Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Religion, homosexuality, lottery (Week 8)

Religion is always one of the (if not the) basic aspects that shapes a society and therefore guiding any development. This is among the things that are often emphasized in young, developing nations. In Ghana the Christian community is very active and almost ever-present. The churches do without doubt a lot of good on the grass-roots and community levels and have also helped out on some projects driven by AIESEC KNUST (at least the ASK Project, combating the spread of HIV/AIDS).
St. Paul's Cathedral, Amakom, Kumasi

There’s no question of the Ghanaians as a lot being very religious. Contrary to what I had expected, even most of the younger, educated generation has no problems expressing and discussing their faith. A lot of them go to church early every Sunday morning, which involves playing some loud religious music around The House to get also the less religious of us up and going. A question heard almost as often as “You are from Germany, right?” is “What church do you attend?” Tro-tro’s and other vehicles are equipped with religious tags and decorations more often than anything else.

It is tempting to conclude, however, that the wide public presence of the churches is a result of intense competition over followers. Differences between churches (Pentecostal, protestant, catholic etc.) are made very clear. The aggressive marketing of seminars, group fasting, “prophetic encounters” and other events featuring star speakers from all over the world gives religion in Ghana a much commercialized touch. It does not stop here. Quite often you run into even oppressive discussions over personal religious views. Active marketing is also done when any opportunity appears. I spent the first hour of a bus ride from Accra to Kumasi listening to a Methodist preacher going very loudly on in Twi (or some other local language) about at least America, Barack Obama, promises and future plans for what I could understand. To target a group that has no possibility of ignoring the preacher was treated as something normal by our fellow passengers. All this marketing and attrirtion is a bit of a shock from the point of view of a not so pious, quiet Lutheran.

I can’t avoid thinking that the active and charismatic presence of various Christian churches is in part done to target a relatively poor and uneducated people in need of strong leadership and guidance for not only faith-related reasons. Surely this can, from a cynical stance, be seen as a form of business, selling services and solutions to people in need. Another explanation I’ve heard by a foreigner in the country is the general paranoia exported from America concerning the expansion of Islam (around 16% of the population in Ghana) spreading in West Africa. It is not hard to find American youngsters probably supported by communities or even the government back home spending some time “spreading their faith” in Kumasi. Again I want to point to the remarkable peaceful symbiosis between religions in Ghana. It would be a shame to see tensions rise because of issues completely outside the country.

The theme of religion brings us to one stark contrast in attitudes between here and home clearly motivated by religion. If there’s a lively debate going on in Europe regarding gay rights, there is no discussion in Ghana: It is not accepted. This conservatism is a bit surprising in a society where fairly liberal attitudes prevail when discussing for instance alcohol, business life or sex (Again it has to be remembered that I spend most of my time with university students). Then again it could be seen as simply the general view on the whole continent. Nevertheless, coming from Finland, where gay rights are relatively well established and there is some high-quality, high-level debate over them, it is odd to hear university students studying human rights, microbiology or economics describe homosexuality as simply evil. The reasoning seldom go beyond it being “forbidden by the bible” and “disgusting.”

Like I said, the harsh attitudes do not confine to Ghana alone. Same-sex sexual activity is illegal virtually everywhere in Africa (With South Africa being the main, not surprising, exception), somewhere even by threat of death penalty. Debates in Malawi and Uganda, over LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, for and against respectively, have gotten attention all over the world. In Sierra Leone the rumor has it a university student was beaten up by colleagues during a presentation not connected to the issue.

Of course, every country has its right to set and oversee laws based on the public opinion, which clearly is the case here. This turning into violent persecution (not a big issue in Ghana, by the way) is a bigger problem since it surely does not set a good example of how to handle not-very-well accepted minorities around the continent. The issue got a whole lot bigger when David Cameron in October 2011 announced that his country will cut off all aid from countries that do not make homosexuality illegal. A respectable, very European, attempt to influence human rights issues via development aid. Or is this one more example of western powers trying to control African society and development? Obviously, this has not been met with expressions of joy anywhere in Africa. John Atta Mills of Ghana decidedly refused.

I have referred a few times to the honesty and the remarkable degree to which a lot of things work based simply on trust and respect amongst men (the tro-tro system, sending passports to Accra for visa extension, paying the "correct" price and getting change as well as many more unspoken rules), which also might be an expression of the role of religious authorities. A great expression of the universal trust is the National Lottery system, the Ghanaian version of a global phenomenon. I have shared some bottles with a man I call Joe (because he told me to). He works as a lottery official. This involves sitting days on end in a small, green, yellow and red, booth in Kwamo, our home township just east of Kumasi. There he registers the combination of numbers anyone wants to bet their money on. His life gets interesting when one of his customers wins actually wins something. Instead of the winner, possibly even unaware of the result, claiming his/hers profit at a central office, Joe gets going, fetches the prize, in cash, and delivers. Naturally this involves knowing, acknowledging that one of Joe's customers has won in the first place (documentation might be lacking...), being trusted by supervisors with big amounts of cash and not keeping any amount of money for himself. I doubt a system like this would work in some parts of Europe.

By the way, for anyone interested, here’s the official but edited overview of what is planned to happen during the second phase of the YES Project:

The second phase of the YES Project will consist primarily in establishing entrepreneurship ventures for young Ghanaian vocational students. This will be done through establishing workshops at the Kumasi Elite College for the students. During these workshops, YES Project team members will work in small groups with interested students to develop their business plans.
The business plans developed during the workshops will be placed under review by a board consisting of academics, finance directors and appropriate professionals. From this review process, the best business plans will be selected to receive sponsorships from a number of companies to provide working capital.
This part of the project will also consist of contact with a number of companies, NGOs and micro-financing organizations to examine the way in which the scope of the project can be broadened to ensure maximum effectiveness.
Schools will be contacted at this stage of the project to examine whether any students would be willing to establish their own enterprises and attend workshops for entrepreneurial support.
A number of students from KTI have already expressed interest in having further information provided to them with regard to entrepreneurship and how they should proceed to establish their own businesses.
The primary purpose of approaching professional financial and commercial institutions in this phase of the project is to secure starting capital for prospective entrepreneurs. The young students who wish to begin their entrepreneurial ventures will obviously be provided a certain amount of capital overlay to begin their operations. By approaching a number of specialists in micro-financing, the team should be able to secure a reasonable amount of working capital, at minimal cost, to be invested in the new ventures. For example: the companies can consider this sponsorship as an initial investment, with the money to be paid back to the companies once the new business ventures become profitable. Essentially, the initial investment will act as an interest-free loan to the young entrepreneurs.
Also an external review board, consisting of a number of financial officers from the target companies, as well as academics, will be established. The duty of this board will be to review the proposals, business plans and organization of the startup enterprises.
The potential ways in which the companies provide sponsorships will have to be determined through negotiation. However one potential option would be to bundle the business plans in a portfolio to make them more attractive to prospective sponsors. This would limit the risks that the sponsors are exposed to by providing capital for these entrepreneurs.
Business Professionals:
A number of business professionals must be contacted to form part of the business plan review board.
Professor Annan has already been contacted and has agreed to participate as a member of the board. However other businesses need to be contacted to secure executives from their finance and marketing departments to review all aspects of the student business plans.
The primary aim of the workshops is to have a developed, reviewed and financed business plan within 6 weeks.
The workshops will provide a platform for the students to work together to develop their business ideas and plans. These workshops will be conducted in small groups, with one to two interns working with these student teams. These workshops will take place at Kumasi Elite College, and will be attended by students from KTI, Kumasi Elite College, and St Paul’s.
Project Goals and Objectives:
A.       Short-Term Objectives (6 week time frame):
                                             i.            Establish work shops for young entrepreneurs at Kumasi Elite College
                                            ii.            Receive sponsorship from organizations
                                          iii.            Place respective business plans under review
                                         iv.            Have business plans reviewed, developed and financed by sponsor organizations

B.      Long-Term Objectives
                                             i.            Create a consistent program for the AIESEC interns, to provide a solid framework which they can use to establish the above mentioned workshops and provide support for students
Improve reporting and structure of YES Project

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