It’s a tacit alliance! Murderous though. The feeble, women, infants and children are dropping dead like flies in the muted pact between Zimbabwe’s liberation war party – ZANU (PF) which benefits electoral support with the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church earning the liberty to operate outside the country’s laws. The country’s second biggest white garment apostolic church, with around 1.2 million followers, is resolutely prohibits its membership access to medical care even against government regulations leading to thousands of avoidable deaths. Currently government looks away as the President, Mr. Robert Mugabe courts its leadership for the vote with him personally responsible for addressing the church’s annual Passover feasts gatherings where hundreds of thousands from the whole southern African region flock; even dressing in a white rob and leaving his shoes at the shrine’s entrance.
The church’s High Priest, Noah Taguta was also allocated a farm, one of the spoils of the land grab programme. “Government knows children are dying and according to the country’s law children belong to the state but it won’t censor the church as long as it is assured of its leader’s approval and their followers’ vote. “Followers also appreciate the role the ZANU (PF) leadership in protecting their freedoms and evading any investigations and possible prosecution,” said a local civil servant who spoke on condition of anonymity. Of the 101 children Arnold Muzaruwetu fathered, he is survived by only 25. 76 died and most of them even before their 5th birthday. He passed away in April leaving behind 14 wives among who is one who today stands childless after 10 live births. He stayed less than a kilometre from a local clinic to which he constantly made donations. A presiding officer at Gutaurare community court, some 50 kilometres outside Zimbabwe’s eastern border town of Mutare, he also worked less than 50 metres from the health centre that his Johanne Marange Apostolic Church, which recommends giving a sip of Coke to its new born babies, demanded should not have any ties with.
Faithful even to death, he died at a prophet’s healing shrine of suspected complicated malaria. Unbridled by any political will, the church is sacrificing its young to disease as a demonstration of one’s faith. With a 1.2 million following, the church is denying close to ten per cent of the population and without birth control even more than ten per cent of infants from accessing professional medical services. Muzaruwetu exposed his life to the prying eye of the public because he held public office among a religiously heterogeneous community. In the church’s headquarters in Mafararikwa village some 80 kilometres west of Mutare the lives and times of members of the church are secretive and a mystery even to government. Here, it is uncommon to encounter a family with up to five wives without a single child as HIV and AIDS also takes its toll. Further to the west, across river Save, in Buhera, another stronghold of the church is a woman, who asked for anonymity for fear of victimisation, who had 11 live births but only have two surviving children.
Gainmore Mavheneke a young professional who stays in Mutare but grew up close to the church members’ communities says some male figures actually refer to children as bricks which if one breaks they can easily make another. Born in the church, Farai Meyer said while he has not lost a sibling from among his father’s three wives one neighbour lost three of her five children but said infant mortality is usually blamed on witchcraft or avenging spirits and never on any childhood illnesses. He however said these deaths are very dressing to the mothers, but often brainwashed and without an education since they are often pulled out of school to get married, there is little they can do. The church is not an exclusive grouping of uneducated and brainwashed religious extremist. It has thousands of members across many professional fields. Ozius Duri, a driver for a local HIV and AIDS non-governmental organisation is one. He works with nurses and drives them to and from work daily but wouldn’t have them check on him. To him that defines him as a true believer.
Disease outbreaks, Duri says, are announced in advance by their prophets who then make a call for specific prayers and take followers through a set of prescribed rites for their survival. Nonetheless he has not escaped unscathed. He lost two children, one in the first month and another due to a premature birth. Committed to his faith even to the death, he almost recently died of malaria an illness that also nearly cost his job as he couldn’t go to work for months and did not have medical records to show for it. His belief was shaped, he says, by his childhood experiences on an uncle who was diagnosed with tuberculosis but was prayed for and was healed. Another relative, he claimed, was mentally disturbed but his balance was restored without any psychiatric intervention. That there is a power within the church there is no doubt. Science can be used to explain most if not the entire phenomenon being experienced in the church from an outsider’s perspective but to believers it’s ‘a hand of God.’ But either way there is no denying the mass death of infants and children under five. An educationist at a primary school in Mafararikwa says there his school has experienced some ‘avoidable deaths’ due to common childhood illnesses that are not life threatening to immunised children especially in lower grades.
With age, he added, there appear to be a lower likelihood of deaths probably because those who survive are generally stronger. Some parents however view teachers as aids in the health of their children as they secretly ask them to assist their children even with medication when unwell, another teacher from the same school said. There appear to be a form of genetic cleansing of weaklings in the church and only the fittest, or rebels seeking medication are surviving, he said. Premature births are however without a chance. In one incident, a father rushed to a local clinic to get cotton wool to wrap the child and a cardboard box to place it in, a common method for managing such cases among members, but he still lost the child, a nurse who used to work in the area said on condition of anonymity. They also have a practise of feeding Coke to their new born babies, believing it would improve their children’s health, the nurse said. No one illness, she said, can account for the huge number of deaths among infants and children under five as all childhood illnesses are not professionally managed. She said she sometimes would privately offer antenatal services to some women who would visit her at home especially early in the morning before opening hours for fear of being detected. To also avoid being abused by their husbands they would leave home under the guise of bringing their friendly neighbour small grain for her chickens. A good rapport from her, it appears went a long way in saving the lives of many infants in the area.
Jofirisi Jofirisi, a member of Union for the Development of Apostolic Churches in Africa (UDACIA) said the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church is not a member of this union but acknowledges that there are more infant deaths than there are for adults. While children generally have weaker immunity adults, he said, many discreetly seek medical attention that they deprive their children of. Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council’s Manicaland Provincial Manager, Mercy Mandizvo who was married into a family that are members of the church said to save their children some women visit relatives they trust from where they seek medication for their children and leave the medical records there. A Ministry of Health and Child Welfare (MoHCW) Manicaland Provincial Health Promotions Officer, Innocent Chamusingarevi said there is a very difficult time reaching children with both immunisation and medication in the event of disease outbreaks. He said they are only able to reach significant numbers only when they target them as individuals through door-to-door campaigns that are mostly done twice annually as members who are seen visiting health centres are now being excommunicated from the church. Duri however said there is nothing wrong with excommunicating members equating such conduct to wilful violation of rules.
He said the High Priest, Noah Taguta, was clear in that a person can chose to leave the church seek all the medical assistance they wanted or pursue any other vocation they think the church is denying them the opportunity to and only re-join when they think it would be the best decision to. Chamusingarevi said it is difficult to clearly establish the number of child deaths as they are communal and some are buried at night. During a 2010 measles outbreak which killed thousands of children nationwide members of the church, he said, would hide their children in caves and because community leaders had passed an edict that whoever lost a child would be fined a cattle most deaths would then secretly bury their children under cover of darkness. There is however some good news coming through as there is increasing dissent among the members, Chamusingarevi revealed. Some, he said, would invite health personnel to come to secretive locations where senior members of the church would not discover them. The only thing that would save children in the sect, he said, would be for leaders to declare immunisations acceptable. But that would, according to Duri, moving pegs that mark their faith and set by the founder of the church Johanne Marange himself. So that drastic move, Duri said, may be unlikely.
However, the church acknowledges the authority of government and traditional leaders and takes pride in obeying their rules. In this light, if government demands that children be immunised during their annual gatherings it also gives the High Priest an opportunity to declare that children be immunised. Such a rare opportunity arose, Chamusingarevi said, a few years back when during their annual gathering in Mafararikwa where children were freed to get immunisations and were prayed for before being allowed back into the camp. There also appear to be a double talk as access to medication is seen as a sin, as in this case, which would need someone to go through some rites of cleansing before being declared pure. Followers generally interpret this as government forcing their leaders to accept something that otherwise is a violation of their creed. Duri has to be correct. The current High Priest even if he wanted to save children with vaccinations may be powerless to change this holy tenant of this faith that was set by the ‘Almighty God’ through their great prophet Johanne Marange. The government has never censored the church’s leadership even though it knows thousands of children are being sacrificed as an expression of faith. With Mugabe looking the other way under the wobbly pretext of freedom of worship while disease cleanses the church of all weakling infants, all extremist adherents to the faith will support his political life and leadership as the best there can ever hope for.
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