The Woman Who Came Back from Hell
How Rwanda's Pentecostals are keeping the demons of the past at bay.
In April 1994, as Hutu extremists launched the campaign of mass killing that would come to be known as the Rwandan genocide, 10-year-old Rebecca Umwali took refuge with her parents and siblings in their local Catholic church. Government officials were encouraging members of the Tutsi minority, like Rebecca’s family, to seek safety in churches, traditionally regarded as places of refuge. This time that promise turned out to be a cruel hoax. Once the church was full, an ethnic Hutu militia attacked. Armed with guns and machetes, they killed Rebecca’s mother, father, and seven of her nine brothers and sisters. Rebecca survived only because the body of a tall woman fell on top of her, hiding her from the killers. For days afterwards she hid herself in a tree, emerging only at night to forage for food in the ruins of her village.
Two years later, having found a home with a foster family, Rebecca made friends with a girl of her own age named Alice. One day, Alice led her into a cemetery, and there, as Rebecca tells it, the ground opened up, revealing a flight of stairs that led down into the realm of Satan. "It was a place where there was always twilight," says Rebecca. "It was a world of bad spirits. They put an evil spirit into my body and then they sent it back out into the world." For the next five years, she says, her body wandered the land, causing ill wherever it could. "I had the power of causing accidents on Earth. The demons gave me that power."
It took her five years to fight her way back. She suffered terribly, she says. But one day she encountered a group of Pentecostal Christians who prayed for her release from the powers that plagued her. With their help she finally found release, and "accepted Jesus as my king." At age 17, she converted from her ancestral Catholicism to the Pentecostal Church, a move that finally brought her "inner peace." Today she travels around the country, telling her story at emotional revival meetings where listeners respond ecstatically to her account of personal redemption. "After the genocide we had many different emotions," says Rebecca. "Everyone was looking for the place where he can get healed, get peace, and where he can pray." Pentecostalism, for her, is just the place.
Rebecca’s story will undoubtedly sound outlandish to those who don’t share her faith. Yet the recent history of her country has a way of giving a peculiar resonance to tales of demonic forces at work. Many Rwandans, it turns out, have made journeys that sound like Rebecca’s — journeys often tied up with the extraordinary traumas inflicted by mass murder and its aftermath. (The photo above shows the bloodstained clothing of genocide victims in Ntarama Church, now a memorial to the 5,000 people who were killed there in April 1994.) In a country whose lack of resources means that qualified therapists are few and far between, and where truth and reconciliation efforts have been largely overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the crimes committed, many people have sought — and seemingly found — consolation in religion.
Before the deaths of close to 1 million Rwandans in the 1994 slaughter, roughly 65 percent of Rwandans were Catholics. But many have since turned away from the church: A 2011 study from the Pew Research Center found that the number of Catholics had dropped post-genocide, to around 50 percent of the population. Many of those who have abandoned Catholicism have gravitated to Protestant denominations of Christianity — or even to Islam.
The reasons are complicated. The current Rwandan government as well as many ordinary Rwandans accuse the Catholic Church of complicity in the genocide, citing the notorious cases of church officials and priests who participated in the killings. Experts caution against such generalizations, pointing out that there were also priests who fell victim to the slaughter, some in the attempt to protect their parishioners. (The Vatican, for its part, continues to dispute any institutional involvement in the genocide.)
Yet even among Rwandans who don’t accept the broader version of the church’s guilt, there’s still a palpable sense that the genocide marked a radical break with the old ways of doing things — including adherence to the traditional faith. While it’s hard to come by precise figures, many Rwandans say that there’s been a clear shift toward other religions. And Pentecostals, charismatic Protestants with an intense belief in the power of the Holy Spirit (including the controversial practice of speaking in tongues), have seen some of the strongest growth.
In this respect, Rwanda is following a broader African trend. Pentecostalism is surging in popularity across the content. That 2011 Pew study found that 44 percent of the world’s 279 million Pentecostals live in sub-Saharan Africa — a figure that translates into 123 million people. (The sociologist Peter Berger, who notes that the modern Pentecostal faith was launched by an African-American preacher in Los Angeles in the early twentieth century, has described Pentecostalism as "the fastest growing religious movement in history.")
Gerard van’t Spijker, a Protestant theologian who lived in Rwanda for many years, notes that, a generation or so ago, European or American missionaries were the ones bringing Pentecostalism to the Africans. Now, he says, many of the new churches are being founded by "enthusiastic young preachers" of local origin. "In their message there’s a very strong appeal to middle-class Christians, an appeal to a new generation of well-educated people in the cities." Pentecostals avidly embrace the notion of the "prosperity gospel," the idea that faith will express itself in worldly material success. Many Rwandan Pentecostal churches offer their parishioners job training and business classes.
Marie Louise Ingabire, a 27-year-old café manager and university student from the southern Rwandan city of Butera, fits van’t Spijker’s upwardly mobile profile. Yet when you ask her why she converted to Pentecostalism from her family’s Catholicism a few years ago, she dwells less on her new faith’s push for prosperity than its sense of community and its emphasis on powerful feelings. She now attends services in her local Pentecostal church at least two times a week. "In Catholicism everything is fixed," she says. "It’s like a formula that doesn’t change. In Pentecostalism you can praise God the way you want. Your emotions aren’t stopped. You pray the way you feel it."
That emphasis on shared emotion (including plenty of rousing music and preaching) helps to explain why so many Rwandans are drawn to the Pentecostal message. Rose Mukakimenyi, 37, lost much of her extended family in the genocide, prompting an intense spiritual search. "My focus was to pray, and praying was the basis of finding peace," she recalls. "Praying in Catholicism didn’t do that." She smiles as she recalls her conversion to Pentecostalism 14 years ago — in terms that have strong overtones of group therapy: "When they sing, I feel peace. When we pray, I feel we are like a family."
Her friend, 26-year-old Thitien Nsabumukiza, has a dramatic conversion story of his own (involving an elaborate, dreamlike vision of his Pentecostal mother, who desperately wanted him to join the faith). Now he works as a deacon at his local church, leading a 53-member prayer group and doing his best to woo new believers — a stark contrast, he says, to the days when all he wanted was to take revenge on those who had orchestrated the killing of so many of his fellow Tutsis: "After I was converted by the power of God, God gave me the power of healing rather than killing," he says. "Now I have new eyes, and I’m a servant of God."
It should come as little surprise that the lives of so many Rwandan Pentecostals dovetail with their faith’s intense focus on personal transformation. For those who survived an event that claimed the lives of so many others, talk of "rebirth" or "resurrection" has a powerful immediacy. "They taught me that being baptized in water means dying with Jesus Christ and then being resurrected," says Rebecca Umwali. "You emerge as a new person. I was baptized and became a Pentecostal."
Religion is clearly not a panacea for Rwanda’s problems. The Pentecostal Church itself is hardly immune to the temptations of power and wealth, as some of the recent scandals within its leadership demonstrate. And the appalling actions of the spiritual leaders who participated in the horrors of 1994 (including, indeed, some Protestant pastors) should serve as a reminder that the religiously minded are also just as prey to human frailty as anyone else.
Yet one suspects that many Rwandans will continue to turn to religion as a source of consolation and community. For Rebecca and so many others, it’s their faith that helps them to keep the demons at bay.