Tag Archives: religion

A Good Friday lesson

I started my Good Friday with an early trip to Lumley Beach in Freetown. I ran a wavy line along the soft, white sand, dodging the waves as they lapped up to my feet. Then I cooled-down with a quick swim in the Atlantic. There was no one else in the sea for maybe two kilometres in either direction. Not a bad start to the day.

As I made my way home, I saw what I thought was a child lying in a ditch. On closer inspection, it was just a pair of trousers, stuffed with rags.

Freetown children surround an effigy of Judas

Freetown children surround an effigy of Judas

Then, just before I got to my house, I saw the same thing. This time a complete stuffed dummy, the size of a ten-year-old kid, lying the street. A disturbing sight in a country with a recent history like that of Sierra Leone.

The civil war here in 1990s started as an offshoot to the conflict in Liberia. It descended into pure chaos, with a number of coups and mindless, unspeakable violence, funded by blood diamonds. Everyone here, apart from children, can still remember the war.

While stuck in traffic a few weeks ago, I asked my taxi driver Masa about his experience of the war. “No one knew why they were fighting. They were just fighting,” he said. Masa is normally softly spoken, but his voice rose gradually, as he talked about that time. “For what? For what?” he shouted. 

Masa remembered a close call when a soldier demanded him to account for himself. There was no way to tell who was a rebel and who was not. Soldiers were nervous and trigger-happy. If you couldn’t prove you were not a rebel, you could be shot dead in the street. His religion made no difference to the solider, for bad or for good. A Muslim soldier would kill a Muslim rebel as quickly as he’d kill a Christian rebel.

By the end of the conflict, tens of thousands had died. Thousands more were maimed, raped or traumatised. The war had no religious favourites. 

As I stood over the dummy on my street, the local kids came running towards me. “Hey, Mister Red, Mister Red!” (I always introduce myself as Red, but that is how everyone addresses me in the neighbourhood). I asked them what was going on. “It’s Judas Iscariot. The bad man,” they said.

It’s a Good Friday tradition here for kids to place a Judas effigy in the street, and ask for some money. Their Judas had a lime cooler/alco-pop between his legs. Bad Judas indeed, I thought. I gave them 1,600 Leones (40¢).

Passers-by give the kids a few Leones for their Judas-dummy-making skills

Passers-by give the kids a few Leones for their Judas-dummy-making skills

When I was done I noticed the eldest kid had a fresh scar on his temple – a right of passage for adolescents in certain tribes, meaning he is probably a Muslim. He told me all of the kids here are Muslims.

An older man was watching us and corrected him. “This child is Christian,” he said. The others didn’t know, or didn’t care. Happy to involve their Christian buddy in their peacetime tradition.

The school chaplain, mathematics teacher, and some science students of Prempeh College.

No faith in science: a Homo sapien rights issue?

Evolution is accepted by 97 percent of scientists in the United States but by only 61 percent of the public, according to the Pew Research Center. A 2011 poll approximates that 14 percent of Canadians think that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. In 2007, The Council of Europe adopted a resolution on the dangers of creationism: it “is worried about the possible ill-effect of the spread of creationist ideas within our education systems and about the consequences for our democracies. If we are not careful, creationism could become a threat to human rights.”

Africa is noticeably not playing a huge role in this discussion.

Ghana Education Services includes basic evolution in its biology syllabus for senior high schools. However, there is sparse data on public opinion.

Information from other countries indicates males with higher levels of education are the demographic most likely to accept evolution. With this in mind, I headed to Prempeh College, a prestigious all-boys school in Kumasi: they have produced the highest number of doctors in Ghana. Alumni include prominent professors, engineers, politicians and former President Kufuor.

The school chaplain, some science students and a mathematics teacher at Prempeh College.

“Everybody has the right to acquire whatever knowledge [they desire]… it makes the students more dynamic, having received from the religious point of view and then learned from the secular point of view, then the student can make an informed decision,” said Reverend Adomako, the school chaplain and government teacher.

Admittedly surprised by his liberal stance, I proposed a scenario to him: what if one of his students rejected Christian creationism?

“Me, as a minister who knows the right thing, I must use whatever knowledge which I have in order to convince student to change their mind… with reason. So it is up to me to prove that his or her view on that subject is wrong.”

Despite his firm belief in the Bible, he supports teaching both evolution and creationism. Eugene, 18, a hopeful surgeon, disagrees.

“We should be learning only creationism, because there’s only one truth. You can’t blend the two together.”

“I don’t think we’ll be able to answer the evolution question. Evolution is in contrast to what the Bible teaches: it says nothing was created out of love, but by chance,” added Richie, 18.

I raised the possibility that God created the mechanism of evolution, an idea that is increasingly popular in the West.

“The Christians who are embracing evolution… they’re getting it all wrong. They don’t know their Bible very well… if they want, we the Africans can teach the Bible to them,” offered John Danquah, a mathematics teacher.

“According to the Big Bang theory, the universe started at a mathematical point. That is nonsense… The Bible makes it clear it was God who created heaven and earth – science will never have any explanation for that,” he continued.

The conversation kept returning to the limits of science. Even if the origin of the earth is not known in full detail, is it possible for science to uncover it?

“It’s impossible. If it becomes possible for them to find out, they are getting to spirits, and science does not deal with spirit matters,” said Emmanuel, 17, aspiring engineer. “I believe religion more than science.”

As I interviewed the students, the Reverend and Danquah both made it clear that my efforts were futile because all the students agree with them.

They had a point, to some degree: approximately 63 percent of Ghanaians are Christian, and most Muslims believe in creationism as well. It is taught in Sunday schools, primary schools, and junior high schools. Most people I spoke with at Prempeh College gave me identical responses. Who would disagree with something so widely accepted as truth?

Manu, 18, an aspiring astrophysicist.

“I’ve learned that the world came into being through particles coming together and human beings evolving from unicellular organisms and progressing further to become who we are now… I do believe it. With evolution, we are able to learn more about living organisms.”

Like most devout Christians in the world, most Ghanaians believe in creationism. However, such a belief is an anomaly within the international scientific community, and it could be an indictment on the future of the nation’s scientific progress – it doesn’t have to be, Manu insists.

“Science and religion are not enemies. There are just some things that science is slow to understand, so religion [helps us] wait. Be patient, get knowledge, understand things.”

Matilda sitting outside the Hare Krishna temple in Emina, Kumasi.

Searching for the man with biscuits

“This man continued giving us biscuits and bananas every day for close to two weeks. So it’s like he used that way to drag so many people. And we loved the man, so every day he [saw] us there singing and dancing, chanting “Hare Krishna” until he left my village and he told us he was going back to India.”

ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness): they base their teachings on ancient texts of Hinduism (traditional scriptures such as the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita). I’ve seen them on the streets of Montreal and New York chanting “Hare Krishna!” George Harrison was a member, and the mantras are heard in some of his music. This was, until recently, the extent of my knowledge about the movement.

On July 7, ISKCON celebrated Lord Jagannath’s Ratha Yatra. Hundreds of believers from all around West Africa met in Kumasi to honor deities, pray, feed the hungry and show the public their interpretation of ancient traditions as defined by their leader, the late Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Matilda is one of these believers. She hails from Nigeria, which has a similar religious demography to Ghana (Christian and Muslim majorities). Hare Krishna missionaries visited her village when she was ten years old.

Matilda sitting outside the Hare Krishna temple in Emina, Kumasi.

As she cheerfully told me about her search for the man with biscuits, my ears perked: is that a human rights abuse? Children are a vulnerable class, and this man lured her in with baked goods. However, dancing and sharing food can be a means of expressing Hare Krishna values.

After that man left, she found another member of the movement who welcomed her to the temple. When Matilda told her Christian family that she wanted to join the Hare Krishna, she faced resistance.

“I told my mother, she got mad. ‘If you go to that place again, I will stop taking you to school. In fact, you will no longer stay with me in this house, I will chase you away,’” she recollected. My ears perked again: is that a human rights abuse? Everyone should be able to practice religion with freedom and mobility.

Eventually, her mother accepted her beliefs. Matilda finished school, became a journalist and is now dedicated devotee.

“I’m more free in the Hare Krishna movement,” she said. “Even right now, if I go to Church, I won’t be free there… I don’t want to criticize or condemn, but I won’t be free there.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

I initially set out to understand religious minority experiences (which I will do in a longer documentary form) with the expectation that they are subjugated by some members of the Christian and Muslim majorities. In my four days with the Hare Krishna devotees, I spoke to members, gurus and other spiritual leaders. I saw firsthand that religious rights aren’t black and white; even calling it a gray area is an oversimplification.

It is the same conundrum posed by religious schools and missionaries: what begins as an expression of human rights can sometimes violate the very principles that protect it, and it is difficult – but important – to define the boundary, particularly in secular states.

So where do we draw the line? I don’t know. I don’t expect to answer this question. If anything, I will likely have more questions, but an open discourse is critical to preventing human rights abuses.

I do have one answer: she never did find the man with biscuits. She is, however, continuing his work. As they chanted and danced through the streets, Matilda told me it brought back happy memories of the mystery man.

Matilda reminiscing at the Ratha Yatra Festival on July 7.


From bumper stickers to the message broadcast on what Peace Corps Language and Culture Officer Chrissie Kabaghe calls the "God channels," an "It's God's will" ideology manifests itself in all aspects of life in Malawi - even as a roadblock in the fight for human rights

“It’s God’s will” isn’t good enough

From bumper stickers to the message broadcast on what Peace Corps Language and Culture Officer Chrissie Kabaghe calls the "God channels," an "It's God's will" ideology manifests itself in all aspects of life in Malawi - even as a roadblock in the fight for human rights

The electricity had been out for 24 hours where I was staying in Namiwawa, Blantyre, either due to the heavy seasonal rains or the theft of the oil out of the area transformer tower.

It was Sunday morning and still raining heavily when I set out on the 45 minute walk to town where there would be electricity and maybe even an Internet connection.

Here in the “Warm Heart of Africa” it wasn’t long until a Malawian man walking in the same direction offered to share his umbrella.

“Are you going to church?” he asked as we walked through the rain.  “No, I’m going to buy one of these,” I said, pointing at his umbrella.  “Are you Christian?” he persisted.  “No,” I said.  “Then you must be Muslim,” he stated with the satisfaction of someone who’d just solved the Sunday crossword puzzle.  “No,” I said again.  “Then, what are you?” he asked.  “Nothing I guess,” I said.

The base reality of my response was resonant: “Nothing.”  Because in Malawi, religion is everything, with religious belief even manifesting as an indirect or direct roadblock to the realization of human rights.

According to Chrissie Kabaghe, a language and culture officer working with the Peace Corps, the ubiquitous nature of religion in Malawi means that “everything is rested on God” and that Malawians’ undulating acceptance of God’s perceived will often takes the place of agency in the fight for acceptable standards of living.

“Religion is so hard to understand in Malawi,” Kabaghe said.  “Everything is rested on God.  A lot of people die and people accept that it’s God’s will, but it’s really people not doing anything.

“Very few people understand that they have to make their own life – that they have to work hard to make their own dreams come true,” she said.  “Even people who are educated still believe that if you’re dying early, if anything bad happens, that it’s ‘God’s time’, that ‘it’s God’s plan.’”

For Kabaghe, the ill effects of the “It’s God’s will” mentality have hit close to home.

“I take the case of diabetes in Malawi right now; people are dying from diabetes and people are saying, ‘It’s God will.’

“I tried to explain to my mom that it’s not God’s will, it’s our own making – taking five sugars in our tea, our eating habits, no exercise; we’re doing harm to ourselves.  But people still want to believe that it’s God’s will.”

In the same way that the saying “It’s God’s will” is being used to excuse unhealthy habits, the ideology has become embroiled in human rights issues as it has been invoked to explain away unconstitutional human rights abuses – habits that the Malawi-based Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) is working to educate and advocate against.

According to CHRR’s Luke Tembo, “religion and ‘God’s word’ have always been used as an excuse to perpetuate human rights abuses and violations in Malawi.

“We have had instances where children have been denied medicine by their parents or guardians because their God and religious beliefs do not believe in medicine,” Tembo stated in an email.

“It is even worse when you come to rights of minority groups like LGBT – we have witnessed people calling upon the killing of these people because they are doing things against the will of God.”

Tembo stated that from Malawi’s rural areas through to its urban city-centres, the “It’s God’s will” mentality reigns supreme, especially as many Malawians have lost trust in their leaders and they think the only way to turn to is God.”

“We as human rights organizations have a very big task to challenge this belief and it will take a very long time,” he said.

In the meantime, Tembo with CHRR are devising strategies to advocate for human rights that work within the religious context of the country.

“Mainly, we have incorporated religious leaders into our work of human rights advocacy,” he stated, noting that the organization maintains a team of advocates that includes two Reverend fathers.  “We use these leaders to counter and teach in religious ways why we need to respect and protect human rights.”

Because in the fight for health and human rights, “It’s God’s will” isn’t good enough.

God’s word in Malawi

Worshippers line-up outside St. Montfort’s Parish in Blantyre to attend Sunday morning service. Photo by Nina Lex.

In Malawi, God’s word is everywhere.

Minibuses have “Fear God” scrolled across their hoods, salons signs are painted with “God is Great Beauty Salon” and restaurants menus read “God’s Tasty Foods”.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Questions about your religious beliefs are common among co-workers and friends – even from strangers.

God is also the answer to all problems.  As my Canadian co-workers and I were told, “You aren’t married? Because you don’t go to church” and “You are unhappy? You need Jesus.”

With another four months ahead of me here in Malawi, I longed to be a part of a community – and attending the Catholic Church in my neighbourhood seemed like the perfect introduction.

It had been 15 years since I last attended a church service and, even then, I only went a handful of times with my German grandmother. I dreaded those early Sunday mornings full of endless preaching that left me feeling little more than a cynical sinner.

I arrived half an hour early at St. Montfort’s Parish to attend the 8:30am English service.  A vast crowd had already formed outside the red brick archways. I held my breath and pictured myself going up in flames as I was shoved through the threshold of the church.

Inside, the church was simple: the walls were whitewashed and filled with wooden pews – a far cry from the over-embellished churches I had seen in Europe and Latin America.

The pews were packed and the aisles full. Smoke and incense filled the air and white and purple fabric was draped throughout the church celebrating September, which was declared by the Pope as “Bible month”.

I shuffled around searching for a seat and found the last remaining spot, front row and center, right beside a nun.

In Canadian churches, it always seems as though there is an abundance of free seats.  Here, even with five services on Sundays, the church is overflowing with worshippers. While 84 per cent of Canadians adhere to a religion, approximately 97 percent of Malawians attend church or are religious.

As is the case in many other African countries, Malawians have a profound and perpetual belief in God.

Christianity is the main religion in Malawi, with 60 per cent of Christians being Protestant and 15 per cent Catholic. Other sects include Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Anglicans, Church of Central African Presbyterians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, which was outlawed by President Banda and made legal again in 1995.

The second most prominent religion in Malawi is Islam, with 15-20 per cent of the population being Muslims.

Indigenous beliefs and religions make up about 5 per cent of the population.

David Livingstone first introduced Christianity to Malawi at the end of 1800 during the British colonialism. The religion spread quickly across the country, and until 2001, Bible study was an essential subject in Malawian secondary schools.  However, Christianity in Malawi doesn’t follow strict Western practice, as many Malawians practice Christianity alongside traditional African rituals.

This quickly became evident as the church service got underway.

“Satanism and witchcraft is everywhere,” warned the priest. “Witchcraft is in our country, communities, schools and families.  Even if you don’t believe, it’s there.  Jesus even had to face Satan. “ He then proceeded to explain the three stages of evil- 333, 666 and 999,

“The only way to combat evil is through the word of God,” he explained.

Although Malawi is deeply religious, you don’t have to go far to hear criticism of the country’s God-fearing ways.

One person I met blamed religion for making Malawians lazy, “because they believe God would solve their problems and the people will not help themselves.”

And many human rights organizations blame strong religious influence for Malawi’s strong anti-gay stance.

The United Nation recently produced its first brochure highlighting its position on sexual orientation and gender identity human rights, in response some African countries, including Malawi, led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) are fighting to define human rights regarding religion to exclude homosexuality.

However, the Zambian priest presiding over this church service preached about acceptance between Christians and non-believers. This church was also the “House of Everyone” regardless of their race or nationality, he announced as he glanced at me, one of the only “mzungu” – or white person – in the congregation.

Between hymns and much to the delight of the worshippers, the priest told jokes, referring to “the constipation and gas of religion”.

When the service ended, I left the church not converted, but with a smile on my face – and feeling a little more Malawian.

Children denied medical treatment in lieu of prayer

Some parents in Malawi, including Yesaya Mussa (above), refuse to seek medical attention when their children fall ill, believing instead that prayer will heal them. Photo by Denis Calnan.

By Rhodes Msonkho and Denis Calnan

Interpretations of the Bible are keeping some parents in Malawi from accessing medical treatment for their children, according to police spokespeople.

Yesaya Mussa’s is one such parent. His two-year old daughter was burned in an accident and kept from medical attention while he and others prayed for her to get better.

Mussa runs a small hardware shop in the Zomba market and says he has not done anything wrong.

“The Bible says that whoever believes in God can be healed through prayer,” Mussa explains in the local language, Chichewa.

He is upset at the current government for infringing on his freedom to practice his beliefs.

“We never go to hospitals – we are still sticking to what God is saying,” he says, “We are facing numerous challenges with the current government.”

Mussa recounts the day the police came to his house to take his daughter to the hospital and him, to prison. Mussa stayed behind bars for one night, before being released on bail. He was later given a 15-month suspended sentence in order to return to his daughter as her guardian.

Nicholas Gondwa, the police spokesperson for Malawi’s Eastern Region, says the situation of parents refusing medical attention reached a critical point during a measles outbreak in 2010. Parents were urged to get their children vaccinated against measles, but some refused

“It came as a surprise,” says Gondwa, “[because] we had so many cases.”

After getting the disease, Gondwa says several children were isolated in their homes as their parents prayed for their recovery. The police were tipped off by neighbours – but not before children died from the disease.

Tomeck Nyaude of the Zomba Police recalls a case where a father was arrested after denying his son medical attention when the boy fractured a bone in his leg playing soccer. The police were informed by one of the boy’s siblings seven days after the incident.  Sadly, the easily treatable fracture led to the leg being amputated.

“When you are enjoying your own rights and freedoms,” says Nyaude, speaking about the freedom to religion, “make sure that you do not involve and injure somebody [else’s] rights.”

Nyaude remembers the case of Mussa and his daughter, which was brought to his division’s attention by one of Mussa’s neighbours. When his police unit arrived in the community, they found the church elders praying for Mussa’s daughter. Nyaude says the father claimed in court that he realized he had done something wrong and was therefore released on a suspended sentence.

Mussa gives a contradicting story, saying he was released because he was a first-time offender and continues to stand by his belief that if his child is sick or injured again, the only attention she should receive is that of prayer.

“We are doing this based on the faith we have and what the scripture is saying,” says Mussa. “I am encouraging those who are discouraged and might think of bowing down to this pressure, that we should not allow that. They should persevere during this trying time.”

A Captive Audience

Advertising is everywhere in Canada, and a developing country is no different. People take every opportunity to sell you things, and nowhere is safe from people trying to deliver their message, not even the inside of a minibus.

I learned this lesson during a trip to Ningo, a small town about an hour outside of Accra.

The journey began with an hour-long wait for my trotro to leave. During my wait I learned that I scare small children. A small boy sitting on a bench with his mother spotted me and started bawling loudly. His mom thought her son’s fear of white people was hilarious and gestured for me to come over and pick him up. I declined the offer, not wanting to traumatize the kid any more than my existence already had.

Finally the minibus left the station. A man wearing a gold necklace with an emblem of the African continent decorating his chest hair stood up and began to say a prayer for our safe journey, something that made me feel more worried than anything.

The topic changed seamlessly to herbal remedies. I sat watching Accra fade behind me as our orator informed his captive audience about the benefits of sexual enhancement pills which we could buy from him for only two cedis or about $1.50 CAD.

When the salesman sat down and I thought the live infomercial was over, a woman no older than 20 took his place in front of the bus. She had nothing to sell but her belief about the afterlife. In a mixture of English and Ga she told us all about Jesus in as loud and grating a voice as her small frame could muster. The fiery sermon slipped in and out of song and a few passengers joined in the choir while the rest of us stared blankly out of our windows. After what seemed like forever this 21st century Joan of Arc sat down and accepted a few coins from her makeshift congregation.

We spent a couple hours in Ningo collecting interviews then caught a a trotro heading back to the city. My fingers were crossed that this would be a more peaceful ride than the one that brought me here. My prayers weren’t answered.

A clean-cut man in a vibrant stripped shirt stood up right in front of me with a dozen DVDs in his hands. This guy combined the young woman’s religion with the first man’s commercialism like the second coming of Jimmy Swaggart. Titles to his DVD collection included “666 and the Mark of the Beast,” followed by “The USA and New World Order.”

The end of the world is coming, according to our minibus preacher, and his DVDs are the only way to avoid damnation. They’re normally five cedis but today for some reason they’re only one cedi. Praise the Lord.

“You’ll want to spend your money when the Apocalypse comes, but then it will be too late,” he told us.

I was surprised to see money passed to the front of the bus and DVDs passed back as we drove by tar paper shacks in this country where a cedi is all a lot of people can afford to spend on food each day.

Maybe you can get blood from a stone. Well done, preacher man. Well done.