Wednesday, 29 June 2011

An update: Push It!

Saw this article on the BBC from the 14th of June about preachers in Nigeria. I think this totally concurs with my observation about certain sections of organised religion in the region.

By the magic of cut and paste....

Nigeria's pastors 'as rich as oil barons'

15 June 2011 (www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12192152)
Nigeria's pastors run multi-million dollar businesses which rival that of oil tycoons, a Nigerian blogger who has researched the issue has told the BBC.
Mfonobong Nsehe, who blogs for Forbes business magazine, says pastors own businesses from hotels to fast-food chains.
"Preaching is big business. It's almost as profitable as the oil business," he said.
The joint wealth of five pastors was at least $200m (£121m), he said.
Evangelical churches have grown in Nigeria in recent years, with tens of thousands of people flocking to their services.
Mr Nsehe said the richest pastor, Bishop David Oyedepo of the Living Faith World Outreach Ministry, was worth about $150m.
Bishop Oyedepo owned a publishing company, university, an elite private school, four jets and homes in London and the United States, according to Mr Nsehe.
'Private jets'
The Nigerian blogger said Bishop Oyedepo was followed on the rich list by Pastor Chris Oyakhilome of the Believers' Loveworld Ministries. He was worth between $30 and $50m.
These pastors are flamboyant. You see them with private jets and expensive cars.
"Oyakhilome's diversified interests include newspapers, magazines, a local television station, a record label, satellite TV, hotels and extensive real estate," Mr Nsehe said.
He said three of the other richest pastors were:
  • Temitope Joshua Matthew of the Synagogue Church Of All Nations (worth between $10m and $15m);
  • Matthew Ashimolowo of Kingsway International Christian Centre (worth between $6 million and $10 million) and
  • Chris Okotie of the Household of God Church (worth between $3 million and $10 million).
Mr Nsehe said representatives of all the clergymen, except Pastor Ashimolowo, confirmed ownership of the assets he had listed on his blog.
"These pastors are flamboyant. You see them with private jets and expensive cars. This extravagance sends out the wrong message to their followers," he told the BBC's Network Africa programme.
He said the pastors acquired their wealth from various sources, including their congregations.
"We have Nigerians who are desperate, looking for solutions to their problems. They go to church for salvation, redemption and healing and pastors sometimes take advantage of them," Mr Nsehe said.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Push It!

Being brought up in a very loosely Christian family the church has always been in the background but not part of daily life. St Cuthbert’s at Sessay served as a place for the family to celebrate rites of passage and mark the various seasons. I was christened there, as a child it played host to my school concerts whilst in the last two years I have attended two of my sibling’s marriages and a solitary harvest festival. In short attending church for me has been part of observing tradition rather than signalling any deeper religious conviction. With the exception of a few years of atheisms in my adolescence I have never been too sure, or particularly bothered, if god exists or not.
In Ghana (and in much of Africa as a whole) this position just does not compute. Unlike the unassuming St Cuthbert’s with its gentle woman vicar religion here is brash and all encompassing. Everyone believes in either God or Allah and they want you to know all about it. Whilst there is a large Muslim population in the unfortunately named Pig Farm (a neighbourhood due north of where I live), the population in Accra is overtly Christian.
Christianity has a firm presence in everyday life in the city. Billboards adorned by sharply dressed “Apostles” line the Nkrumah ring road whilst passing Tro-Tros are often branded with religious slogans like “Thank You Jesus”. Many shop names also make reference to God. Ali, one half of a British couple interning at CHRI, saw a shop called “Jesus loves fashion” whilst I have spotted a place called “The Blood of Christ Beauty Parlour”. I was disappointed to walk past and see a solitary woman having her hair braided rather than been dowsed by buckets of holy blood.
In this religious atmosphere it easy to feel a little lost as an agnostic. Conversations in Ghana quickly turn to religion and any attempts to explain my lack of religious conviction is met by either suspicion or attempts at conversion. This routine can get tiresome and I now prefer to just avoid the conversation or claim that I am a practising Christian.
I don’t have a problem with Christianity per se but I do resent seeing rich preachers and poor congregations. In Swaziland I was amazed that the pastor of Mhlanbanyatsi church was flying out to Zambia for a conference just at a time when the local community were facing the closure of the pulp mill, the one major source of regular employment in the country’s Western Highlands. Last Sunday’s trip to the Holy Hill Chapel with Eric and George further cemented my negative stance towards the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in Africa.
The Holy Hill Chapel is not a chapel in the traditional sense but rather an open sided marquee in a yard close to work. It holds services every Tuesday evening and Sunday morning. The Sunday morning service is a three hour marathon of singing, dancing and a long and energetic sermon. Unlike back in Sessay the service is very interactive and the congregation regularly get up to dance to the music and shout in response to the pastor. Throughout his address, which made passing references to trips to London, there were regular interjects of “amen!”, “powerful” or, my favourite, “push it!” from the crowd.
“Push it!” in a thick Ghanaian accent sounds awfully like “bullshit!” which meant I spent a lot of the time holding back childish sniggers. However it was a word that came to mind a few times. Three times within the service the congregation were asked to dip into their pockets for the “good of the church” and on each occasion they dutifully did.
The first collection was as we just arrived. The pastor, turned out in a sharp suit, came up to the microphone and pulled out a ten cedi note (lunch money for a week and half) held it in the air, placed it in a basket and encouraged everyone else to follow. One by one the congregation dutifully followed and crumpled notes were extracted from pockets, held aloft and placed into the collection basket.
Half an hour later we were then directed to the envelopes sitting on the chairs. In these we were instructed to place out tithe money. Again, everyone did as they asked.
At the end of the service the pastor then went on to introduce why he really really needed our money this time. In July the church was due to go out onto the streets of Accra and hand out pamphlets about the light of the lord. I am not exactly sure why this was strictly necessary as it seems that I am the only non believer in the city and I was right in front of him. Nonetheless the congregation seemed excited and all too happy to fund it. The pastor held up a new bunch of envelopes and instructed people to come and collect them at the front before filling them at home. Donors were called up in batches. First he asked for those who would give 50 cedis (a 1/3 of a monthly wage for a low level Ghanaian office worker). A few came up to a ripple of applause and the pastor gave out the envelope, named the individual and thanked them. Later he called on those to give 20 Cedis, again the applause and the naming, then 10, then 5. By now the majority of the congregation had been to the front and been named. Just to make sure that no one had escaped, the pastor again waved his envelope and everyone followed. As the envelopes went back and forth the pastor animatedly talked about the importance of this divine mission. I looked around to see that I was the only one with my arms still folded. As he reached a crescendo a thick “Push it!” went out from behind me. Push it indeed.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Farmer Boy

I am back. Monday lunchtime and I have half a post wedding workday under my belt. Not exactly sure what I feel about it. Since I landed on Saturday night I have been in various states of excitement to see my friends, confusion of where my life is going and deep depression that I have a long stretch of work in front of me.
The wedding was amazing and it was good to see some of the old Manchester crew at Parklife Festival. It appears that sometime whilst I had been away an edict had been given in Manchester declaring that all girls, regardless of shape or size must convene on Plattfield’s Park wearing hot pants. I was treated to a two day to a jamboree of thighs and bums set to a soundtrack of drum and bass. Having been largely deprived of the site of white flesh in Ghana I couldn’t decide whether to be attracted or repulsed.
Despite the flesh fest and the copious amounts of food and alcohol consumed I have returned to Ghana refreshed but with a slightly heavy heart.
Coming out to Ghana at the end of March was not a difficult decision. I was good at my conference sales job but it was a dead end job in a dead end company. I spent much of my day speculating with Tricia about what would come first; the bankruptcy of the company or the getting together of my boss, a bleakly cynical bully, and his right hand woman who I will call “Geraldine”. Geraldine was a fairly attractive hardnosed divorcee entering into her late forties and for some reason had fallen for our bespectacled short arsed boss. They would often disappear to “business meetings” or “business lunches” at odd hours and would ensure that their hotel rooms were on a different floor to mine at international conferences.
Ghana offered me an adventure and escape from the car crash of my last job. It represented a new working environment, an escape from London’s dank and depressing weather and, I hoped, a new position would help to me launch my career.
Having been in my new position for a few months and seeing whether the grass was really greener on the other side, returning on Saturday was somewhat harder. Even the not particularly keen eyed amongst you will have noticed that I was perhaps a little dis-chuffed about my working life and the atmosphere in Accra. I had come to Accra convinced that having done a MA in Conflict, Governance and Development I should be doing something to “save the world”. I thought that an exciting life in hot and exotic locations with an NGO was for me. I thought that the human rights initiative would be a good stepping stone. Now I am not so sure about what I want to do.
The England I left in March was also a very different England to the one I left on the weekend. In March I left a spare room in my sister’s house, a morning commute, grey skies and naked trees. In June I left the farm, which even if I am not involved in agriculture will always be my spiritual home, in the bloom of summer and just on the cusp of harvest season. Harvest is and will always be my favourite time of the year. I love the smell of hot dusty air, the whirring of the combine into the evening twilight and the conversion of a year’s hard work into a saleable produce. Yet, like the past three summers I have forsaken the simple pleasures of this time of year and buggered off to Africa.
Maybe I am more of a farm boy than I realised?

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Ghana: Africa for Beginners

I fly home tonight. I will miss my friends but I am really excited to go back and have a change of pace. I am not homesick (I don’t really seem to get it too bad) I am just bored and I am looking forward to a bit of farm labour. I will be back in Ghana on the 18th of June.
One of the pull factors that drew me back to Africa was reading Six Months in Sudan by Dr James Maskaylk. It is an account of life in a hospital in Abyei run by Medicine Sans Frontiers. Especially as Abyei is back in the headlines it is a book well worth reading although the detailed accounts of surgery, death and dying are not for the squeamish. Nonetheless Maskaylk’s description of everyday life reminded me of what was so great about the other places in Africa I have been to. Africa is a diverse continent of 53 very different countries which allows a visitor to challenge themselves, question their standpoint on so many issues and experience so many surreal moments. (they often seem to take place in buses I find) I was particularly moved by a quote on the first page...

“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment…”
Joan Didion, 1975
My three other trips to Africa were so fantastic because they got me out of myself. The problem with my two months here is that I am so far within my comfort zone that I am bored. I am sat behind a desk, making up my own work and in an office which has had five western interns appear in the last two weeks. We now outnumber the domestic staff. The interns are all very nice etc, but I didn’t come here to hang out with the same people I met on my two lefty university courses back home.
Outside of the office the neighbourhoods of Osu and Labadi are inhabited by hordes of eighteen year olds on their “gap yaah”. You can spot them a mile off because they try and fail to go native; braided hair, shirts and skirts made from local fabric, lots and lots of “ethnic” jewellery and a self satisfied smile that the two grand they pay for 8 weeks working in an orphanage is “making a difference”.
I have met gap year students elsewhere I have gone but they are far more concentrated in Ghana than elsewhere. It is not hard to see why. Ghana is “Africa for beginners”; it is largely free of violent crime and ethnic and cultural divisions. In Accra you can walk the streets at night without undue concern.  

 Whilst I didn’t expect Abyei when I stepped off the plane, without wishing a mugging on myself, I can’t help feeling I need something a little more edgy! I came to Ghana to see if I am cut out for life in an NGO but also "to get the picture" about life in the region. I love Ghana but I feel I am not currently in the right place to achieve this.