By Robert Tapfumaneyi
It is common knowledge that religion plays an influential role in society and it is for this reason that Christians should discuss how the church can contribute more towards addressing church members’ diverse HIV and AIDS needs and stopping maternal death.
Sadly this is not the case with members of the White Garment Church in Zimbabwe – one of the biggest traditional churches in the country and part of the Apostolic faith – as women and infants from this community continue to die due to the faith’s negative view of hospitals and medical care.
Members of the Apostolic faith believe in divine healing for all forms of sickness and disease. This message is repeatedly preached to the church’s members, with church elders encouraging congregations to obey this message throughout their lives. Worshippers are told to rely on ‘holy water’ (muteuro) and prayers from church elders to cure illness and disease. It’s a tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation within the church.
In Domboshava, some 40 kilometres north of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, White Garment church members have established a makeshift clinic were women come in numbers to give birth, risking the lives of their unborn babies and their own.
Alarmed by the situation, the government has begun raids to force church members to go to hospital but the law can’t force anyone to visit a clinic or hospital to seek treatment in Zimbabwe so this is not working.
Visiting this makeshift clinic at Johanne Marange Apostolic church I was met with a scene of flies spinning, falling and tumbling on the shining head of a child, barely five-years-old and visibly malnourished.
The plastic houses in the small compound tell tales of how life can be for members of the sect as up to three women squeeze into a tiny tent waiting to deliver their babies. Pregnant women walk in and out of the compound with dirty clothes hanging off their bodies holding buckets of water or litter while children scream and squeal in pain in the plastic tents.
According to a survey (Apostolic Religion, Health and Utilization of Maternal and Child Health Services in Zimbabwe) carried out by Unicef in 2011, there is low uptake of modern health services and poor immunization coverage among religious communities such as the Apostolic faith-based sect Johanne Marange, as well as the Madhidha sect and conservative segments of Johanne Masowe.
“The government has policies that protect children, and programmes of immunisation, but these members of the sect have proved difficult to deal with hence the government has no choice but to force them to hand over children for immunisation. It’s going to be total war but sometimes you have to cause pain in order to achieve great things,” said a government director responsible for children programmes, who could not be named due to government policy.
Responding to the comments, Madzibaba Ezekiel, a church leader who I met at the makeshift clinic said the government must respect people’s choice of worship as enshrined in Zimbabwe’s constitution.
Ezekiel said: “You don’t just wake up at the wrong side of the bed and do what you think is right – when you make a law, follow it. If they [the government] think they can win this war they are fooling themselves.
“I am 60-years-old and have never been to a hospital nor taken any medication and I am healthy, so as our children.”
Ezekiel laughed off allegations that the church’s clinic is burying infants during the night.
“This is a bar talk, these people should provide evidence that our members are doing it [burying] during the night.”
The Deputy Prime Minister Ms Thokozani Khupe said if it’s a case of paying for maternity fees the government is there to help as the government is committed to scrapping user fees, which deter people from accessing healthcare facilities, by using the $10 million ZWD [$27, 500 USD] that has been made available for maternal health by finance minister Tendai Biti.
He said: “I want to tell these members that women should not pay maternity fees as more [money] has been made available through relevant authorities to cater for their needs. I promise the women of Zimbabwe that I am going to make sure that this is happening at all government institutions and local clinics. I want to make sure that something happens so that women don’t pay when they go to give birth.
“When women give birth they are performing a national duty. Women are the backbone of our economy. Women give birth to future leaders, to future generations, to doctors and future engineers, you name it. So therefore they must not be punished for performing that national duty by paying money when they go to give birth.”
But will this promise touch the Apostolic church, especially the Marange and Johane Masowe sect which has over one million members?
Government officials believe that engaging the church further is the way forward but say it will be a slow and gradual process.
“We are working with an organisation called The Union for Development of the Apostolic Churches in Zimbabwe Africa and together we have programmes where we are actually trying to engage the church through its leaders. It is a complicated issue that needs a tactful approach,” said the Deputy Minister of Health, Dr Douglas Mombeshora.
Talking to some women at the churches paints a bleak picture.
“We bury so many children who die during birth, we cannot go against our teachings and what our leaders say,” said one female church member who asked not to be named for fear of victimisation.
On this issue the police are powerless as they cannot arrest the church members because no law forces individuals or groups to visit the hospital.
“We cannot arrest them even though we are aware of the abuses that they are being perpetrated against women and children,” said a police source.
Maurice Muringai, Domboshava’s village headman, said: “I have tried to engage them but there are stubborn. It is really sad to watch children die daily and do nothing. Personally I have failed to deal with them and maybe only the government will be able to deal with them, since they have promised to take action. The sad part of this is that it is only women and children dying.”
“This is really painful because it’s the children who are dying. It is the government that is to blame.”
Muringai said it is difficult to know how many children die daily because the church secretly perform their rituals and sometimes even during the night.
“Last year we buried scores of children who are part of the church and yet nothing was done,” Muringai added.
One villager recalls an incident in which a church member was reported to the police by villagers for not taking his ill child to hospital. When the police came the man gave the child medication once, when they left he threw away the pills away. The child eventually died.
Custodia Mandlhate, the World Health Organisation (WHO) country representative, said resistance by Apostolic church members to take children to hospitals may lead to the importation of diseases such as Polio, which in 2009 wrecked havoc in Zimbabwe.
WHO figures show 66% of women in Zimbabwe give birth under supervision of a qualified medical person, 13% deliver using the traditional methods attended by experienced midwives, but the remaining 13% give birth at home attended by family members who are unaware of correct maternal health procedures.
Mandlhate said: “In Zimbabwe we have 12% of children who have never been vaccinated. Mothers are not taking their children to hospital even though they know that children can be saved. This increases the vulnerability.
“In terms of vaccination coverage, there is 47% in Manicaland province. This is probably because of a large concentration of rejecters mainly from the Apostolic church in Manicaland. More children in the country are more vulnerable in that area.”
Latest information from the Healthy Demographic Survey says that that infant death during labour has risen from 760 to over 900 per 100,000 live births between 2009 and 2010.
A 2010 report by the Global Systematic Analysis of National Causes of child mortality finds at least 120 children die every day in Zimbabwe after succumbing to different diseases. Neonatal death accounts for the largest proportion of fatalities in under fives.
In Domboshava, villager Evelyn Mugumwa, 69, blames the government for turning a blind eye on “the piling bodies of children and women”. Indeed it could be seen as such because politicians from both Zanu PF and the MDC have had flirtations with the church, which is a huge source of potential voters.
Will the politicians from both parties allow the government and police to raid this shrine and vaccinate children, thereby compromising the much needed vote? Are they willing to risk the spread of contagious disease and with it the lives of other babies around the country to gain power?
It is important for Apostolic church leaders and their members to note that this is the 21st century and they have to move with time. In as much as their leaders talk about the freedom of choice and religion they have to take note that their members are also entitled to freedom of choice.
Apostolic groups act as a barrier to the uptake of modern healthcare services and medicines. Within these sects the widespread belief circulates that reliance on modern medicines and healthcare services reflects the level of one’s faith, and it is generally associated with a weak faith.
But the same religion preaches ‘for my people perish because they lack knowledge, thus says the lord’.