: It has home teaching, it has families, it has built-in positions of righteous power and authority. It gives people responsibilities that they’re not getting in their political culture at home. It provides a place for everyone, including women in the Relief Society presidency.
In the traditional village structure, as queen mothers, women really do have a lot of power. They are not under the elders or under the chief. Their opinion is what it is: It’s equal. A lot of the Ghanian women I know in the Church carry this confidence over into their church callings. Mormon women in America don’t have this same attitude. We feel like our opinions are useful and they help in correlation, but our attitude is that the Relief Society is a subsidiary of a greater hierarchy. For a lot of Ghanaian women, that doesn’t run through their minds. This is their calling, they’re supposed to receive revelation, this is their revelation. That confidence is something that is amazing to me and really something to look up to.
On the other hand, women in the villages are very different from women in the cities, and so church is very different in the villages. Because the village women traditionally aren’t given as much education as men, they are not as literate and don’t speak English, so that confidence and assertiveness is nonexistent. All of the Church literature and manuals are in English, and most of the women can’t read Twi, their native language, not to mention English, so they can’t read or teach the lessons. In most of the village branches I’ve attended, there are usually 25 to 30 men in attendance, and there might be some teenaged girls and an older lady. The women are intimidated and usually don’t come. This past year in the village I was living in, we had a Relief Society meeting once. The branch had a Relief Society president and she could give the lesson in Twi, but because she had to read the manual in English she didn’t feel comfortable asserting herself as a teacher. The one time I insisted “Let’s do Relief Society!” the bishop came in and taught the lesson.
I don’t want people to think it’s this way all over the country. In Accra, where people can read and are more educated and there are couple missionaries, it is different. But because of the Priesthood and because men do cherish and honor it and look at it as a blessing, it’s often intimidating to the women. My husband and I had a goal of trying to engage the women in our local branch and getting them to talk more in Sunday School.
Would you describe your academic program and what you did for the past year in Ghana?
I majored in Anthropology at BYU and attended Boston University (BU) for graduate school where I worked on doctoral work in Biological and Cultural Anthropology. I chose this focus so I could study the traditional healers that I’ve worked with since I started going to Ghana. At BU, they have the top African Studies center in the nation. So I was able to learn specific African languages and take specialized courses that I wouldn’t have been able to take anywhere else.
Once I did that study abroad on my own in 2001, I went back to BYU and began leading summer study abroad trips to Ghana with the help of a professor. In the course of those trips, and as a result of my own work as an undergraduate, I made really great contacts: traditional healers with whom I became friends. These friends allowed me to see ceremonies that no average person can just walk into. I decided I wanted to study these ceremonies further. This past year, my husband and I spent the whole year in Ghana to do my dissertation research. I was able to go to tons of ceremonies all year and record the cultural aspects of their religions, the hierarchy, the gods, what the different spirits mean, what’s really going on during the ceremony. The whole structure.
What is their traditional religion?
The indigenous religion in Ghana is called Ashante and one of the basic beliefs is that there is an omnipotent god, but he doesn’t interact with people. Below him are smaller gods who interact with people. And underneath the smaller gods are intermediaries — human priests — who are able to communicate with both the small gods and with people. Because there is also a belief in witchcraft, you need these healers, these priests, to protect you from being cursed, find out who is doing the cursing and heal you from the curse.
There is also a belief that you’re born with a spirit and a body, and so there’s a whole physical world and a spiritual world and they interact. If your spirit it damaged, it can affect your physical body. People usually don’t go to spiritual healers right away. It’s usually after something small — say, an infection — continues to persist and you’ve tried doctors and other options. At that point, you might say to yourself, “Perhaps it’s not my physical body that’s sick. Perhaps I have a spiritual ailment.” You might also go to healers for purely spiritual matters, such as, someone cursed you and you want the curse removed. Or you want to do well on an exam and you want the gods to take care of you.
This past year, I was talking to a man who is LDS and also attends the indigenous healing ceremonies once in a while. He and I were discussing how many Africans are now accepting non-indigenous religions like Christianity and Judaism and Islam. He brought up the point that with traditional African religions, a lot of the punishments are imminent: If you do something wrong, you will see the punishment imminently. You will get sick or your business will fail, something like that. The punishment is immediate. Whereas with the gospel of Christ and other world religions there’s a punishment, but it’s in the next life. He kind of laughed and winked at me: “Well, which would you choose? Immediate punishment or time to say, OK I’m sorry! Christianity is a lot easier!”
An interesting tension between Mormonism and traditional religion focuses on the reality of the priests’ power. There is no doubt in the Ghanaian mind that the spiritual healers have real power, but they don’t know where that power comes from. For centuries, the early Christian missionaries told the indigenous people that there was no such thing as witchcraft. But people responded by saying, “Of course it exists. I feel the effects of it in my life everyday.” So while accepting Christianity and its message, they would still rely on spiritual healing to protect them from witchcraft. One thing that’s cropping up all over West Africa right now are hybrid religions, where the spiritual priests protect people from witchcraft by invoking the power of Christ.
Over the course of my eight years of going there, I’ve seen these hybrid religions increase every time I go. So people continue to feel that the traditional healers give them protection from witchcraft that the Christian churches can’t. What this does for Mormons is create a lot of confusion. People say, “Ok, so we’re not supposed to go to these traditional healers because it’s not our religion and it’s the power of Satan, but it works.”
No one doubts that spiritual healers work. One of the most interesting Sunday School lessons we had was on the family and one of the first subheadings in the lesson manual said, “We are all children of God.” And there’s a paragraph about how God loves us all, we’re his children, and then it moves on. Well, we spent 90 minutes discussing this subheading: “We are all children of God”. This is why: If you’re barren and you can’t have a child, you try everything because children are such an important aspect of life in West Africa. It makes you a woman, it makes you a mother. If you don’t have children, you’re not an adult yet. Women will try medical intervention and inevitably they end up at a traditional healer. It works — people go, and they get pregnant. So the question we debated for 90 minutes in Sunday School was, “If these women get pregnant by going to a healer, is it a Satan child? Or is it a child of God?” It was this huge debate. Nothing like that would cross our minds in the United States! We would just skip over that. Of course all children are children of God! And what was so funny was that during that whole conversation not one person raised their hand and said, “Well, the healers don’t have power. It doesn’t work.” It’s never an option that it doesn’t work. The question is where does the power come from and what does that mean for our church?
Are you bringing Latter-day Saint doctrine into your thesis discussion?
No, my thesis is very different. My research looks at the biological aspects of the indigenous healing ceremonies. This past year I was there, I actually took measurements before and after the ceremonies — physiological measurements of heart rate, blood pressures — and I show that there’s a relaxation response that occurs during the healing ceremony via the rhythmic drumming, the dancing and the chanting and praying. There is actually a physical relaxation response which promotes healing. I’m trying to show why these healings actually do work. In America, the relaxation response has been studied thoroughly — if you adjust physical states and you get your body back to homeostasis your body can function and heal itself quicker. I would love to study priesthood blessings in the same way — show how this same principle of relaxation response corroborates with our healing experiences.
Can you describe the conditions you’ve been living in the past year while in Ghana?
Well, first of all, I have to say, my husband is a trooper! He has traveled a lot and so when I proposed we go live in Africa together for a year he kept saying, “Oh I’ll be fine!” And I said, “No, this is different…”
At first, we lived in a family compound. The compounds in the villages are a bunch of rooms in a circle with a courtyard in the middle where everyone cooks and interacts. But at night the whole place would be locked up. So we were locked in our room every night. And our room was a concrete box. So the third night, I ended up having to go to the bathroom and I was locked in this room! We ended up having a bedpan — in the 21st century! — so that if I had to pee I could just wake up and do it there and we’d take it out in the morning. Also, you can hear everything. People will play music all night long so they can have conversations and live their lives without their neighbors and in-laws hearing. So all night long you’d hear Celine Dion in French or you’d hear domestic abuse… There was a baby who got circumcised in a room close to ours and you could tell it was done unprofessionally and the poor kid got infected and just screamed all night. There were goats and chickens roaming around… After one night when all of the above occurred, my dear husband said, “I cannot take this for a year!” So we ended up moving to a teacher’s dorm at a boarding school, and we had our own little flat. That was nice, and my husband ended up teaching English at the boarding school. It wasn’t as crazy there.
We got malaria, typhoid. All sorts of crazy stuff. We were in the middle of nowhere. We were getting our water in a bucket from a pond, and we had to bucket shower and wash all our clothes by hand. We had to iron all of our clothes cause there’s this thing called botfly and it lays its eggs in anything that’s damp. So botfly lands on your clothes and lays and egg and if you wear it, even if you think it feels dry, they can actually go into your skin and grow. We had to iron all our garments! Most locals let the little girls in the village wash their clothes, but we didn’t feel comfortable doing that so we washed and ironed them all ourselves. But garments aren’t made to be ironed, so I had all these garments that were normal sized when I got there and hanging way down to my calves by the time I left!
Was the past year good for your marriage?
It was fantastic. Well, I don’t know: we’re pretty co-dependent now! My husband flew home to the States once while we were there and he missed his flight cause we had been traveling together for a year and a half and we were so used to our different roles that he forgot his passport. Passports had been my job! We had become so close as partners that we were in trouble when we were separated.
To wrap up, I want to return to the idea I started with that has defined so much of my experience: There are times when both sides are right. I could have married my first boyfriend or I could have pursued my interest in Africa. Both were right. The gospel works, but so do traditional healings. I often think of Eve when she had two choices: Eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or obey God and abstain. They were both right, they were both good. The whole situation put her in a position of making a decision. She made a choice, and she paid the price for that choice. We are put in the same position in our own lives. Life can be a series of varying good choices. This is specifically applicable to women in the Church. We judge each other because we think there’s one right way, but really were constantly met with a series of choices where both options are good. Both can be right. But you have to accept the consequences of whatever you choose. I think it is in that active decision making where we grow and learn.
At A Glance
Chelsea Shields Strayer
Location: Baltimore, MD
Marital status: Married 4 years
Children: Currently pregnant with first
Occupation: PhD candidate in biological and cultural anthropology
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University, University of Ghana, Boston University
Languages Spoken at Home: English, Spanish
Favorite Hymn: “Be Still My Soul”
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.