Crazed by Africa’s Hollywood, Nollywood: Colloquium on Witchcraft Accusations at AIU, 6-9th March

by Wanjiru M. Gitau

A couple days ago, a friend told me of an interesting incidence that occurred in her home in Nairobi Eastlands. A neighborhood boy solicits the attention of her 15-year-old daughter.  Mother discovers the illicit bond through a rather racy text message sent on the mother’s phone, which the girl had been allowed to keep on account of a household chore. Mother seeks explanation, but daughter pulls a weird trick—she claims to hear voices in her head and see strangers demanding to eat her heart. She runs all over the block as if pursued by deranged invisible forces. Daughter has everyone confounded but not mother, for she knows her daughter well. This last school break, this girl has spending inordinately large amounts of time watching TV, spellbound by Nollywood movies that have become a daily staple on our TVs. From them she has imbibed rather strange ideas on the dark world of witchcraft.

Now, for those who don’t know, Nollywood is Nigeria’s, in effect, Africa’s highly successful version of Hollywood. According to Professors Kuyinhop, Asamoah-Gyadu and Opuku Onyina, all who have carried out research on this area, the Nollywood Movie industry is a major carrier of ideas on witchcraft. Like most everything else in mass media, the subject is sensationalized to scratch at the basest instincts of viewers. Nollywood ideas on witchcraft appeal to the primal imagination of many Africans, filling gaps left by human curiosity, gossip from traditional backgrounds and biblical vagueness on the subject. (Of course the Nollywood industry also has many great ideas that connect powerfully with African worldview, thus its successful connection to the African realities).

Life unusual at AIU—colloquium on witchcraft

While Kenyans were watching grass grow during the vote tallying process, AIU lived life unusual.  The Intercultural Studies—Missions Department together with the departments of Theology, Education and Biblical studies and in collaboration with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDs) hosted over 30 scholars from around the world for a four-day forum.  Among those who joined us are leading scholars on African Christianity such as Opuku Onyina (Chancellor, Pentecost University College, Ghana), Yusufu Turaki (ECWA-Jos, Nigeria),  Kwabena Asamoa-Gyadu (Trinity Theological Seminary, Ghana), Samuel Kunhiyop (ECWA, Jos-Nigeria), Joseph Mavinga (UNISA-South Africa). Others were Dana Harris (TEDs), Robert Priest (TEDs), Timothy Stabell (Briercrest College and Seminary, Caronport, Canada), Douglas Sweeney, (Director of Jonathan Edwards Center, TEDS) and many more. The colloquium led by Professors Tite Tienou (TEDs) Robert Priest (TEDs) and Steve Rassmussen (AIU) was a part of a growing effort to address to the escalating problem of witchcraft accusations all over Africa. Center for  World Christianity was represented by several students, and some of our professors.

Although it is an ongoing reality in communities and churches all over Africa, witchcraft is one of the things we don’t openly talk about. We saw a video of three alleged witches, people in their prime being brutally lynched in broad daylight in Kisii, Kenya. Justus Mutuku told of his evangelist outreaches among high school youth.  Students show him charms given to them by a person of power to protect or help them succeed—meaning them or their parents have dabbled with powers which may or may not involve witchcraft. A participant narrated of a highly ranked, long serving pastor in a well known denomination. Yet at the claims of an alleged witch, the pastor went down disgracefully. Haruna Tukurah narrated cases of orphanage children accused as child witches and consequently tortured by relatives. A refugee camp in Northern Ghana is home to over a thousand women who have fled their homes at the pain of death after accusations. All over Africa, print media is rife with accounts witchcraft related murders. The church too is implicated, both as an answer and problem. Many popular charismatic ministries are built around the issues of deliverance and exorcism.  Even the legal system is in a bind. A high-court judge shared her experience. In certain parts of the country, courts are inundated with witchcraft-accusation related murders. Close blood relatives murder kin on suspicion that one has caused harm through witchcraft. For the judge, dispensing a legal sentence is not enough. She calls the church to lead in providing better answers to this problem, including a place of refuge for the accused.

Fear drives the violence that follows the accusations. It is the same kind of fear that underlies what Professor Mark Shaw referred to as master narratives. The American context in early 20th century, where African Americans were lynched because of racial superiority is a case in point. The holocaust of Jews in Nazi Germany was driven by a similar narrative. Thus in some sense witchcraft accusations reflect the deep seated human fear of that which is different and threatens our selfish interests; the seething jealousies, hatreds, angers against others. But it goes deeper than fear. Professor Kunhiyop of Ecwa Theological Seminary noted that whatever reservations one might have about it, witchcraft is real and is a strong religious belief system. Religious beliefs don’t make sense to outsiders-looking-in, but to practitioners it has its own internal logic.

My friend, whose experience I told at the start has decided on no more Nollywood in her house. But the crisis is more complex than derangement among enchanted movie buffs. Witchcraft and its accompanying accusations threaten the very soul, the social fabric of our African continent. It has many consequential tags at its heels. Public shame, being ostracized, banishment and the ultimate sentence: death by lynching. One participant noted that the nature of the accusations preempt the possibility of family reconciliation, self-defense and justice. Even where consequences are less brutal, one cannot go to the market-square, fetch water with others, visit with neighbors or look after grandchildren. Further Professor Caleb Kim observed that accusations complicate, sometimes forestall the rudimentary gospel of Christian forgiveness.

The clarion call to Christian theologians and pastors was articulated by Professor Yusufu Turaki. Pastors who minister to victims of witchcraft cannot afford to rely on ‘holy intuition’ and biblical proof texts. We need a theologically sound understanding of issues surrounding witchcraft. Scholars must help the church think through these issues.   For me, Tienou and Keith Ferdinado singly articulated the sum of it: African Christians must have a bigger vision of the God revealed in scripture. Just like electricity fades against the brightness of sunshine, the revelation of the all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God make references to powers of the dark world fade in comparison. Rather than look into the opaque mystery of evil, let us focus on the luminous mystery that is Christ. Turn your eyes on Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and witchcraft, along with many other things will turn strangely dim.

This first colloquium is part of a longer journey. At the end of the consultation, individual researchers and several teams were tasked to work on particular issues that were raised during discussions. The journey will continue towards helping the church, theological institutions and activists to develop pastoral responses, educational curriculums and interventions. A follow-up conference will be held in due course of time. Watch this space for more to come.

Jehu Hanciles: The Making of a New Global Missionary Movement

Are the immigrations of Africans worsening or improving the continent’s prospects?  The question about a drain of the best talent from Africa to international markets has long preoccupied social analysts. Equally, the issue of remittances that those who are abroad send back to their home countries for investment, and support of families is a much discussed topic. In 2012 alone, World Bank reported that Kenyans living abroad sent up to US$ 1.8 billion as remittances. The same report points out that well over 30 million Africans have moved away from their home countries to another country, a good majority of them into the western hemisphere.

There are powerful undercurrents beneath the surface of seemingly mundane references to numbers,

FaithontheMove-Pew Forum

“About 3% of the world’s population has migrated across international borders. If the 214 million international migrants were counted as one nation, they would be the 5th most populous nation on earth, close to Indonesia and just a head of Brazil.” -Pew Forum Report

remittances and voting rights (for Kenyans living abroad). One of these undercurrents is what is happening to the Christian missionary movement. It is this phenomenon that was the focus of Professor Hanciles’ week with our PhD students.

In our time, the immigrant movement has been ignored as part of the missiological thinking because we tend to think of missions in terms of official structures. Yet, there has been a strong link between the immigrant movement and Christianity since the earliest days of Christianity.  Sample some statistics from Hanciles’ lectures:

It’s a numbers game

Of the swelling tides of immigrants, be they guest workers, students, labor immigrants, or refugees, almost 50% are Christians. Immigrant Christian communities have established countless congregations in major cities, including the largest congregations in Kiev in Ukraine, and London, Britain. Germany has the highest number of Christian immigrants in Europe. Though they face tremendous challenges and negative legacies, they have set up churches in Germany with a strong missionary orientation. Among other things these churches are helping to counter negative sentiments that immigrants come to deplete their host nations.

The US houses the highest number of international immigrants. Up to 75% of these new are Christians primarily from Mexico, Philippines but also other parts of Latin America and Africa.  These immigrant Christians are offsetting the trend of numerical decline within American Christianity. The immigrants have brought a charismatic vitality and reintroduced a traditional, biblical ethic of family values into American Christianity. The new congregations are centers of evangelistic vitality. Granted, they primarily reach their own. But Hanciles maintains that even then, their contribution is vital because they are reaching a demographic that is beyond the reach of other immigrants and nationals. In the process they are Christianizing the next generation of Americans. Additionally they may be the first Christian contact with indigenous people when and if they go back to their home countries.

Open doors

But there is more. Parts of the world that have been difficult for western missionaries to reach are being accessed in creative and unique ways through the immigrant movement. The Muslim world is wide open to Latin American and Philipino Christians in ways that are not possible to western Christians. Amazingly, Latinos/nas resemble Arabic peoples, and Spanish is closely intelligible to Arabic owing to historical contact between the languages. To top it all, their roles as domestic work see to it that they have much more receptivity than if they went as powerfully vested missionaries.

You decide

This is only a brief snippet of what God is doing through the immigrant movement in the world. Here is the clincher. There is always a correlation between massive migration movements with religion, any religion for that matter. In Christianity’s case, a cursory glance at history—which Hanciles did with the PhD students throughout the week—reveals that is typically how Christianity has advanced throughout the centuries. From 1800-1925, following European imperial expansion into global south-lands, between 40-60 millions Europeans moved.  Yes, the movement was southwards, and the highly effective 19th century missionary movement was a part of that tide of migration. Presently, Hanciles points out that there were 214 immigrants living outside of their home countries.  Much of the current immigration is related to economic and demographic imbalances. But on the whole, movement is from the heartlands of Christianity. There is no reason to believe that it is any different from the 19th century immigrant movement. The missionaries from the south are part of a larger flow of migrants from the south to the north.

The jury is still out on the question of the brain drain in Africa. But there is no question that a new global missionary movement is upon us.


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