Liberia’s coastal town of Buchanan is home to a lively Ghanaian fishing community known as Fanti Town, named after the region and its people in southern Ghana. Sharing Christianity and the English language makes them a compatible mix with the locals. It should be pointed out that although these immigrants generally understand Liberian Krio (as in creole form of language) English, to us it may as well originate from Planet Zogblax 3 in the Acturian Nebula. What may seem reasonably logical when read in a Krio dictionary is another thing entirely when subjected to the consonant mangling Liberian accent and a smattering of indigenous language words. One hundred and twenty-five, for example comes out as something like, hun reh twair fie.
Ghanaians tend not to practice Christianity quietly, so it was hardly by accident that I discovered the Church of New Jerusalem, having heard the music and singing half a mile off. The word church probably doesn’t quite give the right impression as it could more accurately be described as a load of tarpaulins stretched over some wooden poles, with a stage at one end and benches for the congregation at the other. Not that anyone was sitting down mind you, if this was a gig it was rockin! (younger readers may like to substitute a more current phrase here but at my age it’s no use pretending to be down with the kids man/daddy-o etc) Two young mc’s, though I suspect that is not what the church calls them, were belting out call and response lines to sing along to for a mass of dancing and arm waving women, decked out in their radiant Sunday best, while a group of kids hammered out wild, off beat percussion over a solid drum rhythm and soaring, jubilant organ tunes. This was no charitable, “let’s give the nice children a go at the music” effort, it was a band honed through hours of hard work playing several times a week at every service.
The beaming smiles of all the ladies were a joy to behold. There was no fake, hysterical spirituality or over-blown praises to the Almighty, simply a wonderous celebration of the moment. If it wasn’t for all my formative years of cynical atheism I could have converted on the spot.
It was probably a good thing that I didn’t see The Light there and then as the following portion of the service took a more unsettling turn. As much was spoken in an accented English over a lousy PA the precise details could be open to interpretation but after asking some questions of a local I am confident enough to relate the following.
A pastor stood with a collection box set on a pedestal in front of him and called upon a selection of children to be led out by their mothers from the crowd and grouped beside him. These were then used as some form of emotional collateral in a form of reverse bidding process for donations, which by all accounts went to him and not to any unspecified poor people. Starting with high bids, which gave the wealthy or those foolish enough to want to give that impression, the opportunity to flaunt it. Be under no illusions as to the wealth of those in Fanti town, although some fisherman make a good living it is a village composed predominantly of driftwood shacks and rusty, corrugated iron roofed, muddy hovels. The “bids” gradually decreased, with lots of spiritual hard sell along the way, putting ever more pressure upon those least able to donate. The expression, “appearances are everything” need not be taken absolutely literally in West Africa but they are certainly important and I don’t doubt there was some uneasy fidgeting on the benches.
It didn’t only seem to be me who felt all this was somewhat incongruous as the process was cut short by a lady seated with the other priests, who started up a rousing spiritual that required everyone’s participation. Maybe he was a guest preacher and out of character for the church but an obsession with money has crept into some forms of West African Christianity. This is particularly true of Nigeria where some priests refer to themselves as prophets, flout their wealth and preach that God can make you rich. To these people I say, “have you actually read the Bible”? You hardly need to be an expert in scripture in to know this was not the kind of message that Jesus is known for. Here endeth the first lesson. Amen