Medicine man: hero or quack?

A Zimbabwean healer claims his `Blend 47' cures Aids. Liz Hunt and Leonissah Mujoma report
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Benjamin Burombo is in regular contact with his ancestors, the former kings of Africa. He owes them a lot - especially his new found wealth. They have given him a cure for Aids, and he now sells the brownish, herbal concoction from a bucket, to the scores of desperate people from all over Zimbabwe who flock to his home in the suburbs of Harare.

The fame of this witch doctor is spreading and he is acquiring customers from Europe and America too. Recently his ancestors have told him to put the price up. "If I do not get paid my ancestors are not going to be pleased," he says. He charges around 2,500 Zimbabwean dollars (£200) for a consultation, and there is a further charge for the remedy. He says he treats poor people free but oversees patients are charged around £500.

Burombo is one of Zimbabwe's 90,000 n'angas, traditional healers or witch doctors, and its best-known. He is the first to claim publicly that he could cure Aids, and is the charismatic figure at the centre of a political row over the n'anga's role in fighting the disease. One million people are infected with HIV - one in 10 of the population.

Burombo's claims and the government's attempt to discredit him have created a new bitterness between traditional healers and orthodox medical practitioners at a time when their co-operation is vital to cope with the unfolding Aids nightmare. Dr Timothy Stamps, Zimbabwe's Minister of Health, has infuriated thousands of n'angas with his patronising attitude to their work. "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," he has said.

Burombo disagrees. Wherever he goes he carries with him a small roll of grubby white certificates, waving them angrily at critics and doubters. They are, he says, proof that his cure works, the results of blood tests on people who are alleged to have been HIV positive and, following treatment with his herbal cocktail, are now testing negative.

Dr Stamps was first drawn into the controversy when he appeared to confirm that two people, previously HIV positive, had tested negative after treatment by Burombo. His warnings that HIV tests are fallible, and that further research was necessary before conclusions could be drawn, were ignored. Local newspapers and television saw only the apparent endorsement of Burombo, and the triumph of African traditional medicine over Western drugs.

Burombo blamed racism for the churlish government attitude. "If it was a white man who had found this cure then he would be praised.... How many patients has Stamps [who is white] cured. They think no way that a black guy living in a place like Zimbabwe can come up something like this."

Millions of Zimbabweans agree with his view. More than 90 per cent would go to a n'anga before an orthodox doctor and to them Burombo is a hero, a home-grown celebrity who has beaten the most brilliant minds in Western science. To millions of others he is a charlatan, a conman of the first order, who is reaping rich rewards from the poor and the wealthy, made equal by sickness and desperation. But they all observe his showmanship - a potent blend of magic, medicine and money - with a kind of awe.

In person, Burombo is at once awesome and comical. He is a tall, stooped figure, overweight,sporting dreadlocks and a tight, three-piece suit, with his scuffedloafers and white socks. His companion is a silent young woman, power-dressed to cheap perfection with much gold jewellery. She is clearly bored and has heard his spiel many times.

He understands English and can speak it well enough but prefers to express himself in Shona and a local dialect, so a translator is necessary. At first he appears defensive, but is carefully gauging the mood of his audience and plays to it, occasionally revealing glimpses of sharp humour and an attractive smile. When the lights suddenly went off in the course of our interview - far from unusual in Harare - he leaned forward grinning hugely, and whispered: "My ancestors are not happy that I am talking with you.... "

Aids is not a new disease, Burombo says, but an old African disease which has reached epidemic proportions because of urbanisation and the loss of a traditional way of life. "My body is a product of the culture in which I live and a traditional treatment is what is needed," he argues. His cure, a blend of 47 traditional medicines, will remain a secret until his death - "like Coca-Cola" - on the strict instructions of his ancestors. Only then will it be passed on to Burombo's son.

The ancestors are a commercially minded bunch whom he talks to regularly in a cave near Bulawayo. Traditionally, n'angas do not charge for their services. They receive payment in kind - food, clothes and other gifts - if the treatment works. Not so Burombo. Cash must be upfront - on the specific instructions of his ancestors.

When journalists tired of portraying him as a hero, they highlighted lifestyle changes that had reportedly come with fame; the new BMW, the Range Rover, the bodyguard who accompanied him to the bank each week, and the security gates and wall that were being built around his house. He dismisses their claims, inviting anyone who wants to visit his house and see the patients he is feeding and caring for there.

Burombo will only accept patients whom he is certain are HIV positive, and it is claimed that he can tell at a glance whether or not this is the case. There is no doubt that "Blend 47" works, he says. "Some people come to the house and they can't walk. I have to go to the car ... and I give them some medicine and they can walk ... " Reports that he is to be sued by a patient who had believed he was HIV positive, parted with Z$1,400 for the cure, and subsequently found he was HIV negative and always had been, are exaggerated and of no account, Burombo says.

He is paranoid about Western drug companies which, he says, are plotting to exploit his cure. He blames a Swiss company for previously stealing his remedies for liver and breast cancer. However, a Canadian company is, he says, in negotiation with him to investigate Blend 47 - but he refuses to name the company.

Outrageous as Burombo's claims appear, they have had to be dealt with seriously. Not only do thousands of Zimbabweans have implicit faith in the powers of the n'angas, but Burombo's rising fortune prompted more traditional healers to publicise their own cure for Aids.

Such has been the ensuing political and public outcry that Dr Stamps initiated clinical trials of the "cures", overseen by the Zimbabwe Medical Research Council, the government's Blair Research Laboratory, and the Zimbabwe Traditional Healer's Association.

Eighty HIV positive patients, whose condition had been validated by orthodox tests, were to be treated with the "cures" over a 10-month period. Somewhat predictably, Benjamin Burombo refused to take part, storming out of preliminary meetings and claiming that the sole purpose of the trial was to steal his cure. Only four traditional healers were involved in the end

It is a no-win situation. The n'angas claim outright success with all 80 patients in their care "recovering". Dr Stephen Chandiwana, director of the Blair Research Laboratory, has said that some of the symptoms of the disease were alleviated but this did not mean that the virus had been destroyed.

Mr Burombo, meanwhile, continues to commune with his ancestors, dispense his "cure" and accumulate dollars. "My job now is going forward," he says. "One hand is fighting for my patients who believe in me and one hand is fighting other people who don't."

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