Humboldtians in Focus

Hallelujah, Africa

By Lilo Berg

In the west of the continent ever more Christian Pentecostal churches are emerging and drawing millions of the faithful. Here they find support on the strenuous journey into the modern age.

Foto: Andrew Esiebo
Foto: Andrew Esiebo

“In the church it is hot and incredibly loud. The minister's words blast out from enormous speakers. He paces up and down the stage, gesticulating and belting his staccato sentences into the microphone. In front of him stand the faithful, women in brightly-coloured, long dresses with colourful headwraps, some carrying babies on their backs, next to them men in light shirts. People are singing for all they are worth, rocking in time to the music; some have their eyes shut in ecstasy and stretch their arms up in the air. I feel my whole body vibrating.”

The ethnologist and religious scholar, Birgit Meyer, can describe her fieldwork as a participating observer very vividly. For the last 25 years, Meyer has returned to Ghana again and again. She has experienced the political, economic and social upheaval over this period and carefully observed the concurrent upsurge of Christian Pentecostal churches in both Ghana and other African countries.

Eye-catching sculpture in front of a Christian Action Faith Ministries’ chapel in Ghana
Eye-catching sculpture in front of a Christian Action Faith Ministries’ chapel in Ghana (Photo: Birgit Meyer)

“Both things are closely related, they are reactions to globalisation,” says the eminent international professor from the Utrecht University, summarising her hypothesis. She is currently at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin, trying to research as comprehensive a survey as possible of the religious spectrum of West Africa – which means not just Christian but also Muslim movements. Her intensive cooperation with ZMO is based on the funding that came with the Humboldt Foundation’s Anneliese Maier Research Award, which Birgit Meyer was granted in 2011.

Incredible changes

The researcher was abruptly made aware of the power of the new religious movements on a visit to Ghana in the mid-1990s. She hadn’t been there for a number of years, and in the interim the country had adopted a democratic constitution, public companies had been privatised and press freedom introduced. “It was incredible how much had changed,” Meyer reports. The little shops had been replaced by huge shopping centres, there were advertisements all over the place and on television preachers proclaimed the Gospel in their own particular way.

Guided by the preacher, believers lay on their own hands to receive God’s blessing.
Guided by the preacher, believers lay on their own hands to receive God’s blessing. (Photo: Andrew Esiebo)

Pentecostal churches were springing up everywhere, with imaginative names like International Central Gospel Church, Christian Action Faith Ministries and Pentecost International Worship Center. “From the very beginning, they knew how to use the media for their own purposes,” Birgit Meyer reports. The music industry spread the word with collections of gospel songs, and the blossoming film industry produced stories with Christian content, so-called Hallelujah Movies. At that time, according to Meyer, a pentecostalisation of culture began that continues to this day.

The roots of the new Christian churches go right back to the 19th century when Christian missionaries were converting West Africa, but their religious services are only vaguely reminiscent of the Catholic or Protestant liturgy. Pentecostalists dance and speak in foreign tongues; demons are exorcised and healing rituals held – the body becomes the medium of the Holy Spirit. The objectives are quite practical: If a member of the community needs a visa for Europe, a couple is failing to produce chil dren, or a member of the family is ill, then you go to a “crusade”, one of the incessant prayer meetings. “People are religious because they get something out of it in their daily lives – they are quite happy to admit as much,” Birgit Meyer reports.

Vying for attention in Accra: a jungle of signs advertising the Pentecostal churches in the Ghanaian capital.
Vying for attention in Accra: a jungle of signs advertising the Pentecostal churches in the Ghanaian capital. (Photo: Birgit Meyer)

It is not only in the southern hemisphere that Pentecostal and charismatic churches are gaining followers; in Europe, too, numbers are growing. Nearly a quarter of the more than two billion Christians are now to be found in the Pentecostal segment. In many parts of the world, globalisation is going hand-in-hand with a renaissance of religious feeling. This contradicts the theory that was long thought to be irrefutable, but now proves erroneous, that modernisation leads to increased secularisation. “This is true in Europe, at least in the sense of disaffection with the church, but not in the rest of the world,” says Birgit Meyer.

Recognition that connects

Atheists, for example, hardly exist in Ghana at all. Some 70 percent of the 25 million inhabitants are Christians, 18 percent Muslims and the rest believe in traditional gods. The majority of Christians are associated with Pentecostal churches, especially in the cities.

Here, people no longer live as they used to, in clans or large communities, but alone or in nuclear families as they do in big cities everywhere. The Pentecostal churches, Meyer believes, help individual believers to detach themselves from the traditional structures to which the old gods belonged. The Holy Spirit is often depicted as a knife that enables a person to cut the old blood ties and release the individual. “Break with your past!” the preachers exhort the believers, “be born again, free of the old behaviour patterns!” Meyer’s astounding inference: “To this extent, Pentecostal churches are a modern-age project.”

At a service in a Nigerian Pentecostal church, women exhort the congregation to give more Money.
At a service in a Nigerian Pentecostal church, women exhort the congregation to give more Money. (Photo: Andrew Esiebo)

It is interesting to note that this is also true of Islamic reformist movements, according to the religious scholar. Here, too, a clear line is drawn under the traditions, and worldly success is the focus. “In both cases, we are looking at renewal movements, and I try to discover the connections,” comments Birgit Meyer, outlining her current research direction. Two doctoral students are in Africa at the moment to collect the relevant data.

In Nigeria, there is already a movement known as Chrislam, a synthesis of Christianity and Islam. If Africa was once the cradle of humanity, it is now the birthplace of new religions.

 
Emotional, ecstatic, exhausted: believers at prayer meetings in Nigeria.
Emotional, ecstatic, exhausted: believers at prayer meetings in Nigeria. (Foto: Andrew Esiebo)
published in Humboldt Kosmos 101/2013
Birgit Meyer
Birgit Meyer
Photo: Mark Kohn

Professor Dr Birgit Meyer (53) originally wanted to be a teacher. So she studied special needs education and religious studies in Bremen, not far from her home town of Emden. Travelling to Africa for the first time in the 1980s, she became interested in foreign peoples. At the University of Amsterdam she then found the global interpretation of the world she was looking for: she studied cultural anthropology, took a doctorate and was a made a professor. Since 2011, she has held the chair in religious studies at Utrecht University. At the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin the Anneliese Maier Research Award Winner is working on the multilayered religious life of Africa in the project “Habitats and Habitus: Politics and Aesthetics of Religious World Making”.


Book Na God. Aesthetics of African Charismatic Power

Many of the impressive photos on these pages were taken during a research project on African Pentecostal Aesthetics.

For this purpose, the Italian ethnologist, Annalisa Butticci, and the photographer, Andrew Esiebo, spent weeks travelling in Ghana, Nigeria and Italy. Butticci has now brought out an illustrated book with the title Na God . Aesthetics of African Charismatic Power, Grafiche Turato, 2013.