Africa, Headlines

RELIGION-TOGO: Charismatic Churches Prey on Vulnerable Women

Noel Kokou Tadegnon

LOME, Sep 13 2003 (IPS) - Ayele Ajavon is a happy woman, so she believes. After she was divorced by her husband, she sought solace in the church.

”I turned to the church and found a job and a new partner,” says Ajavon, now a secretary in the capital Lome.

But Ajavon cannot take any step or decision without consulting her pastor who also happens to be her ”new partner”.

And she donates part of her salary to the church, as tithe. ”I owe everything to the pastor and the money that I give the church every month is really nothing,” she says.

Ajavon is not alone. Many Togolese women have been taken for a ride by their pastors. The fledgling charismatic churches, which are mushrooming in Togo, promise eternal life, peace of mind, happiness and fortune.

Yet none of the women has become rich. Instead they are being stripped of their possessions by church leaders.

”The ‘Deeper Life’ sect in Lome, for example, urges women to give pastors their gold and silver jewelry, but no one knows what this sect does with the jewelry,” says Magloire Kouakouvi, a professor of philosophy at the University of Lome.

The majority of church goers are women and they are also its main victims.

”Many couples have divorced because of the constant absence of the woman, who spends long nighttime prayer sessions rather than stay at home to take care of her family,” says Nadine Lawson-Hellou, a nurse.

But Lina Apedo, a shopkeeper, disagrees. She denounces the attempt to vilify the charismatic churches. ”It’s a minor problem because it’s really the churches that reunite the couples,” she argues.

Unfortunately, there is no statistics to back up the claims of the church-related divorce rate in Togo.

Before 1990, most sects evolved underground when Togo was still under a one-party system; they were frequently raided by the police. But once the multiparty process began, especially when the banning of religious groups was lifted, the number of sects began to proliferate.

Since 1990, the ministry of interior has recorded 500 charismatic churches in Togo.

Very skillful at interpreting the Bible, the pastors have succeeded in recruiting members, often women, who have financial, family and employment problems.

The Bible and Jesus Christ stand at the centre of each sect, although each group brings its own slight modifications to the original doctrine.

Most of the sects develop from contributions from the church members. ”Our pastor sometimes sets a minimum of 10,000 CFA (about 17 US dollars) to give to the church,” says Akouvi Dogno, a housewife.

”I just couldn’t do it any longer, so I quit,” she says.

Some sects even organise fund-raising activities. They demand that their followers bring certain products, which they sell and keep the money for the church.

The sects also receive donations from members or from those seeking a miracle. ”In our church, donations can come in the form of money, a car, or land on which they can build another church; everything depends on the donor. I would certainly give if I had the means,” says Florence Tsikplonou, a trader at a Lome market.

Some of the sects mix African religion with Christian practices.

Such churches exist in almost every corner of Lome. Generally, they are located in private homes which are quickly transformed into churches with evening prayer sessions.

The sects also exploit the airwaves, promoting their activities through television or radio.

”People in Africa think of God as a magician. ‘I want a job, I want to get married. I’m going to pray to God so he gives me what I want’,” explains Kouakouvi.

“Established churches, like Catholic and Anglican, do not engage in miracles as the charismatic churches do,” he says.

Catholic priest Casimir Kodo blames the Roman church for allowing the charismatic churches to steal its followers. ”The sects mix up nationalism with Christianity, and it’s fascinating,” he says.

For Muslims, who make up five percent of Togo’s population, the growing charismatic churches are hardly surprising. Lome’s Grand Mosque Imam Ibrahim Sylla says: ”The Koran predicted this situation a very long time ago and it’s only now that people are starting to realise it”.

But for followers of traditional African religions, who make up 75 of Togo’s population, these sects are nothing but ”demonic”.

“These pastors are ripping off their members and even taking other people’s wives,” claims Augustin Assiobo, Lome’s high priest of Voodoo.

The sects make headlines in the local papers, with cases of robbery, adultery and theft often featuring prominently. Arsene Mensah, the secretary general of an anti-AIDS group, says some ”false pastors” claim that they can treat HIV/AIDS. ”Through their sermons, they rip-off sick people and their families, and they make lots of money doing it. Often, the sick die,” says Mensah.

”These pastors are conmen,” says Joelle Kloutse, a student. She admits to having been robbed, with her mother, by a pastor. ”He was a young man who put together a church in our neighborhood and succeeded in getting us excited. After he took the money and property from church members, he ran-off with his girlfriend to the United States,” she says.

But Dieudonne Alouka, who is in charge of a sect called ”Ministry of Health”, disagrees. According to him, the accusations are aimed at vilifying pastors’ and their work.

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