Whenever you do, my most well used responses are; “God helps those who help themselves”, “Jesus Christ did not want us to PRAY TO HIM all the time, he wanted us to BE LIKE HIM all the time”, “God's gift to you is your life; your gift back to God is what you do with it” and, borrowing from your own proverbs, “If you want to say something to God, say it to the wind.” The brainwashed congregations who do nothing but spend hours, and sometimes days, praying for physical health and financial wealth usually don't understand my answer. Being more of a spiritualist than a materialist, I generally turn down the offer when I am called away from my private meditations and told “Kwaku, yenko asore!” I know this is very disappointing for all those of you who really want to show off your new white friend to your pastor, so allow me to explain my refusal.
Even when I have accepted church invitations in the past, it hasn't always led to a positive experience. I clearly remember my very first church experience in Ghana. I had only been in the country for two weeks, still chewed my fufu, hadn't perfected the foot-shuffling, buttock-protruding, handkerchief-waving church dance, and couldn't yet understand Twi (which the whole service was held in). Nobody was translating for me, so there I sat for four hours in a bewildering new environment, lost in a sea of vernacular. The telling moment came when the collection pot came around. Only then did the announcer see fit to switch to English. They were happy to let God's words slip by untranslated, but made sure I knew when it was time to put my hand in my pocket. I left there with the question I still ask myself: do these churches exist for religious purposes, or financial purposes? One of my white brothers recently told me a similar, yet far more shocking story. A certain azar pastor fooled his flock by telling them to bring out their cash so that he could sanctify it for them and make it magically multiply in the future. His killer business strategy was revealed when he convinced the people to leave all their money in his blessing plate. After all, it had now been blessed and would return to them a hundredfold, so they shouldn't worry. Open any newspaper and you'll be reminded of how close to Lucifer some of our Christian pastors are. Last time I read the Bible, it didn't say anything about impregnating your own daughter, defiling the choirgirls and buying BMWs with church funds. From what I see, our Christian churches here are little more than dens of depravity and delusion. At least the churches I see in Europe and America offer some succour to the afflicted, by opening free 'soup kitchens' and offering a place for the homeless to lay their heads. These massive Ghanaian churches, meanwhile, stay empty and padlocked while the vulnerable kayayo girls and mental patients sleep on the pavements with the mosquitoes, rainstorms and rapists.
Anyway, how can a Ghanaian ask an Englishman if he goes to church? It's like an Englishman asking a Ghanaian if he knows how to eat fufu. Isn't it my people who brought the Bible and Africa's first Christian churches to your people while they were still worshipping rocks and rivers, performing human sacrifices, wearing magical amulets and praying to gods with a small g? It's only through the perspiration and malaria-fuelled deaths of generations of dedicated European missionaries that Christianity has been able to penetrate the Dark Continent. These were the first foreigners who, after over 400 years of European pillage and plunder, wanted to provide something for you, not take something from you. Before the “White Fathers” came along, your country had no churches, schools, clinics, written language, or bicycles. Or do you think that the Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches, with their attached schools, are African inventions? Anyone who has graduated from Akropong, Amedzopfe or Aburi Training Colleges owes a debt of gratitude to the missionaries for building these mountaintop establishments. Any Ghanaian who has sworn on the Bible, celebrated Christmas, or hung a cross in their homes couldn't have been able to do so if these 19th century missionaries had stayed in Europe. We brought the churches and Bible; you added the noise pollution and the falling on the floor. But when we brought the Bible, were we doing you a service or a disservice?
Study their history, and you will find that these Christian missionaries were definitely not the angels they made themselves out to be, and that their supposed philanthropic intentions deserve to be questioned. My dead best friend, Walter Rodney, will surely forgive my paraphrasing of his enlightened words:
“There is no doubting the fact that these missionaries were agents of colonialism, whether or not they saw themselves in that light. They equated African ancestral beliefs with the devil (who was black anyway) and saw them as mere witchcraft and magic, rather than religion.”
One of the earliest missionaries to come to the Gold Coast, Reverend Thomas Thompson, set his stall out by teaching the whole world about the “false worship…absurd notions…and idolatrous and superstitious lives” of the “primitive” Africans. He amazingly tried to argue that (his) God agreed with and accepted the slave trade, in his 1778 publication, “The African Trade for Negro Slaves Shown to be Consistent with the Principles of Humanity and the Laws of Revealed Religion”. Even the most famous missionary of all, Dr. David Livingstone, I presume, wasn't only interested in spreading religion to you, but also making money from you. That's why he admitted that his explorations weren't just for the sake of spreading Christianity, but rather for “Christianity AND Commerce.” It's currently being revealed that the Catholic Church is little more than a worldwide paedophile club- I bet their Fathers have loved coming here over the centuries and seeing all the naked, obliging African children running about. Like most Europeans, these people came here for colonisation, exploitation and fornication. They must have been rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect being able to exchange a few Bibles, crosses and candles for so many diamonds, gold nuggets, slaves, sex slaves and shiploads of prime timber. They seem to have forgotten what the Bible says as soon as they brought it here. But, despite all this wickedness and deceit, their churches have proliferated in Ghana, with very little of the old beliefs surviving. Is it another result of the 'potato and plantain' conundrum? Was the Bible accepted here because, just like mirrors, beads and metal pots, it was something new and shiny from 'aborokyire', and because your people have been brainwashed to believe that everything from overseas is always more desirable than anything available locally? I often wonder how Christianity has taken such a massive hold in Africa, at the expense of deep-rooted and widely followed traditional religions. I'm also very interested in the practices and beliefs of traditional West African religion before the white missionaries came. Were your ancestors living like savage heathens lost in a void of Godlessness? Did they have no sense of spiritualism and awe for the natural world? Had they never considered questions like “Where am I from?”, “Who made me?” and “What is my purpose?” The answer, of course, is that the idea of a Supreme Creator God is native to Africa, and not a foreign import, and that religion was in Africans' blood for millennia before the arrival of the Bible on these shores. The early seafarers sent home stories of primitive cannibals who needed to have their souls saved through regime change, religious instruction and 'Westernisation'. They made sure that they invented a new derogatory language to describe the poor Negro “pagans” and “animists” who were practising “fetishism” and “ancestor worship”. All these were terms coined by racist and blinkered Europeans who failed to mention that religious beliefs had been extensively honed and practised in Africa prior to the Testaments even being written. Before West Africans were force-fed the Bible, local names showing a belief in and the uniqueness and supremacy of God were widespread. Translated, these names for Onyame go much deeper and are more colourful than anything you'll find in the King James version: “The one who you meet everywhere”; “He who is there now as from ancient times”; “The King who lives in the sky and his clothes touch and roll on the ground”; and, my personal favourite, “The plantain leaf large enough to shelter the entire world”. I'm one of the few white men who actually takes these ancient beliefs seriously, whilst doubting the continental acceptance of a new, revealed religion which actually promotes racism, slavery and murder (does nobody else see the connection between the Crusades of the 11th Century and modern day terrorism?). The long-dead Englishman, R.S. Rattray, among others, also writes with a great empathy for African traditional religion, stating that it was “Something which I felt to have been already very old, before the religion of my country had yet been born as a new thought…even its roots stretched back and were fed from the same stream which still flows from Ashanti today.”
I strongly believe that the ancient powers Rattray talks about are still with us, even if most of you have forsaken them and joined the God Squad. I've been to churches in Ghana and felt no inspiration or spiritual uplifting, only a lightening of my wallet and a severe earache. I've also been sitting meditating by myself in the forests, on the mountaintops and by the riversides, and felt closer to The Creator than ever before. I'll go so far as to say I've even had the impression that the abosom are talking to me (and I don't think it's only because of what I'm smoking while I'm sitting there). Do you think I'm talking a load of bollocks? If so, then you must also claim that all the beliefs, traditions and rituals of your ancestors are a load of bollocks too, and few Ghanaians are prepared to say that. It is the ancient traditional religion, with its guiding tenets of protection of the environment, taboo practices, adherence to the law, respect for personal relationships, and peace, which seems much more attractive and conscious to me than a modern Christian religion which allows warmongering, human bondage, gay marriages, materialism and littering. For the happy-clappers and Bible-bashers who refuse to admit that these ancient traditions constitute a religion, I quote the 60-year old words of Mbonu Ojike:
“If religion consists in deifying one character and crusading around the world to make him acceptable to all mankind, then the African has no religion. But if religion means doing, rather than talking, then the African has a religion.”
The ancient religions taught Africans how to live; Christianity seems to have only taught them how to make noise and pray for financial blessings. One misty morning, when I was high in the mountain, God told me He's become tired of listening to all the prayers of money-conscious Ghanaians. Why are you still begging for riches when He's already answered all of your prayers thousands of years ago? What more do you want Him to do for you? He's created for you a land full of foods, teeming rivers and ocean, fertile soil, 80 percent of the world's natural resources and precious minerals, a “Tree of God” with a hundred different uses, and abundant sunshine and rainfall. You lucky buggers- what more do you need? Why do you need money on top of all these blessings? And have you ever read the Bible? You don't even have to get past the first chapter before learning that He charged you to have dominion over all His creations, not sit down pleading for more while the white man comes and takes it all.
In fact, God has blessed Africa so richly that some people are blaming the slow pace of the continent's development on these very blessings. They argue that anybody who has an accessible abundance of natural resources, foods, water, building materials, medicines and alcohol in their environment will never strive to invent or develop anything more advanced, because they don't have to. Why should the African care about building concrete edifices, developing communications infrastructure, or using satellite technology, when he has everything he needs already? If your wine comes straight from a tree, your meat is running around the compound for free, and your soil is so fertile that you just need to spit watermelon seeds onto your garden to make a watermelon farm, then why would you bother breaking into a sweat and inventing distilleries, supermarket chains and tractors? The European, on the other hand, wasn't so blessed by God, and found himself stuck on some meagre, freezing piece of rock with no mangoes to pluck, no guinea-fowl to slaughter, and no gold to sell. He was forced to invent clothes factories, indoor heating and nitrogenous fertiliser. If not, he would still be dressing in animal skins, living in caves and eating turnip soup every day. So, the African, happy with his lot and able to obtain all life's necessities without straying too far from his hammock, had no need for material development. The obroni, on the other hand, if he didn't want to die in childhood, had to force to develop his environment and invent new technologies. So ingrained are these different mentalities and attitudes towards development, that it has been suggested that if all the Americans came to live in Ghana, and all the Ghanaians went to live in America, then both countries would change irrevocably. Within twenty years, the Americans would have developed Ghana so much that they would want to make it their permanent home, and the Ghanaians would have made America so dirty and badly-maintained that the Americans would never want to go back there.
It wasn't until I arrived in Africa that I came across the term “God-fearing”, heard everywhere, from the pastors' sermons and church notices to the tro-tro inscriptions and internet dating sites. Is God meant to be some frightening, fiery, fearsome fiend, ready at the drop of a hat to devour me or strike me down with furious vengeance? I thought that was the Devil. I prefer the term “God-loving”. I love God, I don't fear Him. And I know He loves me: He wouldn't have made me, given me a working brain, and sent me to live in beautiful Ghana if He didn't. If Ghanaians really do fear God, don't you also fear invoking His wrath by your misuse of His blessings? Don't you think that He might appreciate from you a little less praying and a little more doing? On top of that, I'm sure Jesus would appreciate it if you stopped painting him as a white man in all your pictures. And there are obviously very few people left who have faith in, or fear of, the abosom. Otherwise we wouldn't be destroying their enchanted natural environments by chopping down all the trees, encouraging soil erosion, and filling the rivers with mercury. Just don't say I didn't warn you when the sea deity punishes you with an oil slick larger than the Gulf of Mexico, in return for all the shit and plastic bags you've been dumping in there. And the drilling companies only spend billions of dollars to clean it up when it affects the Americans; they won't give a fuck when Ghana's beaches become the same colour as its people.
Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps all these people taking time off work to go and speak in tongues and drop their pure water sachets in Achimota forest will have their souls saved when 'Atemuda” arrives, and I'll go straight to hell for writing such a blasphemous article. (I just hope it's Ghana hell, where there's no electricity for the electric chair, the nails for the bed of nails have been stolen, the gas for the eternal fires is finished, and the Ghanaian devil never turns up for work because he used to be a civil servant.) Perhaps I should go and join the foot-stampers and fist-clenchers in the church next door to help them repeatedly shout “IN THE NAME OF JESUS!” a little bit louder, instead of turning up the reggae and reading my history books. Or maybe I just want to live a good life now and do what I can in this world, instead of waiting in the mud and dirty, potholed streets for my turn to enter paradise. Should we spend our whole lives praying to God for salvation in Heaven, or should we look to our own amazing brains and able bodies to help us in our pursuit of happiness on Earth? Every human being needs faith and a moral code of conduct, but do we really need all-night church services and fourteen days of prayer and fasting to achieve it? Like the rest of the good people of Ghana, I follow nine of the Ten Commandments, but I don't feel the need to dress up and go and advertise it at full volume every Sunday morning. I recognise the value of life, and the duty I have in this world, rather than waiting and praying for the riches and paradise of the next world.
I'm sure that by now, somebody reading this over your shoulder has told you: “Obroni wei abodam, memfi no, wate?”, so let's end with someone you do take seriously, and think about what Bob meant when he sang:
“Preacher man don't tell me, heaven is under the earth. I know you don't know what life is really worth. Most people think, Great God will come from the sky, take away everything and make everybody feel high. But if you know what life is worth, you would look for yours on Earth.”
So now you see the light, are you gonna stand up for your rights?
Ian Utley is the author of
“Culture Smart! Ghana, the essential Guide to Customs and Culture”