The Catholic Thing
Benedict Daswa, Benedict XVI, and the African Future Print E-mail
By Matthew Hanley   
Sunday, 20 November 2011

Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Benin leaves us with much to digest – mercifully free of wall-to-wall condom commentary. Quick to praise Africa’s “freshness,” its openness to God and life and family, his affection for Africa’s peoples is obvious. He has cautioned against the “toxic spiritual garbage” exported by the West. This is, he says, an indication that a form of colonialism persists to this day – a remark that should be of great interest to the professional critics. But his affection and his respect for African lives is genuine enough to clearly call for the purification of African religions – the “uprooting for good” of harmful practices such as witchcraft.

That’s just not something you say in our age of superficial multiculturalism. Silence, however, is tantamount to making peace with the fact that tens of thousands of innocent and vulnerable people – children, Albinos, the elderly – are accused of being witches, chased out of their villages, and viciously killed every year.

He framed his call for the “definitive eradication” of this regional scourge in such a way that it has universal application: “the hearts of the baptized” in Africa “are torn between Christianity and traditional African religions” – and thus fall into “practices that are incompatible with the path of Christ.” Do we not walk, at best, with divided hearts in our own sterile, materialistic and secular terrain so replete with practices incompatible with Christianity?

I myself was in the northern part of South Africa recently (the Diocese of Tzaneen), near the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. There, I got to know about the life of a remarkable man, the Servant of God Benedict Daswa, whose opposition to these practices cost him his life.

            Servant of God Benedict Daswa

Born in 1946, baptized in 1963, and married in 1980, he led a full and active life, before it came to an abrupt end in 1990, when he was just forty-three.  He was a teacher and a principal at the local primary school. He and his wife had eight kids. Their family prayed together every day. He gave generously of his relative abundance and found time, over and above his responsibilities to family and work, to encourage local youth in the faith and tend to the poor and the sick.

As might be expected, his faith clashed with some aspects of his local culture, which he was not afraid to challenge.  He took the revolutionary step of assisting in menial tasks traditionally done only by women (such as cooking, dishwashing, and looking after children), especially when his wife was sick. His good friends sharply objected. They were adamant, as the local saying went, that a man who does any woman’s job is on a slippery slope to doing whatever she says.  

Many people in that region become immersed at a young age in forms of witchcraft or “muti” – traditional medicines administered as a means of guaranteeing success in one’s ventures or protection against witchcraft from other people, enemies, and the like. Though not often openly discussed, it grips many with great fear. A time came when Benedict Daswa paid the ultimate price for his constant stand against it.

One day, lightning struck some huts in the area. Neighbors felt they needed to consult a diviner or witchdoctor in order to determine who was responsible – who was “the owner of that lightning.” They passed the hat around for that purpose. Benedict refused to participate.

He did not squirm his way out of conflict by our own methods of rationalization – by saying that the practice leads to some “greater good,” that it is up to each person’s conscience, or that he was “personally opposed” but had no business making judgments about a matter that threatens innocent lives. Nor did he perceive Church teaching as discriminatory – as inherently anti-African. 

            The church in his village that Daswa helped build 

His enemies devised a plan. Knowing he would be returning in the evening, they barricaded the dirt road leading to his house with logs. And laid in wait. Armed with stones. On either side of the road. When he got out of his car to remove the logs, they ambushed him. Wounded, he ran for his life, and hid in a woman’s home nearby. When members of the mob entered and threatened to kill her if she didn’t reveal where Benedict was, he came out.

He pleaded with them, asking why they wanted to kill him. They plainly told him that he had to go since he always opposed what they wanted to do, because of his faith. He made a final prayer – “God, into your hands receive my spirit” – before they finished him off, crushing his skull and then pouring boiling water over his head. 

At his funeral mass the following week, the priests wore red – indicating they felt him to be a martyr. With the canonical inquiry into his life (see this brief video) completed in 2009, he could become South Africa's first saint.


The impulse to stand in “solidarity” with poor, developing nations is laudable, but often vague on particulars. Sometimes solidarity gets confused with unconditional affirmation of all things “other” – including the other’s destructive customs. That, however, is usually more like broadcasting what we imagine to be our own magnanimity.

By contrast, we see in Pope Benedict XVI and Benedict Daswa, men of wildly different cultural backgrounds, a much better model of solidarity because they are united in truth – in opposition to that which is incompatible with following Christ.  Nothing else can unite us. 

If we wonder sometimes what we can do “for” Africa or a world full of complicated problems, we might listen to Benedict Daswa’s mother, who found some peace about her son’s death by saying simply: “he died for the truth.” 

We can at least live for it.

Matthew Hanley is, with Jokin de Irala, M.D., the author of
Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, which recently won a best-book award from the Catholic Press Association. His latest report, The Catholic Church & The Global AIDS Crisis is now available from the Catholic Truth Society, publisher to the Holy See in the U.K.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Deirdre Fleming, November 20, 2011
There is an excellent 40 minute film about Benedict Daswa's life you can watch produced by Catholic Studio - just google his name.
written by Dave, November 20, 2011
This is a blockbuster of an article, and a wonderful reflection for the Feast of Christ the King. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the redemption of the world from sin and death and reigning from the Cross; and His most faithful disciples lay down their lives daily in imitation of Him and in fidelity to the Truth. Mr. Hanley has offered us much to ponder as we move into Advent, which recalls the First and anticipates the Second Coming, about which He wondered whether He would find faith upon the earth; and as we move into a period in which the Federal Government displays no longer tacit but open hostility against the Church. Servant of God, Benedict Daswa, pray for us.
written by Manfred, November 20, 2011
Do I hear "Santo Subito"? Of course not. This poor man, leaving a widow and eight children, had obviously never heard of the Spirit of Vatican II and the Spirit of Assisi.
Thank you Matthew Hanley for giving us this story! It is the type of story that the nuns and priests would tell us when I was a youth in Parochial school back when the Church in America was Catholic. It is encouraging to know that the True Faith and martyrs for that Faith still exist somewhere in the world.
written by Graham Combs, November 20, 2011
Here in America it seems some Catholics won't risk a promotion for the truth or their faith. I wasn't surprised at a recent CNA photo of nurses who are challenging anti-life and anti-Catholic HHS regulations -- the majority were Filipino. Many years ago even the BBC World News broadcast a story of Nigerian Anglicans traveling from Africa to evangelize Britain. A country where religious processions are publically ridiculed.

Benedict Daswa's story breaks my heart. And the Church has a special obligation to his wife and children.
written by Helen Daswa, March 11, 2012
May his legacy continue to inspire other Christians around the world! Sadly, may his soul rest in evelasting peace! As his first daughter, this story has broken our hearts and made us so sad indeed! But sad as we are,we are very proud of our Father!
written by Msomi S.R., March 13, 2012
This is just the kind of inercsessor that the Church in Africa needs. Especially with the common misaspprehension of inculturation.

A man of God like Benedict Daswa can help us learn to serve the Lord with one accord. (ref. Zephania 3: 9)
RELEVANCE TO ZEPHANIA (African Bible pg 1594)
The message of Zephania is brief and clear: God will not tolerate the worship of any other god, whether that worship goes by the title of idolatry, tradition religion, witchcraft of superstition. Worship is to be given to the one God alone, without being corrupted by the inclusion of error or immorality. Just as no one can face two direction at once, so no one can practice two religions at the same time without grave insult to God. African Christians need to hear this message.

In Africa today we have new idols and new gods who are taking the place of the true God, who is both the God of traditional Africa and the God Jesus of Christ. The new idols and gods are money, wealth, political power and the like. The consequences are corruption, embezzlement and the imporverishment of the masses: Christians must resist these idols and proclaim the God fully revealed in Christ.

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