Funerals in Ghana are large affairs – the extended family, often organized by tribe, is invited and, if the deceased subject is older (As James’ Dad was), the event is considered a celebration of his / her life, not so much a mourning. And they can be difficult to manage. James’ Dad had migrated with his family to the Cape Coast area from Northern Nigeria and were dirt poor. He worked hard, went to college and became a minister. As best as I could tell – this from trying to understand a sibling’s comments through a loud sound system, had settled as a seminary teacher and continued to do this up until a few years ago.
The Seed staff – about 12 of us – bundled into a large van stocked with cold water and snacks with air conditioning that worked (Thank you!) and headed down the highway to Cape Coast, about 150 kilometres (90 miles) and 2.5 – 3.5 hours West of Accra, depending on traffic.
The road starts on a recessed, very modern freeway that is disconcertingly clear and fast, continues onto a tollway that seems more rough and tumble, with hawkers, schools of packed, well weathered tro tros (minibuses), large trucks and lots of automobiles. Commerce is active on both side roads and this bleeds onto the main highway at the occasional stoplight with women selling cool drinks, boiled eggs, snacks and other miscellaneous material – one man with a wall sized laminated map of Ghana on display, waving it furiously at passers by (Who knows when you’ll need a map just like this for your study?).
Signage for new luxury condos for sales, agricultural supplies, various products and services, most with a distinct gospel cast. Spiritual rallies are a common event here and well advertised with handsome looking, well dressed men and women – the preachers – featured on multi story banners. Some of my favorite signs:
- Dr. Jesus Prayer and Healing MInistry
- God, the Eye of the World Ministries
- God’s Will Welding
- Yes Lord Metal Works
- God is King Special Pork
- Who Knows Car Repair
The last one is the most existential question I’ve heard relating to automotive upkeep.
One sign stands out with a large black and white photo of a rather burly and rough looking fellow artfully swaddled in a turban and loose cloak letting us know that “Your Messiah Has Come” and inviting readers to follow.
As the road continues to the funeral location, it gets gradually narrower and less well maintained, passing through dusty villages with rambly collections of buildings with rusted corrugated metal roofs whose color matches the red brown soil, gaggles of children here and there, pedestrians walking down the road with loads of firewood on their heads, shops and sheds clustering closely along the road made in clapboard style with rough hewn planks. One is carefully painted an ethereal shade of pink. Women with babies strapped to their backs and young children following behind. Thatched shacks selling pineapples, cassava, manioc, corn. Coconut palms, bananas, a small hand tilled field of cassava, another of corn, still another of yams. No industrial agriculture here. What may be rubber trees, tall and spindly with greyish bark, all lined up in neat rows.
Potholes increase in frequency and every now and then one metastasizes, taking over the road which becomes a bumpy stretch of red earth, with ragged tongues of asphalt punctuating its beginning and end. Our driver expertly weaves between them avoiding damage to our suspension and hitting oncoming traffic. A hand painted sign for fresh bush meat for sale – we’re in the countryside now. Bush meat (wildlife caught, killed and dressed for sale) is a vector for diseases like Sars, Covid-19 and Ebola.
Here and there, loose crews of locals – often children – are at work filling potholes and signalling to drivers to run over them to compact the newly added earth. Improbably, a man in a wheelchair wielding a shovel is hard at work.
A couple of men selling sweet coconuts under the shade of a large tree, small shops made out of shipping containers. Neatly constructed sheds selling lottery tickets with winning numbers carefully written in chalk on their fronts. Satellite dishes tacked up here and there on tin roofs.
We arrive at The Jubilee Temple, Musama Disco Christo Church – a large, warehouse-like structure with sides opening onto the street and tin roof – where the service is in full swing. We take our seats with few hundred other participants – all dressed in black and white – and settle in to a sermon in Fanti (A dialect related to Ashanti) delivered by a purple cassocked minister that is sprinkled with English almost as if to give non locals a chance to follow along. There is a full blown choir with robes that would match anything seen in America and a uniformed crowd of musicians that, when they let loose on their instruments, remind me of a high school marching band. Some women and girls all in white with kerchiefs covering their heads.
In the full on heat folks are fanning themselves, several offerings are called, in which congregants line up to deposit their contribution a large box, dancing gently to tunes kicked out by the high school band, the choir and, best of all a duo playing the congas and hammond B3 organ.
James’ father’s casket is on display at the church entrance directly off the road, decorated nicely with bouquets of plastic flowers.
The service winds down in a natural organic manner – folks are up milling about, chatting with their friends. The organist continues to play. The casket is loaded into a very modern looking hearse and taken to the cemetery. We climb into our van and drive about an hour back to the place where James and his family have put on a reception.
We sit at tables and are served drinks and food – Jollof Rice, fried plantains, soup, roast chicken, fried whole fish. The tables in the shade and there is a steady breeze blowing making it quite pleasant. All with a live band playing super enjoyable Highlife music, two singers, two keyboardists, a drummer and a base player. We dance – this is not optional – and pay our respects to James and his family. It all feels very gentle and celebratory – like a wedding reception back home without the bridal angst.
Things wrap up promptly – it seems to be understood that no one hangs around ordering drinks from the bar after the bride and groom have left – and we pile into our van for a 2 hour drive back to the city, in traffic that is heavy and slow.
Prosperity Theology, a quintessentially American creation, has had a strong influence here in West Africa, through the Pentecostal church (Not all Pentecostals ascribe to this doctrine.). The doctrine, which came to prominence during healing revivals in the ’50s, implies that prosperity is a contract between man and God and if man has faith he will be rewarded with material prosperity, it is his due. That would be wealth. Cabbage. Benjamins. Part of having faith is giving generously to the preacher in question. Proponents of the idea include the following:
two of whom – Benny Hinn and Creflo Dollar – have petitioned their followers for donations so they can buy Gulfstream jets to make their global ministries more efficient.
Prosperity theology’s foundations are quintessentially American – one need look no further than Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth or Dale Carnegie’s Power of Positive Thinking – to see how baked into American consciousness the idea that wealth, affluence is your due if you have the right attitude and work hard. And the message appeals to something in our core – we want to know that we have a way to tip things in our favor. Beat the slot machine. Win at cards. Buy that winning lottery ticket.
You can see this message’s appeal in emerging markets: when that American preacher shows up to tell you how you can get right with God and start living the good life, he is consuming at a level that you cannot even begin to imagine. It would be like Jeff Bezos inviting you over for a BBQ and making it clear “All this could be yours” if you would only get with the program. With free two day shipping of course.
To be fair, Prosperity Theology has its critics throughout the Christian community, including folks in the Pentecostal fold. Much of Christianity sees faith as struggle for justice, an acknowledgement of the difficulty of life, our brokenness and need for healing. A relationship with God as an anchor in difficult times. And, major world religions do generally promise some salve, some blessing for following God but rarely in quite such a transactional manner as that on offer with Prosperity Theology.