Prophecies of suffering, forgetfulness and recognition: The Kimbanguist Church in Angola and Lisbon

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Prophecies of suffering, forgetfulness and recognition: The Kimbanguist Church in Angola and Lisbon
Ramon Sarró

Institute of Social Sciences

University of Lisbon

The anthropological study of Christianity in Africa is marked by a paradox. While a huge body of literature and theories in the sixties and seventies connected emerging forms of Christianity in colonial contexts with political oppression and liberation, in fact the Christian imagination has revealed to be much more creative and innovative in post-colonial times than during the colony, and churches do not cease to appear, grow and diversify today (nor does oppression end, of course, but it appears to be less relevant in the theoretical frameworks). Indeed, African and other southern parts of the earth have become reservoirs of Christianity. This had led to, on the one hand, new paradigms in the study of African Christianity (most notably those of Comaroff and their followers, linking new forms of Christianity to the emergence of millennial capitalism, neoliberalism, youth exclusion, politics of blame; see, for instance, Comaroff and Comaroff 2000), and, on the other hand, to the emergence of a new focus of interest that moves away from the sociopolitical context of origin and focus rather on the new paths of transnational dissemination (Bruijn, Foeken & van Dijk 2001).
Indeed the particularities of the globalised Christianity of the twentieth century have created a situation where, as historian Philip Jenkins has argued, ‘the average Christian of today lives in the Congo or in Brazil’ (2002, see also 2004, 2007) or, as Grace Davie explains, as far as religious goes Europe is today ‘the exception’ (2002). If, on the one hand, we cannot deny the importance of the Christian ‘institution’ in the promotion of colonial subjects outside the metropolis, it is also true that this subjectivity is travelling in the inverse direction (towards Europe) and redefining senses of tradition, belonging and even citizenship. Thus, a ‘southernised’ Christianity returns to the place it originally came from, in most cases composed by former colonial subjects that are today postcolonial citizens living with a composite heritage: a global Christianity, a local culture and a complex historical relationship with Portugal and the other side of the Atlantic, a migration experience and, finally, a universalising conscience of person, humanity and citizenship.
The paradox between the paradigm of oppression that would ‘explain’ the emergence of religious movement in Africa and the movement of Christian religions out of Africa is particularly noticeable in the case of prophetic movements, i.e. movements such as Kimbanguism, Harrism, Mpadism, Totsuanism, etc., which mushroomed in colonial times and gave rise to many ethnographic studies, mostly linking their emergence to what Balandier (1955) characterized as ‘the colonial situation’ and to liberation, through millenarian dreams, of oppressed people by a charismatic prophet. The contextualization was justified, but the fact is that these movements have not disappeared in many postcolonial contexts.1
The common understanding among scholars working in areas of a strong prophetic effervescence in colonial times is that most of these churches have eventually been outrun by Neopentecostal movements, and that prophetism is losing its raison d’être in the spiritual market of the postcolony. Yet, Prophetic churches survive, and not only do they survive in Africa, but also in African diasporas, be they based in Europe, the Americas or elsewhere. Using a Weberian approach, it could be argued against such claim that the churches that emerged out of the prophets (say, the Église de Jésus-Christ sur la terre par son envoyé spécial Simon Kimbangu, created after Simon Kimbangu, the Igreja do Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo no Mundo, created by Simão Toco, the Mpadist Church or Igreja dos Negros em Africa, created by Simon Mpadi) are ‘routinised’ forms, not truly prophetic movements, but a clear cut distinction between ‘charisma’ and ‘routine’ or between ‘movement’ and ‘church’ would in this particular case be more obscuring than illuminating. Many of these churches continue to be very prophetic both in their message and, indeed, in the centrality of the prophets’ charismatic presence despite their physical death.

Theatrical representation of Kimbangu’s imprisonment in a

Kimbanguist Church in Luanda (12 October 2008)

Prophetism in and out of Africa
Simon Kimbangu started his preaching in his village Nkamba (then in Southern Belgian Congo) in April 1921, and in September that year he was imprisoned in Elisabetheville (Lubumbashi) by the Belgians, who considered him an agent of trouble for their colony.2 He died in prison thirty years later, in 1951 (9 years before Congo’s independence). This long imprisonment and suffering (one of the longest ones in Africa) has been crucial in shaping Kimbanguist theodicy and ethos and is consciously kept alive today. A picture of Kimbangu in prison is present in all Churches and most Kimbanguist households I know; the dimensions of the window in the church I normally visit in Lisbon is 120cm x 80 cm, to remind the tiny dimension of Kimbangu’s cell in Elisabetheville’s prison, etc.
During these thirty years of imprisonment, the movement continued clandestinely, mostly thanks to Kimbangu’s wife and their three sons, especially Joseph Diangienda, the youngest of them. In 1960 (just after Congo had become independent), Kimbangu’s body was taken from Lubumbashi to Nkamba, the movement became an official church and in 1969, under Diangienda’s leadership, obtained international recognition by the World Council of Christian Churches (the most important worldwide ecumenical organization), becoming one of the biggest churches in Central Africa, with millions of followers. Nkamba has become ever since the 1960s the holy city of Kimbanguists and ‘the New Jerusalem’ referred to in the Apocalypses, as well as a mystical place where heaven and earth meet. Today it holds a big temple whose number of seats (37,000) remind the number of sufferers under Belgian colonialism (37,000 families were forcefully displaced, and 150,000 people died and are remembered as martyrs); it also boasts the mausoleum of Kimbangu and it receives pilgrims and money from all over the world. As of today, Simon Kimbangu Kiangani, Kimbangu’s grandson (said to be born on 12 October 1951, the same day his grandfather passed away) lives there as Spiritual Chief of the Church and as a spiritual continuation of his grand father (both are, according to theology, the same manifestation of the Holy Spirit).
It was in the 1960s that the movement started to be introduced in Northern Angola and eventually to Luanda itself, although Portuguese colonizers tried to keep it at bay, in many instances being brutal in its repression. If in the colonial times Kimbanguism was feared by Portuguese because it was a well-known movement of liberation and because Catholicism was to be the main religion of Angola, in the postcolonial times (i.e. from 1975) Kimbanguism was feared because it was, and still is, associated with the Bakongo ethnic group and with the Democratic Republic of Congo, a neighbouring country often blamed for allowing many ‘evil’ things to penetrate the national territory of Angola. Yet Kimbanguism has grown in Angola during the last forty five years, and today there may be around one million Kimbanguists, though they are divided in two very separate branches of the church.3
When Simon Kimbangu died in 1951, office went to his son Diangienda. According to some interviewees, Kimbangu and Diangienda were two manifestations of the same person, and this is why Kimbangu preferred him over his other two oldest children, though this is a point of debate within the church. Whatever the case, Diangienda run from 1951 to his death in 1992, being succeeded by his two brothers till the last one died in 2002. The succession to the third generation was the most problematic one, and there is a huge schism in the church today among Kimbanguists, whose main bone of contention is precisely the issue of succession among Kimbangu’s grandchildren. Be that as it may, the centrality of the Holy Spirit applies to all Kimbanguists alike: they all claim that Simon Kimbangu was the Paraclete, i.e. the ‘anothr counsellor’ announced by Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit made human to live and stay forever among humans (Kayongo 2005). As far as the current division goes, while a group today claims that the Holy Spirit reincarnated in Simon Kimbangu’s grandson, the other group believes that the it is the whole patrilineage of Kimbangu (i.e. Kimbangu, his three sons, and his 26 grandchildren) that represents the Holy Spirit, they are a all part of a divine lineage chosen by God to make Himself present on earth. The division has become a vicious one and it has caused a great deal of violence, including deadly casualties, in Angola. While one of the two groups heavily depends on Nkamba, where they regularly send money and from where they receive instructions, the other group (normally referred to as the ‘26=1’ group) has drifted away from Nkamba and consider it an earthly city full of corruption, nothing to do with the ‘New Jerusalem’ announced in the Apocalypses. As they put it to me in 2007: ‘there are two Nkambas: one is the terrestrial city where Simon Kimbnagu Kiangani lives, which is just a city and a very corrupt one at that, and the other one is the celestial Nkamba, where we all go when we die to be with Simon Kimangu’. They have thus removed the real Nkamba from the sensorial domain and created two discreet cities, while the others fuse the celestial with the terrestrial in one single place. One of my interviewees in Lisbon strongly claimed that a friend of his, in a pilgrimage to Nkamba, saw his deceased mother who, like all dead people, is now living there. In the official webpage of Kimbanguism ( this kind of events are also referred to.
The resilience of this prophetic movement from the most oppressive times of colonial rule through Marxists regime down to the neoliberal age, and its involvement in local politics (Sarró, Blanes and Viegas 2008) is a good example of the paradox I started this paper with. Kimbanguism and other prophetic churches in Angola (Tokoism, Mpadism, and several other clearly messianic movements) seem to be offering something to the Angolan public that makes them still very appealing. Just what it is exactly is difficult to say at this stage of our research, but we can single out a few elements of the prophetic discourse that make it clearly distinct from other Christian discourses: a particular insistence on the ‘Africa-ness’ of their religion and of the prevalence of African Christianity over the hypocritical forms brought by colonialism; a rather successful fusion between Christian history and African history; an unsolved tension between ‘ethnicising’ and universalising poles in their discourse, which make them particularly attractive to the Northern Bakongo people (a category of people who play a very ambivalent role in Angolan public sphere, they are seen as particularly attached to ‘African’ traditions and to the Republic of Congo in particular); an insistence on ‘suffering’ as a way to understand human nature and history, and particularly the history of their churches, which is presented as an encapsulation of the history of Black Africa, from the times of slave trade and of colonialism to the future of absolute liberation.
But not only in Angola, or in the African continent, do prophetic movements take place today. Much as any other form of southern Christianity, these movements, and Kimbanguism in particular, have sailed away from Angolan ports and arrived to Europe, and to Portugal in particular. The Kimbanguist church, although with tiny numbers (in an average Sunday there are around 70 people in the church), has a history of more than 20 years in this country. It appears to be particularly attractive to a category of people: Bakongo young men and women (the older members are in their early forties) who migrated from Angola to Congo (then Zaire) several years ago or who were born in Zaire but consider themselves Angolan. Many of them live in a juncture of exclusions: they are not welcome in Angola because albeit having the Angolan nationality they have almost never lived there and, what is worse, because they have spent a lot of time in the Democratic Republic of Congo as refugees; but they are not welcome in Congo either, because legally they are strangers in that country (even if they were born there); and they are not really welcome in Portugal because they are stigmatized as ‘migrants’. They are all Bakongo and a good portion of the church service is conducted in either Kikongo or Lingala (not because they are addressing to other Congolese people, because many of them grew up in Kinshasa and are much more fluent in Lingala than in Kikongo). Almost all them live off work in construction (men) or cleaning (women), but most of their time is spent in church-related activities, and men spend an awful lot of time online with other Kimbanguists in Africa and in the diaspora. With no exception, every time I have been to a Kimbanguist home over the last two years, I find the members of the household watching a DVD with church activities sent from Luanda, Kinshasa or Nkamba. Their church (and many of its members’ homes) is located in a very problematic quarter of Greater Lisbon called Quinta da Fonte, especially infamous for its drug-related violence. In September 2008, the Kimbanguist church, mostly unknown to Portuguese till then, gained visibility in the media because it acted as mediator and peace maker in a very violent conflict, partly drug-related and partly race-related, between Afro-descendants and Gypsies living in the Quinta da Fonte.
The ‘authentic photocopy’: the Bible and it entangled historicities
Religious movements such as Kimbanguism constitute examples of the complexities behind the Atlantic religious exchange: invoking a long history of Portuguese (and, at a later stage, European) mission in Central Africa, African prophetic movements such as these subvert perceptions of ‘authentic Christianity’, as well as - mediated by the tides of the Atlantic - introducing ambiguity in ancient senses of African territory and ‘civilisation’. In sharp contrast to the rupture of historical and biographical narratives characteristic of Pentecostal movements in Africa (Meyer 1998) and with the ‘stop suffering!’ message of some of these movements (I am thinking here of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the biggest Pentecostal church in Angola), Kimbanguism invokes a very long history of pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial suffering that links Africans, and Bakongo in particular, to the history of Jesus and of Moses. Indeed, the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery by Moses is analysed either as an anticipation/prefiguration of the liberation of Africans by Kimbangu after hundreds of year of slave trade, false Christianity and humiliation, or, more interestingly, as an ‘authentic photocopy’ of it; ‘the history of the Jews and the history of the Bakongo are the same photocopy (são a mesma fotocopia)’ is a phrase that I have heard (identically) in Luanda and in Lisbon, in interviews or in sermons. The phrase ‘an authentic photocopy’ appears in a widely distributed document published in Luanda by The Revd. Joaquim Kilombo, the archivist and one of the local historians of the Angolan church4
Like any other Christian Church, Kimbanguists use the Bible a lot (both the Ancient and the New Testament). In fact it is the only text to be used liturgically, as they do not have as yet a body of Kimbangu’s writings, although a considerable amount of apocryphal verbatim transcripts abound in oral traditions (also written in leaflets, church documents and websites). In terms of historicity, these uses of the Bible are twofold: sometimes it is diachronic usage, especially when it comes to interpret Jesus Christ as announcing ‘another counsellor’ (the Paraclete) who will come and stay among humans (John 14:16). In this case, kimbanguism is placed in a typical ‘chain of prophecies’ (Isaiah announces the Messiah, John the Baptist announces Christ, Christ announces the Paraclete/Kimbangu). Yet some other times, the Bible is used synchronically, as offering an analogical model of Kongo history. For instance, the Jews stayed 430 years in captivity: the same as span of time Bakongo people were enslaved (starting to count in 1491, when the Kongo king Nzinga Nkuwu was christened as João II by false Christians who only wanted to enslave Africans, until April 1921 when Kimbangu liberated them showing them the true Christian spirit based on equality and common humanity). In such synchronic reading, not only does time collapse and Biblical events appear not as previous but as parallel to Kongo events, but so does territory too, for every bit of the Bible landscape is interpreted as having its exact copy in the Congo basin. According to some interviewees, and to The Revd. Kilombo in his written text, history repeats itself and what happened first in Israel happened later in Kongo. But other interviewees seem to think differently, and do not place the two series of events in a historical continuity, but rather in two parallel series of events.
Maybe one of the most embarrassing events I have attended in years happened less than two years ago. My colleague Robert Baum, a renowned historian of religions specialized in African prophetic movements, came to Lisbon to attend a conference, and I went to pick him up at the airport on a Saturday. When I told him about my new research on our way to his hotel, he expressed a vivid interest in attending a Kimbanguist service, so I rang the pastor to ask whether I could bring Bob along the next day. Permission was of course granted (kimbanguists are very open to visitors, they would have accepted him even without the buzz), and the next day we both went to the temple. Asked upon what religion he practiced, Bob scribbled ‘Jewish’ on a piece of paper they had passed on to him. A minutes later, Sancho, the young man (not a pastor) running the guests’ introduction, introduced him in Portuguese and then turned to him and explained in French something to this effect (I am quoting what I later wrote in a fieldnote): ‘well, you come from an elected people, but in fact the events related in the Bible do not make reference to the Jewish people; they are one way of speaking about the Bakongo, who are the real elected people, those who have received God the Holy Spirit’. In this embarrassing and I must say naive moment, I could see that Sancho, like many other of my interviewees, did not see Jewish history as having happened before Kongo history, but as a trope, a parabolic way of talking of the real thing: Bakongo history and Kimbangu’s role in it. But this was his reading, for other people insist that the two series of events are “the same photocopy” and neither is the model or “the real thing”. Sancho is, I must add, quite an enthusiastic kimbnguist who is often carried away.
The entanglement of historicities is particularly complex when it comes to Kimbangu’s biography and its complicity with Jesus Christ’s biography. Here, too, literal parallelisms abound, especially when it comes to Jesus/Kimbangu arrest. But there are not only serial parallelisms, but also mutual intromissions. For a start, Simon Kimbangu was the mysterious Simon of Cyrene who, according to three Gospels (Mathew 27:21-32; Luke 23:26; Mark 15:20-21), helped Jesus carry his cross (probably the highest responsibility for anybody in history, from a Christian point of view). Secondly, according to oral history, Christ did come to give instructions to Kimbangu sometime in between April and September 1921. Thirdly, according to Kimbanguist theology, Kimbangu’s second son, Salomon Dialungana Kiangani, was Jesus Christ. Salomon Dialungana was born on 25 May 1916. According to Kimbanguists, therefore, this is the date Jesus Christ was born, and they go to all pains to show that a careful, scientific reading of the Bible indicates that Jesus was born on 25 May and not on 25 December as has been wrongly celebrated. Thus, sometimes the Bible is used as a template to think the present or recent history, but sometimes the opposite obtains: the well-know history of Simon Kimbangu and of his family is used as a template to think the distant and inchoate past -- or geography. Last August I took some Kimbanguists who had most kindly come from Madrid to visit me after having lost my dad, to Montserrat, the well-known holy mountain of Catholic Catalonia. As other Mediterranean Marian shrines, the Madonna in Montserrat is black. When my Kimbanguists visitors saw her, the first thing they said was ‘it’s probably Mama Mwilu’ and they asked me for details about Montserrat history to see how it could fit with Kimbanguist history. Mama Mwuilu (who also appeared in Fatima in 1917 to let the West know that Jesus Christ had just been born in Africa in 1916) was Kimbangu’s wife.

You may think that this line of thought and entanglements only happens at the popular level, mostly among lay people like Sancho, but that the official line of the church would be more ‘lineal’. But in fact it is the other way around. Most Kimbanguist acknowledge they do not fully understand how Jesus Christ could announce the second coming (Kimbangu), and be Kimbangu’s son too. In June 2008, Nkamba sent a theologian to the Diaspora to read aloud a series of new regulations set forth in Nkamba. I happened to be in the church the day he went to the Portuguese community. Among other instructions, believers are asked not to discuss theological matters with lay people or with non-Kimbanguist friends. They have to tell everybody that Kimbangu is the Paraclete, and that his son Salomon was Jesus Christ, and if the person told so has doubts about it, or does not fully understand what it means, they can not try and explain it, but just tell that there is a body of theologically and scientifically trained scholars, who have studied at the Kimbanguist Theology Faculty in Kinshasa, who are more than able to explain and prove these obscure things.

On Civilization and Recognition
The insistence on ‘civilisation’ by Kimbanguist requires further attention. According to interviewees, human civilization was born in Africa, and biological and palaeontological sciences have proved that beyond doubt (Kimbanguism, let me insist on that point, firmly trust scientific proof). The mistake of Western social sciences has been to consider that only Europe, or places such as Egypt or India, were a Civilization, relegating most of non-Western peoples to be mere ‘societies’ or ‘cultures’. Kimbanguists do not question this. They subscribe the Great Divide, so typical of 19th Century Panbabilonist approaches, even if it has been abandoned by most Western Social Scientists in the 20 and 21 Centuries (or has it?). However, they question the exclusion of Africans from the ‘civilized’ half of the equation. In two interviews I conduced in Luanda in 2007 with intellectual leaders of both confronted wings of the Kimbaguist church, I obtained two similar accounts. Western scientists of the nineteenth century had defined ‘civilization’ as a cultural unit with a common history, a calendar, a God, a prophet (who unified the people and shows the true religion), and a scripture. As the authors of 19 Century showed, if you did not have these elements, you would not qualify to be a civilization, you would only be a ‘society’ or a ‘culture’. Moses was the creator of Jewish Civilization: he showed God to his people and he was revealed the scripture by which to write His commands. Jesus Christ was the creator of Christian Civilization, and although he was not the inventor of Latin script, it is by using this script that his message has been spread throughout the world. Muhammad unified dispersed tribes in the desert, showed them how to pray to the unique God and he too was revealed the Arabic scripture. Africans could not be considered civilized, because they seemed not to know God, they did not have a script, they lacked a calendar.
This is what Kimbangu came to repair. Kimbangu showed God (Nzambi) to Africans, his life and deeds created a calendar, and he revealed a divine script: the mandombe writing system (literally, this means the scripture of the ndombe, a word that can be translated as either ‘the blacks’ or ‘the Africans’). Mandombe was revealed not to Kimbangu, but to a Kongo man who was not even a Kimbanguist at the time (in 1978) by Kimbangu, and it is today widely used among kimbanguists and among members of other African churches too. It is taught in Kimbanguist centres, but, at least in Angola, there are talks about it being implemented in schools too as an indigenous African script to be learnt by everybody. Mandombe is not only a writing system: each letter has also an angular value and a musical value too. When you write the word Nzambi (God) using mandombe, the sum of the angular values of each symbol is 360 degrees: the perfect sphere. Some people use mandombe to make artwork, mathematics, engineering, and in Luanda I met a man who has recently created -out of vision that came to him after praying and studying- a highly ingenious new kind of brick also based on mandome logics: a new architecture is now foreseen that will help Africans to build houses and temples.
Mandombe, I should like to argue, sets the limits of mimesis. In my ongoing research in West Africa, far away from Central Africa, I have encountered another prophetic movement (the kyangyang of Guinea Bissau, whose main prophetess is still alive), where non-literate people from heavily marginalized groups imitate either Christian or Muslim systems of writing in order to present themselves in equal terms to their Muslim or Christian neighbouring communities and thus gain their respect (although most of the time they only obtain derision for being imitators). Their script is an individual glossolalia (and indeed in most cases they can only read what they wrote when they are seized by a spirit), their symbols cannot transmit information to other people (though some people who are also kyangyang can extract some meaning from others’ writings, especially when they are in trance). With mandome a completely different picture emerges. It is a proper writing system, one in which the writer can transmit factual information about the world she shares with her readers, without anybody being in trance (trance and possession are not accepted at all in Kimbanguism), although the creator was described to me as not being quite himself when, in 1978, he first had the vision of the two elementary combinatory symbols (pakundungu and pelekete) from which the entire writing system later developed. Mandombe users are not merely ‘imitating’ those who imposed on them the humiliating ‘you-are-a-non-civilized-Black’ label and ‘embellishing their marginal condition’, to put it à la Anna Tsing, as seem to do the kyangyang in West Africa (a word meaning ‘shadow’ no less): they are showing that the processes by which a people can overcome the stigma of marginalization are often a combination of external mimesis and endogenous creativity and learning (this also applies to Kyangygang, although not as yet in their writing system5). Of course there is a great deal of mimesis in Kimbanguism, and in prophetic movements in general: you only have to look at the obsession of kimbanguism with military dress, with marching music and with order and bureaucracy in general to realize that, like many other of the ‘modern’ religious movements that emerged in colonial Africa, it does closely imitate the nation-state order that excluded them in the first place.6
This issue of ‘civilization’ has to be analyzed together with the notions of entangled historicities discussed above. It would be wrong to claim that, according to Kimbanguists, Africans only got what they call ‘civilization’ in 1978 and that, therefore, their civilization is ulterior to that of the Christians, Jews, or Arabs, whose prophets lived many centuries earlier. The meaning of the Kikongo word kimbangu is glossed as ‘he who reveals hidden things’. Mandombe existed before 1978, just as God existed before Kimbangu. At a theological level even Kimbangu, let us remember, existed before Jesus Christ: he was, as has been said, his father. It was also Kimbangu who helped Christ carry his cross. In fact, according to Kimbanguists, everything was born in Congo (and I sometimes feel they mean Mbanza Congo, the historical and symbolic centre of Kongo, today in Angola): Humanity, Adam and Eve, Homo sapiens, Moses, Jesus, Kimbangu, Mama Mwilu. So, the fact that a man was revealed Mandombe in the year 1978 of the Christian calendar does not mean much to your average Kimbanguist believer, and certainly it does not mean that African civilization was not present from the very beginning of human history. Kimbanguists do not accept this belatedness. Civilization, as well as Christianity, was there before the arrival of the imperialist Portuguese sailors. It had been forgotten. And by remembering it, Kimbanguists are acquiring a full recognition. The ‘politics of forgetting’ which, as Fabian (2006) has showed us, are often intermingled with religious mission, meet the politics of recognition7
As they told me in Luanda, when Westerners see the wonders of mandombe and realize that it contains a scientific truth, they treat Africans as equals and not anymore as ‘Blacks without civilization’. No matter how strongly many authors today claim that there is not such a thing as an ‘alternative modernity’, the writing system of mandombe and the scientific imagination it contains prove, at least to Kimbanguists, that you can be modern and have science and technology without having to be Western or colonized, just as much as you can be Christian without having to be missionized by Western proselytes.

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