By Yolanda Covington-Ward
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My work extends this discussion to look at embodied religion more broadly; considering spirit possession but also civil or secular religion in terms of the worship of political leaders such as President Mobutu Sese Seko;32 and examining rituals in churches but also in cemeteries, forests, schools, and everyday encounters on the street. Ruth Marshall argues for seeing religion as a site of action, rather than just as a means of creating meaning (2009, 22). Following Marshall, I focus on how religion has been strategically used to motivate and unite large groups of people, moving beyond analyses of meaning and symbolism, to illuminate social transformation caused by concerted action.
When I told friends and colleagues that I was going to conduct research in the Congo, their reactions were similar: “You are going to the Congo? ” “Isn’t there a war going on there? “I heard that a lot of women are being raped there. ” I tried to assuage their worries and fears by pointing out that my research would be conducted on the western side of the country, far from the instabil42 • chapter 1 ity of the east. Professor Mbala Nkanga, associate professor of theater at the University of Michigan and my dissertation committee member and mentor, was instrumental not only in giving me contacts and bolstering my applications for funding, but also in assuring me that Bas-Congo was a very different space than the larger Congo that gripped the world’s imagination.
My very physical presence in the Lower Congo evoked cultural memories of a religious movement that challenged the authority of the Belgians during the colonial period and offered hope for a future free from European colonialism. In this way, I encountered the prophet Simon Kimbangu over and over again as he was invoked as an explanation for the presence of African Americans in the Lower Congo nearly six decades after his physical death. The constant association of my embodied presence with Kimbangu’s prophecy sparked my own interest in understanding the history and evolution of the religious movement that Kimbangu created and its continued salience in everyday life in modern-day Lower Congo.