Cross-Cultural Communication

What difficulties in communication do cross-cultural workers face? How can these best be addressed in various settings?

Materiality and “Spirits”: Explaining Exorcism in Africa

WCIU Journal: Cross-Cultural Communications Topic

October 10, 2019

by Jim Harries, PhD.     

Jim Harries (b. 1964) has engaged in detailed research into inter-cultural communication between the West and Africa since 1988. He has a PhD in Theology (University of Birmingham, UK). Jim’s home, located in a Kenyan village, functions in African languages, as does his practice of Bible teaching, which is his main local ministry. Jim has published seven books and numerous articles. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission ( http://www.vulnerablemission.org ).

Jim Harries (b. 1964) has engaged in detailed research into inter-cultural communication between the West and Africa since 1988. He has a PhD in Theology (University of Birmingham, UK). Jim’s home, located in a Kenyan village, functions in African languages, as does his practice of Bible teaching, which is his main local ministry. Jim has published seven books and numerous articles. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission (http://www.vulnerablemission.org).


“Deliverance has become one of the principle modes through which Kenyans hope to restore tangible truth to the world, to reconstruct a morally viable modernity” (Blunt 2004, 325).

Exorcism, a much valued, rational and sensible ministry as far as many African Christians are concerned, is frequently not appreciated in the West. This results from linguistic naivety, and the West’s concealment of their own religious history to undergird secular ideologies. Both African faith in God, and indigenous languages, must be taken seriously in Western scholarship.

A case study considering the use of the term “spirit” in Western English (that is misappropriated into African discourse) graphically illustrates errors being made when considering deliverance ministries in African Christian churches. There is an urgent need to overcome linguistic naivety and secular hegemony in this regard. Careful exploration of the literature on gift-giving, in light of African people’s affinity for ministries of exorcism, reveals the means by which “material” and “spiritual” are, in Africa, not mutually exclusive.


“Deliverance has become one of the principle modes through which Kenyans hope to restore tangible truth to the world, to reconstruct a morally viable modernity” (Blunt 2004, 325).

Westerners tend to ignore the reality of the spirit world and instead presume a modern view of materiality. This worldview has been acquired through a historical process of secularization. But modern understandings of the material are not universal. Overly naïve translation of “spirit” between the West and Africa has resulted in misleading perceptions about “deliverance” ministries in Africa.

Many arguments presented here were inspired by observations arising from frequent visits over a 20-year period to an African Indigenous Church (AIC) in Gem, Kenya, known as African Israel Nineveh. (See https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/african-israel-church-nineveh; see also Padwick 2003, 89-96). This is known as a “Spirit” or, in Swahili, Roho church. (Roho originates from an Arabic term that resembles the Hebrew term, ruach [https://www.compellingtruth.org/meaning-ruach.html].) Up to an hour can be given over to “chasing away sins.” In this practice, the leader of the service mentions a certain sin, such as envy, idleness, backbiting, and so on. The whole congregation then stands, and with raised voices and violent gesticulations, everyone chases their sin away, as if it were an untoward “spirit.”

In this article I look at how “spirits” arise from inevitable tensions in traditional gift-giving societies, then apply these insights to an examination of contemporary deliverance ministry in Africa. A case study considering the use of the term “spirit” in Western English (that is misappropriated into African discourse) graphically illustrates errors being made when considering deliverance ministries in African Christian churches. There is an urgent need to overcome linguistic naivety and secular hegemony in this regard. Careful exploration of the literature on gift-giving, in light of African people’s affinity for ministries of exorcism, reveals the means by which “material” and “spiritual” are, in Africa, not mutually exclusive.

The Origins of Materiality in the West

“Many of our [modern] ideas about materiality in fact remain indebted to Descartes, who defined matter in the seventeenth century as corporeal substance constituted of length, breadth, and thickness; as extended, uniform, and inert” (Coole and Frost 2010, 7). Descartes died in 1650. Before his time, differences between the material and spiritual were blurred. But during Descartes’ lifetime, a secular worldview took precedence over religious affairs. The “discovery” in the West of materiality, and its cousin secularism, coincided, according to Appiah and Gates, with the end of a mutual acceptance of equality of power between European and African people (Appiah and Gates 1999). Are these connected? “Up to about 1650 the general nature of European contact [with Africans] was to encourage a mutually profitable partnership which rested, emphatically, on a mutually accepted equality of power, but ‘racism’ began after this time” according to Appiah and Gates (1999, 56).

The acquisition of the West’s understanding of material is perhaps both the pride of the West, and one of its greatest enigmas. Civilization emerged on its back. Under different names (modernity, development, advancement, progress, and so on) civilization is valued and is a key global concern. People who did not share in the European enlightenment now feel its effects through globalization. Many are trying to play catch-up, which is implicit in the label given to many majority world countries, namely, “developing” countries. Failing to play catch-up in today’s world is seen as leading to poverty, irrelevance, a third-class status, or even extinction (but for much “charity” that unfortunately often leads to unhealthy dependencies).

Western Language Dominance in Globalization

As we ask how to help others to “develop,” globalization is advancing apace, rendering amongst other things, European academia and scholarship hegemonic. Millions of African children spend up to 10 hours per day, six days per week, for over a decade, cramming Western wisdom into their heads using European languages. They live a pre-enlightenment way of life, but they learn to talk in a post-enlightenment way. These days, because few serious Western scholars bother trying to understand Africa on its own terms (i.e. languages),  what the academic world receives from Africa is a slightly jumbled but otherwise familiar version of itself. (See Venuti 1998.) This hegemony, when Europeans hear only through “modern” (European) languages, sifts their perception of contemporary pre-modern societies, filtering out much of their pre-enlightenment content, giving a deceptive impression of uniformity with the West.

Cutting through masses of widely promoted Western reporting to find truth is no mean task. I will attempt to re-write some Western history from an African point of view. My filtering of written historical accounts is based on decades of close experience of primal African ways of life received through African languages, i.e. in African people’s own terms, in a way that nowadays seems to be singular. Though born and bred in the UK, I have used indigenous African languages while sharing in daily life with African people and reaching out to indigenous churches since 1988. (For a short fictionalised account of these experiences, see Harries 2018c.) Hence I perceive hidden but significant ways in which the dominance of European languages misleads both African and European people (Harries 2013).

The Role of the Gospel in Transforming Civilizations

How did Europe become modern? This remains of critical importance. Whatever happened seems to have greatly empowered Europe, the US, Australia, New Zealand, and so on. Europe claims to want to share the benefits of the enlightenment it acquired with others (Bompani 2014, 7). Now the question looms; how to do that?

I frequently reflect on the relationship between contemporary African life, contemporary Western life, and an apparent role of the Gospel in transforming the former into something like the latter. That is, in observing how African people live today and, on the assumption that Europeans were in the past more like Africans, I frequently perceive ways in which the Gospel might have brought the changes. It becomes evident that peculiarities of Western ways of life, including those associated with “civilization,” can be traced to the impact of the Gospel and the church on Europe, an impact that is now being seen in contemporary Africa.[1]

Deason (1986) and Zakai (2007) show how contemporary modernism is rooted in the impact of the Gospel of Christ on the history of the West (see Harries 2018a). I will not re-iterate here those arguments that demonstrate that “the peculiar prosperity of the West originates from their historic faith in Christ” (Harries 2018a, 40). That “peculiar prosperity” is connected with the ability of the West to recognize materiality—that is, the worldview that what is material is what is “real.”

Complex Pseudo-materiality in the Pre-modern Practice of Gift-giving

Given our common Western understanding of materiality, we would expect it to be difficult for Western scholars to perceive how material things could be other than such. (Can material be not-material?) To explain this, I want to draw particularly on Mauss and Barclay’s writings. Barclay’s historical re-analysis of some traditional categories connected to gifts, particularly Paul’s teaching on gifts and grace, opens doors that enable us to re-consider the nature of materiality. It is “necessary to be highly self-conscious of the categories and assumptions that modern, Western interpreters are apt to bring to the discussion of gift and grace; they represent not timeless but culturally relative configurations of our topic” (Barclay 2017, 64). “Those of us brought up in the modern West are likely to be surprised (even shocked) by the gift practices of non-Western cultures today” (Barclay 2017, 11). “More than the pretty wrapping paper and ribbon we use today, gift exchange in the Middle Ages was the social interaction that defined and manifested relationships between family and friends, acquaintances and strangers, and God and the church” (http://www.medievalists.net/2014/12/gift-giving-middle-ages-new-exhibition-getty/).

Mauss re-examines an issue occluded by modern notions of gift giving (Mauss 1967 (1925)). Much modern understanding of gift giving is wrongly, i.e. anachronistically, applied to biblical and other historical eras (Barclay 2017, 11-65). While Derrida assumes with many Westerners that a true gift “must not circulate” (Derrida 1992, 7), Barclay corrects him, saying that gift-giving is always “interested” (Barclay 2017, 63). Seneca, writing in Roman circles in mid first century, considered gift exchange to be “the chief factor in tying human society together” (Barclay 2017, 45).

Not all gifts are “material” (Mauss 1967, 3, 12). Material gifts were, in ancient times, exchangeable for non-material returns, such as “honor” (Mauss 1967, 34). In the ancient system of euergetism (from the Greek, “doing good deeds”), wealthy members of communities were encouraged to invest in the infrastructure of growing cities, in exchange for honor, given through allocation of key positions at feasts and public celebrations (Barclay 2017, 32-35). Archaically a gift “comes … spiritually from a person … retains a magical and religious hold over the recipient … is alive and often personified” (Mauss 1967, 10).

Gift exchange, while profoundly necessary for community survival and prosperity, is fraught with difficulties. People end up “constantly embroiled with each other and feel themselves in debt to each other” (Mauss 1967, 31). Gift giving in pre-modern cultures was highly complex, causing stress and unsettlement. The principle that a “return” is expected, while always real, was also imprecise. Gift exchange could not be converted to financial terms. Tensions resulting from disputes about the mutuality of gift exchanges were common. I suggest below that these tensions are a basis for what are in English known as “spirits.”

The Nature of “Spirits” in Africa

The above insights form the platform from which I want to re-examine the identities of what are commonly known in Africa (using the English language) as “spirits.” I want to start by articulating a personal experience, which I hope will demonstrate the nature of the suggestion I want to make.

On one occasion I urgently needed medical examination gloves to protect my hands for using an insecticide spray at home. Unfortunately, the very morning I was to use the gloves, I discovered that they were lost. I approached a nearby chemist, to ask if they could urgently give me such gloves. I was told that they do not sell examination gloves. Nevertheless, the pharmacist’s assistant, someone known to me, searched for a box of gloves, and gave me four of them. Having been told they are not for sale, I took them without offering payment. As I walked to the exit door of the chemist, someone told me “pandgi,” “hide them.” Other customers seeing me walk off with pharmacy property I had not paid for, might have caused a problem. I was frustrated that, because I had to spray that morning, the loss of my gloves forced me into considerable inconvenience. My pilfering property from the pharmacy, compromised my moral standing and perhaps put the employment of the pharmacist at risk. I had incurred a debt to the person who gave me the gloves. Although of little monetary value, the cost of him giving them to me might have been high, for example should his superiors have found out and marked his record or fired him. Later on using the gloves, I felt a deep discontent with the way gift-giving had gone that morning. I felt guilty, as if people were talking about me, I was being badly thought about, I had committed an immoral act, someone might come to accuse me, all because I had inappropriately received a “free” gift.

Spirits and Relationships

This ill-feeling, you might say “in my spirit,”  caused me to reflect further on the impacts of gifts, whether material or otherwise, on human community. Many of Mauss’ observations on primitive societies ring true in Africa, as aptly articulated by Shamala in his description of Obuntu amongst Luyia people of Western Kenya (2008). For the sake of fairness or justice, it is important that an account of favors be kept. If you have done me a favor, i.e. given me a particular gift, then I need to reciprocate. But, as Barclay points out, gifts are typically not objectively or even financially quantifiable and their giving and receipt is complex. They can be hard to remember, memory can play tricks, so people’s recollection of events may vary. Gift exchanges are bewilderingly frequent in the totality of human existence: even a simple comment like “I prayed for you” or “I thought of you,” or “I put in a word for you,” even an affirming smile, assistance offered, a compliment, the list is endless, could imply an implicit obligation to reciprocate on the part of the recipient.

As a result, human communities are bound together by endless incalculable debts and obligations. No matter how “thick-skinned” someone is, some of the above is bound to cause concern at some point or another. Humans like to avoid stoking ill feelings of others towards them. That can prove very difficult with this level of complexity. This becomes a concern for everyone, but especially for more sensitive people. My sense of having “pilfered” from the chemist was troubling to me. Life in “normal” human society, perhaps for all but the rich and well-to-do,[2] but even for them, can be a terrifyingly complex maze within which one risks causing ill-feeling at every turn.

When good-relationship is the foundation to every success in life, as is said to be the case in Africa (Rasmussen and Rasmussen 2015, 12), then conversely poor-relationship may be the cause of a lack of success; failure, suffering, illness, and misfortune in general. Many scholars who write about Africa point out that there exists within many African societies a deep concern with what is often translated into English as “spirits” (Mbiti 1975, 70-81). If deep community concerns arise from perceived imbalances in gift-giving, and similarly deep concerns troubling people are interpreted as being untoward spirits, this raises the question concerning the correspondence between the two.

Relational tensions being interpreted as “spirits” contributes to African ways of life being appropriated into the English category of “religion.” Numerous African terms (i.e. originating from numerous different African languages and tribes, and translating many different terms within one language and tribe) are now incorporated into the English word “spirit,” and that is often used as a synonym for “demon.” These assumptions about “spirits” in Africa are a transposition from European languages that may be concealing deep layers of complexity from view. Amongst these complexities is the likelihood that “spirits” are or arise from perceived imbalances in extant gift-exchange systems, and are not a religious feature at allquestioning the religious verses secular divide.

Deliverance and Forgiveness

To re-iterate: in holistic African societies, relationship failure is considered responsible for “misfortune” (Rasmussen and Rasmussen, as cited above). At the root of this is envy (Harries 2012), a foundational human reluctance to accept that someone else is or has something better than oneself, resulting in the desire that the better-off person “suffers” (clearly articulated by the German term, schadenfreude). When life is painful and unfair to them, losers may, in order to level things out, desire to attack the prosperous. Africans have a reputation for dragging down successful colleagues (Deacon 2012, 669). For them, failure and misfortune are like “curses” (another term very limited by use of English) that keep them back. These are the problems, I suggest, that African Christian preachers are busy exorcising or removing from people in “deliverance ministry.”

New Testament Greek terms that are commonly translated into English as “forgive,” imply that something is being chased away or removed, such as I have observed in the African Indigenous Church. For example “aphíēmi … [is] properly, send away; release (discharge)” (https://biblehub.com/greek/863.htm). If to “forgive” is to “remove something,” and that which is removed is clearly sin, this in turn implies a kind of debt, and supports my hypothesis that imbalances or perceived imbalances in the form of implicit “debts” in gift exchanges may be a major part of the identity of so-called “spirits.” 

Western Understanding of “Spirits”

It seems much of Western understanding of spirits has been invented relatively recently. The term “spirit,” coming from a Latin word for wind (spiritus), has acquired a singular identity in English, that was certainly never there in the biblical writings. Biblical terms translated as “spirit” are wind (pneuma Greek; ruach Hebrew), but not so in English. Use of spirit rather than wind results in a unique creation, often considered in the category of “supernatural,” implying in modern terms “unreal,” belonging to a spiritual realm, that contemporary people no longer ‘believe in’. “Spirit,” especially in association with “demon” (Greek daimonion) conjures up images of short men carrying pitch forks. (See: https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/11468/what-is-the-origin-of-the-devils-red-pointy-costume-and-pitchfork.) For a Westerner, spirits can be considered disembodied, non-material beings. For some Westerners then obviously, spirits don’t exist. Because spirits energise witchcraft (Harries 2007, footnote 9), it follows to many Westerners that witchcraft does not exist.

Africans may take “evil spirit” as simply an English translation for their term, for example jachien in the Luo language. Westerners, however, see the term differently than do Africans, associating it with the way it has developed through use in their own communities over centuries. WAs far as Westerners are concerned, when Africans use an English term such as “evil spirit,” the Westerner appropriates a vast complex historical understanding, of which the African may be totally unaware! (Had the term “wind” been used instead of spirit (Africans fear bad winds) that would seem to be less incredible to Westerners.)

People often seem oblivious to how use of someone else’s language inevitably creates barriers to mutual understanding between them and the originators of that language. Owners of a language, in the above example English, attach many meanings to words that have long complex histories of which foreign-users like Africans are unaware. Hence when African people use English, they communicate vast amounts of content about which they themselves remain ignorant.

Similarly, when Africans use English they fail to communicate (to Westerners) vast amounts of content that is strongly implicit to their own people. Scrutiny of the Luo language of Africa (Western Kenya) reveals numerous terms and concepts that have in recent times been appropriated by the English “spirit.” Just by way of example: sepe, jachien, juok, juogi, chuny marach, iro, sihoho, bilo, dil and nawi. (Expansion of the diverse meaning of each term would take far more space than is available in this article.) The single term “spirit” when used by Westerners about African practice conceals masses of indigenous complexity and history.

Deliverance Ministry in Africa

Much modern condemnation in the West of so-called spirit-exorcism is, in the light of the above, laughably simplistic. My suggestion, based on threetwo decades of immersion in African language and culture, is that untoward “spirits” are the imbalances that result from life lived according to traditional rules of gift-exchange. I do not claim that this is a sufficient explanation of the English term “spirits” as used in Africa. I do not intend to be reductionist. I am simply using an example to illustrate a massive issue. Understanding “spirits” as a product of gift-exchange is an example of a viable alternative explanation that has the potential to throw some badly needed light on certain issues, to compare and contrast with the prevailing view, so to relativize much extant contemporary wisdom.

The above exploration also demonstrates a direct link between the material and the spiritual: failure or perceived failure to keep one’s account in balance in the gift exchange system of one’s community (which includes material gifts) can translate into what are widely, albeit misleadingly, known in English as untoward “spirits.”

I want to move on to look at some implications of this thesis for “deliverance ministry,” especially as practiced by African churches. I assume “deliverance ministry” to be a re-vamping of the term, exorcism, that endeavours to overcome negative vibes associated with the term exorcism for native English speakers. In my experience in East Africa, many people love to be exorcised.[3] This is often the pinnacle of church services. East African people closely identify with the notion that there is bad in them, which they would like to have removed. The problem with this practice arises when those bad things are considered to be “spirits,” or when they are considered from a dualistic modern worldview perspective, in which secular approaches, such as psychology, endeavour to separate human thinking and understanding from their connections to divinity. In both these cases, exorcism is said to involve the supernatural, a category that makes little sense in Africa (Harries 2018a, 38).

We have shown how many people can be, and are, deeply troubled as a result of apparent or implicit debts or imbalances in gift exchanges. These debts can be connected to any misfortune experienced. Occasionally rectification is possible in the normal course of life— giving a return gift, doing someone a favour, honoring someone. When this is no longer possible, then the crisis being faced can appear insurmountable without help—a bit like an incurable disease. A witchdoctor may offer help. Especially if the debt is with a person who is no longer alive, a witchdoctor can learn of a solution from the dead.[4] Payment extended for a witch doctor to manoeuvre in a mysterious realm, can redress perceived imbalances.

Enter the Christian church into this scene. Gospel preachers and teachers talk much of forgiveness. That talk goes right to the heart of the matters at hand, when people are seeking removal of perceived causes of their misfortune. My example of receiving gloves illustrates how it can be difficult to get forgiveness. The offended may be dead, far away, inaccessible. The Christian answer: God forgives, sometimes on behalf of other people, although this does not mean that I should not seek reconciliation with the person concerned. God can forgive me, even when an offended person cannot. Churches are thus places where one can acquire cleansing from burdens of gift-giving imbalance accumulated over time, including the actions of previous generations. Hence they are places where one can get healing.

Use of Metaphor

I would like us to consider whether imagery associated with bad things being chased away, whether in church or by a witch doctor, can in part be subsumed as a metaphor. When the bad things leave, even should they leave with a shriek, and then go and infect someone else (in Luo language, loko dhoch), can we see that as a metaphor? Until the 1970s, the role of metaphors in Western language was seen to be primarily ornamental and of “novel cases” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 70). Now we recognize metaphor as being foundational to all expression of meaning. It is less realized that Africans also use metaphor. Yet, texts about life in Africa written with pre-1980s Western wisdom continue to be considered authoritative. Is African use of metaphor being missed?

If so, then we no more need to ask whether “spirits” are real or supernatural than to ask whether “winds of change” are made up of gas-molecules.

Translation Is Key

In English, one talks of sins being forgiven. The term forgiven seems to be a little ambiguous. In Western Christian minds, I suggest it implies a correction or alteration made in an implicit balance sheet of sins, that results in a positive, like an extra credit put into the ledger, arising from the shedding of Jesus’ blood. But as with Greek terms, so also African alternatives may have different implications. Taking just two African languages, the widespread Luo translation of forgive is weyo, so that “forgive me” is wena. To weyo is, according to Capen, “to leave or abandon” (Capen 1998). Hence to be forgiven is to be abandoned by one’s sins. A widely used Swahili term for being forgiven is kuachiliwa (ach, leave-off) implying something very similar to weyo above. Clearly African people’s own understandings of the terms they use to translate the English, “forgive,” imply the removal of a “spirit.” This further confirms our hypothesis that “spirits” can be understood as sins or debts which metaphorically speaking are removable items. For many African people, implicit debts in the gift-giving system can be removed, i.e. exorcised, by God, in a process called ‘forgiveness’..


I suggest that the reason people get relief through Churches’ deliverance ministries is because God stands behind such ministry. The same God who initially created mankind who is to be trusted in his ability at resolving the major crises faced by individual people and by humanity as a whole today. Hence African people are flocking to churches. Western debunking has yet to convince them that God isn’t helping them.

The unravelling of deep and wide historical misconceptions on meaning and language in this article, particularly pertaining to religion and materiality, enables us to propose new insights which could assist Western comprehension of African religious practices, especially the practice of exorcism. Exorcism, a much valued, rational, and sensible ministry as far as many African Christians are concerned, is frequently not appreciated in the West. This results from gross linguistic naivety, and the West’s efforts at concealing their own religious history to undergird secular ideologies. Both African faith in God, and indigenous languages, must be taken seriously in Western scholarship.

I do not claim that this understanding of deliverance ministry in Africa is complete or fully adequate. Yet it helps us to understand why Africans believe in spirits and to appreciate the means they use to get rid of them. It seems research on Africa has been too bound to the West. We need more “tortuous” paths of discovery that will “break boundaries” and take “risk” (Bompani 2014, 2, 6, 15). Perhaps only thus can Western scholarship learn to adjust to our globalized age?


[1] Christianity is inextricable from Kenyan politics (Deacon 2015:208).  Blunt tells us that “Deliverance has become one of the principle modes through which Kenyans hope to restore tangible truth to the world, to reconstruct a morally viable modernity” (my emphasis) (Blunt 2004, 325). (In my view, both Blunt and Deacon anachronistically assume Kenya once to have been “modern” and “Western.” as with is Europe.)

[2] On the assumption that wealthy people can more easily keep the ambiguous balance sheets implied above in their favour than can people who are struggling with poverty.

[3] That is not to say that East African people will acknowledge this orientation to exorcism. Many have learned that to get on in the contemporary world, they must imitate whites and their culture. To acknowledge being anything that is peculiarly African may be counterproductive.

[4] My reader should remember that I do not refer to anything ‘supernatural’.


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