On the trail of the Loliondo drink of life

Thursday March 24 2011

76-year-old Ambilikile Mwasapile. Tanzanians have been inundated with stories of the man and his miracle cure for all chronic diseases known to mankind. Photo/EMMANUEL HERMAN/THE CITIZEN, TANZANIA

76-year-old Ambilikile Mwasapile. Tanzanians have been inundated with stories of the man and his miracle cure for all chronic diseases known to mankind. Photo/EMMANUEL HERMAN/THE CITIZEN, TANZANIA 

By JOHN-ALLAN NAMU in Loliondo, Tanzania

The Arusha bus terminus is as busy as any, but over the past few months, things have become even more crowded.

A new bus route has opened up… to a destination that even Tanzanians themselves hadn’t heard of until a few days ago.

The Ngorongoro-Loliondo route, taking passengers north of Arusha, is by far the most popular here. Fourty-four-year-old Ibrahim Ahmed Kapiendo knows this very well.

He’s a ticket clerk here, but brisk business isn’t his only reason for his belief in this route and who it leads to. Behind his eyes lie a testimony that is being told and retold throughout Tanzania.

Until March 5 this year, Ibrahim was suffering from glaucoma — a degenerative eye disorder which eventually causes blindness — and high blood pressure. So he booked himself a ticket to Loliondo.

“After I got there, Babu gave me a concoction of herbs to drink. I have been cured since,” he says.

The man he’s referring to as Babu is 76-year-old Ambilikile Mwasapile, and, over the past few months, Tanzanians have been inundated with stories of the man and his miracle cure for all chronic diseases known to mankind.

The tale of this septuagenarian from Loliondo is quickly becoming legend. Thousands have trooped to his tiny hamlet, some dying along the way, in a pilgrimage that few here could have comprehended just a year ago.

And so we decided to go and see for ourselves. At Namanga, the border town straddling Kenya and Tanzania, we only needed to get out of our car for people to mob us, volunteering stories about Mwasapile and his lure.

We were advised not to go through Arusha and northward to Loliondo, but instead to go through Magadiinto, which, according to them, was the ‘better’ route.

Right from the outskirts of Magadi, nearly every car we met was headed to, or from, Loliondo — on this pilgrimage of faith.

The journey itself is a test of faith, taking you from the marshes of Shompole; across rivers in Pinyiny, the southernmost settlement right at the border between Kenya and northern Tanzania; and along the shores of Lake Natron. It’s a 300-kilometre ride that is not easy to get through, as we found out. And we weren’t carrying any sick people.

As we drew closer though, the carnage from a punishing road began to show itself; cars broken down in the most remote of places, hundreds of kilometres from help. After close to seven hours of travel, we were there — or at least we thought so.

So shocking was the abruptness of, from what I could judge, a seven-kilometre traffic jam snaking through the middle of nowhere.

All we could do was look as men and women and children, weary, but heartened by the fact that they had finally reached their promised land, trooped slowly towards the head of the end of this jam.

On one side of the compound stood an open-air waiting room full of patients suffering from all ailments, all waiting to see just one man. It seemed an impossible task for any man.

We had barely taken all this in when we heard a throbbing sound above, and peered into the sky to behold a helicopter rising from the pit of the Mwegaro Hills ahead of us.

We had heard tales of extremely rich invalids being flown here (for Sh40,000) to drink the concoction offered by Mwasapile. This was the evidence.

After convincing the patients that we were only here as reporters and not patients, we got to the front of the line.

And there we were confronted with an image that confirms both the faith that people here have in this drink, and the desperation that walks hand-in-hand with this belief.

Mzee Mwasapile was attending to a critically ill man as we finally broke through. The man could neither speak nor drink the liquid by himself.

A catheter in his throat was a clear sign of what his handlers said he suffered from — a bad case of throat cancer. The medicine had to be administered through a tube in his stomach.

The patient was whisked away soon afterward, so we were unable to confirm his condition — and many others — although it was claimed that he seemed to have regained full consciousness after being given the drink. Indeed, up to this point, the Nation has not yet seen any independent proof that the “cure” works.

Evening quickly set in, and under a small tent, Mwasapile, or Babu as he is called, sat, pouring this green liquid into cups which were then quickly taken to cars with keen occupants waiting.

Money changed hands — the drink costs Tsh500 (approximately Ksh25). Children get half a cup, which sometimes is more than they want, or can handle, and we saw quite a number wailing and flailing as they were forced by their mothers to swallow the concoction.

Of the thousands that were here, many were women and children. Eusta Isante had come here with her three children, all the way from Arusha. “I believe I will be healed,” she told us. “In the name of Jesus we all shall be healed.”

Soon though, the medicine ran out, and a weary Mwasapile was led back to his house for the night. Undeterred, the multitude of the hopefuls then began to bed down for the night, many of them under the stars.

The following morning, the mist from the Mwegaro Hills rolled down into Samunge. But down below, a quiet expectant air instead hung.

Thousands of people gathered under one sky, going through their own morning rituals. But all, in the end, waited for the same man to emerge, and the same medicine to be doled out.

The night before, Ambilikile Mwasapile’s medicine ran out, but today, his helpers seemed up to the task… despite the fact that, overnight, the seven-kilometre stretch of traffic to this place grew to 12 kilometres.

Hacking away at the firewood that would help prepare the supposed healing concoction is Lutheran Church volunteer Linus Ndomo.

He comes here once a week from Loliondo Town to help in whichever way he can, a cause that the Lutheran Church in Tanzania has stood behind. He’s one of the few people here who work for Babu for free.

Out of every Tsh500 that is paid for the supposed cure, Tsh200 (or Ksh10) goes to the Lutheran Church, another Tsh200 to paying Babu’s workers, and Tsh100 (or Ksh5) to the man himself.

It is claimed that Mwasapile spends that amount on supplies needed to prepare this concoction. His small, mud-thatched house stands as testimony to his humble background, and most would expect him to take advantage of the cashflow to put up a palatial residence. But he is not.

As the clock ticks toward 7 am, Mwasapile emerges. Usually, we are told, he sits down to serve his cure at 7 am, and stays there until 7 pm, only taking short breaks to eat.

Immediately, you can see how highly regarded, and well protected, he is. Security officers from FFU, the Tanzania paramilitaty unit, guard him.

We’ve been asked to try and catch him before he begins working, but there are too many people to serve today, so we miss that opportunity.

As he approaches the crowd, we’re told that the chance to talk to him will present itself again, albeit not in the manner we had expected.

Every morning, before he begins doling out his medicine, he addresses the section of the crowd in front of him.

Today, he retells the story about how he came about the medicine first, and then what it treats, which is about everything.

He says one needs at least seven days before one is completely healed. On HIV, Ambilikile claims that a further three to four weeks may be needed before the virus clears out of one’s system and one tests negative.

Then he does something unexpected: he asks the crowd to question him about his medicine. After letting a few people ask their questions, we ask our own.

First, whether this medicine can be served by anybody else, and why he chose this remotest of locations to do so. “God revealed this to me, and it wouldn’t work if it is served by any other person, or in any other place,” he said.

Ambilike then leads the crowd in prayer and, before long, begins his work. We ask him what is inside this concoction. “Just the normal, usual herbs,” he assures us.

The drink contains chops from the root of a tree called mgamriaga (poison arrow tree), scientific name antiaris toxicana. The tree is among the most poisonous plants in the world, and the irony over its use here in Loliondo cannot be overstated.

The plant has been taken to Dar-es-Salaam for testing by the Tanzanian ministry of health, but according to Dr Richard ole Nkapi, all they will do is confirm the same thing, because there is one other ingredient that is crucial to the working of this concoction. Faith.

Richard himself is a walking testimony to the drink’s alleged capabilities, having been cured, he claims, of diabetes after taking it.

One challenge that even Babu cannot sort out is just how many people have come, and will keep coming. But that is neither here nor there.

Transport to Loliondo has become quite the business. A seat in one of the Land Cruisers we spotted around costs up to Tsh120,000, or Ksh6,000. That is 240 times the amount of money it costs to get a cup of Ambilikile’s concoction.

Nonetheless, people here look at it as a savings in medical bills. But in modern medicine, a fight against the alleged healing concoction is brewing.

St Stephen’s Hospital, at the centre of Arusha, used to serve very many people. Now lines around the hospital have shortened.

They all come back

Dr Julius Mbuya denies that this has happened, but acknowledges that many of his patients have been to Babu’s. We are told many of these are HIV+, all hopeful that they will get cured. After all, Ambilikile’s first patient was HIV+.

But from what Dr Mbuya has seen, this isn’t true for people with Aids or Diabetes. “They all come back, and they all test positive,” he says.

The government allegedly knows this as well. Arusha’s regional medical officer, Dr Salashtoure, a staunch critic of Ambilikile’s, however says that, despite a general concurrence by doctors in government that the medicine doesn’t work, they have to facilitate people to get there.

That’s why the cream of Tanzanian society, including politicians, are going to Samunge, with some allegedly taking their constituents there in order to gain popularity.

As we leave, we begin to count the number of cars in the line waiting to see Ambilikile… nearly 2000 of them, parked on the road, and more still coming. Whether the government or critics like it or not, the pilgrimage to Loliondo is only getting bigger.

Send your comments to [email protected]