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 s
topped 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.