Pentecostal Witches: Witchcraft in Postcolonial Mozambique

Pentecostal Witches: Witchcraft in Postcolonial Mozambique
© Photograph by Denis Gromov

A former Portuguese colony, Mozambique, gained independence in 1975 following a long and bloody war of liberation that itself ended a violent and brutal colonial order (Newitt 1995). Following independence, the liberation movement Frelimo (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique) embarked on a socialist path of development, attempting to revolutionize the justice and production sectors and the domain of government, which drew on its own particular rendition of Afro-Marxism (Saul 1985).

These experiments in socialism were not fully realized, however, as a civil war ensued from 1976 to 1992. Frelimo, by then in government, was pitted against Renamo (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana), a guerrilla group primarily funded by racist Rhodesia, Apartheid South Africa and the West, but which enjoyed widespread popular peasant support (Geffray 1990). The civil war was characterised by extreme violence, mass kidnapping and forced labour (Bertelsen 2016a).

The civil war ended in 1992, and multiple interventions have characterised the post-war period by numerous international development organizations, which have effectively created a constant “state of structural adjustment” (Obarrio 2014).

Propelled by Mozambique’s rapid economic growth (Castel-Branco 2014), the post-war era has also seen new forms of socio-economic stratification with an increasing gap between poor and wealthy citizens (Mozambique News reports and clippings 2016). Although predominantly a period of peace, the post-1992 era has nevertheless been characterised by endemic political tension between the government and Renamo.

The last decades have also seen spates of lynchings in rural and urban areas, repeated instances of violence by police agents, recurring urban uprisings, and a widespread and growing mistrust of the state and its forces, as these are seen to protect corrupt and greedy networks of politicians and businessmen (Bertelsen 2009a, b, 2010, 2011, 2016a, b).

Crucially, these longue durée trajectories of predation, wealth accumulation and violence have unfolded alongside perceptions of witchcraft and sorcery. Here, with reference to a case study, I will present some general characteristics.

In Honde, a rural to peri-urban locale close to Chimoio in central Mozambqiue, where I have been undertaking fieldwork since 1999, a senior man whom I will call “Rui” is widely considered to be a witch (muroi) engaging in uroi — a term encompassing domains of both sorcery and witchcraft, as these are commonly distinguished in anthropology (see Evans-Pritchard 1976 [1937]).

A married man in his sixties, with seven children, Rui is a comparatively successful peasant in terms of generating a small income from the sale of agricultural produce (especially tomatoes) at the markets in Chimoio.

The suspicion of him being a muroi has been conveyed to me directly and indirectly on numerous occasions by neighbours, kin and even members of his own household. A specific event in around 2000 decided people on the issue, and was recounted repeatedly. Meat was found hanging from the roof beam of his house — and the meat was believed to be of human origin and a result of his nocturnal, predatory forays. Thus, Rui is widely recognized to have as his vice (vicio) the consumption of human meat, which is also indicated by him attending funerals to satisfy his kurha nhama io munho — his lust for human flesh.

Rui was also believed to have undertaken other dark forms of uroi. Specifically, he was said to have engaged the forces of the lion (a potent animal) in the form of a mhondoro — a spirit lion.

These abilities were appropriated with the help of a n’anga (a traditional healer) in a ritual during which Rui consumed a piece of lion hide. His eating of the skin generates an authority in his body that is physically experienced as a sense of fear in his presence — akin to what people would experience when confronted by a lion or a mhondoro.

In conversation, some confirmed that he showed other signs of being a muroi: significantly, he often eats alone. This description is an important constituent of what might be termed a speech genre (Bakhtin 1986) of uroi: a constantly evolving, dynamic and embracive body of expressions and notions, this speech genre includes a number of partly covert ways to allude to someone being a muroi — especially as it evidences greed and anti-social behaviour in the presence of (non-muroi) kin and family (see also Huhn 2016; West 2007).

Beyond eating alone, a more visible, tangible and distinguishing characteristic is the rich yield from Rui’s machamba (rain-fed garden) and matoro (irrigated garden). This produce provides him with a comparatively high income from cash crops such as tomatoes (matemate).

As widely documented in other contexts in Southern Africa, a conspicuously successful crop yield is frequently related to engaging in forms of magic or other illicit behaviour.

As Gluckman (1963 [1956]: 96) noted half a century ago, “exceptional achievement is bought at the cost of one’s fellows. The man who is too successful is suspected of being a witch and himself is suspicious of the witchcraft of his envious fellows.”

In the speech genre of uroi in Honde (as well as in Chimoio), several methods are envisaged by which crop yields may be increased. One powerful measure is the covert drugging of others in order to force them to undertake labour on a machamba during the night in a practice called kurima no zwiphoko.

Another measure uses powerful mutombo (medicine or drugs) to make maize, water–melon, sweet potatoes, beans or other crops increase in size, grow more quickly, evade the gaze of thieves, and avoid pests.

Clearly, then, what informs the notion of uroi are both the classical aspects of witchcraft — an internalized craving that may be inherited and sometimes unconsciously enacted — and sorcery — that is, conscious actions undertaken to become empowered through, for instance, eating lion skin.

The composite figure of uroi, melding together these classical conceptions of witchcraft and sorcery, thereby reflects broader Southern African trends, as well as historical developments internal to what I have elsewhere called “the traditional field” (Bertelsen 2016a).

However, uroi has also been pentecostalised during recent decades, particularly through a re-definition of uroi as the work of Satan, who is supported by local spirits enlisted as the Devil’s lesser demons.

Reflecting a global Pentecostal translation of sorcery into demonology, the increasing satanification of cosmologies of protection (in the shape of ancestral and other spirits) and predation (zombification and other forms of uroi) has meant that Pentecostal pastors and so-called profete (who heal through the use of the Holy Spirit), increasingly shape the phantasmagoric spaces of sociality and cosmology (Van de Kamp 2016; Pfeiffer 2005).

For Rui, this has also meant that his uroi is seen to epitomize Satanic evil — especially among his Pentecostal co-villagers. Nominally a Catholic himself, Rui views Pentecostal churches with suspicion, believing them to be money-making devices for pastors, which is a common accusation across Africa (see Haynes 2012; Meyer 2002, 2007).

In this case, matters escalated and came to a head at an event in 2005. Commanding respect and authority in Honde, despite being viewed as a muroi, Rui organized some co-villagers to meet a local Pentecostal pastor and his aides down by the river — feigning to want to join the church.

After the meeting, Rui organized his fellow villagers to beat the pastor with sticks, accusing him of being a thief and stealing people’s money.

Following this event, Rui was perceived even more strongly to be under the spell of Satanic evil — an accusation supported by accounts of also other acts evidencing uroi. In summary, and as indicated by what Rui is believed to have been involved in, uroi as a phantasmagoric space has been expanded by the impact of Pentecostalism during recent decades — both in Chimoio and Honde, and elsewhere in Mozambique.

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