Of all the dangers in Africa – HIV / AIDS, malaria, wars, famine, thieves, drought, lions, hippos and piki piki drivers, there is one which is seldom mentioned. You will not find it listed in a guidebook, and no doctor can offer an immunisation against it. The celebrity saviours of Africa – Bono, Bob Geldof, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie have not held benefit concerts or raised funds to fight it. It is never a part of foreign aid plans, yet it can be as destructive as any man, beast or natural disaster. It is the rumour. In the same way a butterfly flapping its wings can culminate into a cyclone, a rumour in Africa can grow exponentially, intensify, strengthen and become its own entity, wreaking havoc wherever it goes.

In the last month I have watched the fatal danger of the Loliondo rumour unfold, as tens of thousands of desperate and sick people have converged on the rural village, to seek the so called miracle cure on offer from retired pastor Ambilikile Masapila. Masapila, a man with no medical qualifications or experience, claims God visited him in a dream, with instructions on how to make and distribute the mugariga potion. Surely, this should have been the first signal to alert the population that something was amiss. However, in a country with so many sick, desperate, fiercely religious and uneducated people it has had the opposite effect.

I have been shocked by the amount of serious debate on the issue. So many people who call themselves journalists are seriously asking ‘could this finally be the cure for HIV / AIDS and other serious medial conditions?’, while politicians, community leaders, teachers and university educated people continue to repeat this dangerous rumour, giving it credence.

The Arusha Times reported on the 19th of March that no HIV / AIDS patients from Mt Meru hospital had returned to test again, and of all the people I have talked with, not one has been able to provide solid evidence to show his magical medicine cures anything at all. The Tanzanian government declared recently that the potion is not harmful, yet they stopped short of saying it was actually effective in living up to Masapila’s claims of curing chronic diseases. Despite this complete lack of evidence in Masapila’s claims, tens of thousands of people continue to flock to Loliondo and continue to believe in him.

Of the few dissenting voices, Democratic Party Chairman Christopher Mtikila and Kenyan MP Beth Mugo, stand out as the most intelligent and reasoned voices in the debate. They also show it is possible to believe in God as well as disbelieve in Masapila’s magical mugariga. Mtikila has called for the government to upgrade hospitals so citizens of Tanzania can actually have access to decent medical services. Instead, the government is pouring millions of shillings into road and sanitation development around Loliondo. These millions of pledged shillings would assist Mt Meru hospital considerably and improve the most depressing place in Arusha. Tanzanian citizens deserve better leadership than this from their government. Mugo has called for Masapila to be imprisoned. Some might say this is a strong stance, however I agree. So far approximately 52 have died while waiting in line to see Masapila, around a dozen more have been killed in car accidents en route to Loliondo. Who is responsible for these deaths? It is Ambilikile Masapila and those who support him, mainly the Tanzanian government and church groups across the country. In a country with so many sick, desperate, fiercely religious and uneducated people, anyone who falsely claims to be able to cure them, with a miracle medicine from God should be held accountable. Furthermore, anyone who assists someone with such a claim is liable as well. The Tanzanian government has provided weak, even destructive, leadership on this issue. Instead of shutting down Masapila’s operation, as thousands of people converged on Loliondo, they are giving tacit approval, by way of ministers attending to be treated and pledging moral and financial support for Masapila. They have also created a terrible humanitarian crisis where tens of thousands of sick people are living together without adequate food, water, sanitation, accommodation, not to mention medical assistance.

As stated earlier, there is no evidence that Masapila’s magical medicine works. No evidence. If Masapila is so certain of his mugariga potion then he should have had the results of his first patient tested, and every patient after that. Also, he could have, as many real doctors do, tested the medicine on himself. He has done none of these. The best he can produce is unsubstantiated claims and false testimonies by patients.

Another point which has been overlooked in the debate is this – how can one medicine cure a whole series of disease which affect different parts of the body? If I have a headache I take paracetamol, for a chest infection I take cough medicine, for food poisoning or diarrhoea or malaria or a skin infection I take something different again and the list goes on. Therefore, how can one cup of magical mugariga cure HIV (blood), TB (lungs) diabetes (pancreas), cancer (lungs, breasts, throat, prostate etc), asthma (lungs) and high blood pressure (heart)? Scientifically, medically and logically, it makes no sense at all.

What Masapila and his supporters are creating is a medical time bomb for Tanzania, a country which desperately cannot assist any more sick people. Mt Meru hospital has not had one HIV patient return to re test. How many of these people will now, believing they are HIV negative go on to infect other people? No one can say for sure, although one would be one too many. And how many more people – cancer patients, diabetes sufferers, TB victims etc will die because, believing they are cured, will stop taking their medication. Again, no one can say for sure, although one would be one too many. While the final death toll from Loliondo will never be known, one thing is certain and that is that these deaths, which may come in one week, six months or ten years, will be because of Masapila and everyone who supports him.

This article was published in the Arusha Times on 16th April 2011