Some devotees of the Legio Maria church have been using Facebook groups as echo chambers to propel a controversy about the coronavirus pandemic.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines an echo chamber as “a situation (place) in which people only hear opinions of one type or opinions that are similar to their own.”
Legio Maria is one of the indigenous African churches founded in 1964 as a splinter group of the Roman Catholic Church; headquartered at Got Kwer in Migori, Kenya.
The Facebook groups are about ten in number. They include the LEGION MARIA AFRICAN CHURCH MISSION. TRUTH AND TRUTH, with 19 thousand members; and the Legion Maria of African Church Mission…KINDA ROSARY, with 14 thousand members, among others.
The believers, who debate mainly in Dholuo, say that they have a cure for all illnesses and that Covid-19 is not special.
On April 25, 2020, one Legio faithful Benard Omondi, posted in the LEGION MARIA OF AFRICAN CHURCH MISSION group and claimed that he had had a vision on how to treat Coronavirus.
“It was revealed to me that we need to arm ourselves with blue and green candles and boiled water, then pray through Mama Maria and Cathorina. I was told to give the boiled water to the priest to bless it before giving it to coronavirus patients to drink and bathe with for seven days… That is the coronavirus cure,” claimed Omondi.
Fourteen people liked whereas seven others commented on Omondi’s allegations in the affirmative, and the post was shared in two of the Legio echo chambers.
In Legio worship, there is a special water that is sourced from sacred places like Lake Simbi Nyaima in Homa Bay county and Mberere in Nandi county. The water which is referred to as yath or pii hawi in the local dialect is often sprinkled into the mouths of believers from a squeezed plastic bottle.
Speaking at Mberere Legio Maria shrine at the foot of Nandi Hills, along the border of Kisumu and Nandi counties a fortnight ago, 25-year-old Patrick Janes Odhiambo, a Janabi (or Priest) from St. Peters Church in Homa Bay, confirmed Omondi’s allegations.
“It is true that this water cures many illnesses. As Legio faithful, we have various departments and Cathorina is in charge of health. A Legio devotee should never be treated in a hospital, no matter the situation. Yath cures corona for us because this is what we use and heal. We only follow Covid-19 containment protocols because it is a government directive.”
He added, “We believe that water from this spring in Mberere cures even STIs and HIV/AIDs. All illnesses are curable in the name of Bikra Maria (Virgin Mary). Every color of a candle represents an angel. The green one is for Cathorina.”
At Mberere shrine, bodaboda operators trooped in, with 20-liter jerrycans to fetch pii hawi from the unique spring within – an indication of yath being in high demand.
The bodaboda operators were being sent by the priests who remained at a nearby market center, Kopere, for fear of being harmed by the local Nandi community which accuse them of ferrying Covid-19 to their village in Mberere.
“I have been to Mberere myself. The younger generation of Legio faithful is liberal. They know that there are things that you heal by faith and that there are things like Covid-19 that cannot be cured,” said Lawyer Okoth Opondo, a former Legio altar boy whose father was a close associate of Melkio Ondeto, the Messiah and founder of Legio Maria.
According to a 2009 academic research paper titled, ‘Believing in the Black Messiah: The Legio Maria Church in African Christian Landscape’, healing and exorcism play a prominent role in Legio Maria worship.
The paper found out that over 60% of those who join the church do so because they believe in being healed from witchcraft and ‘western’ illnesses. In Kenya, there are several people, both religious and secular, who shun coronavirus vaccines and protocol on grounds that it is a ‘Whiteman’s disease’, and so, a western illness.
“Masks are cheaper these days but I must not wear them because I am a black man. That disease can only harm wazungu (white people). Covid-19 cannot penetrate this dark skin of mine. The tough nature of my job also keeps the virus at bay,” remarked Vincent Otieno, 31, a casual laborer at a construction site in Oyugis town, Homa Bay county.
When Covid-19 set in, some locals clashed with the police for not wearing face masks over what they said was hard economic times. However, today many people wear the masks improperly, on their chin – some keep them in pockets, and only rush to cover their mouths when a police officer is spotted in the vicinity.
There is no science behind Legio Maria’s yath. The World Health Organization has not announced any cure for Covid-19 yet, thus the Legio narrative remains to be controversial. However, various vaccines have so far been developed and approved for use.
Raphael Adika, a Pope of a faction of the Legio Maria church, has been on the record calling on the government of Kenya to obtain vaccines and urged members to follow Covid-19 containment protocols.
Lately, the church has experienced bloody leadership wrangles and believers in the other faction, led by Pope Lawrence Ochieng Kalul, take no instructions from Pope Adika. Not much is in the public domain from Pope Ochieng on matters Covid-19 containment and vaccines.
The Legio Maria church claim that they are the true Roman Catholics, only that their worship doctrines have been Africanized. Elements in the Roman Catholic church have been on the record opposing the use of vaccines.
“The Legio recognizes the pope of Rome. They conduct their services in Dholuo, Kiswahili, English, and Latin; just the same services as in a catholic church. When Pope Francis visited Kenya, the Legio church respected and followed the proceedings,” Lawyer Opondo explained.
We took samples of yath at Mberere and have proceeded to a medical laboratory to establish the possible medicinal value of it. Watch out for this in our next story. Also, we will be interacting with Legio leaders and faithful who have contracted the virus; and families that have lost their loved ones.
Listen to the podcast of the same story below.
This story was produced as part of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) program, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), and Africa Uncensored.