Welcome to Gambia. Land of sun, sea, sand and a president who cures Aids.
Yahya Jammeh is commander in chief of the armed forces, secretary of state for defence and chief custodian of the sacred constitution of Gambia.
Now he is a self-styled miracle worker.
He claims that he has a “mandate”, handed down by his father, to cure Aids – as long as it is a Thursday.
|Jammeh says he has a “mandate”
to cure Aids and asthma sufferers
Asthma sufferers can also be cured, but only on a Saturday.
“I get rid of the virus from the body of the human being and that’s what I do,” he says.
“I feel a great burden, a big sense of responsibility … There are people that come in a very bad condition. Knowing that they only have their hope in me, is a big burden. Morally, spiritually and psychologically.”
Jammeh has ruled Gambia since seizing power in a military coup in 1994. He was 26 years old at the time.
He has won a series of elections since, but is slowly tightening his grip on power. The media are restricted and opposition politicians have reported being harassed.
Queues for cure
Until now, this tiny finger of land in West Africa was best known as a tourist destination for Europeans.
But Jammeh’s 1.3 million subjects are poor. Fishing and subsistence farming keep them employed.
Like other countries on the continent, Aids looms large in Gambia. About 20,000 people here have HIV, the virus which leads to Aids.
Since January, when Jammeh revealed his mandate to cure, he has spent every spare minute healing his people.
Outside Statehouse, the president’s home, people wait for hours in the heat until he is ready to see them.
And the government seems to have swallowed the president’s bizarre – and dangerous – claims.
“We work with the asthma patients and patients infected with HIV and Aids up till three, four o’clock in the morning,” says Dr Tamsir Mbowe, Gambia’s health minister.
“It is very normal for us, we have the energy, the ability, the capability and the strength to manage these patients. And as time goes on we’ll be managing thousands of them.”
Jammeh’s treatment programme uses a secret concoction of ointments, herbs, bananas, peanuts and prayer.
Before a patient can receive the presidential treatment for HIV/Aids, they must agree not to take conventional anti-retroviral drugs.
A greyish liquid made with herbs in an old water bottle is rubbed into the patient before the final stage of the treatment. These are not the sterile surroundings of your average doctor’s surgery.During the treatment, Jammeh takes on the role of doctor – sprinkling the conversation with questions about stomach pains and toilet habits.
Every step is followed by Gambian television and broadcast to the nation.
Jammeh insists that his recipe remain a secret.
“Whether African, Asian or somebody from space, an alien, I will not give it to them. Coca-Cola will not give their recipe to anybody, whether American or non-American.”
Health professional critical
The president’s claims have been roundly criticised by health professionals.
“For a disease which is so serious and so devastating and the like of which humankind has never seen before, to make these claims is to trade in on the vulnerability of people,” says Professor Jerry Coovadia, holder of the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in recognition of his work towards understanding the HIV epidemic.
Jammeh, who holds no medical qualifications, says he does not recognise Coovadia’s assessment, calling him a “non entity”.
He also refuses to allow independent medical verification that people under his care have been cured.
Jammeh envisages turning Gambia in to the Hong Kong of Africa – a free-trading, free-enterprise economy that will greatly improve the standard of living of all Gambians.
But his claims of a cure for Aids risk turning his country in to an international laughing stock rather than a respected trading centre.
And, more dangerously, his “mandate” to treat the condition threatens the very people he needs to transform the economy.