Somewhere in the hinterland of Tanzania, a traditional healer is turning heads with his miracle cure. Government ministers and money-men in helicopters, poor people in rickety buses, foreigners from Europe and the Middle East – all are beating their way to the humble abode of Ambilikile Mwaisapile, an old retired pastor of the Lutheran Evangelical Church, to get healed from chronic diseases. Harid Mkaliwas there recently, and returned with a fascinating account.
What on earth was I doing – being thrown about in the back of an ancient 4-wheel drive jeep in the middle of the African bush on one of the roughest roads imaginable me, who complains about the jolting on London roads caused by the everincreasing number of sleeping policemen?
I had been persuaded by a Tanzanian colleague (a fellow diabetic) to come to this remote region of Loliondo in northwest Tanzania, close to the Kenyan border, to “kunywa kikombe cha Babu” – to drink Babu’s cup.
After 75 km of tarmac road from Arusha, we turned off into the bush. The “road” to Babu’s passes through some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, much of it being a barren, lunar landscape of lava rock and dust from ancient volcanos (whoever said that volcanic activity leads to fertile land?).
The only signs of life in these parts between the few villages are the thatched Masai compounds or manyattas, the Masai people themselves and their herds of cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys. It is a mystery where they and their animals drink, as the local Lake Natron is a soda lake, and only flamingoes like to drink from a soda lake, I am told. Apparently the Masai know where to find fresh streams coming from the mountains – streams which in the wet season must make this so-called road really impassable, judging from the number of dried-up river-beds we crossed and drove along.
Babu (which literally means grandfather) is the Rev. Ambilikile Mwaisapile, a 76-year-old retired pastor of the Lutheran Evangelical Church, who says he heard a call from God some years ago to leave his home in Babati to the southeast and settle in the remote village of Samunge in Loliondo District, where he was instructed to gather the bark of a certain tree and make an infusion which would cure many chronic ailments, including Aids, diabetes, cancer, and hypertension.
Babu’s reputation has spread since he started dispensing his cup last year, evidenced by the number of vehicles, including a ramshackle collection of buses and trucks, trundling over these awful roads.
A significant number of “wageni” (foreigners) are also coming from overseas, especially from Kenya and the Middle East.
The road from Kenya is ironically much shorter and better, and people can make it in their own saloon cars.
Those with the means are now able to visit Babu by helicopter, at about £900 a head, replacing a 2-3 day nightmare road journey with a 2-hour return trip from Arusha, with no queueing. We had been told that the queue to see Babu was often up to 2 days (including at least one night), so having been unlucky with a flat battery just outside Babu’s village (thank God not in the open bush!) we were delighted to find the queue was quite short, this being Babu’s first day back since travelling for a family funeral (it seems that Babu’s family did not move with him from Babati).
After a few hours inching forward in the queue, our vehicle arrived at the dispensary a humble thatched shelter by the roadside with an elderly man inside ladling out his “dawa” (medicine) from large plastic pots into small plastic cups.
Trays of the multicoloured cups were then thrust through the open windows of our vehicle and we were all urged to drink up and move on to make space for the next people – and that was it! Pretty much an anti-climax after 2 days on the open road. Babu makes no money from his activities as a “mganga” (traditional healer) charging only 500 shillings (£0.20) per head. He says this is sufficient to pay his team to collect, brew and distribute the medicine. His team can be seen in the adjacent compound of Babu’s simple house, stripping bark and boiling it up in large metal pans on open wood fires.
However, there are many others who are making money from the Babu phenomenon; the small boys selling bottles of water (never really cold in this neck of the woods), the Masai women selling jewellery, the shacks along the road selling chapattis and sweet “chai” tea, the drivers who sell places in their vehicles for the nightmare ride which they may do 2-3 times a week, the enterprising villages along the route who have set up road blocks and tolls to pass through their villages – and not to mention the helicopter pilots.
The herbal infusion is made from the bark of the Carissa spinarum tree, which grows across Africa and Asia. It has been long used by the local Masai to flavor food and in Ghana to make a healthy broth for the sick. It has also been established for centuries as part of the ancient Indian Ayurvedic system of traditional medicine to cure a range of ailments from epilepsy to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
There seems to be no element of faith healing involved as people of all religions come to Babu, and few are as sceptical as I was and to an extent still am. How, after all, can so many differing ailments be cured by a single type of infusion? And how on earth can a single infusion be sufficient rather than a regular dosage?
The big pharmaceutical companies are apparently quite aware of the potential of the Carissa tree, which was brought to the attention of the WHO some years ago (but the WHO was apparently unimpressed and uninterested). However, there appears to be some special and unique input from Babu (his magic touch?) which has not yet been quantified. However, charismatic healing must also be discounted as there is no contact between Babu and his patients.
All over Tanzania and beyond, people in all walks of life, from government ministers to the local Masai themselves, are talking about Babu and passing on stories they have heard of friends or friends of friends who have been to Babu and had their lives changed by being cured of major chronic diseases, and even paralysis after stroke. Babu’s remote village of Samunge now clearly lies on a pilgrimage trail – albeit one complete with helicopter trips, 4-wheel drives and mobile phones!
So how do I feel a week after taking Babu’s cup? No significant change as yet but it is early days as Babu says that his cure takes 2-3 weeks to have full effect. What of the future for Babu’s cure?
What will happen after Babu’s death or if he is too frail to continue his dispensary? Will big drug companies try to patent Babu’s medicine? Or will they see it as a threat to the billions they make every year from treating chronic and long-term conditions such as Aids, diabetes and cancer? Just as in my personal situation, only time will tell.