The Lives of Others

UPDATE: contrasting negative images offered by commentators on Twitter (see end of post) My Ghanaian friends often tell me that if you want to understand Ghanaians at all, you have to understand how religious are most Ghanaians. I believed them of course, but it didn’t really become vivid until I attended the most amazing church service this morning. I am not saying this out of any religious motives, just to point out another side of Ghanaians that outsiders seldom see or appreciate.

The service was at an Anglican church in Bolgatanga (I am myself an Anglican at a fairly tepid level). The Anglicans in in the US (where we’re called Episcopalians) are a pretty sedate denomination, associated with rich, formal, well-dressed, stuffy older people. So imagine an Anglican service with music including a drum-set, Ghanaian drums, a talented organist and a vocalist, dancing, and a congregation made up of all ages (also well-dressed in indigenous clothing). A drum-set would be as out of place at an American Episcopalian service as a vuvuzuela, but the Ghanaian Anglicans were clearly much more into the service than their American counterparts.

Exactly what point am I trying to make in my current travel-addled state with little time to write this? (Insert obligatory academic references to some random research findings on religion and development when I get more time.)

I think it’s something about how to understand people’s behavior, you need to understand how they see themselves. A good guess is that the people in the congregation this morning, in one of the poorest regions of Ghana, do NOT see themselves primarily as “poor” or “developing”, they see themselves as Christians. Another guess is that similar feelings about religious faith would apply to other Ghanaians in other religious services, like Muslims, Catholics, traditional religions, etc.)

Perhaps this fits into the recurring Aid Watch theme about humanizing aid recipients, how poor people have a life, and may not even see themselves as poor at all, and so may according to some other perspective NOT be poor. This is not to deny the material hardships of people around Bolgatanga; in fact, I talked to the bishop afterwards about really bad stuff like malaria and human trafficking in teenage girls. But not all the comparisons with rich Americans go one way. Just daring to speak for my fellow Episcopalians, Ghanaian Anglicans have something that American Episcopalians could envy and learn a lot from.

UPDATE: got this comment on Twitter:

@auerswald Noticed that too. RT @JaneReitsma: The absolute opposite of @bill_easterly's post today - "#Africa’s unsung heroines"

The Economist article cited is a description of a few women in Burundi, whose husbands are depicted as follows:

As for the husbands... Many of those who stay are drunks with syphilis. Women are forbidden to inherit land. They are often beaten and raped.

I'm not sure how a random example from Burundi is the "opposite" of the post above on personally observing one congregation in Bolgatanga, since I was not trying to establish the definitive portrait of "the typical African", which would be a ludicrous enterprise. I certainly would not deny the very real existence of abusive husbands and victimized women, but it does bother me that there are a lot more of the extreme negative anecodotes  in the Western media covering Africa than any positive anecdotes.