Does unmitigated faith cure, kill, lead or mislead to victory? Ask the tens of thousands of people flocking to a faith healer near the Serengeti. Or ask the ragtag fighters pushing into Sirte. It’s all the same. And who are we to interrupt the jihad?
An endless line of cars, bikes, walkers trekking into a remote mountain location near the Serengeti in Tanzania has caused turmoil in Tanzania’s government, eight traffic fatalities, more than 50 deaths of those waiting for the “miracle cure,” and raised serous questions about the role of traditional medicine in Africa.
It may be hard to believe 76-year old Lutheran pastor, Ambilikile Mwasapile, that he can cure everything from AIDS to diabetes to all forms of cancer for a 30¢ cup of herbal medicine “touched by God”, but nothing seems to deter an unprecedented pilgrimage into the Tanzanian bush.
Tanzania is a very superstitious society, and there are healers and medicine men everywhere. But to my knowledge this is the first time that established, traditional clerics have supported such an individual. Monday, Mwasapile gained support from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT). Western trained Bishop Thomas Laizer told one of Tanzania’s major newspapers that he would begin raising funds to build a large healing center that could better serve the thousands of people seeking treatment daily.
This ideological breakthrough followed Sunday’s decision by the Tanzanian government to send paramilitary troops into the remote area to stop further lines of cars, trucks and helicopters from visiting “Babu,” as Mwasapile has been affectionately named. The government said this was only a temporary halt. Needed to bring some kind of stability to a pilgrimage clearly getting out of hand.
But the humanitarian move by the government may have backfired. Not only did the established Lutheran church then issue its unequivocal support, but Parliament got uncharacteristically rattled. Member of Parliament Steven Ngonyani told the government “Hands off!” the work of the healer.
“The government …should show its support to him and not break his heart by imposing modern methodologies… What has Tanzania Food and Drug Agency to do with regulating the works of a traditional healer?”
People wait for days to pay Tsh 500 (about 30 U.S. cents) to drink a cup of tea brewed from a root more commonly used as a poison, personally handed to them by Babu himself. In fact, Babu claims that if anyone else brews the tea or hands it out, it won’t work.
There are no hotels or hostels in the area and sanitary conditions are appalling. Businessmen from the cities have set up tent camps offering bottled water and places to sleep at outlandish prices.
The deaths and injuries to those waiting forced the government’s hand. Most of the deaths are of persons who were dying and had been whisked out of traditional hospitals by relatives and transported into this rugged, remote and mountainous area of northern Tanzania.
Reports that all of Tanzania’s main government officials, including President Jakaya Kikwete, as well as officials from Oman and the Emirates had come to take the cure, remain unconfirmed yet strangely undenied as well. And helicopters do arrive regularly with persons who break the queue by paying ten times the normal rate (Tsh 5000, about $3.50).
I cannot find a single published testament that the cure works, despite my own employees in Tanzania recounting many stories of relatives and friends who have been cured of a whole range of disease. But no one will come on record. Neither will the President of Tanzania deny the widely circulated rumor that he’s taken the cure.
On record are physicians decrying the hoax (see YouTube below), but none have so far published their skepticism locally.
The 76-year old cleric has a Facebook page that is – remarkably – well serviced for an old man who is supposed to be handing cups of cure to supplicants for 12 hours a day. All the entries I could translate were requests for the cure; I didn’t find one testament to being cured.
Nor have journalists diligent to gather evidence found any that the cures are working.
On my safari last week into the Serengeti, we saw trucks and cars stuffed with clearly sick people in an unending journey into this remote wilderness.
Tanzania is a very superstitious place. The most educated Tanzanian remains worried all his life that he’ll be cursed. My Mzungu (white, European) boss for many years in Tanzania regularly visited Maasailand for herbs. Some of the finest tourist lodges in the country refer to themselves as “Spas” dispensing herbal remedies.
The tsunami of optimism breaking over earth at the moment comes not without the turmoil of death and destruction. It is this same dialectic that infuses the thousands of sick people making the pilgrimage to the Serengeti.
Wandering children run over by cars, dying patients left on the side of the road, children “wailing and flailing as they were forced by their mothers to swallow the concoction.”
What the heaven does this mean?
That faith heals?
That people are desperate?
That the spirits rattling the world at the moment are alive and well?
That freedom and democracy will follow the slaughter of Tiananmen Square. That transparent and uncorrupt government will now rule Egypt. That despots like Gaddafi will be replaced by Mahatma Gandhis.
That faith in the struggle is the single most important ingredient to victory?
Is there anything wrong with this?