N’anga in suits? Prophets’ blend of African traditional religion and Christianity

Prophet Makandiwa

Prophet Makandiwa

SINCE the rise to national prominence of the country’s new breed of prophets, a cold war has been waged between the flamboyant men of God and the country’s traditional healers through their mother body, the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (Zinatha).

Rather than the all out blood and thunder clashes that some might expect when such titans of religion collide, the conflict has instead been characterised by long periods of peace broken only by the sudden and occasional exchange of fire.

Characteristically, Zinatha has often been the aggressor.

Its weapon of choice has been the demand, sometimes framed as a request that the country’s prophets should register with the organisation. This, they argue, is because of the similarity in the methods employed by the suave men of the pulpit to those used by their traditional counterparts.

This has been the sore point that has led to conflict between these two opposing sides in this bloodless, silent war.

For the most part, the country’s prophets have danced around punches thrown their way, choosing diplomacy instead of an all out counter attack of their own.

Zinatha statements however, have suggested that they are spoiling for a fight, with statements and pronouncements designed to sting.

The last volley came from the organisation’s president, Mr George Kandiero, who reiterated the organisation’s belief that Pentecostal churches, prophets and faith healers should register with the organisation and the Traditional Medical Practitioners Council (TMPC) to operate in the country.

TMPC is a department in the Ministry of Health and Child Care which supervises the control and practice of traditional medical practitioners.

“At law, anyone who heals people using traditional methods is a traditional healer. Prophets who touch people’s heads while praying for and healing them, Pentecostal churches who practise the same and other such faith healers are all traditional healers. In terms of the law, it’s illegal for such people to practice without a licence,” said Mr Kandiero.

His call echoed those made in previous years, where he again implored the country’s new breed of prophets to seek shade under Zinatha’s encompassing legal umbrella.

Prophets have dodged such stray shots from Zinatha, with Prophet Emmanuel Makandiwa, for example, in the past saying that he would not register with the organisation because he was neither a traditional healer nor a spirit medium.

This view was reinforced by Prophet Blessing Chiza.

“I strongly disagree with such a move. They (traditional healers) claim to be healers like us but in truth we derive our power from different sources. We heal through the Word, the Holy Spirit and the anointing power of God while they claim that ancestors are their source of power,” said Prophet Chiza.

While prophets have shrugged off Zinatha’s unwanted attentions, the assertions have led the more inquisitive to wonder just how different from the country’s traditional healers these modern men of God are.

At a casual glance, comparison of the two does not hold any water.

Indeed on the surface, the bone tossing, animal hide wearing n’angas seem to exist a world away from the sleek, luxury car driving, designer suit wearing prophets of today.

In the same token, the shrines from which traditional healers preside seem to exist a planet away from the arenas where thousands kiss and worship the ground prophets step on.

According to Zinatha and other observers however, the methods that they use to heal and earn this undying adoration are what has inevitably led to comparisons with their less fashionable counterparts.

Although different in style, prophets and traditional healers are similar in substance, they argue.

As Mr Kandiero observed, the methodology adopted by some of today’s prophets is a lot similar to that used by faith and traditional healers.

While traditional healers give their troubled clients charms meant to ward off evil spirits, the prophets have bracelets and wrist bands that come in handy when evil has to be confronted. While faith healers might pray for water that their followers have to use for good luck or repel evil doers, modern day prophets have various forms of anointing liquids which fulfil the same purpose.

So how has African Pentecostal ministry, which is different from the European and American versions, come to resemble African traditional religion so closely?

In his paper titled The Political and Social Impact of Prophetic Churches in Zimbabwe, Nonimous Hameno observes that the popularity of miraculous prophesy stems from Christianity’s roots in the country. At the dawn of colonialism, instead of Christianity completely eclipsing African religion, it instead got diluted by Zimbabweans’ own traditional beliefs, in which the supernatural is not uncommon.

“Most Christian teaching from the West was influenced by the age of reason, secular humanism and the scientific advancements of those times. Liberal theology which rejected the supernatural had gained acceptance. Christianity as it came through the missionaries therefore lacked spirituality.

“The African, on reading the Bible immediately saw a disconnection between the Christianity taught by the missionary and biblical experience. The Bible is full of miracles and supernatural encounters, a spirituality the African was more familiar with,” he said.

According to a 2010 Pew Research in 11 African countries, many people retain beliefs and rituals that are characteristic of traditional African religions while roughly “a quarter or more of the population in 11 countries say they believe in the protective power of juju (charms or amulets), shrines and other sacred objects.”

In 2006, Zimbabwe repealed the 117-year-old Witchcraft Suppression Act, thereby entrenching the country’s acknowledgement of the supernatural into the law books.

Such local beliefs have filtered how Zimbabweans, and Africans at large, view the place and purpose of Christianity.

According to Hameno, a world in which spiritualists duel and triumph over adversity and evil is line with teachings in the Old Testament, were miracles abound. This makes Pentecostal prophets, who appeal both to the urgent spiritual and material needs of Africans through their awe inspiring deeds, very attractive to the average Zimbabwean.

“The modern Pentecostal movement which largely came through the United States in the past century resonates with African spirituality, thus the great African attraction to this form of Christianity. The tendency of African Pentecostalism to gravitate towards African Traditional Religious world views is bringing some of the imbalances and excesses that cause confusion in African Christianity,” said Hameno.

The business of miracle making has brought theatre to Zimbabwean religion, with the dramatic, almost magical, interventions of prophets grabbing headlines now and again. From miracle money to the instant healing of chronic illnesses that have defied science, prophets have usually found the flashiest ways to make their unique spiritual talents shine.

While this might turn off Christians in more traditional churches, this is appealing to ordinary Zimbabweans that crave readymade solutions to their problems and would not be opposed to mind bending fireworks coming with the preaching of the Lord’s word.

According to Samuel Onyedika Nzube Gozie, a lecturer at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria, Africans might find simple prayer inadequate for their problems. Instead, the dramatic work of prophets appeals to them, in the same way that the quick fix roots and amulets of traditional healers do.

“Witch doctors and white-magic men are bound to have more consulters on the warding off of malevolent spirits than they could on other issues. The relevance of Christian ministry in the African context requires recognition of this traditional phenomenon.

“Witches, wizards, enchantments, divinations and sorcery are engaging factors in the prayers of most African Christians. Prayers in African Christianity often go forceful due to this recognition. Prayer has not happened for some African Christians until every suspected demon and evil spirit is tackled by fire and brimstone,” he said.

Gozie adds that faith alone is not enough for most Africans.

“There’s a place of suction in prayer but there’s equally an indication of effort-ridden Christianity when God is not believed to have heard a simple, sincere, conversational prayer until someone sweats it out.

“African Christians would proudly portray their efforts to gain a reputation of spirituality. They would often tell how they went on dry fasting for days, read the Bible cover to cover many times, went to the mountain and spoke in tongues,” he observed.

Despite assertions by academics, prophets still cling to the view that they are not from the same bloodline with traditional healers.

“Even in the Bible, prophets of Baal and prophets of God never mingled. This union (with Zinatha) can’t happen for the simple reason that light and darkness don’t mix. Even if such a coalition were to happen, there would be a lot of commotion and confusion and we would end up giving deliverance to those people. For example, right now I’ve seven people who used to be n’angas as part of my congregation,” said Prophet Chiza.

Such resistance is expected from the country’s prophets who might not want to be aligned with values and forces that congregants might deem unholy.

While Zinatha and the country’s prospering prophets continue to spar, landing a punch now and then, debates about the blurred lines between African traditional religion and Christianity are likely to rage on.

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