(Nieman Fellow, Associate Editor The Daily Maverick)
Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo and one of Africa's largest cities, can be chaotic and terrifying-not only for most Congolese, but even for the Kinois, as Kinshasa's residents are known. A former colonial outpost that has grown into a burgeoning metropolis, Kinshasa is "modern" in many ways, but still fails to deliver on promises to its poorer citizens. To access services that the state and the city do not offer, the Kinois frequently turn to religious movements that have filled the vacuum left by the state. Many people rely on their church bonds to survive-and sometimes even to prosper. Key among the Congolese churches are the various Kimbanguist movements and the church that is directly descended from the original movement's founder, Simon Kimbangu.
Born in 1887, Simon Kimbangu was a devout Baptist catechist who received a divine vision to preach and heal. However, he was not allowed to use his powers of prophecy and healing, nor become a fully ordained preacher-racism in the churches followed the lead of the colonial state. He left the Baptists and began his own ministry.
On April 6, 1921, he was meeting with his disciples when a woman approached him and told him that her daughter had died. Kimbangu is said to have resurrected the dead child. Word of his powers spread rapidly in the lower reaches of the Congo River basin. The flood of thousands of Congolese to his rural home area was so massive that the Belgians feared the economy, based on cheap labour, would collapse. His message also disturbed the church and colonial authorities. He spoke of a spiritual liberation from the oppression of colonialism. Kimbangu claimed that as God's prophet he could unlock the secrets of Christianity that gave the Europeans their wealth and power.
The movement grew and took on Messianic and nationalist overtones. Kimbangu was deemed a political threat, and within two months of his emergence he was arrested. A Belgian military tribunal charged him with sedition and sentenced him to death. This was commuted to life and one hundred and twenty lashes. He was imprisoned in Lubumbashi, thousands of kilometres east of his headquarters at N'Kamba village. The authorities clamped down on the movement and deported more than 150,000 of Kimbangu's followers. Kimbanguists were also refused care at hospitals, and mission schools expelled their children. In response, they started their own schools and health facilities. The church went underground, led first by Kimbangu's wife and then his son, and his followers increased, spreading beyond the BaKongo ethnic group.
Kimbangu died in 1951 after 30 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. Kimbanguism, however, flourished. There are now some 17 million Kimbanguists worshipping throughout central Africa. However, only relatively few, between one and three million, follow the mother church. Hundreds of sects arose after Kimbangu's death, all claiming him as their spiritual father. Many of the sects contest the way the prophet's family created a religious dynasty at N'Kamba, following the re-interment of Simon Kimbangu's body there in 1960, and charge them with corrupting Kimbangu's message.
Once an anti-establishment movement, Kimbanguism became the de facto state religion under Mobutu Sésé Seko after independence. Armchairs were reserved for the dictator and his wife at the N'Kamba church, which aped the structure of the ruling party all the way down to the identity cards they issued.
The Zairian doctrine of authenticity sat well with the church, as much of it reflected their belief systems. In the same way that Mobutu reinvented the very character of the Congolese as Zairians, so Kimbangism reinvents a new universe through a puritanical Africanism that denies any magic, polygamy, drinking, or witchcraft. This belief system was initiated by Kimbangu, who believed that his home village of N'Kamba was the Garden of Eden and that Adam and Eve were black. Yet, blacks had been excluded from the wealth and power of the industrial revolution because of original sin, and that original sin was the belief in witchcraft.
The 37,000-capacity temple that now stands on the holy mountain at N'Kamba was built with the help of ordinary believers once the church was unbanned. They carried rocks and stones several kilometres to the site. At the same time as the building program, Kimbanguist followers went to strenuous efforts to maintain the environmental surrounds of the village. A number of sacred trees and groves, important sites in Kimbangu's own ministry, were preserved. This material dimension is thus an important aspect of the movement. N'Kamba is seen as holy ground by the Kimbanguists and, as such, shoes are always removed around the village complex: a sign of respect not only for the prophet and his God, but also for the very land on which he walked.
Among the many Kimbanguist sects, one finds far more humble churches than N'Kamba, often just a yard shaded by corrugated iron. In one of these churches, a service began with a pastor praying to each of the four compass directions, asking for power for the black people. North is to the red people's power, the Moslems; East is the black people represented by Kimbangu; West is to the yellow people; and finally the South is to Jesus Christ and the white man's power.
Key within the churches are the powerful female Révélatrices. These women are mediums for the spirits. They prophesy and heal. The senior Révélatrice calls sick members of the community into a rear yard for a healing. Here, she prays and lays hands on them, splashing water on their faces. In the case of a young boy, tears rolling silently out of the corners of his eyes, she simply lays her hands on his head and moves on; his condition and healing a mystery.
The Révélatrices retreat into the background when the spiritual leader Kimbondo Nledi Mponda Mpadi takes over. He has the power to cast out demons, cure the ill and detect witchcraft. The spirit guides him through the throng and chooses those who need healing or exorcism. The prophet doesn't remember any of the revelations he receives while invaded by the spirit, so an assistant hands him a notebook in which he scrawls symbols that are later interpreted. Then the spirit moves the prophet to the gate of the yard where he and a senior Révélatrice pray wildly, watched silently by non-church members from the street outside.
"In the frenetic pursuit of survival, churches within the larger Kimbanguist movement offer emotional, spiritual, and fraternal succor."
In the frenetic pursuit of survival, churches within the larger Kimbanguist movement offer emotional, spiritual, and fraternal succor. The churches try to offer an ideal and alternate civic life that a failed state like the Democratic Republic of Congo cannot deliver-hospitals, schools, and social services. While the Utopian garden city of N'Kamba perhaps does not offer all it might as a buttress against the world, it, and the thousands of more modest sanctuaries, do offer hope of a better Earthly life.