On 13 January 2018, Minister of National Guidance and Religious Affairs Reverend Godfridah Sumaili announced a one-week national prayer and fasting campaign, effective 15 January, ‘to kick out cholera from the land’. Branding the recent outbreak and spread of cholera as an attack from the devil, Sumaili argued that divine intervention offers a permanent solution to combating the contagious disease and called on Zambians to take to their knees to ensure ‘the success of this program’: ‘Cholera has come and we would like God to help us deal with this matter permanently. We want the root cause of Cholera to be identified and in order to do that, we need God’s wisdom. We are a Christian Nation and so when we have a calamity, we should look to God’.
Sumaili’s comments have attracted the anger of many Zambians, who feel that she is making the country a laughing stock in the eyes of the world – which is certainly the case – and that she is incompetent. I understand the disappointment and ire of my fellow citizens in relation to the minister’s remarks. To trivialise the occurrence of a grave sickness that is killing citizens and insist, as our Reverend did, that a waterborne disease can be ended instantaneously and miraculously by appeals to prayer is in itself symptomatic of the presence of a more serious and possibly infectious disease at the heart of government. However, I do not think it is really helpful to assess Sumaili’s remarks using the scale of competence. Few ministers serving in President Edgar Lungu’s cabinet would pass a competence test. It is more likely that the essential prerequisites for government service under Lungu are incompetence, ignorance or low levels of education, adulation for the appointing authority, the suspension of one’s conscience, and an unyielding willingness to ignore corruption.
In my view, Sumaili’s recourse to prayer as a response to the cholera crisis is better understood in its wider context: one that, in Lungu’s Zambia, has seen the appropriation of the Christian faith for narrow ends and the effective re-creation of God as a proud partisan. In Cabinet presently are many men and women who have absolutely no clue about where they are taking us or how to solve our myriad complex national challenges. During times of national drifts, great crises and uncertainty (which under Lungu is nearly all the time), religion offers an easier recourse for weak, unenlightened and vision-lacking leaders, such as the ones we presently have. Sumaili is a significant part of this generally unthinking lot. By claiming that cholera is a result of supernatural forces and that prayer can cure it, Sumaili is (ab)using faith to disguise the government’s policy failures. Any apparent failure by prayer to occasion the required outcome could then be attributed to the inability of Zambians to pray sufficiently or explained by the idea that God is simply taking his time in responding to the tendered prayers. And who amongst us, the errant mere mortals, can question the schedule of God?
By interpreting cholera as an attack from the devil that needs a collective prayer to God to save us from the evil forces, Sumaili is also attempting to completely divert people’s attention from the simple fact that cholera is a bacterial water-borne disease, and that its outbreak is a consequence of the persistent failure of the government and the municipal authorities in Lusaka to provide safe, clean drinking water that is separate from sewage and to enforce minimum standards of hygiene in the city’s markets and eateries. The obvious fact of the matter is that the present government, like its predecessors, has been hugely negligent in addressing these central issues, and therefore the devil that Sumaili is looking for is actually the government itself. She knows all this and her call for prayers is a result of either wilful and unforgivable dishonesty or a continuing search for a mandate for her needless ministry.
What is worse is that the minister is not only failing to take responsibility for government inaction but is blaming the cholera sufferers for their own plight. The argument that it is the devil or evil spirits that are responsible for the disease suggests that those affected have brought it on themselves by their own ‘sinful’ actions. By calling on gullible people to collectively engage in an exercise of blaming themselves for letting in these evil spirits or the devil, the Reverend is providing a system of explanation that occludes the actual cause of the pandemic. Her antics represent another example of the government attempting to escape responsibility by the common strategy of blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator. In this respect, Sumaili’s appropriate title is Minister of National Misguidance and Religious Propaganda. I do not think there was need for a ministry of religious affairs in the first place and, to be fair to Sumaili, any person holding that portfolio, with its totalitarian mandate, would probably do and say exactly what she is doing and saying.
Sumaili’s appeals to prayer also suggest an underlying assumption that serious problems do not require the investment of time, resources and effort. Rather, according to our Reverend, simply taking to our knees and closing our eyes in prayer can solve problems immediately. This warped and depressing thinking, I must concede, is not restricted to Sumaili, President Lungu, or government ministers alone; it is a belief that is prevalent among many Zambians today. I do not know if it is the dominant and degraded Christian theology and practice (which is largely pacifist) or a history of personalised rule, or perhaps both, that seem to have disrupted ideas of cause and effect among many Zambians. People do not attribute outcomes to their likely causes, but often to supernatural phenomena. They do not recognise their own agency and the agency of those around them. In removing human agency from the actual causes of cholera, Sumaili is arguably a perfect representative of the current psyche and character structure of the ‘typical Zambian’: unquestioning, passive, cowardly, zombie-like, clearly valueless, easy to manipulate, naive, superstitious and quite clearly backward.
I am curious to know if Sumaili thinks that European cities are much more in God’s favour than those in Zambia and elsewhere in the southern Africa region. For until the 19th century, cholera regularly ravaged Europe’s capital cities, as the cause and spread of the disease were poorly understood. It was not until 1854 when an ingenious English physician, John Snow, traced the source of an outbreak of cholera in a densely populated inner London district, Soho, to a contaminated water pump. At this time, drinking water was drawn from communal water pumps, much like it is in many compounds in Lusaka. Snow then proved his theory by closing down the water pump that he suspected was contaminated, a move that instantly ended the outbreak. The modern understanding of cholera and how it is spread emanates from that moment. Cholera is now a thing of the past in London and other European capitals, and the minister surely knows why this is the case. Yet she still found it necessary to ascribe blame to the devil and to seek divine intervention on a manmade problem whose resolution requires human action, not appeals to prayer. Sumaili’s victimisation of God and prayer reminds me of the parable of the drowning man, one that I seek readers’ indulgence to quote in full:
“A terrible storm came into a town and local officials sent out an emergency warning that the riverbanks would soon overflow and flood the nearby homes. They ordered everyone in the town to evacuate immediately. A faithful Christian man heard the warning and decided to stay, saying to himself, ‘I will trust God and if I am in danger, then God will send a divine miracle to save me.’
The neighbours came by his house and said to him, ‘We are leaving and there is room for you in our car, please come with us!’ But the man declined. ‘I have faith that God will save me.’
As the man stood on his porch watching the water rise up the steps, a man in a canoe paddled by and called to him, ‘Hurry and come into my canoe, the waters are rising quickly!’ But the man again said, ‘No thanks, God will save me.’
The floodwaters rose higher pouring water into his living room and the man had to retreat to the second floor. A police motorboat came by and saw him at the window. ‘We will come up and rescue you!’ they shouted. But the man refused, waving them off saying, ‘Use your time to save someone else! I have faith that God will save me!’
The flood waters rose higher and higher and the man had to climb up to his rooftop. A helicopter spotted him and dropped a rope ladder. A rescue officer came down the ladder and pleaded with the man, ‘Grab my hand and I will pull you up!’ But the man STILL refused, folding his arms tightly to his body. ‘No, thank you! God will save me!’
Shortly after, the house broke up and the floodwaters swept the man away and he drowned. When in Heaven, the man stood before God and asked, “I put all of my faith in You. Why did You not come and save me?’ And God said, ‘Son, I sent you a warning. I sent you a car. I sent you a canoe. I sent you a motorboat. I sent you a helicopter. What more did you expect?”
Many of us, Zambians, are like the drowning man, seeking divine intervention on matters that require human action or practical solutions. People seemingly believe that they can be passive and wait for assistance and not acknowledge that their own actions and the actions of those around them can both cause problems and be the solutions of those problems. This belief is not held only by ordinary Zambians. More dangerously, it is held by our national leaders, who are themselves passive in the face of problems and will not take action, hoping for divine intervention of a spectacular and miraculous kind when all around is the knowledge and resources needed to address such challenges. In the case of cholera, for instance, God has already shown us the root cause of the disease, how to treat it and how to stop it from occurring in the first place. Further appeals for divine knowledge are not necessary, and we would do well to stop victimising God and prayers.
It is worth noting that, even theologically, Sumaili’s remarks sit on dangerous ground, though she may not realise it. In the Bible, plagues and other calamities were often sent to punish the leaders who turned away from God. Take for example, the stubborn-hearted Pharaoh to whom Moses constantly appealed ‘Let my people go!’ Terrible plagues befell the land of Egypt before Pharaoh was swayed. What is Rev. Sumaili saying about President Lungu, who, like Pharaoh, is not in the habit of heeding advice or pleas? Is she suggesting that Lungu’s rule has invited plagues and disasters upon Zambia? First, there was drought, now there is a terrible disease. What would be next, rain of blood or the death of all the first-borns? Or perhaps Sumaili is suggesting that we Zambians are paying for our ‘sinful choice’ of electing (that is if the 2016 poll outcome was not rigged) a government that is incapable of providing effective leadership and ensuring sufficient standards of hygiene? If Sumaili was attempting to draw our attention to this crucial point, then she should forgive us for misunderstanding her honourable intentions and would do better to urgently organise national prayers for God to assist us in removing the root cause of the current cholera problem: Lungu’s administration.
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