It is Judgment Night in Harare. I have just had dinner with friends who are both bemused and amused that I plan to spend an entire evening with the popular Pentecostal pastor, Prophet Emmanuel Makandiwa. My friend JP tells me a joke that he says will get me in the spirit. “So Satan leaps out at a little old woman who is hard of hearing.
“I am Satan,” he says.
“I do not hear you, my son,” she says.
“I said I am Satan, the Devil, Beelzebub!’’
“I am sorry, my son. I am afraid my ears are no longer what they were,’’ she says.
“I am the Prince of Darkness!’’ he thunders.
“Oh you mean you are with ZESA, you are with the electricity company?’’ she says.
Like the best jokes, it is funny because it is true. The country’s electricity company ZESA is now a purveyor of darkness.
But tonight, on Judgment Night, there is electricity all over Harare.
Makandiwa is the head of a church called the United Family International Ministries. He commands large followings. He heals the sick. He casts out demons. He prophesies. He has applied for a licence to start a newspaper. He makes money appear miraculously in people’s bank accounts. Women lose weight at his touch.
The National Sports Stadium is well lit against the night sky. At the time that the Chinese built it in the 80s, it was considered a white elephant: too big, too fancy, and too expensive. Who would fill it? It turns out the answer is Makandiwa. The stadium is filled beyond capacity. Newspaper reports the next day will blast the headlines: ‘‘100 000 attend Judgement Night.’’ There are all ages here. A special section has been set aside for more than a hundred men and women in wheelchairs. A film plays as the crowds take their places, showing Makandiwa healing the sick and casting out demons. A woman’s voice fills the stadium, ‘‘every disease bows down to the power of God and the name of Jesus. The man of God has authority over principalities, demons and evil forces. The Man of God heals all illnesses: HIV, overdue pregnancies, asthma, and cancers.’’
In the film, Prophet Makandiwa places his microphone on the belly of a girl in jeans. She spins and turns on the ground.
‘‘See what the Lord has done,’’ says the voiceover. ‘‘Is not Jesus awesome?’’
On the stage, dancers perform to a song of Christian words set to Congolese rhumba. With humour and skill, they simulate a Makandiwa healing session. They somersault and leap in frenzy. Then the Man of God appears on the stage. With him is a large entourage of bodyguards and church people. He is good looking, tall and thin, and is nattily dressed in a white waistcoat, black shirt and shoes, and a grey suit. Two rows from me, a woman in a black skirt and boots begins to shake. When Makandiwa speaks into the microphone, she bursts into loud sobs.
‘‘Tonight,’’ he says, ‘‘your story will change.’’ The crowd roars its approval. ‘‘If you have come with enough faith, this night will end your miserable life. Tonight, Jesus will heal the sick. There will be freedom from bondage.’’
Not even a church service is exempt from the Zimbabwean love for protocol. The Prophet salutes the ministers present, all from ZANU-PF, calling them ‘‘men that God has called from the world of politics.’’
A reading follows, from the twelfth chapter of Exodus. Pharaoh’s heart has been hardened and he refuses to let God’s people go. The Angel of Death passes over Egypt, killing each first-born child. Where the blood of the lamb has been placed above the door, the Angel of Death passes over.
The Prophet preaches. ‘‘Those fathers of first-born sons who were themselves first born also died that night.’’ He turns to the Second Book of Kings and the First Book of Peter. ‘‘Christianity is different from all other religions,’’ he says. ‘‘Christianity is not a religion. Religion is man’s way of trying to find God. Christianity is God’s way of trying to find man.
‘‘It is God’s plan that you do not suffer. Consider Adam. He saw that he was naked and made for himself a suit of leaves. But God said to him, no, I want you to wear skins of leather. Think about it. God wanted Adam to wear leather. He wants you to be dressed in good clothes.’’
‘‘Horaiti,’’ says the woman behind me. ‘‘Horaiti.’’
‘‘God does not want you to be a lodger, to be a tenant. The Israelites stayed for more than 400 years as lodgers in another people’s home. And God caused miracles for them to leave. He wanted his people to be in the land of milk and honey, like he wants you, his people, to in your own land of milk and honey. He wants each of you to have your own things. They ask me, how can Makandiwa make the whole nation rich? I say to you, not the whole nation. I mean just you who have come here.’’
‘Shall I prophesy?’’ says the Prophet.
‘‘Prophesy,’’ says the crowd.
‘‘I see Gareth. Gareth Chitate.’’
High above Bay 21, a bustle breaks out. A man and woman run down the stairs and onto the stage, the man holding a child. ‘‘He is our son,’’ says the father.
‘‘Your life is about to change. I see a serious financial deal open for you. Someone is going to call you and give you serious business. I will give you the name of the person later and tell you how much you are going to get.’’
‘‘I receive,’’ weeps Gareth’s mother.
‘‘Thank you, Man of God,’’ says her husband.
A woman in a pink headscarf runs up to the stage.
‘‘Mai Nyakabawo, do we know each other?’’
‘‘No, Man of God.’’
‘‘It is important that we explain to people. This is not TV this is live.’’
‘‘Horaiti!’’ says the woman behind me. ‘‘Life!’’
He tells her that her house is at a corner, near a car park. There is a kitchen unit that she keeps outside because there was no room for it in the house. She says yes.
‘‘Mai Nyakabawo, next Tuesday, you must not sleep. At 9 past 3 in the morning, there will be a burglary at your house. People will break into your house, I will give you the serial numbers of what will be stolen, who the thieves are and where you can find them.’’
The Prophet turns to the crowd. ‘‘A warning to thieves everywhere. Before you steal, check the church of your victim.’’
‘‘I receive,’’ shouts the crowd.
‘‘Thank you, Jesus!’’ says Mai Nyakabawo.
‘‘I now call a woman called Christine,’’ says the Prophet.
Thirteen Christines scramble down the bays. More Christines make their way and run across the ground. A woman in jeans and a pink shirt reaches the platform first.
‘‘Wait, wait,’’ says the Prophet. ‘‘I have not finished prophesying. I smell something like paraffin; perhaps this Christine works in a garage.’’
A trailing Christine screams and almost collapses. She runs up to the platform. ‘‘My surname is Paraffin. I am Christine. I am Christine.’’
‘‘God is going to comfort you Christine. Your husband’s family is persecuting you. When he died they blamed you for his death.’’
‘‘I see three dead bodies,’’ adds the Prophet. ‘‘Who are Jethro, Stephanie and Anna, Anna something?’’
‘‘Anotida,’’ weeps Christine. ‘‘She is my daughter, they are my children.’’
‘‘I see them lying dead before you, the results of your enemies, the work of your husband’s family. But we shall cancel that. We shall cancel that. You shall touch God this year.’’
He calls for prayer. The prayers build into a wall of sound in the stadium. People walk up and down, bodies shaking.
Others jump on the same spot, shaking their fists. Faces are twisted in concentration.
On the large screen, the Minister of Tourism has his eyes closed and his hands up as his lips move in prayer.
The master of ceremonies prays into the microphone in tongues. The man in front of me repeats the same words over and over. “Swords of fire. Swords of fire. Let him be destroyed. Let him be destroyed.”
“We serve a miracle-working God,” says the Prophet.
A woman called Stella is called up. She will be blind by November, says the Prophet, but he can forestall her blindness.
“Shout Holy Ghost,” he says.
“Holy Ghost,” echoes the stadium.
“They call us prosperity preachers, but persecution is God’s plan, not poverty. He prophesied persecution for his children, not poverty. Who punishes their child by denying them food and shelter? Why should God punish you in that way? God takes pleasure in the prosperity of his people. Poverty is a demon! We are going to cast it out!”
The Swords of Fire man mutters, “Poverty is not my portion. Poverty is not my portion.”
“Poverty is a spirit; you cannot defeat it with education,” says Makandiwa. He calls up two men, directors of a company called Stammers Solution. “You are about to lose your company,” he tells them. “You have not been faithful in your tithing. I see you in debt. You will lose your equipment. If you don’t tithe, how can God bless you? The Bible says God wants his tithe. Chegumi chake. He wants his tithe.”
He turns back to the crowd and introduces Prophet Uebert Angel of Christ Embassy Ministries.
“May your house be found. May your car be found. May your marriage be found. God reveals in order to redeem,” says Prophet Angel.
Prophet Angel calls two young men forward.
To the first he says, “You were offered a place at Bindura University but you ended up at the University of Zimbabwe.” To the second he says, “Your prosperity ended in 2001 when you failed your exams.”
He makes a sudden move towards them. As though propelled by the force of his movement, they fall back and down to the ground.
“You will prosper,” says Prophet Angel. “Without even one subject that you pass. You will profit because God has sent you a prophet called Makandiwa. With Makandiwa you will rise.”
The two pastors now move through the crowd, placing hands and praying over people they pick from the crowd. A man with a bandage on his bent leg limps before the Prophets. The Prophet Angel places his sleekly shod foot on the bandaged one. The bandaged man shakes. As the Prophet moves his foot away, the bandaged leg straightens. The crowd gasps its approval. The woman in front of me who wept at the sound of Makandiwa’s voice collapses and faints.
Back on the platform, the Prophet Angel speaks into the microphone again. “I can see your wedding. I can see your Benz.”
The crowd goes wild. Prophet Makandiwa takes over. “I command every animal and every creature to die. Any evil creature that flies. Anything that creeps. The demonic network system over this country, I am shutting it down. All those relatives who are eating people, those women who are riding jackals in the night. I am shutting it all down in Jesus’ name.”
“Yes,” roars the crowd.
“I command your enemy to die. Die, in the name of Jesus.”
“Die,” answers the crowd.
“Die,” says Makandiwa,
“Die,” screams the crowd.
“Be buried in the name of Jesus.”
“To the cross-border traders, I say to you that you shall prosper. To the market women, your tomatoes shall not rot. They shall be sold before you even order them. Your God is a God of silver and gold.”
“I prophesy to you that you shall make it in this life. Your enemy shall die before the morning. They say love your enemy. Where in the Bible does it say that? Love your neighbour as you love yourself, says the Bible. Pray for your enemies. But it does not say how you should pray for your enemies. It does not say you should not curse your enemy. Even if you bless them, your blessings will kill them. God’s mercy has no limit.”
“You shall have a thousand workers below you.
“Every shop will be run by a Christian. It is now your turn to eat.”
“Tapinda tapinda,” says the woman who had fainted.
“Have a party when you get home,” says Makandiwa.
The stadium erupts as Makandiwa leaves the stage. The thousands who kept faith with him through the night now throw their jackets and jerseys and hats into the air and catch them again. As music blares from the speakers they break into the zora butter dance, thousands of arms moving as one pair.
Dawn is breaking over Harare. The night is over. As I contemplate the emptying stadium, I think of Naipaul’s Mr Biswas, always on the lookout for a situation he could describe with the words; “Extraordinary scenes were witnessed when . . .”
These are extraordinary scenes.
I had not expected to like Makandiwa, and yet I find I do. He is charismatic and clever. He has a wonderful ability to blend different passages to focus on his point. He has that quality that is called folksiness in American politicians, the ability to speak to people in their language. Moses of the Ten Commandments becomes Mhoze, like a million township Mhozes. He weaves in narratives that his audience of everyday people can relate to. He takes seriously the world of the spirits, casting out demons, denouncing witches.
His message appeals to the young and poor, like the young man with no O levels. What is he to do, in a country that gives no second chances? How is he to cope, in a nation that places such a premium on education that even the simple job of a messenger or driver requires 5 O levels?
As I look round the now empty stadium and imagine that it was filled just forty minutes ago, I find myself filled with awe for Makandiwa’s power. At the same time, I am filled with horror for the message that he preaches. A memory comes to me as I walk across the stadium. My then six-year- old son and I read together the story of the Exodus. When we came to the twelve plagues, and to the slaughter of the first-borns, he asked me, “Why is God mean and evil?”
“The Bible says you should love your neighbour and pray for your enemy” says Makandiwa. “It does not say what kind of prayer. I say to you curse, you enemy.”
This not gentle Jesus, meek and mild, this is not the Jesus who said turn the other cheek. This is Jesus at war. The crowd saying die, die, die, over and over again comes back to me. It is a message that appeals to the crudest side of human nature, the side that seeks to blame others for misfortune, a side that glories in revenge and spite.
I wonder what the man in front of me was praying for. Those swords of fire, swords of fire. Who were they meant to smite? Who were they praying against, all these people? Who is it that they saw standing in their way?
In the nine hours that Makandiwa talked, there was no talk of kindness, or love for fellow man. No compassion or empathy. No giving to the needy. Just salvation, and a transactional sort of salvation at that.
At the same time, I cannot help but be impressed by the simplicity of his message of prosperity: your house, your car, your marriage. These are simple human desires that all human beings share, shelter, transport, and love. He is not offering wild riches, but simple things, transport, shelter, a man and a woman to love. This is a prosperity that means contentment.
And yet these are things – at least the first two — that could be achieved with a proper ordering of government priorities. Poverty and want stalk the land. If Zimbabwe had not descended into its decade-long economic crisis, would Makandiwa and Angel command the followings they have? Perhaps this is all that their followers are praying for: an end to living a life of want, an end to corruption, an end to inequity and injustice.
Perhaps to Makandiwa’s flock, to the hundred thousand who turned out tonight, to the lodgers and market women, the cross-border traders and school drop-outs, the Man of God represents their best hope for a more humane future. Perhaps for them, he represents a more realistic future than that offered by the serving government. Perhaps prosperity means nothing more than the absence of want. And perhaps their clinging to the gospel of prosperity is their only means of control against an unkind fate, their only foothold against uncertainty and poverty.
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