'There is a God up there, and he is watching'

The semicircle of girls gathered around her stretched out their palms, as if warming them on a fire, and swayed in exultation. Then their knees began to buckle and one by one they dropped theatrically to the ground, prompting women to rush forward with silk blankets.

I watched as one girl pirouetted backwards, this way and that, and collapsed in a trance-like state. It was as if she had been possessed by a wild spirit. Whether it was benevolent or demonic, I could not tell.

I don’t often spend Sunday morning at church, but the call of Faith World Ministries in Harare was not to be denied. There was standing room only inside the giant Cathedral of Faith, which, a day after its 10th birthday, was hosting thousands of smartly dressed black worshippers for a Pentecostal extravaganza.

All eyes were turned to a blue carpeted stage decorated with huge bowls of flowers and plastic fruit trees. There, beneath curtains of blue, red and gold, stood a well-built woman in white with a flamboyant hat that looked like a cascade of diamonds topped by a silver brim. Over her shoulder was slung a white blanket with a blue striped pattern that gave just a hint of the Holy Land.

The sermon was about women and their central place in God’s plan. The preacher did not speak but rather shouted and screamed into a microphone, while another woman translated from English to Shona, or from Shona to English. "Today is the day," she roared. "I am calling on the women of Zimbabwe. I am calling on the girls of Zimbabwe. Arise! Arise! Arise!"

The congregation, female and male, lapped it up. They cheered and ululated and raised their arms as one. A few leaped from their seats and hopped and skipped euphorically. The preacher walked among them and whipped up the fervour. Behind me stood a man in suit and tie, bouncing a baby up and down in an attempt to keep it calm.

Hanging from the high, wood-beamed ceiling were some silk banners. One said: "New men mental enlightenment". Various messages appeared on a projector screen, including an advert for: "Virtuous women community birthing dinner dance".

Then a younger man in a magician’s long coat took centre stage. He had a spring in his step and the cocksure charisma of a standup comedian on the fringe. He got the crowd whooping as he yelled: "Jump up and down, clap your hands, because God is about to do something big!"

He pointed to the screen and a computer simulation of what the Faith World Ministries’ new skyscraper building might look like. But who was going to pay for it? You were. He wanted 50 people to pledge cash, and asked for a show of hands. The energy wheezed out of the hall like air from a deflating balloon.

"Come on!" cried the speaker, a little desperately. "This is your chance to step into a miracle. Say after me, ‘I have the money! I have the money!’"

He quoted a biblical story, and added: "Maybe you have only a small amount. But, if you give with all your heart, God will say you have given more than anyone else."

All this was merely a warm-up act for the main man, a preacher whose throaty screechings made the Reverend Jeremiah Wright seem positively tepid. Most of it was impossible to hear and threatened to overload the public address system.

Dressed in a blue striped suit and tie, the preacher mopped the sweat off his head with a massive white handkerchief and awoke my inner Dawkins with an attack on doctors. "I am not carrying Panadol," he bellowed. "I am carrying the Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Forget about prescriptions."

For all the talk of spirit and soul, there was a keen sense of materialism and the divide between the haves in the west and the have-nots in Africa.

The preacher said the introduction of the US greenback, following the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar, should not be regarded as a national humiliation. "With dollarisation they think we can do nothing. I tell you: with the dollar, with the pound, with the euro, we will do more than they are doing in London because God is on our side!"

Pentecostal church and apostolic groups are growing fast in Zimbabwe, where an estimated 70 to 80% of the population is Christian (though some indigenous belief systems survive). Earlier this year, a 21-year-old woman reportedly "hissed like a snake" and "went into a trance" as a court investigated her claim that she had flown 75 miles in a winnowing basket with two witches.

Last week, the state-owned press said a bus company had denied allegations that accidents involving its fleet, which have claimed more than 200 lives since 1995, were caused by the supernatural influence of juju.

The president, Robert Mugabe, was raised a Catholic but has been bitterly criticised by the country’s Catholic bishops. The prospect of him repenting and kneeling in the confessional seems as remote as that of the Second Coming.

Christians, who have been cowed into political impotence, project their hopes of justice into the afterlife.

One told me: "The good thing about this life we are living is that there is a God up there, and he is watching. How ever much we are suffering now, we can be sure that Mugabe will suffer more. It might not be in this life, but one day he will face judgment."