Just before his death in 1839, King Sobhuza I is said to have had a vision in which white-skinned people with ‘hair like the tails of cattle’ arrived in the country. With them, they carried a book and small metal disks. Sobhuza advised his counsellors to accept the book, interpreted to be the Bible, and refuse the disks, interpreted to be money. When the missionaries first arrived in 1844, the Swazi people did accept “the book” and Christianity has been at the core of Swaziland’s being ever since.
With 95% of the population associating themselves to some form of Christianity, religion in Swaziland is all pervasive and inescapable. It was on the back of this that I decided to go on an exploration into Swazi religious tradition.
The Catholic Church
As a Catholic, as I was intrigued to experience this denomination in a different cultural environment. My first stop was Don Bosco’s, where I have to admit, I was a tad disappointed. It was exactly the same as Australia: equally bad singing in an equally sombre tone by a congregation of white, English-speaking parishioners. Perhaps this was because all the Catholic Swazis were down the road at St Mary’s.
St Mary’s was much more to more liking. Mass started on African time (ie. when the bell rings sometime between 9am and midday). It was delivered in monotonous siSwati with the occasional joke from the priest that I didn’t understand but couldn’t help laughing along to. There was the ever-so-humble Sister Immaculata, who was clearly smiling when the wind changed and hasn’t stopped since. She was joined in the choir by younger Sisters wearing tight white dresses and six inch stilettos, keeping it real for God. The gift procession included 2L bottles of coca-cola, the Holy Communion was restricted to nuns only, and the offers of peace from fellow parishioners were sincere and joyful. All-in-all, a workable combination.
International Evangelical Church
A month after my arrival, I took the invitation of my helper to go with her to a service at the International Family Church. It sounded like an easy introduction to my religious mission, as it was just up the road and delivered in English. The two-hour evangelical ceremony started out with an endless string of gospel songs sung by plump women in shimmering outfits and too much taffeta. This was accompanied by boisterous electric keyboard, drums, and guitar. Based on the expansive church grounds, the church building, and the well-dressed clientele, I could tell that this Church and its pastor were doing very well for themselves financially.
When the first hour of singing was complete, it was finally time to listen to the word of God. There was no reading from the bible, however, just excerpts taken from different sections all tied together into one simple message: Surrender! Surrender! Surrender! Oh, and it was accompanied by a written test. After a whole lot more gospel singing, the service finally came to an end, but to think that I could duck away unnoticed was a rookie mistake.
As I exited the Church with my friend, I was recognised as a newbie, and whisked away to a private room where I sat alone, surrounded by six dedicated parishioners. My friend wasn’t allowed to join me. Here, they fed me an assortment of home-cooked cakes and tea, as they questioned my commitment to return to their parish. Clearly, the way to increased clientele is through their stomachs.
The African Evangelical Church
A couple of months later, I invited myself to my friend, Tanele’s church – the Bethany African Evangelical Church. This place of worship definitely had more of a traditional African flavour, being a basic brick room situated a few kilometres up a bumpy dirt track, poor and tiny in comparison to its internationally-funded neighbour “The New Hope Centre”. Before the service began, Tanele introduced me to the Pastor, a kind looking man who forgave me for making the faux pas of wearing pants rather than a skirt.
As expected, the ceremony commenced with gospel singing, belted out by a choir dressed in matching outfits (think 1980s prom), dancing home-choreographed routines, with microphones held too close to their mouths. They were accompanied by the compulsory keyboard and drums, relayed by gigantic speakers turned to full volume so that everything was just muffled din. It didn’t stop the swaying or “hands-in-the-air” actions from the congregation, though. When the power cut out briefly, and microphones and instruments had to be abandoned, it actually sounded beautiful.
When the proceedings eventually started, they were guided by an MC dressed in a blue button-up shirt with paisley collar, cuffs and tie. They went something like this (punctuated every 10 minutes by gospel songs):
1. Testimonials, where members of the congregation make their way up front to talk about their latest illness, which has been healed thanks to the glory of God (and the local clinic). There were also those who just wanted to announce the greatness of God, such as the young man who came up to praise God for making him so handsome and young…..and clearly modest.
2. Donation time, where four parishioners stood up the front holding a basket assigned a specific bequest. This day’s entries were Funerals, Electricity, Worship activities, and “Tithes”, where parishioners are expected to pay 10% of their income as tax to the Church because “the Bible says so” (I resist pointing out that they already pay 14% VAT). Parishioners must make their way to the front, assumingly so you could see who was, and wasn’t, paying their dues. In reality, all you could see was all a blur as 60+ people climbed over chairs and pushed their way to the front as some sort of mosh pit at a God concert.
3. Finally, the Pastor made his brief appearance. To begin, he invited Tanele up to the front to introduce me to the entire congregation, which she did by letting them all know I was single. Then, a young lady was invited up to announce her friend’s engagement to a geeky guy sporting a hot pink silk shirt underneath a khaki fisherman’s jacket. Imagine my excitement when she burst out into song and was joined by young men and women dancing their way to the front in a mamba line, jumping with such excitement that their knees reached their ears. The engagement was finalised with an exchange of faux bling.
4. Next came the bible reading of sorts. It wasn’t a reading as such, nor was there a reader. It was merely a single sentence from Hosea 4:6, yelled out repeatedly by anybody in the congregation who was willing. It was repeated a dozen times.
5. The final act was a pair of boys who started out doing a bad karaoke love ballad, complete with a routine that involved fingers extended toward the heavens, at the earth, and then on their heart, before morphing into hip hop, and then to R&B.
As I walked out of the Bethany AEC, the feeling was vastly different from that of the International Evangelical experience. There is something to be said for the AEC’s inclusiveness, humility, and its inherent joyfulness. You can’t help but leave with a massive big grin on your face – deaf, but happy.
Zionism – Church of the Nazarites / Shembe Church
“iBandla lamaNazaretha” is a Tea Party of a different kind. One of the Zionist churches, the Nazareth Baptist Church is the oldest African independent / indigenous Church, with around 1 million followers. Like all African Zionist churches, it is a blend of deep African tradition and Old Testament Christianity. The story goes that, after hearing the voice of God on a hillside, Isaiah Shembe briefly became a missionary before founding his own church in Harrismith, Kwa-Zulu Natal, in 1910. Shembe was known for his vivid parables, dramatic healings and uncanny insights into peoples’ thoughts.
My friends and I were invited by Babazile, one of my work colleagues, to join in on her weekly ceremony. With our heads and arms covered, wearing long skirts and wandering barefoot, we arrived at 10pm on Saturday night to a smoky fire burning inside a semi-open shed. Once seated around the fire, and not allowed to cross our ankles, we were passed old plastic containers filled with special tea made from “ancient herbs”. The tea is meant to heal you on the inside – spiritually and physically – but also has the unfortunate (or fortunate!) side effect of sending you into a trance, enabling you to speak in tongues, and providing visions….apparently. After 1.5 litres of warm, excessively sugary, herbal tea, all I felt was a dry mouth, a chronic need to pee and the early stages of diabetes.
Perhaps I just wasn’t a strong enough believer. Those around me that had been “taken” would spontaneously clap their hands, smack the ground or smack themselves. Conversations would be briefly interrupted by growling animal noises and clawing at the air, like some variation on Turret’s syndrome. Outside the shed, I could hear the laughs, wails and cries of a woman going into hysteria.
At midnight, those that could, donned their green Zionist gowns and grabbed their healing staffs to pray together under the neighbouring tree. As the night wore on, the believers began their “work” of sharing their visions and prophecies with those affected – I was spared. Finally, at 4:30am, people started to leave. I may not have had Shembe visit me that night, but I was witness to the mighty power of God, and the mind.
Zionism – Regular
The pinnacle of my spiritual enlightenment came today, on Australia Day, when I finally managed to tee up a trip to a Zion church (slightly different from the regular Aussie Day beer & barbie). Zionism, or “amaZioni” is the largest religious movement in Southern Africa and the predominant religion in Swaziland (40% of the population are followers). The church was founded in the early 1900s by an Afrikaaner faith healer (of Dutch Reformed Church origin) and a protégé sent from a Catholic Church in Zion, Illinois. By 1920, it had became entirely separated from its American version.
Ever since I arrived in Swaziland, Zionists have intrigued me. From Friday evening, and all through the weekend, the streets are filled with followers trying to hitch a ride, and are often seen crammed like sardines into the back of a ute / bakkie / pick-up truck.
You can tell they’re Zionists by their uniform – a shin-length blue, green or white belted robe (red for the even crazier brand of Zionists, the Jerichos), and a wooden staff. The uniform demonstrates equality, so that no-one can tell who is poor and who is rich. Perhaps they need to send a memo to the new-age faithful who like to incorporate a panel of rainbow colours or leopard print into their attire, much to my viewing pleasure.
Vuyisile was the wonderful person who was going to give me this experience, so with 10 of her family members piled into my 5-seater car in true Zion fashion, we made our way to the pastor’s rural homestead. The service was held in a small, 7-metre diameter thatched-roof rondavel, where 100 people had managed to squeeze in with standing room only. This meant that as I entered with Vuyisile, 200 eyes turned to stare at me in unison. In such a small space, there was nowhere to hide.
The 3-hour service itself was really rather sweet. Music featured heavily, of course, but it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the songs were rather boppy, forcing me into a bit of an on-the-spot jig. Perhaps that was more to do with the musical accompaniment…..a beat-boxing parishioner! After an hour of songs, including some singing by the Sunday School choir, the children were asked to step outside – which they did in a no holds barred stampede – making room for the adults to kneel and sit intertwined on the floor.
The first prayer involved each parishioner praying their own prayers aloud, all at once and over the top of each other. Then the congregation kindly located an English bible and read out the different passages in English for me (each time resulting in those 200 eyes again turning to stare at me), before continuing on in siSwati. After every passage, the pastor would explain its meaning in an emphatic and impassioned yell that was perhaps a little excessive in such a tiny space.
From this one experience, I got the sense that the Zion churches were slightly more grounded than their evangelical brothers – the pastor’s homily told us not to follow any pastor’s words, but only to follow God’s words. Similarly, the donation basket was only brought out at the end as a kind of after-thought, with no pressure to contribute and no eyes watching you if you did (or didn’t).
Naturally, I couldn’t attend a church ceremony in Swaziland without being singled out and although I was thanked multiple times throughout the service for my attendance (again, leading to 200 staring eyes), there was an expectation for me to say something at the end in return. God bless Vuyisile who took care of the “speech” and managed to elicit a deafening applause and little leaps of joy from the congregation. I wish I knew what she said.
As the service concluded, I felt at peace but, admittedly, was also a little disappointed that none of the crazy things I’d heard about Zionists had actually happened. Then came a miracle.
The Pastor’s wife, who had been feeling ill and faint recently, asked the congregation to pray for her. She knelt in the middle of the room and, instantly, the congregation started circling her while singing, jogging, dancing, and occasionally tapping their staffs on the ground. After 10 minutes of this, the Pastors entered the inner circle with one grabbing the woman by her head, pulling it to his torso while belting blessings to the heavens. Then he pulled her to her feet, pressed his hand to her heart, leading her to collapse into the arms of the other pastors. They got her back to a kneel, where they grabbed her arms and shoulders, roughly rocking her back and forth as a cross was made from two wooden staffs and placed against her forehead. She shrieked with hysteria as a burning candle was handed to her, while the visiting pastor prophesised (ie. “diagnosed” the problem inside her). All the while, the singing, dancing parishioners continued to circle her like vultures. Twenty minutes later, the poor woman stumbled out of the hut looking worse than when she entered.
Next came another parishioner also wanting prayers and the same thing happened again. This time, though, there was the bonus spectacle of buckets of water being poured over her in an act of cleansing / drenching. After two more attendees were prayed for in this fashion I thought that was the end.
Again, I was wrong. The entire congregation was ordered to wander down to the field where the Pastor’s wife was brought back and told to lie face-down in the long, wet grass. Using this grass, they tied her to the ground, then proceeded to build a tepee-like structure over the top of her using the followers’ wooden staffs. Pastors tightly gripped the structure and began yelling in tongues, while ash was scattered around her. The structure was then released, resulting in the staffs falling on top of her like a pile of pick-up sticks. Next, the pastors began whipping her with white cloth before she was asked to get up and “break through” the knotted grass and stick barriers. Then, it was over.
It is clear that religion holds a truly important role in the survival of this country and its people – one of hope. In Swaziland, where 70% of the population live in poverty, hope may be the only meal these people eat each day, and they devour it like an all-you-can eat buffet. While my experiences have been largely positive, the day-to-day righteousness of Christians in Swaziland does tend to leave one feeling a little queasy.
In this “God-fearing nation”, it is hard to overlook the number of self-proclaimed Christians who leave Church on a Sunday and head straight to the shabeen to drink away their family’s food money, or to have sex with one of their many girlfriends, or to rape their wife because that is their “duty”. So it is in Swaziland, at least in my opinion – a constant, hypocritical tousle between Culture and Christianity, where the laws support both and neither, and where so many actions go unscrutinised thanks to the ambiguity in between.