Queues shorten as faith in Loliondo’s drug wanes
Originally Published: August 28, 2011
Almost overnight, the otherwise sleepy village of Loliondo was thrust into fame. The single path that led to Mzee Ambilikile Mwasapile’s home was turned into a two-way road as weary villagers sought answers to the questions they woke up to with each rising sun.
Questions, perhaps, about debilitating migraines, wounds that would not heal or delayed motherhood.
Word of this village’s 76-year-old healer and his miraculous cupful of brownish green brew had got around, traversing Mt Meru to the north to get to Kenya.
News of the Loliondo wonder drug echoed past the Ngorongoro Crater to the east and was heard as far out as Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and even South Africa.
Thousands trooped to northern Tanzania to drink Babu’s magical concoction, with cars forming queues up to 15 kilometres long. These were the images seen on television when NTV first brought the story to Kenyan homes.
But those were the happier times in Samunge village, Loliondo. In those days, it seemed that a higher power had come down from the nearby mountains to oversee and bless business at Babu’s.
Now, however, it seems it will be a year of mixed fortunes for Loliondo. The multitude that trooped to Mzee Mwasapile’s compound is slowly declining.
And while evidence of a bountiful past dots the landscape – abandoned makeshift camps, uncompleted buildings and heaps of plastic water bottles – the air hangs heavy with a sense of bleakness.
At the height of its popularity, two sisters relocated from Dar es Salaam to Samunge village. They had been small-scale traders operating an electronics stall in the city. Business was not as lucrative as they had hoped it would be, and so in early February, they sold all their stock and Saada Mwajefa, the elder sister, headed to Samunge village to explore business opportunities.
“We knew there would be money to be made there. All we had to do was identify a viable business opportunity,” she says. “I found that there were food courts, water vendors, accommodation providers but no bars.”
They ditched electronics for alcohol and, two days later, Ms Mwajefa’s sister arrived in a truck loaded with an assortment of drinks. The following morning, they were open for business.
The only visible law in Samunge is the area councillor. If you want to set up a business, you seek his audience and he gives you his guidance, blessing and then gives you a piece of land on which to set up your business. All this in return for an agreed percentage of the profits. There are no permits or certificates of compliance required. A handshake seals the deal.
But business is no longer lucrative. The number of visitors to Samunge has reduced drastically, with about 20 carloads a day making the trip to Babu’s compound and barely a hundred people drinking his brew.
Word that not everyone who has been to see Babu has recovered from their ailments has spread just as widely as the initial news about the drug did.
But Babu says the reason behind the dwindling numbers is that there are people out to get him. Big people.
“You would think that everyone would be happy to see the work of God among us. But not everyone likes to see God work miracles,” he told the Sunday Nation.
Top on the list of those who want to see him fail are major drug companies.
“No one goes to their chemists any more. Their drugs are gathering dust on the shelves as people have discovered true, healing power through the eyes of God. They are losing money. That is why they want us to fail,” he says with a wry smile.
Our conversation is interrupted by a chopper buzzing above us. It circles around for a few minutes before finally landing on an empty field nearby. A blue Toyota VX with heavily tinted windows zooms past towards the chopper, presumably to pick up the occupant. Babu’s wonder drug still attracts the high and mighty.
A short while later, he continues to speak in his slow manner, with each word carefully selected for maximum effect. He says God first spoke to him in 2001 and pointed him in the direction of the mugariga tree from which his drug is extracted.
But now there are people using powerful means to bring him down.
“They have the media in their camp. Each day they damage my reputation in their newspapers. They say I have lost my healing power. Some say I got lost in the forest while digging up my herbs. Others say I am on my deathbed and have reduced my lifespan to a matter of days. But I am still here,” said the former Lutheran reverend.
“If I were to die tomorrow, it will be by the will of God and not their words.”
And his handlers take his concerns for his safety seriously. He walks around with a government-appointed guard.
In the course of a sermon, just before he starts handing out his famous drink, an overawed pilgrim takes out her cellphone hoping to digitally immortalise the moment. But before she clicks away, the guard is upon her and confiscates the phone.
“Do not worry. You will get it after we have had our medicine,” Babu assures her.
He continues with his sermon, which is a mixture of Bible quotes and a brief history of how he was chosen to be the sole dispenser of the medicine.
“God came to me in a dream and told me I had been chosen to do work for him. He showed me the herb to use and how to mix it. The next morning I woke up, went to the forest and on the third day after the dream, I began dispensing, he says. That was 10 years ago.
Snippets from Babu’s sermon point one towards the general direction of the needs of his patients. Once he mentions the disease that has brought them to Loliondo, a loud “Amen” is shouted out as if the affirmation will somehow increase the potency of the drug.
“I tell you here and now that after you take my medicine, your HIV will disappear in seven days,” says Babu.
“Amen!” a pilgrim shouts.
“I tell you here and now, that after you take my medicine, the child you have been looking for will appear in your womb.”
“Amen!” another shouts.
Amid this, a group of around 30 people covered in dust arrives to listen to the sermon. It is a delegation from DRC. Among them is a middle-aged woman with a tumour on her lower lip that has caused it to swell to the size of a small banana.
There is a tent to the right of Babu where the very sick are seated. She is led to that part of the crowd. Once the woman settles down, the preaching resumes.
Mzee Mwasapile is convinced his drug works, and some experts agree with him and have offered scientific evidence to further his theory.
A report by medical researchers from Tanzania’s National Institute for Medical Research and Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences gave the herb the thumbs up in March, although they recommended further studies to determine the exact dosage to be administered.
Dr Hamisi Malebo of medical research institute and Dr Zakaria Mbwabo of the Institute of Traditional Medicine at Muhas concede that the herb could be used to treat six types of illnesses, including epilepsy and heart problems, and used as a general body cleanser and an antiviral agent.
“The plant is safe and the dosage prescribed by Mzee Mwasapile is below the toxic level. The available scientific data supports (his) ethno-medical claims,” they wrote.
But Babu says the experts do not know what they are talking about. A single cup of his medicine can heal any illness.
“HIV, cancer, diabetes, psychosis … name it. There is no disease bigger than the word of God. If He says He will heal you, you will be healed,” Babu says.
But he cautions that how fast or whether you get healed at all depends on two things: the level of your faith, and your initial intentions when walking into Babu’s tent.
“There are people who come here to steal property or put the faith of others into question. Those ones leave here worse than they came,” says Babu.
Despite his miracle drink, Babu lost his son Jackson, 43, to malaria in April. On the day of his death, his son had been rushed to a nearby hospital for treatment.
Does Babu think he could have done more for him? “Faith is a personal issue. It is God who decides whether yours is sufficient enough to get healed,” he says, a distant look in his eyes.
When Babu is not giving a sermon or dispensing his drug, he is in his new government-built house, perhaps watching the latest episode of his favourite show via satellite. The white dish on his roof and the two solar panels are also courtesy of the Tanzanian taxpayer. The rest of the village has no electricity. Businesses run on generators.
As a large convoy of Babu’s satisfied pilgrims leaves his compound, Ms Mwajefa, the bar owner, places another order for drinks from an Arusha-bound matatu. Just four crates this time, which she expects to last a week.
“Soon,” she says, “we may have to just count our blessings and ship out.”
She turns on the generator to charge her cellphone. The battery is depleted after the previous night’s events when her phone was the sole source of entertainment at her Top in Town Bar. It has a dozen songs in its memory card.
The songs played all night long in repeat mode for all of seven patrons gracing her establishment.