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Angry spirits and gods? Natural catastrophes, crises, witchcraft and religious attacks in Mozambique

09.06.2020    Tanja Kleibl, Ronald Lutz

  1. Introduction
  2. Multiple crises and socio-religious challenges in Mozambique
  3. Local aporia of alienations
  4. The global view: Imperial lifestyle and the externalisation of risk
  5. African perspectives: Ways out of the crises
  6. Visions of the future
  7. Bibliography
  8. Authors


Mozambique has been affected by multiple crises for many years. The critical societal discourse has been moved in particular by economic exploitation in combination with increasing poverty, corruption, manipulated elections and national debt, as well as elitist pacts and political disquiet. Increasingly frequent natural catastrophes as a consequence of global climate change are having terrible impacts, primarily affecting vulnerable people in Mozambique, where in global terms the cause and effect relationships are profoundly unequal. Some Mozambicans attribute the unending crises – which no talk of symbolical peace policies and further economic liberalisation can disguise – to occult forces and the effects of spirits or the anger of God or Allah. People are searching for ways to generate spiritual counterforces in the worsening socio-political situation, or at least ways to placate the gods or spirits. In the following, we first consider examples of crisis situations and existing societal-spiritual response strategies and then discuss these strategies in connection with alienation trends resulting from the continuing globalisation.

Multiple crises and socio-religious challenges in Mozambique

The examples of crises of Mozambique are also symptoms of complex polit-economic global, national and local interrelationships and their effects cannot be explained solely as the results of single factors such as unfavourable environmental conditions or climate change. So how do people in Mozambique deal with these recurring crises? Who is made responsible and what survival strategies are there? We take this opportunity to consider these questions in the light of reflections and discussions in the literature (cf. Bertelsen 2016, Kleibl & Munck 2017, Kleibl 2018, Weimer 2018).

It is well-known that post-colonial Mozambique has not managed to offer the large majority of its citizens adequate societal, economic and political security. The state has not been able to use its natural resources, whether water or farmland, gas or coal, to improve the living conditions of the majority of the population. Economic growth has increased the inequality between rich and poor, urban and rural areas, and between the south and north of the country. Mozambique is one of the most unequal countries in sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank 2018), and there is a lack of insight and political will to distribute the existing wealth more equitably. Also, no educational programmes are offered which could reverse the lack of security and the persistent absolute poverty in the context of a small, transnationally organised capitalist class. On the contrary, the increasingly rich political and economic elite not only personify the immense social inequality, but publicly flaunt “their” wealth. Images and reports are circulated in the social media showing the mansions, high-performance cars and luxury trips of the political and economic profiteers and their family members.

The majority of the population are left speechless, angry, and frustrated. But at the same time, many young people wish forlornly for a better life. The unremittent crises in the country and the regular irregularities in voter registration as well as the unfair competition between Frelimo and the opposition parties during the 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections offer no grounds for hope. The resulting trepidation in the context of extreme social inequality is often attributed to the effect of extrasensory forces and the influence of spirits. This can lead to curses, spells, and even lynching. An example is the increasing spiritual violence in the district of Inhassunge (Zambeziá Province). There the anger of the local people about the growing poverty and the exploitation of natural resources is directed against various target groups. Firstly, better-off elderly women accused of witchcraft have been severely injured, and in some cases murdered. In 2016 Chinese investors were subjected to a flood of curses, and in this context there was as least one unexplained murder (Kleibl 2018). In connection with the mining activities of the Indian company Jindal in Tete Province, which threatened the health and livelihoods of the local population, there were several violent protests, some of which had a spiritual dynamic (Kleibl 2016)

These developments are linked to the desire to be freed from spirits and evil influences. This may involve understandable survival mechanisms, which appear to be linked to people’s unfulfilled wishes. Many forms of natural healing in Mozambique are associated with spiritual beliefs, including treatments for hypertension, infections, or diabetes. It is important to distinguish such methods from the use of curses, bewitching, and ritualised criminality. Both phenomena exist in comparable forms all over the world, e.g. in Germany there is a so-called esoteric scene, while on the other hand organised ritual violence, often directed against children and women [1].

In recent years, there has been an increase in the public perception of spiritually based violence and religiously motivated revolts and attacks in Mozambique, both against the state and against major investors. However, there are hardly any relevant statistics (cf. Kleibl 2017). This situation was addressed in the Mosambik Rundbrief (2018). In a discussion paper, Bernhard Weimer (2018) considers the increasing ritual violence against representatives of the Mozambican state from an historical perspective. Using empirical case studies from three provinces (Cabo Delgado, Zambézia and Niassa) in combination with the analysis of historical, anthropological, political and economic literature, he highlights possible links between historical attacks and current attacks with religious and spiritual traits. He refers to three main aspects:

  1. For historical reasons, the political and economic situation in Mozambique is dominated by the FRELIMO party, which responds to expressions of dissatisfaction and dissent with authoritarian measures and often with violence.
  2. The restricted access to political power leads to the social and economic exclusion of local social, economic, and political representatives. This exclusion is greatest when interests such as access to rare raw materials are involved.
  3. Young people, who form the demographic majority in Mozambique, are in a state of “waithood” [2]. They want new opportunities immediately and find themselves distanced from their original communities and the cultural influences there. At the same time, these young people are not being absorbed by society or the economy.

These aspects of the crisis that has been going on for many years lead to vulnerability, above all among male youths and young adults. According to Weimer (2018), they are particularly exposed to global influences, gangs and radical religious networks. This assessment is backed up by the results of interviews in 2014 and 2015 which were analysed in a qualitative research project in Zambézia Province, Inhassunge District (Kleibl 2018). Apart from the state, religious networks were the only structures which offered opportunities for self-organisation and exchange in the context of increasing social inequality and political conflict. Within these religious networks, resistance was also organised against the highly problematic developments in the district. Older traditional leaders attributed these group dynamics to unemployment, poverty and social and political exclusion. The young men suffered from an extreme lack of prospects and were unable to enter into any formal relationships with women. It would have been impossible to pay even the smallest “Lobolo” (traditional bride price).

Local aporia of alienations

The situation in Mozambique must be viewed in the context of a wider discourse in which many authors are meanwhile studying the situation of people in the Global South. Unemployment, poverty, social exclusion and the impacts of climate change are facts of everyday life for many people in the Global South. At the same time, the conditions under which they live offer them no grounds for hope, and so they search of a better life. Whether they opt for migration, witchcraft, or a variety of religious practices, they are always searching for a way out of a situation that is robbing them of opportunities.

In the complex interactions of colonisation, decolonisation, western modernisation, urbanisation, radical changes in rural areas due in part to land grabbing, and the consequences of climate change (droughts, floods), developments are underway in the Global South which lead to a radical form of segregation in cities and to associated social problems (Davis 2011). In Maputo’s expanding poor quarters there are increasing conflicts; land grabbing leads all over Mozambique to numerous local conflicts between investors and rural communities (Faleg 2019). Although Mozambique faces a considerable problem with poverty in old age (cf. Mosambik Rundbrief 2018), poverty has also been and continues to be a problem of young people, who are unemployed and have no chance of ever living what they would regard as a good and dignified life. It is known from migration research that this often leads to a dangerous “flight” from the countryside to the towns and cities, or to the neighbouring country of South Africa, which is in a much better economic situation. Few Mozambicans dare to attempt to migrate to Europe.

It is instructive to review critically the causes of these economic, social and cultural problems, which condense into perceived hopelessness. The backgrounds of these alienations must be seen in what Osterhammel refers to as “the colonial transformation of the World” (Osterhammel 2009), which persists in neo-liberal economic globalisation, producing a previously unknown level of global inequality.

Many people in Mozambique who are excluded from the development process experience feelings of exploitation and alienation, so that, for example, people in the centre of Mozambique can be heard to reminisce about how things were better in colonial times (Kleibl 2018). The current inequality in Mozambique is characterised by an accelerated linkage between the flows of goods by multinational businesses, political-authoritarian exploitation structures, the export of a neoliberal development model, the extraction of natural resources, and an increasing infatuation with consumerism among the elites and middle classes, as mentioned at the beginning of this article.

The global view: Imperial lifestyle and the externalisation of risk

The World at Risk (cf. Beck 1986) offers a discussion of the interdependency between the Global North and the Global South not only in terms of economic and political power relationships, but also as a power relationship which assigns to the South a “Role” and a “Position” which in the final analysis only offers benefits for the lifestyles in the Global North. The aporias of the World at Risk become clearer if they are augmented by the theses of “externalisation” and the “imperial lifestyle”, which allow a more profound understanding of these interdependencies and cast light on why there is a return to (new) old traditions.

Lessenich refers to the rich, industrialised countries as externalisation societies, the power of which always lies in the exploitation of the resources in the countries of the South (the periphery), while at the same time burdening these with the costs of the lifestyles of the externalising societies (Lessenich 2016). The welfare of the North is generated mainly by externalising the costs and burdens of technological progress in this way. This ugly face of the Northern Modern is a result of its roots in the structures and mechanisms of colonial rule and its continuation in globalisation. With his analysis, Lessenich unmasks the myth that everybody would be able to benefit from the globalised economy. Rather he presents a win-lose scenario.

Brand and Wissen (2017) have extended these considerations to include the concept of the “imperial lifestyle”. The Global North enriches itself from the environmental and social resources of the Global South above all in order to ensure broad-based welfare for itself. In the established dependencies, global capitalism appears not only as a continuation of colonial processes, but as a new form of “economic imperialism”, which is also taken up by the elites of the South. Expanding production and consumption require disproportional access to the natural resources, human resources and biological sinks of the rest of the (southern) world. As a result of the economically rational actions in capitalist dependency relations, this “imperial lifestyle” leads in the Global South, but not only there, to some highly irrational counter-movements, which are also closely linked to the experiences of climate change.

In his last book, “The Metamorphosis of the World” (2016), Ulrich Beck argues that the complex global modernity is in a state of fundamental transformation, the outcome of which is uncertain. He sees conflicts such as inequality, climate change, new wars, displacement, forced migration, new nationalism and populism as a precursor of something completely different, the extent of which can only be vaguely perceived. This is shown above all in the case of climate change, which is exacerbated by the many recurrent capitalist crises. This situation also leads to xenophobia, the revival of repressed traditions and the search for refuge in a variety of religious practices, from fundamentalism to the rediscovery of magic and suchlike. Religious leaders intensify their claims to offer hope and salvation (Lutz 2015); there is also a new interest in the afterlife, with visionaries, sorcerers, and miracle healers. New opportunities are opened up for people promising to offer salvation or ways to live a better life, or claiming to be able to foretell the future, or simply preaching that people’s fate lay solely in the hands of God or Allah.

African perspectives: Ways out of the crises

These considerations are developed further in the works of Sarr and of Mbembe, who search for an “Afrotopia” or a way “out of the dark night for Africa. They focus attention on the current events and suggest “ways out” (Mbembe 2016; Sarr 2019). Both criticise the imposition of western hegemonial knowledge as “common sense”, displacing African traditions and knowledge or devaluating these by means of theories of race and ethnicity. They search for ways that Africa could draw on repressed knowledge and traditions to gain a new self-image. At the same time, this would show the world what had been lost with the imposition of pure instrumental reason. According to Mamdani (1996), this change can only take place on the basis of a reform which breaks through the institutionalised post-colonial conflicts between urban and rural areas, and between ethnic groups.

Mbembe not only calls for the African continent to become aware of the effects of external determination, in the sense of Frantz Fanon. Going far beyond Africa, he is searching for a new form of democracy. This should not be anthropocentric, but should encompass people, all creatures, the plants, rivers, the air and everything which supports life on our planet. For his part, Sarr attempts to identify counterweights to colonial and hegemonial alienation through the rediscovery of cultural wealth and a sense of community which persists in various forms in African cultures, despite the ravages of colonialism. A common feature in the writings of both authors is that people, in particular in Africa, currently find themselves in a situation of severe disruption.

The flight to religious knowledge, witchcraft, faith healers, and other practices including violence should be understood as attempts to actively counter the disruption that is experienced. Sarr points out to the “People of the North” that these traditions are still very much alive in Africa, despite all the efforts made to end them.

The context of Mozambique described at the beginning of this article is indicative of the double societal relationship and post-colonial hierarchy to be found in many African countries (cf. Ekeh 1975):

The elites “assimilated” from the West – the current “development winners” – form a small African middle class, which is protected by a formal legal system with colonial origins. They enjoy civil, economic and political liberties and can move freely. But the majority of the population continue to live under a form of customary law, which in Mozambique is called the direito consuetudinário. Even if all people have formal access to basic constitutional rights, the continued existence of the direito consuetudinário allows the post-colonial continuation of a policy of differentiation and instrumental exploitation, although the system is referred to as modern African legal pluralism. It is not surprising that the response to ‘traditional’ witchcraft or spiritual violence often involves recourse to the direito consuetudinário. In the case of religiously motivated violence against the state or powerful large investors in the province Cabo Delgado, armed security police, soldiers and the secret police were deployed in the name of combatting terrorism. Both reactions indicate an abuse of the post-colonial power relationship and the unequal handling and instrumentalization of supposedly ethnically and religiously homogeneous groups. Human rights violations are not systematically pursued under a legal system that applies to all. Rather, hierarchically interwoven worlds persist which are instrumentalised in a post-colonial system and which as a whole continue to be exploited through the imperial lifestyle and the consequences of externalisation.

Visions of the future

Sarr considers how traditions and local (indigenous) knowledge can play a more important role in a modern Africa, although it is always necessary to ask whether people become restricted or subjected to new dependencies. The phenomenon of witchcraft appears less promising, because it leads to new, totalitarian patterns which do not promise autonomy but rather aim at alienation and new dependencies. In countries such as Mozambique, more attention should be paid to collective and historically developed social structures and new social movements (e.g. about land rights or women’s rights) which operate outside corrupt state structures and western civil-society institutions.

Sarr therefore envisages an African Modern as a combination of aspects and knowledge from the European Modern and African traditions, raising both to a new level. The African Modern, as a way out of the dark night which also imposes limitations on witches and spirits, must include detachment from hegemonial knowledge and actions involving tribal-ethnic-religious differentiation, and which in addition is also a criticism of the global project of neoliberal capitalism. It can involve combining the best from the North with the best from the South. The aim is then a transcultural “re-articulation” of African knowledge, with the cultures and specific values woven into it and an appropriate practical approach. In this way, Sarr is also following the tradition of “Ubuntu”, which for years has been a prominent development concept in particular in southern Africa, offering a new understanding of community (Matthews 2018). In the Mozambican context, this could mean the acknowledgement of traditional faith healing and conflict resolution methods, while at the same time rejecting spiritual or religious violence. However, this requires a strong state legal system which applies for everybody, which integrates traditional and modern elements but is not fragmented and hierarchical. The land must be left for the use of the people in accordance with African tradition (Nyerere 1967), rather than promoting exploitative land grabbing, which in many places has contributed to natural catastrophes. In general, local knowledge can and must be rearticulated in all regions of the world in order to overcome post-colonial power.


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Prof. Dr. Tanja Kleibl
University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt
Faculty of Applied Social Sciences
Social Work, Migration and Diversity
Tiepolostraße 6
97070 Würzburg
fon: 0049 (0) 931 3511-8225

Prof. Dr. phil. Ronald Lutz
University of Applied Sciences Erfurt
Faculty of Applied Social Sciences
International Social Work
Sociology and Social Politics
Altonaer Str. 25
D-99085 Erfurt
fon: 0049 (0) 361 6700-510/701


[1] Rituelle Gewalt in Kinderhändlerringen und destruktiven Kulten. Bekanntmachung des Bundestages. Zugang: (17.05.2019)

[2] Cf. Honwana, A. (2013): Youth, Waithood, and Protest Movements in Africa. International African Institute (IAI) – Lugard Lecture 2013. AFRICAN ARGUMENTS. 12/08/2013.

Cite this publication
Kleibl, Tanja und Ronald Lutz, 2020. Angry spirits and gods? Natural catastrophes, crises, witchcraft and religious attacks in Mozambique. In: socialnet International [online]. 09.06.2020 [Date of citation: 21.10.2021]. ISSN 2627-6348. Available from Internet: