Continuity and discontinuity: Pentecostal churches and the return of Liberian refugees from Ghana

Jonas P Ecke, Purdue University


The world faces a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions as millions of refugees move across national borders around the globe. Many of these refugees, however, eventually return to their nation of origin. The United Nations considers repatriation as the preferred outcome for refugees, and national governments also strongly support it. We have little knowledge, however, about what happens to refugees when they return home. My fieldwork project used a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to investigate one example of a repatriation movement: Liberian refugees returning from their exile in Ghana. I looked first at a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana, and later at refugees returning to Liberia itself. One of the aims of my study was not only to develop a detailed understanding of how repatriation occurred for this group, but to generate insights that could inform and improve policies being formulated in response to the current mass migrations. My research focuses particularly on the role of Pentecostal churches, since these churches were observed to be a major influence on the lives of refugees both in migration and when they return. Pentecostalism is the fastest growing religious movement in the world, and my informants used aspects of Pentecostalism to distance themselves from painful events in their past, even though they were not able to do this completely. A significant part of my research therefore focused on issues of continuity and discontinuity surrounding the practice of religious conversion, and became linked to some important theoretical questions and considerations. I found that refugees in Ghana were drawn to Pentecostal conversions because they facilitated a break with the past, which included not only the war, but also some long-standing Liberian cultural practices. When refugees returned to Liberia they once again noticed that they could not completely break with their past. Although the Pentecostal churches were important mechanisms for reintegration, tensions reemerged as returnees struggled to maintain their identity as Pentecostal believers while simultaneously confronting recent Liberian history, traditions, institutions and ethnic identities. As forced displacement transforms societies around the world, my findings suggest that refugees are not masses of culturally unchanging people, but actors who must constantly maneuver between different identities in ever-changing cultural environments. Anthropology?s approach affords us a finer and more nuanced understanding of why migrants behave as they do. This understanding, in turn, can lead to policies that are more appropriate to the lived realities of displaced people, especially with regards to the timings and outcomes of repatriation movements.




Riall Nolan, Purdue University.

Subject Area

African studies|Religion|Cultural anthropology

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