On Folk Superstition and Political Ideology
19 June 2020
Spread the love
Masimba Musodza

By Masimba Musodza| Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”- Emmanuel Kant, Answering The Question: What Is Enlightenment?, 1784.

What do the snake-oil ravings of, say, “Prophet” Freddy, have in common with a paper on “Systemic Racism” written by a Black academic at western in university. On the surface, nothing at all. However, peel away the semantics and you find yourself confronting my argument; that the roots of an outlook that wears the mantle of race, identity and politics are in folk religion.

One of the most enduring beliefs in Zimbabwean culture is that life’s problems are caused by others. Business failing, marriage failing, job loss, children performing well at school then, at some point before entering university, becoming dissolute etc. Before contact with European Christian missionaries, such misfortunes were the work of varoyi (witches) who could secretly administer poisons that made it look like ordinary illness, or drove a person mad, or induced loss of affection towards a spouse etc. Some varoyi were adept at appealing to their victim’s vadzimu (guardian ancestral spirits), persuading them to look the other way by pointing out their grievances against the victim. Sometimes, it was the vadzimu who withdrew their protection if they felt their descendant was in the wrong- for instance, if they had enabled him to acquire vast wealth only to neglect his children. It was then the role of the svikiro (spirit medium) or the n’anga (the so-called witchdoctor) to reveal the supernatural forces at play in a family’s misfortune, and prescribe potent defences against varoyi or propitiatory rituals to appease the angered vadzimu as the case may be.

Christianity did not end such beliefs. Rather, modern scientific method only reduced the number of illnesses that can be attributed to witchcraft. Still on the list are many disabilities, mental illnesses and learning disabilities. In fact, the popular charismatic churches clothe these ancient beliefs with Christian terminology, but the fundamentals are the same. The pastor plays the role of the sangoma or svikiro, he can see the machinations of unseen supernatural forces and he can grapple with them. Just look at a leaflet of a typical “Black church,” the ones led by a self-styled “Prophet” or “Apostle” or some other such proud title. They offer not fellowship with other Christians etc, but deliverance from curses, witchcraft and promise jobs, residence permits etc. The leader of the church plays the role of the n’anga or svikiro, like these religious leaders of old, he has the unique ability to see the supernatural forces at play in events such as job loss, marriage failure etc. and act in God’s name to deal with these.

My problem with such an outlook is that it becomes an overarching excuse for individual or, as we have seen with the National Day of Prayer in Zimbabwe, national failure among Black Zimbabwean people. It deflects from individual or collective responsibility for certain outcomes. It denies the fact that sometimes, even with the best laid plans and most strategic actions, things can go wrong and there are factors that no mortal has no control over. It opens the path towards pinning the blame on things that may not be rooted in religious belief, but are as less reliant on empirical evidence than sheer enthusiasm, such as “Systematic Racism” or “Patriarchy.” More importantly, it motivates people to direct their energy towards a problem that is not there at all when they should be addressing with the real ones in their lives.

Masimba Musodza

I am not going to deny that there are people in our society who dislike a person enough to seek to do them harm, and rejoice at news of their misfortune. There are people in our society who see relatives, even siblings, and colleagues at work as rivals. They see other people’s success as an act of divine injustice. The man who has struggled to build his business is livid that his younger brother has built his in a much shorter time and what appears to be less effort. The woman whose daughter is now on child number three and still no man to present as a father to any of the children finds it hard to be happy for her sister-in-law, the wife of her husband’s brother, whose daughter has been married for a substantial dowry and is now preparing for an ostentatious wedding. Stories abound of people carrying out diabolical schemes to scupper their relatives and “friends”’ plans, from spreading malicious gossip that can end a marriage to writing letters to the Home Office seeking to get someone deported.

However, the fact remains that not one of such people is capable of supernaturally standing in the way of another person’s progress. They might be able to slip poison into someone’s food. They might tarnish someone’s reputation, leading to the breakdown of a romantic relationship or loss of a career opportunity. But they cannot actively cause unsuccessful outcomes or even physical injury by mere evocation of imagined deities or supernatural entities. Even the Bible does not attribute misfortune to any other force outside of ordinary human action and Providence.

I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me:
I girded thee, though thou hast not known me: That they may know
from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside
me. I am the Lord, and there is none else. I form the light, and create
darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.
– Isaiah 45:5-7.

Once freed from the notion that ordinary problems are caused by extra-ordinary powers, I believe Black people and whole nations are able to objectively interrogate the idea that the problems we face can be attributed to “Systematic Racism,” “White Supremacy,” “Patriarchy” “White Privilege” and all of the words one hears often these days in discussions. It is not an easy thing, even with a Black population that has access to information and education on a scale that has not been seen since the days of the Nile Valley civilisations. Just as the n’angas and svikiros held positions of power and wealth from trafficking in their belief system, as do now the “prophets” and “apostles” of hundreds of churches, the purveyors of political identity ideologies would not want to see an outlook that has given them social standing and an income scrutinised and possibly abandoned, even if it stands to be replaced by something that, in my view, is morally superior. That something is an outlook or an ethos that ascribes agency and responsibility to Black people and whole nations, rather than the gods or European and American racism.