Testimony, identity and power : oral narratives of near-death experiences in the Nazarite church.
In this study I investigate the narratives of near-death experiences in the Nazarite Church as one way in which this community grapples with the question of death and the after-life. However, I am particularly interested in the manner in which Nazarite members deploy these experiences to define individual and collective identities. I argue that in the Nazarite Church the significance of near-death experiences is neither rooted in the future nor in the past, but it is something of the here and now. As Biesele states, " Old stories are powerful not because they come from the past, but because they are told in the present" (1999: 167). Nazarite members are not only regarded by many as backward, uneducated, and unemployed rural people, they are also accused of worshipping another human being like themselves, Shembe. For the Nazarites then near-death narratives are important because they serve as proof that Shembe is not just an ordinary human being, he is the one sent from above. Many near-death experiencers testify that they have met Shembe on their spiritual journeys. While this does give the Nazarites a sense of what may happen to them when they die, it is more important as a tool for confirming or defending their faith against the people who criticise and look down upon them and their church. However, Nazarite members, especially those who have had near-death experiences, also use these experiences to imagine individual identities. Since the church has grown rapidly in the past decades, there has been a growing need to define the self in relation to the group. Newcomers (there are many of them) are regarded as ignorant of the ways of the church and are sometimes called by pejorative names like Qhawe, (Braveman) and Khethankosi (Converts). The near-death experience provides those 'newcomers' who have experienced it with a means to assert their agency in that they have been to the other world and have witnessed what many only hear about. Even for those who were already members of the church when they had the experience, this make them important. They have seen 'home'. Their stories are recorded and disseminated in the church, thus becoming part of the church's cultural capital. Sometimes ministers and preachers invite those who have had near-death experiences to come and share their stories in the Temples they oversee.