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Grant Allows Devaka Premawardhana to Disseminate Research

Devaka Premawardhana, assistant professor of religion, has been awarded a $5,000 Engaged Anthropology Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. The grant will support his travel to Mozambique during the summer of 2016 so that he may share the results of his dissertation research with three communities that supported his work there.

“There is no better way to thank the men and women who allowed my wife and me to become part of their lives than to return and carry out the mandates of this grant: to share my research in a mutually beneficial way, to learn what I got right and what needs correcting, and to continue building bonds that I hope only strengthen with time,” Premawardhana said.

Premawardhana’s dissertation, “Continuities of Change: Conversion and Convertibility in Northern Mozambique,” is based on more than a year of ethnographic fieldwork among the Makhuwa-speaking people of Mozambique, in southeastern Africa. His fieldwork, reflecting his training as an anthropologist, explored historical experiences of migration, local rites of passage, and indigenous models of change among the Makhuwa.

Premawardhana, who holds an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Religion and Anthropology from Harvard University, said driving the project was a desire to understand why Pentecostal Christianity has failed to grow rapidly in northern Mozambique as it appears to have done in so much of sub-Saharan Africa.

“The clue to an answer lies in the fact that religious conversion is spoken of by villagers not as a change of heart but as a change of place,” Premawardhana said. “Mundane spatial metaphors—of moving, or of entering and leaving—are what one most commonly hears when people speak of their engagements with different religious communities. My project’s contribution to the anthropology of religion, therefore, is to urge consideration of how migratory histories and proclivities shape the ways people move into (and out of) the different religious communities with which they are presented.”

Premawardhana will spend two weeks in the capital of Maputo, where he will present his work to scholars at the Eduardo Mondlane University, followed by four weeks in the northern province of Niassa, where he will meet with local intellectuals and with Makhuwa-speaking residents of the villages where he worked.

“All three groups are contending — each at its own scale —with new policies constraining peasants’ movement at a time when rural lands are increasingly controlled by agribusiness multinationals,” he said. “By allowing me to disseminate my research on the migratory strategies with which the Makhuwa have long coped with scarcity and adversity, this grant will help prompt culturally and historically informed reflection on the current political moment.”