Telenovelas in Kinshasa: The witch, the lunatic and the pastor

Pentacostal churches in Kinshasa have their own TV channels, with religious music videos, talk shows with discussions on the Bible, confessions from former witches, and local drama series. These series work according to a fixed formula, containing three characters: the witch, the lunatic and the pastor.
We should remove our western gaze when we are looking at African churches. So says anthropologist Katrien Pype from the Catholic University in Leuven. Her research focuses on the Pentacostal television drama series for charismatic churches. African Pentacostal churches were portrayed negatively in Belgium earlier this year. According to IACSSO, the government’s research centre for sects, the churches are posing a threat to the health of their members, because they preach spiritual medicine such as faith healing, as superior to urgent medical care.
“It has occurred that people refuse medical care, probably because they could not afford a doctor’s visit”, says Pype. “However this practice is not as widespread as IACSSO would portray.  Those Belgian Congolese who are calling to spiritual medicine, combine such choice with the conventional medical approach. The research centre is working too much from a western secular perspective. It regards religious practices of African migrants, over whom the Belgian state has no immediate control, as a threat. Actually these churches are also providing a social care network within the African community.”

Katrien Pype has just finished a remarkable fieldwork: for seventeen months, she was part of an actor group making Pentacostal dramas in Kinshasa. Ever since the mid nineties, the Pentacostal churches have been active on Kinoise television. “Mobutu –who recognised his position of absolute power was slipping away – could not ignore the wave of democratisation which was then washing through Africa. In order to save his declining powers, he opened up the media landscape, which resulted in growing charismatic churches getting airtime as well. Today, the big churches have their own channels, on which they screen a number of programme formats: religious music videos, talk shows with discussions on the Bible, confessions from former witches, and local drama series called maboke. These series work according to a fixed formula, containing three characters: the witch, the lunatic and the pastor. The key scenario does not change: there is a witch, there are social troubles, and the pastor comes in as the “rescuer” and solves everything. Conversion to Christianity is the offered solution.”
Prayers, confessions from former witches and devil expulsions constitute the fixed elements in the plot, causing the key changes in the series. In Western eyes, these elements do not exactly reveal social change. “Yet these popular Pentacostal dramas fulfil an important social role”, says Pype. “The TV series offer a framework to the people through which they can understand the urban reality, and they call for social and personal responsibility to be taken up. The stories are about recognisable Congolese, offering an explanation and a solution. The “Pentacostal TV” has transformed the Kinshasa living room into a social meeting space. Everyone watches TV together, and there are fierce discussions about the content.” (td)

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