The Akan of Ghana have a proverb which encourages us to simultaneously imagine and dissect the vicissitude of issues, circumstances or events: sɛ wo dwene papa a, dwene bone, which means “as you think of good, think of evil as well”. I apply this wisdom to reflect on one of the positive things that the coronavirus pandemic, in spite of its devastating effects, has brought to Ghana.
For the first time in recent Ghanaian history, there is a vigorous public debate that casts critical scrutiny on the practices and ideologies of some of the Pentecostal Christian churches and of their charismatic leaders.
I should be clear from the outset that I take no issue with Christianity or other religions: in times of crisis, religion is one viable way in which people can ask fundamental questions about themselves and their societies, and explore metaphysical problems about life and death that cannot be easily addressed by a scientific approach.
It is also true that many Christian churches in Ghana and elsewhere have behaved responsibly during the pandemic, readily complying with plans to move to digital means of worship to avoid the possibility of what are referred to by epidemiologists as “superspreader events” – the gathering of big crowds engaged in various intense activities, especially if in closed spaces, could rapidly escalate Covid-19 transmission.
Even after the easing of lockdown restrictions around the world, religious congregations have on the whole done their bit in implementing social distancing measures needed to contain the spread. These responsible religious communities and their leaders should be applauded, and taken as role models for others.
Unfortunately, not all Christian churches have displayed such restraint. In the US and in Brazil many evangelical churchgoers continued congregating in the middle of Covid-19 outbreaks, often defying restrictions and social distancing rules.
In Ghana, several pastors leading Pentecostal churches have come under criticism for insisting on their members sending Sunday financial contributions and their monthly tithes through online transfer. Most of these members have been hard hit by the lockdown restrictions that put many out of work in April, and will continue to be cash strapped, due to the economic crisis that is unfolding as the national and international impact of Covid-19 restrictions deepens.
A related topic of criticism is that many sense that “saving souls” has been the primary preoccupation of some pastors, rather than the more earthly need to cater for the material welfare of churchgoers and their communities.
Pastors have also been accused of not being spiritually gifted or fortified, as not one has been able to organise a successful healing crusade to cure the virus itself and those affected by it.
Some pastors have dismissed the threat of the virus altogether: Reverend Isaac Owusu Bempah said at the end of March that coronavirus would have died down before Easter, which clearly was not the case.
Before the pandemic, there was a general reluctance and dread to initiate dispassionate discussions on some charismatic leaders’ unfulfilled prophecies, financial corruption, sexual relations with church members, suspicious miracles, and the efficacy of allegedly anointed items to solve people’s problems – these objects include rock salts, handkerchiefs, face-towels, and padlocks, among others. There seemed to be a tacit acceptance that one would be committing sacrilege when one broached these matters.
In those rare cases when public criticisms were raised, one could observe a pattern in the responses: such criticisms were labelled as “demonic”; some Christian leaders would go on the offensive against the critics; the criticised leaders would dismiss the criticisms and remark the need for unquestioning support from their followers.
In 2018, when a charismatic leader of a well known church was criticised for his alleged role in the collapse of a bank of which he was the board chairman, another influential Christian leader preached in his sermon:
I heard about the situation with [the concerned pastor], I want to caution every Christian, shut your mouth…. The Bible says judge not, that you may not be judged. So shut your mouth. Stop talking about things you don’t understand. Somebody asked me “what do you think?”. I said I don't think anything, I don't understand, I don't know the details, so let the authorities handle the situation. Don't talk. you talk too much, Christians, you talk too much. Now I'm saying that to Christians. As for unbelievers and the heathens, they have the right to talk, their day will come. But for us, Christians, we are under God's constitution, we do not judge and we don't judge our own. Let the world talk and let the world judge, but you don't join the world to crucify your brother.
In such a hostile environment, how did people respond? Some influential Ghanaians like atheist intellectual Avraham Ben Moshe and actor, comedian and talk show host Kwaku Sintim-Misa have been blunt – although they were certaintly in the minority.
Moshe, for example, has openly asserted that most charismatic leaders are charlatans, and that the “anointed” items they sell in their churches are just ways to make money, as the objects carry no spiritual powers. From within the charismatic religious camp, Prophet Kofi Oduro and the late Bishop Bernard Nyarko have chastised some of their colleagues on various issues. Bishop Nyarko denounced some pastors for their penchant for prophecies that are often about the death of prominent figures.
Another avenue for criticism has been the realm of satire and parody, including skits, political cartoons, memes and caricatures which tap into the longstanding Ghanaian tradition of say the unsayable.
In 2018 Bishop Obinim made Ghanaians aware of his miraculous “Obinim stickers”. According to Obinim, when his stickers were plastered on the source of one’s problem, including one’s body, such complication would go away. Many Ghanaians responded with satirical testimonies on social media, attesting to the “efficacy” of the stickers:
She was pregnant, didn’t have money for abortion. I bought one of obinim stickers, placed it on her stomach and boom the baby vanished from her without any trace again.
Glory be to God #obinimsticker
My room was so hot even with the fan on.. But after I used obinim sticker on the fan, it works like an AC and my room is always cool…
At the time of publication (27 June 2020), Ghana has officially recorded 16,431 cases of Covid-19, with 12,257 recoveries and 103 deaths, with new cases continuing to rise daily by the hundreds. Covid-19 remains a very real threat to public health.
But one thing is clear: the disease has exposed many charismatic leaders, who have for a long time claimed to have supernatural healing powers, but whose claims were rarely put to the test before the pandemic. For many, these leaders are no longer in a position of awe, and their words and actions are not considered sacrosanct anymore.
There is no doubt that religious leaders can and should play an important role, providing an example in this difficult period that requires compliance with the necessary public health regulations, and a major state and societal effort to support those who suffer the most from the economic impacts of Covid-19 restrictions.
But when key questions about life and death, suffering and prosperity, the natural and the supernatural, are reduced to spectacles of illusory healing and false prophecies, then everybody loses, and religious communities too suffer from the bad press brought by irresponsible leaders.
Hopefully the failures of false prophets in times of Covid-19 will lead to a much more productive dialogue between responsible religious leaders and the rest of society, and between state, science and religion, with the broader common goal of societal betterment in the earthly realm, rather than illusory escapades in the supernatural in the name of “spiritual warfare”. Whatever one thinks about the afterlife, Covid-19 is of this earth, and demands to be treated accordingly.
Joseph Oduro-Frimpong is a media anthropologist and a Senior Lecturer at Ashesi University (Ghana), where he directs the newly created Centre for African Popular Culture.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.