Dispatch

Angels and Demons

Pentecostalism is the world's fastest growing religious movement. But in much of Africa, it's fueling witch-hunts and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

LILONGWE, Malawi — Every day when he goes out to play with the other boys in his village, four-year-old Blessings carries with him a dark secret. Four months ago, after Blessings got into a quarrel with a neighbor, his pastor at one of Malawi's many recently established Pentecostal churches told his family that the boy had been bewitched. After participating in what believers call a "deliverance" ceremony and being anointed with holy water -- a service in exchange for which many congregants are encouraged to make a donation -- he was pronounced cured. For the rest of his life, however, he will live in fear that others will learn of his brush with the supernatural.

"If the boy's friends knew about his bewitchment, they might not treat him well," says Samson, Blessings's father, who drives a bus in the capital city. "It could be very difficult for him to play with his friends. This could also affect the family, bring shame on us. That is why we must keep it a secret."

The rise of Pentecostalism in Africa has been swift. Promising a direct relationship with God and often the performance of miracles, the radical form of evangelical Protestantism has made deep inroads on the continent, particularly in desperately impoverished countries like Malawi. First introduced to Africa by U.S. missionaries in 1908, the religious movement has spread far beyond its initial outpost in Cape Town, South Africa, and taken a variety of forms as it comingles with local traditions and practices. Today, the highly decentralized religious movement claims large numbers of adherents across southern and central Africa.

In Malawi, the Pentecostal movement gained new momentum in the 1980s, when, as scholars like David Maxwell have noted, crippling external debt led to a reduction in social services at the same time as the country's population was expanding rapidly. The resultant food and resource scarcity opened the door to zealous missionaries, and by the year 2000, some 20 percent of Malawians were attending Pentecostal churches, up from a little more than 1 percent in 1960. Today, you can't drive five minutes in Lilongwe without passing a Pentecostal church. But the religious movement hasn't only touched the spiritual lives of Malawians; it has also elevated the already prevalent fear of witchcraft in local communities -- often with tragic consequences for those identified as witches -- and complicated the government's efforts to keep HIV and other diseases in check.

Strong majorities of Malawians of all faiths believe in witchcraft, with more than 75 percent saying they know witches in their community. But Pentecostal churches have been especially aggressive in positioning themselves as guardians against the practice -- so aggressive, in fact, that leading Catholic priests in Malawi have begun affirming the existence of witchcraft so that the laity doesn't continue to leave the church for Pentecostal and other congregations.

Phillip Mulinde, a 58-year-old Pentecostal minister who performs deliverance ceremonies to rid congregants of demons at True Faith Revival Church in Lilongwe, says he himself has been affected by satanic powers, pointing to a cyst on his foot and explaining that medicine can't cure witchcraft. "It will be difficult for you to believe -- and even myself -- because they can bewitch you," he says. "In two hours time you are gone. Sometimes, they can bewitch your leg and you go to the hospital and they tell you, 'no, you are fine,' but you are crying."

From the beginning, Pentecostalism was preoccupied with occult and demonic powers. During the mass waves of revivalism that swept Malawi (then Nyasaland) between 1910 and 1930, as British anthropologist Henrietta L. Moore explains, "Many of the preachers' activities went hand-in-hand with witchcraft cleansing." These practices were essentially foreign -- to the extent that they often alarmed traditional authorities -- but they piggybacked on deeply engrained beliefs in mystical forces. As a result, Pentecostal missionaries succeeded where many mainline churches failed, winning converts with promises of direct revelations from God, divine healings, and super-human powers.

"Our vision is soul-winning and church-planting," says Maston Davite, who founded Gospel Harvest Ministries, a Pentecostal church in Lilongwe, in 1997. "Of course, miracles help the people to believe."

Signs of child bewitchment, according to Mulinde, the pastor from True Faith Revival Church, include disrespectful behavior toward elders and falling asleep at school. (Witches, it is thought, practice their dark arts at night, meaning that they often don't get enough sleep.) When a pastor identifies a young witch, he will often quiz the child, demanding an explanation for bad behavior and suggesting witchcraft as the only plausible explanation.

"If you have heard that this child is a witch, you say, 'Do you love your mother?'" Mulinde says. "[The child will say], 'Yes, I do.' 'Do you love your dad?' 'Yes, I do.' 'Why is it then you go to school you are sleeping? Why is it you don't behave the way your friend behaves?' Sometimes they will say, 'No, I don't do that.' They look away, they try to avoid you, and you know they are not being truthful."

The deliverance ceremonies designed to bring children out from under the spell of witchcraft can be traumatic and even dangerous. According to Mulinde, the patient often becomes violent and vomits. At one such ceremony in Cameroon earlier this year, a 9-year-old girl died as the pastor attempted to cast out evil spirits. Even after the demons are exorcised, the victims are often stigmatized for life. "Their houses have been stoned and sometimes have been burned," Mulinde says. "Even the chiefs [traditional local authorities] tell them to migrate from [their villages]." Abandoned by their families and banished from their homes, accused witches sometimes end up living on the streets, where they are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, prostitution, homelessness, and death from exposure.

Older people accused of witchcraft often fare even worse. Seen as taking advantage of younger witches, they also risk being run out of their communities. But often, they end up behind bars, despite the fact that Malawi's legal code doesn't recognize witchcraft as a real phenomenon and actually outlaws accusing people of the practice. In 2010, authorities jailed 86 people -- mostly elderly women -- for witchcraft in 11 different court cases throughout the country. All of them pleaded not guilty. All received sentences of four to six years.

In addition to stoking fears about witchcraft, Pentecostals, as well as other independent and charismatic churches, have undermined efforts to contain HIV by claiming to have healed congregants and encouraging them to go off of their anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs). Frances Mwale, a medical assistant and clinician at a rural HIV/AIDS clinic in the Chikwawa district of Malawi, says three of his patients stopped taking their ARVs this year after receiving healing prayers at Pentecostal churches. At Mwale's urging, two of the three restarted their medication, but one won't respond to his inquiries. Just over 10 percent of the adult population of Malawi is HIV-positive.   

"One way to bring in new followers is to claim to perform miracles," says Henry Chimbali, spokesman for Malawi's Ministry of Health. "Pentecostal pastors pray for people and tell them they have performed a miracle. This has really affected the adherence to ARVs in this country. Some of those who think they have been cured stay off [their ARVs] so long that when they finally go back on them, it cannot be reversed. These people end up dying."

Like witch-hunting, the notion of messianic healing is something of an amalgam of foreign and traditional beliefs. After the first Presbyterian and Catholic missionaries arrived in Africa in the 1870s -- but before Pentecostals had made significant inroads -- a number of independent churches sprouted up that blended standard Christianity with local healing and cleansing practices. Pentecostals, however, never fully embraced these traditions. Instead, they took what Moore, the British anthropologist, calls a "third way": They rejected traditional healing practices reliant on herbs, serums, or other elements and replaced them with prayer healing ceremonies, where preachers ask for the Holy Spirit to deliver them from evil. As a result, long-standing cures and rituals were replaced by healing miracles and prayer rituals that still give credence to the congregant's traditional beliefs.

Today, that third way continues to attract adherents. Although many Pentecostal pastors don't urge their congregants to go off ARVs, their messages on miracles and healing are often mixed. On the one hand, they do not directly encourage congregants to stop ARV treatment. But on the other, they emphasize that that God can cure any ill, including HIV/AIDS, if only the follower is faithful enough.

"There are some who stop [ARVs]," says Davite, the minister at Gospel Harvest Ministries. "But the church does not stop people from taking ARVs. It's a personal decision. Some people continue. And some people stop according to the faith."

The issue of Pentecostal followers going off their ARVs is so widespread that even a Malawian parliamentarian commented on it earlier this year, criticizing Pentecostal preachers who promote "healing prayers" as HIV cures. But miracles including healing are fundamental to the Pentecostal message, and unlikely to change even in the context of HIV/AIDS. Davite says he has seen members of his own congregation cured of ills including deafness, infertility, and repeated miscarriage. He doesn't see why HIV would be any different.

According to Gift, who attends Davite's church, the stigma of HIV means congregants rarely tell their own pastors they are HIV-positive. Instead, they go to other congregations for healing. "Our pastor can have a person who is at another church and they are shy about being HIV positive, so they come to his church," says Gift. "The congregation prays to them and they are cured."

Mulinde, the other pastor, also says he does not counsel followers to stop ARV treatment. But he does so because he believes that too often the faith of the individual is simply not strong enough to guarantee a miracle. Still, he asserts that God can and does cure HIV-positive people of the disease. "I've talked also to some people who claim to have been healed from HIV," he says. "I have some people in my church who have HIV and I teach them the word of God, and if they believe, why not?"

Behind all of the mixed messages and misinformation, of course, there is often financial motive. In many cases, healing and witchcraft-cleansing ceremonies are not free -- in Kenya, for example, Pentecostal congregants have reportedly been asked to shell out their life savings in exchange for healing services -- and across the African continent, pastors have grown wealthy peddling the mystical powers of the Almighty. Neither of the Pentecostal pastors interviewed for this article appeared conspicuously wealthy, but both were living better than the vast majority of Malawians, 90 percent of whom live on less than U.S. $2 per day. Given the clear incentive for religious leaders to identify witches and perform healing ceremonies, it's not difficult to imagine why many Malawians perceive incidents of both to be on the rise.

"We were very concerned when we discovered [that our son had been bewitched]," said Samson, the bus driver in Lilongwe. "But we were not surprised. This is happening to more and more children in our area." 

This reporting was made possible by the United Nations Foundation. 

STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

'The Power Struggle Was Only Beginning'

In South Sudan, a failed coup, violent confusion -- or the first spark of civil war?

JUBA, South Sudan - It will probably never be clear what triggered the Dec. 15 firefight that broke out at a Juba military barracks and has now brought the world's newest country to the brink of a civil war. In the hours after the barracks shootout, fighting spread rapidly across the city -- leaving hundreds of people dead and tens of thousands displaced.

By the following afternoon, before the army could even launch its investigation, President Salva Kiir -- in full military fatigues -- appeared on a delayed state television broadcast to denounce the fighting as an attempted coup by his former deputy, Riek Machar, a gap-toothed mechanical engineer turned fighter in the Sudanese civil war. Hours later the police detained ten leading political figures.

Machar, who slipped out of Juba and into hiding around the time the other politicians were being rounded up, fired back in an interview with a local newspaper two days later. He called the fighting "a misunderstanding" between soldiers and accused Kiir of using the clash as a cover to remove his rivals.

Whether coup or confusion, the incident has revealed just how fragile the coalitions that once held the country together really were.

Independence has not come easy for South Sudan. After decades of war, a country the United States helped midwife into existence less than three years ago, has come to the brink of war with Sudan and watched its economy crumble after it shut down oil production early last year over a refusal to pay grossly inflated transit fees the government in Khartoum was charging to use its pipeline. Meanwhile, rebel groups have continued to crisscross vast swathes of the country, engaging soldiers and disrupting humanitarian efforts. But now South Sudan faces its most serious challenge: Unresolved political divisions have already caused hundreds of deaths and now threaten to split the country along ethnic lines.

Four days later after the barracks attack, sporadic gunfire continues to disrupt Juba's nights and a dusk-to-dawn curfew remains in place. Traffic is returning slowly, though police checkpoints still dot the major roads. And tension remains, as many people who were displaced by the fighting refuse to return home. Still President Kiir repeats assurances that the situation is "under control."

Meanwhile, one state capital, Bor, has fallen to a group of soldiers who defected from the army and officials are reporting fighting in some of the country's northern oil fields -- near the border with Sudan. On Dec. 19, the United Nations announced that a base sheltering civilians in Bor had been overrun.  "There may have been some fatalities but [we] can't confirm who and how many at this stage," a spokesperson told the press.

Now, the country's political leaders -- under pressure from the international community -- are trying desperately to prevent the country from splitting any further. They are stressing the political nature of the conflict, but in a country where the political often bleeds over into the ethnic, there is fear among citizens that what started as a shootout in a barracks could turn into widespread intercommunal conflict.

The country's political fissures have been growing ever since President Kiir sacked his entire cabinet in July. Officials at the time said the cabinet was too large and not enough was getting done. Instead of continuing to pacify rivals, Kiir wanted to bring in technocrats, who would create work plans and deliver results.

It was also clear that the move was something of a power play, with Kiir clearing out potential rivals, like Machar, and bringing his own people on board. If the new cabinet could deliver on Kiir's promises of better roads, schools and hospitals, it would solidify him as the only legitimate candidate in the presidential election scheduled for 2016.

But the reorganization also undid the complicated coalition of different ethnic groups the president had managed to string together with his first cabinet. That included Machar -- a leader in the Nuer community, which is second only to Kiir's Dinka community in size.

Machar and other critics remained diplomatic in the weeks after the reshuffle. Though the former deputy announced he intended to challenge Kiir for the presidency in 2016 elections, it appeared any immediate political crisis had passed with the swearing in of a new cabinet.

But Andrea Mabior, a local political analyst, told Foreign Policy, "The power struggle was only beginning."

Earlier this month, a group of disgruntled members of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) party gathered for a press conference. In a cloak-and-dagger move, they kept the location and participants secret until hours before. The alliance ended up including Machar, former Cabinet Affairs Minister Deng Alor -- now among the 10 politicians who have been arrested -- and Rebecca Nyandeng. Her presence was particularly notable, because she is the widow of John Garang, South Sudan's great martyr, who led southern rebels during the decades-long war with Sudan only to die in a helicopter crash months after signing a peace deal with Khartoum.

Machar read the group's statement, in which he accused Kiir of exacerbating divisions within the ruling party, cutting himself off from SPLM members and, general "dictatorial tendencies" in his leadership.

Nine days later, the fighting started.

Juba saw heavy gunfire and sporadic shelling for more than 48 hours. The city was on almost complete lockdown until forces loyal to the government finally drove the rebel fighters out of the city. The United Nations estimates as many as 500 people were killed and more than 20,000 others were displaced. Many civilians within Juba -- both members of the Nuer and the Dinka communities, along with others -- are still holed up at U.N. compounds or on the grounds of churches and mosques.

As Juba calmed down, fighting spread to restive Jonglei state, with reports that former rebel leader Peter Gadet had re-defected and that he and his troops had taken the state capital, Bor.

Jok Madut Jok, who heads a local think tank called The Sudd Institute, says has no doubts that Machar's recent pronouncements led -- at least indirectly -- to the country's current situation.

Machar's coalition "made this call for dialogue contingent on certain conditionalities," Jok said. "And failing that, they said this situation could escalate into violence. This is kind of their own prophecy becoming fact." Even if Machar did not lead a coup, Jok said, it is possible people loyal to him decided to follow through on his remarks.

It was not a given that the violence in the wake of the barracks shooting would become ethnically motivated, and humanitarian and government leaders have tried desperately to prevent exactly that from happening.

Hilde Johnson, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General in South Sudan, called on leaders Dec. 7 to "refrain from any action that fuels ethnic tensions and exacerbates violence." And in northern Unity state, government leaders took the radio to tell people that President Kiir had not ordered the targeted killing of any communities and there should be no reprisal attacks.

Early evidence is starting to show that they had a right to be concerned.

Twenty-three-year-old Tebisa Albino, lives with her family in one of the areas of Juba that has experienced heavy fighting. She said soldiers came through their area and asked people to speak certain phrases in languages associated with particular ethnic groups. Nuer who failed the test had their houses destroyed or worse.https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/images/cleardot.gif

"The heavy vehicles are coming and are demolishing homes and killing people inside," she said. "And they are shooting people."

Human Rights Watch has already found that Albino's was not an isolated incident, reporting, "South Sudanese soldiers fired indiscriminately in highly populated areas and targeted people for their ethnicity during recent fighting in Juba."

Even loyal members of the SPLM acknowledge there might be some truth to the reports.

"It's unfortunate if some members of the army begin to select some people," SPLM Acting Secretary General Ann Itto said at a press conference today. "But this is not a policy of the army and it's not a policy of the government and we must make sure that it does not happen."

Just as it is not clear how the fighting started, it's also unclear how it ends -- especially if more people come to perceive it as an intercommunal fight. The international community is urging dialogue and President Kiir said he is receptive, though he admitted, "I cannot tell what the outcome of the talks will be."

Jok said the key is to rein in the fighting as quickly as possible. But with every reported flare-up the forces loyal to the government get stretched even thinner. And thousands of people are not waiting to find out what happens if they snap. Hundreds of people are camping out at the airport waiting for spaces on the few available commercial flights. Seats on buses headed to neighboring Uganda are sold out four days in advance. And the American and British governments have already evacuated their citizens.

They do not want to stick around to see if South Sudan escapes from its latest challenge.

STR/AFP/Getty Images