Debating African spirituality in ‘The Prophetess’ by Njabulo Ndebele

Africa is a continent with many belief systems. There are influences from foreign religions which entered through colonisation. There are also varying beliefs amongst the different nations and indigenous tribes of Africa. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find hybrid belief systems with a mixture of different, and even contradictory, beliefs. There are parts of Africa, where Islam is the predominant religion, and there are other parts where Christianity features largely, but throughout the continent, there runs the belief in the supernatural. It is rare to find Africans who do not believe in the spiritual realm. These spiritual beliefs generally include the worship of gods and ancestors, and are accompanied by several practices and rituals. Members of the community, who are considered to have special spiritual giftings, are allotted titles such as ‘traditional healer’ and ‘witchdoctor’. In isiZulu they are called ‘sangomas’. This essay will discuss the way in which African belief systems can both benefit and harm African societies. I will use the short story The Prophetess by Njabulo Ndebele as a backdrop for this discussion. 

The first point which I would like to bring attention to in this essay, is that the prophetess blends African spirituality with Christianity. These are contradictory belief systems, which overlap in the singular character of the prophetess. From the Christian point of view, her practices would be considered heretical. It would be called witchcraft, which is against Biblical teachings. There are many passages in the Bible which denounce spirituality; one such warning being found in the book of Deuteronomy (18:10-14):

“Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD; because of these same detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the LORD your God. The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the LORD your God has not permitted you to do so.” 

However, from the African spirituality perspective it is an acceptable practice based on centuries of cultural exchange. “As Spirituality is always culturally formed and informed. The formation of spirituality is always cultural-contextual. African spirituality involves deeper human values, attitudes, beliefs, and practices, based on various African worldviews” (Marumo & Chakale: 2018: 11697). “At all levels – social, political, spiritual and corporeal – popular black Christian traditions offer a message of healing and redemption through ritual” (Maithufi 2004:140). The blending of these contradictory belief systems causes division amongst Africans, as some Christian denominations rebuke an Africanized spiritual version of Christianity.

Ohajunwa et al (2021:4-6) write about the subjugation of African indigenous spirituality by western colonists, who introduced Christianity to the continent. Their research in Bomvanaland, South Africa showed that Africans’ spirituality was marginalized and demonized by Christian missionaries. The resultant spiritual subjugation, led Africans to experience an identity crisis which in turn harmed their three-dimensional balance between humanity, nature and the divine. “In this space was the experience of trauma and a loss of identity. Indigenous identity became a thing of shame rather than pride, and their wellbeing was impacted” (Ohajunwa et al 2021: 4).

In Ndebele’s anthology ‘Fools and Other Stories’ (in which The Prophetess features), the ‘All Saints Church’ is used as a recurring reference point in all the stories. This represents the dominance and prominence of the Christian church as a central part of life in Soweto, though it is a black community in South Africa. Under the apartheid regime, Soweto was a designated area for black people to live in. Africans living in Soweto were provided basic education, and denied many opportunities for financial advancement. Christian missionaries provided charity, schools and hospitals to these needy folk, while establishing Christianity in Soweto. Christian evangelism won over many Africans by the provision of healthcare and education, but could not entirely convert the township’s beliefs from African spirituality to Christianity. Hence the formation of hybrid belief systems and mixed identities exist. A lack of education also led many Africans to superstitious beliefs or blind faith which held no grounding in reason. 

It is therefore worth mentioning the divisive beliefs amongst Africa’s educated and uneducated people, particularly pertaining to spirituality and science. In The Prophetess, the nurse does not know if the water is holy or not, yet she says, “I think I feel better already…”. (Ndebele 2015: loc 709) This shows the power of the placebo effect which scientists describe. It also shows that anyone can believe themselves to be a healer, as the boy believes himself to be at the end of the story. 

“There was such a glow of warmth in the boy as he watched his mother, so much gladness in him that he forgave himself. What had the prophetess seen in him? Did she still feel him in her hands? Did she know what he had just done? Did holy water taste any differently from ordinary water? His mother didn’t seem to find any difference. Would she be healed? ‘As we drink the prophetess’s water,’ said MaShange, ‘we want to say how grateful we are that we came to see for ourselves how you are.’ ‘I think I feel better already. This water, and you … I can feel a soothing coolness deep down.’ As the boy slowly went out of the bedroom, he felt the pain in his leg, and felt grateful. He had healed his mother. He would heal her tomorrow, and always with all the water in the world. He had healed her” (Ndebele: 1983: loc 704-714).

The placebo his mother experienced led him to believe he is a healer, and it eased his guilty conscience. It helped to relieve the cognitive dissonance he was feeling from being deceitful against his better judgement. Spiritualism and religion can be used to either guilt someone or to relieve them from feelings of guilt. It is this subjectivity within spiritualism that really holds the power which can either hurt or heal a person. This choice to believe, also makes way for the scammers who have the charisma to persuade people to believe whatever they say. 

It could be argued that the boy did in fact receive the gift of being a spiritual healer from the prophetess when she laid her hands on him and prayed (Maithufi 2004: 145). One then has to wonder if this was then a good or evil spirit which the boy inherited, as it ultimately led him to deceive his mother. There are also other events in the story which led to the boy’s decision to deceive his mother. He was feeling a lot of anxiety and fear from the night’s events: fear of the dog outside the prophetess’s house, anxiety about meeting the prophetess, fear from having the older boys chase him, fear from being run over by a bicycle, and anxiety about spilling the water. He also felt disappointment for letting his mother down, and guilt for fooling her. 

At his young age, he was out at night, alone, which is not safe for a child. He was exposed to adult conversation on the bus, and with the older boys in the street. This setting reminds the reader that a lot of pressure is placed on the youth in Africa to take care of grown-up matters. This stress grows inside and leads to bad choices, as seen by the boy’s decision to lie to his mother, and ultimately to lie to himself. The repercussions of this situation could have potentially destructive effects in the long term. If the boy becomes delusional about supernatural abilities, he could go on to become a fake healer who tricks and lies to more people. From “healing” his mother, it could escalate to “healing” other people. It would make sense that the boy, who feels powerless after the night’s events, finds a way to empower himself, by convincing himself that he is a healer with a special spiritual gift from the divine. 

The boy’s mother is a medical nurse, yet she cannot find a way to heal herself with modern Western medicine. Instead, she seeks holy water to cure herself. This implies that there are spiritual aspects in human beings which need healing too, not simply the physical which medical science addresses. She asserts to her friends, 

“I’m telling you sisi, and take it from me a trained nurse. Pills, medicines, and all those injections, are not enough. I take herbs too, and then think of the wonders of the universe as our people have always done” (Ndebele 2015: loc 666).

The mother (nurse) is open-minded to both the spiritual and physical. In this way, she reveals the African mindset which is willing to consider various opinions, and try different experiences. On the other hand, the story points to an irony taking place between spiritualism and science: the prophetess claims to have healing powers (or access to healing powers) yet she, herself, has a cough. This is suspicious, but the little boy is too young to realise it, and does not question why the prophetess does not heal herself.  Instead, the boy simply focuses on the fear which overwhelms him. He is afraid of what he has heard in the community about the prophetess and the spiritual realm. 

Fear runs alongside the supernatural in Africa. The belief is that there are both good and evil spirits. Africans believe that evil spirits work through Blackmagic. An adversary could consult a sangoma to curse or cast a spell on someone. Africans have told stories about encounters with tokoloshes and other spirits which have attacked them. It is also feared that illnesses and injuries are caused by evil spirits. “Health and wellbeing are conceptualised by indigenous communities as a holistic, relational concept informed by spirituality. It is much more than any health transaction that occurs within hospital rooms” (Ohajunwa et al 2021: 5-6). The fear of evil spirits overcomes some people, who then become obsessed with the spiritual realm, and dissociate from reality. They end up living their lives in fear, and become reliant on witchdoctors to lead them and cure them. This creates a scenario where opportunists can step in, and take advantage of desperate people. It has become a common occurrence now to find many people pretending to be spiritually gifted in order to scam people. 

Scam artists are found in both westernized churches and traditional communities in Africa. There are cases where pastors or traditional healers ask people to hand over large sums of money for healing, or to perform sexual acts for healing. Africans who find themselves in poverty, fall for the deception of the prosperity gospel, where they are taught that the more money they give to the church, the more god will bless them with health and wealth. It is called ‘sowing into God’s kingdom’, and is represented as the special supernatural functioning of ‘God’s economy’ which defies human logic, and the natural laws about giving and receiving. These teachings are loosely, and inaccurately, based on Bible verses about sowing and reaping. 

All types of abuse have stemmed from immoral and unqualified spiritual leaders who have led masses of Africans into their cults. Misguided spirituality has led to human violations, abuse, and even murder in Africa. Some traditional healers ask for human organs or human parts to create medicines that apparently heal the sick. Some sangomas have also given shocking advice to people with regards to HIV/AIDS – they have advised them to have sexual intercourse with virgins to cure HIV/AIDS, and this has tragically resulted in many infants being raped (Meier 2002:1). Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a spiritual cleansing practice in some parts of Africa (Schafroth 2009:527). These are some of the dark and depraved acts of spirituality in Africa. 

However, not all spirituality in Africa is negative and harmful. If practiced within limits, and with safety and sanity in mind, it can have a positive effect on society. Marumo and Chakele (2018:11699) have written:

“It [African spirituality] is not considered as an individual affair, because it is expressed in all levels of society, socially, economically, politically as well as among people, hence it contributes in the building of a nation.” 

When spirituality is practiced collectively, it can have a powerful bonding effect in a community. Common beliefs and practices have the potential to bring people together, where they can share their experiences and learn from each other. This could lead to growth on both personal and communal levels. In The Prophetess this phenomenon occurs between the nurse and her friends. Her friends say, “As we drink the prophetess’s water, we want to say how grateful we are that we came to see for ourselves how you are” (Ndebele 2015: loc 709). 

When Africans come together in the spirit of Ubuntu (Ohajunwa et al 2021: 5), they can use spirituality for the improvement of their lives. “Africans believe that all things have an impact on each other and this interconnectedness and interplay is universal. There exists a cause-and-effect relationship to be found in all experience as well as acts and thoughts, which will inform our thinking and relation (Marumo and Chakele 2018:11698). The community is made stronger by having individuals who have strong self-identity, meaningful bonds amongst people, and belonging to a respectful group of people.

In conclusion to this essay, it can be summarised that The Prophetess by Njabulo Ndebele is a short yet powerful story, as it reveals the complex dynamics at play in African spirituality. The impact of colonization, lack of education, impoverished households, and desperate sick people, paints a picture well known to Africans who face these struggles on a daily basis (even in postcolonial times). The impact of the past ripples into the now, and requires new solutions to prevent Africans from falling victim to scam artists, and self-serving evangelists in the future. Africans have power through Ubuntu to rebuild their identity in the way they want to and choose to. There are strengths within spirituality to rely on, and there are weaknesses in society to overcome, but as a nation standing in unity, Africans can correct the wrongs of the past, and move forward with beliefs that truly resonate with them, and benefit them. 

Works Cited:

Crossway Kindle Team. 2001. The Holy Bible.  English Standard Version (ESV). Crossway, Illinois, United States of America. 

Gqola, P.D. 2009. The difficult task of normalizing freedom: Spectacular Masculinities, Ndebele’s Literary / Cultural Commentary and Post-Apartheid Life. English in Africa 36 (1): 61-76 (Accessed 21 August 2022)

Maithufi, S. 2004. Black Christianity as Intellectual Resource in Njabulo Ndebele’s Fools and Other Stories. English in Africa 3 (1): 139-147 (Accessed 21 August 2022) 

Marumo P.O. & Chakele M.V. 2018. Understanding African philosophy and African spirituality: challenges and prospects. Gender & Behaviour. North West University, Mafikeng, South Africa. 

Meier, E. 2002. Child rape in South Africa. Pediatric Nursing 28 (5): 1-4 (Accessed 29 August 2022) 

Ndebele, N. S. 2015. Fools and Other Stories. Pan MacMillan South Africa (Pty) Ltd, Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Ohajunwa, C. et al. 2021. Framing wellbeing through spirituality, space, history, and context: Lessons

from an indigenous African community. Wellbeing, Space and Society 2 (10042) (Accessed 29 August 2022) 
Schafroth, V. 2009. Female Genital Mutilation in Africa: An Analysis of the Church’s Response and Proposals for Change. Missiology: An International Review XXXVII (4): 527-542 (Accessed 29 August 2022)

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