Prophets and prophetic movements have flourished in Africa since the mid-1800s. Prophets—religious leaders with messages about divine judgment or moral law who often make predictions about the future—usually arise in groups facing major social upheaval. By addressing such crises and offering radical solutions, they tend to inspire followers who respond with fervor to their message.
Prophetic movements in Africa have drawn from indigenous, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Many emerged in response to the dramatic changes that followed European colonization of the continent. Most of these movements were short-lived, lasting only until the resolution of the particular crisis at hand. Others, however, took root and continued to thrive long after the situations that inspired them had ended. Some have even grown into mainstream religious sects with many thousands of followers.
ROOTS OF AFRICAN PROPHECY
African societies have long included individuals who claimed to have the ability to communicate with sources responsible for good and bad fortune. Seers, diviners, spirit mediums, or dream interpreters have played a role in virtually every indigenous belief system in Africa. However, there are significant differences between such religious figures and prophets. These differences relate both to the nature of the person’s vision and the sources of his or her ideas and symbols.
Magicians, Healers, and Prophets
The KONGO people of west-central Africa make a useful distinction between the nganga (magician or healer) and the ngunza (prophet). Both employ mystical power from the dead to benefit the living. However, the nganga does so for private or personal ends, while the ngunza does so for the public good.
The nganga are traditional religious figures who establish contact with the spirit world through dreams, trances, or possession. Called on for help in dealing with sickness, crop failure, or everyday problems, the nganga serve mainly to identify the source of a problem and recommend an action to overcome it. The nganga rarely offer new remedies. Instead, they explain how to use old, traditional remedies more effectively. The ngunza, on the other hand, deals with extraordinary crises that affect the group as a whole. Sometimes a traditional African society reaches a point at which social ills or other problems seem overwhelming.
The members of the community interpret the crisis to mean that the charms or fetishes that protected them from evil powers have lost their power. This is usually the moment when a prophet arises to destroy old fetishes and reveal new ones, to establish new shrines and rituals, or to bring about a new religious order.
The ngunza promotes new solutions to problems, rather than relying on old ones. Such solutions typically involve reforming society, as old ideas are rejected and replaced by new ones. At some point, however, the new order will also lose its effectiveness and a new prophet will arise to overturn society once again.
Before the colonial period, the process of social reformation led by African prophets usually occurred within limits set by the existing culture. However, the unique circumstances and profound changes brought by European colonization led African prophets to promote much more radical changes in society.
The Influence of World Religions
While based on indigenous religious beliefs and practices, most African prophetic movements have drawn heavily on ideas and symbols from Islam and Christianity. One idea found in both of these religion is millennialism—the belief that the world will be destroyed and re-created anew, bringing about a thousandyear period of peace and justice.
Millennialism blended well with the African prophetic tradition of reforming society through the elimination of witchcraft or evil. Its impact was greatest when applied to the “evils” of colonialism. Millennialist ideas inspired prophets such as UTHMAN DAN FODIO, who led a Muslim jihad, or holy war, against French forces in West Africa.
Christianity has been an important source of inspiration for many African prophets. The Bible offers numerous examples of prophets who predicted the fall of the old, corrupt social order and told people what to do to bring in a new one. Many of the missionary groups that came to Africa also incorporated millennialist ideas in their teaching. Christian practices such as mass baptisms and the rejection of traditional charms and idols echoed prophets’ calls for social purification and a new beginning, and African prophets adopted many of these ideas.
PROPHETS AND PROPHETIC CHURCHES
The European conquest of Africa was a sign to many Africans that the old fetishes and gods had lost their power. Throughout the continent, prophets preached the need to abandon the old sources of spiritual power and seek renewal through new means.
Major Prophets and Movements
A number of well-known African prophets and prophetic movements emerged during the years of European colonialism. Among the earliest prophets were William Wade Harris of LIBERIA and Garrick Sokari BRAIDE of NIGERIA. Both men joined and then broke away from missionary churches to preach against witchcraft and old fetishes.
In the Belgian Congo (present-day CONGO, KINSHASA), Simon KIMBANGU also spoke out against the evils of witchcraft and called on his followers to destroy ritual objects. Although Kimbangu’s message was not political, Belgian authorities considered him a threat and imprisoned him in 1921. Although his movement—Kimbanguism—was banned, it took root and led to the establishment of a church that later played a major role in the country’s religious life. It also inspired Congolese nationalism and the movement for independence.
Eastern Africa saw a wave of politically inspired prophetic movements in the early 1900s. Leaders of the MAJI MAJI rebellion in Tanganyika (present-day TANZANIA) and the Yakan movement of UGANDA both claimed to receive prophetic gifts and power from magical water. Drinking the water supposedly brought back dead ancestors, made the drinker immune to bullets, and would cause invading foreigners to vanish. Both movements ended in brief and bloody uprisings that were crushed by colonial troops.
Another East African prophetic movement with political ties was the Watu wa Mungu (“People of God”), which rejected European culture and clothing. The group apparently had links to the MAU MAU uprising, an anticolonial guerrilla movement in Kenya in the 1950s. Jomo KENYATTA, the first president of independent KENYA, was associated with the Watu wa Mungu.
Alice LENSHINA, a female prophet in ZAMBIA, spoke out against colonialism and instructed her followers to withdraw from all secular activities. Lenshina established the Lumpa Church, a movement that swept through much of Zambia in the 1950s. In the months before Zambia gained its independence in 1964, Lumpa followers engaged in fierce battles with colonial forces. When the fighting ended, many Lumpa fled Zambia or were imprisoned, including Lenshina herself.
A more recent example of a prophetic movement with political goals is the Holy Spirit Movement in Uganda. Alice Auma, the movement’s leader, claimed to be a medium passing along the commands of a prophet called Lakwena. In the mid-1980s she built up a military force dedicated to cleansing the world of evil and building a society in which humans, the spirit world, and the environment would coexist in peace. Auma directed military operations against the Ugandan army until her troops were defeated in 1987. Remnants of her army continue to fight in Uganda under the name the Lord’s Resistance Army.
New Christian Churches
Many prophetic movements were founded by African followers of Christian mission churches. They left mission churches because European clergy failed to treat blacks equally or to entrust them with responsible positions. The new African-led churches retained much of the structure and teachings of the mission churches.
Most of these prophetic movements split from Protestant churches; very few developed in areas dominated by Catholics or Muslims. Because Protestant churches preached that few people would be chosen for salvation, a steady stream of converts left the church to begin their own sects. The approach of Catholicism was different. It baptized all who entered the church and attempted to work out problems with individuals, rather than rejecting them as unworthy. Catholic Africans thus had less compelling reasons to leave the church than Protestant Africans.
Prophetic and Charismatic Churches
Another independent church movement in Africa led to the formation of prophetic churches based on prayer, healing, and prophecy. African men and women who felt the call to prophecy established a number of such churches in West Africa during the early 1900s. These are often called spirit churches or Aladura, a Nigerian word meaning “people of prayer.” The earliest were the Church of the Lord, the Christ Apostolic church, and the Cherubim and Seraphim church. Fast-growing prophetic churches of recent times include the Celestial Church of Christ and the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star.
Though vastly different in many ways, prophetic churches generally have little formal structure or dogma. Authority lies entirely with their founders, whose preaching and instruction are considered divinely inspired. Worship tends to be inventive and often includes preaching based on ORAL TRADITION and the use of African music and dance. Although the churches recognize traditional Christian holy days and sacraments such as marriage, they often have their own special practices and taboos.
The churches known as Pentacostal-Charismatic are evangelical groups that emphasize the conversion of their members from traditional to “born again” Christianity. Services feature speaking in tongues, healing, and miracle working. The church emphasizes the role of God in providing material success and prosperity for members. Widespread throughout West Africa in particular, Pentacostal-Charismatic churches have a global outlook, with leaders maintaining contact with similar religious groups around the world.
Both charismatic and prophetic churches focus on the primary concerns of all African religious communities: healing, well-being, material success, and long life. Although both have condemned indigenous religion as “pagan,” they recognize the endurance of beliefs such as WITCHCRAFT AND SORCERY. They have waged a continuing battle against indigenous religious institutions and ritual practices by burning shrines, destroying charms and fetishes, and casting out “demons” from people’s bodies.
African Independent and Zionist Churches
Frustrated by unequal treatment in white churches, a group of black Protestants in southern Africa founded several African Independent Churches (AICs). These churches followed the doctrines and organization of the white Protestant churches but were controlled entirely by blacks. AICs have grown rapidly since the early 1900s, especially in urban areas of SOUTH AFRICA. Once closely allied with nationalist movements, most have become more traditional since independence.
The prophetic movement in southern Africa also led to the establishment of Zionist churches, which arose among farm workers exploited by white landlords. These churches have no central organization and are characterized by a wide variety of beliefs and practices. However, most of the churches seek to ease the suffering of the poor by urging them to work hard, avoid alcohol, save money, and support each other. Zionist churches also believe in prayers to the Holy Spirit to accumulate spiritual power for healing the sick.
Zionist churches are popular among women. For one thing, they admit women to the clergy and even have female bishops. Furthermore, the churches promote a hardworking, disciplined, family-oriented lifestyle that is often lacking in modern urban Africa and is especially appealing to women.
The movement known as “Watchtower” or “Kitawala” offers an example of the entire range of beliefs, methods, and ideologies of African prophetic movements and independent churches. It is based on the ideas of the American Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (now known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses), which an English preacher named Joseph Booth brought to Africa in the early 1900s.
Kitawala, the African form of the movement, claimed that Christian missions deliberately withheld biblical truth and baptism from blacks. It also denounced British rule and said that the end of the world would be marked by the defeat of the British and the recapture of Africa from European control. One characteristic of the movement was its rejection of politics or allegiance to any government. During World War II, Kitawala followers were persecuted for their refusal to participate in the military.
Like other prophetic movements, Kitawala imported foreign ideas and then adapted them to the conditions in Africa. It called for a rejection of both traditional fetishes and mission-based Christianity. It replaced white male religious leaders with black African men and women. It also gave rise to many related groups, each practicing its own form of the religion with different focus and rituals. Like most of Africa’s prophetic movements and churches, the defining features of Kitawala are constant change, fresh division into new sects, and a commitment to spread its message across the continent. (See also Chilembwe, John; Christianity in Africa; Divination and Oracles; Healing and Medicine; Independence Movements; Islam in Africa; Kimpa Vita; Missions and Missionaries; Nongqawuse; Religion and Ritual; Shembe, Isaiah; Spirit Possession; Taboo and Sin.)