A ritual not unlike exorcism has become widespread among many so-called ‘born again’ churches across Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. During kuchunda, a person supposedly possessed by evil spirits is roughed up. At the same time it is an interesting source of income for the pastors.
By Thierry Kayandi, Goma
“Yes, I was severely beaten up in that prayer room across the street. It was supposed to banish the spirit of poverty from my life but nothing has changed since. I never went back to that church,” says a young, unemployed graduate, pointing to a prayer room in the Birere neighbourhood in Goma, the capital of North-Kivu Province, DRC. There are many of these places of worship in this area, where young girls go to ask God to bless them with a dream husband, while the boys hope the Lord will bestow them with a job.
Asking God for His blessings would all be run-of-the-mill religious practice, if it weren’t for the fact that people get beaten up as part of ritual called kuchunda. It is supposed to banish evil spirits and curses. Neighbours of the church in Birere often complain about the noise. Notwithstanding the fact that the doors and windows are completely sealed, the drums sounds, the screams of the devotees and the pastor’s yelling can be heard outside. Inside, some devotees are on the floor, suffering from the heavy beating they just received. They hope their lives will change for the better as soon as they walk out the door.
In his small office, after a kuchunda session that lasted for more than two hours, the ‘bishop’, as he is known among his followers, explains the importance of the ritual. He refers to the believers as his ‘patients’. “When the patients come to us, there is a force opposing ours, and prayer alone is not enough. A physical intervention is necessary, because our enemy is aggressive.”
The pastor goes on to explain that this practice is only meaningful for the enlightened ones. According to him, not all people are spiritual. “The struggle is only visible to those who are enlightened by the Holy Spirit, like ourselves.”
Pastors entirely depend on the donations of their ‘patients’. At every kuchunda session, a fair amount of time is reserved for collecting money. In the church we visit, the offering ceremony is organised in an auction-like manner and blessings are proportional to the sum of money deposited in the collection basket. Offerings range from 500 CFA francs (0.40 euros) to 45,000 CFA francs (36 euros).
Those who donate a lot are allowed to announce it over the PA system and say how much they have contributed to ‘God’s work’. Some also take the microphone to offer the pastor and his cronies television sets, mattresses or irons.
Some pastors are doing very well financially. They drive luxurious cars and rent houses in residential areas paid for with their follower’s donations. The pastors’ financial success is not sitting well with Jean Baptiste Kasekwa, theologian and Head of Bible Studies at the University of Goma.
According to Kasekwa, the success of kuchunda is mainly caused by the poverty of the devotees. “It is written nowhere in the Bible that Jesus Christ punched his believers to banish evil spirits. Know that each verse of the Bible used out of context is a pretext. These crafty pastors use the Bible to promise a brighter future to the credulous.”
The Congolese population is predominately composed of young people, whose government doesn’t give them any political or intellectual guidance, while the church has become more of a commercial enterprise than a shelter for these disoriented youth.