Healing Africa

Anthropology student looks at women's involvement in spiritual healing.
December 1, 2009

When Christy Schuetze joined the Peace Corps in 1998 and set off for Mozambique to teach English, people familiar with Africa warned her: “Be careful, you’ll never come back.”

“I didn’t take them seriously,” Schuetze confides. The first year was tough; the second a little easier. At the end of her two-year commitment, she stayed another year and worked for an anthropologist interviewing spirit mediums about their healing practices. As a research assistant in Africa, she traveled more and got to learn the local language. “The first year I wasn’t really able to find my place,” she says. “The longer I was there, the deeper the bonds were that I formed with people. The last year was my favorite because I was comfortable, and I had made a lot of friends, and I felt at home.”

Schuetze did come back, but only to enroll as a Ph.D. student in anthropology, take classes and then return once more to Africa for two more years, this time to do fieldwork for her dissertation. She also spent two summers in Mozambique doing pre-dissertation research.

While she was an English teacher there, Schuetze noticed a rapid growth in Pentecostalism. “It was really startling,” she says. “You could see new churches being constructed and pastors going to church on Sunday wearing suits and ties and carrying bibles.” As a research assistant, she was coming into contact with a rapidly growing number of spirit mediums. There were not only more of them—mostly female—but they were working with different types of illnesses than mediums had treated in the past.

"Using these different spiritual and religious frameworks, women are gaining greater control of their households and maintaining kin relations through participation in rapidly growing networks of social and spiritual healing." – Christy Schuetze

For her dissertation fieldwork, Schuetze did lots of archival research, conducted plenty of interviews and, as a participant observer, took part in many healing ceremonies carried out by members of the Pentecostal churches and by spirit mediums.

Spirit mediums in Mozambique have a special connection to individual spirits. When someone suffers from a physical illness or some other misfortune, such as divorce, feuding or loss of crops or livestock, family members consult with a spirit medium to find the cause, which is thought of as some unresolved dispute with someone from the spirit world. “Physical and social illnesses are understood to be caused by a spirit that is unsettled or angry,” Schuetze explains. “The spirit causes problems as a form of communication of displeasure to the family. Healing is really about resolving these conflicts between the living and deceased.” The whole family becomes involved with a spirit medium who, using song, calls down the spirits to speak through a family member. The spirit can then convey its unhappiness, and the family can work out some way of healing its relations with the aggrieved spirit.

In the past, most intrusions from the spirit world came from familiar ancestral spirits. In the wake of the country’s 16-year civil war (1976-1992), poverty has increased dramatically as have tensions unleashed by economic development programs. Interview subjects report a sharp upswing in the frequency and severity of disease due in part to the intensifying AIDS epidemic. “A lot of the spirits believed to be causing trouble now are young people who were killed during the war,” Schuetze says. “These vengeful spirits return to cause trouble to the families and descendants of the person responsible for killing them. It’s pretty clear that this new class of spirits corresponds to a different type of suffering that is more intense and harder to deal with than in the past.”

Schuetze also studied healing in the Pentecostal churches. She joined one congregation and took part in regular meetings and worship services with its women’s group. She notes that it is mostly women who are driving the rapid growth of the churches. Healing activities are an integral part of worship and church social gatherings. Believers still see illness and misfortune as the work of spirits but think of them as demons and thus denounce the work of spirit mediums as dealing with the devil. The churches view those afflicted with sickness and hardship as having somehow strayed as individuals from the faith. Healing comes through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, who is called down by prayer and the laying on of hands.

Although spirit mediums and Pentecostal churches have deep differences in how they see the spirit world intervening in the daily lives of people, they both are drawing and connecting large numbers of women struggling to manage lives of extreme poverty and vulnerability. Within their families, spirit mediums assume greater authority—even more than their husbands—and both groups of women gain access to a larger measure of material resources and a supportive community. In Mozambique, “women are searching for stability,” Schuetze observes. “Using these different spiritual and religious frameworks, women are gaining greater control of their households and maintaining kin relations through participation in rapidly growing networks of social and spiritual healing.” Even if Western feminists wouldn’t recognize it as empowering, Schuetze adds, “in their efforts to transform misfortune into wellbeing, women’s actions are, in effect, leading to real transformation in society that increase women’s power over their life situations.”

Now back on campus, Schuetze spends a lot of time sitting in her apartment and writing her dissertation. “It’s kind of isolating,” she says. “It’s hard to meet neighbors, and it’s hard to feel like I’m part of a larger community. I think that’s why I keep going back. I feel like they’ve made me part of their family, and I consider them to be part of my family. It feels like home, I guess.”