DR Congo

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a powerful ally in the fight to end polio: Part 2 - The Trojan horses

By Vincent Petit

PP2 is a charismatic pastor of the Kitawala Filadelphie sect in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the past, he has counseled his followers to refuse vaccination against polio. Recently, he has begun to change his approach.

But the road to acceptance has been neither short nor easy. From hours spent passing a Swahili Bible back and forth in search of the final word on vaccinations to a surprising decision to send young members of the sect away for medical training to secret vaccinations in the dark of night – we trace, in this three-part series, the path of an unlikely alliance with a man who calls himself the Elephant King.

Southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1 March 2013 – At the entrance to the Kadima mission, you are greeted with branches of acacia flowers. White doves are freed into the air around you.

You cross the grounds of the mission, which belongs to the Filadelphie Kitawala sect in the southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The humid air is filled with the clamour of drums, with women’s voices raised in high-pitched ululation.

You are led into the bush near what members of the group call their ‘Vatican’, a hut made of mud and palm fronds that is reserved for PP2, the group’s spiritual leader. You are joined by his most loyal followers, and by PP2 himself, a man venerated with the title Elephant King.

A long swim upstream

PP2, on this day, wears shorts woven from fibres of the raffia palm. He carries a bow and arrow. He puts the arrow into the notch of his bow and draws the bow, then points the arrow toward the sky. This, PP2 tells you, is the single arrow that will be needed to “ensure victory in the war against Europe in 2015”.

It’s not exactly a reassuring welcome, if you are part of a team bearing polio vaccines that have come all the way from Copenhagen, Denmark. The children of the Kadima mission need these vaccines. But, many followers of this religious group, who fervently avoid technology and Western medicine, see them as another symbol of unwanted interference from the West.

For the two rose-colored drops that protect against polio, it’s a long swim upstream before they can immunize children here. It’s a path strewn with magical pitfalls and biblical challenges, in a place where people act based on tradition and faith – a place filled with groups that some call ‘churches’ and others ‘cults’.

From Copenhagen to the nearby town of Kabalo, the polio vaccine comes by air, by land, through swamps and forests. The logistics of getting it here is the work of Titans. Yet, the polio vaccine’s journey too often ends just a few inches away from a child’s mouth. As of June 2012, 4 per cent of all children under 5 had been missed during polio campaigns here in Katanga Province because their parents refused to allow them to take the vaccine. Katanga has consistently had the highest rate of vaccine refusal in the world.

Two painted signs at the entrance to Kadima Mission leave little doubt as to why.

On the sign to the left, a Congolese man – bound and under the threat of a European soldier – has a vision of the Holy Spirit descending from a palm tree next to a building marked ‘Prison, 1936’.

The date on the sign to the right of the entrance is in the future. ‘2015’, it reads, below a painting of an imaginary football match that pits the United Nations against the Filadelphie Kitawalas. The panel announces: “Africa is the cradle of humanity. It has the shape of a gun, and the trigger is in the Congo. Congo is the battlefield.”

Breaching the walls

How, when so many followers are fiercely set against all that comes from the West, can those two life-saving drops of polio vaccine breach these walls? And how is polio to be prevented from returning to places like this, where small pockets of resistance to the vaccine can give it an open doorway into recirculation?

A part of the answer is on that second sign at the entrance to Kadima mission. Leading the Filadelphie team as centre forward, in the imaginary football match, is PP2.

When it comes to polio, PP2 may be the kind of player who can tip the balance, by supporting acceptance of the vaccine among his followers rather than preaching against it as he did in the past. He may help close the door to the polio virus for good.

But, it took years of negotiation and awareness-raising by community mobilizers, starting back in 2009, to reach this point. After hours spent sweating over a Swahili bible while discussing the role of divine will in the lives and deaths of children, PP2, himself, is convinced that the mission should open its doors to the polio vaccine. But, many of his followers – people who have for decades, or for their whole lives, followed teachings that rejected all that came from the West – are not.

A Trojan horse strategy

PP2’s reformist spirit is not to everyone’s taste. While, in his own mission, people can listen to the radio, and PP2, himself, uses a mobile phone to carry out his work, there are other missions in the movement whose pastors are more radical. The Filadelphie process of reform may show potential, but it relies completely on the strength of the Elephant King, and he, in turn, risks permanently weakening his authority or even being thrown out of his role as leader. In essence, the Elephant King walks on eggshells.

UNICEF-supported community mobilizers and health officials spent many hours discussing the problem with PP2. How could they bring the polio vaccine into the mission, but in a way that would be accepted by PP2’s flock?

Finally, together, they struck upon an idea that just might work. PP2 agreed to identify three boys from the mission to receive free training in hygiene and disease prevention. Being from the community, the boys could return and easily speak to the faithful, once they were trained. Three health posts would be created for them. It was a perfect Trojan horse strategy.

Sensitizers for the church

This medium-term plan seemed to meet all conditions for success and sustainability. It was accepted by PP2, as long as the plan’s final objectives remained secret. He sent three of his own children to be trained. (PP2’s power was derived from his own father, and PP2 is preparing one of his sons to take his place. It is likely that these sons will also be influential in the community.)

The three sons selected have now completed three years of the four-year course. But, even now, a year before they are ready to start their work, PP2 seems to have seen a benefit to the project. This year, he proposed that two more young Kitawalas, also his sons, be sent for medical training.

“Me, I see the doctrine of the church, and it does not accept these stories of vaccine. Still, I gave the Doctor five of my sons to study medicine. These children will be sensitizers for the Filadelphie church. These children will have influence to modernize the church.

“I've already washed myself before God and the people. I took five children, I carried them to the medical training centre. These children will work one day in pilot health centres. They will then decide what to do. They will close the file.”

Prayer, vaccine and cleanliness

Several signs point to PP2’s being more committed to the cause of polio eradication than he lets on. Last year, when the wall collapsed at the health centre located in the village in which the mission lies, he and his followers were the ones to repair it. When a measles epidemic broke out, it was PP2 who went to find a nurse and brought him back to the mission.

During a vaccination campaign in October, PP2 publicly stated, over the roar of the crowd: “There are three important things in the life of a human being: Prayer, vaccine and cleanliness.” Two factions

Among PP2’s followers, it must be noted, there are two main factions. The ordinary believers, faithful and respectful, but probably more open to modernization, are the ‘Kitawala Civilians.’

The tougher, more fundamentalist branch of the movement – those more likely to wear clothes made of raffia and to carry bows and arrows – are called the ‘armed Kitawalas.’

PP2’s own entourage is made up of Armed Kitawalas, and some of the pastors of the 350 missions in the surrounding area are Armed Kitawalas as well.

In this context, even an Elephant King must be careful. The Armed Kitawalas keep their eyes wide open, and they do not wish to see their leader being lax.

A foot in both camps

But the subject is not taboo. Says PP2, in the presence of the Armed Kitawalas: “Those who have problems, who refuse the polio vaccine and don’t align themselves with development, it does not mean that it is their fault. It is I, and I alone, who must deal with these problems, because they follow my steps.

“I am walking one step forward and one step back because I'm still scared, and it affects those who follow me. Wait, I'll give you an example.

“Pastor of the Kitawala Civilians, come here. With you Kitawala Civilians, we are on good terms. Wait, while I bring the Armed Kitawalas. Come, Armed Kitawalas. These, they are like Roman soldiers. I am afraid of them. I have to keep a foot in both camps.”

A foot in both camps, indeed. Will the Trojan horse – in the form of PP2’s five sons, soon to be trained in hygiene and disease prevention – succeed at bringing the polio vaccine to all Kitawalas?

Or will the Armed Kitawalas, who stand guard over their faith’s most radical tenets, prevent the life-saving vaccine from entering the mission for good? It’s too soon to know for sure.

But, in the meantime, those two rose-colored drops are finally making their way into the mission by another route –in whispers and under the cover of darkness.

If doves are freed into the air to greet visitors to the mission by day, it is the owl that greets them by night.

The third and final part of this series will explore ’the owl approach’.