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Africa's Healers, Quacks And Charlatans Cash In On Coronavirus

In Benin, Senegal or Mali, marabouts and traditional healers offer solutions which range from alternative medicine to downright quackery.

A man walks through a cloud of disinfectant smoke at the Grand Dakar market in Senegal.
A man walks through a cloud of disinfectant smoke at the Grand Dakar market in Senegal.
Matteo Maillard

BAMAKO — The voice on the phone is cavernous, as if escaping from an oil lamp. On the other end of the line, Papa Amanveba answers politely, "Please excuse me, I was resting from my incantations." In these times of the pandemic related to the novel coronavirus, mystics like him are having no trouble finding work.

Grand master marabout, international spiritualist, traditional practitioner, eminent voodoo priest, distinguished disenchanter… His CV sums up his agenda pretty well. The illustrious healer claims he has "discovered an herbal tea against the coronavirus," which earned him renown outside of rural Benin, "all over Africa, but also in France, Spain and Asia." The remedy is guaranteed to destroy the virus in seven to 16 days. "Four people recovered thanks to me in Italy," he boasts.

His recipe? "A mixture of different barks, roots and…" to know the rest, you have to pay. "My information is not free," says the great master of herbs, who offers two delivery options. "By DHL… Otherwise, I can also make it appear next to your ear." The second option is faster, but more costly with a rate of 1 million CFA francs (1,524 euros), deposited to a Western Union account.

When it was pointed out that this is one expensive sip, the marabout became agitated and hung up, expressing regret that his "quality work" was being questioned, and reiterating that he is "known worldwide."

Healers like Papa Amavenba are widespread across the continent. Their classified ads cover highway barriers in Dakar, poles in Abidjan and walls in Conakry. A multitude of small tickets have even reached the sidewalks of the Barbès neighborhood, in Paris — and the darkest corners of the internet. These omnipotent marabouts, who normally cure the ills of love with potions, make ends meet with calabash and heal helplessness with a scepter, are everywhere. And now, for a few weeks, they're focused on making COVID-19 disappear. Now the barriers, posts and walls across Africa, which were once used in the great war against hemorrhoids, have given way to the fight against coronavirus.

In Senegal, a three-hour flight from Benin (or a snap of the fingers and some thought projection, according to Amavenba), Amadou Lamine Seye promises work that is "serious, quick and discreet." His specialty is verses from the Koran, which he distributes at 5,000 CFA francs in West Africa, 15,000 in Europe and 30,000 in China.

They preserve their authority, treat the symptoms but refer suspected cases to hospitals.

"I accept every method of payment except credit cards," he says. He gets calls from people as far off as Brazil to his village of Porokhane, a site of pilgrimage for the powerful Sufi brotherhood of the Mourides. To him, "corona is not difficult to treat, nothing to do with kidney failure," which would require many nights of prayer. If Covid-19 spreads across the country, he stands ready to wade into the blessed well, which is said to have been protecting the community from the meningitis epidemic since the 1980s.

"They are phonies!" concludes Dr. Ousmane Gueye, director of the National Educational and Information Service for the Promotion of Health in Senegal. He recognizes the influence of marabouts and healers in Africa as not only "immense," but it also "disturbs official information from the fight against coronavirus."

However, if the government is to curb the pandemic, it must join in the efforts of sorting out the charlatans from traditional doctors. "We organized a meeting with the association of traditional healers to raise their awareness of the risk and explain the measures to avoid transmission," says Gueye.The strategy seems to be working: "They preserve their authority, treat the symptoms but refer suspected cases to hospitals."

In Mali, traditional pharmacopoeia has also seen a swell in clientele since the start of the epidemic. In Bamako, Jean-Baptiste Niéki has been making capsules from roots and bark for twenty years. In his laboratory, he offers forty medicines to treat typhoid fever, infections, diabetes or hypertension. And he already has his anti-Covid-19 remedy ready, made with cinchona bark— the tree that produces quinine, the alkaloid for which chloroquine is the synthetic substitute.

"The symptoms are similar to malaria, which we know how to treat. Chloroquine works well and we use its natural version," he argues, ignoring the scientific findings, which have not come to the same conclusion.

But when counterfeit medicines proliferate in pharmacies because pharmaceutical molecules are too expensive, many Africans fall back on this traditional knowledge, with a sometimes blurred distinction between alternative medicine and quackery. "Actually, you also have them in the West," Mr. Nieki retorts.

And he isn't wrong… Since January, scammers have been flourishing in France, according to the Directorate General for Competition, Consumption and the Suppression of Fraud (DGCCRF). They offer air purifiers, anti-Covid-19 UV lamps, miracle concoctions and more, hoping to deceive the most gullible.

In the United States, Alex Jones, a radio host close to Donald Trump, promotes fake remedies, including a silver-based toothpaste. Televangelist Jim Bakke offers a colloidal anti-coronavirus gel, and the Vivify Holistic Clinic touts a eupatorium-based-tea as a "miracle plant."

So far, Papa Amanveba's herbal tea has not appeared next to our ear. His line rings into the void and, on his website, the eminent marabout has replaced his tirade extolling the merits of his drink with another message: "The grand master marabout, spiritualist and traditional healer, is doing wonders to find a concrete and adequate solution to this situation but, being a man of integrity, seriousness and honesty, he currently has no herbal tea or treatment to cure this virus."

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus pandemic from the best, most trusted international news sources — regardless of language or geography. To receive the daily Coronavirus global brief in your inbox, sign up here.

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