The strictest of the growing Apostolic Church sects in Zimbabwe require members to seek healing via prayer and faith and completely reject conventional medicine, and this trend has likely contributed to a growing rate of maternal mortality. But there have been changes, as some church leaders promote conventional health treatments, such as childhood immunization, and consider letting women give birth in medical facilities.
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Gogo Makenduru, an elderly member of the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church, sits on a mat outside her home. At first, her right hand is tucked behind her, but when she gestures she brings it forward, revealing that it is missing two fingers.
That’s a reminder, she says, of the only time she received medical attention, against her will.
Members of the Johanne Marange Apostolic sect officially refuse medical treatment of any kind, even in the most severe cases of injury or illness. They believe that only God can heal, and that their faith in him makes that possible.
A few years back, Makenduru was electrocuted while switching on an appliance in her home. Her husband, a member of the church who passed away in 2015, took her to the hospital, where her fingers were amputated before she regained consciousness.
“I was in a lot of pain,” she says. “My vein was damaged. Although we are forbidden by the church, it just happened, and I don’t know if I would have gone to the hospital had I not fallen unconscious.”
Makenduru says she never took any of her 11 children to get medical care. None was ever seriously sick, she says, but they’ve all left the church because they disagree with that ban.
The ultraconservative Johanne Marange sect is one of an estimated 160 Apostolic sects in Zimbabwe that believe in faith healing. The strictest of these sects require their members to seek healing via prayer and faith and completely reject conventional medicine. Even children are denied immunizations, a trend government health officials say is spreading as the sects attract new members.
There’s been little definitive research done on the sects, but one 2011 report published by UNICEF estimated that 2.5 million people are part of Zimbabwe’s Apostolic movement. That’s roughly a fifth of Zimbabwe’s 13 million population in 2012.
The movement’s numbers have steadily grown in recent years — a trend that coincides with a near tripling of maternal mortality rates between 1994 and 2007. Researchers noted in the UNICEF report that Apostolic beliefs likely have contributed to that increase.
But even as the Apostolic sects grow, some of their own church leaders have begun to express concern about the health of members. In 2012, the Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe launched a campaign to promote conventional medical treatments. Church members were informed about the benefits of modern medicine, including immunizations, says Archbishop Johannes Ndanga, the organization’s president.
Tatenda Kanengoni, GPJ Zimbabwe
Some progress has been made. The Johanne Marange sect now allows children to be immunized, Ndanga says, but still there’s an element of guilt among parents who seek even that basic medical care.
“After immunization, they take the children back into the shrine and pray for forgiveness on behalf of the children, because they consider seeking medical treatment a sin,” he says.
In December 2013, the Union for the Development of Apostolic Churches in Zimbabwe Africa, another umbrella body for certain Apostolic sects, announced in a UNICEF press release that it would consider reviewing church doctrine to potentially allow women to give birth in medical facilities.
Some Apostolic sects are no longer rigidly anti-medicine, but also allow “space for spiritual healing,” says Dr. Mutsa Mhangara of the Ministry of Health and Child Care.
However, those changes aren’t consistent among the Apostolic sects.
The most conservative sects, including the Johanne Marange sect, use strict disciplinary measures, including public shaming, to control those who veer from the approved practices of prayer and healing rituals, according to the 2011 UNICEF report.
Sect members consider death to be part of God’s plan if it occurs when prayer and healing rituals aren’t successful.
“Some people die, but majority are healed,” Makenduru says. “When someone dies, we say, ‘At least they have gone to heaven.’”
Apostolic Church members say their beliefs are based on those of John the Baptist, also known as John the Baptizer. He was so named because of his public baptisms. His baptism of Jesus is thought to have marked the formal start of Jesus’ ministry.
Zimbabwe’s first Apostolic church, commonly known as Vapostori in the local Shona language, began in the 1930s. Johanne Marange, who is considered a father of Zimbabwe’s Apostolic movement, is said to have received his calling at a young age to lead a church.
“Whilst herding goats in the forest, there is a power that overcame him and took him into the mountains, and he disappeared for some time,” Ndanga says, describing Marange’s 1932 calling. “When he resurfaced, he was preaching about God.”
Other sects of the Apostolic faith started around the same time. While the sects differ theologically from the rapidly growing churches that preach that there is a connection between faith and financial prosperity, the emphasis of both movements on faith healing is especially attractive in Zimbabwe’s struggling economic environment.
Stories of health improving thanks to prayer or intervention by church leaders are common.
One man, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear that he would be shunned for speaking to the press, says his wife faced complications during her fifth month of pregnancy. She secretly sought prenatal advice, and medical staff encouraged her to be admitted to a hospital. That’s when the couple told Johanne Marange church leaders, he says.
“We consulted the church prophets and they prayed over her, and the baby and a scan at the hospital confirmed that the baby was now in the normal position, and that there was no longer need for admission,” he says.
Medicine isn’t a guarantee of life, says Madzibaba Visology, who was born into the Johane Masowe Chishanu Apostolic group, a sect that has recently allowed medical treatments but still prioritizes spiritual healing. A lifelong member of the sect, Visology follows its traditional guidance against seeking medical treatment.
“Medication gets rid of pain temporarily; however, if I pray, the headache should be healed,” he says.
People also die in hospitals, he adds.
Some older Apostolic movement members avoid medicine in part because they’re uncertain about its sources.
“Long back, they believed that medication was made from white matter derived from the brain,” says Ndanga, the Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe president.
There are elderly members who have never taken a single pain tablet, he says.
“So when they look at the younger generation that take medication and die young, it’s a defense to them for why they should not take this medicine,” he says.
Tatenda Kanengoni, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.