Exorcism in Africa
By Jennifer Warner
I want to tell you a little story. A story about the time I was exorcised. An indescribable experience that I will attempt to describe. The first night of our homestay in the Godeni village of Ha’Makuya consisted of attempting to get comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. After greeting our family and meeting all the kiddos of the surrounding homes, we came to a lull in the evening. Our professors told us before this section of the trip, that “homestays are what you make of them” so it was up to us to experience this village, for all it has to offer. Our translator, Joel, asked if we wanted to go to church with him, so to fully immerse myself in the culture, my non-religious self was heading to a Thursday night church service in South Africa.
We started walking and within 3 minutes I hear blood curdling screams coming from behind the corner house. We head directly towards the noise and Joel started to open the chicken wired gate and quietly said, “don’t be scared.” Oh, if you could have heard the thoughts going through my mind. Some of which included: “this is the end”; “I should tell my parents I love them one last time”; “well that was fun while it lasted.” As we got closer, I see the church and it was not nearly like what I was expecting. I thought we were going to an actual building, one with a cross, some stain-glass windows, and perhaps even a guy in a robe. Godeni does things a bit differently. I tentatively walked into this backyard with twenty plastic chairs, some people crying on the ground, and a preacher losing his voice shouting about faith. I cautiously sat in the back row, with three other (just as stunned) CSU students. The preacher, a young black man, switched from speaking Venda to English when he saw the ‘makuya’ (white things) walk in. My mind was on verdrive, trying to take it all in. I have never experienced anything even remotely like this event.
My background on religion is a bit complicated: beginning my religious journey as a firm atheist, to a frequent non-denominational church goer, and now as a curious agnostic. I love learning about religion; I love the community it derives, but there are many aspects that I am still skeptical about. For this experience, I tried to keep an open mind. This church was participatory, vocal, and passionate. If you felt something, you made it known. When I agreed with a statement from the preacher, I erupted with an “amen” or “hallelujah” (taking note from the other people in the crowd). With all the chaos occurring during the sermon (including lots of tears, falling out of chairs, and yelling), I expected a moment of silence when he asked us to pray. Again, my expectations were shattered. I stood awkwardly in the back, opening and closing my eyes, with my fingers interlaced, as the people of Godeni took a different approach to prayer. According to the preacher, for God to really understand needs and struggles, you must show Him how passionate you are. Which meant, the people of Godeni clapped, yelled, ran around, and moved their bodies to show the importance of their prayers.
After two solid hours of the service, the sermon came to end. Wow, what an experience, I learned so much, time to go? Not yet. My little sheltered self was in for a treat. He called up a middle- aged woman from the second row and said God told him that there are demons inside of her, and they must come out. As if this was a cue, the whole crowd stood up, moved the chairs aside and formed a big circle. He dragged the lady into the middle of the circle and began an exorcism. At that moment, I thought I was witnessing a sacrifice, or an assault. With an open hand he began to hit the woman on her forehead, cheek, abdomen, and on the top of her head. My mouth fell open, in complete shock. No one in the crowd was concerned. I look over to my pals and asked, “is this real?”
The middle-age woman began to convulse. She began to growl. She fell into the two people (designated to catch the person when they collapse) behind her. The preacher pointed at the woman’s head and yelled “devil!” then pointed at her abdomen and yelled “fire!”, repeatedly, as the woman continued to flail her body throughout the circle. I thought I was at a theatre. A part of me had to contain my laughter, while another part was genuinely concerned for the well-being of this woman. After many minutes of this, the woman laid on the ground, still, until the preacher picked her up and deems her free of demons.
This was not the only exorcism that happened that night. Person after person, the preacher exorcised random people from the crowd. At the very end, to ‘welcome’ his new guests (the white things hiding in the back), he was going to cleanse our souls. He was going to exorcise us. “Homestays are what you make of them” continued to echo in my mind. I was the last person to be grabbed and moved to the middle of the circle. My heart was beating faster than I think it ever has. I put my arms over my head, closed my eyes, and felt a hand hit my forehead. I was pushed into the strangers behind me. A hand stayed on my forehead, while another grabbed my arm and forced my body to move. I felt as if I was floating. With the firm pressure on my forehead, my weight concentrated on the two people behind me, and the crowd erupting in song, I felt something. I felt free, I felt connected. After what seemed like only a few seconds, everything abruptly stopped. Apparently, I did something right. The preacher shook my hand, and said “now that’s what God looks like.” I was the only one without demons inside. So, I guess I may have fibbed a bit; he tried to exorcise me, but I guess I am just too holy.
In all honesty, this was one of the most remarkable experiences of my entire life. Fully immersing myself into a culture changed me in a way I did not know possible. I may have been laughed at for my dancing when in that crazy exorcism circle, (the robot is apparently not a common African dance move), I may not have prayed correctly, but I really felt connected to a group of people that I have never met and that I will (probably) not see again. Religion brings people together, it brings people joy. And most importantly, it brings people hope. It was a truly bonding experience, and I will forever remember that one time where I was (almost) exorcised.