ZIMUNYA, MUTARE — A TINY heavily-pregnant teenager in a tight-fitting maroon polyester dress over-stretched by her tummy ambles past with a stick to steady her wobbly step.
At the same time a middle-aged woman arrives in a black Honda Fit accompanying two pregnant teens whom she later introduces as her husband’s fourth and fifth wives, even though they appear barely 15 years of age.
These are scenes at the Johanne Marange.
Apostolic Church’s healing shrine in Nyamana village in Chitora, 45 kilometres south of the city of Mutare.
Twisting her face with the pangs of labour pain, the heavily pregnant teen wanders aimlessly before disappearing back in her two-metre-wide and one-and-a-half-high thatched hut with a reed door.
Her fate lies in the hands of Mbuya Chigaro, an amiable dark tall “prophetess” donning a white doek, red golf T-shirt and a long turquoise skirt whose rusty front teeth have an overbite.
She walks around bare-foot with a fatalistic perspective on fate. Nothing is guaranteed here — neither life nor good health.
“If God wills something, no one can prevent it. People are healed or die according to his will,” Mbuya Chigaro says, shrugging her shoulders, betraying an insidious embrace of death.
An evangelist who was monitoring the interview, who said he would only agree to give his name if somehow this reporter’s beard miraculously outgrew his before the interview was over, argued that since there was no modern injection that could guarantee life there ought not be any noise in the event of death among their members.
“Death occurs everywhere. Do you have any injection that you can say can guarantee that someone would not die?” he asked.
“If not, then you should not pontificate over our own healthcare system because you even have mortuaries because you accept that life is for God to decide and not man,” the evangelist said, contemptuously dismissing the criticism that some of their patients do not make it out alive.
Born in 1952 and having started her prophetic duties in the 1970s, Mbuya Chigaro established the healing shrine soon after Independence and has lost count of the number of women and girls she has handled with the numbers running into thousands. She did not deny maternal deaths.
“We used to keep a register, but we just could not keep up with the paperwork and stopped a long time ago. We lost count, but they are thousands,” she says.
“. . . life or death are in God’s hands and indeed some might not make it,” she said.
The healers do not have any referral system for any condition, with Mbuya Chigaro saying she could prove their prowess by attending to cases that conventional medical practice would have failed to deal with — albeit with the patient first joining the church.
The prophetess is a popular healer and her shrine is littered with over 30 huts of varying sizes, which they refer to as barracks, with many more under construction.
The council that runs the centre however said healers could not be held responsible for the fate of any of their patient as all they offered were prayers and would only act within the bounds of “wisdom that God would have revealed” in managing individual cases.
Johane Marange members believe prayer is the solution for those with under-developed pelvises as there is no option for any caesarean procedure unless the woman had died pregnant as they would not bury a pregnant woman.
This healthcare system caters for the over two million — about 10% of the country’s population — who belong to the Johanne Marange Church.
Nyamana village head Blessing Nyamana confirmed the commonplace practice of child marriage among members of the church in his village, but said he felt powerless to stop it. Marriage in the sect had been made into part of their religious acts as it was often conducted on the sidelines of their annual Passover gatherings, he said.
“Girls would just disappear and new girls appear in the village after their Passover and as a traditional leader I do not have any mandate to investigate or intervene,” he said.
The system is however under intense scrutiny, as police opened homicide investigations into the death of 14-year-old Memory Machaya — who was married into high priest Noah Taguta’s priesthood family at a similar healing shrine in Marange during the church’s Passover festival last month.
Those with intimate knowledge of the goings-on in the church believe that beyond Memory’s case such probes could be exercises in futility.
The marrying off of minors is often done at the behest of the girls’ trusted relatives ranging from parents to their female relatives.
Aunts and older sisters bring in their brothers’ daughters and younger sisters respectively in a scenario they said was akin to getting a crown in a game of draught, said Jofirisi Jofirisi, a former member of the church who now belongs to another apostolic sect.
“In many cases, a wife would get these young girls from her own family and if anything happens to them it would not get out of the family, let alone the church,” Jorifisi said.
“This is a very closed community and it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to fully appreciate the extent of the problem, especially where the minor children would have been recruited by their own female relatives in what they said is a bhobho (crown).”
He said this would help the older wives to have control of the household as sister-wives that have no relation to them would present greater competition.
This has also helped keep a lid on the maternal mortality and ages of girls who have died during childbirth as they occurred within these closed families.
Police sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said the lid has now been blown off because Memory’s family was not deeply entrenched in the church with her father’s family having been able to demand justice because they were not members of the sect.
“This has presented a rare opportunity to investigate what actually goes on in the church for the very first time,” a senior cop said.
Confirming having assisted and continuing to assist underage girls, Mbuya Chigaro said she has assisted hundreds of 13 to 15-year-olds without any problems. “We pray for them and God gives us wisdom to manage such cases.”
The wisdom for the church that is mortally opposed to modern medicine includes giving newly-born babies fizzy soft drinks — an artificially manufactured food product — soon after child birth.
Underage girls are prepared for child birth by sitting them in hot water to add to physically stretching their birth canals using hands, she said.
The methods were corroborated by those used by Mbuya Mashava, another Johanne Marange Apostolic Church healer whose shrine is in Dzingirai village on the confluence of Odzi and Mupudzi rivers. The shrine was established in 1999 about 30 kilometres west of Mbuya Chigaro’s healing parlour.
Thomas Mashava, who runs the shrine with his wife taking the lead in gynecology issues, said in a previous interview the practice of sitting in hot water daily helped “relax their muscles and eliminate any risk of obstructed labour.”
He sensationally claimed they had not had any maternal mortality in 16 years.
He sensationally claimed they had not had any maternal mortality in 16 years.
“We will be acting under God’s instructions and, so far, we have not had any maternal mortality since we began in 1999,” Mashava said in a 2015 interview.
Chief Mutasa, an ardent critic of the practice, said the management of such cases by non-professionals was making a bad situation worse.
“We are losing many of these girls during child birth because their bodies are under-developed and their lives could still be saved by trained medical professionals resulting in death and complications like fistulas,” said the chief, who has written a book on ending child marriage and received multiple awards locally and internationally.
He said the biggest misnomer was referring to the practice as some form of a “marriage”, adding that even if the children survived childbirth they were not supposed to experience motherhood in childhood.
“I want to implore fellow traditional leaders to say no to this practice which should be rightly termed an abuse as calling it ‘child marriage’ was legitimising it. They should also say no to motherhood in childhood,” Chief Mutasa said.
Human rights lawyer Passmore Nyakureba said the government is complicit in the continued abuse of the children in the church because of its influence in politics.
“These people enjoy immunity and protection from the state. If the acts that they commit, some of which are atrocious, were to be committed by an ordinary citizen, the state would come down on them with heaviness, but it doesn’t happen with them because they are a large political constituency to the ruling party,” Nyakureba said.