Sacred Wilderness, An African Story
Isabel Mukonyora is an assistant professor of religious studies at Western Kentucky University.
February 22, 2007
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. My guest, Isabel Mukonyora, lived the mixed spiritual messages of colonial Africa: traditional beliefs on the one hand, and on the other, the Christianity brought by Westerners. For many years, she says, her religious life consisted of haunting questions.
MS. ISABEL MUKONYORA: I wondered very much about the promises of heaven and the suffering of Jesus on the cross. It was all raising questions of what the meaning of God’s love is. Does it have to cost so much and be so difficult to see?
MS. TIPPETT: In post-colonial Zimbabwe, Isabel Mukonyora became intrigued by white-robed people she saw wondering into meadows at the fringes of the modern city of Harare. This hour, she tells their story, a story that echoes tensions and promises in present-day Africa and beyond. This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. At the end of the 19th century, Western colonizers set out to Christianize Africa. In our time, Christianity is being Africanized. The Masowe Apostles were founded by an African John the Baptist. They follow an ancient spiritual pull to the wilderness, while addressing the present drama of life in Africa and beyond. From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Sacred Wilderness, an African Story.”
My guest today, religious scholar Isabel Mukonyora, was born in the land we now know as Zimbabwe. Until she was 21, in 1980, it was called Rhodesia, after the British industrialist Cecil Rhodes. Her grandmother was a herbalist who cultivated a traditional African spirituality linked to nature and ancestors. Her parents were Roman Catholic. Like many Africans in the colonial period that stretched from the late 19th to the late 20th century, Isabel Mukonyora felt caught, in her own country, between several worlds.
MS. MUKONYORA: From the age of three, I learned English words of one kind or another. It was just life. A, B, C. And it’s not because I ended up highly educated. This was the day-to-day experience of anyone who lived in the colonial system. You go to school, you start learning a new world, if you like. And all the time you are having to process the new ideas against the background of the old.
MS. TIPPETT: Isabel Mukonyora left home to study in England. She returned to Africa as a scholar of religion. Northern Africans and East Africans have been predominantly Muslim since the earliest days of Islam. Some of the most ancient Christian traditions are also found in Africa, such as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. But as late as 1900, most central and southern Africans still practiced traditional indigenous religions. Then, under the influence of the imperial British and Portuguese and Spanish, they largely began to convert, like Isabel Mukonyora’s parents, to Christianity.
The continent of Africa now has the largest number of active, practicing Christians in the world. But as colonialism came to an end, African Christians also began to mourn what they had given up. Interest surged in indigenous traditions. In response, in the 1960s, Pope John XXIII blessed the Africanization of Christianity. Protestant movements have spread rapidly in recent decades, in part because they have been attentive to local cultures, meeting Africans where they live.
Isabel Mukonyora describes a third way, a religious tradition that is Christian, yet African-initiated. She has followed and studied one vivid example of this phenomenon. The Masowe Apostles claim 5 million members in and around Zimbabwe. The Masowe shun Western-style church buildings and meet in the open air, in marshlands and wilderness they consider sacred.
Mukonyora is currently a professor of religious studies at Western Kentucky University. As she tells it, the story of the Masowe echoes, and seeks to redeem, many wounds of Africa’s past and present, patterns of displacement, marginality, and change. The Masowe emerged from Isabel Mukonyora’s own tribal culture and language, Shona, though she knew nothing about them as a child in Catholic boarding school.
MS. MUKONYORA: During the ’60s and ’70s, when I was born, people tended to simply inherit the pre-Vatican attitudes and ways of spreading a Catholic spirituality, if you like. Now, this was very difficult for me, because I was actually living in a context where my friends were mostly orphans and people who were suffering certain kinds of misfortunes that made them totally dependent on these missionaries whose whole agenda was to mix up European values of a cultural nature with their understanding of Christianity as a religion.
Yeah, so we spoke in English. Sometimes we sang Latin with our books upside down, because it stopped mattering. And it meant that, for me, a lot of questions in my youth, because I also happened to have, close by, my grandmother, who had refused to become a convert of the Catholic Church on the grounds that she believed in God already, she could not denounce her own ancestors, and Christianity, the missionary way, was simply a way of Europeanizing the people. So because I was close to her, there were too many questions coming from every direction, if you like.
MS. TIPPETT: And did that questioning continue? You ended up leaving Africa for quite a few years, I believe. You ended up at Oxford more than once. What happened to those questions as you — when you went away?
MS. MUKONYORA: I married a Methodist, who made matters worse, because he said, ‘Well, you do need to read the Bible, you know.’
MS. TIPPETT: Which just compounded your problem.
MS. MUKONYORA: It’s no use being nice and polite only until you read the Bible. So I remember reading Genesis and trying to work through it, and getting nightmares in the process because the Old Testament was — it’s very violent books, parts of it. So we went to England together with this young man then, and we were both students of theology. In fact, him more than me. I just wanted to — I had the questions, but it wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to be an academic and solve everything, but reading helped. But it also made it worse in the sense that there were no answers, really, to the questions I was asking as an African.
MS. TIPPETT: Name some of those questions for me, can you?
MS. MUKONYORA: I wondered very much about the promises of heaven, that God really had compassion, if I was having to work so hard. And the suffering of Jesus on the cross, which Catholics made very vivid in African churches, bothered me, to see this kind of manifestation of the suffering and the Eucharist. It was all raising questions of what the meaning of God’s love is. Does it have to cost so much and be so difficult to see?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. MUKONYORA: And I think that’s very much an African experience. But it doesn’t mean everybody didn’t find the hopeful message of Christianity that sustains a lot of us today, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, as I understand it, there is, in traditional African spirituality, very much of a focus on trying to make sense of, and face, suffering and the evil in the world, in human experience. Is that right?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, did you feel that Christianity succeeded less well at that task, even though it seemed to be so much in the center? Is that one thing you’re saying?
MS. MUKONYORA: It was curiously attached to ideas of progress that Africans were embracing left, right, and center, actually. So to be a Christian, for example, in the colonial period, meant also an education that came with particular skills, and it also meant urbanization, which was seen then as the way forward, you know, in terms of these new technologies, new ways of — even houses you live in were now square rather than the old hut, and so on. And people loved all those things, actually.
MS. TIPPETT: They loved the new houses?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes, just to modernize was a big thing. So you find that Africans were embracing certain things and happily embracing Christianity as the religion that sustains those things.
MS. TIPPETT: And so that embracing Christianity was more about embracing a vision of the future than facing the suffering and evil of life head-on.
MS. MUKONYORA: I guess African religions that were operating in the background had certain kinds of continuities with Christianity as taught by missionaries, only they were dressing it in Western clothing, if you like. But there were continuities like belief in a god who created the world, for instance, belief that there must be some kind of mediation between being human in this world, and a god up there. In the African sense, it would be the ancestor. The European missionaries were saying, Christ. But it’s the same pattern, if you like, of thinking that links a man or humanity to God and the messages there, that made it easy for Africans to actually practice Christian spirituality without necessarily wanting to be colonial subjects.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, tell me about going away and coming back, then, and how that shaped your religious path, your questions and the answers you were looking for and finding.
MS. MUKONYORA: I always had this idea that I would go away. Sometimes I wished I was a bird and fly away. But my personal circumstances were — actually made me miserable. They made me feel that I did not belong where I was. And so I had this ‘go away, find peace, find harmony,’ and I didn’t particularly think in material terms, but I did want to find a better world somewhere. So the Masowe started to intrigue me because they are a going-away kind of people.
MS. TIPPETT: Shona scholar Isabel Mukonyora.
[Sound bite of singing in a foreign language]
This is Shona music of the Masowe Apostles. They sometimes turn sacred texts into songs, and music is interspersed liberally with preaching and prayer in their services, which span four to six hours. The founder of the Masowe Apostles was born Baba Johane Sixpence, but later became known as Johane Masowe. He chose his new surname to denote the hardship in which he developed his religious ideas and the marginalization of the Shona people under white colonialism. The Shona word sowe, related to the word sasa, suggests borders and uninhabited fringes.
When Isabel Mukonyora returned from Oxford to teach at the University of Zimbabwe, she felt like an outsider. She was now a divorced woman with a child. In African culture, she says, this alone made her marginal and deeply suspect. She was staying in the beautiful suburban house of a friend in the capital city of Harare, which resembled a giant English cottage. But just beyond her gate and across the road was a vast dried up marshland: sasa. Mukonyora walked to the university through the tall grasses of these empty expanses at the edges of the city. And there she encountered mysterious white-robed people, gathering for long hours of prayer in sticky clearings that they considered sacred.
MS. MUKONYORA: So I met the Masowe just because I wouldn’t go to church those days. I would sit, obviously meditating or worrying about my future, and see these people who were walking the other direction from the direction of the churches.
MS. TIPPETT: Now, the churches were in the center of the city, right?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: You were in Harare?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes, in the High Street or in the middle of the expensive suburb, like where I met them. These people were going into meadows and dried marshes, behind eucalyptus trees, and strange places. And they intrigued me.
MS. TIPPETT: And they wore white robes.
MS. MUKONYORA: They wore white robes, and they were clearly very content about what they were doing, didn’t look twice at everyone else going to these other churches. And I admired that. And there was a beauty to their dress in the sense that you couldn’t, from a distance, actually tell who was male and who was female. Although it turned out that predominantly the membership is female, but always with male leadership.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Did you kind of follow them out into the marshes and fields?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes, yes. And they challenged me straightaway about education, that it doesn’t lead you to heaven, really. So I had to strip myself of all pretensions of being learned and wanting to go to Oxford and stuff like that, and learned to meet them on their terms as African Christians.
MS. TIPPETT: You write about the word sasa.
MS. MUKONYORA: Oh, sasa, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Sasa, which in Shona — which is also your language, is that correct, your ancestral language?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: It means wild grasslands, like the spaces that these people worshipped in. But you’ve also written, and I just want — you said, sasa evokes feelings of dread, but they are also places of illumination. What do you mean by that?
MS. MUKONYORA: In the Bible, for example, Moses goes into the wilderness, and that’s where he encounters the God of compassion who leads the people of Israel out of Egypt. So it’s that kind of thing: going somewhere where you really do not expect to find anything that might be said to be promising or nourishing of one, and yet that is exactly where you find the source of hope.
So sasa is actually the root Bantu word for these fringes, these grasslands. But the Masowe create their own additional meanings with it because they are using it in the context of their reading of Christianity and messages of the Bible, rather than the traditional religions.
MS. TIPPETT: I just want to dwell on these spaces where they meet again. They wouldn’t meet in the churches, as you said. They went in the other direction. But also, the way you described it as you were kind of poking around following them in Harare, often near affluent suburbs, but these would be fields that people would walk through who were perhaps domestic workers in these large houses. But also there’s nothing romantic about this wilderness, or at least some of it. You talk about it being places with mosquitoes and mud, and where there was waste disposal.
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: I don’t know. It’s just intriguing to me, because when you describe it in detail, these don’t sound like — I don’t know — holy places.
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes. I guess I’m describing it as someone who had more insight about the landscape, or really wanted to think about what I was looking at a square. I do not think, to the believers, this is necessarily horrible. To them, they were places to get away from the humdrum of life in worse places, in the crowded townships in which everybody lived. Anything was better than some of the crowded conditions that the domestic workers lived in. No lights, one room, dark, limited access to certain facilities. You just want to get out wherever you go. So I’m describing something that the believers do not necessarily see as actually terrible. Although, for them, we are going into the wilderness, and the wilderness is in the fringes of things and we meet our God there.
MS. TIPPETT: You also describe how, I mean, the quality of open air, that that, in fact, had a sacred significance.
MS. MUKONYORA: Yeah, I think the sacredness of the spaces is very important. And there were mysterious ways of actually indicating that there were — whatever else one thought on sacred land, once you arrive, you took off your shoes, you removed all your bags, gadgetry; you remove everything, and you enter these spaces where women sit in a particular way, facing a particular direction. Men do the same. And it started to look that there was a sacred place in the wilderness that way, when they took over a particular point and simply transformed it through the behavior and the things they did there. And they took water to these places, clean water, milk, honey, all kinds of things they used to symbolize that the Holy Spirit was going to bring about life.
MS. TIPPETT: You mention Moses, but Jesus went to the wilderness. I mean, even in the history of Christianity and other religions, the wilderness does seem to have a pull. I mean, I’m also thinking about in the early church, in the fourth and fifth and sixth centuries, desert mothers and fathers, the kind of semi-hermits who went out into the deserts of Egypt and Syria. I mean, there is — this has happened before in Christian history.
MS. MUKONYORA: Oh, yes. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Do the Masowe know that story? Do they consciously know themselves to be part of that story?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes, I think so. They know about it. And it’s almost unfair that I introduced them in terms of the Old Testament, Moses going into the wilderness, actually, because the name Johane Masowe is derived from John the Baptist, who is John of the Wilderness of the Bible.
MS. TIPPETT: Shona scholar Isabel Mukonyora. I’m Krista Tippett. And this is Speaking of Faith, from American Public Media. Today, “Sacred Wilderness, an African Story.”
In the Christian New Testament, John of the Wilderness is John the Baptist, a prophetic figure of transition. He appeared in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey, preaching and pointing towards a new religious future. Johane Masowe prefigured the end of the cultural and religious assumptions of colonial Africa.
MS. MUKONYORA: I think he was born around 1915. There isn’t a record of his dates, so scholars tend to shift around a little. But he was first recognized by the police, of all people, in 1932. He turned up in places where, in terms of the colonial landscape, should have stayed empty, behind factories, wherever he knew he might find workers or people who were looking for jobs, people who were struggling with adjusting to the new colonial way of arranging everything. He would turn up and start preaching the gospel there. And this was very annoying, I’m sure, because the colonials tended to require of Africans certain documents, so that you needed to have a business purpose in town. And preaching was not a business purpose. And so for an African man, as early as the 1920s, into 1930s, to start preaching the gospel, this was breaching the norms. So they had to investigate him because he was occupying wrong spaces.
MS. TIPPETT: So this is the first time he’s documented as an historical figure, is that what you’re saying, in police records?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes. And within the context of a lot of fear and suspicion about Africans leading religious groups. Because in Zimbabwe, the first reaction of Africans was religious reaction to the arrival of the white settlers in the 1890s. The comments were made that God was offended by the arrival of the settlers, because they were taking over sacred land, and it was divine duty, if you like, of every African mother, husband, and son to resist this takeover of the land. So since that time, that rebellion was silenced and explains a lot about Zimbabwe today, actually.
MS. TIPPETT: What does that say about Zimbabwe today?
MS. MUKONYORA: The same question of the takeover of land remains with the people, actually, from that time until today. It kind of colors the nationalism, and it is also very easily manipulated by the current regime of Robert Mugabe because the idea is that the land was taken, your ancestors owned this land, and therefore, if I say fight for it or just take it by force from these white settlers, then you shouldn’t object to that because that’s just kind of natural.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. And almost has religious symbolism.
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: So Johane Masowe, he took the name Masowe, which has its roots, I believe, in this word sasa, these wild grasslands that we were talking about, is that right?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. What was understood to be his calling? What happened to him, and what did he perceive and then teach, that had such an appeal that today reaches, I don’t know, 5 million people, I think you said, in just central and southern Africa?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yeah. He was addressing displacement, the very fact of people no longer knowing what ideas really make you well in a society. The tendency in European schools — and this I experienced for myself…
MS. TIPPETT: In your Catholic school?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yeah, but everyone followed the same program in terms of missionary teaching — really had a disregard for the African culture and religions. And Masowe had a way of expressing the anxiety by speaking of being displaced and being in the fringes and practicing a spirituality that addressed people who were displaced. So I think he fulfilled a special need that anyone who is displaced will actually find fulfillment in.
And he wasn’t always explicitly concerned with the politics itself because this is a healing movement, at the end of the day. Yeah. So — and the healing is not just physical, but 80 percent of the time, it’s social and psychological. Yeah, because the prayer meetings are really a site for being angry and crying, telling your friends what’s wrong with you, and…
MS. TIPPETT: And that’s cathartic.
MS. MUKONYORA: …they sort you out by the end of the day. And they shake you, as well, if they’re into the spirit and things like that. But the healing ceremonies, which are the main attraction of the Masowe, are expressive of the kind of gap he filled.
MS. TIPPETT: You know what — I’m curious when I hear, that because it was, as you’ve been describing, the Christian church or manifestations of Christianity, in fact, that had left people displaced, and not just religiously, but also economically, politically. It had contributed to that. So why did they not just reject Christianity outright and turn to the African traditions, which, in fact, are very much incorporated in their practices?
MS. MUKONYORA: I think it takes us back to that point I made earlier, about the continuities between some of the African beliefs and practices, and beliefs and practices that Christianity was teaching. I mean, if your culture is hit by a new idea, it’s not really about rejecting it just because you’ve been imprisoned or you are enslaved, as we have with African-Americans here. But some of these ideas, one comes across even in the context of what might look very negative, communicate something that one keeps.
MS. TIPPETT: Shona scholar Isabel Mukonyora. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more conversation with her on African diaspora, the Shona male and female image for God, and having faith in being lost.
Our award-winning Web site, speakingoffaith.org, features the music of the Masowe with an introduction from Isabel Mukonyora. You can explore maps tracing the growth and trajectory of religion in Africa. Also, sign up for our weekly e-mail newsletter with my journal. Subscribe to our podcast and iTune’s “Best of 2006” selection for a free download of our weekly program. Beginning in March, our podcast will include selected audio clips from my upcoming book, titled Speaking of Faith. Listen when you want, where you want. Discover something new at speakingoffaith.org.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Sacred Wilderness, an African Story.”
I’m speaking this hour with Isabel Mukonyora, who’s followed and studied a religious movement, the Masowe Apostles, that embraces Christian tradition while addressing the particular insights of life and history in Africa. The Masowe have an estimated 5 million members in Mukonyora’s native Zimbabwe and elsewhere in southern and central Africa. The founder of this movement, Johane Masowe, emphasized an ancient spiritual pull to the wilderness, finding meaning, as Isabel Mukonyora says, in the margins. Masowe is also a guiding figure for other African religious movements, for example, the Gospel of God Church based in northeastern Africa with members from Sudan to India.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve written in a scholarly paper that, for you — I think I understand this as the kind of intellectual context in which you are putting this, that for several decades, the great emphasis for African theologians has been trying to face up to the challenges of post-colonialism by drawing attention to traditional African religions.
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And what you’re saying is that this story of the Masowe, this movement and others like it, is important because it shows that, in fact, there have been these mergers that are driven by Africans and imagined by Africans and led by Africans, that, in fact, as you say, take the core of Christian truth, Christian belief, but are also very African in orientation and practice, and very meaningful for people exactly where they live.
MS. MUKONYORA: Yeah, the Masowe Apostles and even a lot of the missionary converts to Christianity have turned against open kind of belief in the ancestors.
MS. TIPPETT: In the ancestors.
MS. MUKONYORA: Yeah, that you really do not. They’re very ambivalent about the ancestors.
MS. TIPPETT: Which is a really fundamental…
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: …aspect of African traditional religious sensibility.
MS. MUKONYORA: And I really wish people grasped this fact because there is no traditional African culture to keep expecting Africans to turn back to and hold on to forever.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. MUKONYORA: It’s very clear now that that is not the case and that is not the best way to go forward because of these processes of the exchange of ideas, meaning, you know, economies change in structure. A whole lot of things have just shaken, and the Masowe are an example of people creating new boundaries of meaning for people caught up in this changing environment. But the first reaction to having been colonized was, ‘Oh, let us just say, Oh, you messed us up, we actually did have good ideas of our own.’ But the picture is complex because human nature is complex.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MS. MUKONYORA: We are complicated people.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MS. MUKONYORA: Yeah. And women in particular have things to gain from not holding on to the traditional ancestor, for example.
MS. TIPPETT: And that feels important to you, that it’s all right to let go of some of that?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes. I feel that if you embrace a religion and it’s lived in a liberating way, then you must face up to that and know that some things can be shaken off. I think that’s what happens all the time anyway because that’s what the gospel does. It meets people in cultures and presents certain challenges.
MS. TIPPETT: I don’t want to go any further without talking about women. I mean, you’ve been mentioning that, that that’s a very important focus for you. And as I understand it, women are ceremonial leaders in the Masowe tradition. They have — they are seen to have spiritual gifts and even kind of mystical powers, and yet men lead worship. Is that right?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: But you’ve said that you think that the religious aspirations of women and ideas about women help explain the vibrancy of the Masowe movement as a whole. I mean, explain that.
MS. MUKONYORA: First of all, my knowledge of the Masowe was shaped by the fact that I was a woman rather than a man. They approach the sites of prayer differently. Once you are close to the sacred places, men go their way, women go their way. And although the men acting as official leaders, which is the norm in the wider society and in the traditional culture — the lineage system is male in Zimbabwe — women had this space they would occupy as women because they were sitting together. I found just sitting with these women and hearing them sometimes question and challenge what the official leaders were saying, I found that there is really a Masowe spirituality that is woman-oriented and explains this very Africa-wide phenomenon of women outnumbering men in churches. And it’s not just about, ‘Well it’s all over the world. Women can be larger.’ But there are certain patterns of expression that suggest a real appropriation of Christianity as women and thinking patterns that go with it.
MS. TIPPETT: Is that just Christianity, or is it also other religions in Africa as well, that women have that?
MS. MUKONYORA: In the scope of what we call African traditional religions, precolonial, women could have ritual authority. Women could be executors at marriage, for example. Women could be voices of the high God, and in Zimbabwe in particular, the high God Mwari who is now used in the African Bibles, Shona Bibles. Mwari was a male-female deity.
MS. TIPPETT: And that is used in the Hebrew Bible, Christian Bible.
MS. MUKONYORA: Oh, yes, missionaries were asking people, ‘What’s your name for God?’ And people said, ‘Mwari.’ And they took the word Mwari and wrote it in the Bible. But the concept there is not necessarily exactly the same, but there’s a sameness assumed in the translation process that goes on.
Anyway, in terms of gender — this is interesting, that Mwari, there’s a female dimension and a male dimension. Both are used. Sometimes the male is stressed, but most interesting in terms of women is the fact that the voice of Mwari — who is like a prophet, the one who declares the word of God, if you like, that says the Lord’s kind of person — is a woman. And if she’s not a woman, it is a man who assumes a feminine title. Yes, so the voice of Mwari is called Mbonga which is, ‘I am the wife of God. I speak on behalf of God.’ So to speak on behalf of God is to occupy a wifely position in relation to the high God.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, that’s interesting.
MS. MUKONYORA: So it kind of transformed it.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m just thinking about how, in fact, in Genesis — in English translation, it’s in the first chapter–not in the second chapter but in the first chapter of Genesis, God speaks in the plural and says, “Let us create man in our image. Male and female, He created them.” I mean, it has that same connotation without ever explaining it. It sounds like that Shona word, in fact, makes that more vivid.
MS. MUKONYORA: I think this is the final fit for me because it forces you to look back at certain things. And one thing that fascinates me when I look at these oral traditions in Africa where you can actually have easily, in one language, 10 to 15 extremely popular creation stories that people will tell. They all designate that a god, that there is a creation process that brings everything into existence. But in the storytelling of this, the always male-female things bounce around. Sometimes if a man is talking, he will…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. MUKONYORA: ?put it in terms of the masculine, and then sometimes they are combined, and sometimes you get a distinct sense that whatever is happening, there is also a female dimension that cannot be suppressed completely. Especially when it comes to the idea of divine presence, which I associate with this voice, that God is actually, becomes present in the world and in becoming present on earth, this is a taking on of the feminine nature. Yeah, life, childbearing, everything else starts to fit into there, and so I found lots of rich, rich material.
MS. TIPPETT: Shona scholar Isabel Mukonyora. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Sacred Wilderness, an African Story.”
I asked Isabel Mukonyora how delving into one movement, the Masowe Apostles, helps clarify themes in the larger picture of Africa’s religious present. Some 100 million Africans follow ethnic tribal indigenous traditions. There are nearly 400 million Christians, including ancient Orthodox and Coptic expressions of the Christian faith alongside new evangelical and charismatic converts. And nearly one-quarter of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims live on the African continent. Islam came to parts of Africa as a young religion in the seventh century.
MS. MUKONYORA: This is actually a very good question of Islam and Christianity because southern and central Africa is much more predominantly Christian. The British had some stuff going on.
MS. TIPPETT: And that’s where you come from. Yes, yes, yes.
MS. MUKONYORA: And then — but West Africa has this extremely rich history not only of a Christianity that spreads there since conquista, Portuguese times, maritime Christianity, but you also have Islam as a traditional religion of Africa really, as far as that word goes. No one can ever really generalize about African religions in this sense.
But the Masowe strike me, in terms of the global, the wider picture, in the sense that they have become transnational with their kind of message. See, it goes with everybody. You go to them, you’re called by your first name, nobody is going to ask you where you came from because that’s not why you go to the fringes. You go there because you are lost and looking for something, a message of hope. So they take that as a starting point. So the Masowe spirituality — a lot of African-initiated churches have been growing in Africa despite independence actually. There used to be theories that having these types of religious movements would die down when Europeans relinquished power as colonial, but this is not the case.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s the opposite, isn’t it?
MS. MUKONYORA: The churches have kept growing. So you have — groups like the Masowe, actually sometimes people do not want to call churches. They are not a member of the World Council of Churches, so they would be seen as partly mixing past and present and they just, you know…
MS. TIPPETT: That’s why you find them interesting.
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes. I like being able to teach Christian traditions and think about these wider developments that make me think about, you know, that history changes and stuff.
MS. TIPPETT: Right and you use the word diaspora. Johane Masowe, I guess, led numbers of followers to other countries, right?
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, Kenya.
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: But you know that word diaspora is also so evocative historically. And you just used the word transnational also. In our time it takes on different meanings, but I suppose the image of African diaspora that we have is slavery. And you are using that word in our time in a very different way.
MS. MUKONYORA: I don’t think so, actually.
MS. TIPPETT: No?
MS. MUKONYORA: No, because if you — the word diaspora in its Greek use originally simply suggested that people can be scattered. They can leave home for various kinds of reasons, political, it can be an earthquake, who knows what happened in ancient times? But the idea of the diaspora in its Greek-root sense isn’t filled with all these connotations that I actually think are quite contemporarily historical. So that’s how I use the word diaspora, that it suggests displacement, it suggests movement, leaving home, and all these things that I do not think really take away very much from the original meaning of the word.
I think the faster you move with technologies, all this spreading, movies, and ideas coming to and fro that we can associate with globalization, create a hunger for something steady and consistent in people. And actually, because I did — when I was caught up in my search, I went to the very origins of Christianity. I didn’t want to listen to no more missionaries. I thought, let me go to where it began and see what’s going there. I see in the origins of Christianity something people forget today, i.e., a culture that is changing very quickly, where there is a lot of movement, a lot of mixing, a lot of wars causing people to…
MS. TIPPETT: In those first centuries, first decades really.
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes. And in terms of Christianity as a religion, it’s sad to miss that, to know that characteristic of it. And for me, Masowe is really recapturing, in his own African way, things that are known to create in people a hunger for religion in the contemporary world, but reminding us of the past and of the character of Christianity at one level where, really, Jesus is a radical man in a world that was crumbling.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. MUKONYORA: People of God were, you know, looking for answers.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. MUKONYORA: And He had a message of love, and compassion, giving, and that’s how it works.
MS. TIPPETT: When we first began to speak, you spoke of your childhood and being kind of torn between this Catholic upbringing and your grandmother, who had resisted it and stuck to her traditional religious sensibility and said she already believed in God and she didn’t need to take on another way of thinking.
MS. MUKONYORA: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: You talked about your frustration and your questions that were left for you, like, is there such a thing as heaven, and if there’s a God and He’s compassionate, then why is there so much suffering? I wonder if you’ve found new ways to come at those questions personally or through this study that you’ve done of this African tradition which kind of merges — in some ways merges those two ways of being in the world.
MS. MUKONYORA: Yes, I have decided that life is a journey, and we search for meaning, really. We search for meaning and we hope that we don’t crumble. I’ve had — because of being a single parent, had to really work extremely hard. I’m probably the first single mom to arrive in Oxford and be foreign and saying to the theology faculty there, which is extremely kind of into orthodoxy, that I was going to write about the Masowe. So I’m used to the fact that you just have to work at things, you know. And it’s not that there are always all the answers.
And the Masowe, although maybe they are more into the supernatural, what really struck me about them is how they’re also extremely pragmatic. Yeah, they’re talking about trade, about helping each other with finding jobs, coping with day-to-day things.
MS. TIPPETT: And those are the sources of suffering in human life, aren’t they?
MS. MUKONYORA: To help cope with this change and develop hope. I think they fit into modern world, only they are dressed in another way to fit in our Western society. But I feel very comfortable being kind of the searching type, ready to be lost in the wilderness, and I always like to encourage people who are equally lost about meaning and the world, that, you know, it’s about trying and being genuinely a part of what you are doing, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Isabel Mukonyora is assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Western Kentucky University. She’s the author of a new book about the Masowe Apostles titled Wandering a Gendered Wilderness: Suffering and Healing in an African Initiated Church.
Visit us online at speakingoffaith.org. Listen to the music of the Masowe, with an introduction by Isabel Mukonyora. Explore maps tracing the growth and trajectory of religion in Africa. Also, subscribe to our e-mail newsletter and podcast, and never miss another program again. Our podcast is a free download of each week’s program and, beginning in March, will include excerpts from my upcoming book, Speaking of Faith. Listen when you want, wherever you want. Discover something new at speakingoffaith.org.
In an upcoming program, we’ll be exploring the 13th-century Islamic mystic and poet Rumi. He’s one of the best-selling poets today and we’d like to hear your stories about reading him. Look for “Share Your Story” at speakingoffaith.org and tell us more.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Jody Abramson. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss. Bill Buzenberg is a consulting editor, Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.