Traditional medicine has an enduring draw; consequently, it is a struggle to convince patients to stick with modern treatment. Standing in a breezy exterior hallway in Moshi's Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center near the Child Centered Family Care Clinic where he spends his days, pediatrician Dr. Rahim Damji told me that for weeks this spring, the crowds that typically throng the outpatient HIV clinic at the hospital had thinned out. Many patients stopped taking their anti-retroviral medication after making the trek several hours away to visit a new traditional healer in Loliondo, Ambilikile Mwasapile, known simply as Babu. A retired Lutheran minister, Babu began to gain fame around East Africa last fall because of a herbal concoction—called mugariga—that he claims is a miracle cure for HIV and four other major ailments, including diabetes, hypertension, and epilepsy. Lines of SUVs and minibuses crawled along, stretching for miles as people—often very ill—tried to reach him. Some avoided the line by flying in on helicopters. Babu's visitors included government officials such as Tanzania's deputy minister for Water and Irrigation….
Dr. Maya Maxym, an American pediatrician at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center with thePediatric AIDS Corps, explained Babu's draw: "People here have a very deep faith, and God is very present, real, and tangible in their lives," she said. "So, the combination of religiosity and magical thinking creates a perfect niche for someone like Babu to come in and give people hope that their suffering can be taken away by a miracle." People are willing to shell out two months' salary to "go and drink a cup of hope." The impact on HIV clinics around the area was noticeable. "People were coming here less and less. But now they've learned that these herbal medications are not working and are coming back to the hospital," Damji said. "We have had to change some medication because of resistance."
This should spur some skepticism among observers that all that’s needed to combat disease, particularly HIV, is piles of money for vaccines. Certainly widespread use of vaccines is an excellent way to combat disease, and certainly plenty of money is needed to purchase those vaccines. That’s not, however, a sufficient condition. Culture is pretty complex and powerful, and it takes more than cash to twist it to your purposes.