Religion and agriculture: reflections from Zimbabwe





A recurrent theme in our research across Zimbabwe is the role of organised Christian religion in agriculture and rural livelihoods. The connection is not usually made.
By Ian Scoones

However, religious beliefs, practices and institutions have important influences, and these have changed over time. In the last few months, the research team in sites across Zimbabwe has been exploring how religion impinges on daily life and so affects how agriculture, land use and wider patterns of social support are practised.

Today the rise of Pentecostal and traditional African Christian churches is an important feature. ‘Traditional’ African religious practice is not as widespread as in the past, and the earlier influence of those churches central to missionary activity from the colonial era is in decline.

However, the pattern varies from place to place. In some of our sites, for example, the Roman Catholic church remains significant, drawing on the long legacy of mission education and strong rural presence. In others, it is the Pentecostal churches that have seen a major rise, with the now split AFM (Apostolic Faith Mission) being central to local life. In all places, numerous new churches are being established by ‘prophets’, claiming healing and other powers.

Across our sites there are three broad categories of institutionalised Christian religion existing alongside and sometimes in tension with traditional forms of territorial and spirit-based traditional religion. How do they each relate to agriculture and rural livelihoods, and so land control, investment patterns and knowledge sharing around agriculture?

Missionary influences

The earliest Christian churches in our study areas were either Protestants (such as United Methodists, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Reformed Church of Zimbabwe (formerly the Dutch Reformed Church), the Church of Christ and Anglicans) or the Roman Catholics. The early arrivals established missions and associated schools, hospitals, teacher training centres, printing presses and so on, such as the huge complex at Morgenster under the RCZ. Through translating the bible they were influential in the ‘civilising’ mission of the colonial state and through this they influenced agriculture (see next blog in this series).

Committed to both academic and vocational training, such churches have offered an educational infrastructure across the country, with many contemporary leaders receiving their education in mission institutions. In different parts of the country different church denominations held sway, reflecting earlier missionary efforts. In our study areas, the Catholic influence at Gokomere is important, notably through the school, while at Morgenster elsewhere in Masvingo province, the RCZ has huge influence.

Educational provision, notably in the colonial era before education for Africans was widespread was important, and many liberation war leaders came through such systems. While associated with colonial conquest through missionary activity and very much bound up with the colonial state through educational and training provision in ‘African’ areas, these churches had a liberal sensibility, and many church leaders became involved in the struggle for national liberation (see later blog in this series). Investment in training in vocational skills, including agriculture, was important across churches, with different denominations having different foci. Concentrated in Manicaland, the Methodists for example are well known for supporting carpentry training and other skills, while the RCZ has long had important agricultural projects.

More recent arrivals, now with many followers across the country – like the Seventh Day Adventists – have a huge array of activities associated with their churches. As someone described it, the church is like a government – services in health, education and so on are provided, with support through the church for businesses and other activities. People’s whole lives are oriented around the church and the teachings from the bible, with pastors and preachers taking on important roles in communities. As with other Protestant churches, spiritualism is formally rejected and people dress smartly in European clothes. Other practices are deemed ‘too African’ and church services are seen as ‘more like a meeting’ rather than the more vibrant forms of spiritualism seen in other evangelical and African indigenous churches. Laying of hands, casting out demons and so on is frowned upon, although some admitted that some pastors are beginning to incorporate these practices on the margins.

Although congregations are declining, these churches remain important across Zimbabwe, and in our sites the SDA are seeing expanding numbers amongst the protestant churches, while the Roman Catholics continue to invest in development activities, now through formalised NGOs, such as CADEC or Caritas, and progressive institutions such as Silveira House, linked to ‘liberation theology’ movements and Freirean ‘training for transformation’ approaches. Significant flows of resources come from outside the country through churches connected to Zimbabwean partners.

The rise of Pentecostal religion

However, the religious landscape in Zimbabwe is changing, especially with the rise of evangelical Pentecostal churches and indigenous African churches of many types. Amongst the Pentecostals, the AFM (Apostolic Faith Mission) – and its breakaway group Later Rain – are especially important in our sites, along with Zaoga and Members in Christ, for example. These churches are led by charismatic leaders – such as Prophet Magaya for PHD ministries and Emmanuel Makandiwa for United Family International Church) – and many have strong connections in South Africa, where some originated. AFM is especially dominant in Chatsworth, Gutu where the Rufaro mission hosts a school and its three massive revival gatherings held each year, where thousands descend on the area. These churches have constructed temples and large halls for worship and have invested in schools, and even universities. They have church farms and projects, alongside other business investments such as shops and hotels.

They raise significant funds through tithe contributions from their congregations, with followers being urged to contribute up to 10% of their salaries. With relatively rich church members they have significant financial clout and attract the interests of corporates and politicians. The local Pentecostal followings overlap with others from elsewhere on the continent, notably from Nigeria (such as the late T.B. Joshua) and the influence of US evangelical preachers (such as Christ Embassy and others from Billy Graham onwards) visiting the country has long been a feature.

Preachers encourage a commitment to self-reliance, with the holy spirit guiding practices, including in agriculture. Formally, they reject the role of other ancestral spirits, although some n’angas claim they have become involved and some groups offer a more flexible interpretation, encouraging a more syncretic belief system, although not going as far as the African indigenous churches (see below).

The importance of prophets

African indigenous churches can in many shapes and forms. The most formalised in Zimbabwe are the ZCC (Zion Christian Church) and the Johanne Marange Apostolic church, while alongside these are the huge number of small churches led by self-proclaimed prophets (Johanne Masowe and more broadly those classified as Madzibaba). A syncretic mix of Christian teachings from both the Old and New Testament and sprit-based religion, linking to the ancestors and traditional religion is observed. This has important impacts on agriculture in all our sites.

The ZCC has significant resources through tithes paid by congregants and like the other formalised churches has invested in farms, schools and businesses and there is a massive conference centre at Mbungo near Masvingo. Johanne Marange by contrast has less infrastructure beyond the headquarters in Manicaland, as worship takes place under trees and on mountains. The numerous Johanne Masowe prophets each with small followings have shrines often at their homes.

There is a big focus amongst the Apostolic churches in a commitment to self-reliance. The Johanne Marange church followers are associated with the skills of tin-smithing, welding, electrical engineering and many run workshops both in rural areas and in town. They are deeply committed to commercial agriculture and, as discussed in the next blog in this series, many markets are dominated by Apostolic faith followers in our study areas.

While less formalised, the huge number of local prophets amongst the Johanne Masowe followings offer an even more explicit blending of traditional religion and Christian preaching. The dress codes reflect those that the spirit mediums use (black, white, red) and the array of artefacts used (clay pots, soil, salt, bones and so on) can barely be distinguished. Reliance on herbs and divination is combined with spiritualism, the laying of hands and healing through possession by spirits. Such prophets often use religion as a livelihood pathway, coming to new areas to gain land and followers.

Across our sites, the declared religious association in our 2017/18 survey in Gutu/Masvingo for example suggested a dominance of new African indigenous churches (53%) over Pentecostal churches (25%), Protestants (12%) and Roman Catholics (10%) (see table), but this probably underestimates the importance of new prophets who have risen in prominence in recent years. While sometimes rejected by those associated with more formal religious denominations as ‘false prophets’, peddling non-Christian beliefs and practices, they nevertheless are important numerically. Meanwhile, the commercial and political clout of the likes of ZCC cannot be underestimated, while in a more mundane way the Johanne Marange Apostolic faith followers are reshaping agriculture in many of our sites in important ways.

Table: Declared religious affiliation of resident household heads attending ‘churches’ in Gutu and Masvingo A1 sites (2017-18 survey)

Roman Catholic 10%
RCZ 5%
SDA 4%
Methodist 2%
AFM 16%
Other Pentecostal (incl Zaoga, Members in Christ) 9%
ZCC 21%
Johan Marange Apostolic 25%
Johan Masowe Apostolic 8%

The next blogs in this short series look at particular aspects of this new dynamic, with the next examining agriculture and markets in more detail. This is followed by another that will focus on the politics of religion in land and agriculture, as well as more broadly, while the last in the series looks at how religion shapes how farmers respond to an uncertain environment.

This blog was first published on Zimbabweland and was compiled by Ian Scoones. 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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