What can the Churches Learn from Zimbabwe’s Masowe Apostles?: Isabel Mukonyora Book Review, Wandering a Gendered Wilderness

image I’m intrigued by the astronomical growth of Christianity in the majority world, and I think it’s important that Christians in the West ask themselves what the churches in all the far-flung corners of the globe can teach us. That’s a part of what motivates my research on charismatic Christianity in Zimbabwe.

During my fieldwork in Zimbabwe in 2007, I couldn’t help but notice the Masowe Apostles. They are distinctive for dressing in white robes and meeting for hours in the open air. It is hard to miss them.

The Masowe Apostles were not the focus of my particular research project, but a recent book by Isabel Mukonyora, Wandering a Gendered Wilderness: Suffering and Healing in an African Initiated Church (Peter Lang, 2007), has helped me to explore further that question about what people in the West can learn from these Christians.

Scholars usually classify the Masowe Apostles with other ‘African Initiated Churches,’ to signify that it is an expression of Christianity that Africans developed independently of the historic missionary denominations.

The group was inspired by Shoniwa Masedza Mtunyane, who took upon himself the name Johane Masowe, meaning ‘John of the Wilderness.’ He was a prophet who wandered throughout Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in the 1930s, causing alarm among the colonial authorities. As Mukonyora explains (p. 12):

‘In 1932 Johane Masowe first drew the attention of the police in Mashonaland towns, mines, and commercial farms. By making borders of landscapes sites for prayer, he pointed to the displacement of Shona people … Johane was arrested at least five times during the 1930s for walking around preaching repentance for sins of adultery and witchcraft and offering baptism for those who repented. … He repeatedly disturbed the peace by turning up on unoccupied land, which whites wanted to remain empty to create borders between the different pockets of the city landscape. This sacred wilderness, located on the fringes of worksites, residential neighbourhoods and highways is the source for the Masowe Apostles’ name. John the Baptist, the voice that cries in the wilderness near the river Jordan, is the biblical image from which the Shona name Johane Masowe and this pattern of ritual behaviour were derived. Johane Masowe breached colonial norms by calling people out to pray in places that Rhodesian administrators wished to keep empty and then vanishing, only to surface in another place whose fringes could serve as sites for prayer.’

In this rich description of Johane Masowe’s methods, it’s possible to identify lessons that can speak to other Christian churches today:

  • The importance of the prophet, speaking out for those on the margins. (Where in contemporary Ireland & Northern Ireland do we see Christians playing such a role?)
  • The importance of ritually embedding the message that God is with people on the margins of society, politics and the economy. The Masowe Apostles embody this by meeting in despised landscapes, making those places holy.
  • The importance of courage in defying unjust political authorities.

Mukonyora’s book is itself not solely concerned with drawing out these sorts of lessons. Rather, it is a first-class anthropological account of the Masowe Apostles, which pays particular attention to the role of women within the religious community.

While I have just focused on liberating aspects of Johane Masowe’s original mission, Zimbabwean women have not always been empowered by this movement. The Masowe Apostles observe rigid gender codes that reflect older, traditional Shona cultural norms, which Mukonyora explores in chapter 2. She also explains how the displacement of Shona men from their traditional roles now shapes (p. 54):

‘the mindset that men bring into the sacred wilderness. … enact[ing] their gender-specific anxieties about masculine superiority and vulnerability in an intense and sometimes invidious form’.

She does not shy away from describing various instances during her research when men treated women disrespectfully during Masowe services. Mukonyora also points out that most previous academic work on the Masowe Apostles focused on the men’s perspectives to the extent that women’s experiences were not really taken into account.

But what Mukonyora offers that is original– and helpful for those of us seeking insights for the wider church – is analysis of how women have been empowered within the frameworks provided by the Masowe Apostles.

For instance, Mukonyora explores the important, sacred role of the female singers who transmit the messages of the gospel. This is especially crucial since the Masowe Apostles, unusually among Christians, rely exclusively on oral tradition and do not use the Bible at all. She explains how at some Masowe gatherings only the women sit facing east during prayers. This is significant because it is believed that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit comes from the east, so the women (but not the men), are here receiving unmediated access to this power. Mukonyora concludes, (p. 113),

‘Positive images of women as bearers of gifts of light associated with the Holy Spirit are foundational to a woman-oriented Masowe concept of God as a Supreme Being whose presence is felt by believers. … Women have a way of reading into their ritual behaviour messages that fulfil their religious aspirations as individuals whose problems arise from living in a society that keeps women at the margins.’

Finally, Mukonyora notes the prominence of women in healing rituals and argues that this provides a necessary spiritual, physical and psychological release for the many challenges that they face as marginalised women in a collapsing, marginalised nation.

Further lessons can be gleaned from this analysis, including:

  • Just how important is the bible anyway? Does the Masowe Apostles’ prioritising of the Holy Spirit over and above the written word have anything to say to Western Christians?
  • Again, rituals are important. One of Mukonyora’s major findings is that meaningful rituals heal and empower people. Has this aspect of spirituality been especially neglected by the Protestant churches of the West?
  • Our churches may contain marginalised groups (be it women, immigrants, the working class), who those in positions of power may find it easy to overlook. But those groups may be pretty adept at adapting the Christian message in ways that are surprising and empowering. What do we miss when we don’t stop to listen to them?

Mukonyora’s book is an enjoyable and enlightening read for all who are interested in Zimbabwe, African Christianity, and the manifold expressions of Christianity in the contemporary world.

105 Responses to What can the Churches Learn from Zimbabwe’s Masowe Apostles?: Isabel Mukonyora Book Review, Wandering a Gendered Wilderness

  1. obanda magomere September 13, 2016 at 4:24 pm #

    Emmah
    I am almost sure that the issues you have raised concerning the Johane Masowe way and approach to worship are issues that bother some Masowe Vapositori. Let us look at some of the issues.

    First, You state that we pray to angels. This statement may be true to some Masowe apostles but not all. Using the church of Johane Masowe at Nairobi Kenya (of which I am a member) as an example, we pray to God the Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit. I have also talked to my contacts in our Sister churches in Zambia, and they have confirmed that indeed our ways of worship are similar. As a reference point, what is the position of the Bible regarding prayers? Kindly read Exodus 20: 1-3, and Luke 11: 1-4.

    Second, you are concerned about the belief by some Masowe Apostles that the ‘dead saints’ mediate between human beings and God. May be to address this particular point we need to define and understand the meaning of death. Please read Ecclesiastes 12:7; Man is both Spirit and flesh. When the time for an individual to leave on earth expires, we say he has died, but there is that aspect or form of man that leaves on, that is the Spirit man – made in Gods image. At this point let us look at Deuteronomy 34: 5-6, and Luke 9: 30-33. Moses died and he was buried, but in the quoted book of Luke above, he was alive talking with Elijah and Jesus. This is a confirmation that the spirit man leaves on.

    Third, The phenomenon of supposedly dead saints talking through prophets may somehow be appreciated by taking 2 Kings 2:15 as an example. In the context of The Johane Masowe Apostles, the prophets mentioned above, in the book of Kings, could have said, Prophet Elijah is speaking through Elisha. To clarify further, stating that the spirit of Elijah or some other prophet is on somebody is the same as saying that the Spirit of God is at work in somebody. It is a matter of semantics.

    Fourth, concerning errant prophets or preachers ( like the one who was using magic – body parts of a dead person), let us read Mathew 23:27-28; and as to how such prophets / pastors should be handled, read Mathew 18: 15-17, and now sister Emmah, what should you do once such people are exposed? the prescription is at Mathew 23:1-3.

    Fifth, within a church setting there must be controls regarding the acceptance of a prophesy as true. For instance, there must be at least three different prophets making the same prophesy. Additionally, prophesies made must come to pass if they are from God. A prophet who passes such and other tests can then be relied upon as a true prophet of God.

    As I conclude, I ask the readers one question: Is there a Holy Church where everybody and everything is perfect and in total agreement with God’s commandments? The answer is no.
    But on further analysis, we may say there is a Holy Church. Such a church is a Holy Spirit filled person. A collection of such individuals (irrespective of their denominations) constitute a Holy Church.

  2. Peter Shawn Jomo October 8, 2016 at 11:55 am #

    There is only one church of Johane masowe. And is called Gospel of God Church International. We worship on saturday, the once with the ark at Gandandzara known as muchingora. Those all other churches they left and their way.

  3. obanda magomere October 11, 2016 at 2:03 pm #

    Peter Shawn Jomo

    The church of Baba Johane is one, but there are different congregations (churches) in various countries. Baba Johane was born in Zimbabwe, but after his baptism in Heaven, he travelled to various countries, namely: South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya; preaching and establishing congregations (churches). These congregations were then registered with the respective governments for the purpose of legitimizing the assemblies. The registration of the Gospel of God Church International should be understood in the aforestated context.

  4. THE TRUTH ONLY March 23, 2017 at 8:45 am #

    good day
    I think i may have joined this conversation a few years too late but i believe everything happens in God’s time and at that time there is a purpose to be fulfilled .May someone please enlighten me on where to find Johan Masowe’s family or the church Headquaters

  5. George Barasa July 31, 2017 at 2:10 pm #

    To obanda ilike the rich reasoning and your research ,how iwish u have ajournal on masowe for the church.

Leave a Reply