“Good morning!” the headline greeted one cheerily.
It then asked the question: “Are we now in the next life?”

The writer, an anonymous Ghanaian wit, was referring to the fact that the world was supposed to have ended on the previous day, 21 May 2011. That was the ‘prophecy’ that had been confidently made by an 89-year-old preacher who operates in Oakland, California, in the USA, called Harold Camping.

California! California! How many quirky things will come out of that state that spawned Hollywood?
It is the state where you will find modern pyramids — created in the style of the thousands-of-years old tombs in Egypt.
Although the most famous pyramids in the world are, of course, those in Egypt, California surprisingly has its fair share of the triangular-shaped structures.

There, is, for instance, the ‘Transamerica Pyramid’ in San Francisco’ and the ‘Walter Pyramid’ at Long Beach State University. But there are also pyramids meant for their original purpose — housing the remains of the dead.

There are at least eight pyramid-mausoleums in California –: three in one city alone,Oakland, where ‘Prophet’ Harold Camping delivers his ex-cathedra pronouncements on the end of the world.Do those mausoleums transmit something to his brain or what?

The existence of weirdos in California is well-documented, yet most of the mainstream media in the Western world refrained from ridiculing what Camping called “The Rapture” that was supposed to occur on 21 May 2011. Indeed, a great deal of non-committal publicity was given to his claim that on that day, the good Christians – led, of course, by the faithful followers of Camping – were to be spirited into the air to meet the Lord Jesus Christ. He would catch them unto Himself and fly with them “home” to Heaven. Meanwhile trumpets would sound like universal sirens to announce the beginning of the end of the world.

The beginning? Yes. First would come ‘The Rapture’. The end itself would occur on 21 October 2011, when the “sinners” or “unbelievers” left behind on the earth, would be struck by “Armageddon”. That would mean the destruction of the earth, preceded by a pestilence of locusts [assisted, no doubt, by armies of whining mosquitoes, and itch-spreading sand-flies, as far as Africa is concerned!] famine, floods, fires, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, plus everything horrible that can happen to humans. (And poor, dumb animals, for that matter.)

Now, ‘Prophet’ Harold Camping is a former civil engineer, and he gains credence from many people because he deploys mathematical jargon that seems to lend a scientific ring to his ‘prophecies’. He has a wide audience, for he runs “Family Radio”, one of the extreme right-wing radio networks that have succeeded in hijacking much of America’s political discourse.

It is on such stations that irrelevant non-issues, such as the alleged ‘Muslim faith’ secretly held by President Barack Obama and Obama’s alleged birth outside the USA. (Those who believe this are called “birthers” and they maintain that Obama is not constitutionally qualified to be President because he is “not a US citizen by birth”, although the President has, unusually, published his actual birth certificate for everyone to see.)

Any crackpot notion that comes into the head of a journalist or politician is given air time on such radio stations — so long as the speaker is against “socialist” ideas like free health care, cheaper life insurance and state-assisted mortgage repayments, but supports tax cuts for the rich, or the withdrawal of food stamps and other social security benefits. It is these stations that have given power to bigoted right-wing “pundits” like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

Thus, when Harold Camping announced that the date for the end of the world would come in two stages in 2011, he had a ready audience that stretched – according to an article on the San Francisco Chronicle website — “from the Bay Area [in California] to China.” Camping’s boast is that he has scrutinized the Bible for almost 70 years and developed a ‘mathematical system’ to interpret the prophecies hidden within it.

“One night a few years ago, Camping crunched the numbers and … found [out that] The world would end on May 21, 2011”, the website reported.

The surprising thing is that Camping’s claim was believed by his followers, although this was not the first time he had prophesied the exact date Judgement Day would occur. He’d made precisely such a prediction before: only that the earlier date was to have been 6 September 1994!

When that day dawned,scores of Camping’s believers gathered inside the Veterans Memorial Building in Alameda, California, to await the return of Christ.
Followers dressed children in their Sunday best and held Bibles open-faced toward heaven. But there was no sign of Christ’s return.

Was Camping abashed or repentant? No! He merely shrugged off the non-fulfilment of his prophecy as the result of “a mathematical error” he had made.
Everyone can make a mathematical error, right? So he spent the next decade poring over new calculations. And bingo! His new numbers game came up with — May 21, 2011.

“Because I was an engineer, I was very interested in the numbers,” Camping stated. “I’d wonder, ‘Why did God put this number in, or that number in?’ It was not a question of unbelief, it was a question of, ‘There must be a reason for it.’ ”

If Camping had been preying on the public mind in this fashion in Nigeria, and thereby gaining a reported $80 million in donations, the world’s media would have accused him of doing ‘419’. In neighbouring Ghana too, he would have been charged with doing what is popularly known as sakawa. Both terms apply to fraud by devious and/or false pretences.

In a typical 419 — or ‘advanced fee fraud — for example, a person who happens to have obtained or “hacked” one’s email address, sends one an email, politely apologising for writing to one out of the blue. A vague suggestion would then be thrown into the air that one’s name had been suggested by an unnamed mutual friend, who had provided a verbal testimonial that one was a very trustworthy person, who could be relied upon to carry out any business transaction with integrity, and also, in strict confidence.

The writer would then outline his proposal: millions of dollars belonging to someone who had completed work on a contract in Nigeria, but had died in an air crash before he could collect his payment, was ready, waiting to be transferred abroad. If the recipient of the email supplied the writer with his/her bank details, the writer, who was the only authorised paymaster — would ensure that the money was transferred into the supplied account. The contract price was $40 million and the recipient’s share would be $5 million. The recipient would, of course, be trusted to be honourable enough to give the email writer the balance of $35 million — as the mutual friend had attested.

Fair enough, wasn’t it? $5 million without sweat. And to be entrusted — even if it was only for a short time — with a whole $40 million! Wow!

If the email recipient was a fantasist, his or her mind would immediately go to the mansion one dreamt of. Or the Ferrari/Maybach/Rolls Royce/Bentley car one lusted after. Or — if he was a man — the beautiful young lady with long eyelashes and perfect, white teeth he’d been eyeing.

Apparently, about 25% of the recipients of such emails do actually decide to co-operate with the writer of the email, perhaps in order “to see” what would happen. So much so that the US Secret Service runs a special operation to track those who set such traps for American citizens.

But if they take the “bait”, the receivers of 419 emails are suckered into a series of carefully-wrought deceptions, all aimed at emptying the money in the bank account(s) provided.

Sometimes, the stories told by the email writers are extremely imaginative. “I am the concubine of Saddam Hussein”, an email may begin. And it will tell you that before the Americans invaded Iraq, Saddam, aware that he might be forced to go and live in exile abroad, had packed huge quantities of foreign exchange into a big chest/shipping container/articulated truck, whose hiding-place was only known to the writer.

If the recipient of the email decided to ‘co-operate’, by providing a bank account into which the money could be paid, his or her share would be $7,500,000…or whatever, depending on the sum the writer chose to name as the amount waiting to be transferred.

The Nigerian and Ghanaian Governments sometimes raid Internet cafes to arrest the criminals who use the Internet for fraudulent entrapment of this type. But is the US Government also looking into the activities of people like Harold Camping? If, as reported, Camping’s website solicitations have indeed attracted $80 million in donations to support the dissemination of his ‘message’. Is he not a threat to gullible people world-wide? And yet, in the US, he will be protected, on the grounds that he is excising his constitutional right to practise ‘freedom of religion’.

But while the mainstream media of the world refuse to denounce him as a fraud, he is quite a figure of fun on the Internet. For instance, after Camping’s latest prophecy had failed to materialise, a message about him to Twitter (the social network on the Internet that is all the rage in many parts of the world) read:
“Knew Camping didn’t believe his own prophecy when he rejected cash offer for his car and house!”

Another message said:
“If the Rapture is happening Saturday, why is the guy still soliciting donations on his website?”

By the way, after his 21 May 2011 debacle, Harold Camping again did not clamp up but came up with another new date – ‘The Rapture’, he said, would now occur on 21 October 2011. The earlier date had – wait for – been the result of a numerical error, he said.
Yeah. That is an open-ended proposition par excellence. Everyone can miscalculate – to infinity! — when it comes to mathematics, no?

Now, rewind to 2006….

As is well known, solar eclipses have a tremendous hold on the imagination of the people of some nations, including my birthplace, Ghana. A major one that occurred on 20 May 1947 brought utter panic in Ghana, particularly as doomsday prophets of the era accepted it as a gift from God himself, with which to make money.

Amazingly, a full-scale deja vu occurred in Ghana on 29 March 2006, when a solar eclipse was observed in many parts of the country.

Before the eclipse I read in The Ghanaian Times that the police had had to be called in to protect the premises of Pepsi Cola in Accra, after thousands of people had congregated there to exchange crown tops, taken off soft drinks, for solar eclipse goggles. The belief was that with those glasses, the solar eclipse could be watched safely, and Pepsi Cola had advertised in the local media that whoever brought in three bottle tops would get a pair of glasses. Free. But the company had underestimated the interest the eclipse would create in the populace and it had run out of glasses by the time many people turned up.

Many of these curious people did not regard eclipses, especially a total eclipse of the sun, as a mere phenomenon of astrophysics. Some have invested the occurrence with a metaphysical significance which cannot be easily understood.

In the countdown to the 29 March 2006 eclipse, for instance, an Islamic “scholar”, a Mallam Muniru Hamidu, was given enormous publicity when he declared that the world was “coming to an end” because it is written in the Qur’an that when the end of the world got nigh, “God would cause the sun and the moon to come together”.

Now, it is not only in the Qur’an that such apocalyptic prophecies about the end of the world have been made. The Bible too has things to say about the signs that will precede the return of Jesus Christ to the world, to judge the “quick and the dead”. One of the signs is the descent of darkness in the daytime. What those people who continue to trot out these prophecies each time there is an eclipse fail to explain is why it is that although both the Bible and the Qur’an have been around for hundreds of years, during which eclipses have regularly come and gone, we are still here.

The biggest total eclipse of the sun in West Africa is generally thought to have occurred in 1919, but I remember the major one that occurred when I was a tiny schoolboy, a major one took place on 20 May 1947. A few weeks before the time, we heard vague rumours that “darkness” (esum to give it its truly frightening name in the Twi language) would “descend on the Earth” in the daytime.

Some people dismissed the rumours as nothing but the usual piffle you often hear in villages – such as, “if you shake hands with certain people at certain times, your manhood will wilt”, and that sort of thing. But these rumours about the eclipse grew until everyone began to talk about “the coming darkness”. Because the colonial authorities did not concern themselves with out psychological welfare, no effort was made to educate the public about eclipses, and at the Asiakwa Presbyterian junior school, where I was a pupil, no single teacher bothered to explain to us the scientific basis of “the darkness” that was about to come.

However I noticed that, as the date got nearer, the bigger boys in our school — those who were conversant with occultism — became rather secretive and detached themselves from the rest of us “small boys”. They moved about in clusters that took part in fasting and much washing of their hands and faces with a fragrant liquid called “Florida Water”.

Occasionally, they were caught murmuring incantations to one aniother. I learnt later that these came from the mysterious, illustrated book on occultism called The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, imported from a remote place called India.

One of my older cousins told me that he had seen one before, and that it contained diagrams and charts, which could be used to invoke spirits from “out there”. If you drew one of the diagrams on the ground with chalk, and you made a mistake and stood where you should not stand, you would go bonkers, my cousin said. There were also “talismans” in it, which could be ordered from India and used to charm girls one was interested in wooing. Other “talismans” could help one to to play better at football.

My cousin warned me that because of these magical powers, the book was “dangerous” and that was why its contents had been censored out of the Bible. In fact, many of those who ordered the book did not receive it because the post office had put it on a “prohibited books” list and used to seize it and burn it.

My cousin piled the fright on to my impressionable mind: even holding the book could cause harm, he claimed; one needed to purify one’s hands with “olive oil” before handling the book. I didn’t know what “olive oil” was! This was the oil, my cousin explained, that was used by the Prophet Samuel in the Bible to anoint King David and King Solomon. Samson was also anointed with that oil and that was why he became so strong. But if one misused the olive oil, it would turn the strength it should endow one with, against one’s person.

For the book to be effective, one should not “have relations” with girls before using it. (This seemed to me odd: one used the book to attract girls; yet one shouldn’t have relations with girls whilst using the book. Was a vicious circle hiding in there somewhere?)

But my dread of The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses was as nothing compared to what I felt when I was told that there was another book that was even more advanced in occultism, called The Eighth and Ninth Books of Moses.

Eighth and Ninth? Yes. This was supposed to contain the original charts that Moses drew, showing where he was ordered to stand to receive the words to be written on the tablets of the Ten Commandments, after God had talked to him on the mountain where God was in a “fire that burnt but did not consume itself.” The Ten Commandments? The fire on the mountain that didn’t burn itself out? Moses hiding his face so that he wouldn’t see God and die? Holy Moses! My child’s imagination boggled.

An interesting fact about the big boys who ordered these books from India was that they did this although all of them had assiduosly undertaken the arduous task of memorising huge chunks of the catechism of the Presbyterian Church, in order to be “confirmed” into the church. When one was asked to recite these catechism passages – in front of the whole congregation – and one stumbled on the words, one would not be confirmed. In our small community, this amounted almost to excommunication; the disgrace was immense and was comparable only to what accrued to a young girl who got pregnant before she could be confirmed. Many girls died at confirmation time as a result of the terrible stigma of failing to be confirmed: they tried to abort their pregnancies, using all sorts of unsafe methods.

So, in our society, many people lived and still live — in a dual world, as far as spiritual matters are concerned. The church is given its place through the verbal recitation of the catechism and reading of the Scriptures at church services. But once out of the church,there lurk in many people’s lives, the spectre of occultism in the form of juju and books like the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses and the occult practices to be derived from them.

You may have heard that religious cults are a growth industry in West Africa at the moment. Indeed, anything goes in the place – give many regular churchgoers a serious personal crisis and, hey presto, they would be off like a shot to consult traditional priests and priestesses, as well as other “spiritualists”. Much money changes hands during these consultations and it is little wonder that some of the richest people in West Africa are dealers in the occult, including the “evangelists” so luxuriantly sprouted by the so-called “charismatic” churches, some of whom are not reluctant to be known as spiritual advisers to politicians, and some of whom ostentatiously flaunt the luxurious limousine and even private executive jets in which they ride.

Well, with all this mystical subtext going on, 20 May 1947 dawned upon us. It was like any other day, bright and sunny. We went to school as usual. Lessons went on. But we would steal an occasional look out of the windows every now and then to see whether any “darkness” was “coming”. We saw nothing. Twelve noon – more dreaded than any other hour – came. Still nothing.

The morning school session ended. Our anxiety was heightened by the fact that we were formally excused from coming back for the afternoon session. After lunch, my mother, unusually, took us all by the hand and led us to the palace of my grandmother, the Queen Mother. As the Queen Mother’s relatives, we went and sat close to her – as if she was a mother hen who would spread her wings over us to protect us.

We waited. One o’clock came and went. Nothing happened. Soon, it was two o’clock. Then 2.30. Still nothing. The tension we felt was unbearable.

But, shortly before three, things began to turn eerie. The sunshine began to fade into a moonlight sort of haze. Chickens, clucking anxiously, began to troop back into the house from the streets and crept into their roosting places. An owl in a nearby bush hooted.

And then, most frightening of all, real darkness began to close in. Soon, all went completely dark.

When that happened, all the children in the palace spontaneously let out a huge, wail, full of fear. The older people, instead of comforting us, had also panicked and were saying things like, “Ei, so it is true!”.

It was only the Queen Mother who retained her composure. She ordered her drummers: “beat the drums!” I have never seen drummers go about their business with so much gusto. After about three minutes of total darkness, the sky began gradually to lighten. The drummers, encouraged that their efforts were beginning to bear fruit, went at it with even greater force.

Soon, the sun was out and shining again. The chickens came clucking out of their sleeping places.

We looked at the faces of the grown-ups. But they looked on the ground and avoided our eyes. The relationship between grown-ups and children had changed for ever.

We heard later that during the eclipse, men who were sexually impotent had collected themselves together and walked the streets naked, exposing their male organs to the darkness for the duration of the eclipse. They were expecting to be able to get their “pecker up” after going through the humiliation of having the state of their sexual performance advertised for all in the village to see. I still don’t know to this day whether it worked for them. For how can one walk up to an elderly person and ask him, “Please, Sir, did the eclipse bring your manhood back to form?’’