Vol.21 No.99

Tuesday 29 June 2004    

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News
In God's name

RYDER GABATHUSE
Staff Writer

6/29/2004 1:56:56 AM (GMT +2)

FRANCISTOWN: "We are not dissidents", says Raphael Panganayi. "We were completely shocked when health officials and some law enforcement officers pounced on us compelling our children to take the anti-polio drops.


In all fairness, the Botswana government failed us as they treated us like a bunch of irresponsible people. It is a question of not understanding our religious beliefs and appreciating them."

Panganayi, 42 is an elder of the Johane Church of God, in Francistown - a religious sect, commonly known as Bazezuru, which recently made news headlines after controversially resisting the anti-polio immunisation.

Panganayi goes straight to the point. He points out that their religion forbids contact with all forms of medicine. He finds it odd that after so many years that the sect has been in existence in Botswana, it is only now that the authorities claim ignorance of this basic tenet in Johane Church of God's religious order.

Panganayi talks of the sense of helplessness he feels when he stands in front of the congregation preaching against the use of modern medicines and other "taboos" when the flock recently witnessed their children being forced to take the anti-polio drops. He prays that Mwari (a Shona word for God), will be merciful, and not judge them harshly.

The origin of the Johane Church of God is traced to Zimbabwe at a place known as Marimba. Available records indicate that a respected prophet Shoniwa Masedza, whom his followers named Johane, as in John the Baptist, established the church sometime around 1932. The sect was initially known as the church of Johane-wa-Masedza. With time, the name evolved to the present one.

The church was introduced to Botswana by the founder himself between 1952 and 1954. It first camped in the North-East village of Ramokgwebana before it spread throughout the country, with Johane as the torchbearer. Today the church has several local headquarters in a number of southern African countries. The main headquarters is in Harare.

"We are Christians and that is how people should consider us. We should not be treated like hooligans or outcasts," protests the bald-headed and thick-bearded Panganayi.

He jokingly scratches the beard that has probably never made contact with a razor blade. "This is our uniform and identity, my brother," he says about the clean-shaven head, and overgrown beard. "You probably wonder what would happen to a male member who decides to shave their hair and beard? Well, nothing. But they would certainly look out of place, and lost."

The well-built Panganayi suddenly pulls out a thick document, which he says is the church constitution. "This is our guiding document, and as a church priest I am expected to be conversant with most of the contents of this book. "

The document is written in Shona language. He reads aloud a few lines from the book, and translates them into Setswana. "First, we are taught to respect the Sabbath. Adultery is a taboo, and we are not allowed to use traditional and modern medicines."

The teachings are followed to the letter. For instance, church members do not do any form of work on Saturday.

"I am aged 42, and I have never been to any traditional doctor or health facility. But look at me. I am very fresh and healthy," he playfully caresses his belly. "Our prophets are very accurate and they will tell you exactly what would happen the next minute without a miss. They are able to tell a pregnant woman when she will give birth and whether she is carrying a boy or a girl. They even guide an individual on how the future of that child could turn out to be. The prophets guide us on how we should pray to achieve certain things. The sick are healed through prayer. That is how we live, and will continue living."

As Botswana continues to grapple with the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Panganayi claims that members of the Johane Church of God were long warned about the disease. "We were informed about this disease a long time ago. Through prayer we were able to keep the disease away from us. Our belief is that adultery is a contributory factor to the spread of this disease," says Panganayi, who has three wives.

Among the collections in his house is a framed huge picture of his three wives captured in a single file with the eldest of them leading the pack. "Polygamy is not a problem in the church as long as one is mature and has the means to feed his family," he explains.

His first wife, Chipo has six children, the second wife has three and the youngest has one. Like their parents, all the children were born at home and have never been to a health facility. "We are a united family. As you know, there will always be differences here and there in a family, but we always do our best to avert disaster. So, in a nutshell, we live happily."

Panganayi's first and third wives are sisters, and this is perfectly normal according to the church's teaching.

Young girls are not betrothed at birth, but are considered to be ready for marriage after reaching the age of 12 years.

Chipo, the senior wife, corroborates her husband's story. "I gave birth to all my children at home under the careful eyes of church elders, and nothing has ever gone wrong. I also live happily with my husband's other wives. Mind you, one of them is my younger sister."

After a church service, Josamu Maderera, 62 sits besides the fire at his home at Bluetown location. He explains that the church does not compel men to be polygamous. "It is an individual's choice," he says.

He views himself as an example. He is in a monogamous marriage that produced 12 children - six of whom died. A resident of the town since 1959, Maderera is widely known throughout the township as a cobbler of repute.

Aged 33, Thomas Mabetho has two wives. At 18, the age set by the church for men to marry, he married a 14-year-old virgin. The church doctrine stipulates that the bride must be a virgin and nothing else. This places a great deal of responsibility on parents to ensure that their daughters remain virgins until marriage.

"I have five children and none of them is at school, and I have no plans to take them to school. We teach our children survival skills, and - of course - how to read and write," says Mabetho. "We believe that it is not a string of university degrees that feed an individual. From a young age, our children are mature enough to overcome the challenges of life." All his children were born at home.

"In our church, there are some elderly women who are well trained as mid-wives and cannot go wrong as they have been in this game for decades now without hitches," he says.

Oneday Maderera is a smart looking young man who wears designer clothes. The 29-year-old lanky man is married to a woman he spotted in the church. According to the church teachings, there is no need for conventional courtship before marriage. "One day after the church, I informed my parents that I had spotted the woman of my heart at the church. The marriage was later blessed at the church," he explains.

He has never been to school, and is a self-taught welder. His wife sells vegetables, fruits, wooden chairs and tables, and bedding.

"Our children are not allowed to go to school because they would be made to wear school uniforms and play all sorts of ball sports, which the church prohibit. Young boys and girls are not allowed to play together," says Maderera.

He laughs that the family wardrobe at home is filled up with his wife's white dresses. "She has many dresses. I can't count them as I would spend the whole day counting," he says.

The church is gradually winning over indigenous Batswana. Selenga Moswela, 46 - a resident of Block Two - last Sunday made his inaugural visit to the church.

"I came here for prayers as of late I have not been in good health," he explained. "This was my first day here and I am determined to be a regular as I have always thought this was not a church but a kind of club."

Dikeledi Sande has lived with Bazezuru for many years at Bluetown. "These people are our neighbours and we have learnt to live with them. They make our lives much easier because we buy fresh vegetables and fruits from them."

Botswana Congress Party (BCP) activist, Kays Phitshana has no problems with his Bazezuru neighbours at the Aerodrome location. "They attend our funerals and we attend theirs. Generally, they don't look at themselves as a different group from the rest of us. After all they are Batswana just like us."

District Officer, Kolobetso Sekwababe had difficulties passing any judgement on Bazezuru. "It is not easy to determine whether Bazezuru attend social gatherings in town or not. We never come to determine who is who in such meetings," she says.

Her major gripe with them stems from their recent attempts to resist the anti-polio immunisation.

Tati Town Customary Court's deputy president Alfred Dabutha fires a broadside at Bazezuru for failure to integrate into the community. For instance, he says, they do not attend meetings called in his area. "They mostly claim that since they are self-employed, they spend most of the time selling their wares on the streets. They only come to the kgotla when they have something to report."

Phase Four customary court president Masego Masonya echoes similar sentiments. "They never attend meetings called in the area. We take it that this is a challenge to us to show them the importance of attending meetings of this nature in the future," he says.

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