Lome: Ayele Ajavon is a happy woman, so she believes. After she was divorced by her husband, she sought solace in the church.
- The Bible, New International Version, 1 Timothy 6:3-10
“I turned to the church and found a job and a new partner,” says Ajavon, now a secretary in Togo’s 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. “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 the women are being stripped of their possessions by church leaders.
“The Deeper Life sect in Lome, for example, urges women to give pastors their jewellery, but no one knows what this sect does with the jewellery,” 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 attends long night-time 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.”
There are 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 interior ministry has recorded 500 charismatic churches in Togo.
Skilful at interpreting the Bible, the pastors have succeeded in recruiting members, often women who have financial, family and employment problems. Most of the sects develop from contributions from the church members.
“Our pastor sometimes sets a minimum of $17 (R117) 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, keeping the money for the church.
Some of the sects mix African religion with Christian practices.
Such churches exist on almost every corner of Lome. Generally, they are located in private homes 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’m going to pray to God so he gives me what I want,’ ” explains Kouakouvi.
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 newspapers, with cases of robbery and adultery featuring prominently. Arsene Mensah, secretary-general of an anti-Aids group, says “false pastors” claim that they can treat HIV/Aids. “They rip off sick people and their families, and make lots of money doing it. Often, the sick die.”
“These pastors are con men,” says Joelle Kloutse, a student. She admits to having been robbed by a pastor. “He was a young man who put together a church in our neighbourhood. After he took money from church members, he ran off with his girlfriend to the US.”
But Dieudonne Alouka, who is in charge of a sect called the Ministry of Health, disagrees. According to him, the accusations are aimed at vilifying the pastors and their work.