Ghanaian Money Matters

One of the things it has taken me a while to get used to is the almost weekly asking for money. I’m not talking about the daily asking for money from people on the street, I’m talking about the people who work for me.

For example, last week, Stephen, our week-end guard had come to me asking for us to “borrow him some” to pay his children’s school fees, roughly ¢600,000 ($60). One of the hallmarks of Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, was free education, and sadly, it was one of the first things to go after the coup in 1966. Since then Ghanaians have had to pay school fees for their children’s education, something many can not afford. As an obrunie, being asked to pay a child’s school fees is common. I get asked in one way or another about once a month by people I know, and people I’ve just met. I’m warned to always say no, because saying yes once, could be making a life long commitment to pay them.

So it isn’t that strange that Stephen would ask, I mean he has nothing to lose. Stephen is a funny one because he will ask for a loan at the beginning of the month, and then right after payday, pay it all back, knowing full well that in two weeks, he will be telling me, (insert teeth sucking, clicking sound) “the money is finished,” and ask to “borrow me some small ting.” I even moved the all guard’s dash-date, when I slip them something extra, to their money low water mark of the month, when I know that the money will be finished, and I am expected to help out. But I gather there is something else going on here, that in this culture, it is good to be owed money, because if someone owes me money, then he is my friend. So the way to make friends is to owe money, except that loan is often seen as another word for gift, and it only needs to be repaid when the creditor’s needs become greater than the debtor’s needs.[1]

Stephen is prompt in his repayment, and we have not had to him for ask for it, something our weekday guards don’t get. Apparently in Africa, the burden rests with the lender, not the lendee, and so if we want our loan repaid, we have to ask for it. But not Stephen so his credit is good with us, but ¢600,000 is almost his total monthly salary, and so I wonder how could he ever repay it?

[Native Doctor sign on the way to Ho]
A few days earlier, Emmanuel had come to me because his brother is sick, and he needs money. It seems his brother’s manhood “would not let down,” he said, and Emmanuel’s family believes it was a curse brought on by the ancestors of a certain woman, a certain married woman that his brother had been with. After much investigation, rumor, and gossip, his brother finally confesses to the affair and his family decides it there is a curse upon his manhood, they need take him to a fetish priest. You can think of a fetish priest as a sort of African witch doctor or shaman, who deals in the things that come from the world beyond. After visiting the fetish priest in another village, they are told that unless the fetish priest does not remove this curse, he will be dead in nine days. Cost of treatment: ¢2,000,000 and one sheep. I don’t exactly know what the sheep was for, but the going rate for one is 1.5 million cedis, so the total cost is about $350-400.

The Asantes believe there are three parts to human, an okra, sunsum, and mogya.[2] The okra is the guiding spirit of a person, which loosely translates as the soul, and understood as a small bit of the creator that lives with-in the person. When a person is about to be born they are presented to the creator, who speaks a word (called the kra) into the okra, and it is this word that determine its destiny from birth to death. Only humans have an okra, animals do not, so when you show the height of a sheep, you will do so palm down, but for a person, it is palm side up, because humans have an okra.

The second element is the sunsum, which is the spiritual aspect of a person. The sunsum is inherited from the biological father, and is associated with the personality and moral character of the person. It can loosely translated as spirit. Because the sunsum comes from the father, it becomes the father’s duty to pay school fees, while the mother is expected to train her daughters in domestic and social skills, however if the daughter misbehaves, it is the father’s fault.

The third element is mogya, which means blood, and it comes from the mother. The Asante are a matrilineal society, so the inheritance, status, and royal succession come through the mother’s line, and the mogya is what determines it for a person.

When Emmanual’s brother became sick, his family were convinced that the ancestors of the woman he had had an affair with had cursed his mogya, and only the Fetish Priest could remove this curse.

One thing you need to know about Emmanuel is that he has a strong faith, and is very active in his Seventh Day Adventist Church, so I’m a little surprised by his request. Fetish Priest?! I asked him, “has your brother been to a clinic, or seen a doctor, or to hospital?” No, it would do no good, (or later the answer changes to “his manhood would fall off”) because it was a spiritual problem, and the kind of curse that only a fetish priest could remove.

Well, the amazing part of this story is that while we’re having this conversation, Andrew and Ju Jernigan, were already on their way over to our house by taxi. They were in town that day, picking up a friend at the airport and supposed to be flying back to Kumasi, but the plane did not come in from wherever she was supposed to, so there was no flight that morning, and the next would be that afternoon, possibly, so they had called, would I like to “borrow them my car?”

Now remember, Ju is a medical doctor, who’s clinic I had spent a week at earlier this year.
I had tried to explain to Emmanuel that his brother had an STD, but he wasn’t buying it, at least not from me. He was convinced it was a curse, and so a medical solution would do nothing. But Emmanuel knows Ju and Andrew as the owners of the Patrol, and so he is a little bit awed by them. When they arrive, and we’ve properly greeted one another, I ask Ju if she could just spend a few minutes with Emmanuel. I feel bad asking this because being a doctor must be like being a pastor, you’re always on call, and here she is six hours away from her clinic, and its responsibilities, and being asked for a consult.

[Ju treating a young patient at Lake Bosomtwi]
Ju is an amazing doctor, with such a pure heart for ministry. When you watch her working with a patient, you can see the love of Christ ooze out of her. There is such a peace about her, and seeing her sit with Emmanuel and listen… well ooze, isn’t perhaps the best verb to describe it, but you know right that she is using the tender touch of the hands of Christ, and blessing them.

[brewing Sun Tea outside our house]
Meanwhile, Andrew, their friend Bella, and I go into the kitchen, to wait out of earshot, and drink iced tea. Iced tea is a bit of a novelty here, you never see it on the menu, or if it is, the waiter will tell you “it is finished”. But we almost always have some brewed in our fridge, and the smile it brings to people’s faces with they are offered it, is priceless. A taste of home.

After about half an hour, when Ju had prayed with Emmanuel, and convinced him to take his brother to a clinic, or hospital, it is safe to come out. We spend a delightful day running around Accra in our new car, and it is fun to have this unstructured time to talk to my good friend Andrew. I hear about the progress the clinic is making, and how God is arranging its details. After I drop them off at the airport, Emmanuel is waiting, and I explain that I will have to talk with Madame (meaning Suzanne), and in the morning, I can “borrow him some.”

I don’t know what he is going to do, all I know is that we’re not going to finance a trip to the fetish priest. I feel bad for Emmanuel because this is his only brother, and he seems to be the only one in the family that ever has any money (or a job), and Vida and him are trying so hard to save money to buy a container.

[Emmanuel and his Mother in happier times, though you couldn’t tell it from their “smiles”]
It has been their dream from years to buy a container, a sort of large box from which people sell from. Talk to street traders, and their dream is always to buy a container, so they can locate, so they won’t have to carry it all around on their heads, or so they can stock more merchandise. The cost is about 5-6 million cedis, half a year’s salary, and each time they have saved up 2 or 3 million, someone gets sick, or needs school fees, or dies, and whatever they have saved is asked for, given, and never seen again. The last time it was Emmanuel’s mother, when neither her husband, nor his brother, nor really anybody in the village or extended family had the money to take her to the hospital, and she lay literally dying at in her house in constant pain. So, Emmanuel takes a TroTro home with all they have saved, and saves the day.

So I feel bad, knowing that if he does this thing, it will again drain their life savings, and there is, for him, really no option of saying no, or that they don’t have it, which was, if I heard right, Emmanuel’s first response, to which his mother said, “You are a wicked son, not to bring money to save your brother,” except that the word brother comes out more like broder, because there is no “th” in the local languages.

God is so good, as they say here. Emmanuel took a TroTro home over the week-end and was able to convince his family and brother to go to a clinic where the prescription he received was the same as what Dr. Ju had prescribed (giving both creditability). Emmanuel bought and paid for the medicine, and his brother reports that when he takes the medicine he does not “hear” he pain. Today, one week later, he is back to normal. While he was back at the village, Emmanuel also checked his brother into a Christian community called “The Twelve Apostles” but as I learned this morning, he had to deposit ¢400,000 to buy sacrifices, so I’m not sure his brother is receiving the sort of Christian counseling I might have hoped for.

Still God has used this in Emmanuel’s life, revealing a part of his life he has not entirely given over to God. I think about this myself, wondering what parts of my life I have not given over and would entrust to the obrunie equivalent to the fetish priest.

[Vida’s Grandmother]
In a way, I’m glad that we did not have the money to loan Emmanuel, and I think he was relived too, because he had to ask for it. For a few days it looks like their life-savings is safe, but then Vida’s aunt dies, and now all that they have worked so hard for and saved, will be devoted to that cause. It’s a cycle I’ve seen repeated now several times, and each time it breaks my heart.

I want to help, and perhaps the best way I can, is not to, or at least not to help too much. Emmanuel, in one of his stronger moments asked me to never loan him, nor any of the guards more than ¢100,000 at one time. He said this the week before he came asking for ¢800,000, and then sheepishly said, “I know I told you never to loan us ‘dis money, but…”

[These kids in Ayem are not at school]
We could loan Stephen the school fees, we could even give him the money, but then where does it end? I mean Emmanuel has school fees, and so does Daniel, and in the end, I wonder who we are really helping. Welcome to Africa.

[These kids are in school->]
and the difference is
school fees.
[1] Maranz, David, African Friends and Money Matters, p 145-149
[2] Burnett, David, World of the Spirits: A Christian Perspective on Traditional and Folk Religions, p47-50
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