In a poky office on the fourth floor of a shopping plaza in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, is the most amazing piece of medical kit I have ever seen. The Quantum Resonance Magnetic Analyzer is a small box with two wires. One plugs into a laptop, which flashes with dials, charts and images of body organs. The other connects to a small metal rod. As a man I should hold it in my left hand, an assistant tells me when my turn comes. I feel nothing as I take it in my palm. But a minute later, the machine produces 33 pages of data. The conclusion: I am suffering from fragile bones, constipation, impotence and a lack of vitamin D (“It evaporates when you overstay in the sun,” the assistant tells me).
I had come here more out of curiosity than anxiety about my well-being. The day before I’d shared a taxi with a young man called Shafik who told me excitedly about BF Suma, a company that sells health products. Those same supplements, I was now told, could cure all my ills for a mere 527,000 shillings ($141). I said I’d give it some thought.
Nestled among betting shops and bitcoin miners, such businesses are common in Kampala and across Uganda, as well as elsewhere in Africa. On a bus in Malawi, a salesman spent an hour touting his pills from the aisle. In Kenya I met “Doctor” Waweru who told me his mushrooms could cure cancer. There are several big companies that use a similar model: recruit independent salespeople who then enlist more, in a spiralling network of converts. The sellers pay to join, earning money based on how many wares they hawk and how many their recruits sell too. All dream of getting rich.
Now I wanted to find out what was on offer. Most products aren’t medicine in the strictest sense. In Uganda many such items are registered as food supplements rather than medical supplies. Some are glorified vitamin pills. Others contain ingredients such as reishi mushrooms and ginseng, which are traditional remedies in East Asia. Many of the companies that sell such pills have their headquarters in China (BF Suma’s parent company is in Hong Kong).
It’s possible that this stuff could be good for you. Much of it is probably no worse than other products sold in conventional pharmacies in Kampala, many of which are fake or sub-standard. But I doubted that it could treat late-stage cancer, cure diabetes or make good many of the fantastical assertions that many of these salespeople make (BF Suma is careful to avoid such claims in its printed literature, neither does it endorse the diagnostic machines).
Yet the customers keep coming, such as Michael, an angular Ugandan former soldier and security guard who had once manned the entry to the American embassy in Baghdad. He said his back problems vanished within two weeks of taking BF Suma products. “The environment we are living in is contaminated,” he told me. “This medicine is natural.”
This longing for purity is understandable. Kampala, an unusually green city, is increasingly choked by car fumes. Newspapers regularly carry stories of tainted food, from adulterated cooking oil to beef preserved in formaldehyde. Friends warn me that Chinese scientists are manufacturing fake eggs, barely distinguishable from the real thing. Some of these rumours stretch credulity, but they reflect genuine worries about the effect of changing diets and urban living. Cancer and other lifestyle diseases are on the rise.
Traditional healers in Uganda have long used herbal medicines. The businesses in Kampala benefit from the widespread faith in such alternative remedies, but offer new and fancy foreign versions. Sales folk at BF Suma boast about the company’s laboratory in Los Angeles: the name is an acronym for “Bright Future from the Superior Unique Manufacturer of America”. The diagnostic gizmos add a scientific lustre, which may be one reason that BF Suma charge more than local witch doctors.
That mix of faith, tradition and jarring modernity is reminiscent of the Pentecostal church. Many health-sellers, like their religious brethren, speak of the power of “testimony”: personal stories of healing or revelation. They congregate for huge, exultant awards ceremonies, which have the air of revivalist meetings. They spread the word in workplaces and village meetings. And they offer dire warnings of what might happen if you don’t follow their path. I still haven’t bought any products. Despite my frightening diagnosis, however, I’m feeling just fine.