Demon possession, healings are common beliefs in Africa

The Christian Chronicle, 4 May 2010, Erik Tryggestad

Isaac Daye remembers watching the young woman writhe in agony.  “She’s jerking. She’s shaking. She’s moving. … I had to hold her head,” said Daye, an African missionary in Gambia, a tiny nation in West Africa where most people profess Islam as their faith. The woman’s parents, both Muslim, had taken their daughter to traditional healers, but to no avail. Desperate, they brought her to the Church of Christ minister and asked him to pray for her. 

For Daye, the woman’s convulsions weren’t as scary as what happened next. She went limp and collapsed on his office floor.


Silently, the minister pleaded with God.


“Father, would you allow her to die here in my house? That would be a disgrace. … I beg you at least, Father, just let her get up and go home!”


After another round of convulsions, the woman sat up and asked for a glass of water. Daye brought her two — and recommended that she seek medical treatment.


Coping with demon possession is part of the job for Daye and many of his fellow ministers. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life shows that many Africans — even those who consider themselves Christian or Muslim — experience their faith in an intense, personal way.


In several countries, 3 in 10 respondents said they have experienced a divine healing, witnessed the devil being driven out of a person or received a direct revelation from God, according to the study. On the average, more than 60 percent of professed Christians believe Jesus will return during their lifetime.


“Most Africans tend to be ‘today’ thinkers,” said Shawn Tyler, an American who has worked for nearly 30 years in East Africa and currently helps equip churches in Uganda. “Additionally, Africans with animistic roots tend to see themselves as capable of solving personal problems through the use of witchcraft or a powerful God.”


In Mozambique, some Muslim imams sell magical services for those seeking luck or blessings, said missionary Alan Howell. “A common practice here is to write down verses from the Quran, put them in water and then drink that water to receive a blessing,” Howell said.


Divine healing and exorcism are characteristic of traditional African religions. They’re also common among Africa’s charismatic Christian groups, including Pentecostal churches.


Churches of Christ have grown substantially in Africa in the past century. The continent now has more than 1 million members and has surpassed the U.S. in number of congregations.


But that growth pales in comparison to Pentecostalism. About a quarter of all Christians in four sub-Saharan countries — Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria — belong to Pentecostal denominations, as do at least 1 in 10 Christians in eight other countries, according to the Pew study.


Several Church of Christ ministers in Africa told The Christian Chronicle that they’ve lost members to charismatic churches. Willie Gley, a missionary in Ghana and Togo, said some Africans attend Churches of Christ on Sunday mornings and go to Pentecostal services for divine healing on Friday nights.


In the Central African Republic, some Christian denominations preach a gospel of prosperity, claiming a life of faith leads to earthly riches, said Worlanyo Bor, a Ghanaian missionary in the nation’s capital, Bangui.


Education, through correspondence courses, radio programs and ministry training schools, is vital to save Africans from exploitation, he said.


Ministers and missionaries also must engage Africa’s traditional beliefs, Howell said.


“Appreciating the animistic understanding of the powers should radically shape how we evangelize as a church,” he said. “When I teach about the cross, I talk about how Jesus has defeated the powers of sin, death and Satan and that we don’t need to live under the fear of witchcraft and demon possession anymore.”


Africa “is a power environment,” Daye said. “Everybody is looking for some power. So how can you take a powerless religion to the African man and expect him to believe in it?”


“In terms of me possessing apostolic miraculous power, I don’t have the ability,” the minister added. “But I believe in a God who has miraculous power … who, at his own will, can decide to do anything.”



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