Transforming Lives in Africa
A SOCIOLOGICAL study on the matrilineal (a form of matriarchal) society in the Luapula Province of Zambia appears in the American Ethnologist. Researcher Karla O. Poewe of the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, considers the effect that religious denominations have on the traditional ways of Luapulans. After her 18 months spent with these people, Poewe concludes that only “Jehovah’s Witnesses succeed” in achieving “change in behavior among their members vis-à-vis kinship, family, and economic activities,” whereas others have “an indifferent record of success in giving direction to practical conduct and holding the individual to such conduct.” Her study includes the following observations:
“In the villages the activities of the [Jehovah’s Witnesses] approximate what one would expect of the best redemptive, nonrevolutionary movements. Members almost imperceptibly restructure their lives and thus, indirectly, their communities for the purpose of becoming full participants in the coming kingdom of God. . . .
“Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose teachings constitute a learning process designed to build mature servants, . . . have earned the reputation among their countrymen of being scrupulously honest and thus are preferred for jobs in which money is handled.”
Describing Luapulan family traditions, researcher Poewe explains that since heritage in their society is traced through the mother’s line, “Luapula matriliny enables women to control the land, collect remittances from children, and divorce ‘useless’ husbands.” She also observes: “Women feel that easy divorces are vital under conditions in which men are not ‘trained’ to be primary providers for wife and offspring.” How well have the Witnesses been able to cope with such traditional marital conduct?
Poewe answers: “Jehovah’s Witnesses experience greater success than members of other denominations in maintaining stable marital unions. As with employers and servants, their success represents a modified exchange relationship between husband and wife, who, in their newly discovered, nonthreatening, cooperative endeavors, have become accountable in their treatment of one another to a new figurehead, God. In exchange for trust, which is so risky for a woman to grant a man other than her brother (in Luapula’s matrilineal society), the Jehovah’s Witness husband is taught to mature into practicing responsibility for the well-being of his wife and children. But in addition to participating in an exchange between trust and responsibility, husband and wife are encouraged to be individuals with integrity (abantu abacishinka). This overriding demand for integrity cements marriage.”
To what does this sociological study credit such a major adjustment in traditional ways among the Luapulans? The writer observes that among Jehovah’s Witnesses “the Bible is treated as a ‘model’ for social life.” As she puts it: “Luapula’s Jehovah’s Witnesses use the Bible to create individuals worthy of participation in a new world.”