Religion And Poverty: Zimbabwe Mothers Shun Religion To Save Their Children

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Zimbabwe mothers are protecting their children against diseases (Photo credit: Bradenton Herald)
Zimbabwe mothers are protecting their children against diseases (Photo credit: Bradenton Herald)

The great philosopher Karl Marx said that “religion is the opium of the masses”. In Africa, people literally kill to defend their religion. Religious belief is also the reason why many Zimbabwe mothers failed to vaccinate their children against deadly diseases.

Following the outbreak of measles in the country which was first reported in April 2022, many Zimbabwean women have been rushing to the clinics to get their children vaccinated. No fewer than 700 children have lost their lives since the start of the outbreak. A large number of Zimbabwean children are not vaccinated because of religious reasons.

Zimbabwean mothers filed up at the Mbare Polyclinic with their children to get the measles vaccine. However, some were still jittery because their religious doctrine forbids the use of foreign medicine. Knowing their concerns, some of the nurses took the jittery mothers to a back room to have their children vaccinated in secret.

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Lewis Foya, one of the nurses at the Mbare Polyclinic confirmed this observation, “due to the measles outbreak and the large mortality among children, mothers are coming secretly—and we are helping”.

Religion is setting back the government’s mass vaccination drive

Vaccine hesitancy is high in Zimbabwe due to religious beliefs (Photo credit UNICEF)
Vaccine hesitancy is high in Zimbabwe due to religious beliefs (Photo credit: UNICEF)

The infusion of traditional beliefs into Pentecostal doctrine has left many apostolic groups skeptical of modern medicine in Zimbabwe. Instead of medicine, the religious followers put their faith in holy water, anointed oils, and prayer to fight illnesses and cure diseases

Sadly, many of the religious groups that propagate this belief run a patriarchal system. This makes it harder for the women to openly oppose any regulation handed down by their leaders. According to Foya, “they believe that vaccination makes them unholy. They pass this doctrine down to the women”.

There is a paucity of data on the membership size of Apostolic churches in Zimbabwe. However, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) estimates that the Apostolic church is the largest denomination in the country with about 2.5 million followers.

Some of the denominations allow their members to seek modern medicine while others don’t. So, Zimbabwe mothers that attend denominations that oppose modern medicine visit the hospital in secret to save their children. Some do so at night to avoid being spotted and without the knowledge of their husbands.

Members who are caught visiting healthcare facilities are usually banned from church activities and publicly ridiculed. People usually obey the rules because they don’t want to face that humiliation.

The growing dissent on the church rule on medication

Member of the Apostolic church wearing their iconic white robe (Photo credit Global Press Journal)
Madzibaba Benchard, born Dominic Sibanda, a member of the Johanne Masowe Chishanu Apostolic Sect stands in front of the entrance to a place of worship known as Ngarava in Shona (translated to Arch in English) located in Avonlea, a suburb in Harare, Zimbabwe on December 9, 2016. The entrance, used by the male members of the church, is where sick members are prayed for by prophets and the congregation meets on Sundays for services and prophecies.

There is a growing population of Apostolic church members that oppose the belief in modern medicine. The group calls itself the Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust. This group is doing all it can to change the church’s attitude toward modern medicine.

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Thus, they frequently advise Zimbabwe mothers to go against church rules if it comes to seeking help for their children. Highlighting some of the actions of Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust, Debra Mpofu who is a member of the group said,

“We advise women to vaccinate their children at night. It is crucial for women to protect their children. So, sneaking out is a worthy sacrifice.”

In the first two months of 2022, UNICEF and the WHO reported a 79% rise in measles across the globe. Consequently, the organizations warned that the world faces the risk of a widescale outbreak. While mortality from measles is preventable, over 95% of deaths from the disease happen in developing countries.

Some religious leaders are willing to embrace modern medicine

In the Epworth region just outside the country’s capital, Apostolic congregants are frequently handed ashes from the fireplace which they are expected to use at home to cure any sickness. This is one of the congregations that Mpofu and her team have been trying to convince to change their stance on modern medicine.

On one of their visits, it took a long negotiation before the congregation’s leader, James Katsande, allowed Mpofu and her team to talk to his congregants and distribute fliers on vaccination. At the end of their visit, Katsande agreed that he will let his followers take their children for vaccination.

However, there was a caveat to that acceptance. Congregants that want to vaccinate their children will need to bring the children to the prophet first for blessing. Justifying this, the congregation’s leader said,

“It is important to protect the children with the Holy Spirit and cast out bad luck and demons. We remain the first solution.”

Religious practices in Africa

The relationship between religion and poverty (Photo credit Daniel Lehewych)
The relationship between religion and poverty (Photo credit: Daniel Lehewych)

Although religion remains a vital part of human existence, the way it is practiced in developed countries is often different from the way it is practiced in developing countries. While developed countries turn to science and technology to solve their problems, developing nations often rely on religion to solve all their problems.

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Perhaps, this is one of the reasons why there is a growing view that religion is partly responsible for the underdevelopment of Africa. According to a Gallup survey of over 100 countries in 2010, the higher the poverty in a nation, the more the “religiosity” in that nation. In other words, poorer nations are more religious than richer ones.

With the gloomy predictions by UNICEF and the WHO, more sensitization is needed to get Zimbabwe mothers and others that share similar beliefs across Africa to make their children available for vaccination. Measles will certainly claim the lives of more children across the continent.

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