The Johanne Marange group is allegedly Zimbabwe’s second biggest Apostolic church.

Of the 101 children Arnold Muzaruwetu fathered, he is survived by only 25. 76 died and most of them even before their 5th birthday. He passed away in April leaving behind 14 wives among whom is one who today stands childless after 10 live births. He lived less than a kilometre from a local clinic to which he constantly made donations. A presiding officer at Gutaurare community court, some 50 kilometres outside of Mutare, he also worked less than 50 metres from the health centre that his Johanne Marange Apostolic Church demanded he should not have any ties with.

Faithful even to death, he died at a prophet’s healing shrine of suspected complicated malaria. Unbridled by any political will, the church is sacrificing its young to disease, as a demonstration of their faith.

With 1.2 million followers, the church is denying close to ten per cent of the population (and without birth control even more than ten per cent of infants) access to professional medical services.

Muzaruwetu exposed his life to the prying eye of the public because he held public office among a religiously heterogeneous community.

In the church’s headquarters in Mafararikwa village, some 80 kilometres west of Mutare, the lives and times of members of the church are secretive and a mystery even to government. Here, it is uncommon to encounter a family with up to five wives without a single child, as HIV/AIDS takes its toll.

Further to the west, across river Save, in Buhera (another stronghold of the church) a woman, who asked for anonymity for fear of victimisation, had 11 live births, with currently two surviving children.

Gainmore Mavheneke a young professional, who lives in Mutare but grew up close to the Vapostori communities, says some male figures refer to children as bricks: if one breaks they can easily make more.

Born in the church, Farai Meyer said, while he has not lost a sibling from among his father’s three wives, one neighbour lost three of her five children. Infant mortality is usually blamed on witchcraft or avenging spirits and never on any of childhood illnesses. Women are often brainwashed and without an education (since they are often pulled out of school to get married) there is little they can do.

The church is not an exclusive grouping of uneducated and brainwashed religious extremist. It has thousands of members across many professional fields. Ozius Duri, a driver for a local HIV/AIDS NGO is one of such. He works with nurses and drives them to and from work daily but wouldn’t have them check on him. To him, that is a definition of a true believer. Disease outbreaks, Duri says, are announced in advance by their prophets who then make a call for specific prayers and take followers through a set of prescribed rites for their survival.

Nonetheless he has not escaped unscathed. He lost two children, one in the first month and another due to a premature birth. Committed to his faith even to the death, he almost recently died of malaria an illness that also nearly cost his job as he couldn’t go to work for months and did not have medical records to prove his sickness. His belief was shaped, he says, by his childhood experiences of an uncle who was diagnosed with tuberculosis but was prayed for and was healed. Another Duri’s relative, he claimed, was mentally disturbed but his balance was restored without any psychiatric intervention.

An educationist at a primary school in Mafararikwa says his institution has experienced some ‘avoidable deaths.’ A number of lower-grade pupils passed away because they were not immunised against common childhood illnesses. With age, he added, there appear to be a lower likelihood of deaths probably because those who survive are generally stronger.

Some parents however view teachers as aids in the health-protection of their children. The parents would secretly ask teachers to assist their children even with medication when the kids are unwell, another teacher from the same school said. There appears to be a form of genetic cleansing of weaklings in the Johanne Marange church and only the fittest, or rebels seeking medication, are surviving, he said.

Premature births are, however, without a chance. In one incident, a father rushed to a local clinic to get cotton wool to wrap the child and a cardboard box to place it in, a common method for managing such cases among members, but he still lost the child, a nurse who used to work in the area said on condition of anonymity.

They also have a practise of feeding Coke to their new-born babies, believing it would improve their children’s health, the nurse said. No other illness, she said, can account for the huge number of deaths among infants and children under five as the childhood illnesses that are not professionally managed. This nurse said she would sometimes privately offer antenatal services to some women who would visit her at home especially early in the morning before opening hours for fear of being detected. To also avoid being abused by their husbands, they would leave home under the guise of bringing a neighbour some grain to feed the chickens. 

Jofirisi Jofirisi, a member of Union for the Development of Apostolic Churches in Africa said the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church is not a member of this union but acknowledges that there are more infant deaths than there are the adult ones. While children generally have weaker immunity than adults, he said, many discreetly seek medical attention that they deprive their children of.

Manicaland Provincial Manager at the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council, Mercy Mandizvo, who was married into a Johanne Marange family, said to save their children some women visit relatives they trust. From there, they seek medication for their children and leave the medical records.

Innocent Chamusingarevi, Manicaland Provincial Health Promotions Officer with the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, said they have a very difficult time reaching children with both immunisation and medication in the event of disease outbreaks. He said they are only able to reach significant numbers when they target them through door-to-door campaigns. These are mostly done twice a year. Church members who are seen visiting health centres are now being excommunicated from the church.

HIV/AIDS NGO driver Duri said there is nothing wrong with excommunicating members of his church. He said the High Priest, Noah Taguta, makes clear that a person can choose to leave the church to seek all the medical assistance they want or pursue any other vocation they think the church is denying them the opportunity. They can also re-join when they think it is the best thing to do.

The Manicaland Provincial Health Promotions Officer also said it is difficult to clearly establish the number of child deaths as they are communal and some are buried at night. During a 2010 measles outbreak which killed thousands of children nationwide, members of the Johanne Marange church, he said, would hide their children in caves. Community leaders had passed an edict that whoever lost a child would be fined cattle. So most parents would then secretly bury their children under cover of darkness.

There is however some good news coming through, as there is increasing dissent among the members, Chamusingarevi revealed. Some, he said, would invite health personnel to come to secretive locations where senior members of the church would not discover them. The only thing that would save children in the sect, he said, would be for leaders to declare immunisations acceptable.

The church acknowledges the authority of government and traditional leaders and takes pride in obeying their rules. In this light, if government demands that children be immunised during their annual gatherings it also gives the High Priest an opportunity to declare that children be immunised.

Such a rare opportunity arose, Chamusingarevi said, a few years back when, during their annual gathering in Mafararikwa, children were freed to get immunised and were prayed for before being allowed back into the camp. There also appear to be a double talk as access to medication is seen as a sin, as in this case, which would need someone to go through some rites of cleansing before being declared pure.

Followers generally interpret this as government forcing their leaders to accept something that otherwise is a violation of their creed. Some argue that even if the High Priest wanted to save children by vaccinating them he may be powerless to change the “holy tenant of this faith that was set by the Almighty God through the great prophet Johanne Marange.” 

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