Religion is one of the most celebrated beliefs in the world, with different religious beliefs found all over the globe. In Sub-Saharan Africa, Christianity is one of the most common religion.
For almost a century, African households have made it a tradition to be part of a congregation. Research shows that over 90% of African Christian households grew up in a church-going home. Over the years, many new churches have been formed, attracting more followers across Africa. These new churches, dubbed Pentecostal churches, have been gaining more followers than traditional churches, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, Anglican, The Methodist Church, and others, which have been losing members. The Pentecostal churches are seen as the most attractive due to their up-to-date trends, such as big speakers, worship dancing moments, and their promises of performing miracles. However, these churches have also come with a lot of controversy across Africa.
Do African Parishes Perish or Thrive?
As more churches mushroom across the continent, more controversies surround Africa’s most controversial religion. Books and reviews have been written over the years about how this popular Christian religion was brought to Africa, yet those who brought it have barely created controversies around it compared to the African Christian communities.
Quoting Bible verses, preachers of the gospel of Christ in Africa have managed to reach as many people as possible. Some who have believed in the teachings before have now resorted to doing what is written in the Bible. Even though some of the things the Bible claimed were done by ordinary people seem impossible, some African preachers have upgraded the preaching style by teaching their followers that they too can receive God’s favor that the same people in the Bible received because they followed every teaching in the Bible. In search of miracles similar to those performed in the Bible, many African church-goers follow the advice of their pastors, which, in some cases, is very problematic and deadly.
One of the latest examples of these pastors is celebrated Kenyan pastor Paul Mackenzie, who appeared in court this month over the deaths of his parishioners. Buried bodies were exhumed by Kenyan government officials on his property, believed to be of Mackenzie’s followers. Reports suggest that Mackenzie advised his followers to starve themselves to death so that they could go to heaven and meet Jesus. Autopsies on 40 of the many bodies found on the now disgraced man of God’s property revealed that causes of death ranged from starvation to strangulation and suffocation.
“My wife believed Pastor Mackenzie when he told them that the world would end in June 2023. I have been looking for my wife and our six children since last year. I am certain all of them starved to death,” one of Mackenzie’s followers’ husband has been quoted saying in Kenyan local media following the discovery of the bodies in May.
The Bible, often referred to as the constitution of the Christian religion, emphasises how heaven is the most peaceful and beautiful place to live and promises a good, problem-free, and happy life after death for those who live according to its teachings. However, this “perfect” afterlife only applies to those who follow the Bible’s teachings, as the Christian faith teaches that those who do not will burn in hell. Pastor Mackenzie, like many other African preachers, has convinced his followers to follow what he interprets as the teachings and examples in the Bible.
While the Christian faith has been seen as a benchmark for good and humane behavior across households in Africa, particularly because of its rules that forbid hurting each other and maintaining peace, else risking a sad afterlife, it has also caused rifts in relationships as families interpret the Bible in different ways. In recent decades, stories of rape of congregants by their pastors, followers losing their properties to the “men of God,” broken family relationships, and claims of non-tested “miracles,” among other issues, have been on the rise across the continent.
Merica Hamutoko’s family is one of those African families that believe the church has destroyed their family. According to her brother Mathias, their family has been living in poverty and felt blessed when their sister got recruited into the Namibian army. She became their breadwinner and was now, in their words, “robbed away from them by a new church.”
The Hamutoko family, like many other African families, grew up in a traditional Christian church setting. They were taught about the Bible, God, and Jesus. “When my sister (Merica) got recruited into the Namibian Defence Force (NDF), we praised God,” he said.
He added that their sister worked hard as a breadwinner, supporting the whole family and starting small businesses for them to run and feed themselves while she simultaneously moved up the ranks in the army of the Southwestern African country.
Up until the point when Merica left her family’s church to join a brand-new Pentecostal congregation with a Congolese pastor. The brother said that after this, their sister started to cut off communication with them.
Mathias, Merica’s brother, spoke passionately about their sister’s situation in an interview with Pin Africa. “When we asked, she explained how her new pastor told her that the demon that is stopping her from getting married is being carried by a close relative and that she has to cut them off and get deeper into the fellowship and pray deeper so that she can break the chains that will open her doors to get married,” Mathias said. He said the same preacher told their sister that the old family church is not doing everything that God wants it to do, and thus its congregants will not have eternal life unless they repent and become born again, a term used by most of the mushrooming churches in Africa.
He added that two years later, they saw Merica losing a lot of weight because of her constant fasting. “She barely ate, and she wouldn’t go a month without intensive fasting,” he added.
The Bible does mention that fasting is a way of humbling oneself before God. In the book of Matthew, chapter 4, verse 2, it says that Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights.
The Hamutoko family was shocked to see Merica arrive to collect one of her two cars, which her brother was operating as a taxi, while they were still grieving the breakup of their family over differing religious beliefs. The money from the business was going to his brother, his wife, and their children, as well as supporting their elderly mother since he lived closer to her than Merica. According to Mathias, their sister told them that she had a dream that her pastor had interpreted, and that is how Merica allegedly said: “God said I should give this car to our pastor to further assist him in doing the works of the Lord.”
Months later, the family was further shattered to hear that Merica had given away her other car to her new church “to serve the works of God.” She further resigned from her job to allegedly “serve God on a full-time basis” and now lives on the church premises.
“We hardly communicate, and we hear that she has further lost weight,” added her brother.
Many stories, like those of Merica and others, have been shared across Africa. Some pastors across the continent have been accused of committing crimes in their home countries and then moving to another African country where they are able to draw larger crowds of people who are desperate for spiritual miracles. In some cases, economic refugees turn church into a business and have been able to gather large crowds, becoming millionaires through the sales of church products such as “holy water,” tithes, offerings, and other revenue streams derived from their large numbers of worshippers.
One example is the well-known Malawian preacher, Shepherd Bushiri. This celebrated man of God arrived in South Africa as an economic refugee years ago and was able to start a church and self-proclaim himself as a prophet. He accumulated a lot of wealth over the years through the many branches he managed to set up not only in South Africa, Malawi, and Namibia but in many other African countries as well. He lived a life of luxury in South Africa while setting up many businesses in his home country. Reports said his net worth shot from nothing to millions of dollars, and he owned a private jet and properties. Some family members in South Africa accused Bushiri of “blinding” their relatives to the extent that they put all their earnings into the church, hoping for miracles instead of supporting their families financially.
However, things didn’t turn out well for him in the foreign African nation when South African authorities detained him and his wife, Mary, in connection with a significant money laundering case in 2020. He, his wife, and two others were at one time accused of stealing 6.6 million US dollars through theft, money laundering, and fraud in South Africa.
After being granted bail, Bushiri and his wife were able to flee South Africa and have been fugitives to date. Social media shows that Bushiri’s countrymen are right behind him, and the Bushiris continue to live a life of luxury in their home country. Some of his South African followers have been travelling to Malawi for their church’s big moments, such as the cross-over ceremony on New Year’s Eve.
Another example of Africans moving to another African country to start a church is Tim Omotoso. He is a self-proclaimed pastor from Nigeria who has a sizable following in South Africa. Young girls in his church have accused him of rape. Multiple young women testified against Omotoso in 2021 about how he lured them from the choir to his office to rape them. Some were as young as teenagers, and some of his victims said he looked like a father figure but turned them into girlfriends.
Omotoso faced 97 charges, including rape, human trafficking, and racketeering, with 47 witnesses who testified against him. Omotoso, who has been in jail since his arrest in 2017, indicated earlier this year that he believes the authorities are keeping him in jail because of his faith and plans to sue the South African state. One of his South African followers was quoted in the media as saying earlier this year that “the man of God is innocent.”
Being Africa’s most industrialised economy, South Africa has been one of the most sought-after destinations for other African immigrants who seek economic opportunities as they flee their home countries, which are mainly decorated with corruption, non-accountability, and extreme poverty, among other calamities. Some of these fellow African immigrants resort to church as South Africans, whose country is filled with extreme crime, excessive violence, and above-average use of drugs by the younger generation, among other issues, flee to these churches with the hope that their problems will be solved with “miracles.”
One such person is immigrant Alph Lukau, based in South Africa, who in 2019 went viral for his alleged powers to wake a dead man up. The viral video showed Lukau waking a dead man up from his coffin. His congregants, who seemingly believed the man died and was arisen by this “man of God,” cheered, cried, and shouted out of a seemingly joyful situation. During that time, the BBC reported that a group of funeral directors said they would sue Lukau for apparently being manipulated into being involved in what they termed a “resurrection stunt” by Lukau.
“There is no such thing as miracles,” stated the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Cultural, Religious, and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) to South Africa’s national broadcaster at the time.
While the Christian faith constitution, the Bible, has verses where Jesus resurrected the dead, the CRL Rights Commission denied the possibility of miracles.
However, Olubisi Atejioye, a Nigerian based in Australia, believes it is possible for a man of God like Lukau to raise the dead back to life. According to her, “The Bible is clear on God’s promise to give power to those who obey him. Healing power, resurrection power, and all sorts of power to perform any miracle can be given to any chosen man of God.”
“There is nothing impossible with the power of God. God can use any of His servants,” added Olubisi.
Recently, an Aljazeera investigative journalism team revealed how prominent Zimbabwean pastor Ubert Angel has been involved in illegal gold smuggling. Angel lives a flashy lifestyle, like many other African preachers who claim their luxury is God’s blessing for being his servants. In Namibia, another prominent pastor, Jackson Babi, has been arrested for being a kingpin in rhino horn poaching. He, too, lived a flashy lifestyle. His followers constantly hold prayer sessions for him to be granted bail, claiming “the devil used him”.
Controversial preachers and churches are prevalent in each African country. Some catch media attention, whereas others become part of the normal Christian lifestyle.
The former Namibian health minister warned people living with HIV/AIDS, a pandemic in Africa, not to stop taking medication because of pastors who claimed to have healed them from the disease. The disease has no scientifically proven cure to date.
In 2021, John Magufuli, the President of Tanzania at the time, declared a three-day national prayer for COVID-19, which claimed many lives across the world. At the end of the three-day national prayer, Magufuli denied any local spread of COVID-19 in his country. He discouraged the mention of the disease by health workers, rejected most conventional measures in favour of prayer, and said vaccines are dangerous without offering any evidence.