Religious Occultism and Poverty in Africa

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The Zimbabwean media was recently awash with reports of an assumed Pentecostal ‘prophet’ (who apparently does not have a bank account) and who ‘delivered’ a known stripper from her ‘evil’ trade. It is alleged that the ‘prophet’ is opening a shop for her in Harare Central Business District.

This, as well as the recently ended Gumbura saga, arguably demonstrates that we Zimbabweans have become so religious that we will believe anything that comes to us in the name of deity.

While some may argue that religious fervor is good for our society, of concern to me is the possible permeation of religious occultism into our people, and the possible dangers thereof.

Firstly, what is a cult and how can you determine that your community church is not a cult?

A cult may be any form of group (not necessarily religious) that is dangerous for its followers. From a sociological perspective, a religious cult has six characteristics:

●Authoritarian Leadership: Authoritarianism involves the acceptance of an authority figure who exercises excessive control on cult members. As prophet or founder, this leader’s word is ultimate and final.

●Exclusivism:  Cults often believe that they alone have the truth. The cult views itself as the single means of salvation on earth.

●Isolationism: Some cults require members to renounce and break off associations with parents and siblings.

●Opposition to Independent Thinking: Some cultic groups discourage members from thinking independently. The cult leadership, as it were, has already done the thinking, for them; the proper response is merely to submit.

● Fear of Being Excommunicated:  It is not uncommon in cults that people are urged to remain faithful in order to avoid being excommunicated or disbarred, from the group.

● Threats of Satanic Attack: Finally, cults use fear and intimidation to keep members in line. Members may be told that something awful will happen to them should they choose to leave the group.

In terms of the dangers posed by religious occultism, some may recall the 1970s grisly mass suicide in Guyana by Jim Jones’ followers.

On November 18, 1978, Jim Jones and more than 900 members (including 257 children) of his ‘church’ committed mass suicide in the jungle of Guyana in South America.

The Jonestown cult (officially named the “People’s Temple”) was founded in 1955 by an Indianapolis USA preacher named James Warren Jones. Jones based his liberal ministry on a combination of religious and socialist philosophies.

Nevertheless, why did people join Jones’ church in the first place? I mean, what was the attraction of his ministry, and what was the demographic orientation of his followers?

Research reveals that Jim Jones’ primary recruitment targets were poor, and mostly people of colour (blacks and Hispanics). His ‘ministry’ promised the creation of an egalitarian community of economic justice and spiritual fulfillment- the kind of language that would appeal to the downtrodden.

Here in Africa, Escapism is a term used by researchers of religion to define “a type of Christianity that because of the current situation on the continent, [has] a very strong appeal.

“Within the safe walls of one’s religion, one can escape the harsh realities of the “outside” world. It manifests itself in different subtypes (often imported from overseas), like an apocalyptic Christianity or a Gospel of prosperity.”

Now I am not trying to argue that all prosperity, prophetic or apocalyptic types of ministry equate to religious occultism.


However, I am trying to make the point that like Jim Jones’ followers, many people in Zimbabwe may unwittingly face the danger of succumbing to predatory piety owing to poverty and the promise of deliverance thereof.

As a predominately youthful nation, it is therefore important that parents and communities remain alert to the permeation of religious occultism. As it stands, the harsh economic environment facing the country makes the Escapism type of Christianity popular.

Yet, while the freedom of religion should remain respected, we should however not allow Escapism to translate into execution, as was the case in the Jonestown massacre.

Tau Tawengwa

Executive Director