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Practicing with the Prophets

STH’s Marthinus Daneel unites communities in his native Zimbabwe

STH Professor Marthinus Daneel spends six months each year working for social change in Zimbabwe. Read about his childhood, his studies, and his hunting skills in part one of the story on BU Today.

When STH Professor Marthinus Daneel returned to Zimbabwe in the 1970s after fleeing the violence of chimurenga, the nation’s violent liberation struggle, the African Independent Churches Conference was his first foray into activism.

Known as Fambidzano — a word meaning cooperative — the ecumenical movement sought to unite the country’s Christian churches and mobilize them for community development. The various religious factions were deeply divided at that time, Daneel says, and some groups viewed the high god, a deity among the Shona tribes, as “the devil himself.” When they learned that Daneel — who, although not formally ordained, had been given the title Bishop Moses to honor his leadership and friendship — had spoken with the high god, they were much more receptive to dialogue and cooperation with the religion’s members. “If there was a village event where it was important to get some field plowed, then people of all religions would collaborate,” he says. “So I became very quickly attuned to the idea that patterns of ecumenism could be developed in those situations.”

When chimurenga ended in 1980, Daneel launched his next ecumenical movement: the War of the Trees. War, overpopulation, and increased trade were destroying the country’s forests at a rate of 5.7 million acres a year. The War of the Trees, which Daneel calls an “earthkeeping” effort, linked Fambidzano and the traditionalists in the replanting of sacred ancestral groves and eventually grew to include four million people. Half a million trees were planted in 1990 and 1991 alone.

When a grove was planted, each group would hold its own religious ceremony, while the other group observed. The Christians shared Holy Communion; the traditionalists would offer beer libations to their ancestors. “It was fighting for an idea,” Daneel says, “which is more than the difference in religious opinion.”

The growth and power of nontraditional Christian congregations that Daneel observed in Zimbabwe represents a global trend, says Dana Robert, BU’s Truman Collins Professor of World Mission and Daneel’s wife. “The stereotype of people is that Christianity is a Western religion, and that’s true, but that’s not the whole story,” she says. “In the late twentieth century, the biggest demographic shifts in Western Christianity have occurred. One-third of the world today is Christian, but it’s a different one-third than it was in 1900.”

AIDS is a leading social issue in Zimbabwe, where approximately one in five people has HIV. Chief among the challenges to slowing its spread are deeply held beliefs about treatment and healing that conflict with Western practices. Among practitioners of traditional religions, AIDS is viewed as the result of witchcraft, and the remedies are prayer and rituals of ancestral worship. “In reality, when there are crises, they go to the traditional doctor, and the traditional doctor is a kingpin of traditional religion,” says Daneel. “The missionaries would say, ‘No, witchcraft doesn’t exist,’ but to these people it does. The prophets [of the traditional faiths] practice faith healing, and they lay on hands, and they do heal a lot of people plagued by common diseases. There’s no two ways about it.”

Establishing a successful AIDS education program, then, requires a respectful understanding of this belief, and the new program Daneel is developing will use the schools and churches that have become part of the ecumenical movement to combine traditional healing with medical treatments. If doctors work side by side with faith healers, Daneel reasons, people may be more receptive to blood tests and antiretroviral drugs.

Daneel is moved by more than just his nation’s struggle. Eleven years ago, he lost Leonard Gono, a friend within the earthkeeping movement whom he considered an adopted son, to the virus. He discovered the stigma and ignorance that surrounds HIV as he pleaded with Leonard to have his wives tested as well and listened to the chiefs and prophets talk about healing rituals and witchcraft. And he decided, once again, that people needed to put aside their doctrinal differences for the good of the community.

Launching any kind of activist movement is complicated in Zimbabwe, which is beset by corruption. Daneel has witnessed the way a successful movement can quickly collapse because of missing or misused funds; the War of the Trees was disbanded a few years ago after more than a decade of replanting.

He perseveres out of faith in the Christian principles that have helped him unite so many different factions and serve them in so many different capacities. He began his career as a missionary of sorts, but never approached his work with the idea that his own beliefs were right and those of others were wrong.

“I was not trying to convert them,” he says. “I was trying to share with them some of my own understanding of the Christian message. That way, you are both learning from them and also giving them something of what you have.

“And you know,” he adds, “that has worked very well.”