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Feature: Refugees flock to churches in Mozambique camp

News Stories, 16 April 2004

© UNHCR/M.Sunjic
Camp preachers show one of the many churches built by refugees at Marratane camp.

NAMPULA, Mozambique (UNHCR) A trend currently sweeping over Africa has not stopped at the refugee camp: the mushrooming of new churches and an unprecedented popularity of churchgoing.

Marratane camp in Nampula province, northern Mozambique, has less than 5,000 inhabitants but between 30 and 40 churches. Even the ministers of the largest ones have lost track of the number. The reasons for this new piousness are manifold, though not all of them are purely spiritual.

Congolese refugee Jean-Claude Assente Mempelese always feels "very enthusiastic in the prayer room" where he worships with his fellow believers in the camp's Christian Christadelphian church. He says it is love that unites him with other Christians, overcoming tribal conflicts and promoting reconciliation.

Mempelese, a Christadelphian preacher, says religion has changed his life. "Once I was irresponsible. I drank and smoked and had no orientation in life." Now, he finds that hate and rivalry have been replaced by love and understanding. His whole family is baptised and follows the new way of life.

Felix Omar Bunjbuni, a Jehovah's Witness pastor, has a more pragmatic view. Refugees have nothing to do in the camp, their lives are monotonous and boring, he says. Churches offer meaningful alternatives such as getting together, dancing, singing and praying. This, he thinks, is the main motivation for many refugees to join a congregation.

Among the most popular denominations in Africa today are Pentecostal churches. They offer a wild mixture of biblical content, mysticism, prophecies, African rites, sometimes speckled with a bit of witchcraft. Such churches cater to the needs of African societies torn apart by tribal conflicts, wars, AIDS and poverty, and trapped between western values and local traditions.

Aid workers from UNHCR and non-governmental organisations in Marratane camp confirm the refugees' strong commitment to churches. If work needs to be done for the camp community, the refugees would always demand to be paid. They recently asked for "incentives" to work on the irrigation system for their fields or even to level their own football ground. But when it comes to building churches, they do all the hard work for free.

Anuruni Tabumara is a Pentecostal Christian pastor in the camp. This church demands a lot of devotion. Members have to attend three hour-long services per week and donate money or food, whatever they can afford, to help more destitute devotees. The pastor says his church is multinational, with refugees from many different African countries. Sadly, Christian love of the neighbour was not strong enough to bridge the gap between Hutus and Tutsis, who refused to pray together and split into two groups.

All three clergymen say that the emergence of all these churches has changed the social structure of the camps and appeased conflicts. They argue that the camp has improved tremendously thanks to the new values, matrimonial fidelity and the prohibition of alcohol and drugs. They say that tribal groups are reconciled, AIDS infection is low, alcoholism and domestic violence have decreased, and crime is dwindling.

Representatives of women's groups in the camp, who do not want to be named, have rather different views. In the camp's jargon, a clearing with a big shady tree in the middle is called "Sun City", after a famous entertainment park in South Africa. The women say this is where many men spend their days chatting, drinking and smoking. Domestic violence is no less present than in most impoverished societies, and aid workers are concerned about the number of teenage pregnancies and AIDS cases.

According to the women, much of what the preachers say is just wishful thinking.

Local intellectuals and UN officials know of other motives that are driving refugees to sects and churches. Moneymaking is one of them. Some preachers and self-appointed prophets are abusing the genuine need for spirituality, squeezing out the little that people have to enrich themselves.

Some refugees have their own hidden agenda for joining the sects, some of which are based in countries like the United States. They hope that with the help of their new congregations, they will find a way to be resettled to a western country.

Hence, many African refugees are hoping to get to the "promised land", be it by resettlement, by leading a more meaningful life or by going to heaven one day. Whatever their motives, there is no doubt that churches add to the colour and diversity of life in Marratane camp.

By Melita H. Sunjic
UNHCR Regional Office in South Africa

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