Reviewed by: Michael Lambek (University of Toronto Scarborough)
Faith in Flux combines limpid ethnography with a sustained and lively argument that is at once both about the Makhuwa, people who live in the interior of northern Mozambique, and about, or rather, against, certain assumptions associated with the anthropology of Christianity as espoused by Joel Robbins and his disciples. Despite the original and insightful anthropological work on Christianity by Fenella Cannell, Webb Keane, and others that stands outside this paradigm, it has become, says Premawardhana repeatedly, the dominant paradigm. It proposes an anthropology “of Christianity” rather than an anthropology of worlds that people who happen to be Christian inhabit and cohabit with others who are either not Christian or not the same kind of Christian, worlds that encompass more than can be encompassed under the label “Christianity.” Hence the anthropology of Christianity paradigm begins by reifying its object of study. By contrast, a phenomenological approach, as Premawardhana takes it up, renders Pentecostalism [or Christianity, religion, etc.] “less autonomous, distinctive, and determinative than it tends to appear in studies predefined as studies of Pentecostalism [Christianity, religion, etc.]” (p. 156).
Inevitably, Premawardhana overgeneralizes from the Makhuwa case, but along the way he makes a number of significant points. Rather than conducting a chapter by chapter synopsis as many of the reviews on this site do, I’ll begin with some of his reflections on religion, Christianity, Pentecostalism and the anthropology of those fields and then turn to a few words on the Makhuwa. Where Robbins (in Premawardhana’s depiction) argues that Christianity is premised on rupture, Premawardhana offers a more nuanced account in which, first, such rupture is not an inevitable feature or accompaniment of Christianity, and second, in which when looked at over a broader frame of time, each ostensible rupture is one of a sequence, followed by returns. Rupture, in other words, is temporally and experientially relative. Furthermore, the appreciation of change or rupture is not unique to modernity or to conversion to Christianity but may well have been an accepted feature of life in many precolonial and pre-missionized societies.
Central to the debate is the finality or decisiveness of conversion. As Premawardhana pithily puts it, citing the Comaroffs and Cannell, “Not all who convert to Christianity convert to the Christian idea of conversion” (141). And in a foot-note he cites my remark that conversion to need not–as the Abrahamic religions are wont to claim–entail conversion from. Converting from is what Pentecostalism explicitly demands, and what theorists who claim Christianity makes a radical break with the past agree with. But this is not how the Makhuwa see it or how they practice it. Further, as Premawardhana argues, among other things the Christian notion of conversion presupposes a religion from which people convert, whereas the concept of “religion” may over-systematize and unduly abstract the practices from which the converts start.
Most Makhuwa stay away from Pentecostalism while those who are attracted to it generally move back and forth, quite literally in and out of the Pentecostal church as a building and in and out of Pentecostalism, as it were. For most Makhuwa conversion does NOT mean “making a complete break with the past” or rather, making it, but only temporarily and perhaps successively.
Premawardhana’s central point about Makhuwa is that they are mobile and that their habitus, if such be called, is precisely not one of sticking to habit, but a disposition to embrace change and movement. Makhuwa mobility is first of all literal and spatial, based on shifting cultivation and hunting, a low population density and abundance of land, and a disposition to protect themselves from slave raiders in the precolonial period and from the colonial state and the Mozambiquan state and war thereafter. But mobility is also temporal and existential.
Such movement, however, turns out often to be either circular or back and forth, thus neither random nor of the irreversible linear sort by which westerners are apt to think of history or progress. Makhuwa, as both a collective group and as individuals, are said to originate from the internal confines of a large mountain and return to it at death. Boys, Premawardhana says, leave their mothers at initiation but return to them at its conclusion. And people enter the Church when it suits them, becoming avid worshippers, but also leave the church to participate in Makhuwa ancestral rituals that the church leaders (largely non-Makhuwa) demonize. They do this with no sense of contradiction or betrayal. For Makhuwa, Premawardhana writes, praising Jesus and making offerings to ancestors “are neither mutually incompatible nor simultaneously compatible. They are serially compatible”(p. 100). Premawardhana is opposed to models of hybridity and syncretism; “What brings them together is not mixture but movement” (p. 101). As his research assistant put it, “It’s not that we have one foot in the church and one foot in tradition… but both feet in the church when we’re there, and both feet on the ancestral grounds when we’re there” (p. 101). However, at places Premawardhana does suggest the church could be made more Makhuwa-like and he notes the inculturation successfully initiated and practiced by the Catholic priest.
In fact, male initiation that follows ancestral practice is nonetheless initiated by the Catholic priest and accompanied by Christian prayer, the daytime prayers alternating (thereby fitting Premawardhana’s model) with the nighttime ancestral practices. While the description of the circumcision is vivid, the interpretation is perhaps a bit thin when compared to the standard of Victor Turner. Drawing from previous work by ethnographers writing in Portuguese, Premawardhana argues that Makhuwa circumcision is a mimesis of menarche; the blood is equivalent to menstrual blood and at the end of the ritual the youths return to their mothers. It seems to me more likely that the rite returns men to women, as he suggests, but now not only as sons to mothers but as sexual partners and co-reproducers; having come from the vagina they return to it, but now to enter it rather than to emerge from it. The return is actually a progression, there is a real transformation and it is, in at least one sense, unidirectional.
Makhuwa concerns and practices resemble the Wittgensteinian and admirably demystifying picture of “securing of life” that we owe to Malcolm Ruel (1977) for Bantu-speaking societies of eastern and southern Africa. Perhaps one could call this cultivating and channelling life, as depicted in recent ethnographies like that of Knut Myhre (2017), which takes phenomenology a good deal further than Premawardhana does. The Makhuwa identification of roots with veins, simultaneously connecting people to earth and supporting mobility (p. 67) is but one element of Premarwardhana’s reconstruction of, if I can be permitted the term, Makhuwa practical ontology.
The picture of Makhuwa life is compelling and generally convincing. However, comprehensive models of the kind Premawardhana offers are inevitably undermined, if not contradicted, by the actualities of practice. It cannot be that in choosing change Makhuwa thereby reject convention, or that in choosing movement they reject stability; life, as both the existentialists and the pragmatists he insightfully draws upon are aware, must include both. Hence the model at its most abstract is more useful in his arguments with other anthropologists of Christianity than it is in developing a fixed portrait of Makhuwa, which, by his own lights, could only be a moving image in any case.
In an interesting twist, Premawardhana suggests that Pentecostalism’s interest in movement is actually comparable to that of Makhuwa. However, he cannot then explain why if conversion to Pentecostalism (or perhaps it would be better to say, participation in Pentecostalism) is in harmony with being Makhuwa and so easy to do, in fact most Makhuwa do not convert. If mobility is “key to understanding [Pentecostalism’s] underwhelming presence in northern Mozambique” (p. 164), it would be just as key to understanding its overwhelming presence, should that ever be the case.
One could say that the continuity bias in anthropology that both Premawardhana and Robbins identify and, in their respective ways, challenge, in fact comes precisely from the recognition of the pervasiveness and inevitability of change. If everything is subject to change, how then do we account for continuity? Continuity is in fact the interesting problem–not the assumption it has frozen into in the legacy of structural and functional anthropology that originally set out to address it. Continuity is also a central question of evolutionary theory where, following Romer’s rule, change happens to preserve continuity, such that early amphibians developed means to live on land in order to move between shrinking bodies of water and thereby preserve their aquatic mode of life. At a fundamental level, biological change is a product of an attempt at continuity. Life is continuous only insofar as creatures adapt to changing conditions and new and discontinuous species form. Premawardhana himself grasps this when he speaks of “changing as a means of enduring, becoming as a mode of being, and converting as a way of life” (p. 163).
There are many other insights, both ethnographic and theoretical, in this excellent, well written book. It is well worth the read and deserves to be produced in paperback as it will make a very useful addition to courses on the anthropology of Africa, religion, and Christianity.
 In the 19th Century Makhuwa appear to have been particularly vulnerable to slavery. Indeed, the descendants of all former East African slaves found along the northwest and west of Madagascar are all known as Makua (Makoa in Malagasy orthography).
Myhre, Knut. 2017. Returning Life Language, Life Force and History in Kilimanjaro. New York: Berghahn.
Ruel, Malcolm. 1977. Belief, Ritual and the Securing of Life: Reflexive Essays on a Bantu Religion. Leiden: Brill.