Disclaimer. I’ve wanted to write a post about African traditional religions since I arrived in Zambia, but have been hesitant to do so. Something happened last week, however, that pushed me over the edge. It’s a long one and simply reflects what I’ve been learning. The worldview of the average Zambian is complex and I don’t pretend to understand it fully.
Although to the westerner, the spiritual world seems distant and almost unbelievable; to a Zambian this unseen world is a very present reality. Karl Grebe writes in a paper entitled African Traditional Religion and Christian Counseling,
“Most African Christians have grown up in cultures that are intricately intertwined with the traditional religion of that ethnic group. These indigenous African religions vary in detail but they agree in essentials such as, the spiritual nature of the world, the existence and remoteness of God, the role of spirits and mystical powers, and the way man relates to his world and to God. Furthermore, ethnographic studies have shown that in all cases the religion of African peoples is at the very heart of their cultures.” (9)
In a world where there is little scientific understanding, the spirit world provides a ready explanation for anything a person might not understand. You’ve become sick? Someone must have cursed you. It had nothing to do with your poor toilet habits. Your crops failed? Your jealous neighbor hired a witch doctor to harm you. It had nothing to do with low nitrogen levels in your soil. A missionary wants to use a wordless book to preach the gospel. It must be witchcraft. I mean come on, how can a book not have words! Even my Nikon camera can be an instrument of evil. People, children especially, will flee if a camera is pointed at them. When I ask why, I am told, “they think you white people are Satanists.” It is no use clarifying that a camera can not steal a person’s soul. Trying to explain that in my country I’m not considered white, seems pointless.
This sounds like madness to the average American, but it is a potent part of reality here. Zambians take this very, very seriously. We know the Bible teaches that Satan and his demons are real. We know they can act in the physical world. But many of us don’t understand the fear that this evil side of the spiritual world can induce in people. The kind of fear that would lead a person to sell an elderly relative to a witch doctor for $150. This is what happened last week.
We heard that there had been a crocodile attack in the village of Chipako. We have since learned more details. It turns out that the woman who died was sold by her family to a witch doctor, who murdered her and used her body parts for his wicked practices. What was left of her was cast into the lake in an attempt to make it look like she had been the victim of a crocodile attack. The woman who gave us the details said the only attack that occurred had been the attack of a “traditional” crocodile, by which she meant witchcraft. Yesterday a man told us of another croc attack. When we asked more questions he clarified. “It was a human crocodile.” By this he meant a crocodile who had been possessed by the spirit of a witch. When we asked him how he knew it was not a regular old crocodile he said that the body had been found with its heart and private parts removed. Natural crocodiles are not so picky. This was another murder.
The worldview of the average Zambian assumes that people can manipulate the spirit world for their purposes: good or evil. Witch doctors are on hand to provide access to this unseen power for a fee. Since these services are available to anyone who can purchase them, Zambians live in fear of offending anyone lest that person use witchcraft against them. In addition, because anything unexplainable or out of the ordinary can be attributed to witchcraft, people live in fear of sticking out lest they be accused of being a witch. Fear is the most potent component of this worldview and it is hard to eradicate. Let me quote Karl Grebe at length,
“The animistic worldview which underlies most African cultures usually sees man surrounded by the following spirits: ancestor spirits, the spirits of sorcerers, nature gods, and various mystical powers. These spiritual forces pervade and dominate life. The worldview has the following effects on those who adhere to it and in varying degrees on those who are influenced by it. It produces fear. People’s relationships to these spirits are above all determined by fear. Any one of these spirits may bring misfortune into the life of the individual, the family, or the tribe as a whole. Ancestors often bring sickness. Witches and sorcerers are after the lives of others, either out of revenge, jealousy, or in order to acquire riches from the gods. Even gods who are believed to favor an individual will cause that person to become crazy or to die if they are not properly recognized. The individual who has magic seeks to manipulate the spirit forces for his own advancement and enrichment, but he too, lives in fear. He knows that dealing with the spirit world is dangerous because every advantage one might gain also has a price. Nothing is for free. He also fears other magicians who are constantly testing him with their own powers, hoping to destroy him in order to enrich themselves. Within the circle of the extended family this worldview sows suspicion and fear because it is in this circle that witchcraft is most often practiced.” (20)
This fear afflicts even those who call themselves Christians. One missionary has described the situation this way. When the gospel came to Zambia the people accepted it the way a person pulls a sweatshirt on over their clothes. They remained dressed in their traditional worldview but tugged the sweatshirt of the gospel over top. For some, Jesus is just another kind of protection against witchcraft. The result is that even Christians have a measure of fear. Yesterday a few of us, all believers, were discussing the difference between the way Zambians and Americans confront injustice. Someone told the story of a volunteer who challenged a man for spending money on his cell phone instead of his wife’s cancer treatment. When asked if Zambians would confront this way, our Zambian friend said “No, because you don’t want to offend people.” Someone replied, “But sometimes the offense is necessary or even unavoidable. Why avoid it to the point of allowing wrong to continue.” All she could say was that “this is the way we have been taught.” I was later told that it is also likely that she has lingering fear that an offended person might use witchcraft against her. Grebe says, “All the animistic worldview has to offer is a system of fear that produces, at best, only superficial unity, purity, and peace” (21).
Pray for Zambian Christians. Pray that God will give them faith to believe that He is stronger than anything Satan can throw at them. Pray that they will have the kind of faith others can see. Pray that their courage will draw people to Christ who did not give us “a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2Tim 1:7 ESV).