Over the past few years, Zambia, which has one of the heaviest HIV/AIDS burdens in world, has managed to reduce its HIV/AIDS rate and make promising progress in the areas of diagnosis, treatment and care. But while there have been some heartening national advances in combating HIV/AIDS in Zambia, a worrying trend has been developing in the southern town of Choma.
Over the past year, there has been an increase in the number of people with HIV/AIDS who have stopped taking their medication there. Health workers in the area cite the growing presence of ‘prophets’ as the main reason behind this. Some preachers in the area have been claiming to be able to heal HIV/AIDS through prayer and holy water, and been urging congregants to prove their faith by abandoning their prescribed drugs. Only then will God heal them, they are told.
The perceived power of prayer
Christianity is a huge part of many Zambians’ lives and the Christian church is a very powerful institution in the country. In recent years, Pentecostalism in particular has exploded on the continent, and with it the teaching of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ – also called the ‘health-and-wealth gospel’ or the ‘faith gospel’ – which claims faith and donations will be rewarded by God here on earth. The idea is that God wants to bless his followers, and that these blessings need only be ‘unlocked’ through prayer and demonstrations of faith, which often entail large monetary offerings to the church.
An off-shoot of this thinking is the idea that those who pray for healing must also prove that they trust in God’s power by rejecting medical aid. Congregants are sometimes asked to go as far as to burn their medication.
Many preachers also style themselves as prophets anointed by God, thus removing the possibility for criticism from their congregation; any doubt or complaint against him would, by this line of thinking, be a doubt or complaint against God himself. Furthermore, given that the literacy rate is low in the area, pastors are often the only source of Christian teaching.
It is important to note, however, that not all Choma’s pastors preach the same message. On a recent visit, I witnessed how the leader of one local church now makes an unusual announcement every Sunday. Before he opens the Bible, the preacher declares that he has an announcement to add, and that this is the most serious of them all: “There is not, and has never been, a cure for AIDS”, he says.
The church goes quiet as he continues: “If you are HIV positive, you can take medication called ARVs…Some people claim to have found the cure for AIDS and they want to sell it to you. It is not true. If you are HIV positive, take ARVs.”
But for opportunists, the combination of low literacy and high potential for profit has made the church an attractive option – contributing to a trend that can be seen in a number of countries across Africa. Paul Gifford notes that Africa’s economic situation “has made of the church a road to status and professional or economic advancement”, while Reverend Timothy Njoya claims that “over 90% of the clergy in Kenya today have no call at all”. “They come to the ministry because they could not have achieved a better career [elsewhere]”, he says.
Television in Africa has much to do with the growth of the prosperity gospel. ‘God-channels’ are numerous and widely watched, since they are often one of the few options available. They feature regular sermons on giving and receiving ten-fold, and the performance of healing miracles and exorcisms.
The preachers on these channels – TB Joshua of Nigeria being a prominent example – are often seen as celebrities in Zambia, attracting followers because of their fame, money and influence. The desire among some clergy to emulate them is one reason for the emphasis in many churches on healing, and especially on healing AIDS, since this is considered highly impressive.