Almost every day, throughout Botswana crowds of hundreds of worshipers fall over each other to listen to prosperity gospel preachers or commonly referred to as fire church prophets preach about how giving to God or to his anointed prophets, will make them rich, healthy and blessed.
Envelopes for offerings: naturally cash or cheques are passed around, along with gifts. Then there is a clutch of merchandise which includes pamphlets, CDs anointed oil and holy water.
Depending on who you talk to, all this is either a scam to fleece unsuspecting members of the church flock out of their hard earned money, or it is an auspicious planting of the seed of prosperity and good health.
Dr Sethunya Mosime, senior Sociology lecturer at the University Of Botswana says gone are the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Church days. “Almost every car and household has a sticker from a fire church. Many of these churches are money driven and their pastors prey on unsuspecting vulnerable church members. Motivated by these miracle money schemes, church members sometimes go to any length to get money to donate in their churches. They borrow money from friends and family members. People take loans and expect returns that will never come. There have been cases where people used money that was meant to take care of their families, some public funds or money that belongs to their workplaces to ‘sow a seed’ in their churches. Many other African pastors market all sorts of materials – water, handkerchiefs, olive oil, and soap. They designate them as holy and by so doing invest them with extra market value.”
Botswana has seen an explosion of what has come to be known as ‘fire churches’, notorious and famous in almost equal measure for week long healing crusades and oil and water miracles amongst others.
Nonetheless, the surging popularity of these mega-churches has propelled their preachers into the ranks of the richest people in Africa. Malawian mega-pastor Prophet Shepherd Bushiri founder of the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) based in Pretoria is one such man, popularly known as Major One, he is perhaps the most popular of the fire church leaders, having established several well-attended branches in Botswana. The self-acclaimed Prophet’s ministries have since been prohibited in Botswana, citing concerns over ‘miracle money’ claims. Bushiri’s church taught its members that they could make money through acts of magic; the government has stated that this teaching violated the laws of the country. Although banned, thousands of Batswana travel monthly through tour guides to Bushiri’s headquarters in Pretoria spending up to four days in prayer, sermons and healing sessions.
Among the biggest beneficiaries of fire churches are road and air transport businesses as hundreds of Batswana make pilgrimages to fire churches and their leaders in Pretoria, Lagos and elsewhere.
Maipelo Mokgwathe of Botswana Housing Cooperation insists that fire churches brainwash their followers into making monetary donations. “On top of that, pastors preach sermons about money from time to time, and some of those sermons also seem meant to motivate people to give more to the church. I am not against preachers obtaining wealth but not at the expense of their congregation. If you are flourishing, so should your flock. If members of the church are struggling to pay rent or keep their homes, while you’re driving to church in a Mercedes Benz, something is very, very wrong.” These sentiments are shared by Tshiamo Sono, a mechanic at Tyre World in Gaborone who says pastors and fire churches are all about money. “I don’t think people should have to pay for another man or woman to read the Bible to them or tell them how to live or help people get to God. I just believe that anything a person makes as a preacher he should give back to the poor. Although there are many good preachers out there, some are quite money hungry. Extravagant lifestyles and expensive vehicles should not be paid for by hard working people.”
Mr. Thabang Setshego from the Registrar of Societies under the Department of Civil & National Registration stopped short of dismissing reports of fire charges defrauding their flock as wild and unsubstantiated claims. He told Sunday Standard Lifestyle that although there haven’t received any formal reports on whether or not churches scam people, they try by all means to make sure no illegal activities happen. “I think a lot of people speculate that churches – fire churches scam people unknowingly, that may be the case but nothing concrete has been brought forward to us. It would interest people to know that if we discover any illegal operation at any of these churches or any church then the constitution states that the people responsible for the running of that church be charged and everyone gets a charge, a pastor has its own charge, the people responsible for providing a place for the church to be run will also be charged as well as the congregation they get their own charge too.”