Clayton Guerreiro: Civilizatory Magic in Brazilian Pentecostal Churches in Mozambique

18 April, 2023

On 13 December 2022, I defended my Ph.D thesis in Social Sciences at the State University of Campinas, Brazil. The ethnography is entitled Universal is Mazione: Civilizatory Magic and Relationality around Brazilian Churches in Maputo, Southern Mozambique. Professor Ronaldo de Almeida served as the thesis supervisor and the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) provided funding for the project. I also participated at Utrecht University as a visiting researcher in Professor Birgit Meyer’s program Religious Matters in an Entangled World.

This ethnography results from fieldwork in Brazilian pentecostal churches and Zion churches in Mozambique, from 2018 to 2019. Among Brazilian pentecostal churches in Maputo, the main denomination is the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, hereafter Universal Church, characterized by prosperity gospel, media influence, and political power. The Zion churches are classified as African Independent Churches. Originating from South Africa at the beginning of 20th century, they are nowadays recognized by Mozambicans as local churches. They are multiple and diverse in terms of practices and doctrines. However, their bishops, pastors, and prophets are known to focus on prophecy, healing rituals, and Old Testament preaching. During my stay in Mozambique, I participated in many rituals and conducted interviews with pastors, prophets, and members of these churches. I also carried out archival research in Lisbon, Portugal, where I gathered historical documents on the interactions between Mozambique religious agents and colonial authorities.

This main concern of this thesis is to describe the multiple and complex ways of relating that occur in Maputo, Southern Mozambique, between Brazilian churches and missionaries from the Universal Church, on the one hand, and tinyanga (traditional healers) and the Zion prophets, on the other. Since the tinyanga and some Zione prophets are considered traditional healers, many of my interlocutors treat Brazilian churches as an opposite to tradition and regards them as “modern” and “civilized”. At the same time, other believers see some similarities between Zion churches and Universal Church, especially because pastors from both churches prophesize, promise to heal people, and deal with traditional spirits, either by negotiating with them or attacking them. Thus, some of my interlocutors categorize the Universal Church as a Zion church as well, albeit a “civilized” one. The pentecostal pastors, on their part, disagree vehemently and classifiy tinyanga and Zion prophets as witches or sorcerers.

Image 1: Cenáculo da Fé, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God headquarters, Alto Maé neighborhood, Maputo, Mozambique.*
Image 2: Zion prophet office, Khongolote neighborhood, Matola, Mozambique.

Instead of assuming that the complex religious context of Maputo is composed of self-contained actors who come into contact with each other, inspired by Eva Spies’ notion of relationality (2019), I prefer to analyze how these actors are comprised of different ways of relating. In other words, I recognize that as social relations are composed by people and non-human beings, this entanglement also changes people and the coexistence among them. This theoretical approach offers a possibility to engage with the notions of incompleteness and frontier beings proposed by Francis Nyamnjoh (2015), which criticizes epistemological binaries, such as subject versus object; emotional versus rational; one versus multiple; and mental versus material. Nyamnjoh dialogues with African literature to argue in favor of popular African epistemologies and affirms that things, words, actions, and beings are always incomplete. This incompleteness does not mean a lack of loyalty or impermanence in relationships, as a colonial approach used to assert, but indicates multiple possibilities of being, relating, and coexisting in society.

I found that these different actors are constituted by different ways of relating, thus configuring a relational entanglement that involves humans and non-humans. This multiple and complex relationality includes human beings, spirits, ancestors, angels, the Devil, the Holy Spirit, religious buildings, crosses, candles, capulanas (African fabrics), consecrated water, money, TV, internet, beach, sacred trees, cemeteries, graves, and more. Although these social relationships include immaterial beings such as the different entities and non-humans mentioned above, they always occur materially. Meyer’s (2009) concepts of aesthetic formation and aesthetics of persuasion provide a theoretical framework for analysing how Brazilian pentecostal churches act as aesthetic formations, attempting to persuade potential believers of their supposed modern or civilized characteristics.

In Maputo, these aesthetic formations – composed of sumptuous buildings; the extensive use of TV, internet, and technology; preaching in Portuguese language in Brazilian accent etc – are usually framed as “civilized” or “modern” and thus distinct from traditionalists and Zion prophets by many believers. However, in my view these formations evidence an inextricable nexus between relationality and inequality. Therefore, I argue that this relationality is characterized by tensions, power asymmetries, and inequalities that include economic, gender, race, and generational issues. I also propose the notion of civilizatory magic to describe the enchantments produced by Brazilian missionaries and pastors. They preach prosperity and healing through a war against spirits and tradition, while promising to introduce believers to a “modern” or “civilized” world. Their viewpoint reproduces a colonial ideology intertwined with the prosperity gospel and an aesthetic that criticizes and mirrors traditional practices simultaneously. This results in the expansion of social tensions, and power asymmetries in Maputo.
In the following, I present the main sections of the thesis.

In the Introduction I expound Maputo’s religious context and the theoretical and methodological foundations of this thesis. I also explain my focus on the lived religion and the relationality between humans and non-humans, rather than on the institutional aspects of religion.

Chapter 1 – “Maputo has no equal”– describes the historically constituted relational asymmetries and inequalities in Maputo. I begin with the colonial period, highlighting how it was characterized by multiple inequalities, particularly in terms of race, class, gender, and politics. These inequalities still operate in Maputo as “residues of the past” or “colonial ghosts”, haunting places and people in the city. In addition, many people feel persecuted by various spiritual entities and seek spiritual treatment to achieve peace, prosperity, and health. The tinyanga and Zion prophets have been responsible for these therapies since the colonial period. However, in contemporary Maputo, they need to compete for clients or followers with Pentecostal churches, notably the Universal Church.

Image 3: Old building from the colonial period, Polana Cimento neighborhood, Maputo, Mozambique.

Chapter 2 – Spiritual agents on the frontier of “tradition” – discusses the different meanings of the categories: tradition, traditional, modernity, modern, and civilized. In addition to colonial connotations, these categories are often used in relational processes involving people, spirits, tinyanga, Zion prophets, and pastors of the Universal Church. The tinyanga usually try to understand the spiritual reasons for misfortunes and to pacify spiritual entities. Some Zion prophets do the same and call themselves “Bible healers” or “Christian healers”. Other Zion prophets criticize the activities of the tinyanga and traditional rituals. By contrast, Universal Church pastors criticize both tinyanga and Zion prophets, calling them sorcerers and witches. Nevertheless, they mimic traditional rituals to attract new believers. These different spiritual alternatives increase the competition among them. While some believers remain loyal to the Pentecostal churches, many people seek spiritual healers and prophets. Some of these agents – tinyanga, prophets, and Zion believers – act as frontier beings, giving and receiving traditional treatment while praying in churches they consider modern and civilized.

Image 4: Zion church altar, T3 neighborhood, Matola, Mozambique.
Image 5: Tinyanga pieces for spiritual treatment, Maputo, Mozambique.

Chapter 3 – Effective peace or war against the spirits? – analyses the spiritual war in Maputo. I discuss how the various conflicts that plagued Mozambique since the colonial period provided the potential for violence and the fear of war. Next, I stress how Brazilian Pentecostal churches participate in political discussions with the government and other religions in search of effective peace. However, their rituals constitute spiritual wars and attacks to spiritual entities in Mozambique. Through examples from my interlocutors, I discuss how these spirits appear in multiple versions. They can be gods, grandfathers, namesakes, spiritual husbands, dead soldiers, or African Brazilian spirits. Brazilian Pentecostal churches do not recognize the importance of ancestors or deceased relatives. Instead, they homogenize all the spirits and treat them as demons, promoting a spiritual war, and taking advantage of the potential for violence.

Image 6: Universal Church treatment campaign advertising, Polana Cimento neighborhood. Maputo, Mozambique.
Image 7: Zion treatment, Costa do Sol Beach, Maputo, Mozambique.

Chapter 4 – “Family problems, traditional problems” – discusses the tensions between traditional kinship and Pentecostal relationality in southern Mozambique through the analysis of rituals in the Universal Church and interlocutors’ cases. I observed that there are overlaps, agreements, conflicts, and frictions between agnatic and spiritual kinship, inasmuch as many people are converted and break bonds with their relatives, and overall with their ancestors. Some Pentecostal churches require exclusivity and forbid believers to participate in traditional ceremonies, such as lobolo (traditional marriage) and funeral rituals. They also criticize bonds of kinship and claim that the ancestors cannot offer protection against diseases or witchcraft. Pentecostal relationality presents itself as a relationality of rupture, offering ways to break with tradition. They also offer believers the opportunity to belong to a transnational family, which they call Universal family. However, many people, such as pentecostal believers, differentiate their faith from culture or tradition. They keep praying in Pentecostal churches while performing traditional rituals, evidencing that spiritual kinship and pentecostal relationality involve ruptures, continuities, and adaptations.

Image 8: Zion service, Mafalala neighborhood, Maputo, Mozambique.

Chapter 5 – Magic, sorcery and “hidden debts”– examines a complex of economic, religious, and political connections between visible and invisible powers in Maputo. I take the category of hidden debts, a contemporary corruption scandal in Mozambique, to describe the economic relations involving believers, pastors, healers, prophets, and spiritual entities. I also show how the Universal Church’s civilizatory magic tries to persuade believers that their poverty is not structural or governmental. According to them, the strained circumstances would be the result of sorcery and alleged African laziness. In addition to this colonial and racist diagnosis, pastors encourage entrepreneurship and financial sacrifices and try to convince people to donate a lot of money in special prosperity rituals to fight sorcery. Although very few believers become rich after donating their possessions to the church, many of them donate money, jewellery, cars, and properties, but do not receive the promised prosperity. This generates an endless cycle of hidden debt, making believers always indebted to God and the church. At the same time, many people are suspicious of the Brazilian pastors’ persuasive preaching and their methods of convincing people to make offerings. According some rumours, pastors would use magic, sorcery, or witchcraft to convince people to give money to the church. The premise for distrust is that only sorcerers and witches would have so much persuasive power and would be able to accumulate so many resources.

Image 9: Universal Church offering envelope

Chapter 6 – The imagined Brazil and the civilizatory magic – discusses the circulation of imagined Brazil, shaped by pentecostal missionaries, Brazilian soap operas, TV shows, and Mozambican YouTubers’ channels. Media content shapes the stereotype of Brazil as a modern and civilized country, which would be a racial democracy and a country where there would be many business opportunities for everyone. Since imagined Brazil constitutes a comparative parameter that makes Brazilian churches more attractive, it encourages potential believers to abandon tradition and stimulates the wish to migrate to Brazil or at least to attend a Brazilian Pentecostal church. Furthermore, I discuss how various Zion churches have been affected by other Brazilian churches. Some of my Zion interlocutors told me they would like to go to Brazil to start a “true” Zion church there. Other Zion bishops and pastors told me that they would be cleaning their churches and removing traditional elements from rituals. This relationship also generates ruptures, and some Zion churches have become evangelical.

Image 10: Universal Church service, Alto Maé neighborhood, Maputo, Mozambique.

In the Conclusion, I present the situation of a Universal Church devotee and former Zion believer who is involved in complex relationships with coworkers, relatives, spirits, and sorcery. He told me that he participates in a Brazilian Church and yet keeps in touch with his dead relatives to get protection against sorcery, even though the pastors criticize such a reliance on tradition. I conclude that his story illustrates how pentecostal relationality is multifaceted, although always maintains inequalities and asymmetries. It also shows that Mozambicans might be vulnerable in the face of Brazilian civilizatory aesthetics, even though they are not just victims of the Brazilian churches or pastors. Many of them criticize the supposed Brazilian pentecostal greed but keep attending the pentecostal services. Others consider that pentecostal and Zion churches’ treatments are cheaper than tinyanga therapies, given that they spend amounts of money to perform traditional ceremonies. One might consider these thoughts and attitudes to be contradictions. However, many people I met see this supposed religious inconsistancy just as part of life’s complexity.

* All the photographies were taken by author, 2018-2019.

MEYER, Birgit (2009). Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion and the Senses. New York: Palgrave.
NYAMNJOH, Francis (2015). Incompleteness: Frontier Africa and the Currency of Conviviality. Journal of Asian and African Studies. p. 1-18.
SPIES, Eva (2019). Being in Relation: A Critical Appraisal of Religious Diversity and Mission Encounter in Madagascar. Journal of Africana Religions, vol. 7, n. 1, p. 62-83.

Bio note
Clayton Guerreiro is a postdoctoral researcher at the Federal University of São Paulo (Brazil) and a researcher at the Laboratory of Anthropology of Religion (LAR-Unicamp). He has a PhD in Social Sciences from the University of Campinas (Brazil) and was affiliated to the Religious Matters Program in 2020 as a visiting researcher. E-mail: