The latest act by the Minister of Religious Affairs and National Guidance Reverend Godfridah Sumaili only confirms that she lacks common analytical understanding of what religion is, and what it is all about. Some circles of the Zambian enterprise are wondering whether there are any technocrats in her team of experts at the Ministry that could help her analyse issues with a diversity of thought and consideration.
Sumaili’s latest stunts of not letting the Elders of the Zambezi Valley pay homage and consult the Nyami Nyami in whom they believe is appalling. The Elders are ready to challenge the droughts that have affected the Zambezi River, and ultimately the country’s energy sector, which is in slumber and needs an electric shock to wake up. The Elders of the Zambezi Valley have asked though the Ministry of Religious Affairs and National Guidance if they could be allowed to implore the Nyami Nyami and ask for guidance on challenging the drought that has hit the area, but have been denied a go ahead. The Nyami Nyami, the God of the Zambezi River is believed to protect the local people in the Zambezi Valley and give them sustenance in difficult times such as droughts and starvation.
A day of National Prayers should not only be limited to one religious group alone, as Zambia is a multi-religious country and we are all conscious of this, unless we want to pretend and take a populist political stance of continuing to ignore other religions like the African Traditional Religions (ATRs). Therefore, concerted efforts from different religious players must be upheld in times of need, and times of distress like these, when we need whatever Gods we can call upon for help. When Fredrick Chiluba appended his signature to the country’s legislature to declare Zambia a Christian Nation, he was cognisant of other religions existing in our midst. As a result, he declared, Zambia a Christian Nation, but with tolerance to other religions, that includes ATRs. Fredrick Chiluba himself was a staunch believer in both Christianity and ATR, of which both played a role as regards his death and burial rites. Chiluba’s body was taken to Church for the final prayers before burial, which is following in his Christian beliefs. However, a post-mortem could not be performed on his remains following his staunch ideologies in ATR, as advised by an elderly family member. This is a gesture that was accepted by everyone, including Government and the Church.
Mythologies like the Nyami Nyami should be given space to co-exist with other religions and local communities, as long as the believers in that ideology are convinced that it exists and influences their ways of living. Belief is something very personal, and should never be rebuked by using another belief that seems superior to the other. The Jesus and the Nyami Nyami mythologies both border on personal beliefs and conformity to one’s social space, thus none should be superior to the other.
Unfortunately, the Jesus mythology was plucked from another cultural space and context, and used wrongly as ‘the gospel’ to declare the superiority of Western value systems in most parts of Africa. This was done while demonising the ATRs as dark rituals while portraying Africa as a religious tabula rasa without any prior religion before western ‘civilisation’. What is universal in all societies under the Sun is that no society has ever existed without religion or without God, or something they believe in as superior to humanity. This view is against the common perception advanced by the early missionaries that colonised the African mind and found Africa to be without any form of religion, and way detached from God.
The aforementioned position still exists in most colonised African minds, and unfortunately, it has moved to another level of ‘Christian Papaism’ where the poor Africans are exploited in the name of the Gospel according to the Christian doctrines. This kind of exploitation of the poor in society will just be changing in form and strategy unless critical thought and action is engaged through a deliberate decolonisation process. A deliberate decolonisation process that could counter the human consequences resulting from the control and abuse of the colonised mind and ways of living. Suddenly, Africa has filthy rich Gospel giants feeding on the poor colonised minds in the name of the Jesus Mythology. Unless institutions like the Ministry of Religious Affairs and National Guidance, organises their affairs, and act with critical thinking and take control, religious confusion and misunderstanding in Zambia, and Africa generally will prevail. This application of critical thought to the way of living by the institutions in charge, such as the Ministry of Religious Affairs and National Guidance will give back what Christianity and other foreign religions have taken away from Africans. That is to say, ATRs, which were, and still are a functional and useful apparatuses in the daily lives of African societies.
Just like the Mutomboko, Likumbi Lya Mize, Shimunenga, Incwala and the Kuomboka events, to mention but a few, the Nyami Nyami mythology falls within the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), which is an important factor in maintaining cultural and religious diversity in the face of growing ‘glocalization’. UNESCO recognises and upholds all these heritages for the benefit of the future generations despite attempts by the colonial powers to demonise and eliminate them. Behind all the aforementioned events that includes the Makishi and the Gule Wamkulu fames etc, there is a host of ATR rites that must be understood, and appreciated without being demonised and rebuked by using another mythology. An understanding of the ICH applications of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life. The harmony between tribal factions in different public occupations such as politics could actually be encouraged through mutual acceptance and practice of various ICH programmes. Thus, Sumaili’s lack of understanding of such ICH programmes within local communities in Zambia, and instead intimidating the believers is quite unfortunate. If anything, the Zambian school syllabus in Religious Education, and other Social Sciences should focus more on such important local resources than romanticising foreign material day in, day out.
For as long as Zambia remains in Africa, its people shall appreciate a unique African identity and culture embodied through religious diversity. After all, religion is culture, and culture is religion. Religion is part of the fibre of society, hence it is deeply ingrained in social life, and it is impossible to isolate and treat it as a different phenomenon from culture. That is where the colonised African mind misses the point, when it separates religion from sociocultural norms obtaining in the daily lives. For example, when members of a family or clan gather together to perform some traditional customs in relation to a wedding or funeral, that is in itself a religious activity already, but a colonised mind takes it otherwise, as just a traditional custom. The Asians such as the Chinese and the Japanese rejected the Jesus mythology, and are doing just fine in their own understanding and practice of religion, as the backbone of their culture. It is common knowledge that Asia’s resistance to western culture and religious imperialism has led to their breakthrough in today’s advancement in technology and global economy. Thus, in Zambia, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and National Guidance should be converted to the Ministry of Religious and Traditional Affairs since the two entities are not inseparable. The National guidance aspect is a responsibility of every Ministry as regards their roles, and as established in the Ministry’s protocols. I. e the Ministry of Defence will guide the Nation on defence issues, while the Ministry of Education will guide the Nation on issues bordering on Education etc.
That said, today, 18th October should be a day of National Prayer for all the religions that exist in Zambia. The day should not only be accorded to the Christians, but to all that believe in whatever God or gods they embrace. Let the Elders of the Zambezi Valley pay homage to the Nyami Nyami and ask for the rains and a good harvest. After all, in whichever way the prayers are done, whether in the Stadium, the Church, the Mosque, the Synagogue, at State House or at the Kariba Dam, there is no tangible evidence that the prayers are answered or not, it all dwells on the personal beliefs of the individuals involved in the prayers. So, let everyone participate without any intimidation or demonisation. Let the Nyami Nyami be consulted too. Zambezi River is the backbone of the Zambian life and living, let it flow, let the Gods of the Zambezi River act now. Amen!
By Kabanda Mwansa
The author is a Zambian social commentator and PhD research fellow in the faculty of social sciences at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences