Updated: Jan 11, 2021
On Tuesday August 29, 2017, my fifth Detective Chief Inspector Darko Dawson novel will go on sale. It’s called DEATH BY HIS GRACE, and like the other books in the detective series, it’s set in Ghana, my birthplace.
If the fourth novel, GOLD OF OUR FATHERS, took Darko far from home, this one comes too close. Darko’s wife, Christine, is Katherine’s first cousin. So, as Darko wrestles with the case, family members inject their emotions and opinions into the investigation, including and especially Darko’s consistently annoying mother-in-law, Gifty.
DEATH BY HIS GRACE is based in part on the real-life events of a Ghanaian friend of mine. The story has three major components: first, the ostensibly fairytale marriage of accountant Katherine Yeboah to lawyer Solomon Vanderpuye; second, religion, which plays a major role in the life of Ghanaians; and, third, of course, murder. Can’t write a murder mystery without a murder.
In Ghana, fertility is very important, and having children in a marriage is the norm. In the West, we generally don’t disapprove if a married couple chooses not to have children, but Ghanaians would regard that negatively and an infertile woman would fall under suspicion. I say suspicion because one of the reasons some Ghanaians give for a woman being unable to bear a child is that she has been cursed by a witch (or someone else), or that the woman herself is the witch. One theory goes something like this: at night, the woman’s “witch form,” I guess you could call it, removes the fetus from the uterus and takes it to her coven of fellow witches, who join her in devouring her baby. I know—not a pleasant visual in the least. Incredible as it may seem, belief in witchcraft is still alive and well in Ghana, including among educated people.
If the marriage of Katherine and Solomon is front and center in the novel, the backdrop is religion. In 2013, a WIN-Gallup poll found Ghana to be the most religious country in the world. Not one of the most; the most. The poll used something called the “religiosity index,” defined as, “the percentage of the population who self-describe themselves as ‘a religious person’ in the following question: Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person or a convinced atheist?”
Mega-church in Accra
In Ghana, religiosity is everywhere. Some people go to church not just once a week on Sundays, but on one or two weekdays in addition. These may not be brief services either. They can be up to four hours of worship. If you are imagining small, humble churches, yes, there certainly are those, but Ghana also has a mammoth Pentecostal movement that involves mega-churches of the kind seen in the United States—huge structures that can seat the thousands flocking to their revered evangelist. Prayer vigils and so-called deliverance services take place in large venues like sports stadia and the Independence Square in Accra. The most famous and prosperous evangelist religious leaders, like Bishop Dag Heward-Mills, who also has churches in the US, are able to pack these audiences in as well as any music celebrity. Although religiosity spans the different levels of society, anyone going to these events will be struck by how many poor people attend. I think this correlates closely with the global findings of the Gallup poll.
On a daily basis, Ghanaians don’t fail to remind you of their belief in God. When you say to someone, “Hello, how are you?” you’re likely to get the response, “By His grace,” which is shorthand for, “By God’s grace, I’m well,” or nowadays with socio-economic circumstances in Ghana so tough, you also hear, “By God’s grace, we’re managing.” Someone once quipped that Ghana has a lot of managers.
I borrowed this ubiquitous Ghanaian phrase, “by His grace,” for my book title, DEATH BY HIS GRACE. I’ve thought a lot about what the title means. It could be asking: while God’s grace bestows good fortune on some, did He forget to protect others, like the perfectly decent, upstanding, and churchgoing Katherine Vanderpuye, who suffered an awful murder? A fundamental issue is whether a so-called man of God can be under the same level of suspicion of murder as an outright sinner. DCI Darko Dawson apparently thinks so, much to the dismay of some of his family members.
During my research in Ghana for DEATH BY HIS GRACE, I went to religious services held by these prominent men of God. These events can be quite spectacular; particularly the deliverance services in which healing of the sick and casting out of demons take place. Also, speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, is characteristic of the Pentecostal and so-called charismatic churches.
The casting out of demons can be extraordinarily violent and creepy. A person may writhe around on the ground screaming and sweating while a pastor yells at them in order to expel the demons. One girl in a church setting was worked on for more than an hour straight and the bishops trying to exorcise her had to take a break because they were so exhausted. At a service I attended run by a bishop called Bonegas, there was a mother with her infant who suffered from epilepsy. The story was that the mother’s sister, presumably out of jealousy or hatred, had cursed the child. So mom came to Bishop Bonegas with her baby to have the demons cast out.
Bonegas billboard (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
So, why all this piety with poverty in Ghana and other countries like it? Is it belief for the sake of belief? Is it that the charismatic faiths hold out the promise that God in His wisdom and at some point of His choosing, will bestow blessings and financial success on the worshipper? I don’t have all the answers, but that’s part of the reason I wrote the book. Writing a story with a backdrop I don’t fully understand is a way to explore it through the lens of murder, and that always renders it more intense.