Updated: Jan 11, 2021
For a few years now, Ghana has topped many lists of the most religious countries in the world with 96% of West African nation’s population staking a claim to a major religion. Christianity takes the lion’s share with about 71%, followed by Muslim with 16%. Traditional and other religions make up the rest. Christianity in Ghana includes Protestantism and Catholicism, but more dominant is the charismatic movement, which embraces the Pentecostal principles of spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, and divine healing.
Make no mistake, charismatic churches are big business in Ghana.They carry vivid names like “Great Fire Pentecostal” and are associated with stars like Bishop Bonegas above, whom I met during my last visit to Ghana in October 2016. I witnessed one of his “deliverance” services in which he cast out demons from those suffering from varieties of mental torment. These bishops, many of them reportedly millionaires, can pack a sports stadium to the rafters with devoted followers.
One of the best examples of such a powerful bishop is Dag Heward-Mills, the founder of the Lighthouse Chapel International, which includes branches in the United States. I visited his Qodesh (Hebrew for “holiness”) compound in Accra and was impressed by the physical layout. I joined one of the services in which some of the congregants were speaking in tongues.
Religion is taken very seriously in Ghana. When you call someone on your mobile, you will likely hear a religious song play before the person picks up, and if you like the song you can press * to save it to your phone. Many use a religious image (Jesus or something related) as their Whatsapp avatar and may accompany it with a declaration like, “God is my strength always.” When someone asks how you are, the customary response is, “I’m well, by His grace,” or you can just say, “By His grace” for short.
A fundamental question the novel raises is whether religion in Ghana is a guide to moral conduct and behavior in everyday life. From my perspective, the answer is largely, no. Ghana’s piety is a phenomenon in and of itself, a “carve-out” that doesn’t necessarily play a part in whether one resists corruption, dishonesty, or murder for that matter. Churchgoing, it seems, can absolve one from the seven deadly sins.
In my view, relentless piety and prayer is part of the Ghana’s penchant for begging for stuff–cash, aid, expertise, and so on–and waiting passively for it to arrive. A Ghanaian minister of parliament once quipped that the country is stagnant because the folks who should be at work are always in church. A cynical view of course, but raise the living standard and I will bet the number of congregants will decrease. When you are poor and at the mercy of your environment, the government, and the 1%, all you have left is hope and prayer. That’s why you continue to contribute your hard-earned money to the coffers of your rich, Mercedes-riding pastor.