Negotiating asymmetries, discovering identities and experiencing new Christianities: the movements of a Brazilian researcher in Mozambique (An essay in the Self-Positionality in the Anthropology of Christianity series)

By LĂ­via Reis (National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro)

It was November 2014 and for three months I had been doing fieldwork with young faithful from the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. That Sunday, at the end of a ceremony, I went with some of them outside the Cenáculo da Fé, UCKG’s head office in the city, so we could meet with the rest of the members from Universal Youth Force (UYF), which, as usual, gathered there for an activity that happened every time after the ending of the ordinary rites in the church. The “concentração” (concentration), as it was called, can be defined as a meeting of members interested in being informed about the UYF activities through messages transmitted by the leaderships after the services and meetings. Only after the concentração the group’s activities were considered officially finished and the young believers could go back home.

On that day, however, a mystery hung in the air. There was a buzz about a possible meeting the next day with Bishop Jean, leader of the UKCG in the country, in which participation would be restricted to three hundred people. When I realized that this news generated expectations among the young believers, I did not feel comfortable participating in it because, eventually, I would be “stealing” the place of a believer who wanted to go to the event, which is why I left the group to buy a snack. As I walked, I noticed that the “obreiro” (religious assistant) had started to choose the faithful, pointing out the selected ones individually. Minutes later, Maria, an important interlocutor to my research, came to inform me that the “obreiro” had asked her to make sure the “that light skinned girl” – in this case, me – had been chosen.

I hesitated but was convinced by Maria to attend the meeting under the argument that if the “obreiro” chose me then I should go. My interlocutors knew that I did not want to become a UCKG’s member but they never stopped believing that I could be converted. For them, the more I attended church the greater the chances of conversion, and as believers it was their role to see to it. For me, a Brazilian adherent to Afro-Brazilian religions, a devotee of Santa Rita de Cássia, a Catholic until the age of 20, and a profound admirer of the Pentecostal’s relationship with the Holy Spirit, I always considered it impossible to produce any kind of distance in the field that excluded any religious experiences.

As much as I was not a Pentecostal, I was still as much a believer as they were (although I believed in gods they demonized) and I never considered being in the field as a mere observer. My learning with them necessarily passed through the body and the senses and, little by little, I became a researcher-experimenter of sensations, mediations, prayers and religious practices. In general, I actively participated in the services, physically responded to the stimuli experienced there – I cried, I got emotional, I shivered, I felt sick – and I was even assisted by a “obreiro” who identified the spirit of envy in me. There were times when I needed to be more careful with bodily expressions in order to avoid being asked by “obreiros” during events in which I considered important to observe the details more closely. I had already learned from Blanes (2006) that the negotiations imposed by the field are constitutive of the anthropological production and it was not uncommon for me to make changes midway, sometimes more than once during the same event. My relationship with these believers was crossed by this ambivalence and that was never a problem, at least for me.

However – and that is what I want to draw attention to – the way the “obreiro” talked to Maria about me had a profound impact and imposed a new set of problems on my fieldwork. First, because I realized that the leaders knew that I existed and that, although they considered me different from other people (clearer), they never asked me about my life or what I was doing there, something that was common within the thematic groups of the UCKG. Second, and more importantly, it showed me how important was to consider racial issues despite my being a black Brazilian doing fieldwork with black Mozambicans. 

I spent the way back home revisiting my memories of the slow process of building my blackness in Brazil. I tried to understand why I had been shocked so much for being considered “clarinha” (light skinned), like that, in the diminutive.[2] I remembered that in Brazil, for a good part of my life I was a black middle-class woman – depending on the context I was labeled as either “moreninha” or “pretinha”[3] – who circulated only in white environments and who, not always consciously, tried to shield herself from racism by following white aesthetic and relational patterns. I straightened my hair for years, lived and had affectionate relationships with white people, studied all my life in private schools where I was one of the few black women and got my first degree at a public law school that, before affirmative actions laws, was mostly white. 

Despite my attempts at whitening myself I was clearly still socially read as a black woman; and the quest to understand how to deal with that took me to the social sciences. There, my troubles found meaning and, even better, an explanation. Because of this trajectory, it was disconcerting to discover that day that, in Mozambique, I was not black. Not in the way I understood my blackness, constituted by the color of my skin and crossed by social representations, inequalities and racial discrimination, which, as I learned from the intersectional debate (Rios, 2019), were related to the Brazilian socio-historical context. In Mozambique, my phenotype made me “mulatto” for my friends in the upper-middle class and of Portuguese descent and white or light skinned for black and poor people. However, my economic condition (which was above the Mozambican average, even though I was a doctoral fellow), and my status as a foreigner, also helped to compose the racial and social perception that believers formed of me. Regardless of whether I was mulatto, pale or white, the fact is that I had finally understood that in Mozambique I was not black like the blacks there.

Black, foreign and Brazilian: sewing paths and fears from mobile identities

It has always been a central issue to me how my own beliefs were related to the beliefs of my “others” and how this experience helped me think in an anthropological way. I went to the field prepared to think about all of this but, due to naivety or inexperience, the racial issue caught me unprepared. Despite the power relations that cross fieldwork and the asymmetries in the relationships established between anthropologists and their “interlocutors,” I thought that I could establish a more horizontal relationship with the people around me because of my origin, my color, and my trajectory. That day, however, I realized that it was just the illusion of someone who didn’t notice the hints that had already appeared in other moments of life in Maputo.

I recalled the day I arrived in the city. My first contact with Adelia, the housekeeper where I rented a room, was impressive: although she was very happy she was, in her words, “working for a Brazilian,” she did not look me in the eye. She spoke with her head down, did not sit at the table to have lunch with me (even if I asked her to do it), and didn’t share the bathroom in the house – she did her physiological needs in a bucket. Then, I remembered my daily life and how AdĂ©lia taught me in her almost incomprehensible Portuguese that for her I was undoubtedly white. She also used to complain about the Mozambican mulattos she lived with, saying that they thought they were better than the blacks; therefore, she didn’t associate me with them. Whether by fault or pure denial I had never thought of AdĂ©lia’s questions in the light of my identity as a researcher until the fateful day when I was challenged by the “obreiro’s” speech about my color.

Besides that, I was Brazilian, which made me not just like any foreigner. In general, Mozambicans have a relationship of admiration and respect with Brazil. According to Thomaz (2001: 37), the images of Brazil as a model of racial integration that worked were appropriated since the colonial period by the actors who participated in the country’s liberation process. There was also an intense approximation in the cultural field. Music, soap operas, clothing, cosmetics, public policies for strengthening South-South relations, churches and companies, all coming from Brazil, could be easily found then in Mozambique. To top it off, I came from the country where the UCKG was founded and where the UCKG Temple of Solomon was located, which was a tourist destination many dreamed of visiting.[4] For this reason – although not without suspicion – most of the faithful with whom I related expressed an attitude of admiration towards me.

Ironically, this whole situation served to further increase my fear that the field could “go wrong,” leaving me in a deeply uncomfortable position. I just didn’t know how to be the person they told me I was, and it was very difficult to adapt to this new identity. At the same time, facing this situation made me realize that the asymmetry there was infinitely greater than I thought it would be. Although I didn’t know how I would establish a relationship of exchange without taking advantage of this position of power, it existed, and I needed to learn how to deal with it.

In the beginning I tried to solve it by putting into practice some rules that I thought were correct: I divided the bill equally in restaurants – although sometimes I had to pay the bill of those who had no money – and established an exchange relationship that, in my view, would be the fairest. If I offered the lunch ingredients, they would cook, and so on. Although they even paid for snacks or bus tickets for me the times I went to the Cenáculo da FĂ© without money, none of that prevented them from borrowing money with me without ever paying back, from asking me to buy Bibles or UCKG’s books as gifts, or even stopped one of my closest interlocutors from steal a large amount of money from me.

After the initial shock and frustration, I realized that the notion of “fair exchange” was just mine, not theirs, and I ended up paying a high price for not having understood the codes communicated by them – both spoken and unspoken. As much as our relationship was friendly, most of them lived in precarious situations and shared rooms with many family members. I concluded that, in this context, I should have offered cash compensation for the help I actually received in the research. Maria, specifically, acted as a dedicated assistant: she kept leaflets and newspaper articles that interested me, called me to tell about a report on television, and advised me on how to behave in church. Even if, in my view, I was returning her help by providing tours, gifts or food, this was definitely not what she needed. Treating money as taboo in this case revealed more about my moral and ethical values ​​than about the relationships between us that money had established; this led me to question once again the conditions of production of my data. It was evident that our asymmetries did not need to be erased but negotiated. If in fieldwork we cannot foresee the situations that will require a change of posture, then it is necessary that we are prepared to recognize its contingency and be open to alternative paths. That’s what I did.

The “repugnant other” and fieldwork: possible alternatives

The almost late perception of how my “others” perceived me was fundamental to the future directions of my fieldwork. First, it forced me to question identities that I considered to be fixed and opened up the power relations between me and them, and not only the power relations between them, the church and the state, a dynamic that was the initial focus of the research. Then, there was the issue that this game has always been entwined with another problem intrinsically connected to the first two, that is, how to do ethnographic work with those commonly perceived by our anthropological peers as being “repugnant others,” in the terms proposed by Harding (1990). Being an anthropologist who was crossed by so many religiosities and who recognizes religion as an important way of organizing and making sense of the world (Herzfeld, 2014), I have always felt close to believers instead of feeling distant from them. I was inspired by the questions raised by Brian Howell (2007) and above all by Simon Coleman (2018), who encourage us to pay attention to the “border zones” where ambivalences appear, to the temporality of ethical frameworks (ours and theirs), and to the possibility that the Pentecostal experience is fragmented and also permeated by the ludic and the ironic.

In the light of these studies, I went to the field with the certainty that a research focused on lived religion (Orsi, 2010), as engaged in by members of the UCKG, was a solution to my concerns. In my view, following the members’ trajectories, paying attention to what they did, what they used to do it, and how they did it, would help me to understand the negotiations they made when transiting through this fragmented world as members of the UCKG. Considering that much of the research on Pentecostals is centered on institutional discourses and practices and that, although important, this type of analysis tends to reduce the location and capacity of agency of the believers, making their everyday life the center of my observation would help to understand this “other” in all its complexity. For those reasons I took seriously the native categories, the actions, the reactions, the doubts, the involvement, and the questioning of my interlocutors, which included considering the way I was socially and racially perceived by them. Having my identity and my place of power so abruptly displaced, therefore, had unavoidable consequences. It directly affected the way I started to think about the relationships built between me and my interlocutors, about the reflections from which I built my object and about the anthropological knowledge produced later.

Ethic challenges

Doubts about whether I would identify myself as a researcher to the church leaders had been with me since the first day I got in Maputo. My Mozambican supervisor had warned me about the possible risks that identifying myself would involve, based on negative experiences she had during her own research a few years earlier. In Brazil, as many works have already pointed out, (Mariz, 1995; Giumbelli, 2002; Mariz and Campos, 2011), the research produced on evangelical churches adopts a pejorative tone, which is why researchers are viewed with suspicion by the leaders of the great Brazilian denominations, even when the particular churches being researched were located abroad.

As if that was not enough, the time I conducted my fieldwork purposely coincided with the national elections for president, a period that, since the end of the civil war and the establishment of democratic elections, is usually marked by conflict and death. Considering that the governing party, the “Frente de Libertação de Moçambique” (FRELIMO), and the IURD maintain a relationship of mutual cooperation (Freston, 2005; Reis, 2018; 2019), accusations of favoritism between party and church are common in the media, in the popular sentiment, and above all, among political opponents. Therefore, being mistaken for a journalist or having the intention of research placed under scrutiny could put my own physical integrity at risk, a warning, given to me by a Mozambican friend, that I decided to take seriously.

As an alternative, I chose to introduce myself as a researcher only to people whose trajectories I would be following. In practice, this meant that I gave up formally introducing myself to the church hierarchy unless I was asked by them – something which never happened. As my analysis would fall on the daily practices of the believers, not on the institution itself, I never considered it to be a problem to attend activities open to the public offered by the UCKG. My interlocutors, including the  â€śobreiros” with whom I related directly, knew about the work and collaborated with me. My previous research experiences in Pentecostal mega-temples in Brazil included the dialogue with leaders, but the Mozambican experience demanded that I take into account the risks to my physical integrity, and I weighed that in my decision to expose myself as little as possible. 

Before continuing, it is important to say that the majority of my interlocutors were women. Even though I talked to men and approached the leader “obreiro” in my group, the field imposed me to limit my friendship network, and consequently limited my research to women. At UYF, men and women were not encouraged to be intimate, and I did not consider it an option to break this rule. However, even though I could not access the male universe directly, I did not fail to observe how men and women related to each other, albeit from a perspective mediated by the faithful and my own place as a young female researcher.

Therefore, it is clear that my understanding of the field is influenced by my gendered positionality. The knowledge produced by us, as anthropologists, is localized, and, more important to us than the search for a supposed neutrality, is the detailed elucidation of this positionality for the reader. In this sense, I recognize that the female trust network established by the UYF is what made it possible for my fieldwork to happen as it did. Being with these women in their everyday life, especially outside the church’s surveillance networks, helped me to address issues that would not be addressed otherwise, and also helped to produce data that allowed me to understand how UCKG’s believers religiosity operated in everyday life.

As anthropology is a two-way street, I was also constantly challenged by my informants, sometimes even sarcastically, when it came to issues such as marriage and career. They did not understand, for example, why I had left my boyfriend in Rio de Janeiro to spend so much time in Maputo, or why I had no children. Laughing, they claimed that when I was old I would no longer be able to run after my hypothetical future children. If, undeniably, some admired me and saw me as an example of independence to be followed, many others did not understand what would lead a woman to give up her personal life for work and choose not to have children. This ambivalent position, therefore, was valid for me but also for them. And it was from this place of constant negotiation that I produced data and started to build my research object, an experience that I describe in the next section.

The religion and its publics

The choice to follow the everyday life of believers imposed on me the difficulty of not being able to define the research’s object very well during my stay in Maputo. If, on the one hand, the complexity of the field blurred the image of what I would do next, on the other hand I always had in mind what I did not want to do, which in this case was to reify oppositions and portray the UCKG in Mozambique as something static and vertically defined. I also knew that UCKD’s religiosity could not be thought of only in terms of the physical space of the church, the temple, but also in relation to it.

These certainties, it is worth saying, were the only ones that I carried with me since I left Brazil and were important to direct my gaze (or not directing, perhaps). I thought of Menezes’ (2009) discussion of Robert Hertz’s kaleidoscopic approach at the Saint Besse’s festival, and tried to put into practice an attentive gaze that could observe the same event from different angles and at different scales. I also decided to assume analytically that the UCKG was not a fixed point of data, that is, that it did not exist a priori, but was something in constant construction and whose existence varied according to the context and to the commitment of its members. This did not mean denying the existence of a “tutelary power” (Mafra et al, 2012) or the multiple dimensions of power that cross the relationship between the faithful and the church hierarchy and even between the believers (Reis, 2018). It was rather an option to center the analysis on the subjects’ practices and on their daily experiences, as they occurred in the church, at home, and on the street. In my view, I could reveal how the believers lived, negotiated, reinvented, and disputed what we call “religion” within a group that was perceived by them as a family and whose objective was to promote effective transformations in themselves and in the world.

As it could not be otherwise, this option forced me to make new shifts; it also confronted me with some more surprises. One day, in a taxi on the way to the Cenáculo da FĂ©, the driver revealed to me that he considered the UCKG to be a good church because, in his words, “after the young people discovered God they were less confused.” Without understanding the meaning of the phrase, I asked if the youth did not know God or did not know the UCKG. The driver was clearer this time: “they didn’t know God.” He added that “after they learned that it is not good to stay there drinking, smoking marijuana and making small talk, they were more responsible.”

At that moment I understood that the driver’s observation – a non-believer, as he insisted on saying – pointed to a very basic issue. “Knowing God” in that context was not a metaphor, a way of saying that young people were converted to UCKG, but instead was a direct reference to the expansion of Christianity as the moral basis of Mozambican society. Although they have common elements, the colonial and post-colonial experiences of Brazil and Mozambique were profoundly different. However, the conversation with the driver made me realize that I was naturalizing the public presence of Christianity from my Brazilian perspective and experience. Until that moment I was not considering to sufficient depth the impacts of protestant missions and the negotiations with the great African Kingdoms during the colonial period. Nor was I considering the emergence of “independent African churches” and the socialist period of repression of religions, and of war over the religiosity of Mozambicans (Cruz e Silva, 2001; Hegelsson, 1994; Cabaço, 2009; Reis, 2018). I also had not considered the fact that I was in a country that was much more religiously diverse than Brazil. Mozambique includes Catholics, Muslims, Pentecostals, Zionists, Hindus and other forms of religiosity, and not just the Christian majority found in Brazil.

I ended up realizing that some of the annoyances I experienced during the fieldwork originated from the way I perceived the public presence of Pentecostals in Brazil. If I had no conflict regarding the way in which I subjectively lived UCKG’s religiosity with believers, it bothered me deeply when this experience was taken outside the walls of the church through social actions against drugs, violence, unemployment, or even through evangelization projects in the poor zones of the city. 

This personal constraint, clearly based on my political positions and on the public controversies in the Brazilian religious field, clashed with the anthropological stance that I had taken when I entered my fieldwork, and it opening up ambivalences in researching this “other.” Ironically, my experience in the field demonstrated that I encountered a double barrier. This barrier was on the subjective plane, but it was also an objective condition, because my light skinned non-black body announced that I was different from the other members, and aroused immense curiosity about my presence when we were on the street. Although the presence of Brazilians in the country was not exactly something new, getting in touch with a Brazilian caused a great uproar among adults, young people, and especially children who were fascinated with my hair that “fell out” and could be so easily braided. At times like these I felt I was supporting the social, moral and national projects of the UCKG, and that caused me profound discomfort.

If on one hand I feared producing an analysis that assumed hard an opposition between religion and public space, especially when countless works already point to the public presence of religion and the limits of the secularism paradigm (Casanova, 1994; Hansen, 2014, Montero, 2016), on the other hand my embarrassment in following the public activities of the members revealed to me, once again, the ambivalences of this relativization. Why, after all, was it a problem that the church was on the street, in the mass media, or in politics? Given the socio-political context and the relationship between FRELIMO and IURD, from where should I observe all of this?

Faced with this slippery terrain, I tried to think about the complex tangle that involved the faithful, the non-faithful, the church, the streets, the media, the political party, and the State, using Meyer and Moods (2006) appropriation of the concept of “public sphere.” In Meyer and Moods’ conception, this idea can be useful to understand the emergence of new arenas of debate that, although not directly linked to the Nation-State, engender ideas and feelings that were shared by people of different cultural or ethnic backgrounds. In other words, these affects and concepts generate a sense of belonging and, consequently, of converging ways of being and intervening in the world.

In Maputo, believers attested to the benefits provided by joining the UCKG through their daily performances for non-believers. But all of these claims about the benefits of joining could also be accessed through mass media, such as the newspaper and the network of television and radio stations which were dominated by the UCKG. Thus, believers watched soap operas that portrayed biblical stories produced by the Brazilian UCKG’s TV channel “Rede Record,” they read religious and self-help books written by the Bishop Macedo family, they circulated around the city taking UCKD’s newspaper “Folha Universal” with them to distribute in the neighborhoods, they set up stages with microphones and speakers in squares public to issue religious speeches that claimed a better country, they bought CDs of religious songs in Changana and Zulu, and they establish contact via WhatsApp with “obreiros” who were always available to help. All of this made me realize that the sociability engendered through believers daily practices did not necessarily link the UCKG’s religiosity to the physical space of the temple. At the same time, that religiosity produced a strong sense of belonging that integrated believers to the “Universal Family of Mozambique” and provoked transformations in the way they perceived the “public” and the meanings of “being Mozambican”.

These same young people, however, also needed to successfully protect themselves and survive in the city amid high levels of unemployment, extreme poverty, and the echoes of the countless wars that the country has gone through in its recent history. By this, I mean that, in addition to the church, the urban and semi-urban environment in which these young people circulated daily should not be perceived as inert but instead considered to be spaces that produce sociability, patterns of exchange, and public rituals (Magnani, 2002:6). So, if the concept of “lived religion” proved to be a useful tool for understanding religion as people experienced it in their everyday life and in their relationship with the material dimensions of religion itself, I still felt deeply uncomfortable about defining what the believers did only as religion. It was definitely not just that.

 If, as Jeremy Stolow reminds us, the category “religion” is always being revised (2014: 149), defining it a priori did not seem a strategy consistent with the work I was hoping to do. At the same time, my research focused on the actions of members of a group that defined itself as religious, although the actions I observed in the field were not always necessarily religious; this revealed the good old tension between native category and analytical category so dear to anthropologists. To resolve this impasse, I decided that the attempt to not crystallize religion (and to think about my constraints) would require that even during fieldwork I would have to use theoretical perspectives such as performances and materialities, in addition to the concept of lived religion. It was not a matter, however, of not taking seriously the image that the believers had of themselves – they were perceived as Universal believers, just as they defined themselves – but of moving away from that image to try to apprehend the effects that it produces in the world, including when it is written and when it is talked about.

In summary, my effort to confer intelligibility to the personal, methodological, ethical, and theoretical shifts experienced by myself during the fieldwork highlight their importance for ethnographic work, especially when these shifts move us so suddenly from the places where we are used to be (or, as in my case, we struggle to be). Throughout the time, I shifted between being a black non-believer and a white semi-believer experiencing temporalities, parties, actions, interactions, materialities and politics based on living with the young believers of UCKG. The ambivalences that went through my relationship with my “others” and, theirs with me, more than being a problem, presented themselves in the end as solutions. For this reason, an Anthropology of Christianity that proposes to understand multiple ways of living different Christianities and to overcome the static paradigm from which it emerged must seriously take the uncertainties, the movements, the ambivalences and, as we would say in Brazilian afro-religions, the “crossroads” with which we are confronted during anthropological research.


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[1] Postdoctoral researcher in the Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology at the National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

[2] In portuguese the suffix “inha” denotes that the word is in the diminutive. Just like the suffix “y” in English.

[3] Euphemistic ways for not saying that someone is “black” as it would be considered something bad in Brazil.

[4] The Temple of Solomon is a replica of the Biblical “Temple of Solomon” that was built by the UCKG in SĂŁo Paulo, Brazil..