WHEN some hear the name Benjamin Burombo, their minds immediately race to thoughts of the erstwhile nationalist and one of the founding fathers of the labour movement in Zimbabwe.
Standing at 1,95m tall and weighing an intimidating 112kg, Burombo was a giant in more than one sense of the word.
Not only was he the founder of the British African National Voice Association, he also helped organise an instrumental historic country-wide strike that led to an urgent examination of wages by the Native Labour Board in 1948.
Now decades after his death, Burombo still lives through his famous quotes and teachings, his never die spirit of hard work and even harder negotiation. For those that lived in the 1990s when HIV/Aids was at its deadliest, sweeping through an awestruck country, the name Benjamin Burombo may ring a distinctly different bell.
At the height of the HIV/Aids crisis this second coming of Benjamin Burombo, a traditional healer, grabbed headlines not only within Zimbabwe but even beyond for Blend 47, a cocktail of 47 different traditional herbs which he claimed could cure the virus. Blend 47, if Burombo had his way, would become the Coca-Cola of medicine, a healing brand so recognisable one could purchase at their local kiosk.
Like the late nationalist with whom he shared a name, Burombo the healer was tall and hefty. But unlike his namesake, he did not have any overwhelming sense of modesty or humbleness. The original Burombo earned popularity because of his willingness to break bread and share fully in the lives and struggles of the people he was trying to assist.
Burombo the healer walked around with a bodyguard and had BMW and Range Rover cars parked in his garage at a time when most of his fellow countrymen, in the time of Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) and Aids, had not even begun to dream of such luxurious toys.
His “cure” put him on a collision course with Zimbabwe’s then Minister of Health, Dr Timothy Stamps, who had little faith that Burombo’s cocktail of herbs could resolve the county’s HIV/Aids related problems.
“If it was a white man who had founded this cure then he would be praised…How many patients has Stamps cured? They think there’s no way that a black guy living in a place like Zimbabwe can come up with something like this,” Burombo charged after he became aware of Dr Stamps’ disapproval.
At the time, Burombo was wary of western companies he claimed were after his magical remedy. He said he would only pass on the secrets of his cure to his son upon his death.
Over two-and-a-half decades later the BMW and Range Rover have disappeared to the scrap yard. HIV/Aids however, still remains. With the world in turmoil because of Covid-19, some have once again turned to men whose claim to fame is a faultless connection to the spiritual world. Whether it be traditional healers or Men of God, flamboyant spiritual men who claim to have the Midas touch are back in vogue.
Only recently one of the country’s foremost man of prayer, Prophet Emmanuel Makandiwa decided to come out with his disapproval of vaccines that the world is collectively pinning its hopes on to solve the Covid-19 catastrophe.
“Are you not seeing the side effects even of the previous vaccines. It’s not always in you dying but look at Africa. If you are still getting help from outside, those are effects of being vaccinated in Africa, it is not all about dying. The way we think in Africa, our DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) has already been tampered with. So, someone can be sitting today, and he is telling you: ‘Look at me, I am 90-years-old, yet I have been vaccinated while I was young. Why are you afraid of vaccines?” the renowned prophet opined.
Only a year ago, before the virus’ impact was yet to be fully felt in Zimbabwe, Prophet Makandiwa had promised his spiritual children that they would be safe from the mysterious virus. Declaring that everyone “under the sound of his voice” would be spared, Makandiwa said, “You will not die, because the Son is involved in what we are doing.”
Like Burombo before him, Prophet Makandiwa has found himself running foul of health authorities for his utterances.
“So, it’s in the best interest of the public that technically sound persons make the comments. Fear, anxiety and some perceptions are from lack of adequate information regarding the Covid-19 pandemic itself being new and ever changing. When there is an information gap, people tend to fill it up with emotion, myths and misconceptions and even negativity that we have seen in both resident and diaspora Zimbabweans,” said Director for Epidemiology and Disease Control Dr Portia Manangazira.
While he might have used different methods of healing, Burombo is not far removed from Prophet Makandiwa or even Prophet Walter Magaya, who also came with an ill-fated HIV/Aids “cure” two years ago. All these men claim to have attained a higher level of spirituality and all are charismatic, with a magnetic pull that makes it easy to sell their power of healing. Instead of the Bible, he might have had roots and herbs but Burombo, with his sleek BMW, Range Rover and muscle-bound bodyguard, might as well have been a Man of God.
The coming of Covid-19 has laid bare the tensions between flamboyant spiritual men and medicine. This, is not a uniquely Zimbabwean phenomenon and neither are the types of conspiracy theories that Prophet Makandiwa has been accused of peddling.
In the United States, Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said: “We’re anti-mask, anti-social distancing, and anti-vaccine.”
Such views have made confronting the virus harder in certain communities. In July last year, a Pew Research Study, found that around 70% of Americans had at least heard that the pandemic was planned by so-called elites and 36% of those polled believed it was true.
Spiritual leaders, whether in Zimbabwe or across oceans, wield considerable power and influence. With this in mind, they make for useful allies when confronting a challenge posed by a pandemic.
“We believe traditional healers have an important place but have yet to establish that they have a place in the treatment of all medical diseases, and they do need discipline,” Dr Stamps said during his run-in with Burombo.
The tussle between Burombo and Dr Stamps is now just another small part of the history of a catastrophic pandemic. While another virus ravages the globe, medicine and spiritual men continue to share an uneasy relationship.