ESSAY: Land of the Spirits: An Exploration of Spiritual Warfare in the African Context

index  A Lengthy Essay Explaining What Is Truly Meant By the Term “Zombie”

Spiritual warfare is prevalent in every country and continent on the globe, however, not everyone is aware of the tremendous impacts it can have on individuals and entire nations. In the West, there is a temptation to relegate spiritual warfare to the sidelines thinking that it is not a topic that is that relevant to daily living. Even within many Christian churches, warfare is considered to be something that only pertains to missionaries in the majority world, far removed from what churches experience here in North America. Yet, for the African population, spiritual warfare is something that is a very real and serious presence. To the African people, warfare occurs daily, is often the cause of much stress and tumult, and is something to be feared. Many Africans remain unaware of the power of Christ that could free them from this evil presence and yet there are not enough missionaries who go to Africa being fully equipped to deal with this reality. Instead of having missionaries teach them about how Christ triumphs over the darkness, Africans are finding that the missionaries from the West often deny the ever present reality of the demonic, or else do not know how to exercise the strength and authority they have in Christ. The thrust of this essay, then, will be to explain the need for Western missionaries to receive proper training and to become fully aware of the role that Spiritual Warfare has in the African context if they are truly to reach out to this nation. Through using a variety of written resources as well as occasionally nuancing personal stories of missionaries and native Africans from the field, this essay will draw out some key beliefs that the Africans share about spiritual warfare and its dangerous effects as well as provide modern relevance to western missionaries, and finally provide a framework for the breaking down on strongholds. While each African nation might have slightly different culturally and theological practices in terms of warfare, this essay will seek to highlight the views which are shared by the majority of the African contexts.

The African Spiritual Climate: To begin with, it is very important that Western missionaries understand the culture to which they are entering into when they step foot onto African terrain. African culture is very different than Western culture in that whereas Western culture often ignores the reality and seriousness of the demonic, African culture knows it all too well. This is because the very basis of spirituality in the African perspective encompasses “the whole range of life” with humanity being only a very small part of it.[1] Instead, everything exists because of invisible beings and as a result all African religious practices, doctrines, and attitudes consist of making sense of these invisible beings.[2]

In Africa there are many different traditional religions known as ATRs. At the core of the ATRs is a belief that there is a hierarchy of gods and goddesses which includes both spiritual beings as well as impersonal magical forces.[3] These gods and goddesses then each have special forces and include certain religious rites which are the basis for the accumulation of power.[4] Some of these links may include such aspects as: maintaining and exercising spiritual control through amulets, incantations, witchcraft, sorcery, and charms, the bestowal of certain names which have significant spiritual power, rituals that restore and balance spiritual power, and finally enlisting the help of a spiritual person who can mysteriously communicate with the other world of ancestors, spirits, and ghosts.[5] The people who possess these powers are often knownvin the African context as being spiritists, diviners, mediums, witches, wizards, and sorcerers.[6]

In the African context, nothing happens simply by chance but every consequence whether positive or negative is the result of spirits, demons, and ancestors. Spirits are the cause of one’s misfortune or success, one’s future possibilities, and even of the moral fabric of the society.[7] Everything flows from the reality of the spirit world: the very foundations not only of religion, but also of philosophy, politics, the economy, and socio-cultural realities.[8] It is largely accepted that these beings are neither inherently good nor bad but rather choose to reward or punish individuals, families, and tribes according to the way people choose to respond and show allegiance to them.[9] Therefore, by appeasing the gods and serving them, it is thought that misfortune can be prevented from occurring to an individual. Conversely, if an individual chooses to disobey the spirit through breaking a religious taboo or neglecting sacrifices these beings will then cause severe trouble to the individual and his or her tribe and family through creating disharmony, behavioural difficulties, illness, or even death.[10] These attacks, then, serve not only as a warning to the person in question, but also as an invitation or initiation of a potential “ongoing relationship between the spirit and victim, perhaps to the mutual advantage of both.”[11] It is believed that when a terrible event occurs, the reason behind it can always be explained as demonic or of a different cause if brought to the attention of one who has the gifts of divination.[12]

In the African context there three main types of spirits not all of whom are evil or cause division and hardship. To begin, the strongest and perhaps most important spirit is that of the ancestor.[13] Although departed from their earthly existence, these spirits are still very much seen as being members of the family and are revered as such.[14] They are often invoked to bring good luck, to bring a bountiful harvest or good hunt, and to hear and intercede for the prayer requests offered by their families.[15] These spirits are generally not wicked but rather represent the values and ideals of a group of people, in this case their family.[16] They are generally good spirits who protect the family and help individuals fight against the evil spirits and natural disasters which can take place.[17] They have a special standing within the clan as mediators and guiders who provide caution and warnings to families.[18] They also often create harmony amongst family units when prayers for success and fertility are addressed to them.[19] These benevolent spirits exist within the framework of hierarchy, beginning with immediate ancestors and moving up to other greater spirits until finally the Creator God is reached.[20]

The second type of spirit commonly referred to in the African worldview is Zar or Bori. Unlike the ancestors which have links to moral order, these spirits set out to create disruption often choosing individuals to afflict at random.[21]   These spirits may enter into an individual and then cause extreme pain, illness, or even death.[22]

Lastly, there are tribal gods which war against other territories and villages. These gods war against each other in order to maintain allegiances generally based on ethnicity and territory.[23] The winning or losing of a war is then dependent on the success or weakness of the gods or spirits.[24] These gods, which take up residence  in a specific geographical location or even in an inanimate object seek to protect individuals who live within their realm, yet if defeated, the allegiance the individuals have to the god must be transferred over to the more powerful god who won the war.[25] When a shifting of allegiance takes place, it frequently mirrors the “power encounters”  described in dramatic conversions to Pentecostal Christianity.[26]

How the Demons Got There: In African understanding, the entire world – in, above, and below consists of spirit beings such as gods, ancestors, ghosts, and even nature spirits.[27] Gods inhabit humans, animals, inanimate objects, and geographical locations.[28] These gods often serve as persecutors, intimidating and cajoling others into giving their allegiance to them and vying for power through fighting other gods in order to accumulate more respect from the clan.[29] Their main purpose is to control and manipulate the will and minds of the peoples, tribes, and nations that they have influence and perceived power over.[30] Yet, one may wonder how the spirits originally found their place in the lives of the African people.

Evil spirits gain entrance in a variety of ways and due to a variety of factors. Spirits like the Zar and Bori, find a gateway through improper burial, death away from home, identification of witches, dead animals, and even spirits who were always created as spirits.[31] Others may gain entrance through demonic strongholds such as curses proclaimed by slaves or through sorcery and dark magic.[32] In one specific case, Van der Meer has identified five major strongholds in Mali: “pride, mammon, Islam, disunity, and a territorial spirit with [sic] a symbol of three crocodiles.”[33] This is one example of what strongholds are present in this continent.

Once the spirits have initially gained entrance, they remain for a variety of reasons. In some instances they demand certain favours to be carried out in exchange for protection and blessings on the individual.[34] In the case of ancestral spirits they may remain until a taboo has been amended or the fault has been acknowledged and paid for.[35] They also may be summoned if dormant by a witch or wizard who calls them forth through evil magic and bids them to inflict the mind of an individual so that that person begins to act insane or to cause that person economic misfortune.[36] Spirits can also be summoned through the use of magic medicine, occasionally producing good results in the patient but in an ungodly way.[37] Lastly, it is even thought that certain person are truly “children of the devil” if they act wickedly, thus implying that they are being used by demons to bring about certain ploys.[38]

Another severe demonic stronghold in Africa results from the slave trade.  The history and present context of which still impacts the current spiritual climate of the African continent.  The horrors of the American slave trade are common knowledge. While this essay will not get into any demonic influences on the part of the Americans who bought and sold Africans, it will highlight some of the ways that African attitudes may have created demonic strongholds. Many Africans went through tremendous pain and suffering in this era and so it is of no surprise that many of them proclaimed curses on themselves, on their ethnicity and pigmentation of skin, and even on Africa as a whole.[39] While Westerners must exercise extreme compassion in this case putting themselves in the position of the slaves and understanding the atrocities they went through and why this would be a natural response, one cannot ignore the fact that the curses spoken by the slaves then developed into having significant spiritual impacts on their descendants both in “the Caribbean and Americas as well as in the continent of Africa.”[40] Therefore, in order to reverse these curses, intercessory prayer, “identificational repentance, and  proclaiming release in the spiritual realm” are necessary in order to break these bonds and undue the effects the slave trade had on this nation.[41] While not ignoring or downplaying the terrible incidences which took place, such proclamation frees the continent from having to continue to face further slavery due to the being in bondage to the spirits which have claimed them due to these  curses.

The second way that slavery has had a profound effect on the African nation is through the use of zombies. Despite the West’s fascination with the so-called “Zombie Apocalypse”, zombies are a serious issue in African spiritual warfare; which should not be taken lightly. In Africa, witchcraft is one of the biggest economic factors explaining material inequalities and helps people understand the way power and wealth is amassed.[42]  Witches continue to build up their economic repertoire by kidnapping individuals and then forcing them to work as night labourers most often in agricultural fields, yet occasionally in other ways such as in shops or markets.[43] As in typical cases of slavery, zombification exploits gender and age imbalance with the person of perceived power, usually a member of the family who is older, taking a younger person who is poor and using them for the witch’s own purposes.[44] This imbalance of familial power, however, is not uncommon in the African worldview which often finds the majority of its attacks coming from within familial units.[45] Once enslaved, the zombies are ill-treated, not offered proper nutrition and often having  to resort to cannibalization.[46] The cannibalization results from witches sending recruits to hospitals where infants who have died at birth are stolen. The flesh of the babies is then eaten by the zombies which has occult significance as the “consumption of flesh and blood suggests the destruction of the reproductive process as it is in the small babies that are consumed.”[47]

In his synopsis, Hasu describes two main variations of zombies in the African context. Firstly, there are individuals who are perceived to have died a suspicious death but in reality have been claimed by witches as zombies.[48] Often, when these zombies are taken, a fake death and funeral is staged, yet the real person remains hidden from view only seen by the witches.[49] The second variation of a zombie is those who are spiritually dead in these cases there is no allegation of a physical death.[50] The good news is that due to pastoral support, prayer, and deliverance, these zombies are able to be brought back to the present world and when this happens it is often interpreted as the biblical injunction of raising someone from the dead.[51] Yet, for the full deliverance of a zombie, all evil spirits must be cast out of him or her so that their true soul can remain.[52] The process must then be finalized through the shaving off of the zombie’s hair in order to sever any ties the zombie still has with the witch he or she was enslaved under for witches often use hair, clothing, and saliva for the purposes of witchcraft.[53]

Warfare and Dedications: In African culture, dedications of people as well as inanimate objects are normative and both provide gateways for the demonic. In personal dedications, people may become possessed due to familial or personal involvement in the occult.[54] In these instances, the doorway is open because a person has consciously made the choice to follow a spirit other than Christ and to be subject to it and to serve it. At other times, a child could be dedicated from birth to a specific god or spirit that is really a demon.[55] Therefore, in these cases families which wish to adopt a child from African countries should be very careful to claim the authority of Christ over this child in case they or someone in their ancestry line was falsely dedicated to an idol.[56]

Moreover, entire territories have been known to dedicate themselves to a god or spirit before.   Such is the case in territorial cults. Although less common now due to colonization and the influence of Western Christianity, these cults exalt a territorial spirit who can produce rain, the longer the people exalt this god the longer he will remain among them.[57]

Secondly, there is the dedication of objects. Given that animism, a belief that spirits inhabit many different items both animate and inanimate, is at the heart of African life, it is no surprise that Satan would use impersonal articles as a means to further his destruction on this nation.[58] These objects are usually dedicated through vows and sacrifices to a spirit and include personal items such as rings, pots, and sticks.[59] As a result, demons often attach themselves to these objects or to the house or building itself which houses these objects.[60] One specific example of this is “Devil’s Hill” located in Sierra Leone. In this particular location, a demonic stronghold was established and has since created much grief and illness to missionaries who have been offered this land by malicious leaders and who were unaware of the impact the demonic had on it.[61]

Impact for Western Missionaries: With the understanding of African spiritual warfare, it becomes important for those who feel a calling to minister in Africa to understand the implications this will have on them. Here, three main lessons can be learned.

Firstly, Western missionaries must be careful not to dismiss everything that happens within the African context as being demonic for all cultures and countries have certain aspects within them which are demonic.[62] Although it is imperative for demonic strongholds to be addressed and dealt with, these should be discovered and analyzed by or with the help of native believers who are more aware of their own contexts rather than missionaries or intercessors from outside of this context.[63]

Secondly, Western missionaries need to be trained in spiritual warfare before going to the field in Africa. Many times Western missionaries lack the knowledge or skills and thus show up in the field naïve or even clueless. Several times, these missionaries have just dismissed spiritual warfare as a figment of the imagination rather than understanding that it is a truly serious and predominant aspect of the culture.[64] Having denied the validity of spirits, then, once demons are encountered in the African context these same missionaries are unaware of how to exercise the authority they have in Christ against them. Many indigenous Africans are recognizing the discrepancy of the powerlessness of the evangelicals versus what is portrayed in Scripture. As a result, due to dissatisfaction with Western Christianity, the Africans then establish their own churches which can give more focus to spiritual warfare and victorious life. These churches then experience numerous healings and exorcisms and “have grown in their own contexts” in greater measures than the African western churches have.[65]

Lastly, missionaries should not be so naïve and inexperienced as to think that demons have no place in the church and to ignore the deliverance of individuals within their own congregations. For in the African mindset, there is a daily battle taking place between the forces of good and evil, between God and the demonic.[66] In fact, in many cases Christianity is not seen as replacing the worldview of evil spirits, but rather is a way of controlling the evil influences that spirits could have on one’s life.[67] For this reason it is largely understood that a Christian’s success could be blocked by demonic forces and that as a result not only could the individual remain unsaved but the one who is ministering to them could also face misfortune, illness, or economic difficulties.[68] Furthermore, it has been discovered that churches are one of the favoured places for witches to enter into for they seek to destroy the church from within.[69] Therefore, it becomes all the more important for missionaries to not only be aware of this reality, but also to understand how to exercise their spiritual authority and how to deliver others through prayer in order to break these strongholds.[70]

Breaking the Stronghold: After acquiring awareness and knowledge of the spiritual climate, the reality of demons, and the spiritual authority they hold, missionaries are then called to break down existing strongholds on the field. There are two main ways to go about this: identificational repentance and intercessory prayer.

In the first instance, a decision for collective or personal “turning away” or discarding of the spirit must be reached. This often includes a renunciation of any vows made to the spirit, a reversal of the authority once given over to it, and a refusal to continue to venerate and exalt it.[71]  The second instance involves the prayers of both the indigenous peoples as well as the church in the West. Through prayer, strongholds are not only identified but are broken down.   Of important note would be the prayer meetings which take place in certain African countries where evil spirits are rebuked and where the true God’s faithfulness is extolled for protecting individuals from the powers of evil. [72]

It is important to note, however, that whereas intercessory prayer can identify the problem in the first place or even influence a change in heart, a personal decision must still be made on the part of the one who once venerated the spirit so that the action can be stopped. Intercessory missionaries cannot make this decision for anyone else. Without the renunciation of vows and the breaking away from the spirit’s power, individuals may likely still remain enslaved to the demon even though many intercessors are praying for them.[73]

Conclusion: The West seems largely silent and uninterested in matters of spiritual warfare choosing to confine the demonic realities to musings about structures and pluralism, however, in the African context spiritual warfare is a very real and present reality which often results in curses, wars, famines, natural disasters, illness, and even death.[74] Africans live in the mindset that everything has the potential to be caused by evil spirits and even when there may be a natural explanation that the demons can choose to use any situation to exploit and harass their victims.[75] Therefore, it is so important for missionaries who hope to minister in Africa to  be aware of these complex realities, and to prepare themselves for the challenge by learning how much spiritual authority they have and how to equip themselves to be protected from the schemes of the evil one. Only when a missionary can find their strength in Christ rather than in themselves will they truly win the cosmic battle over good and evil and only then will real change be made and conversions start to happen.


Adewuya, J Ayodeji. 2012. “The spiritual powers of Ephesians 6:10-18 in the light of African      Pentecostal spirituality.” Bulletin For Biblical Research 22, no. 2: 251-258. ATLA   Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 26, 2014).

Emmanuel El-Shariff Abdallah, Ali. 2001. “Contemporary issues in mission: an African     perspective.” Didaskalia (Otterburne, Man.) 13, no. 1: 11-23. ATLA Religion Database  with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 26, 2014).

Engelsviken, Tormod, and A. Scott Moreau. Spiritual Conflict in Today’s Mission: A Report from the Consultation on “Deliver Us from Evil,” August 2000, Nairobi, Kenya. Nairobi, Kenya: Association of Evangelicals of Africa, Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 2001.

Ferdinando, Keith, “Screwtape Revisited: Demonology Western, African, and Biblical,” in The Unseen World: Christian Reflections on Angels, Demons and the Heavenly Realm,      A.N.S. Lane, 104. Carlisle, Cumbria, [England]: Paternoster Press, 1996.

Gailey, Charles R. 1994. “Engaging the Enemy: How to Fight and Defeat Territorial Spirits.”  Missiology 22, no. 2: 250. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost  (accessed July 26, 2014).

Greenlee, David. 1994. “Territorial Spirits Reconsidered.” Missiology 22, no. 4: 507-514. ATLA  Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 26, 2014).

Hasu, Päivi. “Rescuing zombies from the hands of witches: Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity and spiritual warfare in the plural religious setting of coastal Tanzania.” Svensk  Missionstidskrift 97, no. 3 (January 1, 2009): 417-440. ATLA Religion Database with  ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 26, 2014).

Hiebert, Paul G. 2000. “Spiritual warfare and worldviews.” Direction 29, no. 2: 114-124. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 26, 2014).

Kasambala, Amon Eddie. 2005. “The Impact of an African Spirituality and Cosmology on God-  Images in Africa: A Challenge to Practical Theology and Pastoral Ministry”.   International Journal of Practical Theology. 9, no. 2: 300-323.

Kraft, Charles H. 2012. I give you authority: practicing the authority Jesus gave us.  Minneapolis, Minn: Chosen.

Park, Nam Shin. 2011. “Hermeneutics and spiritual warfare.” Didaskalia (Otterburne, Man.) 22,   85-103. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 26,       2014).

Van der Meer, Erwin. 2010. “Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare and Mission in Africa.”      Evangelical Review Of Theology 34, no. 2: 155-166. Academic Search Premier,      EBSCOhost (accessed July 17, 2014).

Wagner, C. Peter, and Fredrick Douglas Pennoyer. Wrestling with Dark Angels: Toward a Deeper Understanding of the Supernatural Forces in Spiritual Warfare. Ventura, Calif.,     U.S.A.: Regal Books, 1990.

[1] Amon Eddie Kasambala, “The Impact of an African Spirituality and Cosmology on God- Images in Africa: A Challenge to Practical Theology and Pastoral Ministry,” International Journal of Practical Theology, no. 2 (2005): 302.

[2] Ibid, 303.

[3] Tormod Engelsviken and A. Scott Moreau, Spiritual Conflict in Today’s Mission: A Report from the Consultation on “Deliver Us from Evil (Nairobi: Association of Evangelicals of Africa. Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 2001), 38.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Engelsviken, Spiritual Conflict, 38.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Keith Ferdinando, “Screwtape Revisited: Demonology Western, African, and Biblical” in The Unseen World: Christian Reflections on Angels, Demons and the Heavenly Realm, A.N.S. Lane (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 1996), 104.

[8] Kasambala, African Spirituality, 303.

[9] Paul Hiebert, “Spiritual Warfare and Worldviews,” Direction 29, no. 2 (2000): 116, accessed July 26, 2014, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost, 116.

[10] Ferdinando, Screwtape Revisited, 115.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ferdinando, 112.

[14] Kasambala, 315.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ferdinando, 116.

[17] Kasambala, 312.

[18] Ferdinando, 112.

[19] Ibid,116.

[20] Kasambala, 312.

[21] Ferdinando, 117.

[22] Ibid, 118.

[23] Hiebert, 116.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Hiebert, Spiritual Warfare and Worldviews, 115.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Charles R. Gailey, “Engaging the Enemy: How to Fight and Defeat Territorial Spirits.” Missiology 22, no. 2 (1994): 250, accessed July 27, 2014, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost, 250.

[31] Ferdinando, 113.

[32] Erwin Van der Meer, “Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare and Mission in Africa.” Evangelical Review Of Theology 34, no. 2 (2010): 155-166. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, 161.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ferdinando, 119.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ayodeji J. Adewuya, “The spiritual powers of Ephesians 6:10-18 in the light of African Pentecostal spirituality.” Bulletin For Biblical Research 22, no. 2 (2012): 251-258. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost, 288.

[37] Ibid, 257.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Van der Meer, Strategic Level, 161.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Päivi Hasu, “Rescuing zombies from the hands of witches: Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity and spiritual warfare in the plural religious setting of coastal Tanzania.” Svensk Missionstidskrift 97, no. 3 (January 1, 2009): 417-440. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost, 417.

[43] Hasu, Rescuing Zombies, 418.

[44] Hasu, 427.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid, 426.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid, 418.

[52] Ibid, 429.

[53] Ibid, 430.

[54]Engelsviken, 36.

[55] Charles H. Kraft, I Give You Authority (Minneapolis: Chosen, 1997), 180.

[56] Ibid.

[57] David Greenlee, “Territorial Spirits Reconsidered.” Missiology 22, no. 4 (1994): 507-514. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost, 510.

[58] Gailey, Engaging the Enemy, 250.

[59] Engelsviken, 36.

[60] C. Peter Wagner, Wrestling with Dark Angels: Toward a Deeper Understanding of the Supernatural Forces in Spiritual Warfare (Ventura, Calif.,   U.S.A.: Regal Books, 1990), 76.

[61] Wagner, 77.

[62] Van Der Meer, 164.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Adewuya, The spiritual powers of Ephesians 6:10-18, 253.

[65] Nam Shin Park, “Hermeneutics and spiritual warfare.” Didaskalia (Otterburne, Man.) 22 (2011):85-103. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost, 99.

[66] Hasu, 424.

[67] Kasambala, 312.

[68] Hasu, 424.

[69] Ibid, 425.

[70] Ibid, 424.

[71] Greenlee, Territorial Spirits, 512.

[72] Engelsviken, 36.

[73] Greenlee, 512.

[74] Ali Emmanuel El-Shariff Abdallah “Contemporary issues in mission: an African perspective.” Didaskalia (Otterburne, Man.) 13 no.1 (2001); 11-23.   ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost, 19.

[75] Adewuya, 253.