Botswana marching to the beat of different drummers

26 May 2019

BY MPHO KUHLMANN

In Botswana’s lexical vogue-o-meter, the spiritual phrase “I receive” is up there jostling for the pride of place alongside political slogans like “Moono” and “A e Jeke.”

This is hardly surprising. With Botswana reeling from the double whammy of HIV/AIDS and income inequality, spiritual churches message of “health and wealth” is finding as much if not more favour with Batswana than the promises of the country’s two main political parties, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC). And the phrase “I receive” has become the new catch-phrase that captures Botswana’s changing socio-political landscape.

From medical professionals to political leaders, almost all decision makers have been blindsided by Botswana’s burgeoning spiritual renaissance.

If there was anyone who best captured Botswana government’s predicament with the re-emergence of spirituality it was Patrick Zibochwa from the Ministry of Health & Wellness under Mental Health and Rehabilitation Division who told the Sunday Standard that, “there shouldn’t be any conflict between religion and psychotherapy but there is. The mental health division under World Health Organization caters for social, mental and even spiritual assistance and has to be taken into consideration. Mental health is still not quite understood in Botswana and therefore we need to all work together. I do however see a lot of people working in isolation and this is mainly due to the fact that there are a lot of churches –fire churches to be more precise mushrooming everywhere in the country.

The way things look and stand the concept of spiritual practice is now a malpractice. This is because, we see a lot of these churches giving off false information to the people and somewhat convincing them not to seek medical help and that the church is their only healing place. Some of these churches adamantly tell their congregation that medication is not necessary at all as mental health can only be healed through prayer. Some of the chronic conditions that people go through cannot be healed or cured just by prayer it is impossible. We have started engaging in workshops and seminars with both spiritual and traditional healers in a bid to educate and sensitise them as well as curb the confusion that most of these churches and healers disseminate out to people. We sit and talk to them about our worries and how we can’t and don’t adhere to their practices because they are simply not scientifically proven. When a patient leaves all his medication he worsens his condition and will die something which the church cannot stop. We as the health sector are by no means knocking down the belief of prayer and the church we just feel that the two should work together. We have patients who have a dual diagnosis – has a mental health problem as well as HIV/AIDS. When that patient decides to stop taking his medication then nothing good is bound to come from it. 

There have been instances in the past when a significantly high number of patients who were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS migrated to the church to go and pray their condition away, some of them strongly believed in the power of the holy water and its healing powers thus avoiding medication and eating healthily. This was around the same time as the fire churches were booming in the country. We had hoped that churches would come to us and seek health education and ways on how to handle such issues but they don’t, it is however up to us as the health sector to empower people which we are indeed doing, we try to sensitize people on their health conditions as well as their rights but we can only do more when we come together with religious institutes. We also need to come up with an accountability framework that will hold anyone responsible and commit these people.”

When Zibochwa speaks about the conflict between spirituality and health most Batswana would do well to sit up and take notice. As the spokesperson for Ministry of Health & Wellness Mental Health and Rehabilitation Division he is at the epicenter of the conflict.

A recent study :  Depression Among HIV-Positive Individuals in Botswana: A Behavioral Surveillance by Kathy Lawler, Mosepele Mosepele, Esther Seloilwe, Sarah Ratcliffe, Katherine Steele, Rudo Nthobatsang, and Andrew Steenhoff revealed that, “Consistent with prior studies of HIV-associated depression in Africa the present study, which utilized two widely validated depression measures, found a high rate of depression in an HIV-positive population in Botswana”.

The study examined incidence of depression in HIV-positive individuals in Botswana. One hundred and twenty HIV-positive individuals were administered a measure of daily activities and two measures of depression. Twenty four to 38% were diagnosed with depression, suicidal ideation ranged from 9 to 12%, with a positive correlation between scores on the two depression measures. Depression was associated with greater impairment in activities of daily living, especially the ability to take medication.
Church ministers who in most cases literally have the power of life and death are not making it any easier for health officials.

Prophet Chester Tiro at the Holy Presence Fire Church in Bontleng, Gaborone told Sunday Standard that “firstly yes we believe in God and we believe in the power of working miracles so people must also understand that doctors are given of God and have abilities to deal with people, healing comes from God. Doctors will provide medical attention but healing is not a man’s thing even though they do give medications. We do not shun our mentally ill brothers and sisters. You must understand that if you nullify your creator you can also short circuit the power of God to work on you. I attend my congregants spiritually and also advice them to go to the hospital to seek help that way the power of God can become effective on them. I also personally work with doctors and strongly believe that people should seek medical attention and should also know that life is spiritual. There are issues that require medical attention  and those that need spiritual attention but here at our church we don’t tell them not to see consult doctors. We believe in the two working together. Psalm 103:3 says it all, he heals all our iniquities and diseases, so we believe the scriptures and if you believe then you will be healed. Prophet Tiro further went on to disprove the belief that fire churches deceive people and how they provide holy water as a cure to all ailments. “ Acts 19:11 shows us how mediums were used to transport the power of God, there is nothing wrong with holy water but the problem arises when you decide to tell people what to use and what not to use just let it be a personal thing that comes from one’s faith but preach the word to them . I think in religion there is belief or a particular system of belief and worship while with psychotherapy deals with personal interactions with people to help them change their behaviors and overcome problems in desired ways, though the two are very different it does not mean that they cannot work together.”

Even political leaders are having difficulties navigating the maze of Botswana’s spirituality and apparent socio-political apocalypse. They are responding with a confused reaction ranging from repelling to courting the fire churches.

While his officials were issuing deportation orders against fire church ministers former Minister of Defence, Justice and Security Ramadeluka Seretse was being paraded on television worshiping with Prophet TB Joshua.

A number of cabinet ministers have been straddling the wide division between the church and the freedom square. Former Minister Biggie Butale who is a bible thumping man of the cloth who, at the helm of the evangelical Fellowship of Botswana (EFB), led a spirited crusade against gays and prostitutes also found himself part of a cabinet that was perceived to be persecuting spiritual leaders. Former Minister, Edwin Batshu who is also a spiritual leader found himself presiding over a ministry that deported a number of pastors.

In 2013 when responding to MP for Kanye South Abram Kesupile who had asked him if he was aware that the deportation of some pastors or church ministries was causing panic to members of their congregations who lost spiritual and theological leaders critical for the advancement of their churches in Botswana, Batshu then Minister of Nationality, Immigration and Gender Affairs said he was not aware that deportation of some pastors or church ministers is causing panic to members of their organisations, further explaining that pastors/church ministers deported from Botswana were deported in accordance with the provisions of section 41 (1) (C) of the immigration Act.