For the last two weeks or so the talk of the region has been the magical Loliondo herbal concoction of retired Lutheran pastor Ambilikile Mwasapile.
Mwasipile has, for the past several months been serving his herbal concoction to multitudes of people, estimated at over 10,000 every day, in the village of Loliondo (about 400km from the town of Arusha, north-eastern Tanzania).
The sick, accompanied by relatives and well-wishers, have been seen by the cleric, who dispenses a cupful of herbal medicine he claims cures HIV/Aids, cancer and diabetes.
According to Rev Masapila, the cup of mugariga he administers, in addition to special prayers, was able to cure chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, TB and Aids though there is no scientific proof so far.
The Loliondo story has been covered extensively on local/regional television in recent weeks:
Not everyone is excited about this, particularly the Kenyan Health Minister:
Public Health and Sanitation Minister Mrs. Beth Mugo has dismissed so-called traditional and faith healers saying the government would not allow them to mislead the public that they can cure all sorts of illness.
Speaking in Machakos in celebrations to mark the World Tuberculosis Day Mrs. Mugo said the faith and traditional healers posed a threat to the health of Kenyans.
She said claims that the healers could cure all manner of diseases including known epidemics like HIV/Aids and Tuberculosis by praying facilitated transmission of the illnesses to other people.
"It is bad for pastors and traditional healers to tell people they can heal all diseases and ask them to quit drugs. Get prayed for but continue taking your medicines. This is a lie that is causing confusion among people", said Mrs. Mugo.
Mrs Mugo dismissed reports in a section of the media that a doctor in Loliondo, Tanzania was curing all illness by giving some herb from a poisonous tree to the patients and asked the Tanzanian Government to close down the place and ban people from visiting the "healer".
WHAT SCIENCE HAS TO SAY:
In a story called “‘Magic herb’ is well known to Kenyan scientists” the Daily Nation on Tuesday brought to light an interesting study conducted back in 2006 which might shed light on what this ‘magic’ herb of Loliondo actually does:
The ‘magic herb’ that has made thousands of people flock to remote Loliondo village in Tanzania was identified by Kenyan scientists four years ago as a cure for a drug-resistant strain of a sexually transmitted disease.
An expert on herbal medicine also said yesterday the herb is one of the most common traditional cures for many diseases. It is known as mtandamboo in Kiswahili and it has been used for the treatment of gonorrhoea among the Maasai, Samburu and Kikuyu.
The Kamba refer to it as mukawa or mutote and use it for chest pains, while the Nandi boil the leaves and bark to treat breast cancer, headache and chest pains.
Four years ago, local researchers turned to the plant for the treatment of a virus that causes herpes. Led by Dr Festus M Tolo of the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), the team from the University of Nairobi and the National Museums of Kenya found the herb could provide alternative remedy for herpes infections.
“An extract preparation from the roots of Carissa edulis, a medicinal plant locally growing in Kenya, has exhibited remarkable anti-herpes virus activity for both wild type and drug resistant strains,” they reported in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
Further studies have shown the plant to contain ingredients that make it a good diuretic. Diuretics are drugs used to increase the frequency of urination to remove excess fluid in the body, a condition that comes with medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, liver and kidney disease.
Some diuretics are also used for the treatment of high blood pressure. These drugs act on the kidneys to increase urine output, reducing the amount of fluid in the blood, which in turn lowers blood pressure.
It would appear that the herb does have certain specific medicinal properties. Of course, this does not justify its use and promotion as a ‘cures-it-all’ panacea, as Ambilikile Mwasapile purports it is.
Things are made worse by his allusions to ‘faith healing’ and ‘miracle’ which will actually have the unfortunate effect of lending credence to mysticism.
Why is this significant?
Because if tomorrow a witch-doctor claims to have powers to change your financial/romantic fortunes for the better, you would be more susceptible to exploitation if your understanding of the Loliondo spectacle has led you to think mysticism is in some way efficacious. You will also fall prey to exploitation of all manner of quack pastors, of which Uganda has absolutely no shortage.
Further study on this herb should be done. Pharmacologists should then try to isolate the active ingredient of this herb, synthesise it, mass produce it, and make this medicine available to all in a way that can be regulated. We would also have a better idea of exactly what diseases the active ingredient of this herb actually cures, and what it doesn’t. In so doing, the treatment would be stripped of its mystical veneer, and enter the realm of medical science.
As it is, it is difficult to tell which of the alleged recovery stories from Loliondo are due to misreporting, exaggeration, wish-full thinking, the placebo effect, or the actual medicinal effects of the herb.