The Truck Driver's Cure for AIDS

by David Weigel

It's easy to giggle at the stories about Africans ditching Western methods for witchdoctor quackery, until you read an item like this, from the Baltimore Sun.

The 35-year-old high school teacher named Bheki was lucky to be alive, thanks to the free antiretroviral pills that kept his HIV in check. He felt strong and had no side effects. Life was normal, as normal as it gets with an incurable disease.

Then in February, he ditched the pills and started taking a mystery potion sold here outside Durban. It is made by a former truck driver who says his late grandfather came to him in dreams with the recipe for an herbal drink that could reverse HIV's march to full-blown AIDS and death. Eager to banish from his body the virus that stalks one in five South African adults, Bheki instead found himself sicker than ever. Three months later, he begged his doctor to put him back on antiretrovirals, only to find that he has built up a resistance that makes the pills less effective.

After more than a decade of AIDS, too many South Africans remain to be convinced that antivirals can be trusted; they trust the contents of a jug over the contents of an American bottle. The creator of the junk is unapologetic.

Zeblon Gwala, who makes uBhejane and whose supporters include the mayor of Durban, defends his product... "I never say it is a cure; my staff would never say that. I say uBhejane is healing people who [cannot work]. I'm waiting for the result from scientific people to say what uBhejane does, a cure or whatever."

Or whatever.