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Stanford historian’s Southern African childhood spurred lifelong study of the region’s religions and people

Stanford historian Joel Cabrita holds up her book about the Southern African Zionist church movement. She is surrounded by documents she drew upon for her new book about the historical figure Regina Twala.

(Image credit: Farrin Abbott)

Stanford historian Joel Cabrita traces her lifelong passion for examining and better understanding voices from Southern Africa to a childhood spent listening to the rhythmic songs and prayers of her religious neighbors.

Cabrita grew up in Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) in Southern Africa and is the child of an Afrikaner mother from South Africa and a father of Portuguese descent from Mozambique.

“My history, for better or worse, is that of white settler communities in Southern Africa,” said Cabrita, an assistant professor of history in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “The white experience is that you’re often very ignorant of black lives, and you can have very little understanding of people who live next to you. From an early age, I didn’t like that and wanted to find a more thoughtful way to engage.”

When a high school teacher assigned a research paper, Cabrita found her chance. She opted to investigate the African Zionist church movement, which blends traditional African beliefs with evangelical Christian practices, including faith-healing. The movement, which is unrelated to the Jewish political movement known as Zionism, includes over 15 million mostly black congregants across Southern Africa. Cabrita often saw throngs of worshipers – visually distinctive in white smocks with bright green or blue sashes – heading home on Sunday mornings after spending all night praying, singing, healing, and dancing. She often noticed Zionists, seated or kneeling on mats, within the whitewashed stone circles that marked their worship sites on the mountainside near her home.

“Swaziland was very rural when I was growing up there,” said Cabrita, whose slight English accent is only sometimes noticeable. “When we would play in the river, we often were sharing it with people being baptized. Congregants stood on the bank singing. It was both a striking experience and quite normal to us – both familiar and strange. This was as close to a national movement as it could be, but no one could tell me much about it.”