Pastor Serwaa knew two journalists were coming to interview her. God told her before Kizito Abagoami, a Diamond FM reporter, and I arrived.
Sitting in a plastic chair under the shade of an awning, Serwaa looks middle-aged and is dressed plainly in a white gown resembling a nighty. She granted us an interview, which was, to our minds, unannounced. She opens our chat with a quick prayer, and offers us seats in the massive warehouse she calls her church. It’s gilded in gold and silver-coloured metal and can seat around three hundred people. The money to build the church, she says, came from God.
She barely smiles or frowns during our discussion, keeping her face tight and focused when asked questions. Though she speaks English, she answers in her native Twi, the language spoken mostly in southern Ghana. She seems quietly testy during our interview, and midway through she leaves to find a moustachioed policeman, an elder at the church, to oversee the talk.
She’s been working with God for nine years, she says, but it was four years ago that he told her to open this church. He did it in his typically cryptic fashion. He sent her five phone numbers and one of them belonged to the chief of a village on the outskirts of Tamale, the biggest city in Ghana’s north. She jumped on the miracle and soon opened her church right here in the middle of fertile farmland.
Serwaa’s specialty as spiritual leader is healing, though, she admits, the advice often relayed to her from God is to send the sick person to the hospital. She offers two photos of a young woman in a yellow dress. The earlier one has the woman on crutches. The second one has the woman standing upright. She only took three weeks to heal, says Serwaa. The photos (same dress, same place, same time of day) look like they were taken within minutes of each other.
Next she hands us a photo of a woman with a basketball-sized pus-riddled growth on her behind. She passes us the photo without flinching, like it couldn’t possibly be one of the most grotesque things we’ve ever seen. We’re told this woman was also cured at this church, but she was too shy to take any post-healing shots, says Serwaa. Too bad, it would have made great proof.
These patients, or victims, depending on how you look at it, are just strangers to Kizito and I. Our ultimate goal is to speak to a real-live person who could provide a better idea of how Serwaa works. He’s an old friend, 20-year-old Moses Attim, the shy but pleasant former technical assistant for Kizito’s video production company.
When Moses appears in the doorway of the church, he smiles as if it were old times. But his appearance quickly becomes unsettling. He’s wearing a red shirt and slacks, but on his wrist is a dog chain. The loose end is slung around his neck. In his hand he’s carrying a frayed copy of the Bible that has been violently scribbled with a blue pen.
If you can’t already tell, Moses doesn’t suffer from growths or broken ankles. In May this year, it was his brain that began to break up. He started hearing voices and seeing hallucinations.
Sitting on a bench in his fenced-in compound, Moses mumbles his replies to our questions. He was always introverted, but now he can barely say anything in a strong voice unless it has to do with praising God and Christianity.
When Moses began experiencing schizophrenia-like symptoms, his father only waited a week before deciding the pharmaceutical drugs from the psychiatric hospital weren’t helping his son. So he sent him to Serwaa who now guides him through prayers, Bible readings and counselling.
And then there’s the chains. The shocking, cheap-looking chains are wrapped around the wrist of a young man who seemed so normal just a few months ago. Seeing them is not like stepping back in time or in another culture, it’s like stepping into another world, Serwaa’s world.
Moses says the chains are usually tied to something in his room and they’re there to keep him from running away. Serwaa also used to put one on his ankle but he took it off.
He told us he wished the chain on his wrist was off, but he later reneged.
“I feel if (the chain) is here, I will be healed,” he says. “So I feel I should not remove it until the Lord moves to remove it. That is what (Serwaa) is saying herself.”
As Moses walked us around the compound and finally toward Kizito’s motorbike, he carried his chain and his molested Bible along with him everywhere. With a broken mind and a family that didn’t see anything wrong with his treatment, Moses could be here for a long time.
As we shook hands one last time, Moses left me with that haunting smile once again – the one that pretends like it were old times, looking like he’d forgot where he was and what brought him here.