In Kenya, the church has built a reputation of faith healing many diseases – including HIV. But are churches complicating and undermining the government’s efforts to keep HIV in check?
“After living with AIDS for ten years I now stand here thanking the Lord for healing me and saving me from death through AIDS!” testifies John, a junior pastor of New Life Church. The church has rapidly built a reputation of faith healing many diseases and conditions – including HIV and AIDS – and driving out demons from those who are thought to be possessed. But are churches complicating and undermining the government’s efforts to keep HIV in check?
HIV in Kenya is still among the highest contributors to mortality rates in the country. It not only burdens households but also strains the national health systems. According to the Kenya AIDS Strategic Framework 2014/2015 – 2018/2019, the country has one of the largest HIV epidemics in the world, with an estimated 1.6 million living with the HIV virus and according to the Kenya HIV Estimates 2014, about 58,400 died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2013, leaving more than a million orphans as a result.
Since the first reported case of HIV in Kenya in 1984, there have been several claims of a possible cure of the HIV virus. In 1990, scientists in Kenya under the leadership of Professor Author Obel, unveiled a drug that was purported to cure HIV. Many people living with HIV travelled from around the world to Nairobi to get the ‘wonder drug’, including Magic Johnson, the basketball player. However, controversy soon mired the Professor’s two cures, kemron and pearl omega, and they were banned by the government which had initially supported him. He was subsequently discredited as merely producing herbal concoctions.
Claims of a cure
Then in 2011 Babu Ambilikile Mwasapile, a retired cleric from Loliondo Arusha in Tanzania, who had turned into a traditional healer and pastor, claimed that God had revealed to him a ‘magic cure’ for HIV and other diseases. People from around the world flocked to Loliondo to get a sip of the ‘magical cure’. The sip was believed to immediately cure HIV and subsequently many stopped taking their antiretrovirals – the medically approved life-saving drugs for people living with HIV. This led to many deaths.
Most recently, self-styled prophetess Lucy Nduta Mwangi and her son Pastor Victor Kanyari both from Nairobi, were in the habit of collecting ‘seed money’ from their followers to allegedly pray and heal them from HIV and AIDS and other diseases.
“I too, have been healed from AIDS!” declares Pastor Sammy, the senior assistant pastor of New Life Church. “God is moving in our ministry and we have seen many people with AIDS get cured by faith.”
However, for Mariam (not her real name) her story is different. She recently lost her mother, who died from AIDS-related illnesses after she had stopped taking her medicines soon after she joined the church. “We buried her a fortnight ago and the sad thing is they didn’t even send a message of condolence,” she says.
Good nutrition essential
The church recommends its followers fast every few days for anything from three to 21 days. During the fasts, they are forbidden to take any food but liquids and light meals consisting of two slices of bread and a cup of black tea in the first week, then plain water in the second week and dry fast without partaking of anything in the last week.
“We drink holy water that has been prayed for and it helps keep sicknesses, evil spirits and demons at bay,” says a member of the church’s congregation, on condition of anonymity. She is afraid that she may be attacked by the ‘spirit of HIV’ if she discloses about her church.
As the HIV virus attacks the immune system, good nutrition is very important from the time a person is infected as it helps them remain healthy and keeps away opportunistic infections. When nutritional needs are not met, recovery from any illness will take longer and the person will be prone to infections. Fasting without taking medication puts people living with HIV at more risk of getting opportunistic infections and poor health.
Like other modern churches in Kenya, the New Life Church’s gospel of faith healing and performance of miracles has attracted a large number of adherents. It also promotes the fear of spirits and demons, which are said to be the cause of many diseases, sicknesses and conditions that affect people in the community.
Church leaders say they do not directly encourage followers to stop taking antiretroviral treatment. Rather they emphasise that God can cure any condition and ailment including HIV and AIDS if the followers are faithful enough to believe they are healed.
“We don’t tell our followers to stop taking their medicines. That is a personal decision because they believe they have been healed,” claims Pastor Sammy. He quickly adds that he personally stopped taking his medication as a sign of faith that he had been healed
Third line regimen
If people stop taking their antiretroviral medication and then start taking it again, often it stops working effectively because the virus has become resistant to the drugs, and they have to be put on a second line regimen. Then if people become resistant to the most commonly administered second line regimen due to lack of proper adherence they will have to be put onto a third line regimen. But can our government and health systems afford providing large numbers of people on third line regimens if first line and second line regimens completely fail on a large scale?
“Third line regimen is very expensive. As much as I don’t doubt that prayers work, people should take their antiretrovirals even if they are praying, because prayers will work when you combine them with drugs,” asserts Evelyn Kibuchi, Kenya AIDS NGOS Consortium (KANCO) senior TB advocacy manager.
“Faith is personal and people should not use other people’s experiences of faith and apply them to themselves. I encourage everyone on treatment to continue taking their drugs even if they are praying, because there is a reason why God gave scientists the knowledge to discover and make antiretroviral.”