Monday, 19 December 2011

Are we really God-Fearing? (Part 2)

Last week’s article in this column produced a big response with more than 50 online, email and telephone reactions. Most took the straightforward view that the Ghanaian claim to be God-fearing is only skin deep; others sought to contextualize it the expression itself while a small minority interpreted the question I posed as implying a belief or otherwise in God and the implication of such belief. In this conclusion I wish to explain some of the issues that are raised by the constant claim that we are God’s special people and or that we are particularly God fearing as a nation.
However, I need to explain that the article was not an attack on religion or religious belief. Neither was it about any particular brand of religion. In fact, it is not about religion. The point I am making is that we paint a wrong picture of who we are when we confuse our private religious or spiritual aspirations with our public responsibilities as a people, especially when there is such a split between the two. I used the Graphic editorial merely as a peg for a general statement because the idea that we are God fearing was not invented by the Daily Graphic. In that particular case the newspaper was merely echoing a general sentiment.
Interestingly, and by coincidence, a young journalism student wrote an article in the MY TURN column in the Mirror last Saturday which also made very similar points. The title was Religious Rubbish, and after the general observation that Ghanaians are a religious people then asked why people with such supposedly salutary spiritual outlook would care so little for the environment, especially by throwing rubbish all around. The fact that the author is a visitor to our country makes the observation more poignant.
Yes, Ghanaians are very religious people and there is evidence of this all around us, including the number and sizes of places of worship up and down the country and the fact that religious entrepreneurs are among the richest people in this land. But this religiosity does not in itself constitute the fear of God although it is easy to confuse the two.  Among the prime attributes of God-fearing are honesty and law-abiding. I don’t think even the most jingoistic Ghanaian would use either of those terms to describe this nation.
 However, no one is arguing that Ghanaians are more dishonest than other people. The issue is that within the public space behavioral precepts like integrity, honesty and sincerity must be related to common standards which are understood by all and applicable to all. In other words, we cannot say that because people are EXPECTED to be God-fearing they will behave decently towards one another. We have seen that this is not the case. Therefore, the only means by which these common standards that we have to live by can be achieved is through the law, which is why whether people are God-fearing or not they must obey the law.
Unfortunately, and this is the crux of the matter, obeying the law has become an optional extra in Ghana; you obey the law if you wish, or you can select which part of the law to obey. For example, we are required by law to insure our vehicles and also drive on the right. Some people have decided that they will insure their vehicles but then drive on the left when it suits them. You can find them practicing their impunity on the Spintex Road to their hearts content because they know that they will get away with it. I make no apology for constantly harking back to Spintex traffic situations as examples because in my view a nation that cannot set and enforce simple traffic regulations is in a lot of trouble whether it is God-fearing or not.
Therefore, we have to acknowledge an interesting but disturbing conundrum at play here. When we believe that we are God-fearing but do things in a manner that contradicts this declaration, we are not necessarily being deceitful; rather there is a disconnection between what we profess in private and how we live our lives in public. Some people call this hypocrisy and they may be right, but I believe that if the laws of our country were transparent, fair and enforced most people would be able to connect their private beliefs to their public responsibilities.
Example: even with the best will in the world, the most conscientious driver in Accra will have to drive badly just to survive because that is how we drive in this town. Even pedestrians cannot walk safely because roads are built without pavements and the few pavements in towns and cities have been converted into mini markets by traders. Pedestrians cross streets at any point that suits them, and we can’t be blamed because drivers refuse to stop at the few zebra crossings that have been marked for people to use as road crossing points.
By the way, I read recently that cameras are going to be installed on our roads to help prevent accidents. It is not a bad idea but a laughable Ghanaian solution that is unlikely to have any effect. Most of the severest accidents occur at night or in the early hours of the morning on our highways. Cameras will capture images if the background is well lit. This means that a driver whizzing by above the speed limit will be captured at best as a grainy image in the gloom of our unlit highways. Meanwhile, the absence of street lights even in our cities, let alone on the highways is a contributory factor to the high frequency of road accidents.
 Furthermore, vehicles captured by the cameras will be identified by their number plates, but there are vehicles plying on our roads without any number, or without any illumination above the number plates and amazingly they go past police stops on the way. I have seen these many times. Above all, these cameras will need to be checked and serviced, but in a country where no one appears to be responsible for changing street light bulbs what is the guarantee that these cameras will be paid any attention?
I know that the cameras will not be expected to achieve miracles on their own but good driving and observation of basic driving rules and each of us taking responsibility for our actions and the health and safety of our neighbours will achieve more than cameras and gadgets ever will for this country. People do not do the right thing because they are God fearing but because they have been taught what the right thing is and there are laws to reinforce that knowledge and penalties to pay when the law is broken. Above all, there must be continuous education on doing the right thing because people will always regress to their personal comfort zone even at the expense of the communal interest.
So here is my take: the assumption that we are a God-fearing nation implies that we know and will do what is good. But that is neither the case in fact, nor is it true as a proposition for achieving the public good. In this country, we are not asked as citizens to do anything for ourselves. Governments promise to do everything even though they cannot do what the promise without our contribution. Take taxation: we all know that only a small proportion of people in this country pay any direct taxes based on their income, and some of the non-payers are among the wealthiest people. Elsewhere, there are continuous campaigns to get people who must pay their taxes to do so, and vigorous measures are put in place to ensure that they do so. 
We may or may not fear God, but we must all be held to a common account through the rule of law to achieve the development and decent lives that we crave. While the devil-may-care, free for all, rampant greed and dishonesty that have become the norm may be curbed by religious belief and instruction, as a nation we must insist that civil responsibility and education become the common standard.
This article was first published in the Diary column in the Daily Graphic

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Are Ghanaians really God-fearing (Part 1)

One often hears that Ghanaians are either a God-fearing People, or God’s chosen people or both. My view of such talk has always been that a bit of hubris is perhaps good for the soul and psyche of the human race. In other words, such sentiments belong to the loose talk column rather than as the basis for any serious thinking or action. However, it appears that some people do take such talk seriously. Obviously, the editors of the Daily Graphic newspaper do.

In its editorial of last Tuesday, the Daily Graphic had this to say in its third paragraph: Ghanaians, by nature and orientation, are a God-fearing people who imbibe and live by the sacred commandments of the Almighty God to be peace-loving and cherish peaceful co-existence in their respective communities.
I read that editorial three times then looked at myself and wondered is this referring to us Ghanaians? My next thought was that there must be a typing error, but my fourth reading convinced me that this is what the writer wanted to write and this sentiment has been expressed in earnest. To be fair to the Graphic, perhaps the editorial is expressing an opinion about the private aspirations of Ghanaians rather than a reference to our public character, but then what is important is how people behave towards one another, and on that score, I do not believe that Ghanaians are God-fearing at all.
I may be wrong, of course, and I am sure that many people, including you, my dear reader, may have a different opinion, so to test it I have devised a little game for us to play. I am going to provide a list of different professions and occupations and you can award marks for how God-fearing each group is perceived to be. Give ten for the most God-fearing and one for the least. Here is the first list: politicians, nurses, journalists, lawyers, doctors, carpenters, traders, footballers, pastors (including bishops, archbishops, prophets, overseers and church owners), drivers (including tro-tro mates).
 Did you spot any massively obvious God-fearers in that list? Here is a second list: teachers, nurses, policemen/women, Members of Parliament, tailors and dressmakers, barbers, traditional rulers, soldiers, judges, university lecturers, house builders, contractors, farmers, plumbers, secondhand clothes dealers, football referees, herbalists, juju-men, civil servants (PLEASE SUPPLY OTHERS). Perhaps, you had better luck with this lot?
The above lists includes almost the entire gamut of occupations in which Ghanaians are engaged and I wonder if there is any one profession or occupation on that list that you rate high on the God-fearing index. Perhaps, you have a more sanguine disposition towards us as Ghanaians but my experience has led me to conclude that there is not a single one of the above group of people that you can confidently deal with on the grounds of a positive rating. This is not to say that there is not a single honest trader or plumber in this country, but your gut reaction on engaging a plumber or buying from a market trader is to be wary because they will take advantage of you if they can.
If you feel that judging by professions and occupations is an unfair method let us use scenarios. I will provide ten common scenes or scenarios and work out whether we are God-fearing or not in that particular context. For example, at the market: would you say that Ghanaians exhibit a high sense of God-fearing at the market? You can award marks out of ten to reflect the degree of such God-fearing we show at the market. So, here we go: at the restaurant or chop bar, driving, fetching water, observing public sanitation, relations with spouses or sexual partners, in church or place of worship, watching sports, taking exams, at work.
I do not believe that any one of us can say with any degree of honesty that as a people we exhibit serious God-fearing qualities in any of the above scenarios. Let us select a few of these scenarios randomly to test my point. Take how we drive and behave in traffic, which I see as a metaphor for our entire Ghanaian existence and how we behave towards one another. The other day I saw a taxi with many pious inscriptions plastered all over it, which showed that at the very least the driver believed that the Lord was his Shepherd, but this driver did not behave at all like God’s sheep in any shape or form. He was more like the devil’s wolf cutting in front of people and changing lanes without any indication and so on. I couldn’t help but tell him after I drew level that he was taking the name of the Lord in vain.
Most of us are like that driver; we may spew the pieties we learnt at school which have been reinforced at church, mosque or other places of worship over the years but these have no effect on how we live our public lives. In traffic we forget all the manners our grandparents taught us, (I am assuming grandparents still teach manners) and behave with maniacal abandon towards one another. Indeed, I see the road/traffic as the imagery of our nation: going nowhere fast, unkempt, and without a compass. The worst part of it is that unlike God-fearing people, we have become fatalistic in our acceptance of shabbiness as our lot, but perhaps it is this civic docility which is mistaken as peace-loving, of which more soon.
Let us take another scenario, say the market. About four years ago, I wrote an article about my experience at Makola Market, which I titled a Nation of Cheats. Makola heaves only to one motivation: cheat and cheat and cheat again. In Makola the cheating has become the raison d’etre and any peripheral motive such as getting rich evaporated long ago. The cheating just gives people kicks and they no longer regard it as cheating. It is a way of life. For example, if you are buying a small basket of tomatoes and take your eyes off the business for a micro-second the seller will stuff your bag with all the rotten ones she can find (tomato sellers are almost always women), but I don’t think this is done because she wants to be rich. Simply that she has got the better of you. She has “shown” you! Meanwhile, the majority of these cheats are church-going, tithe paying people who are singing hymns and inspirational songs in the market.
Another positive attribute mentioned in the Daily Graphic editorial is that we are peace-loving. It is true that there has been no shooting war on a national scale since independence but peace is not just the absence of war, but a certain predisposition towards preventing war by not provoking others. This is not the situation in Ghana today. There is relentless provocation of people, especially people in different political parties and despite the words we say, our actions can trigger violence at any time. Furthermore, throughout our history, we have done unspeakable things to one another in this country which is a measure of the cruelty we are capable of when the “need” arises.
There is no doubt that many, perhaps most of us believe that we are God-fearing and we may be so in our private hearts. I am also not saying that there are no good Ghanaians because that would be false. There are Ghanaians who are kind and truthful and honest, etc. but I am talking about public conduct because the kindly and generous person you know becomes a monster once he or she sits behind a driving wheel, and it is that monster and not the nice kind person that will knock down and kill a child with a speeding 4 X 4 breaking every driving rule. The civil service clerk who hides files in order to extort money from clients may sing a nice tenor in church but it is his public persona that is causing harm to the national economy.
Are we really God-fearing. Please send your experiences and opinions to the addresses below. I shall return.