Zimbabwe: Dangerous Religious Cults and the Loss of Identity

The other day my cousin Piri said she dreamt of Mukoma Wanda, a cousin who disappeared in America more than 30 years ago. Wanda went over there with a church group called Youth for Christ or something ministries.I cannot quite recall the name of the American group. Wanda wanted to train as a pastor then come home and start a church in the village. He used to write home frequently, when letters could still reach the village. But he stopped writing more than 20 years ago.

Maybe Wanda is still alive, maybe he is not. Once in a while news filters to the village saying Wanda is still alive and has been spotted in Texas, California or Arizona.

People say Wanda belongs to a religious cult and he is no longer called Wanda, but has a cult name.

Recently, my friend Temba who is based in the US told us that Wanda was living in a commune somewhere near San Diego.

The commune is like a big homestead where people live together and worship God following certain practices. Some of them practice polygamy, meaning one man can have more than one wife.

“Varungu here vanodaro?” Piri asked and my cousin Reuben said, yes, some religious cults do not recognise racial differences and polygamy is acceptable.

When someone decides that God is calling them to start a church, that person can do just that and people of all backgrounds or races will follow his or her messages.

Such movements or religious cults were not unusual in America or around the world, said Reuben.

People seek God in many ways.

Not many of these groups can be called cults, but they are religious all the same.

“Saka wamurota achiitei?” I asked Piri, as we drove to the village last week together with Reuben.

By this, I meant, what was Wanda doing in Piri’s dream.

“He was addressing a group of elders. Among them was our Sekuru Dickson. Wanda was telling them that he was ready to come home and lead a church,” said Piri.

Reuben scoffed and said dreams should never be taken seriously.

Wanda will never come back.

Even if he was to come back, he would be a totally different person because religious cults can change a person completely. Followers of dangerous cult movements are taught to forget their own identities, culture and backgrounds. Temba had told us that there are quite a number of religious cults in America and he did not know which one Wanda belonged to.

But he knew that cult practices included rituals and ceremonies performed in temples, churches and shrines.

Rituals included prayers, sacrifice, processions and offerings.

After listening to Temba, we hoped and even prayed that Wanda does not belong to a cult similar to the one called the Branch Dravidian Flag whose story I recall seeing on television many years ago.

The Branch Davidian Flag was formed by David Koresh who used to belong to the church of the Seventh Day Adventists.

He was expelled from that church because his views were seen as too radical and different.

Koresh believed that he was a messiah and all women were his spiritual wives. He was a guitarist and a preacher who told people that the end of the world was near.

He moved to a place called Waco in Texas and collected weapons.

In March 1993 the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms began a siege that lasted 51 days and resulted in the death of four Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agents and Branch Davidians.

In the end, 77 Branch Davidians died in a fire, among them 20 children. Koresh himself survived but was wounded.

There was also the Unification Church founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon from North Korea. Sun Myung Moon believed that he had a vision at the age of 16. According to what Sun Myung Moon saw, Jesus Christ did not finish his work on Earth.

The “work” involved making “perfect children”.

It was therefore Moon’s mission to complete the work Jesus had started.

Moon found his way to the US in 1950 and became a Presbyterian first before becoming a founder of the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. Moon said he alone was responsible for choosing marriage partners for his followers.

There was plenty of television coverage of Moon´s mass marriage ceremonies often held in one day.

By the 1970s, Moon had renamed his movement the Unification Church and moved to New York City. Some people accused him of brain washing their children.

In 1982, Moon was convicted of tax evasion. He died in 2010, but his Unification Church still exists. Maybe our cousin Wanda belongs to the Unification Church or perhaps to another movement since the world is full of these cults.

Religious movements also have a history in Africa. One of the most famous religious movements in Africa was led by Alice Lenshina Mulenga who lived in Chinsali District, Zambia.

Lenshina believed that she was a prophetess. After surviving a bout of cerebral malaria that put her in a coma, Lenshina received a mystical call in 1953.

Some people thought she was possessed by demons. But Lenshina claimed to have met Jesus Christ during her coma.

She said she was a prophetess called by God to teach a new way of spiritual living for all Africans. She started the Lumpa Church which became one of Zambia’s most well-known independent churches.

She sought to eradicate witchcraft. From 1955 onwards, the Lumpa Church grew rapidly and gained more members than the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland. Lenshina built a grand temple at Kasoma Village named Sion-Zion.

By 1958, it had a membership of more than 150 000 in the northern and eastern provinces of Northern Rhodesia.

Alice Lenshina’s increasingly large congregation was seen as presenting a serious threat to the United National Independent Party, or UNIP which was led by founding Zambian president, Dr Kenneth David Kaunda.

At the time, UNIP wanted every Zambian to fight British colonialists.

Lumpa Church also wanted to see an African government in power.

But then Lenshina openly challenged UNIP and this resulted in the decline of membership and there were violent conflicts between UNIP members and those belonging to Lumpa church.

Later on, Lenshina was arrested and she died in prison in 1978.

Some of her followers moved to the DRC and others remain in Zambia to this day.

Some historians argue that Lenshina was at the forefront of liberation theology because she denounced the teachings of the European missionaries.

To some of us, Alice Lenshina remains an enigma who proved that an African woman could start a religious movement with many followers.

Looking back, I know that following religious cults or churches was not new in our family.

Our own grandfather Sekuru Dickson used to tell us that God told him to form the Zionist African church.

As a result of his miraculous escape from injury during the First World War where he served briefly with the Rhodesia Native Regiment, Sekuru said God appeared to him one day.

During a vision, God asked Sekuru Dickson to become a spiritual leader. He was going to have many wives and children. Sekuru Dickson said my grandmother Mbuya VaMandirowesa would remain the senior wife, Vahosi, while all other wives gave her honour and respect.

The family was expected to worship together, eat together and pray together.

Sekuru’s church was called Dickson´s Zion African Church. At that time, we thought he was the founder of Zionism. But this was not true. African Zionism had already been around Rhodesia for a very long time.

When only a handful of people followed Sekuru’s church, he left the village and started what we can look at today as a commune. Sekuru lived behind Svinurai Mountain with his five wives and he had several children.

I remember the wives and children bringing him back home to die when he was already very old.

“Wanda is taking after Sekuru Dickson. He will be back,” said Piri.

“My dreams often come true.”

But I shook my head. Religious cults are powerful and can be mentally and psychologically dangerous. It is not easy for a person to escape and return home to the family because life will not be the same.

We think of Wanda often. We hope he will not forget that he remains one of us, a child of Zimbabwe, mwana wevhu.

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.

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