*** yb04 pp. 164-167 Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa) ***
The people of Congo are quite religious. Churches, seminaries, and theological schools abound. It is common to meet people who can quote extensively from the Bible. As elsewhere, however, the establishing of true Christianity was not easy. But what made it especially difficult in Congo was that for a time, people confused Jehovah’s Witnesses with a religious movement known as Kitawala.
A Problem of Identity
"Kitawala" is derived from a Swahili term that means "to dominate, direct, or govern." Accordingly, the goal of this movement was essentially political—to establish independence from Belgium. That goal, some reasoned, could best be achieved under the cloak of religion. Regrettably, Kitawala groups acquired, studied, and circulated publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A sign with the words "Watch Tower" identified their meeting places. Long before Jehovah’s Witnesses were established, these "Watch Tower movements" became prominent in the province of Katanga in southeastern Congo. For decades people assumed that the Kitawala adherents were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of course, they were not.
The Kitawala twisted Bible teachings to support their political views, superstitious customs, and immoral way of life. They refused to pay taxes and opposed the colonial rulers. Some groups of them engaged in armed rebellion against the authorities. It comes as no surprise that the Belgian government outlawed them.
In 1956 a district commissioner of Belgian Congo wrote a newspaper article that shed light on the background of the Kitawala. The article discussed Tomo Nyirenda, a native of Nyasaland (now Malawi), living in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Evidently, Nyirenda had received religious instruction from someone who had associated with the Bible Students (known today as Jehovah’s Witnesses) in Cape Town, South Africa. The article stated: "[Nyirenda] penetrated into Katanga [Congo] in 1925, . . . proclaiming himself Mwana Lesa, ‘Son of God.’ He exploited the natives’ ancestral terror of being bewitched, promising that those who followed him would not only be liberated from the witch doctors but also have the means of being freed from all taxes and orders of established authority, whether the government or the Church. Those who did not accept his law were declared to be witches, knocked senseless, and then drowned during a forced ‘baptism.’ (From one river, 55 bodies were retrieved.) After being denounced by a village deputy chief, Tomo managed to escape and returned to Rhodesia. Since the Rhodesian authorities were searching for him for the murders he had committed, he was arrested, judged, and hanged."
According to the Belgian authorities, incursions by the so-called Mwana Lesa into Katanga from 1923 to 1925 marked the beginning of the Kitawala in Congo. Decades would pass before Jehovah’s Witnesses would be permitted to enter the country and reside there.
To put the problem of identity in perspective, it is important to note that independent churches are common in Africa. Some estimate that there are thousands of such organizations. John S. Mbiti, a specialist in African religions, wrote: "[A] major problem facing Christianity in Africa is the large number of Church divisions, denominations, groups and sects. Many of these were imported from abroad. Many more were started by African Christians themselves, partly because they did not wish to remain indefinitely under the domination of foreign missionaries, partly because of personal wishes for power, partly because of wanting to make Christianity reflect African culture and problems, and for various other reasons."
Thus, there were many independent churches, most of which had either borrowed teachings from or broken away from an established religion. In this, the Kitawala movement was not unique. Yet, the presence of the Kitawala offered Christendom a unique opportunity to keep Jehovah’s Witnesses out of Congo. Though church leaders well knew the difference between the Kitawala and the Witnesses, they deliberately promoted the erroneous view that the Kitawala and Jehovah’s Witnesses were one and the same.
The churches were in a strong position to spread that lie. By the early 20th century, the religions of Christendom, particularly the Catholic Church, enjoyed a powerful and influential presence in Belgian Congo. In contrast, Jehovah’s Witnesses had no presence there, which is how the clergy of Christendom wanted things to remain. They jealously held on to their converts and did not want any intrusion by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Uprisings, rebellions, and tribal clashes among the native peoples were conveniently blamed on the Kitawala, often called the Watch Tower movement. The name Watch Tower became abhorrent to public officials and authorities. This caused great difficulties for those who wanted to serve Jehovah in Congo.
During the decades leading up to the country’s independence, Jehovah’s Witnesses in other lands repeatedly sent letters to the authorities in Congo, explaining that the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society had nothing to do with the Watch Tower movement. For many years, however, officials continued to associate the activities of this indigenous religious movement with the work of Jehovah’s people. Repeated efforts to send Jehovah’s Witnesses into Congo were largely unsuccessful.
Because the Witnesses were not allowed to enter the country, little is known about genuine Witnesses within the country itself. However, a fascinating glimpse into what was happening during the difficult early years is found in reports about Congo from nearby branch offices. Let us now examine some excerpts from this Congo diary of 30 years, to which we have added some supplementary comments.