Century old African religion draws thousands

Judea, South Africa - Businessman Enoch Mthembu was born a Nazareth Baptist, but became a true believer after its charismatic prophet helped him win a multi-million-dollar contract.

"I went to Shembe to ask that he help me win a contract to supply forklifts to South African ports, competing with big companies. I got the 60 million rand contract against tough odds," beams Mthembu, of Durban, a city on the east coast of South Africa. "Shembe shows practical results."

Mbusi Vimbeni Shembe is the fourth successor of Isaiah Shembe, a Zulu healer who formed the Nazareth Baptist church a century ago to infuse African tribalism into the Christianity brought over by Western missionaries.

Legends of his miraculous touch have drawn four million followers across southern Africa who believe Shembe is a messiah and Africa's equivalent to Jesus, making it one of the largest independent church movements in Africa with some 7,000 temples.

Its blend of the traditional and modern provides succour in a region burdened by chronic poverty, unemployment and disease, especially high levels of HIV/AIDS, and keeps alive age-old cultural values important to many old-fashioned rural dwellers.

Every year tens of thousands of pilgrims from as far as Mozambique and Malawi stream to the holy land of Judea in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, to pray and stock up on sacred tubs of Vaseline or fill plastic Coke bottles with Holy Water.

Benedict Thwala, 32, had been unemployed for a year when he knelt before Shembe to beg for a stroke of good luck and five days later found a steady job with a telephone service provider.

"I was desperate at that point," said Thwala. "Now I go to him when I need something and give small offerings like money or food for the poor. I find that I always get back."

Worshipper Mike Ntuli said petroleum jelly was chosen for its purity and because the clear gel is easy to apply on the body as he licks his hand to demonstrate how he ingests the gel blessed by Shembe for its healing power.

"I rub it on my back if it aches ... It gives people hope, like medicine but stronger because it is made holy."


The annual Shembe celebration that runs the entire month of October is a large undertaking. Almost overnight, several kilometres of barren land become a bustling shantytown.

People hoping to make money hawk religious memorabilia bearing images of its four generations of leaders and a popular badge that reads, 'Shembe is the Way'.

Others sell Zulu traditional attire like animal skins or warrior dress. The Shembe church receives some proceeds from sales in the informal marketplace, which also offers food.

Worshippers cram into makeshift tent shelters or sleep in their cars. During the daytime, they socialise or prepare food in the sweltering summer heat.

A strict code of conduct prohibits sex, alcohol or smoking and unmarried women must cover their heads during prayer to shield them from the wandering eyes of men.

Worshippers are barefoot -- following the example of Jesus -- and wear flowing white gowns accessorized with African fur headpieces and colourful bead bracelets.

They roll out straw mats for an outdoor prayer service led by Shembe whose voice is amplified over loud speakers so it can be heard by those seated hundreds of rows back from the altar.

"People come with their different troubles and problems to get healed," said Muzi Mthethwa, an evangelist with a local Nazareth Baptist church. "We find it very rewarding."

Many residents in the nearby city of Eshowe are unaware that a makeshift Shembe village four times its population is tucked in the hills 15 km (9 miles) away.

Leaders in the religious sect say they prefer it that way but welcome newcomers, especially the sick and poor, in need of divine intervention or eager to turn their life around.

"Shembe is the prophet of Africa for Africans," said Chancey Sibisi, secretary general of the church. "The white colonial government in apartheid did not think a church established by black person could last but we are here to stay."