Continuities of Change: Conversion and Convertibility in Northern Mozambique

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Continuities of Change: Conversion and Convertibility in Northern Mozambique

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Title: Continuities of Change: Conversion and Convertibility in Northern Mozambique
Author: Premawardhana, Devaka
Citation: Premawardhana, Devaka. 2014. Continuities of Change: Conversion and Convertibility in Northern Mozambique. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: Recent scholarship on Africa gives the impression of a singular narrative regarding Pentecostalism, that of inexorable rise. Indisputably, Pentecostalism's "explosion" throughout the global South is one of today's more remarkable religious phenomena. Yet what can we learn by shifting attention from the places where Pentecostal churches succeed to where they fail? Attending to this question offers an opportunity to reassess a regnant theoretical paradigm within recent studies of Pentecostalism: that of discontinuity. This paradigm holds that Pentecostalism, by insisting that worshippers break with traditional practices and ancestral spirits, introduces a temporal rupture with the past. This is a salutary theoretical move, insofar as it challenges the social scientific tendency to see people as largely reproductive of the past, incapable of discontinuous change. The problem, however, is the implicit assumption that "traditional" cultures--Pentecostalism's contrast class--are static by comparison. My research reveals that the Makhuwa-speaking people of northern Mozambique prove themselves extraordinarily capable of change, and not solely as the result of conversion to Pentecostalism, migration to cities, or other features of African "modernization."
This dissertation describes Makhuwa rituals, metaphors, and histories that inculcate dispositions toward mobility and experimentalism. What is significant about these types of change is their banality in everyday affairs. As such, they help mark the Makhuwa "traditional" framework as constitutionally pliable and malleable. Change, even radical change, is endogenous. The new churches' ecstatic dances and spirit baptisms, their theologies of rebirth and renewal, are some of the features that most appeal to those who participate in them. Their appeal, however, is as extensions of, not alternatives to, indigenous ways of being.
Yet if the convertibility of the Makhuwa self precedes entry into the churches, brings people into the churches, and finds reinforcement in the churches, it also facilitates exit from the churches. Change is not only incremental and regular, it is also reversible. The reason the churches fail to retain members is not, as their leaders often complain, that people are too rooted in their ancestral ways, but precisely the opposite: they are un-rooted, mobile by tradition.
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