Thursday, March 24, 2011

Loliondo magic man

Deep in the African bush, a retired pastor threatens to eclipse Lourdes as the destination of choice for pilgrims in search of faith healing.
Thousands congest a narrow track in pursuit of healing
A six hour drive from my home, a dusty trail leads to the isolated village of Samunge, deep in Loliondo.  The track snakes between acacias and the backdrop is the rolling savannah of Tanzania’s northern safari circuit, home to such iconic attractions as the Serengeti, Masai Mara and Ngorongoro.

Not far away, the annual wildebeest migration is billed as the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle.  But a human pilgrimage of rival proportion threatens to upstage this renowned animal odyssey.  And Loliondo has been dubbed, rather hastily perhaps, the new ‘Mecca of Africa’.

Wildebeest crossing the Mara River in their annual migration
Fom a hut in Samunge village, Ambilikile Mwasapila, a retired Lutheran Pastor, treats thousands of people everyday.  From cripples and diabetics to AIDS sufferers, his patients’ illnesses lie dotted across the entire spectrum of human ailments.  Apparently, his miracle cure was revealed to him in a dream years ago but he failed to test the life-saving revelation until a second, more recent vision impelled him to act.

Unlike traditional healers across the region, Loliondo’s magic man has but one medicine.  He treats every condition with a herbal concoction derived from the mugagira tree, a genus that safari guides would call giraffe food.  Yet his patients, who range from peasants to politicians, are boldly testifying to the all-healing power of this god-given recipe.

Mugagira roots being prepared according to the divine revelation
I will refrain from commenting on the merits of his unresearched miracle drug.  A recent tragedy produced a sad irony which provides sufficient insight.  Last week, two vehicles collided head-on along the Arusha – Ngorongoro highway.  One was returning from and the other travelling to visit the pastor.

Tragically, four people died at the scene.  Another fourteen were seriously injured and were evacuated to the nearest hospital for emergency treatment.  None continued their journey or returned to the healer; all turned to conventional medical treatment when faced with life threatening physical trauma.

Holding out for a cure: the 20 km queue on the track to Samunge village
I suppose that when an ailment, or its causes, is not visible to the human eye, a ‘cure’ with similarly mysterious mechanisms may seem valid.  But when faced with lacerations, fractures or other visible injuries, even the most faithful advocates turn to treatments that they can see and feel.

I have, on occasion, exploited a rudimentary knowledge of endorphin release and the placebo effect to ‘treat’ my own children.  They are not able to understand the physiological processes that cause, say, a headache, so they willingly accept the mysterious remedies I administer - 'sucking out the pain' from a a headache or kissing better a sore arm.  Crucially, they are still young and naïve enough to believe in my healing powers.

A 'golden chance that never comes twice': hope for sale at 30 cents a shot
Are the Loliondo pilgrims childishly naïve?  Perhaps they are, but consider the two other key ingredients in the mix: superstition and hope.

For those living desperate lives, mugagira, at TSh500 (US$0.30) a shot, offers hope that is almost universally affordable.  Add to that a widespread belief in both witchcraft and religion and you have the perfect conditions to spawn any quantity of quack remedies.

One prominent pilgrim, MP Beatrice Shelukindo, described the Loliondo phenomena as a “golden chance that never comes twice.”

Golden ticket or fool’s gold – what do you think?

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  1. Hi Jon,

    Really an interesting post about the ground realities of interior Tanzania. Amazing to see a 20 Km queue to reach the fabled healer. How long are you expected to be in Tanzania ?


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