Plurality of religion, plurality of justice : exploring the role of religion in disputing processes in Gorongosa, Central Mozambique

Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


Secularisation and modernisation theories long predicted the demise of supernatural forces in the lives of people after the Enlightenment. By the end of the twentieth century however, scholars slowly came to recognise that a belief in the supernatural was not disappearing at all but, in fact, gaining momentum in many parts of the world, especially in the global South. Religion is (back) at the centre of attention. The current attention, however, appears to be mainly to religion in a negative sense; to fundamentalism and religiously-oriented wars that are wreaking havoc in many parts of the world. Less effort has been made to come to an understanding of the role of religion in disputes that are not necessarily about religion. This dissertation explores the role of religion in disputing processes in Gorongosa, a district in Central Mozambique. Religion might provide important orientations to people on how to behave in everyday life vis-à-vis each other and vis-à-vis the spiritual world. But which normative orientations does religion provide to people in the prevention, mediation, and resolution of disputes?
In Chapter 1, theoretical approaches towards religion and disputing are discussed. Central to religion is a belief in spiritual beings, which provides normative orientations to people. In the context of Gorongosa, Christianity and traditional religion play important roles. The latter is usually referred to simply as ‘tradition’ by people in Gorongosa. After the discussion of religion, follows a discussion of theoretical approaches towards processes of disputing in the context of legal pluralism. At the end of the chapter, the selection of Gorongosa, Mozambique for the study is explained and the field site is introduced.
Chapter 2 provides a historical overview of key developments in Mozambique in general, and in Gorongosa in particular, especially in relation to governance and religion. Crucial legal changes are described and how they have affected the society of Gorongosa. It is shown that the first lasting evangelisation in Gorongosa started only in 1947, which is relatively recent. Therefore, many of the older people still vividly recall times in which traditional beliefs held a more central role.
Chapter 3 further elaborates on the changes brought to society and individuals in this society from early Christianisation onwards. Today, plurality of religion is ingrained in both society and individuals. In this chapter, I describe the way in which people identify with tradition and Christianity in discourse and in praxis. Many people define themselves as Christians, but when looking for normative orientations to guide their behaviour, they frequently shift between tradition and Christianity. Both categories of religion play a role in providing normative orientations and spiritual security to people in a rapidly changing world. When people in Gorongosa, refer to religion, they are typically referring to Christianity, not to traditional religion. It is argued that this is partly due to missionary discourse that defines Christianity as the one and only religion. Not defining tradition in the same terms as Christianity makes the two categories more compatible. It also makes it easier for people to more efficiently shop at the religious marketplace when they are in search of normative orientations.
In Chapter 4, I present a case study of a conflict over land in the Gorongosa district. At the centre of the conflict between the local population and the Gorongosa National Park was a mountain. For the Park management, the mountain was of interest because it is part of the park’s watershed and, it was argued, essential for the Park’s ecosystem. For the local population, the mountain is an important resource, with fertile lands due to the favourable climatic conditions. Additionally, certain parts of the mountain are believed to be sacred and access is tightly regulated due to ritual prescriptions laid down by the ancestral spirits. The case shows how people can empower themselves by referring to the spirits.
The role of religious leaders in disputing processes is described in Chapter 5. The first part of the chapter describes the way in which spirit mediums participate in the disputing process by first revealing the spiritual truth and subsequently by retaliation. Only once these phases have been fulfilled, steps can be taken towards reconciliation. Special attention is paid to ‘the video’; an innovative method to reveal the truth that one of the spirit mediums in Gorongosa introduced early 2008. Within a couple of weeks, this method was fully accepted by large parts of the population. I show that the instrument was innovative, yet strongly rooted in tradition. The second part of the chapter shows the mediatory role of the pastors in disputes. Pastors follow a different path through the disputing process than spirit mediums, but they strive for a similar aim; reconciliation. To achieve reconciliation, pastors first pray and read the Bible with the disputing parties. The next step is mutual forgiveness. Once this is done, the way to reconciliation is open. Pastors mainly intervene in conflicts that people want to keep ‘within the house’.
In Chapter 6, I move from the religious realms to the staterooms of disputing; the police station and the district court. While religion does appear in these settings, it is mainly traditional religion, via a reference to the spirits. People – plaintiffs and defendants alike – allocate responsibility to the spirits to justify or explain their behaviour and to defend their rights. Although many of the local state officials share a belief in ‘the spirits of tradition’ with their subjects, ‘spiritual arguments’ are seldom taken into consideration in the decision-making stage of the disputing process. I show that this sometimes leads to dissatisfaction among the disputants, who subsequently turn their backs on the state and search for a solution outside the control of the state.
Neighbourhood secretaries, community courts, and régulos are more or less hybrid authorities who have more freedom to accommodate a wide range of arguments when they are consulted to mediate in conflicts. In Chapter 7, I show that these authorities not only assist in the mediation of a wider range of arguments, but that they themselves also actively invoke normative orientations provided by both Christianity and traditional religion. Although these shifts in orientations might seem inconsistent, I argue that they are in line with the shifting orientations of their subjects, as presented in Chapter 3.
In Chapter 8, I will describe the ‘problem of order’ that the Mozambican state faces. In recent years, Mozambique has been increasingly affected by waves of ‘private justice’; often very violent forms of justice that citizens impose with their own hands. Targets of these acts of justice are mainly people suspected of crimes, witchcraft, or a combination of the two. I describe several of these incidents and discuss in which way they are linked to each other. I argue that this private justice should be understood as a questioning of the order that is imposed by the state. I use this phenomenon of private justice to show that to regain control the state is driven to cooperate with other authorities who are more trusted by the people. After independence, the Mozambican state has taken a strongly secular stance and rejected religion. Yet, the acts of private justice led the local state administration in Gorongosa to seek the cooperation of church leaders to indirectly sensitise the population. But typically, no such cooperation has been solicited from the spirit mediums. The state thus seems to be approaching the Christian leaders but much less the spirit mediums. This is despite the fact that both categories of religious leaders feel they are able to give their responses to these forms of violence meant to impose justice.
In the concluding chapter of this dissertation, Chapter 9, I come back to the main question: what role does religion play in disputing processes? It is argued that religion plays a role not only through religious leaders who engage in the mediation of disputes but also via normative orientations that might prevent conflicts from taking place. Moreover, religion is not as absent in secular rooms of disputing as might be expected. Spirits, particularly, also play a role in disputes taken to the police station and district court, yet, their role is often downplayed as being insignificant. For complainants and defendants however, this is often a crucial aspect in a conflict and when not recognised within the secular rooms of the state, people can turn their backs to the state and find justice somewhere else. In conclusion, I argue that a plurality of religion contributes to a plurality of justice in Gorongosa via the different normative orientations it provides.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • von Benda-Beckmann, F., Promotor
  • von Benda-Beckmann, K., Co-promotor, External person
Award date2 Dec 2010
Place of Publication[S.l.
Print ISBNs9789085858010
Publication statusPublished - 2 Dec 2010


  • law
  • legal systems
  • social systems
  • culture
  • religion
  • conflict
  • plural society
  • mozambique
  • christianity
  • conflict management


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