First Impressions

It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

As the plane was touching down at Accra airport the giant carcass of a jetliner was lying by the side of the runway. Helluva thing to see while landing, but maybe it was just being cannibalized for parts… Or, perhaps the remains of a misadventure not yet cleared away? Taxing to a stop, there weren’t any other commercial airplanes to be seen, just a fleet of various sized jets bearing the United Nations logo. We deboarded down a flight of stairs onto a steamy tarmac where castoff Korean buses were waiting to deliver us to the terminal and into the hands of immigration officers who either ill temperedly or lackadaisically processed our various documents. One young man waved me through with a shrug although I hadn’t been given and therefore hadn’t filled out and consequently didn’t submit the form that apparently it was his sole job to collect. Welcome to Ghana.


Emperor, my host, colleague and translator for the next three weeks, was there to meet me as I emerged from the airport. A broad smile and a cheerful welcome were a refreshing antidote to the weariness of a long flight and the hole in the pit of my stomach courtesy of Delta airlines. (Apparently, they didn’t have a clue as to how many passengers were on board their aircraft: they had run out of the aforementioned form as well as, I was nonchalantly told after a 10 hour flight, of meals.)

An equally friendly tall young man - it turned out to be Emperor’s son Selassie - grabbed my bag and off we went by taxi to a relative’s house for the night, before venturing in the morning to Mafi Seva, the village where the clinic was located.

Peering out my cab window, Accra, the Ghanian capital city of some 4 millions persons, appeared rather non-descript save for a block of towering, oddly shaped apartment buildings and the omnipresence of large billboards advertizing the activities of Evangelical preachers. The former, painted in various brash checkerboard patterns, seemed like they might teeter over, as they were considerably smaller in dimension at the base compared to the top. I subsequently learned they were the vanity project of a former President.

The latter were my first exposure to the important role that Christianity plays there, which has supplanted traditional indigenous beliefs. A large majority of people, over seventy percent, identify as Christians. (Muslims make up about seventeen percent of the population, with a large concentration in the northern reaches of the country).

Churches and pastors of just about every denomination abound in the city as well as the villages, but the largest denomination is Pentecostal or Charismatic. There appears to be a widespread fervor to their worship, attending services for hours at on Sundays and often on weekday evenings as well. Tithing, even amongst the poor villagers, was the norm.

It was not unusual for someone to greet me with an enthusiastic, “Are you a Christian?” – only to be a bit perplexed to learn that I was a Jew. Vehicles, be they private autos, taxis, trucks or the ‘tro-tro’ vans that provide public transportation are generally all adorned with Biblical references; businesses often bear religious names. (Afterall, how could one resist get a new ‘do’ at “If Not God Hair Salon”?)

It was also not unusual to spot tidily dressed young men clutching Bibles apparently off on a mission to spread the Word, or, for that matter, to witness soap box proselytizers literally thumping Bibles as they preached or sang into mics amplified to ear splitting decibels on crowded streets.

Once, after returning to Accra for a few days, I woke to the celestial sounds of a gospel choir in the dead of the night. They were practicing at 1:30 in the morning. Even though I knew that the ethereal calls to prayer from the three or fours local mosques would arouse me again at 4, it was still a serene, almost beatific, experience.

Although I was not shy about asking, no one was able to provide much insight into how such devotion developed for a religion imposed by the people who had enslaved and carted away untold millions of their ancestors.

And the pastors… well, I wasn’t always so sure about them either.   Some who I met seemed genuinely pious, others appeared to be more of the Elmer Gantry variety, and why all that marketing? As one knowledgeable person told me later, “It’s a good gig in a country where there isn’t much money”.

I was to meet some of these pastors in the village. A few came as patients, and a few were introduced to me by villagers who were their congregants. The one fellow (they were all men, as far as I can remember) who made the strongest impression had a healing ministry.

These apparently were not uncommon, and villagers took their mission quite literally.   People sometimes would turn to their church for medical care.   Some women gave birth at these churches instead of the clinic, some gravely ill people went there rather than to the hospital. Through the grapevine we’d hear about some of these goings on…

One morning there was word that a woman gave birth to twins during the night; another morning word arrived that a woman had hemorrhaged to death because of a retained placenta.  No one seemed to hold the pastor particularly accountable in either a litigious, medical or moral sense.

Perhaps this was a reflection of the status of religion or a deeply ingrained sense of fatalism amongst people in general. But this news was greeted with exasperation at the clinic, because we were a mere 5-minute walk away. Not only was there a midwife on call, homeopathy is remarkably effective in expelling a retained placenta.

I ended up visiting another of these ministries a number of times to attend a woman with breast cancer who staying there. Her husband had come to the clinic to ask if we would see his wife, and when we arrived there was a formal introduction to the pastor. (Introductions to authority figures like village chiefs, pastors and the like can be fairly solemn, ritualized occasions).

He looked to be in his thirties, was compactly built and wore a T-shirt with the words ‘Messianic Healing Ministry’ printed above a logo.   But what was most striking was that there was an air about this man. To be gracious, one might say he had an aura of dignity… To be more blunt, one could sense a very strong ego.

After the pastor gave his blessing, we were ushered inside where we found the patient lying on a thin mattress on the floor in a corner of the church. It was a very advanced case, with a large open ulcerating tumor at her breast with foul discharges and metastases elsewhere in her body. She was falling in and out of consciousness, and clearly in a lot of pain when awake.

I examined her as well as I could, took a case history, and then asked her husband to return with us to the clinic to pick up some remedies. None of us had any illusions about the possibility of a positive outcome, but there was much that could be done to relieve her suffering and one never knows…

We continued to monitor her status almost daily, either via reports from her husband or visits to the church. The pains and discharges did subside to certain extent, but by the time I was set to leave she appeared to be sinking into the final stage of her disease.

Kansas, it most certainly was not.