Religious Syncretism

Hilde Arntsen, Lecturer, Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo

In practice, Christianity is being mixed with traditional religious beliefs and practices, as much of the links with traditional beliefs and practices are being retained by people who claim to be believes in Christianity or other religions. Moyo remarks:

An African Christian theology is in the making in the faith and practice of the African Christian. There is always the tendency, not uniquely to Afrcan peoples, to understand the new faith in terms of what one already knows. It is not unusual to hear African Christians refer to Jesus as universal mudzimu. As Mudzimu Mukuru (the great ancestral spirit). He becomes incarnated within African culture and in that way people can understand His role and participation in all aspects of life, rather than being confined to ecclesiastical or to spiritual matters (Moyo, 1988: 202).

This combination of traditional religious beliefs and practices and influence of Western religions has given rise to a significant degree of syncretism. The continuous negotiation of and vacillation between the two systems of religious beliefs has not only given rise to particular syncretic religions beliefs and practices in contemporary Zimbabwe. This syncretism may also prove to be evident in the reception of foreign religious symbolic content, and in the negotiation of foreign symbolic material in general, as the ability of negotiating symbolic content and arriving at an acceptable mix seems to be culturally conditioned. Because of the strong presence of religious qua cultural practices or systems of beliefs, the multiple layers of interpretation based in a religious material may prove stronger here than in a traditional Western society. Nevertheless, a significant aspect in the emergence of this syncretism lies in the missionary and colonial history of the country. . . .

Although a substantial portion of the Zimbabwean population today belongs to a Christian congregation or church, people retain many of the traditional customs and beliefs in traditional religion such as Shona or Ndebele religions. After Independence, Zimbabwe's constitutional freedom of religion and worship guarantees the freedom to once again practice traditional religions. It is not possible to fully understand contemporary Zimbabwean society without the religious dimension, particularly traditional religious dimensions. One of the respondents remarked on contemporary beliefs in traditional religion:

it is very true that . . . it [the bus] turned over and it caught fire and about 45 people died, last year. It's just a plain area where there is a straight road, and for the whole of that week, about four accidents occurred on the very same spot until some elders from churches whose ancestors used to reside there were called by the government to cleanse the area and to talk to the spirits, and nothing happened after, they just passed there.


Moyo, A. 1988: "Religion and Political Thought in Independent Zimbabwe", in C. Hallencreutz and A. Moyo. Church and State in Zimbabwe. Gweru: Mambo Press, 1988.

[From Hilde Antsen, The Battle of the Mind: International New Media Elements of the New Religious Political Right in Zimbabwe. Oslo:University of Oslo, 1997, pages 47, 145. Available from Department of Media and Communications [[email protected]].

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