Africa, Headlines

SIERRA LEONE-RELIGION: Opiate Of A Hard-Pressed People?

Lansana Gberie

FREETOWN, Oct 30 1995 (IPS) - People turn to religion in times of crisis and Sierra Leoneans are no exception.

A cruel four-year civil war has forced 250,000 people to flee the country, displaced 600,000 more, brought the economy to its knees and introduced starvation to the countryside — more than enough reasons to look to spiritual salvation.

Orthodox Christian churches and Islamic leaders in this multi- confessional society of 4.5 million have watched their congregations fall with the rise of new charismatic faiths, offering hope, fellowship and solace.

The fastest growing is the ‘Jesus is the Lord’ ministry, founded and led by a 48-year-old widow, Sister Dora Dumbuya. The clout she now wields is such that military leader Capt. Valentine Strasser turned up in person to open the church’s ‘Crusade’ on October 10 which attracted 30,000 worshipers.

The meeting, at which “miracle” cures were apparently performed, ended in disaster a few days later when a stampede killed eight people and left 13 seriously injured.

What caused the tragedy is confusing — some reports claim a “serpent” appeared, panicking the crowd. But the event has however sparked controversy over the new evangelism.

A commentary, captioned “miracle or debacle”, in the sensation-hungry ‘New Shaft’ newspaper laid out some of the concerns.

“Let us remember the master’s warning about false prophets. We know some of our frustrated brothers and sisters would be tempted to take solace, just as Karl Marx observed, in some of these strange houses of worship in the hope of uplifting their spiritual, if not material, lives. But this is a sham. We must work, not pray all the time,” the tabloid said.

The clergy, accusing Dumbuya of witchcraft, have joined the fray claiming that the charismatic churches are a haven for the unemployed looking for jobs and the unmarried seeking partners.

“This is a vicious lie,” counters brother Tunde of Jesus is the Lord. “This ministry is open to everyone and it is growing because it caters for the spiritual needs of members. The church restores hopes, offering people something to continue to live for.”

Tunde claimed that “important personalities” in government and business are among the flock, and the church now boasts a branch in Manchester, England.

Dumbuya herself has a curious history. Before establishing her ministry, she was a member of the Emmanuel Assembly of God’s Church, and has confessed to visiting “jujumen” in the past.

Soon after the death of her only child, her husband, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the army, was implicated in a coup plot in December 1992 and executed along with several other officers.

“After all these trials and tribulations I knew I must dedicate my life to God,” she told IPS. “I was fired with enthusiasm to work for the lord … I had begun a small church earlier but soon I discovered that more and more people were flocking there.”

After the tragedy at her ministry, Dumbuya made a statement to the police and was released. “They know as well as I do that it was an accident, an unfortunate occurrence, never mind what my detractors say.”

However, school teacher Abu Sillah, is among those here who are far from sympathetic.

“It is funny this national obsession with religion these days. It hasn’t ended the war in spite of the fact that the present government has called for national prayers many times. It can’t save this nation,” he says.

That view has not stopped the multitudes looking for upliftment turning to the new faiths.

People visiting Dumbuya’s church, for example, report that she has helped arrange marriages, find jobs for the unemployed and obtain notoriously difficult visas for those trying to travel to the U.S. and Europe.

Islam, the majority religion here, has not been spared the ferment.

A new religion ‘Dina Bisoh’ — a curious blend of Islam and traditionalism — has grown over the past four years. Its spread led to Muslim youths storming the movement’s shrine in the capital early this year.

Founded by an illiterate displaced man known as Alpha, Dina Bisoh claims around 2,000 followers but makes no pretense to exalted spiritualism.

One local newspaper, reporting on activities at its shrine, claimed: “It is a life of libido in there … two or three men could share a woman and a man may sleep with his sister. What they are looking for is life free from conventional constrains.”

Most members of Dina Bisoh are displaced people living in the slum area of Kroobay.

They recently participated in a ‘peace march’, all of them dressed in bright colours, but were mobbed by some Muslim youths protesting their use of Islamic symbols.

“We are all worshipping the same God although in separate ways,” founder-leader, Alpha claims.

When IPS visited the shrine there were less than 20 people, clad in rags, gathered around him. They could not account for the rest of their number.

“Well, they have gone out looking for food to eat … they will come back, believe me,” Alpha said, but seemed far from convinced.

When Strasser’s National Provisional Ruling Council siezed power in a coup in 1992 it seemed to signal a break with the morally bankrupt past, represented by the corrupt regime of former president Joseph Momoh.

Young artists painted lurid murals of Christ and the Virgin Mary on the city’s walls. And, after each setback, including Britain’s aid freeze following the December coup plot executions, the regime called a week of national prayer and fasting.

The unwinnable war against the rebel Revolutionary United Front rebels — whose aims are far from clear and have refused to participate in elections planned for early next year — continues to grind on as the country falls apart.

“Well, we are back to where we were,” believes Mohamed Swarray, a student of Fourah Bay College, “the revolution has failed.”

 
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Africa, Headlines

SIERRA LEONE-RELIGION: Opiate Of A Hard-Pressed People?

Lansana Gberie

FREETOWN, Oct 30 1995 (IPS) - People turn to religion in times of crisis and Sierra Leoneans are no exception.
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