As a child growing up in Northern Ghana, one of the most conspicuous symbols of every northern community or village was and still is the area/community/village mosque. When I was a child in the Sang township in the Yendi district in Northern Region, 99.9% of the homes in my community were built with mud and thatched roofs. The only building I remember having brick and corrugated iron sheets was the central mosque in the township. My father moved to a small farming community when I was still a child and started with a thatched and mud house along with his friends, and again the first building in the new community to get a corrugated iron roof was the village mosque. When conflict brought me and my family to the Tamale Metropolis in the early 1990s, I noticed the same phenomenon in almost every community in Tamale. The biggest structure and the most well cared for building in the area I lived and in most areas in Tamale was the mosque. As a child brought up in a very strict religious home, I grew up revering the mosque and its preeminence in the community-scape. To the best of my knowledge, the mosques in the communities I grew up in were always used almost always exclusively for Islamic prayers and to host itinerant preachers who wandered into my community as part of the Da’wah they were doing. These were often people from other parts of the West African sub-region like Mali, Mauritania or Nigeria. Sometimes we will get a group from as far away as Pakistan or India or the Philippines. So as far back as I can remember, these towering structures in the community landscape were decidedly used for religious affairs other than the few times every four years where a polling center was stationed there for national elections.
I grew up knowing that these structures were built through the investment of the local peasant population but overwhelmingly through the external investment of the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf and later Iran and Turkey. My family being very religious and intimately involved with these projects afforded me the opportunity to know the inner workings of these external investments. In fact, my brother, who is a local Imam, just finished constructing a mosque at a new neighborhood he and I just finished constructing a three-bedroom place for mom and him to move to. I ended up spending my little student stipend to help him get the extra land where the mosque was built on. This mosque was sponsored by a Turkish agency but we had to get the land on which it was built. I am not complaining about my investment in the project because I was helping my brother out but I would think given our limited financial situation, we could have made more worldly-meaning investment with our limited capital. So, much like this recent mosque, most of the mosques in Tamale and in many areas in Ghana are built by foreign investment. The same goes for most of the churches traditionally built in Ghana. European and later American investment have hitherto fueled the building of these gigantic structures in African communities. But there is a new trend given that a lot of this foreign investment has slowed down as a result of many socio-political and economic changes happening in the world.
Some of the largest churches in Ghana and in other parts of Africa were initially built by European invading colonizers who believed colonizing our bodies wasn’t enough or complete without colonizing our hearts and minds and hence they brought along their priests and preachers and erected edifices and monuments we call Cathedrals and churches to that effect. The same goes for Arab invaders into our continent and their towering mosques and minarets. Given that education in Africa was mainly informal, and the introduction of formal education started with the Arab and European invaders, the Church or the Mosque became the center of learning and to acquire this formal education, conversion to these foreign faiths was a prerequisite, many Africans were forced to convert, some at the point of death or the whip. Having had their religions beaten into our ancestors, the Mosque and the Church replaced the village playground or the Chief’s palace as the center of community life. With external investment focused on these colonial monuments, African community life gradually moved to these places.
When I was a child growing up and the penetration of Islam was still tepid in the village, we often at moonlit nights were treated to Dagomba traditional dances of simpa, tora, jara and the like. These were the things that held the community together. These were our extracurricular activities and entertainment. But with the penetration of Sunni Islam, my family advised and threatened and beat the enjoyment of these things out of us. And gradually, as kids, learning and memorizing the Qur’an, often in the mosque took center-stage in our lives. So by the time I finished primary four, I had already read the Quran twice over and memorized half of it. Years of neglect (because of formal education) has left me struggling to remember most of it offhand though. But the point I am driving at is that our lives completely became engrossed in the mosque to the detriment of any social life. This is not much different from my Christian friends who oftentimes have been made to attend all kinds of services throughout the week along with the weekend service and often prevented or strongly discouraged from engaging in social life outside the church. With Islam and Christianity now very much entrenched in Africa, almost like native religions now, and the investment that had fueled the early erecting of these monuments drying up, we have been faced with a worrying trend that I think is very alarming.
This week we saw an offering schedule from the Ghanaian mega church ICGC, Dr. Mensah Otabil’s church. The scaling of the offering matched to certain rewards or blessings was roundly ridiculed and condemned by many Ghanaians on social media. But as much as the condemnation poured in, spirited defense of the revered pastor swiftly followed. Cryptic messages of condemnation of those condemning Otabil plastered my wall on Facebook. What is disturbing about this absurdity of Otabil’s sale of blessings based on how much a person can pay is that it goes completely contrary to Jesus’s teachings and was one of the major reasons for the breakup of the Catholic Church in the Reformation period, a time when there was only one unified church in the world. Martin Luther and other church clergy rebelled against the Catholic church because of the sale of indulgences. That led to the splitting of the church into several small units and the Catholic Church’s banning of the practice. In a country like Ghana where we got our Christianity from European missionaries and we are largely a Protestant country, I find it rather absurd that we will allow ourselves to be sucked back into this medieval practice long discarded by those who brought us Christianity. When Otabil responded the next day, he did so in usual fashion by obfuscating and not directly responding to the issue. He simply said his con-artistry defied logic. And this is the problem with our people. Where we live our lives devoid of basic logic and financial understanding, we will continue to lag behind other nations in development.
I started this article by recounting my childhood experiences with communal symbols of power and reverence in the form of mosques and churches. That is where those who have invested in us from outside our shores have put their efforts in and we have taken up the mantle in perpetuating that skewed public investment. One of the biggest drivers of economic and social growth is community and personal local investment. As much as we would like to critique foreign investors for investing in the wrong things like churches and mosques, they owe us nothing and only do what they see fit for their agendas. We as a people are responsible for our own destiny to a large extent and I am afraid we have failed to learn from these outside forces on how they have developed their own communities. If we are to develop as a people, internal investment in economic and socially useful sectors of our economy needs to be our number one priority.
We often lay blame on the government for our underdevelopment. But if you look at the tax burden in Ghana, you will realize that a vast majority of the Ghanaian public do not pay taxes (70% according to Darko, 21% according to Ayebeng). But almost every adult Ghanaian of working age has contributed in one way or the other on countless occasions to the church or the mosque in the myriad of ways these institutions use to coax money out of worshipers. So in our country, the most effective taxation institution is the clergy. There is no wonder some estimates have put opening a new church as one of the most lucrative businesses you can ever embark on in Ghana. Some of these pastors who have mega churches own luxurious mansions, fleets of cars and are now opening private universities across the country where fees are much more exorbitant than Ghana’s top public universities. The problem with these effective tax collectors is that they are virtually unchecked and unaudited and unlike government taxes where more people and the electorate in general get to decide what that money is used for, these one-man and sometimes family ran mega churches are virtual dictatorships where the monies collected from congregants are spent at the whims and caprices of the titular pastors. No wonder they live in luxury whereas the vast majority of their congregants live in penury. We are in effect investing in and for the luxury of select individuals in our society instead of our communities in general.
In other parts of the world, funding to public schools and private schools are dependant on local property taxes. Area public parks, drinking water, roads, and entertainment centers are built largely with the local taxes citizens pay to their local authorities. So in many places, the more you pay local taxes, the better the public utility system you and your family get to enjoy. In Ghana, the few good schools we have are not dependant on any of these factors but almost solely on the history and alumni engagement these schools have. So majority of Ghanaian children still have no access to top quality secondary education and much less any access to tertiary education. When I last check a month or so ago, the undergraduate college education rate in Ghana was about 5.7% of the total population which was pretty sad. We need more funding for education and other community and public utilities instead of churches and mosques.
Some apologists always mention that churches build schools as well. I don’t doubt that some churches or mosques do but it is the potential and the actual outcome that I am looking at here. Given the amount of money flowing into these churches and mosques weekly and the level of investment they have been making in society as opposed to government, any serious observer will acknowledge that they are not doing enough. There is just so much opaqueness to their operations and lack of accountability that it is irresponsible to continue to allow them that leeway they currently have. But even barring the public investment debate, they are still detrimental to the private investment regime in the country.
Some of the practices that drive economic growth is personal private investment, consumption, and savings. In a country where our banking and local investment system is still not very well developed, the churches have stepped in as the repositories of investment for the local people. All kinds of seeds are coaxed out of congregants such that they often save money to buy these seeds sold by these unscrupulous clergy. If invested in bonds and other financial investments weekly or monthly, these seed monies would have properly entered the Ghanaian capital markets to help boost the capital flow in the country. They would also have helped elevate the financial situation of these families. But alas, they keep sowing these seeds into leaky barrels in churches and mosques every week and the vast majority never get any growth or reap any benefits from these sown seeds. I have to put a disclaimer that I am not against going to church or going to the mosque but we have to invest in economically sustainable and useful endeavors in our communities other than mosques or churches.
A mosque or a church offer little economic impact to the community whereas a school, a market, a fitness or entertainment center or park adds a lot of economic activity and quality of life to the community. It elevates the life in the community so that members of the community live a more fuller life devoid of just drudgery and penance and worship. People can always and do have the right to chose what to spend their money on. But it is also important that the clutches of spiritualism and religious binds are taken off people so that they make balanced decisions. How free is someone who decides to sow seed money in a church where she believes that her only hope of surviving a cancer is through that or she faces damnation if she doesn’t? No disrespect to her, but she isn’t free. Freedom requires knowing all the options very well and deciding on one. The lives of our people can definitely be bettered by investing in ourselves and our communities and not only paying for pastors and malams to live in luxury.