Tanzania is home to some of the most devout Christians and Muslims in the world. The composition of the population is about 50-50, with the believers enjoying unprecedented peace and harmony, as they go about their worship since Independence nearly 50 years ago. Therefore, the findings of a recent survey that lists Tanzanians among the leading believers in witchcraft and worshippers of traditional African religions in sub-Saharan Africa will come as a surprise to many.
The report has revealed that although the majority are either churchgoers or attend prayers in mosques, a good number of them still believe in witchcraft, evil spirits, sacrifices to ancestors, traditional religious healers, reincarnation and other elements that are the cornerstones of traditional African religions.
More than half of the people surveyed between December 2008 and April 2009 in 19 countries, including Tanzania, in the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project of the United States, confirmed that they practise superstition and trust the supernatural world of spirits. In the five-member East African Community (EAC), Tanzanians were said to be the most superstitious and ranked third after Senegal and Mali, among the 19 countries. Burundians are the least superstitious in the EAC, followed by the Rwandese and Kenyans. Ugandans are the second most superstitious in the EAC, and came 11th in the survey.
The study, titled Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa, has it that nine in every 10 Tanzanians say religion is important in their lives. Sixty per cent of Tanzanians confirmed they consult traditional healers when someone is sick, keep sacred objects such as amulets in their homes and participate in ceremonies to honour their ancestors. The survey involved some 1,504 Tanzanians, of whom 907 were Christians and 539 Muslims. It established that many Tanzanians are deeply committed to Islam or Christianity and yet continue to cherish traditional African religious beliefs and practices.
"Many of those who indicate they are deeply committed to the practice of Christianity or Islam also incorporate elements of African traditional religions into their daily lives. For example, in four countries (Tanzania, Mali, Senegal and South Africa) more than half of the people surveyed believe that sacrifices to ancestors or spirits can protect them from harm," the report reads in part.
Muslim and Christian leaders, intellectuals, psychologists and ordinary worshippers interviewed by The Citizen on Sunday concurred with the Pew-Templeton revelations. They, however, differed on the staggering religious paradox of Tanzanians, who like most Africans, said they were concerned about extremism but did not expect religious conflicts.
Dar es Salaam's Institute of Social Welfare (ISW) psychologist and senior lecturer Andrew Mchomvu said the juju syndrome was a typical tendency of the human psychology of people who attach themselves to things that would give them instantaneous results, mostly when formal faiths did not quickly deliver desired expectations and results.
"What I can say as a psychologist is that any human being would want the society to identify her or him with a certain denomination. They also want quick results. Once they fail to realise their needs through their respective religions, they tend to go for alternatives such as witchcraft or sorcery for quick results, although in the real sense they earn nothing," Dr Mchomvu said.
A resident of the Msasani suburb of Dar, Ms Stella Mdolwa, told The Citizen on Sunday: "A good friend of mine, who goes to church every Sunday, has confided in me that she uses witchcraft to protect her business and her two children."
Two Muslim clerics, Sheikh Musa Yusuf Kundecha and Sheikh Ponda Issa Ponda, and an outspoken politician cum clergyman, the Reverend Christopher Mtikila, were of the view that "declining quality in the teaching of Christianity and Islam has given room to such unreligious tendencies to regain ground".
Sheikh Ponda added: "I'm not very much sure about the statistics, but what I can say is that the findings that both Christians and Muslims practise their religions alongside witchcraft to a great extent has some truth in it. We have many Christians and Muslims mixing religions and witchcraft." He faulted modern preaching, which mainly targets urban dwellers. "Many people identify themselves only with Christian and Islamic names but not the faiths."
Sheikh Kundecha, the head of the Governing Council of Islamic Communities and Institutions, said: "Islam does not prevent people from cherishing their traditions so long as the practices do not compromise the true Islamic faith."
The Rev Mtikila, though doubting the survey's figures, agreed that the report was a true reflection of the religious situation in Tanzania. He blamed it all on the diminishing morals and quality of Christian teachings.
"The teaching of the gospel has diminished. People go to church because of their material wellbeing and not for spiritual nourishment," he said.
A cultural anthropologist, who asked for anonymity, said it was difficult to detach Africans from their traditional religions and cultures that existed before the coming of Christianity and Islam. According to him, Islam and Christianity should strive to incorporate African traditional practices without compromising their teachings.
Dar es Salaam Catholic Archdiocese Auxiliary Bishop Eusebius Nzigilwa said many Tanzanians were superstitious but he could not tell how many of them went to church or mosques to pray.
Healer-turned-politician Stephen Ngonyani "Prof Maji Marefu", the MP for Korogwe Rural, said some priests and sheikhs were as guilty of juju worship as their flocks.
The Rev Gertrude Rwakatare, of the Mikocheni Assemblies of God Church in Dar es Salaam, said: "I detest superstition, but I agree that some people believe they can boost their fortunes through juju." The Rev Rwakatare, who owns a chain of nursery, secondary and high schools and colleges, is a CCM Special Seats MP for Morogoro.