According to official statistics, based on the affiliations claimed by citizens in national censuses, Ghana has undergone a religious revolution since gaining independence from Britain in 1957. For example, in 1960 it was found that 38 percent of the population still claimed adherence to traditional religions, but by 2010 the percentage had fallen to 5.2. Over the same time span, the proportion of Muslims also fell from 30 percent to 17.6 percent, but the proportion of people claiming allegiance to a Christian church rose from 24 to 71.2 percent. One might wonder whether such a fundamental change in beliefs as implied by these statistics can really have taken place.
One factor to be considered is population growth. Found to be 6.7 millions in 1961, the population of Ghana has grown steadily to reach 25 millions by 2012. From colonial times, most of the adherents of Christianity have been located in the south of the country where the population density is highest. Consequently, population growth favoured Christianity, rather than Islam, which was stronger in the more sparsely populated northern half of the country. The statistics are disputed by Muslims, but as their strength lies mainly among the northern tribes, they can be increasing in absolute numbers while falling in terms of relative overall national percentage. However, population growth cannot explain the declining affiliation of the old fetish religions which were strong in all parts of the country.
The fate of the fetish religions is related to the balance of forces within the Christian community. The Protestant and Catholic churches have roughly equal numbers of followers but their combined proportion of the overall population fell from 33.7 percent in 2000 to 31.5 percent in 2010. Over the same period, the proportion of the followers of Pentecostal, Evangelical, Charismatic and other local Christian churches rose from 35.1 percent to 39.7 percent. New churches in this group have been springing up throughout the country in recent years and account for most of the growth in the overall numbers of Christians. A major factor in their popularity is a compromise with traditional beliefs.
According to Michelle Gilbert, writing in Ghana, Yesterday and Today (Paris 2003), ‘Evangelical and Charismatic churches are found throughout Southern and Central Ghana and the “Gospel of Prosperity”, imported from America, has transformed popular culture.’ The transformation has involved a coalescence of old fetish beliefs with the precepts of Christianity. For example, the Pentecostal church takes the threat of witchcraft seriously and was the first Christian church to offer ‘deliverance’ services. It has also adopted the idea of the exchange of blood for money. In the past, people believed that they prospered through blood sacrifice, human or animal, so the blood sacrifice of Jesus became a powerful image. People say: ‘Yesu mogya nka w’anim, Let the blood of Jesus splash your face.’
Seeing that they were losing members to the Pentecostals, the Catholic and Presbyterian churches introduced deliverance services or exorcisms in the 1990s. However the statistics suggest that their relative decline has not been halted, perhaps because other fetish beliefs have not been accommodated. Another reason might be a perceived lack of passion in services that retain the solemn rituals of European origin. Ghana’s new churches produce extraordinary levels of noise in singing and drumming that continues throughout the night and can be heard for miles around.
Only time will tell whether Ghana’s new Christian churches have absorbed and neutralised the old fetish religion, or whether the fetish religion has infiltrated and adapted the practice of Christianity. Many people remain animist by instinct but Christian by default; hence their self-proclaimed affiliation in the national census. Statistics, as so often found, tell only part of the story.