Navigating uncertainty, predicting the future: the importance of religion in Zimbabwe





In today’s uncertain world, having a sense of what the future holds is vital. This is why biblical predictions and prophecies hold so much cachet, offering hope in times of turmoil.
by Ian Scoones
While religion may be the ‘opium of the people’ it can provide a sense of direction when none seem available. This is of course religion’s power, and why those who claim they can foretell disasters and cataclysmic events are held up high, attracting followers and sometimes great wealth.

Responding to drought and keeping the spirits happy

Our discussions on drought and how people manage uncertainty (see a previous four-part blog series) highlighted many examples of how farmers made use of natural signs as a source of prediction – bird song, particular trees, clouds and so on. And when these failed – as they often do – then everyday adaptation and attuned response based on accumulated experience is necessary.

In the past, as discussed in the previous blog, people would rely on rainmaking ceremonies conducted in relation to wider territorial cults to assure good harvests. Paying respect to the ancestral spirits, brewing beer and offering libations and providing contributions to the rainmaking cult shrine in Njelele were all part of the annual cycle. Only some key people were involved, led by the spirit mediums (svikiros) and assisted by the rainmaking messengers (nyusa) and supported by the traditional leadership. Only men and post-menopausal women and pre-pubescent girls could be involved in the ceremonies. Ritual purity was essential to please the spirits and assure good rains and harvests.

As discussed before, such practices are declining across our study areas, and nearly completely absent in some such is the dominance of diverse forms of Christian religion described in an earlier blog in this series. But this does not mean that appeasing spirits or a Christian God is not central to dealing with uncertainty.

Indeed, all churches pray for rain as part of their services, while the spiritualist churches go further and call on spirits to assist their followers (whether the Holy Spirit or some others linked to the ancestors), using a whole array of ritual objects and practices to cement the relationship, whether anointed oil, holy water, sacred beer or burning candles and incense.

Prophecy and hope in challenging times

The prophets of the indigenous African churches are especially important, offering hope and salvation to their followers. They offer predictions on coming seasons, as well as suggesting what agricultural practices to follow. For individuals who have suffered mishaps, particular advice can be offered, sometimes for a fee.

While some of our informants condemned these new Johanne Masowe churches as just ‘false prophets’, in it for the business and sometimes sexual favours, there are others who are firm believers, arguing that such prophecies will be fulfilled, and the directions should be followed.

When there is no one else to turn to and when such prophecies offer some surety and hope in difficult times, then it is no surprise that such prophet-led churches have many followers. It is perhaps a reflection of the times that such churches have become so popular – and indeed politically influential. If the state and ruling party cannot provide and provide the basic protections, then other sources of succour must be sought.

During the pandemic the role of prophets became significant. With Apostolic churches rejecting modern medical explanation and intervention, the COVID-19 pandemic was interpreted in different ways. Predicted in the bible and representing a scourge on humans by God, it was accepted as fate rather than as an epidemiological challenge. Prophets offered support to those who were fearful and treatment for those who became sick. In the absence of other forms of support, given the parlous state of the health system, such alternatives were often seen as the only alternative and people flocked to the prophets, with many more appearing during the pandemic.

Waiting for the rain

The annual agricultural cycle is centred on waiting for the rain, and anyone who can offer predictions for the season and ways of preventing disaster have great power. The power of the territorial rain cults in the past and the prophets today is witness to the importance of this role. An agricultural extension worker joked that they are the ‘scientific prophets’, providing meteorological information during the season and advice on how to adapt agricultural practices, but they often cannot compete with the church prophets; or at least people will consult both to inform their decisions.

Warnings of impending apocalypse as well as salvation are recurrent themes in Christian doctrines, but how these are interpreted and explained to followers differs widely. Such events may seem inevitable, resulting in a sense of despair but also dependence on religious intervention. In the case of the prophets this becomes a source of income as well as an opportunity to garner more followers. While not rejecting external support and recognising the value of science, the state and wider development, other churches – whether the Pentecostals or the Seventh Day Adventists – foster a view that disasters cannot be averted but for the grace of God, making prayer, religious commitment and doctrinal adherence essential.

For others, a sense of hopeless inevitability only offset by divine intervention is rejected with a focus on people’s empowerment and transformation. This too is seen as a religious vocation. The liberation theology of the Roman Catholic church has had influence in Zimbabwe through Silveira House, and a progressive alternative for development, centred on peace and justice, is promoted.

Religion in turbulent times

Religion therefore offers many different compasses for navigating uncertainty in a turbulent world, based on different doctrines and interpretations. The rise of the ‘new’ churches and the role of prophets however is especially important in many of our study areas, with important implications for how people confront uncertainties and adapt their agricultural practices.

Understanding how religious belief influences agricultural practice – and particular adaptation to climate change and addressing wider uncertainties – is a crucial theme, but still remains rarely discussed.

This blog was first published on Zimbabweland and was compiled by Ian Scoones. This is the fourth and final blog in this series. It is informed by contributions from Judy Bwerinofa (Triangle), Jacob Mahenehene (Chikombedzi), Makiwa Manaka (Chatsworth), Bulisie Mlotshwa (Matobo), Felix Murimbarimba (Masvingo/Hippo Valley), Moses Mutoko (Wondedzo) and Vincent Sarayi (Mvurwi)




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