Madzibaba Alois (49) sat around a fire with a dozen members of his church at their shrine in Stoneridge, on the southern edges of Harare, explaining why he opposes vaccination.
His family raised him without medicine, and he intends to raise his children without medicine too.
“I have never tasted a pill in my life, nor have I ever been to a clinic or hospital for any treatment, and I have no plans to do so in my life,” Alois said proudly.
Alois and his friends are members of the Johane Marange, an apostolic church whose doctrine is based on a strong belief in faith healing and prayer rather than Western medicine.
It is the biggest of a plethora of indigenous apostolic sects that are part of a broader religious group that mixes Christian beliefs with traditional African cultures.
As Zimbabwe battles a measles outbreak that has claimed the lives of more than 700 children, government and health officials are blaming the attitudes of religious sects like the Johane Marange for spreading the disease and hampering an ongoing vaccination campaign.
This shrine is among the thousands of places of worship throughout the country visited by members of the different apostolic sects — estimated to make up to a third of the country’s population of 16 million. The Johane Marange shrine is the first place members visit whenever an ailment or misfortune comes knocking.
“While death cannot be avoided because it is a law of God, I can assure you that fewer deaths take place at our shrines than in hospitals, and this is enough proof that our faith in God’s healing power really works,” Alois added.
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The Health and Child Care ministry revealed that as of September 6, the number of confirmed measles infections had topped 6 551 since the first case was recorded on April 10 in Manicaland province to the east of the country.
On September 1, authorities panicked when 191 new cases and 37 deaths were reported in a single day, prompting them to spring into action.
According to government statistics, about 50% of the patients who tested positive for measles were not vaccinated.
In a media briefing on August 16, Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa blamed apostolic sects for the surge in infections, saying measles was largely prevalent among those who shunned vaccination.
“It has been noted that most cases have not received vaccination to protect against measles,” Mutsvangwa said.
“Government has invoked the Civil Protection Unit Act to deal with this emergency.”
Health and Child Care ministry secretary Jasper Chimedza also attributed the measles outbreak to gatherings by apostolic sects.
“Church gatherings attended by people from different provinces with unknown vaccination status led to the spread of measles to previously unaffected areas,” Chimedza said.
However, the leader of one of the major apostolic sects, Bishop Andby Makururu denied that their members were to blame for the spread of the disease, claiming that they had since abandoned the old doctrine that discouraged the use of medicine.
“Apostolic churches are transforming — we are embracing change, and we are always encouraging fellow bishops and other leaders in our churches to urge their followers to seek medical attention at clinics and hospitals whenever the need arises,” Makururu, who is the leader of the Johane the Fifth of Africa International Church told ReligionUnplugged.com in a phone interview from his base in Mutare.
“We are aware that diseases like measles can only be controlled through vaccination, for it cannot be treated by prayer, water, stones or milk (mediums used in faith healing) alone, but through a combination of both medical and spiritual interventions,” said the bishop.
Makururu added that he was not aware of any measles deaths among their members, which he said rendered the allegations against them unfounded.
While most of the apostolic church leaders, like Makururu, publicly profess abandoning their opposition to the use of Western medicines, some insiders say that message is just meant to please political leaders through a show of compliance.
“That message is for the politicians and others whose orders they don’t want to appear to defy, not for us,” said Madzibaba Knowledge, a self-proclaimed prophet from another shrine in Harare.
“They say that to make sure that we don’t appear to be opposing the government, but in reality nothing has changed about our doctrine ... Real apostolics don’t get vaccinated or seek modern medical interventions.”
Itai Rusike, the executive director of the Community Working Group on Health, expressed concern over the attitude of these apostolic sects whom research has traditionally shown to say one thing while doing the opposite in private.
“Despite the existence of a cost-effective and safe measles vaccine for almost 60 years now, it is very unfortunate that Zimbabwe is losing lives of children from ... preventable and avoidable deaths,” Rusike said.
“It is very unnecessary to lose lives, especially in this era, from a very primitive and medieval disease like measles. We need to address the current vaccine hesitancy that we are seeing, especially among the religious objectors ... those that are coming from the African apostolic sects that do not believe in getting their children vaccinated.”
He said only a multi-pronged approach that includes public awareness campaigns as well as engaging the leaders of these sects, among other initiatives, would help in the fight against vaccine hesitancy in Zimbabwe.
“I think there is an urgent need for us to address the issue of the information gap,” Rusike said.
“The danger is that we may have the same situation that we had with COVID-19 in the early days, whereby — because of the information gap — there was a lot of vaccine hesitancy, low uptake, misinformation and disinformation.”
Vaccine hesitancy is a serious problem in Zimbabwe. Despite being one of the first African countries to get COVID-19 vaccines and never running out of supplies, the cumulative number of citizens that got vaccinated is a mere 31,8% of the population.
The mainstream Johane Marange Apostolic Church — named after its founder — was established in Zimbabwe in the 1930s and has since spread its wings throughout east and southern Africa, accumulating over 10 million followers.
Apart from its opposition to medicine and education, the sect is also known for its encouragement of polygamous marriages.
One of its leaders, Noah Taguta Momberume, who died in April, had 23 wives, 120 children and more than 300 grandchildren.
Often in these marriages, old men — who claim to be following instructions from God — take children, some as young as 10 years old, as wives.
This controversial practice is justified as a preemptive measure to “protect” the girls from falling into “permanent impurity” that comes with indulging in premarital sex.
Most of the sects’ doctrines are not based on the Bible, but on what the leadership claims to be instructions from the Holy Spirit.
These doctrines have constantly put them in direct collision with the government, mainstream Christian churches and human rights groups.
The number of followers that these popular religious sects command has always endeared them to politicians chasing after votes.
That in turn makes it hard for the government to be firm with them to control their unlawful activities.
Both President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his predecessor, the late Robert Mugabe, have always maintained very close ties with the Johane Marange church, visiting its shrine regularly to campaign as well as seek favourable prophecies about their political fortunes. This has only reinforced the perception that these religious sects are above the law.
Even during the dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed at the peak of the COVID-19 lockdown, some of them continued with their gatherings, holding their regular all-night prayers while refusing to get vaccinated or follow the World Health Organisation’s safety guidelines.