Dozens of kilometres long car queues off-road on the Nothern Tanzanian savanna in 2011. Kikombe cha Babu (“the Grandpa’s cup”), a miraculous brown and bitter concoction that would heal all possible diseases, was on everyone’s lips. Perhaps half a million patients arrived during half a year in the tiny hamlet of Samunge. Rev Ambilikile Mwasapila aka Babu wa Loliondo (Grandpa of Loliondo district) was the greatest news topic in East Africa for several months. Why?
The making of a faith healer
Rev Mwasapila had migrated from the south of Tanzania to the relatively more affluent north in his youth. Eventually, he studied theology and became a pastor, and a missionary in a largely non-Christian area. Surprisingly enough, after retirement, he remained in the area and eked out his living as a skilled builder – the pension covered only a fraction of minimum living expenses.
He received messages from God in dreams, including the recipe for the eventually famous herbal medicine. According to him, this medicine, used traditionally also by the Maasai living in the district, gets its potency from God when Babu blesses it.
Babu applied the medicine to some sick in the area, and they considered themselves healed. When in Samunge, I was shown two of the earliest patients: one HIV-positive who had dropped antiretroviral medicine (ARV) but was still fine after several years, and another who would have regained his ability to walk after having been bound to bed for years. The news spread, and the number of patients exploded only to drop dramatically soon afterwards when some AIDS-patients died due to rejecting ARVs after receiving the concoction.
When the phenomenon reached its peak, practically every Tanzanian newspaper published an article or several related to Babu every day, and there was even international media attention. Patients came also from abroad, mostly from Africa but also beyond, and from all possible faith backgrounds.
Why did Babu become popular?
Due to the commodification of miracles, primarily healing, African Christianity teems with charlatans. While some of these charlatans can attract rather big crowds, an average African miracle consumer is very critical and conscious. Many are painfully aware that rather than willing to help the needy, these miracle makers hustle for their own profit. Many are grandiose and emphasise God’s extraordinary blessings that they have received in the form of fancy cars, clothes etc. Their followers are told to give tithes (10% of income) and offerings (on top of that) or some others attract donations based on the thankfulness of the receivers of miracles.
Babu is a very quiet and humble personality. He speaks in a soft voice, dresses like a peasant, and expected every patient to contribute only less than the price of a bottle of soda. That was to facilitate the production of the medicine. He came from a poor background, and showed no signs of turning rich, or even expecting that. Additionally, he is a Lutheran pastor, and the Lutheran church is not known to produce commercial miracle makers. Even the fact that he had volunteered as a missionary even if it meant lower income and much harder work conditions than in well-established parishes, contributed to his aura of integrity. There was a strong sense of authenticity about his ministry. You might not believe in the miracle cure, but you could see that he did.
African Christians juggling between three life worlds
In addition to his aura of integrity, his credibility depended on affirmation from decisive directions. Tanzanian Christians, like many other Christians in postcolonial societies, juggle with three life worlds that usually collide but sometimes also overlap: traditional (kyenyeji), Christian (kikristo) and (post)modern (kisasa). In this case, all three spheres confirmed the legitimacy and credibility of the cure.
First, the medicine was traditional, and it is a living tradition that medicines are sought from the nature. Additionally, Babu’s calling as a healer and receiving instructions from the spirit world also follow the traditional pattern. Second, Babu as a pastor represents Christianity, and involved Christian rituals (prayers, preaching, singing) in the healings. He also interpreted his ministry in Lutheran, partly in Pentecostal key. His church’s leaders vouched for the genuineness of his ministry. Thirdly, the leading Tanzanian university hospital analysed the medicine, and concluded that it may have curative effects on AIDS, cancer, diabetes etc. There was thus even a modern endorsement. African patients had healing that met their traditional expectations while it was Christian and also scientifically endorsed. Why would you not believe that, especially when the healer appears to be a man of integrity?
For more on this case see my articles:
“Babu wa Loliondo – Healing the tensions between Tanzanian worlds”, Journal of Religion in Africa 45 (2015) no. 1, 1-34.
“The Grandpa’s Cup: A Tanzanian Healing Ritual as a Temporary Interreligious Platform”, Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 41/4 (2016), 14-28.
“Negotiating Religious Traditions – Babu wa Loliondo’s Theology of Healing”, Exchange 45/3 (2016) 269-297.