Faith healer or prophet of doom?-Prophet Owuor and his odd anti-Aids crusade
Prophet Dr Edward David Owuor agrees there is no conventional cure for HIV/Aids, but has been preaching to all and sundry that, through a series of amens and intercessory grunts, he can cure the disease.
Predictably, his claims have set afire the medical and religious fields, but what is raising eyebrows further is the corroboration of his claims by some medics, who say they have proof that “prayer and repentance” are freeing many from the yoke of the disease.
Rift Valley Kenya National Aids and STI Control Programme (NASCOP) provincial coordinator, Dr Toromo Kochei, confirms having encountered several cases of these “faith healings”.
“After examining more than five of my patients — people I have dealt with for years — and realising they seem healed, I couldn’t believe it, so I directed the regional Clinical Officer Ms Rahab Peenoi Lemarkoko to open investigations through thorough check-up of the patients, whom we tracked down to various regions in Rift Valley, Nyanza and Western Province.”
Several months later, Dr Kochei says they have confirmed at least 32 “healings”. DN2 was shown various pieces of evidence to confirm these “miracles”, among them hospital documents for some of the patients and a letter by a government official requesting more test on the victims.
“As a medical practitioner, I first thought it was insane, but now I know faith cures are possible,” Dr Kochei says.
The implications of this claim have attracted global attention, and in our forays across parts of western Kenya and Rift Valley, we encountered a team of international journalists covering the subject. They, like us, were roused by the claims of supernatural healing and wanted to question the authenticity of the medical reports coming from Kenya.
But, despite the cloud of disbelief, Owuor is adamant that faith heals. His first ever recorded healing, he says, was brought to his attention by a doctor from Eldoret Referral Hospital who called to enquire about a patient whose HIV tests turned negative despite having had advanced Aids. The patient said he had attended one of Owuor’s faith healing crusades.
We asked for the name of the patient and traced her to Nakuru. At her home, Ms Rose Kibet confirmed Owuor’s claims, saying she felt a “strange power” surge through her body at the prayer rally.
“I had been wheeled into the crusade by my sons,” she told DN2. “I remember I could not contain my bowel and was quite fetid, but I got instant healing at the crusade and in fact walked home. My sons have since told me they did not even expect me to make it to the prayer rally.”
“This is the work of the Lord,” explains Owuor. “All the patients who have turned negative have a common denominator: faith.”
Ms Lemarkoko is perplexed. Her training demands scientific proof of all processes, but this… this is an entirely different ball game. “We used the Linked Immunosorbent Assay test (Elisa) (a complete and advanced HIV test) and Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), which is used to locate HIV DNA in a patient’s body and is 95 per cent reliable. Both turned negative results on all patients,” she says.
Among the patients Lemarkoko handled was Dr Nancy Omronji, a lecturer at Egerton University’s department of Community Development. She told us that she had indeed been healed of the disease, having tested HIV-positive in 2004, even though she believes she must have acquired it in 1999 since that’s when she “started feeling sickly often”.
“In 2004 I started fainting regularly during lectures and my skin turned scaly and whitish. When the skin on my lips started peeling, I decided to visit a VCT centre, and the test turned positive,” Dr Omronji says.
“I was divorced and had two children, one then studying out of the country,” she continues. “There was a time I thought I was dying and called my daughter from Australia, who responded by coming home immediately. But when she arrived, I was tongue-tied; I couldn’t break the sad news to her, so I bottle it all in.”
Eventually, she told her that she had just missed her. Australia, after all, is a far-off country.
Dr Omronji says her healing was gradual as she followed Owuor in his crusades, from Nakuru and Kericho to Bungoma and Kabarnet.
“In July 2008 I finally tested negative for the virus but could not believe it, so I went to Nakuru Medical Lab along Kenyatta Avenue for further tests, which also turned negative. From there, I went to Aga Khan Hospital for the long Elisa test and the DNA PCR at MP Shah Hospital. Still not satisfied, I visited KEMRI Busia. All the tests turned negative,” says Dr Omronji.
Her story, like that of many others around the world who claim miracle cures, sounds unbelievable, fairy tale even. An HIV/Aids cure remains a dream, even though scientists regularly report advances in research that could lead to a vaccine. Survivors of the incurable disease, thus, seem unreal, supernatural and metaphysical. And Dr Omronji is well aware of this fact.
So is Bethuel Sirengo, a 24-year-old student of Education Arts at Masinde Muliro University in Western Province who also claims to have been healed from the disease.
“I tested positive for HIV in February 2, 2011,” he told DN2. He was then enrolled at Webuye AMPATH Hospital that same month for further medication and was immediately put on aspirin and anti-retroviral drugs. His day of healing came on April 18, 2011, when he went back to Makhanga Hospital, Bungoma North to test for HIV and was shocked to have turned negative. Further checks at Webuye AMPATH Hospital and Bungoma Medical Plaza proved he was HIV-negative.
Healed and exuberant, he says he contacted Masinde Muliro’s College Radio to announce his healing; and many who knew him, including his drinking mates, got saved.
Faith healing remains a controversial subject, and Jessica Horn, a writer and women’s rights consultant, in a paper titled Accepted Mishaps? Faith Healing, HIV and Aids Responses, explains that “the appeal of faith healing needs to be understood in the context of economically marginalised congregations who have limited healthcare options, as well as the tremendous emotional devastation that HIV and Aids has caused across social classes”.
“In terms of the appeal of faith healing,” she continues, “preachers in Pentecostal and charismatic churches also exert a tremendous amount of both class- and gender-based power over their predominantly female congregations.”
Paula Akugizibwe, an HIV and Aids/TB specialist, asks people to “consider the extent of mind control that goes on in these Churches”.
“People are emptying out their wallets with the hope of God would give them a Range Rover,” she cautions, “so there is no way that they would not be doing the same with something more abstract like good health.”
If faith and poverty are bosom buddies, then Ms Jane Njeri Waweru, who was diagnosed with HIV/Aids on March 9, 2010, is the personification of that cosy relationship. Njeri lives in an IDP camp in Rongai, Nakuru, and her 16-year-old daughter Hellen Waweru tells her mother’s story because the mother is too emotional to narrate her journey of faith. “My mother was seriously ill,” Hellen begins. “Her skin was terrible and she had a deep cough that would sometimes yield blood. I knew she would soon be gone.”
But her mother’s “healing” came in April 2010 at the Nakuru Showgrounds.
“When she came back,” recalls Hellen, “she did all the housework and I wondered what was wrong with her. I thought she was about to die because I have heard that the dying experience a bout of energy just before they pass on.”
Later, they went to the Nakuru Povincial General Hospital, where her mother tested HIV-negative.
Prophet Owuor says it’s all a matter of faith. Nothing but faith.
Learned man of marvels
Prophet Dr Edward David Owuor was born in 1966 in Yimbo, Siaya County and lives in Westlands, Nairobi. He says he studied his first degree at Makerere University, his second at University of Nairobi, and his masters degree in Genetics (Inheritance) at Ben Gurion, Israel before proceeding for his PhD in Molecular Genetics at University of Haifa (also in Israel). He also holds a degree from the University of Giessen’s Institute for Genetics (Germany).
In his studies, he specialised in molecular genetic engineering examining DNA cloning and nucleus type sequence analysis for medical drug design and discovery.
His interest in the specialty was driven by the advent of human genome mapping, which opened up a great treasure in molecular medicine for future disease therapy, especially in cancer and HIV/Aids.
Upon completion of his doctorate from Mt Carmel Haifa, he joined university of Illinois at Chicago Medical Centre (UIC) — centre for pharmaceutical biotechnology — as a post-doctorate fellow specialising in signal transduction by cancer chemotherapeutic drugs.
He was also a research teaching specialist in the division of surgical oncology, department of surgery at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
Owuor abandoned his life as a scientist in 2004 to become a preacher.
About his family, he says: “I have no family that links with me. The lord made sure I had no such thing as a family so that I could fully serve him.”
Of the HIV/Aids healings, he says: “This is the day I have been longing to see… if this day has now arrived, then it means we are seeing a new dawn on how this virus will now be wrestled down by the Lord. More people can now run to the Lord for their healing.”
One of the most tricky traits of the HIV, he says, is that it mutates several times and changes genetic material quite much. “Several continents have different strains of the virus, which makes it hard to fight.”
Divine interventions: Bridging science and spirit
Prophet Owuor is not alone in this business. Forty years ago, long before the recent afternoon when Dr Joseph Dutkowsky knelt at the warped feet of his four-year-old patient, he was a small-town teenager approaching his Catholic confirmation and needing to select a patron saint. He made an unlikely choice, a newly canonised figure, St Martin de Porres, the illegitimate child of a former black slave in 16th-century Peru.
Back then, in the early 1970s, as the child of a factory worker and a homemaker, Joseph had no aspiration toward medicine. Nor did he know that Martin de Porres had been elevated to sainthood in part because of his healing miracles.
Decades later, something — call it coincidence, call it providence — has bent the vectors of faith and science together in the career of Dutkowsky. The confluence of these often-clashing ideals has taken him to the top of his profession as an orthopedic surgeon specialising in the care of children disabled from cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Down syndrome and other afflictions. It has also taken him to the healing shrine of Lourdes and to the Lima barrio where his patron saint tended to the poor and broken and cast out.
Dutkowsky’s appointment with Christian, his young patient at a hospital in New York, was as emblematic as any other on his calendar: a patient who had cerebral palsy at birth, canted legs that could not be corrected by braces, muscle tissue softened by Botox injections, and each foot placed in a cast for several weeks to try to reshape it for stable walking.
“This is my ministry,” said Dutkowsky, 56. “Some people stand next to the ocean to feel the presence of God. I get to see the likeness of God every day. I see children with some amazing deformities. But God doesn’t make mistakes. So they are the image.”
Dutkowsky is well aware that he occupies contested territory, both intellectually and theologically. He can say, as he does, that he considers both belief and reason to be divine gifts. And he can say, as he does, that a healing miracle can consist of restoring a person’s soul to God, not necessarily curing a disease or reviving a paralysed limb.
Words, though, have rarely settled the millenniums-old arguments between sacred and secular, particularly as they pertain to medicine. So Dutkowsky mostly lives his example.
Once chastised by a hospital superior for saying “God bless you” to his patients, he wears a wooden cross carved by a disabled man in Lima, he fingers a rosary as he drives to the hospital each week from his home in upstate New York, and he recites a prayer to the Holy Spirit by Cardinal Mercier as he parks the car and prepares to see his patients. “Only show me,” it concludes, “what is your will.”
Dutkowsky has found his place working in a zone where medical challenge and religious mystery intersect. He treats people — even those who have grown into adulthood — who were visited with disability as children. When he operates on them, he recognises that he is, at least in the short term, adding pain to a life saturated with pain.
“We have a culture that’s addicted to perfection,” Dutkowsky says. “We’re willing to spend thousands of dollars to achieve it. The people I care for are imperfect. And I can’t make them perfect. I only hope that they can sense that I actually care they’re more than skin and bones, that we have a bond.
“For years, when asked why I chose this profession, I had no good answer,” he said, “until I came upon the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus and his disciples come upon a man who was blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus, ‘Did this man or his parents sin that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered that the blindness was not the result of the man or his parents’ sin. The man was born blind ‘so the glory of God might be revealed.’
“Every day in my work I find myself in the revealed glory of God.”