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Hunger, Evil Spirits and Apostolic Preachers

Nutrition-based illnesses are seen by the poor and minimally educated in both urban and rural areas as the consequences of witchcraft.
By Benedict Unendoro
We began to worry when Innocent, our gardener, told us he was taking his wife to the "Apostolics" for faith healing.

A year earlier, we had helped him pay maternity fees for his wife who delivered a healthy baby boy. We now wondered whether we had made as many inquiries as perhaps we should have done on the post-natal progress of both mother and child.

Innocent works for us two days a week and, frankly, in Zimbabwe's parlous economic circumstances with an almost worthless currency, that does not give him much. But he is quite enterprising. With the little money we do manage to pay him, he finances a trip every Friday to Darwendale Dam, some 45 kilometres outside Harare, the capital, where he buys fresh fish for resale to city dwellers.

But recently he began complaining, "The money isn't enough for anything. It's like some evil spirit takes it away from me in my sleep."

For some time, we failed to understand this was not an Innocent joke. My response had been to say, “Of course, the problem is that the tokolosh is taking your money at 1000 per cent interest a year.”

A word of explanation is necessary here for anyone who does not understand that many fascinating spirits stalk Africa's souls. The tokolosh is particularly real to many Zimbabweans and other southern Africans. He is a dwarf spirit about a metre tall, with one buttock and an extraordinarily long sex organ that he slings over his shoulder. Some believe he originated in the womb of a witch as a result of her copulation with a baboon. It is extremely unwise for women to have an affair with a tokolosh because the resulting baby may be disabled.

A snakeskin worn around the wrist can deter him, but he loves stealing money.

Innocent did not appreciate my little jest about the tokolosh.

And here you also need to do some "Zimbabwean money maths", which is becoming more far-fetched than stories of the tokolosh. For eight days work with us each month, Innocent earns 16,000 Zimbabwe dollars [66 US dollar, at the official exchange rate]. We wish we could give him more. A trip to and from Darwendale eats up 1000 Zimbabwe dollars of his income if the bus operator has not bought the fuel on the black market, in which case it can cost 600 more. By the time he has transported the fish and resold it, he perhaps adds 4,000 Zimbabwe dollars [16.50 US dollars], after expenses, to his monthly income.

This is when Zimbabwe's most merciless tokolosh interferes - inflation, running at 1,200 per cent and forecast by the International Monetary Fund to reach 4,400 per cent next year. The price of bread and maize meal, Zimbabweans' staple diet, has rocketed and increases daily.

The five kilogrammes of maize meal which Innocent's family needs a week now

costs 700 Zimbabwe dollars and is rising. They cannot afford meat. Innocent has rent to pay and he needs at least one mug of traditional beer, brewed from millet or sorghum, each day.

By the time Innocent comes to our garden for his two days each week, he is broke. But on those days he eats three or four good meals at our expense.

But we have been foolish to take comfort at having fed him. As he ate heartily at the Unendoro home, we should also, with hindsight, have given more thought to his wife and baby.

Just recently we decided to visit Innocent and his family at their house, scarcely more than a shack in one of the capital's many deeply impoverished neighbourhoods. His wife was in their tiny bedroom. The window was covered with a blanket in addition to the curtain. In the darkness, she told us she could not stand light. And, indeed, when we removed the blanket and drew the curtains she recoiled into the bedding.

In the light, we saw that her skin was inflamed and covered with red lesions. The baby was crying. On lifting him, we discovered he was extraordinarily weightless even though his little body was heavily swollen. His hair was feathery.

We summoned our private doctor who quickly diagnosed in Innocent's wife pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disorder which is ultimately fatal if it goes untreated. The baby, who weighed only 3.5 kg, had kwashiorkor, a childhood protein deficiency illness.

Although we were appalled and moved, we were not really shocked. Medical experts have been saying throughout the first years of this century, as Zimbabwe plunged ever more deeply into destitution, that cases of kwashiorkor and marasmus, another form of acute protein malnutrition in children, are increasing exponentially.

Doctors are noting growth stunting throughout the child population as a consequence of inadequate nutrition in Zimbabwe's families, the overwhelming majority of whom are deeply impoverished.

As the government regime of President Robert Mugabe cracks down ever more ruthlessly on opponents, the people seem to have accepted listlessly their predicament while consoling themselves with the belief that as long as they can put something, no matter what, in their stomachs they will somehow be okay.

The diet of the poor lacks just about all the essentials - carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, mineral salts and fibre - in the correct proportions.

One medical doctor, requesting anonymity, told IWPR there will be ever more problems associated with lack of nutrients in coming months. "Protein deficiency is the biggest problem that we are likely to face," he said. "Lack of protein compromises the immune system. And in Zimbabwe, with one of the world's highest HIV/AIDS infection levels, we are likely to see a faster disease progression, higher infant and adult mortality rates and the country's growth continuing to head rapidly into negative territory. Lack of energy-giving food will impact on the labour force and on the general performance of the population."

But as the government grapples with the economic problems it has inflicted on the population, it is clear that nutrition is low on its list of priorities. Ours, after all, is a country where the second most powerful man in the land, security minister and intelligence chief Didymus Mutasa, has callously asserted that Zimbabwe would be better off with half the current number of people.

In the absence of any coherent government strategy to resolve the people's hunger, nutrition-based illnesses are seen by the poor and minimally educated in both urban and rural areas as the consequences of witchcraft.

Apostolics - or "Vapositori", as the poor call them - are an expanding pseudo-Christian sect with huge following that mixes traditional beliefs and biblical teachings. Innocent has joined the Apostolic flock. They believe that their prophets, who are mostly self-professed, can heal through prayer and the use of salt and water. The prophets do not allow members to seek modern medical treatment. Meanwhile, the collapse of the public health care system and the high cost of private hospitals have helped the Vapositori become the fastest growing church in the country.

Innocent was urged to drop all his superstitions by my doctor, who explained to him, "Human bodies are like cars, which need a constant supply of fuel to burn, a reasonable amount of water to keep the engine cool, a little oil, and a few new parts now and then. For humans, the fuel is carbohydrate, the oil is fat, the parts are amino-acids and protein."

We told him more simply, "Don't sell all your fish. Give some to your wife and baby. And we backed the doctor and said: forget the Apostolics."

Benedict Unendoro is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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