Africa: Their Faith Prohibited Vaccinations. Then Measles Killed Their Children.

Mutare — Members of some Apostolic sects — and some church leaders — are reconsidering the stand against medicine after a deadly outbreak in Zimbabwe.

Within two weeks, Tendai Rode buried seven of his children. The youngest was 3, and the oldest, 9.

Rode had 15 children with his three wives before seven of them succumbed to measles last September. Doing nothing while his children were dying “mysteriously” was no longer an option for him. Previously, the 41-year-old — who lives in a rural area in the province of Manicaland, about 320 kilometers (199 miles) from the capital city of Harare — had never visited hospitals or used modern medicine. When his fifth child died, Rode decided to seek medical attention. This meant going against his faith.

Members of the Johane Marange Apostolic Faith Church, like Rode, refuse medical treatment of any kind, even in the most severe cases of injury or illness, because they believe that only God can heal. But now, things have changed not just for Rode but also for his entire family. They have stopped going to church altogether. A perpetual sense of regret looms over his everyday life since his children died. “Maybe if my children were vaccinated or immunized at birth, they would have been protected from the disease,” he says.

Rode’s children died during a measles outbreak in Zimbabwe that, as of October 2022, had led to 744 deaths and 7,504 new cases recorded. The first case came from Manicaland last April. In most cases, the children belonged to the Apostolic church. But this recent outbreak is forcing some leaders of the country’s Apostolic churches to reconsider their stand on medicine and leading members like Rode to hospitals, in defiance of the anti-modern medicine religious ideologies they have held on to for decades.

Zimbabwe is no stranger to measles outbreaks. According to research from the United States’ National Center for Biotechnology Information, the country experienced an outbreak in 2010, recording more than 7,754 infections and 517 deaths. Undocumented outbreaks also occurred in 1983, 1986 and 1988, none with any connection drawn to Apostolic churches. But this recent outbreak has specifically affected the church community. Kuziva Banga, the councilor of Ward 24 in Mutsago village, who is regularly in contact with the village health care workers who visit homes and encourage parents to vaccinate their children, says that after the outbreak, he has seen community members who never used to seek medical attention visit hospitals.

“Some members of the Apostolic church groups are even visiting hospitals in the cover of darkness at night so they cannot be seen by fellow church members seeking vaccinations for measles,” he says.

A mother of three who requested anonymity to protect her identity from fellow church members says that when children in her village first started falling sick, she was not worried because she thought children often get sick, even though at that time her two children had already developed the rash. But when a week passed and children were dying one after the other, she started worrying. She made a decision. “I was not going to lose my children, while I still had an option to do something about it,” she says. Without telling her husband, who works and lives in a nearby city, she took her children to the clinic. “I went after 5 p.m., when few people are out, to avoid being seen by fellow church members,” she says, adding that she still hasn’t told her husband about the vaccinations. “One day when I tell him, I hope he will be able to forgive me and thank me for saving our children’s lives,” she says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all children receive two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, starting with the first dose at 12 to 15 months of age, and the second at 4 to 6 years of age. Children can receive the second dose earlier as long as it is at least 28 days after the first. In Zimbabwe, according to a 2019 household survey conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the national statistics office, the children of Apostolic sect parents are least likely to receive the measles vaccine.

The churches in Zimbabwe are of two broad categories: missionary churches and African indigenous churches. Zimbabwean natives, rather than missionaries from outside the country, founded indigenous churches such as the Apostolic church. The first Apostolic church was founded in the 1930s in Manicaland, and the region in eastern Zimbabwe now has the largest number of Apostolic churches in the country. A 2011 UNICEF report estimated the country’s Apostolic movement had more than 2.5 million members and 160 groups. Even though no exact official statistics exist on the current population, as of 2022, the Union for the Development of Apostolic Churches in Zimbabwe Africa (UDACIZA), an organization that represents African independent churches, says membership is 450 to 500 church groups. The most prominent church groups, Johane Marange and Johane Masowe, originated in Manicaland’s Marange and Makoni areas, respectively. While similar, the two differ mainly over whether they draw their theology and spirituality from the Bible (the Marange) or directly from the callings of the Holy Spirit.

Most church members wear white garments to church. The men are baldheaded with beards, and women do not get their hair done. The members congregate in open spaces, not church buildings. Polygamy is allowed, girls are married early, and members marry within the church. Because doctrine prohibits seeking medical attention, vaccinations — even against deadly diseases — are forbidden.

But things are changing slowly. Andby Makururu, leader of Johane Masowe Apostolic group (the Fifth of Africa), says vaccination is now a gospel he preaches to his congregants nationwide. In each of his assemblies, he has appointed someone to record the names of children who have been vaccinated against measles and polio. Makururu says his church has approximately 45,000 members across Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces. “Reports I have now from almost half of the 10 provinces show more than 5,000 children have been vaccinated so far. This figure is excluding Manicaland, where statistics from our church are still being compiled,” says Makururu. He says he has had dialogue with at least three Apostolic church bishops on the issue of health care and the seeking of medical attention. “We have agreed, and I hope they will start encouraging such to their congregants … that they should teach them about the modern world … a different way of living which we need to adapt to. It is not like we are saying they should not believe in healing from above, but they should also incorporate modern ways,” he says.

Philimon Handinahama, senior programs representative at UDACIZA, says some churches no longer explicitly ask followers not to go to hospitals. Instead, in congregations, he says, words are said in the Shona language on the lines of “mukandobayisa vana mozouya moreura mochenurwa,” meaning if a person seeks medical attention, they will have to confess their sins, and seek forgiveness, “which in a way is relaxing of punitive actions, such as banishment, often given to those that go against church doctrines.”

UDACIZA is engaging Apostolic groups mainly in Manicaland through provincial coordinators. “For Manicaland, we have identified a chairperson from Johane Marange church group, and we hope we will be able to make major inroads there, as it happens to be the biggest Apostolic church group,” says Handinahama.