In Africa’s Big Cities, Christian Megachurches are Increasing, but So is an Interest in Witchcraft and the Occult

Bishop David Oyedepo (C), founder of the Living Faith Church, also known as the Winners' Chapel, conducts a service for worshippers in the auditorium of the church in Ota district, Ogun state, some 60 km (37 miles) outside Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos September 28, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE
Bishop David Oyedepo (C), founder of the Living Faith Church, also known as the Winners’ Chapel, conducts a service for worshippers in the auditorium of the church in Ota district, Ogun state, some 60 km (37 miles) outside Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos September 28, 2014.

Christianity side by side with the occult as one belief system? The juxtaposition is interesting. There is a noticeable resurgence of the occult (sorcery and witchcraft beliefs) in contemporary cities like Harare, Accra or Lagos adjacent with a growth of charismatic evangelist churches. Conversations, rumours and gossip about witchcraft, sorcery and miracles (works of God) do not only take place in matatus, tro-tros or the market place nor do they only make headline news of tabloid papers like the Daily Sun in South Africa or H-Metro in Zimbabwe. They form part of belief systems, economic exchange, and life and death decisions! Muti murders spring to mind. It all sounds very disconcerting or is it? How then to make sense of it all, Christianity side-by-side with the occult?

Let’s focus on Zimbabwe for a bit. A protracted economic, social and political crisis since the mid-late nineties remains unresolved and has left little doubt to the masses that their economic and social well-being is in their own hands and devices. With a soaring unemployment rate estimated between 60% to 80%, the vast majority are either self-catering in the informal sectors or voting with their feet. Others are thriving though, if the coterie of luxury vehicles in Harare is anything to go by. Generally though, the outlook is gloomy. All is not well. The “modern condition” affects many; joblessness, poverty, elusive lucky breaks, endless walking in search of anything and everything, hunger, constant threats of eviction; all sorts of afflictions.

Mass frustration bubbles under, despair is common place. It goes without saying that the combined effects of a long political, economic and social crisis needs an outlet, some exit point for pent up emotions, frustrations, dented hopes and dreams at the social and individual level. Fertile ground for a revolution? All indications are pointing towards a religious one! To be sure churches have always existed. The traditional missionary Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Salvation Army sects populate the country among others. The doctrine is “conservative”; repentance, salvation and eternal life. “Conservative” means the gospel remains steadfast in the face of changing political, economic and social conditions. But in these dire times, organic and indigenous churches more in tune with local conditions have emerged offering more than just salvation and eternal life. They also preach of prosperity on earth understood holistically in the sense of good health, healing of afflictions, and material wealth among other things.

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This is enticing and nothing entices more than evidence. For starters, these men of cloth are not wanting. Prophet Uebert Angel of the Spirit Embassy Church in a recent probe by Forbesmagazine, had an estimated net worth of about $60 million. Prophet Emmanuel Makandiwa of the Indigenous United Family International Church drives the latest Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG (it costs about R2.8 million!), has bodyguards, holds mega-conventions (his judgment night convention had an estimated 165 000 people in attendance). Their age and youthful looks, Makandiwa is 37 and Angel is 36, adds to the aura and ease of connection with the urban masses; they can speak the language of the streets. This is the rise of the celebrity prophet, who promises quick-fire delivery in the backdrop of unrelenting crisis. Celebrity prophets are not selling the good gospel; the gospel has always been there in traditional churches that are seeing dwindling numbers. They are selling themselves as motivational speakers packaged in a re-interpretation of the gospel that speaks to the “modern condition” and more importantly offers a cure, now, in this life. Your salvation and you can eat it.

But Zimbabwe and indeed Nigeria or Ghana for that matter are still African countries and Christianity is still a foreign religion, albeit one that has taken firm roots, that exists side by side with the vestiges of African religious beliefs. Christianity is premised on the idea of a battle between good and bad, God vs the devil, heaven vs hell. In contrast, African religion generally supposed only one force that was capable of acting either for one’s welfare or one’s woe. Ancestors could bless you or turn their backs on you. Witchcraft within the complex African religion system stood for the subversive to norms, the impulse to disorder, as a metaphor for the enigma of human evilness. With African ancestor religion having been largely suppressed by colonialism and replaced by Christianity, what has remained from a complex system of African religion is its peripheral vestiges; witchcraft and sorcery.

These vestiges have been re-appropriated from their proper context within African religion and inserted in the Christian Manichaean divide between good and evil to signify and symbolise an evil more local and recognisable; that is sorcery and witchcraft as the anti-social employment of mystical powers to harm others and their possessions. We have hinted above that extreme socio-economic crisis warrants social and individual diagnosis and catharsis. Reasons offered for the crisis by the powers that be in Zimbabwe range from sanctions from the West to disastrous economic policies, corruption and mismanagement. Does this find purchase at the individual level? The argument is that a significant number of people are beginning to look elsewhere for causes of their individual misfortune. That is not to say that people do not engage and analyse clearly their cause and effect with the social, economic and political environment they exist in — they do. The point is that for some religion, culture, tradition, despair and extreme anxiety, neurosis, increased social and mental strains etcetera can all separately and in various combinations add a spiritual realm inter-linked to the physical realm of physical existence; the spiritual realm being the realm of the spiritual contest between good and evil as prominent in Christianity.

The spiritual realm is a personal realm, a private realm. In this spiritual and private realm, the proposal is that some people reason that their misfortune and troubles in the physical realm (in life) are due to evil interventions in the spiritual realm via sorcery or witchcraft of say a jealous neighbour, an aggrieved aunt, a cousin one once quarrelled with and the like. The reasoning goes: “Could it just be that I am sick, impotent or had an accident because I am be-witched, that I cannot find a job, that all my business plans never succeed because of muti? How else can others prosper is these dire times if not by dark arts?”

This increasingly is becoming an attractive source of contemplation if not explanation. Sorcery and witchcraft offer a distinct rationale for private misfortune (or gain) and charismatic pastors offer direct and energetic intervention in the spiritual realm for free or otherwise. The point being there is a congruence of diagnosis and cure of the “modern condition” in charismatic evangelism of the sort described here and the “return” of the occult, real or imagined! Harare is abuzz with sordid tales and salacious gossip of the occult, goblins, money-making snakes juxtaposed with charismatic healing, deliverance, exorcisms, miracle money and get-rich-quick testimonies from charismatic prophets and their converts. Does this happen in other countries and cities too? Probably. Thus for some and not an insignificant number, charismatic evangelism offers solace and hope while the occult offers an explanation for life in dire straits.

Mike Mavura is an independent researcher.


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