Faith and Healing

STH's Marthinus Daneel unites communities in his native Zimbabwe

November 21, 2005
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Marthinus Daneel. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky.

STH Professor Marthinus Daneel spends six months each year working for social change in Zimbabwe. Check BU Today on Wednesday for the second part of his story.

On a rainy night more than 40 years ago, Marthinus Daneel found himself fighting for an audience with a god.

Daneel, now a professor of missiology at the School of Theology, had spent two years befriending chiefs from Zimbabwe’s Shona tribes, teaching them to hunt and gaining their trust, hoping to study the secretive religion in which the will of their ancient high god Mwari is revealed through an oracle.

When Daneel’s request to speak with the oracle was granted, he traveled almost 200 miles for the privilege. But a terrible rainstorm the first night persuaded the priests that the god was displeased, and they refused Daneel access. He pleaded for a week, then gave up. Preparing to return home, he overheard some of the priests complaining about an eagle, perched nearby, that was stealing their chickens. “And there was my opportunity,” he says.

Daneel, a skilled big-game hunter, took aim at the eagle — and missed. Desperate, he reloaded, shot again as the eagle circled above, and hit it in the neck. “A total fluke,” he says. “And it fell right in front of the main priest, of all things. They sat quiet for awhile, and his brother said to him, ‘Hey, you see what this hunter does: he doesn’t take it while it’s stationary, he scares it off and then he picks it from heaven.’ And I sort of nodded wisely in agreement.”

At midnight that night, Daneel sat with his back to a cave where Mwari’s oracle was speaking. He believes that at that point he was the only white man to have heard the voice of the high god. Mwari told him, he says, that the whites were the nephews of a black ancestor and were given special privileges, but that they took too much land, and now the gods had to fight to regain their home. “I was very fortunate,” Daneel says. “The most interesting discussion I ever had came out of there.”

The experience might be a paradigm for his career. The researcher, activist, and theologian has spent decades in his native Zimbabwe learning about both traditional African religions and the growing forms of indigenous Christianity throughout the country, and he has made a practice of linking both groups to effect positive social change. He has led efforts to save the countryside from environmental devastation and to build schools and churches; since arriving at Boston University in 1994 he and Dana Robert, his wife of 10 years and an STH professor of world mission, have launched the Center for Global Christianity and Mission to broaden global views of Christianity.

Now, in what he calls the “afternoon of life,” he is focusing on using both Western and African ideas to promote HIV prevention and education. And in all things, he has been guided by the idea that communities can be united and mobilized through their shared core values, instead of divided along religious lines.

“It’s not the doctrine,” the 69-year-old Daneel insists. “It’s what goes on inside.”

Faith, interrupted

Daneel’s views on the importance of bringing diverse groups together were shaped by one of the most divisive and violent conflicts in Zimbabwe’s history: chimurenga, the bloody struggle that plagued the country throughout the 1960s and 1970s, pitting the government against rebel forces, blacks against whites, and often friends against friends. The rebellion to end white minority rule lasted from 1966 to 1980, when the country, formerly Rhodesia, became the independent Republic of Zimbabwe.

Born in Rhodesia in 1936, the child of Afrikaner parents who lived on a Dutch Reform mission station, Daneel enjoyed few of the luxuries afforded to many white colonials. His parents were not wealthy, and he grew up hunting, fishing, tending the family vegetable garden, and developing a special appreciation for what the land could provide — an appreciation, he says, that is a significant part of the region’s traditional religions. The mission itself was located near a sacred ancestral grove, where Daneel saw firsthand the importance of the earth and trees in ancestral worship.

As a young man, he studied missiology, a blend of theology and social science that explores the work of Christian missionaries, at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, and then began researching the indigenous Christian churches throughout Africa that mix ancestral worship with Bible study. Early on, his studies were hampered by the natural distrust many African church leaders felt for missionaries, but Daneel persisted and eventually distanced himself from his roots and made the African Christian churches his primary religious affiliation. His involvement in the traditional ways of life was so complete that the Gumbo tribe of Gutu formally adopted him in 1962 and named him Mafuranhunzi, “He who shoots the fly,” in recognition of his skills as a hunter.

As chimurenga escalated, the exploration and principles of inclusion that were so valuable to his work in missiology became dangerous: the Rhodesian government asked him to work as a military spy and threatened him with prison when he refused. The guerrilla forces refused to trust him, seeing him only as a white man. His work with the African churches became perilous.

His interest in traditional religions did not dissipate, however, and as the unrest and violence of chimurenga increased, destroying communities throughout the country, Daneel says he “started realizing that traditional religion was much more strong and resilient than the missionaries were thinking. And I decided to study the high god cult.”

It was a particularly challenging time, with relationships between whites and blacks rare and hazardous. To earn his audience with Mwari, Daneel had to convince the Shona chiefs that he was on their side. So he taught them how to shoot.

“For two years I hunted baboons with the local messenger to the high god cult,” he says, “which, during chimurenga is not the best thing you can do because you become suspect with the government immediately if you teach black people how to shoot. But that’s how I got into the culture more deeply.”

Hunting ultimately proved the way for Daneel to earn his audience with Mwari, and the serendipitous shooting of the eagle had a profound impact on the rest of his career. Following his midnight meeting with the oracle and eager to make use of his discoveries, he went to Holland to write for several years and published a book about the religion, The God of the Matopo Hills, in 1970.

When he returned to Zimbabwe in the 1970s, he resumed his study of the African independent churches. Chimurenga had separated him from family and friends, but the distance helped him delve further into the independent congregations, who no longer viewed him as someone affiliated with the Dutch Reform mission of his parents. And as the destruction continued, he was able to use his connections with the African Christian churches and the Shona high god believers to bring the different communities together for the rebuilding process.

Part 2: Practicing with the prophets will appear on BU Today on Wednesday.

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Faith and Healing