Africa
7:02 am
Sat April 12, 2014

Pentecostal Churches Accused Of Exploiting Cameroon's Poor

Originally published on Sat April 12, 2014 10:26 am

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing Christian denomination in the world. It has spread swiftly through sub-Saharan Africa, which is now home to nearly 45 percent of all of Pentecostals. In Cameroon, a mainly Christian nation that sits in the crook of West Africa, the church's explosive growth has attracted government attention and ire. Andres Caballero reports.

ANDRES CABALLERO, BYLINE: The city of Bamenda sits near the lush green hills of northwest Cameroon. It's home to 400,000 people and a fast-growing number of revival churches. On my way through the outskirts of the city on a Sunday morning, I come across the Rhema Christian Center. It's a long, open structure covered by a giant tin roof. It looks even bigger from the inside, and it's bustling with nearly 5,000 worshipers. Several pregnant women wait to be prayed over. Cameroon has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, and these mothers believe the ministrations of Pastor Warah Solomon (ph) will guarantee that all will go smoothly.

WARAH SOLOMON: (Foreign language spoken).

CABALLERO: A pregnant woman who is three days late to deliver lies on the ground of a circular cement stage surrounded by dozens of people who wait in line to be healed. An usher wearing a red silk shirt brings Pastor Solomon a plastic bottle of holy or anointed water.

SOLOMON: Open up to cleanse all the complications. Drink. Watch as she drinks the anointed water. Watch. The anointed water is making the baby to be positioned. Baby, you cannot die, in Jesus name. You can't.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Crying).

CABALLERO: The woman cries out in pain and apparently begins having contractions. She can't really stand on her own. People watch with their hands lifted up while the ushers carry her out and ask for volunteers to drive her to a hospital. Robert Akoko teaches sociology and anthropology at the University of Buea in the southwest region of Cameroon. He explains why the churches are so popular here.

ROBERT AKOKO: Cameroonians are faced with economic crises, HIV, AIDS - which cannot be cured - terminal illnesses and ones that themselves in such debt, they seek Pentecostal churches.

CABALLERO: But Akoko says, it's not just faith healing that's drawing followers. The church also claims to offer protection from evil spirits.

AKOKO: You hear people being exercised of spiritual husbands and spiritual wives.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CAPPELLA SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) There is no one like you. You are the...

CABALLERO: In this quiet Bamenda neighborhood, the only thing that distinguishes King's Deliverance Ministries from the other buildings is the sound of women singing a cappella. Pastor Emanuel Ojei (ph) tells me he came from Nigeria and started this church less than a year ago. He calls himself a prophet.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)

EMANUEL OJEI: (Foreign language spoken).

CABALLERO: He paces back and forth with a Bible on his hand while the congregation repeats after him. Besides healing and prophecy, he says he specializes in casting demons out of people.

OJEI: Demons manifest. You see them screaming, crying and confessing. Some say they are spiritual husband, and some say they are spiritual wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)

OJEI: I don't want to know how long. The boy is dead and dying. I don't want to know how long they've been suffering.

CABALLERO: Mary Sabe (ph) stands up from her seat, lifts up her hands and reaffirms the words of the pastor. She joined this Pentecostal church after more than a decade as a Catholic. She says she was being tormented by what she called a spiritual husband.

MARY SABE: I couldn't sleep in the night. They always come have sex with me in the night, every night. So it was so tormenting. I didn't just know what to do.

CABALLERO: One of her friends told her about Pastor Ojei and this church.

SABE: So when I worship there, that is how I got my deliverance.

CABALLERO: Akoko has studied Pentecostalism and its growth amid economic hardship in Cameroon. He says that even though it originated in America, it's been what he describes as Africanized.

AKOKO: It addresses problems faced by Africans. It addresses the beliefs of Africans as far as supernatural forces may be concerned.

CABALLERO: But according to Akoko, it's the Pentecostal gospel of prosperity that draws Cameroonians, many of whom live on less than $7 a day. A branch of a Nigerian mega-church known as Winners Chapel has operated in Bamenda for several years. It's grown so fast recently that the church had to start having two Sunday morning services to accommodate nearly 1,400 members.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)

CABALLERO: During today's service, hundreds of people listen to members testify about how God has blessed them with material riches and with job promotions. This woman says she wondered why she always had to drive a rundown car compared to everyone else's. She says that after much prayer, God blessed her with a new Nissan. After the testimonies, young ushers in pressed suits crisscrossed the large concrete building collecting offerings from the congregation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)

CABALLERO: There are more than 500 revival churches operating in Cameroon, but fewer than 50 are legally registered. Their rapid growth, as well as what the government views as questionable practices, has drawn attention. Last year, the government ordered the closure of nearly 100 churches claiming that some Pentecostals pastors engage in criminal practices, including extortion.

MINISTER OF COMMUNICATION ISSA BAKARY: (Foreign language spoken).

CABALLERO: That's Cameroon's minister of communication, Issa Bakary. He says these so-called awaken churches take advantage of people who are in tough situations. Professor Akoko says there are genuine Pentecostal churches.

AKOKO: But the problem now is identifying the good ones from the bad ones.

CABALLERO: For NPR news, I'm Andres Caballero.

SIMON: And Andres is an NPR Above the Fray fellow, sponsored by the John Alexander Project. That's a group that supports young journalists to find stories like the one we just heard. Tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION, we'll look into the Cameroonian government's crackdown on hundreds of revival churches. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.