Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Dark Realities

Dark Realities

I would not have believed it if I hadn’t seen it: the raised hands, that is. I was listening to John Enright speak to a group of Zambians and Canadians about sustainable missions. The group included three Zambians who run an orphan project, each of them leaders and graduates of esteemed mission schools, and three Canadians from the sponsoring Board of Trustees of the project. Each was listening and observing carefully as we walked through the story of Kafakumba amidst its fish ponds and chicken farm. Suddenly John turned to the group and said, “You think you know and understand each other, but you really don’t have any idea.” Puzzled looks asked for more, so he asked this question: “How many of you believe that witches cause lightning?” To my utter amazement, the three Zambians raised their hands; the Canadians and I declared our disbelief in the statement. Yes, we were assured by the lovely young Zambian woman in charge of the orphanage, that is what Africans believe causes lightning--and no amount of education or dissuasion can shake the belief.

There is a worldview in Zambia and greater Africa so totally foreign to Americans as to defy description. Just writing about it begs the accusation of sensationalism. However, it is part of my learning and experience there, verified by Zambian and Congolese natives, and part of the greater conversation about Africa. It helps me to understand how a continent so incredibly diverse and rich in natural and human resources, remains barely surviving at the edges of the global community.

The rational Western mind can barely comprehend the African fixation on the occult, witchcraft, sorcery, fetishes, and curses that form reality for its people. The Copperbelt Museum in Ndola includes a section on witchcraft that tempts a person to laugh at its absurdity, yet cry at the profound impact of such beliefs. The fetishes on display were believed to provide power to do all sorts of unbelievable feats, or to protect oneself from another’s perversions.

This worldview (at least what I have learned so far) includes the belief that life includes the physical world which we experience now and the spiritual world which is just as much a part of current existence as daily life. Birth and death are seen as simple transitions between these worlds and continue to cycle in an endless circle of incarnation/reincarnation. Natural occurrences are thus seen as both a current physical reality and a spiritual reality full of meaning and messages from that other world. In this worldview, then, people with the supernatural power to cross between these worlds (witches), can indeed strike lightning—and can be called upon to cause that lightning to strike a person or cause damage to someone who has been cursed.

This view also leaves people at the mercy of the curses of others and the continual search for fetishes to provide them with protection or supernatural power of their own. When bad things happen, the African mind does not dismiss them as a natural occurrences or the result of poor decisionmaking or actions; instead they are seen as punishments, curses that have been placed by enemies, or mysterious activities of the underworld. When illness and death is viewed this way, it becomes very difficult to treat the horrific illnesses of the continent with western medicine or prevention. (This is simply one complicating factor in the prevention and treatment of AIDS which is devastating sub-Saharan Africa.)

Fetishes and curses are simply reality for many in southern Africa. Does your boss take gross advantage of you or are you treated wrongly at work? Instead of seeking a consensual solution to worksite ills, you will instead seek out a sorcerer to place a curse on the offending person. One would never voice a negative thought about another for fear of their reprisal against you. The Zambian workplace, then, becomes a hotbed of hostile undercurrents that prevent success.

What about families? The child who resembles a dead relative becomes the reincarnation of that very person—back to wreak havoc on those who wronged them. Or returning to bear the curses of others in an almost caste-like system of retribution. It is not strangers that families fear. It is instead, their own friends and families who present the greatest threats. When a man dies, for example, his extended family descends on his home, stripping it of what is considered theirs—and leaving widows and orphans destitute. In the matriarchal culture of Zambia, children belong only to their mother and her brothers—the only family lineage provable (that is without DNA). This makes little sense to Americans, but it plunges many women and children into destitute poverty every day in Africa.

A pervasive jealousy colors life in Zambia. A worldview that is very fatalistic can hardly imagine a view that fosters imagination and optimism. The Zambian view that the world is finite—or that the pie is only so big—creates a twisted view of success. That means that the more pie my neighbor gets means that there is less for me; my neighbors success must be prevented or stopped by all means so that my own chances for success increase. We saw this demonstrated by the electrician who refused to train his workers, fearing that their success would limit his. Instead he gave them only enough information day by day for them to continually rely on him for their livelihood and for him to retain all the power of his knowledge. We saw it in the destruction of the homes and businesses of others, in the stealing of produce, in the continual sabotage of employers and families. The fear created by this jealousy is toxic in Zambian culture.

Fetishes also fester another unspeakable activity: cannibalism. Because Ndola sits on the border with Congo, knowledge of this practice is not uncommon. Stories of the cannibalization of Pygmies in Congo is well-known; however, the cannibalization of people for the power they may provide is also known in the region. Does one covet youthful strength and courage? Eating a young person’s flesh may provide that power in a supernatural way. The continual war in Congo, the greatest human disaster since World War II with its loss of millions of lives, provides many examples of atrocities barely imaginable in the Western mind but part of the reality of central Africa.

We should not turn away from Africa because we don’t understand or don’t care. Indeed, it is as if life and death are exaggerated in this immense place. To talk about this destructive worldview is to understand it better; it is also a challenge of my own worldview and the dark corners of its reach. When I read about the growth of the church in Africa I wonder how that Christianity is similar and/or different from my own understanding of faith. Our experiences at Kafakumba inspire us to believe that true faith transforms the destructive power of worldviews and builds on their strengths. We are optimistic that radical transformation is possible and that there is hope for the children of Africa.
Photo above is of a Makishi costume which is worn at the time of a girl's initiation into adulthood; the night of the Makishi it is believed that the spirits of ancestors return to communicate with people of the village.

1 comment:

Lorelei said...

I GET it now! Thank you for sharing this compelling message! The things you talk about here are so similar to things I have seen in Haiti and have not been able to comprehend. You have brought it into focus for me.
Thank you,