Kenya 'miracle healer' scandal hits deep faith in churches

An expose has raised a furor over a self-styled prophet's exploitation of poor people. While such cases are not new, this latest has prompted a sharp reaction.

He is a self-styled modern-day prophet, a "miracle healer" who has attracted thousands to his Nairobi "church" with claims of being able to cure everything from childlessness to HIV/AIDS.

But last month, the investigative news program "Inside Story" here exposed Victor Kanyari, who ran the Salvation Healing Ministry, as a charlatan. The program revealed elaborate playacting by Mr. Kanyari and a group of devoted followers who helped perpetuate his claims by making false testimonies and staging "healings" in front of the congregation.

Such cases are not new – but the blowback this time is significant. Many Kenyans are outraged that Kanyari easily exploited widespread trust in church institutions and targeted the poor, many of whom are desperate and willing to pay small fees to get the aid Kanyari promised. The case has spurred a bid for new regulation, with the attorney general announcing last week an indefinite ban on registering any new churches. And for mainstream Christians, it raises concerns that faith in the honesty of most religious outlets will decline.

“A person like me is not going” to someone like Kanyari, says John Masinde, a Pentecostal pastor in Nairobi – rather, he says, it’s someone living in a slum who is struggling to get by.

“In an economy like this one, you’ll find there are millions of people who live on a meal a day who cannot afford good medical care, who have gone to school but don’t have a job," he says. "Those scenarios are fertile for people to come up and offer a miracle cure."

All religious institutions in Kenya are supposed to register with the government, but the process described by church leaders is lax. And while the mainstream Christian, evangelical, and Catholic churches each have umbrella organizations to represent their members, they count only a fraction of the churches in Kenya as members, and the leaders have no authority to enforce standards or stop malpractice. There has been little to stop the proliferation of the “miracle healers.”

In this case, Kanyari denied the allegations, saying soon after the piece aired, "Why are people believing so much in Mohamed Ali [the journalist] and not prophet Kanyari?... Mohamed Ali is against the church, how do you see?"

He hasn’t been legally charged, and seems to be practicing as usual, although police have said they will soon begin interviewing people who say they were conned by Kanyari. The TV expose revealed deep deception: In one of the most damning parts of the program, a former assistant contends that Kanyari used the chemical compound potassium permanganate, which turns red when it comes into contact with water, when washing the feet of congregants to convince people that his prayer was causing blood – and the illness carried in it – to leach out of their bodies. His assistants also hid needles in their hands, which they then dumped into the foot baths to add to the illusion.

Desperation

Both tough circumstances and someone who appeared to have solutions attracted people to Kanyari, according to some observers.

“People are in poverty and they are looking for quick solutions,” says Oliver Kisaka Simiyu, the deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, the umbrella organization representing mainstream Christian churches.

“They don’t know that he has put needles in his hands, potassium [permagnamate] in his fingers. They just see needles coming out [of the foot baths where his assistants had been bathing their feet],” he explains. “What is a miracle? It’s an unusual occurrence!” And Kanyari, as seen in the documentary, was good at making the unusual happen.

It’s not just about desperation, though, says Rev. David Oginde, the vice chairman of the Kenyan Evangelical Alliance and the presiding bishop of Christ is the Answer Ministries, a Pentecostal church in Nairobi. Kanyari gave people answers, or at least the sense that someone was in control, he says, in an increasingly hectic world with too many questions.

Leveraging the church

But for many Kenyans, despite the occasional incident of fraudulent behavior, churches remain in high esteem – unlike government, media, and unions.

“That high name becomes an asset, and it is this asset that crooks would use,” Mr. Kisaka says.

“If you wanted to get things across or you wanted to access certain things, if you came in the name of the church you attracted less questioning,” Kisaka says. “No one expects someone coming in the name of the church to do this.”

Kisaka argues that it is the government, not Kanyari, that is ultimately to blame. He calls him a product of the official culture, and says the corruption so prevalent in government leaves everyone looking for their opportunity to make money.

“Kanyari is an ordinary Kenyan, hungry, looking for food, wanting status and power. If the fellow with whom he was in class has become a member of parliament and can pass by him driving a four-wheel, he wonders, ‘What is in my power to drive that same car?’ ” Kisaka says. “Talking about Kanyari is minimizing the problem. The real problem is that there is a culture of misuse of opportunity and power in this country in almost every sector, and that culture is taking advantage of the powerless.”

This story was reported with support from the Ford Foundation.

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