Ukufutikila: Towards A Pentecostal Theology Of Healing During Zambia’s COVID-19 Pandemic
By Elias Munshya
In the early years of the Pentecostal movement – particularly the one under the US-styled prosperity preachers’ flavour – healing was widely believed to be the “children’s bread” (Matthew 15:26-28). This expression popularised by USA faith healers and preachers meant that Christians, at least the legitimate Christians were entitled to God’s healing as a matter of right. The Pentecostal movement’s very history, with its genesis at AZUSA Street in Los Angeles and in several other places, is centred on divine healing. God expects people to walk in “divine health”. This expectation means Pentecostals can command all sicknesses and illnesses to vanish at their command. In Pentecostalism, a believer has the authority to command things and change things around them. That Jesus told believers to speak to “this mountain to be moved and it shall be done” (Mark 11:23), was a cornerstone of the Pentecostal philosophy of healing.
In a traditional society like Zambia, this faith-healing prosperity gospel was suspicious of other healers. No one could take this honour away from the Lord Jesus and God. God was the only healer. Hospitals and conventional medicines were secondary to spiritual or divine healing. Believers did not need to depend on doctors or nurses’ wisdom but had to depend on the power of God. God’s healing.
Apart from the suspicion against conventional medicines, Pentecostal healing in Zambia was equally suspicious of traditional or customary healing practices. Traditional medicine, men and women, were regarded as demonic, and traditional herbs were believed to be carriers of evil spirits. A Pentecostal would not agree to take traditional herbs. The use of common traditional remedies such as umunsoka nsoka (a multi-use bitter traditional herb) was believed to be demonic. Among Bembas and other aligned tribes from the north of Zambia, there was a prevalent saying that went like this – ukwimba kati kusansha na Lesa (the preparation and use of traditional medicinal plants can be done with the approval of God). This saying was outrightly rejected among Pentecostals. There is no way God was going to be associated with traditional African medicines. First, you cannot mix God, at least not the Christian God, with traditional medicinal plants which were believed to be demonic. Second, trusting in the medium of medicinal plants for healing meant that one did not have enough faith to believe in direct divine healing.
In 2020 when the COVID-19 virus became a pandemic, churches were closed in much of the Christian world. The closing of the churches due to the Pandemic provided perhaps the greatest challenge to the Pentecostal theology of healing. On the one hand, Pentecostals believed that they had spiritual authority over all the world’s affairs and by the word of their command, they could call the temporal world to order. Further, they believed that by the power of prayer, they could heal the sick and the viruses were no match to the power of God. But on the other hand, governments insisted that churches and Christian gatherings could potentially spread the virus and churches needed to close. Churches closed.
But with the closure of the churches and the search for the cure – came this new idea among most Africans that herbs and traditional medicines could be the cure against COVID-19. Pentecostals whose theology had already been challenged by the government decisions to close the churches could no longer resist looking to other sources of healing. Pentecostals were willing therefore to try out various cures – including traditional African methods of healing. Uku futikila is one such traditional method of healing. Typically, ukufutikila or steaming was a prevalent remedy in African homes. Elders would prepare traditional herbs, roots, and leaves and boil them. This boiled remedy would then be used to steam the sick. This practice of ukufutikila was considered demonic by many Pentecostals. The leaves, roots, and herbs used by the elders were considered to be carrying bad omens and evil spirits. It was not encouraged at all.
The COVID-19 Pandemic may have caused some re-evaluation of Pentecostal theology towards health, healing, and in the context of Zambia, the use of traditional muti remedies. For sure, ukufutikila using leaves, and herbs is being used as a health remedy. And with the use of all this ukufutikila gives new meaning to ukwimba kati kusansha na Lesa, for God can use traditional African remedies as a remedy for symptoms of COVID-19 infections.
Elias Munshya can be reached at email@example.com