2012 Human Rights Defender Award
I became fascinated by the cultural hybridism of development aid distributed by Pentecostal Christian ministries in Africa during a three-months stay in Ghana in the summer of 2007. As part of fulfilling the requirements of my M.Sc. in ‘Development and International Relations’ at the University of Aalborg in Denmark, I undertook a three-month internship with the development aid organization CARE Gulf of Guinea (CARE GoG) in Accra, Ghana. As I began to conduct research on Pentecostalism in Ghana, I discovered that the popularity of Pentecostal teachings among Ghanaians seemed to stand in sharp contrast to the ideologies propagated by secular Western agencies, for example “Empowerment” and “Sustainable Livelihood” concepts. I subsequently learned through conversations that many Ghanaians were very attracted by the promises of the Pentecostal “Prosperity Gospel,” according to which religious devoutness leads to improvements in economic wellbeing. By contrast, Ghanaians felt less confident that secular aid agencies could meet their basic needs. My observations were later reinforced through research on West African Pentecostalism to fulfill the requirements of my multidisciplinary M.Sc. degree at Aalborg University. It was at this time when I began to realize that the mainly quantitative research framework and top-down, non-experiential process of generating theories from my previous political science and international relationship studies were ill-suited to pursue such questions. Because of this realization I applied for the graduate program in anthropology at Purdue University.
During an exploratory research trip to Ghana in the winter of 2010, I visited the refugee camp Buduburam - an experience that compelled me to concretize my research focus and field location. I returned to Buduburam for a two months stay in the summer of 2011 to conduct research. I intend to return in subsequent years. The situation of refugees in Buduburam is one of the most complicated prolonged refugee crises in West Africa. Tens of thousands of Liberians have fled to Buduburam in the last two decades. In light of the formal end to hostilities in Liberia, most inhabitants of Buduburam are no longer considered refugees according to international law. Therefore, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has ceased to resettle Liberians in Ghana and asks them to integrate into Ghanaian society, which many refugees find difficult to do for economic and cultural reasons. Against the backdrop of this difficult situation, many of the Liberians in Ghana convert to Pentecostalism and join one of the numerous makeshift churches that exist in the camp. My research will explore the role of religion in processes of identity-reconstruction and the coping mechanisms of refugees, as well as the relationship between religious experience and memory of war and displacement.
Furthermore, I have involved myself in human rights activism work while simultaneously pursuing my education during the past years. My efforts have been guided by the conviction that academia and activism work can yield great benefits through cross-fertilization. For example, I founded an Amnesty International chapter at the University of Bremen in Germany, which continued to mobilize students and faculty members long after I finished my undergraduate degree. Building on these personally enriching and empowering experiences, I founded the first European CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict) chapter at the University of Aalborg. During the fall of 2011 I served for the West Africa working group of Amnesty International Germany. My first-hand experiences in Buduburam give me invaluable insights into human rights issues that are of central importance in the West African region. Throughout my time in Buduburam, I did not only hear personal accounts of human rights conditions in Ghana and Liberia, but also of various other West African countries. Many Liberians, whom I have interviewed, have gone through stages of “circular migration” through Liberia’s neighboring countries. Nowadays, many West Africans from countries like the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Guinea are settling in the camp. Their life-histories inform my research and activism on West Africa.