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Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.
Posters for revivals and religion in Ghana. (Photo: M. Sophia Newman)

Posters for revivals and religion in Ghana. (Photo: M. Sophia Newman)

This post was produced in partnership with Beacon Reader as part of a crowd-funded reporting project, “After Ebola Comes Hunger.” Read more about our support for this project, and pledge your support here.

It’s a sunny Sunday morning in Cape Coast, Ghana, and prophet Joe Hagan is preaching. “Everything you do that goes against God causes your money to decrease! Everything you do that causes sickness causes your money to decrease!” he shouts from the altar at the Bright Morning Star Love Ministry, a tiny church steps from the Atlantic Ocean. The sound is loud enough to be heard down the block, thanks to the echoing microphone he holds in his hand. Inside, some four dozen congregants perch on plastic chairs and listen at close range. “When sicknesses, when diseases, when infirmities hit your body, they come to take your money away!” Hagan shouts. Then he instructs them to high-five each other and say, “Don’t get sick!” Mumbling, each congregant obeys.

In Ghana, Pentecostals like Hagan believe God intervenes in human affairs, granting wishes for revenge or success. The philosophy is part of the prosperity doctrine—an interpretation of Christianity in which faith healing and wealth acquisition are key aims of religious adherence. When it comes to disease prevention, the belief system offers a mix of useful ideas and counterproductive nonsense—a worrisome matter for a country directly in the path of the Ebola epidemic.

In Ghana's densely populated, majority-Christian coast, spirituality involves a fervor for preachers that people in America would reserve for, say, Beyoncé or Black Friday sales.

This autumn, the World Bank released calculations of Ebola’s impact on West Africa, framed around two prospective scenarios. In the “low Ebola” scenario, 20,000 people are infected and the epidemic remains within the three most-afflicted nations by the end of 2014. For the “high Ebola” model, ineffective interventions allow cases to balloon to 200,000 and spread into other countries throughout 2015. At this point, neither is entirely correct. Regional response has been a mix of highly efficient and troublingly poor. The epidemic is waning in Guinea and Liberia, but continuing unabated in Sierra Leone. Infections reached 18,000 as of early December, and under-reporting means that the real number may be a good deal higher. Still, it seems unlikely to reach the six figures any time soon. This is “medium Ebola,” a problem of undefined scope and duration.

WHETHER OR NOT THE cases will extend beyond its current boundaries remains anyone’s guess. This September, social scientists ranked Ghana as the country at highest risk of an outbreak. But ask average people what that means now, and a hodgepodge of answers emerges.

“It’s likely” the epidemic will come to Ghana, says Danny Manatewe, an Accra shopkeeper. “Yes,” concurs a woman named Melissa in nearby Makola street market. “I’m not afraid. But many people will die.”

Kofi Sampson, a Cape Coast tour guide who thinks Ebola is not coming to Ghana. (Photo: M. Sophia Newman)


“No, Ebola is not coming,” Kofi Sampson, a Cape Coast tour guide, insists, echoing other interviewees.

How and why Ebola has affected specific areas and not others is inscrutable to people worldwide. “No Ebola, S’il Vous Plait, We’re French,” declared an October NPR article, attempting to attribute the lack of an outbreak in Côte d’Ivoire, which borders three Ebola-infected nations, to its pride of being a former French colony and overall obedience to authority.

That certainly doesn’t explain the lack of Ebola here, in Côte d’Ivoire’s eastern neighbor. Ghana was the first African nation to achieve independence and currently trades on its extant slave forts for tourist dollars, so few would attribute its current health to its former British masters. Nor does its national character involve a special deference to power.

What Ghana does have is religiosity—and plenty of it. Nationally, Ghana has a peaceful plurality of Christians, adherents to African traditional faiths, and Muslims. In the densely populated, majority-Christian coast, spirituality involves a fervor for preachers that people in America would reserve for, say, Beyoncé or Black Friday sales. Multi-day and all-night revivals are common; billboards advertising them line major streets. Beliefs about the supernatural are common enough to warrant a televised “National Conference on Witchcraft Accusations in Ghana,” which aired last week. If anything will impact people's ideas about the epidemic, religion will.

GHANA'S DOMINANT FAITH—PENTECOSTAL Christianity, the one Hagan preaches—emphasizes the prosperity doctrine, which posits that Christ was a rich man who intended his followers to attain wealth themselves. Those who are properly devoted to the religion should therefore realize material gain. “This Christianity is about success,” writes researcher Paul Gifford. “A Christian is a success; if he or she is not, there is something very wrong.”

Pentecostalism's popularity across Africa is, in part, due to “indigenous religions in Africa [whose] adherents seek material benefits from the worship of the gods,” writes anthropologist Asonzeh Ukah in a paper for the Johannes Gutenberg Universität Institute of Anthropology and African Studies. More importantly, an economic crisis in the mid-1980s led to Western-driven market reforms, which exacerbated further social and economic upheaval, according to Ukah: "This situation fuelled the quest for spiritual solution to people’s many problems, but also the ready acceptance of religious answers to social and material questions."

On the other side of the prosperity doctrine, sometimes known as the "health and wealth" gospel, is the health component: Religious devotion should also heal your physical and mental ailments. As Ukah puts it, “Healing is conceived as a comprehensive restoration of a believer to superabundant health or status.”

On the street in Accra, some people say that God’s intervention alone has allowed Ghana to remain uninfected. Lucky Williams, a 32-year-old chemical engineer, claims that Ghana will never get Ebola because, “We are a Christian country. We believe in the Bible. When you are very prayerful in anything you are doing, God will always take the evil, the sickness, out of your way ... so Ebola can never conquer Ghana.”

As you might imagine, these beliefs are problematic. If Ebola does come to Ghana, many are ready to apply religion as a cure. Eugene Edem, a resident of Accra’s Jamestown neighborhood, says he attends a Charismatic Christian church, an offshoot of Pentecostalism. “It can be healed by praying, yes, because we have great men of God who are anointed by the Holy Ghost,” he says. “They can heal Ebola.”

Edem says that people in Ebola-afflicted countries did something wrong to deserve the scourge. Ebola infections are the work of humans, not God, he says: “Actually, God never punishes human beings in that manner.... It is about our choices over the past decades.”

From the Western world, it may appear that Africans' religious fervor is backwards and detrimental compared to the public health messages that could help stem Ebola's spread. Ironically, their Pentecostalism was directly inspired by American evangelists who promote the prosperity doctrine as a path to American-style over-consumption.

ON SUNDAY, IN HIS seaside church, Hagan preached something similar, if less mystical than Edem's reasoning: “It is nobody who is cursing you [with Ebola], but it is the choice that you have made.... If you don’t take counsel and take actions to make you safe, it is your choice.” And he's not entirely wrong. Behavioral change is essential to preventing Ebola transmission. While Hagan’s command to high-five someone is counterproductive, Edem says his church is telling participants to avoid shaking hands and wash hands often—two accurate public health messages.


Prophet Joe Hagan's church in Cape Coast, Ghana. (Photo: M. Sophia Newman)

Hagan is partly correct about economics, too: Everything that causes sickness does cause money to decrease. The World Bank’s analysis, though ironically glossing past the institution’s role in creating poverty and influencing counterproductive religious movements in the region, precisely explains the economic impact of the Ebola crisis:

Beyond the terrible toll in human lives and suffering, the Ebola epidemic currently afflicting West Africa is already having a measurable economic impact in terms of forgone output; higher fiscal deficits; rising prices; lower real household incomes and greater poverty.... Over the medium term, however, both epidemiological and economic contagion in the broader sub-region of West Africa is likely.

The region is set to lose at least $2.2 billion in 2014, with additional losses in 2015. The three most afflicted countries have been plunged into economic contractions, with Liberia particularly hard-hit. Hunger looms over them.

GHANA IS A PLURALISTIC society, and not everyone is betting on religion alone to avert Ebola. Dr. Sally-Ann Ohene of Ghana’s office of the World Health Organization says, “As long as there is Ebola in the region, we are still at risk. No country can rest as long as the outbreak is ongoing.”

Ohene says the WHO interacts with religious groups. But she emphasizes that it is one of many activities, ranging from collaborating with the United Nations Mission for Emergency Ebola Response, which is headquartered in Accra, to distributing diagnostic reagents to laboratories for staff training.

Involvement has spread well past the health sector. Cocobod, the office concerned with cocoa production, Ghana’s key cash crop, has become involved. In a written response to interview questions, public affairs manager Noah Amenyo says, “Cocobod ... organizes farmer education fora during which possible causes of Ebola and preventive methods are discussed.” Williams, the engineer, says that he’s been on business trips in eastern Liberia since the epidemic began. Citing firsthand experience, “When you go to the airport, they check you. They make sure they take all the formalities before they allow you to enter [Ghana].”

Nor do all ordinary Ghanaians share a belief in religious healing. Rashid, a prayer cap-clad Muslim working as a money-changer in Accra’s Makola Market, shakes his head "no" at the idea of God healing the sick. Asked about religion’s impact on health, an African traditionalist named Kofi Eson says, “Religion cannot help. This is not a spiritual sickness.” And street trader Manatewe, who is Methodist, says he couldn’t imagine relying on the church to heal Ebola: “That is dangerous.”

Even Hagan himself says much the same. “We are going to rely on the physical aspect, including the doctors,” he says, noting their “complex knowledge.”

"I believe in hospitals," Hagan says, "and I believe in prayer."