Interview with Girish Daswani

The following is an interview with Girish Daswani, associate professor at the University of Toronto, conducted by Anna-Riikka Kauppinen, who is currently a PhD student at the London School of Economics. Anna-Riikka interviewed Girish in early 2016 to discuss his recent monograph, Looking Back, Moving Forward: Transformation and Ethical Practice in the Ghanian Church of Pentecost (2015, University of Toronto Press).

Anna-Riikka: Hi Girish, thank you so much for taking the moment to discuss your recently published book, ”Looking Back, Moving Forward. Transformation and Ethical Practice in the Ghanaian Church of Pentecost.” Can you first talk about the journey that led you to study Christianity among Ghanaians in both London and Ghana?

Girish: Sure, I must admit that my love for research and my love for anthropology were not located in the anthropology of Christianity at the time of starting my PhD. The motivation for my research came out of strong interest in a place – Ghana – and its people. I was interested in religion but not necessarily focused on one type of religion per se. Also, I was very curious about the Ghanaian diaspora because migration is also part of my own personal history. I made the decision of working with Ghanaians but rather than going to Ghana, I chose to stay in London. Then I started looking for a space in London where Ghanaians would gather. It was a very difficult task because most Ghanaians I knew were very busy people with family obligations and multiple jobs. Eventually I started going to different Ghanaian Christian fellowships until someone told me about the Church of Pentecost (COP), which he described as the largest Protestant church in Ghana. I joined one of their English Sunday services in Dagenham, London, which became my home for the next several months before I felt the urge to spend more time with COP in Ghana. They were very welcoming, I thought it was a perfect location to do my research, and the Ghanaian Christian diaspora became a fascinating subject which I could not turn away from. So the Ghanaian diaspora project became a Ghanaian Christian diaspora project. I became focused on how Ghanaians located themselves in the Christian world, both in Ghana and in the UK, as well as how the Christian or the Pentecostal Christian identity was important both in their personal lives as well as for their future aspirations for change.

Anna-Riikka: Talking about diaspora, could you elaborate on how these two locations are an essential part of your research, in the sense that you could not have told this story without having done fieldwork in both Ghana and London?

Girish: The way my research moved from London to Ghana was through a kind of an aha moment when I realized that Ghana continuously fed the ways in which my interlocutors imagined themselves in London. Their experience of becoming born again was a personal transformation that they had while they were growing up in Ghana, which was obviously different in the case of British Ghanaian youth. So going to Ghana was a way to be immersed in the Ghanaian Christian culture that COP members came from. Every conversation I had, whether in taxis or cafés or with people I met on the street, religion would spontaneously be raised as a topic of conversation. Also the radio and TV were filled with Gospel music and conversations around Christianity. Actually the best decision I made was to spend one year in Ghana. Going back to your question, could this have been done without the Ghana part, no, I don’t think so, I think my research would have been very different if I hadn’t spent that much time in Ghana. Then, how was the London space important to my understanding of Ghanaian Pentecostal Christianity? I think that the London part of my research actually looked at a very important aspect of Pentecostalism, namely the strong missionary and global focus of churches such as COP. This was actively present in the way the church leaders and members talked about evangelism and their belonging as something more than just about being Ghanaian. They would speak about this in weekly sermons and emphasize that the COP is a global church. That where ever they go in the world, they would have a home and a place to worship. Being in London was a way to actually experience what this missionary focus meant for them and how their understanding of Christianity and home shifted with migration. London provided a very important context for both reaffirming and challenging their Pentecostal identity.

Anna-Riikka: Following from there, I want to ask more about your interlocutors. You have a diversity of people present in your book from church leaders to lay members and the youth who have different engagement with the idea of Pentecostal conversion and transformation. I am especially thinking of the wonderful vignette you present about this group of young people who attend the youth meeting in London’s Dagenham church, and they start making a comic performance of the born-again conversion. When faced with these kinds of instances, how can we actually analytically account for the place of comic and humour in what it means to be or fail to be religious, or what it means to transform, or fail to transform, in particular ways?

Girish: I think the role of the comic is a big part of the performative aspect of Charismatic Pentecostal Christianity in Ghana, especially the role that prophets currently play. They are larger than life, many of them wear fancy clothes, they wear nice pointed shoes that they get from Europe, and they also speak in very loud and exaggerated ways. So they are definitely a target for a lot of conversations and a lot of jokes as well. While they claim to help others become successful, they also are often accused of moral failings. More generally, I think that my focus is really about the struggle with the ability to actually transform. In other words, not just to experience a transformation which my Ghanaian Pentecostal interlocutors claim that they do, but the struggle to maintain this Pentecostal identity and to demonstrate that their transformation was successful. I found this process to be very interesting. So success and failure of how to be Pentecostal was a big theme I think, which included continuously asking questions and trying to persevere in the Pentecostal faith. The youth group that you mention was a fantastic example of the comic. It was very interesting because the Dagenham youth did not want to take the service very seriously – they found the attempt to convert them funny – and yet they were very attracted to the conversation itself. It’s also very important to know that there is no one kind of Pentecostal in Ghana or London. There are many kinds of people who claim to be born again but who would as easily distance themselves from certain people or certain practices within Pentecostalism or make fun of them.

Anna-Riikka: As a related theme, one of the main frameworks of your book is ethical subject-formation and the very pragmatic everyday aspect of ethics that you highlight. Could you tell about how the book ended up with this focus?

Girish: My coming to the perspective of ethical practice was really because of what I found fascinating about the people I was working with, which was the fact that they were constantly asking questions about their own faith. They were trying to negotiate between different options, different possibilities and in some cases they were forced into circumstances that presented them with very little opportunity, and that struggle was best captured through the idea of ethical practice. At the time I was writing, the literature on the anthropology of Christianity did not necessarily allow me to expand on this. In making sense of their conversations and disagreements around how Pentecostal rupture ought to take place, I was drawn to the ethical turn in anthropology. So that’s partly why I say that I come from the perspective of someone writing from within the anthropology of Christianity but who also pairs the anthropology of Christianity with anthropology of ethics. The pragmatic side was very important for me because even within anthropology of ethics we can take things too far, especially if we assume that people are making rational choices or they are in some kind of vacuum when making decisions on how to live a good life. However, what was useful about the anthropology of ethics was that it allowed me to take seriously the ways in which Ghanaian Pentecostals had some shared idea of what was to be anticipated after conversion, while at the same time to account for the unpredictability of life and the individual ways in which they responded to things that were outside their control. I didn’t want to see ethical practice as a linear, rational, process where people through some kind of dialectics come to realize what the answer is at the end of that conversation.

Anna-Riikka: When it comes to anthropology of ethics and anthropology of Christianity as currently rather distinct sub-fields, how would you see these two bodies of literature to have a more fruitful dialogue?

Girish: First of all I think that the anthropology of Christianity is a wonderful, productive conversation that provides an important starting point in thinking about both the role of anthropology in studying Christianity, and also as a comparative exercise in the study of Christianity. At the same time I think that the anthropology of Christianity can be limiting if it is seen as the end of the conversation. I would say that the study of ethics opens up another important conversation as it allows anthropologists studying Christianity to ask questions about the wider ethical imagination and how people’s practices and performances are structured by certain criteria for evaluating and assessing past and future actions and yet are not determined by them. A focus on ethics also allows for the affective and the unexpected aspects of life to inform responses to the present, as well as for contradiction to exist and incommensurables values to be held at the same time. One thing that anthropology of ethics can take from anthropology of Christianity is the conversation that comes out of ideas of transcendence and immanence. There has been some work on an immanent ethics that is grounded in ordinary action, language and practices. Yet the transcendental, or the ways that immanent practices have transcendental-like properties, has not been elaborated upon sufficiently. The different conjunctions of transcendence and immanence is widely discussed within anthropology of Christianity so I think this could be a very fruitful dialogue for the anthropology of ethics to think through. There is obviously no one kind of transcendence and that needs to be discussed further.

Anna-Riikka: Lastly, could you tell us about your next project?

Girish: I have started a new project that I am very excited about, which is about the moral discourses around corruption and wealth accumulation in Ghana at the moment. There has been an increasing amount of media reports and gossip about the unprecedented amount of corruption that is taking place with the present government, with regards to political leaders and their friends benefiting from fake projects. This has been accompanied by an energy crisis and water shortage. My research basically combines work on different groups who are responding to this crisis. One of them is called OccupyGhana, a group of social activists. The second group are generally religious leaders, focusing on Pentecostal prophets and some traditional priests who have a lot of media coverage around them, both in terms of corrupt practices but also in terms of speaking out against the corrupt practices of Ghanaian leaders. Thirdly, I am working with street traders, mainly in Ghana’s second largest city, Kumasi, who I have known for many years. A lot of the time, when they are not selling anything, they are discussing politics and how people are accumulating wealth in good ways or bad ways. Lastly, I am interested in local musicians and the role they play in critisizing corruption. So I am very curious to see how these groups think about corruption and the character of leadership, and how they moralise about the ways in which wealth is both accumulated and redistributed in Ghana.\

Anna-Riikka: That sounds like a fascinating bridge from your earlier work as well. Thank you Girish so much for the interview.

Girish: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.