There are about 6.3 million people receiving anti-retroviral drugs in hospitals and clinics across eastern and southern Africa for HIV treatment. But there are also preachers prescribing prayers to people instead of recommending HIV drugs.
Pentecostal pastors are inviting people who are infected with HIV to come to the alter for a public healing. After the pastors pray over the infected they then burn the person’s anti-retroviral medications and declare the person cured.
Of course this cure comes with a few prices. People have shelled out their life savings to receive a blessing, others have paid with their life.
“I believe people can be healed of all kinds of sickness, including HIV, through prayers,” said Pastor Joseph Maina of Agmo Prayer Mountain, a Pentecostal church on the outskirts of Nairobi. “We usually guide them. We don’t ask for money, but we ask them to leave some seed money that they please.”
Margaret Lavonga attended a healing prayer service several years ago. She said she paid money for a prayer cure and nearly ended up dead after the pastor told her and others to stop taking their medicines.
“We were very desperate after realizing we had been infected as young women,” she said.
At the church, she was asked to pay the equivalent of $12 to be accepted for the healing ceremony and $24 at the end of the ceremony. The pastor then confiscated her drugs and those of four others and set them ablaze. The group was asked to undergo a test at a certain clinic in Nairobi, where they were all declared cured.
“We had joined him for crusades around Nairobi slums, telling the people how wonderful the pastor’s miracles were,” she added. “I was upbeat, but after two weeks I started falling sick. When I was tested, the virus was still in me and had multiplied since I was not taking the drugs.”
Four of those who had received the alleged prayer cure died within a month, according to Lavonga, who remains bitter that the government has not taken any action to stop the practice.
“The pastors should be in jail,” she said.
Roserita Nyawera, another victim in western Kenya, said the desperation among people living with HIV and their fear of stigma and family rejection make it easy for them to accept offers for a cure.
“When you are told there is an easier option, you want them (drugs) out of your life,” said Nyawera.
One organization is attempting to warn people with HIV about the prayer treatment. INERELA+ is an interfaith organization of HIV infected clergy members, its coordinator Jane Ng’ang’a is on a mission to advise people to use their prescribed drugs.
“We (clergy) must demonstrate leadership in this area,” said Ng’ang’a. “We should be in the forefront, encouraging adherence to the medicines, as we offer psychological and mental support to those infected and affected.”
The Rev. Adama Faye of the Lutheran Church in Senegal said prayers for miracle healing inflict serious damage not only on those who are victimized.
“We are concerned it is negating achievements against HIV and AIDS,” he said. “Governments should also keep close watch on those pastors who cheat people through the miracles.”