Shembe is the way for millions in southern African

Judea, South Africa - No pill would cure his burning headaches so Njabulo Mjiyahko tried a holistic approach, visiting a religious healer who prescribed a spoonful of holy petroleum jelly three times a day.

Miraculously, the pain vanished after a week, convincing Mjiyakho to desert his Salvation Army church and join legions of Shembe converts, born-agains and lifetime followers of the independent church movement.

Mbusi Vimbeni Shembe is the fifth prophet of a homegrown South African faith, known as the Nazareth Baptist Church, that infuses gospel preachings of Western missionaries who brought Christianity to Africa with elements of Zulu tribalism.

"The Bible says God will send a prophet like you. In Africa that is someone of my skin colour, who speaks my language and can talk to my ancestors in order to solve my problems," said Mjiyakho, 40, a patrol officer in the eastern Kwa-Zulu Natal province.

"This is the only church that is from God for black people."

Stories of the supernatural abound among some 4 million Shembe disciples in southern Africa who consider its charismatic leaders a godsend.

The founder was Isiah Shembe who in the early 1900s experienced a spiritual awakening on a hilltop and claimed to possess magical powers to heal the sick and drive away evil spirits.

Throngs of faithseekers from far and wide gather annually in South Africa's eastern Kwa-Zulu Natal province, 70 kilometres north of Durban, to re-enact the mountain ascent.

In a separate month-long pilgrimage nearby, thousands stream to a holy land -- transforming a barren piece of tree-dotted property into a bustling shantytown almost overnight -- to worship and be blessed by Shembe.


The Nazareth Baptist Church has its own etiquette. Saturday is Sabbath -- the holiest day and a time to rest.

Worshippers walk barefoot which they say was an example set by Jesus, wearing loose-fitting white gowns and displaying tribal flair like fur headpieces and beaded anklets.

Unmarried women, clutching Zulu hymn books, wrap white sheets over their head to hide from wandering male eyes.

Holy Water and sacred tubs of Vaseline are consumed or applied to the body as a remedy to cure whatever ails.

Smoking, drinking and sex are frowned upon over religious holidays.

During celebrations Shembe men and women slip into Zulu regalia -- popular styles are animal skin and warrior dress -- and line up to perform traditional dance steps including an intimidating stomp.

Historical archives about the Bible-based faith are sparse -- or at least concealed -- and its clergy is tight-lipped. The church decided to close celebrations several years ago to outsiders arguing openness yielded little benefit.

The religion is solace for many Africans trapped in poverty in a region saddled with some of the world's highest rates of AIDS. It also thrives among rural dwellers who attach great value to preserving age-old traditions.

Worshippers believe it is their duty to be generous to the less well off, donating money, goats and basic food items to the church which distributes them to the jobless and orphans.

Edward Mkhize, a 41-year-old accountant, said he switched to the religion more than a decade ago because it accepts traditional practices, like polygamy.

"In this faith I am able to have two wives and as many cattle and goats as I need. God blesses you with a lot of things," he said.