( I have, a week later, joined a group of bloggers who are ‘Blogging the Caine Shortlist, 2013. You can read the introductory post, with an official schedule, at New Inquiry’s Zunguzungu. Last week, the group reviewed ‘Miracle’ by Tope Folarin. A pdf of the story is here. Later this week, I will post my review of ‘Foreign Aid by Pede Hollist.)
Ghana is the world’s most religious country according to a WIN-Gallup poll of 57 countries. I cannot take issue with this. Indeed, the visual signs and buildings of religions abound. There are churches, mosques, tabernacles, covenants, prayer camps, tents and more.
My neighbor, with whom I share a wall, has opened a branch of a charismatic evangelistic church in her house. I’m attending church in my bedroom as I write this blog, so loud is their microphone that I can hear every Amen! I feel particularly peeved, and betrayed, because a member of my household has decided to attend my neighbor’s church. Really, she asks, Why bear the cost of transport when you can just saunter next door?
Some Ghanaians often cry “All this must stop. It is too much!”. They are not quite as erudite and vociferous in their dislike of the aggressive brand of Pentecostal/Charismatic pastors and their prosperity doctrine, miracle-working abilities as Wole Soyinka. Nonetheless, they want to see the end of this particular phase of religiosity in Ghana.
But I always ask them, “stop and replace it with what exactly?”
The religious sector, particularly the charismatic part, is the most successful homegrown business sector that en masse value the Ghanaian consumer. Put another way: leaders of the religious sector are the only leaders of any kind in Ghana who actively seek out and engage with Ghanaians on a daily basis as though our minds, our hearts, our socio-economic lives, our very beings matter.
The only ones.
Politicians are busy running away from us once we vote them in. They don’t want to hear of our problems so I won’t even talk about their problem-solving skills. As overheard recently, “once we vote them into power, African politicians are only interested in alleviating their poverty”.
Socialists/panAfricanists/Nkrumahists and followers of other Big Six ideologies have abandoned any pretense of educating Ghanaians. And one day I will blog about an education system that mis-educates our children.
Banking, the other successful sector, will not loan money to Ghanaians at good rates; they are not interested in us as consumers. Why lend to Ghanaians when the government will borrow a bank’s money at high interest rates? Under these conditions, we can’t count on a Ghanaian capitalism competing with a Ghanaian religiosity!
Replace it all with what exactly?
Nigeria, according to the same poll, is the second most religious county in the world. I cannot take issue with this either, for there are Nigerian churches in Ghana. There ‘s a tiny but vocal segment of Ghanaian society who like nothing better than to blame everything that is wrong in Ghana on the relatively few number of Nigerians who call Ghana home. I can’t explain this. It must be some West African specific brand of sibling rivalry and I’m an only child.
One more thing before I get to the purpose of this blog:
This has to do with a type of African immigrant in the West. No, not the Afropolitan kind. But the kind who carry home so intimately in and on their person, the kind who’s afraid to lose home, lose the culture. I can’t describe the phenomenon any other way. Like how I visit my Uncle in New York in say 2013 and find him surrounded by, speaking and living a Ghana of 1985. It can be funny but it’s actually quite sad.
Tope Folarin’s “Miracle’ takes place in a Nigerian church in North Texas, USA. And why not? I’ve watched the same pastors (on TV) who minister to West African congregations take their work on the road to London, New York and Tbilisi. Our academics are not the only ones who go plying their trade in the West during a vacation or a sabbatical.
‘We’ are already in the church when the story begins. The pastor asks the congregation to pray:
“Dear Father, we come to you today, on occasion of this revival and we ask that you bless us abundantly, we who have made it to America, because we are here for a reason…Each of us represents dozens, sometimes hundreds of people back home. So many lives depend on us Lord, and the burden on our shoulders is great…”
Few things unite most Africans abroad than the number of needs that they must each meet back on the motherland. And this congregation from ‘all over North Texas’, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and New Mexico have lots of needs!
“We need jobs. We need good grades, We need green cards. We need American passports. We need our parents to understand that we are American. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians. We need new kidneys, new lungs, new limbs, new hearts. We need to forget the harsh rigidity of our lives, to remember why we believe, to be beloved, and to hope. We need miracles.”
Keguro, in his post, queries: ‘what does it mean to figure abroadness as constant need?’
Folarin’s congregation also share a desperation that has not dissipated since they left home. This pastor, whose ‘blindness is a confirmation of his power’ will have to deliver miracles. He has come prepared because ‘ for all your hard work, for your faithfulness, God is going to reward you today’. But he continues, ‘you will have to believe today like you have never believed before’.
How much more can a believer believe? So this:
“We search our hearts for the seedlings of doubt that reside there. Many of us have to cut through the thickets of doubt before we can find our own hearts again. We use the silence to uproot our doubt and pray our hearts will remain pure for the remainder of the service.”
The first appearance of doubt gave me pause. The pastor, at this juncture singles out one person who emerges from the ‘we’ of the congregation into the ‘I’ of the narrator. The pastor feels his way towards a miracle first by diagnosing a breathing problem but then he touches our narrator’s face and noticing a pair of glasses, settles on healing the young man’s bad vision.
This is not the miracle the young man came to the church for, but now his ‘head is filled with visions of perfect clarity”. He’s a participant in the making of this miracle then he turns into an observer of the proceedings. Back and forth until:
“I began to believe in miracles. I realize that many miracles have already happened; the old prophet can see me even though he’s blind, and my eyes feel different somehow, huddled beneath their thin lids. I think about the miracle of my family, the fact that we’ve remained together despite the terror of my mother’s abrupt departure, and I even think about the miracle of my presence in America. My father reminds my brother and me almost every day how lucky we are to be living in poverty in America, he claims that all of our cousins in Nigeria would die for the chance, but his words were meaningless before. Compared to what I have already experienced in life, compared to the tribulations that my family has endured, the matter of my eyesight seems almost insignificant.
Of course I can be healed! This is nothing. God has already done more for me than I can imagine. This healing isn’t for me. It is to show others, who believe less, whose belief requires new fuel, that God is still working in our lives.”
Our narrator’s eyesight will return the next morning when he puts on his glasses. Nonetheless, he will insist that “the prophet performed many miracles that day…and felt that I had been healed, in a way, even if my eyes were the same as before”. Most tellingly:
“This is what I learned during my first visit to a Nigerian church: that a community is made up of truths and lies. Both must be cultivated in order for the community to survive.”
I find this statement disturbing. Sure, it’s insightful and I’m comforted by this young man’s acceptance that miracles happen everyday, that how we negotiate life is itself a miracle. I don’t think he needed a church to figure this out. But he figured it out where he found himself and that’s the story of ‘Miracle’!
If a people’s survival is predicated on the obligatory cultivation of truths and lies, then well, Africa is in big trouble. As if we didn’t know this already. Saratu, in her review, said that as a Nigerian living in Nigeria, she “feels part of an elaborate joke every damn day”.
What truths and lies are we cultivating? What lies inform the truths of a nation which doesn’t think much of its young and therefore doesn’t work to secure their future? What lies do we tell ourselves everyday when we allow our leaders to mistreat and betray us?
We are wearing away the thread that connects us to our ancestral pasts and willfully (now) appropriating other people’s religious fables and parables as our cultural backstories. Our appetite for interrogating our internalized, colonized selves is also abating. What truths or lies do these trends represent? And what does it say of a people who court such a cultural suicide?
The sort of engagement, conversations, story-telling, actions, frameworks, interrogation, etc – all necessary steps and actions that inform the process of building just, healthy, secure nations or continent are largely absent.
Aaron Bady’s review of ‘Miracle’ includes a critique of Soyinka’s disdain for politicized religion, Bady writes:
“For all his brilliance as a writer, Soyinka has an intense faith in his own ability to ascertain the truth, and it’s this faith that empowers him to write off the religious as credulous fools or crooks.”
Whatever it is, this intense faith of Soyinka’s is also cultivated.
Again I ask of those who yearn for an end to these prophets and their miracle-doing ways:
Replace it with what exactly? What truths are you prepared to cultivate? What stories are you fighting for?
I enjoyed Tope Folari’s story and look forward to his forthcoming book, The Proximity of Distance.