Central Bantu Religions

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CENTRAL BANTU RELIGIONS . The term central Bantu, as used here, refers to speakers of languages belonging to the Bantu branch of Niger-Congo who live in the Congo Basin. They are spread over thousands of square miles stretching from the mouth of the Congo River on the Atlantic to Lake Malawi and the Shire Basin in the east, lying between 4° and 17° south latitude. They occupy much of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Angola, Zambia, and Malawi, spilling over into the Congo Republic, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Much of the region is forested savanna interspersed with grasslands, except where the great equatorial forest thrusts southward into Kuba and Lele territory in the northern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In 1980 the central Bantu peoples were estimated to number around ten million, divided among many groups varying in size from half a million to a few hundred. The best known are the Bakongo, Basuku, Bakuba (including the Bushong), Basilele, Baluba, Basongye, Balunda, Bachokwe, Bandembu, Balubale, Balozi, Baila, Batonga, Balamba, Babemba, Babisa, Bachewa, and Bafipa. The nominal prefex ba is frequently dropped and the groups are referred to simply as Kongo, Suku, and so on. Lele and Ndembu religions, through the writings of Mary Douglas and Victor Turner, have done much to shape current thought on religious symbols and the nature of ritual.

The Luba and Lunda stress patrilineal descent. The Lozi have a bilateral system. The other central Bantu are matrilineal, but residence upon marriage varies: in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and south and west Zambia, the rule was that a wife moved to her husband's residence, and her sons returned to her brothers at maturity. In northern Zambia and Malawi, on the other hand, men joined their wives, and the long-lasting links were those between women. During the twentieth century, residence became more flexible. Prior to the late nineteenth century (before the colonial period) political organization varied. The Bushong, Luba, Lunda, and Kongo (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Lozi and Bemba (Zambia), and Chewa (Zambia and Malawi) had created centralized states dominated by royal courts. Others, such as the Tonga of Zambia, lived in small communities whose leaders depended on personal influence. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and western Zambia, religious systems emphasized the central importance of charms in both public and private rituals and made the spiritual realm manifest with carved figurines and masked dances. Elsewhere charms were used primarily in the private search for power, while public rituals centered on prayer and offering. Despite the differences, the social and religious systems of the savanna region had a common base.

Common Base

A comparison of the myths and ritual symbols of the Kuba, Luba, and Lunda of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Bemba of Zambia led Luc de Heusch to the conclusion that the savanna peoples share a common symbolic vocabulary. He attributes this to their common ideological heritage from proto-Bantu ancestors. This common heritage was reinforced with the expansion of centralized states, which tended to imitate each other, and the growth of trading networks, which by the seventeenth century linked much of the region into one great system. Myths, he suggests, moved along the trade routes like merchandise (de Heusch, pp. 245247). In fact, given the importance of charms or fetishes, which could be bought or sold, much ritual material was merchandise, encouraging the spread of cultic objects and organizations.

These materials could be accepted more easily because before the period of colonial rule the religious systems of the region shared common values and beliefs about the nature of the cosmos and the role of humans, spirits, and impersonal powers in the cosmic order. All were based on the assumption that a good human life is part of the natural order laid down at creation. The supreme being, or creator, was seen as beneficent but remote. Spirits active in relation to human interests, whether ancestral spirits or spirits of nature, were beneficent in principle. Power also existed throughout the cosmos and was inherent in all phenomenain plants, animals, rocks, streams, and pools. It lay ready to be tapped and used by those who learned the correct techniques, and when it was converted into magic or a charm it could then be used to enhance human felicity or to destroy it.

Another common feature of central Bantu religions was the belief that human disorder disturbed the cosmic order. Drought, other natural disorders, infertility, and illness occurred because of human failure or evil. Malevolent and ambitious men and women who harnessed power for their own ends brought about suffering, death, and social and natural chaos. Evil, then, was due to human intervention and was seen as a perversion of the natural order. This was witchcraft. The natural order could be preserved or restored only by controlling the human disorder. When deaths or illnesses mounted, drought persisted, or general malaise afflicted a community, people first appealed to known spirits in rituals that cast out anger and demonstrated solidarity while in turn, the spirits were asked to cool their wrath. In case of failure, people tried extraordinary measures, replacing charms and rituals that had lost power with new, vigorous ones or summoning those who claimed to be able to identify and strip witches of their magic. As the community was purified and revitalized, the natural order was restored. De Craemer, Vansina, and Fox believe that the religious history of the Congo Basin has been marked by a sequence of revitalization cults conforming to the same pattern.

Central Bantu religions were also pragmatic, emphasizing ritual and practice rather than doctrine. Heresy could not exist. Rituals, moreover, were a means to immediate practical ends and were not intended to merge the human with the divine. They were performed to obtain rain, fertility of crops and women, success in hunting, protection from misfortune, recovery from illness, and to regulate the transition of community members from one life phase to another (especially from death to protecting ancestor status). Researchers in the region have not reported the existence of highly developed mythologies, and theories about the nature, origin, or history of spiritual beings appear not to have been elaborated. What spirits didnot what they werewas important. Spirits were identified by effect, and when in doubt a diviner was consulted. In the area that has become the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and western Zambia, Bantu-speaking peoples who used images and masks were concerned with symbolic statement about action rather than with a representation of substance. The majority of peoples who lived in the area that is now Zambia and Malawi made no images. They agreed with the Tonga, who said, "We call all spirits wind. Like wind we cannot see them. We only know what they are by what they do."

A further common characteristic has been isolated by MacGaffey (1980), but he concludes that it was common to all Bantu speakers with the exception of the Nyakyusa. According to MacGaffey, all religions of the Bantu-speaking peoples distinguished between good and evil in terms of effects rather than means, and thus had a similar structure. An act was good or bad depending upon the consequences. Diviners, herbalists, rulers, and great hunters were akin to witches in that they sought and use extraordinary power. If evil resulted, then they were witches. All use of power for purely private ends were assumed to be at the expense of others and therefore evil.

These values and the view of a cosmos pervaded with power continue to hold, although today many central Bantu are Christians and a few are Muslims, and many beliefs and rituals reported in the early ethnographies disappeared during the radical political and economic changes of the twentieth century. What follows, therefore, is a reconstruction based on what we know of nineteenth-century practices.

Social Setting

By the beginning of the twentieth century, most central Bantu were subsistence cultivators, and their religions echoed their concerns. In general the countryside was well watered, but during the long dry season people depended upon springs and pools, especially in the more arid southeast. Rainfall was problematic, again especially in the southeast where droughts are frequent. It is no accident that so much communal ritual was associated with appeals for rains, while spirits linked to territorial cults were thought to dwell in pools and springs or moist caverns.

Because they are subject to leaching, tropical soils lose fertility rapidly. Most soils of the Congo Basin, except for river alluvials, are poor in nutrients and require long-term fallow. Tsetse flies inhibited the keeping of cattle and sometimes small stock except in a few grassland areas. The Lozi, Ila, Tonga, and a few others had herds of cattle, but most central Bantu depended on hunting and fishing for animal protein. As a result population densities were low, averaging about 6.9 to the square mile in the 1960s after considerable population increase.

Cultivators lived in small villages, ranging in size from forty to five hundred inhabitants, a size that left them highly vulnerable to natural disasters and demographic failure. High value was placed on fecundity and protection against accidents or epidemics. Villages moved to new sites every few years as soils became exhausted and game depleted. Those individuals dissatisfied with village morale or leadership moved away to join kin elsewhere. Since neither permanent buildings nor ownership of land tied people to a single place, communities were fragile, easily disrupted by quarrels or by events that aroused the fear that witches were at work.

Archaeological evidence for agriculture dates back to the early years of the first millennium. Most crops were annuals, although the Kongo had stands of palm oil and kola nut while the Kuba and Lele grew raffia palm. Staple crops were the millets and sorghums first domesticated in Africa, and many agricultural rituals centered on these. By the end of the nineteenth century they were being displaced by maize and cassava, which were first introduced from America to the Atlantic coast in the sixteenth century.

The village and its associated fields were viewed as domestic space subject to human control under the protection of the spirits of the dead. The surrounding bush was untamed space, controlled by nature spirits with whom humans had to come to an understanding since they depended upon the bush even more than upon their fields. The bush provided fuel, building materials, medicines, materials for crafts, and a substantial amount of food. Until the twentieth century game was usually abundant and hunting important. The contrasts between village and bush, domestic and wild, farming and hunting, and birth and death were common ritual motifs.

Cults and Spirits

Secret cults associated with initiation schools and masked performances existed in the area that has become the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola and among Luvale, Chokwe, and Ndembu immigrants near the upper reaches of the Zambezi River. Their theme was access to power. The Chewa near Lake Malawi also used masks in the Nyau cult, which mimed the invasion of domestic space by the spirits of the wild and the reign of disorder. Many central Bantu religions lacked such cults, but there were other cults that existed throughout the region. These have been classified into four cult types: domestic or kinship, territorial, professional, and healing. Each was the expression of a particular community of interestkinship, residence, occupation, and common sufferingand might have its own set of shrines and mediators. Appeals were addressed to ancestors, dead heroes and rulers, and the spirits of nature through these cults.

Absence of a cult of the creator

The creatorknown as Nzambe in much of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesa over much of present-day Zambia, and Mulungu among those in contact with Swahili speakerswas the ultimate source of life and the initiator of universal order. Oaths used the creator's name, and the will of the creator provided the ultimate explanation when other explanations had failed. Rain, thunder, and lightning were manifestations of the creator; the falling rain was greeted with "The creator falls." But there was no expectation that the creator was concerned with human affairs, and a cult with shrines, priests, and offerings was not provided. J. Matthew Schoffeleers believes that the Mbona cult of the southern Chewa was initially a cult of the creator. If so, this would be a unique instance; by historical times Mbona conformed to the pattern common among central Bantu-speaking peoples of offering devotion to a spirit believed to be a former ruler or spirit medium.

Because central Bantu peoples did not personify the creative force, they had no need to attribute gender to the creator. Bantu languages, which all lack grammatical gender, do not force the speaker to make such distinctions. When the creator became identified with the Christian God through the teaching of missionaries, many came to think of the creator as male and father, but for the most part, the sex of the creator is seen as a matter unknowable to humans.

Spirits that dealt directly with humans might be given sexual attributes, even if it was never believed that they were once human beings. They could be thought to have a definite form, even if it was invisible, and diviners, mediums, and witches were sometimes said to be able to see them. They were given names and sometimes linked through genealogies or arranged in hierarchical ranks of power.

Ancestral spirits and domestic cults

The Kuba and Lele were unique in having no ancestral cults. According to Vansina, this is a recent development among the Kuba, one that is tied to the disappearance of lineage organization. Their dead were thought to be reincarnated after only a brief existence as ghosts.

Other central African peoples who believed in reincarnation thought of the reincarnated spirits as free to come and go in the homesteads of their kin. These spirits were invoked in domestic rituals of households and lineages and also in the professional cults of specialists. It was believed that such spirits affected the welfare of their descendants and members of their descent groups. Whatever the system of descent, children owed service to the spirits of their dead parents, grandparents, and siblings. These spirits were installed as guardians of their households, and they protected their dependents against intruding spirits and against charms sent by human malice. Periodically they were given offerings to assure them that they were remembered and cared for.

Illness or personal misfortune, while it might be attributed to witchcraft, also signified a breach between the dead and the living caused by a living person's neglect or wrongdoing. Divination discovered which ancestor or ancestors harbored anger and why. The offender then made an offering with a prayer for renewed favor. Divination usually named those who had died recently, but the recent dead were asked to bring with them to share in the offering all those they knew who were no longer known to the living. Beyond that range the dead had lost all community with the living and existed only as malevolent wandering shades who could be enlisted by witches.

Since the spirits had the same tastes as the living, the Kongo offered them palm wine and kola nuts, a common provision for honored guests among the Kongo. Elsewhere the offering was of meal and water or beer or kaolin powder. The Tonga first offered meal and water, and if conditions improved (meaning that the right spirit had been identified), they offered beer. The beer had to be brewed from grain grown by the members of the household for which the appeal was being made. Because it was won with their sweat, it was endowed with their life force. Offering, therefore, had an element of sacrifice.

The common place of offering in domestic cults was the doorway of the dwelling, which was associated with the coming and going of the spirits. Most offerings took place in early morning before spirits and people had dispersed for the day. The dwelling itself was a shrine to domesticity, for those who lived within were continuing the domestic life laid down by the ancestors. The sexual activity of the married couple, which created new life, was therefore made sacred, as was the cooking fire that helped to sustain life.

Lineages, where they existed, were ritual communities focused on common ancestors, led by elders who themselves had known many of those whose spirits they now summoned. The elder's dwelling could serve as a lineage shrine as well as his household shrine, but special shrines also existed. They took the form of a simple post, a tree planted when the homestead was built, a miniature dwelling, or a gateway formed of two posts with a crossbar. Like all central Bantu shrines they were simple, impermanent, and could be built again when need arose. First fruits were laid at the shrine. At harvest or before sowing, lineage members gathered to make offerings. This might include the ritual killing of a chicken, which then provided a communion meal. But residential patterns led to the dispersal of lineage members and only those who lived nearby came to the shrine. As a result, most lineages had few members and a shallow time depth.

Individuals who had special skills bestowed upon them by an ancestor dedicated shrines to their spirit sponsor. Here the spirit was invoked before the person embarked on the hunt or other activity, and it was thanked for success in the enterprise. Such shrines also served as reminders that the living followed a way of life created by those now dead and that they could depend upon the knowledge the dead had acquired.

Territorial cults, heroes, and nature spirits

Because villages had populations of diverse origin owing service to different sets of ancestors, lineage cults based on devotion to common ancestors could not serve village or neighborhood interests. Their common interests were the basis of territorial cults whose rituals dealt with rain, the ensurance of a harvest, the communal hunt, and vulnerability to epidemic.

Some territorial cults had no permanent shrines but rather centered on spirit mediums who spoke under possession as the embodiment of nature spirits, of those who had first settled the land, or of ancient heroes or former rulers who had once had some interest in the territory. Other cults used natural shrines that were seen as places where spirits manifested themselves. These were usually deep pools, waterfalls, caves, and high places. Here offerings of black cloth, black beads, beer, domestic stock, meal, and water were made. Hoes and spears, the essential tools of cultivation and the hunt, were also appropriate offerings. Some communities supplemented the natural shrines with miniature dwellings or shelters, set apart from the village, where they appealed to spirits thought to have once lived as members of their social group. Often these were identified as the first couple who had settled in the area and had first come to terms with the spirits of the land, making them proper intermediaries.

Officiants in the territorial cults were priests, priestesses, and mediums. The former, if representative of first settlement, are usually called earth priests. They were of particular importance among acephalous peoples, but even in the centralized kingdoms where royal shrines catered to public concerns, earth priests led local communities.

The earth priest was chosen from the lineage associated either with settlement or with some later community leader. He had a ritual wife who represented the first wife, and together they followed the routine believed to have been established with the foundation of the community. They carried out the rites that organized the agricultural year, initiating clearing of fields, planting, weeding, bird scaring, eating of first fruits, and harvest. Often wild spinach and fruits were brought to them as they came into season, as well as the first cut of thatching grass. When the community moved, their house was the first to be built, and it was from their rekindled fire that fire was taken by others. Since they were associated with fertility, their ritual intercourse gave validity to the promise of reward for hard agricultural labor. Seeds placed beneath their bed were imbued with vitality and were distributed for planting.

The permission of the earth priest and his wife might also be sought for the felling of large trees associated with spirits or regarded as the embodiment of power or for any disturbance of the earth. They gave permission to hunters to use the bush. Adherents of the local cult would make the first appeal for rain before their house, asking them in turn to appeal to the spirits of the first couple to intervene with the natural spirits to preserve the community that they had founded. Carrying drums and singing, the petitioners subsequently went to the shrine at the gravesite of the first settler or to one of the natural shrines to renew the appeal.

Priests and priestesses gave continuity, but mediums provided for communication and innovation. At regular offerings, men and women told the spirits what they desired; the spirits, in turn, made their own demands and gave warnings through mediums. The spirits chided earth priests and priestesses for ritual neglect or abandonment of ancestral ways. They called for new shrines to be built, instigated changes in routines, and demanded offerings for themselves and their mediums. Sometimes they announced the arrival of previously unknown spirits or threatened to abandon the community. When rain was at stake, black beads and black cloth were appropriate offerings to the mediums, for black symbolized the rain clouds. White was offered when they were asked to stop overly abundant downpours. When the spirits demanded sacrifices, black animals were provided.

Although some of the most powerful mediums lived separately and could be approached only through their attendants, the majority lived as ordinary men and women except when they were possessed. During possession, people clapped before them as they did before the shrines or in the presence of a ruler.

Just as first settlers continued to watch over their communities, so dead kings and queens continued to oversee their realms. These royal spirits were often associated with regional shrines. While Bemba kings were buried in one royal cemetery, rulers elsewhere were buried at their capitals. Since each ruler built a new capital, royal shrines were widely scattered. Initially the royal shrine was cared for by retired officers of the dead king and by royal widows; the office then became hereditary to their descent lines. The dead ruler might also speak through a medium attached to the shrine, a medium whose post was not usually hereditary. Periodically the living king or queen sent offerings to all the royal shrines throughout the kingdom to invoke the protection of the new ruler. Their anger at his bodily failure or neglect could bring disaster upon the realm.

Some territorial shrines served only a neighborhood, while others served a large region as places of last appeal. Shrines might be interlinked because they were associated with the same spirit, or because mediums in many places claimed possession by the same spirit. The most famous spirits had many mediums. When nearby shrines and mediums failed to give satisfaction, communities sent delegations to distant shrines and mediums, crossing linguistic and political boundaries. This gave witness that in the last analysis all shared the same human interests. Homogenization of belief and rituals was inevitable.

Professional cults

Many types of professional guilds existed in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, each with its own cult. Elsewhere we have good evidence only for hunting cults and sometimes cults of diviners and smiths. Individual cult members could count upon assistance from a sponsoring ancestor, but the guild also had a variety of guild rituals, including those for the initiation of new members. They were taught medicines and spells needed to handle the power inherent in the earth, water, large trees, and big game. Because they dealt with power, guild members were regarded as dangerously close to the temptation of witchcraft. A breaking of the normal rules was attributed to hunters, who in the reckless search for power engaged in incest and sacrificed kin to obtain spirit companions in the hunt. The very presence of the hunter, linked as he was with blood and death as well as with extraordinary power, was dangerous to small children and pregnant women.

Many central Bantu thought that witches, too, had professional guilds. It was a common belief that witches offered human flesh as a feast and delighted in the evil that they had orchestrated.

Cults of suffering

Cults of suffering, or of affliction as Victor Turner called them, may have been of minor importance prior to the twentieth century. During that century, however, these cults proliferated. They are based on the belief that various kinds of spirits seize upon or enter human victims, who then must come to terms with them. Treatment requires identification of the spirit and instruction in how to meet its demands. Thereafter the sufferer becomes an adept able to treat new victims. All adepts in the locality are expected to help their fellow sufferers, and this joins them in a ritual community. As the people of surrounding areas become suspicious that the new spirit has begun work in their community, adepts are summoned to diagnose and treat, and so the cults spread rapidly.

In the west, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and western Zambia, cults of suffering are associated with spirits known as mahamba. Elsewhere in Zambia and in Malawi they are more likely to be referred to as masabe. Mahamba and masabe spirits may be identified as former members of alien ethnic groups who ask those possessed to speak in their own tongue and don their costume. Ma-hamba cults may also invoke the spirits of the sufferer's own ancestors.

Early cults of affliction were concerned with the incursion of animal spirits and spirits of the bush and may have developed out of hunting cults. More recent ones are linked to the uncertainties of alien modern experiences; cults centered on such things as the airplane, railroad, city life, warfare, angels, and on those people taken away as slaves to Europe and America have appeared in the last few decades. Each spirit is identified with its own drum rhythms, songs, medicines, and sometimes costume. Cults are most elaborate, and seem to have greater permanence, in the area inhabited by the west-central Bantu peoples. Elsewhere they came and went with great rapidity until the 1970s and 1980s, when some of the cults of affliction began to take on the semblance of a church and to make claims about their ability to go beyond the control of invading spirits. Some cult leaders now claim that they have the power to heal, provide protection against witches, and control the rains. They often have many spirits, which are seen as helpers.

Although men and women of all ages may be initiated into cults of suffering, the majority of initiates are women. Lewis attributes this to the peripheral role women have in the public sphere. But among the central Bantu peoples, only the Lele barred women from participation in public religious actions. In general, central Bantu religions provided women with important ritual and political roles. Women were sometimes political rulers and held offices in both territorial and kinship cults. On death they became ancestral spirits, and living women could make offerings to the ancestors. Lineage offerings usually required the collaboration of a man and woman elder. Women became diviners and herbalists, and some of the most famous mediums were women. The Luba are reported as saying that no man had a body strong enough to support possession by the greatest spiritsonly the women were strong enough to withstand such power.

Central Bantu peoples differed in their judgment concerning the association of women with the possibility of evil. Some are reported to have connected maleness with power and death, femaleness with fertility and life. Yet some attributed witchcraft to women. Among the Luba those accused of witchcraft were usually women. The Lamba thought men and women were equally likely to be witches. The Bemba, Tonga, and Chewa usually accused men because men were thought to compete with one another through ambition, and so it was through them that evil disrupted the world.

Religious Transformation

De Craemer, Vansina, and Fox believe the basic elements and symbols of central African religions have been stable over the centuries (perhaps for millennia), although specific religious movements have come and gone. Nevertheless the last four centuries have been marked by religious questioning and transformation, paralleling the turmoil and transformation in political and economic regimes. The Kongo on the Atlantic coast first encountered the Portuguese and Christianity at the end of the fifteenth century. Many Kongo people were baptized, and the cross was adopted as a powerful charm. In the sixteenth century the Portuguese also began pushing up the Zambezi River from the Indian Ocean. By that time central Africa had long had trade links with Islamic settlements on the East African coast. Exchange of ideas was inevitable. By the early nineteenth century trading caravans in search of slaves and ivory were disturbing even the most remote areas.

The slave trade brought about the destruction of many of the ancient kingdoms. The Kongo kingdom disintegrated in the sixteenth century in the turmoil provoked by Portuguese slavers. In the mid-nineteenth century Chokwe slave raiders from Angola overran the Lunda and Luba empires. The weakened Chewa kingdoms had already fallen easily to nineteenth-century Ngoni invaders from the south. Royal cults associated with the old kingdoms either disappeared in the chaos or persisted by transforming themselves into other forms of territorial cults.

The dispersal of fleeing populations and the caravan movements led to a spread of epidemic disease on an unprecedented scale and to a questioning of the efficacy of existing religion. At the end of the nineteenth century central Africa was carved up among European powers, and formerly independent rulers became suspect as ritual leaders when they were transformed into bureaucrats in colonial governments. Between 1950 and 1980, independence movements brought African governments into power, but these were no more willing to accept claims to authority based on religious inspiration or cultic position than were the colonial governments.

In the twentieth century people came to depend on the cash economy and world trade. Market conditions are now as important as rainfall in determining well-being. New crops and agricultural techniques dominate the scene; consequently, territorial cults associated with agriculture have become less important. Hunting had little importance by the late 1980s since game had been largely depleted except in a few refuge areas. Hunting cults, not surprisingly, have largely vanished. And as cheap imported goods have spread and undercut local products, rituals associated with other crafts have also faded.

Many adults have been trained in mission schools or otherwise influenced by Christianity. Their children attend government schools where dependence upon ancestors or territorial cults is derided, although the power of charms and witches continues to be admitted.

Religious life has had to adjust to the fact that the central Bantu-speaking peoples are no longer primarily based in rural areas supported by agriculture and the produce of the bush. Many are now wage earners. Most men and women have spent some years in the cities that grew up around mines and trading and administrative centers. A substantial portion of the population is now permanently urbanized. Cities are becoming arbiters of the good life. The twentieth century saw a loss of faith, and people no longer even know about many of the beliefs that were an important part of their forebears' lives in 1900. It also saw the rise and rapid spread of new religious movements that promise to free people from the threat of witchcraft and to provide an understanding of the human experience.

Religious systems are not direct reflections of the social order, nor are they compelled solely by economic considerations. Yet they relate to the concerns of those who live in a given time and place. A viable religion must reflect people's desires, fears, and visions of what life ought to be like; provide rituals that speak to these concerns; and somehow link the transitory human experience with some enduring guarantee of order.

It is not surprising that many new religious movements have arisen among migrants in ethnically diverse cities or that these movements center upon the individual's search for a community of the purified rather than on the community of kinship or the common interests of a rural neighborhood. Many people today find religious community through conversion linked with healing and purification, and it is among those who share this experience that they find help to face illness and death and a shield against fears of loneliness, joblessness, and the envy of others.

Many of the new religions have their roots in Christianity, but their founders adapt Christian elements to what they see as African needs and wisdom. Unlike the mission churches, they accept the efficacy of charms and the power of witches and arm their adherents against these dangers. They recognize the continuing existence of the dead and the possibility of possession. They identify the creator with the Christian God but announce that the creator now cares about humanity and is actively at work in the world. Many of these new religions base themselves upon a visionary experience in which the creator appeared to be the founder and seek to provide either a new explication of the Bible or to replace it with a new message for Africans. Such was the Antonine movement founded in 1704 by Dona Béatrice, a Kongo woman, as a response to the disintegration of the Kongo world (Balandier, pp. 257ff.). The churches of Simon Kimbangu (Kimbanguist Church), Alice Lenshina (Lumpa Church), John Maranke (Apostolic Church of John Maranke), and John Masowe (Apostolic Church of John Masowe) were comparable responses in the twentieth century. Fernandez describes their theology as "lived, sung, and pictured in images, not formulated" (p. 222).

Cults of suffering and witch-finding movements also proliferated in the twentieth century as the old religious foundations crumbled, but they are more likely to operate in rural areas. Witch-finding movements aim at purification of existing communities to restore them to working order and usually vanish, to be replaced by a successor, when pain and suffering are again found to be the human portion. The Muchapi movement, which swept Malawi and Zambia in the 1920s, was short-lived, as was the Mikom iyool current among Luba, Bushong, and Lele in the 1940s (Douglas, pp. 245ff.). Their successors have also not lasted long. But they attest to a continued belief that the world is basically good and that all will be well if humans can be induced to discard malice and control ambition.

See Also

Affliction, article on African Cults of Affliction; African Religions, article on New Religious Movements; Bemba Religion; Kimbangu, Simon; Kongo Religion; Lenshina, Alice; Luba Religion; Maranke, John; Ndembu Religion; Witchcraft, article on African Witchcraft.


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