January 21, 2017
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Memory Asamu, 34, has had six miscarriages, so she holds her healthy baby girl with visible pride.
She credits her success in conceiving to a spiritual healer who removed her vaginal growths. The growths, known as “sare” in Shona, a commonly used local language, refer to skin tags, polyps and other growths in the vaginal area.
“I would always have miscarriages three or four months into pregnancy. On my seventh pregnancy, l went to a spiritual healer, who said l had a sare that needed to be cut,” Asamu says.
Asamu says she wasn’t sure whether the healer’s process would work, but now she’s thankful.
“What the spiritual healer did has made me and my family very happy,” she says.
Experts warn that it’s dangerous for untrained people to perform medical procedures, but Asamu’s experience is common in Zimbabwe, where there’s a widespread belief that vaginal growths cause infertility, miscarriage and even deaths of healthy children. Statistics on sare cutting aren’t available, but local people say the practice is common. In Zimbabwe, when a married couple fails to conceive, the blame is usually put on the woman. Infertility and complications in pregnancy or childbirth are often explained in sinister terms, as the work of evil spirits or the consequences of bad omens.
Sare are believed to be hereditary, and they can cause a woman to be stubborn and talkative, says Sekesai Chikono, a traditional healer certified by the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association.
“It is traditionally connected to cause miscarriages, deaths of infants and barrenness,” says Chikono, who charges about $20 for the sare procedure.
Sare cutting is different from female genital mutilation, which removes portions of a girl’s or woman’s genitalia. Chikono and other traditional healers say they remove just the sare, which is an external growth.
Dr. Tsitsi Mildred Magure, an obstetrician and gynecologist, says desperation pushes people into sare cutting.
“People can always believe anything in order to conceive,” she says.
She says the growth that traditional healers call a sare could be one of many things, including a wart or similar growth.
“Spiritual healers should focus on the spiritual realm, and physical problems of human beings should be referred to doctors,” she says.
Dr. Moses Gondo, who has a medical practice in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city, says sare cutting took root in a time when the country had poor health care.
“There were high mortalities long back, because of poor maternal health facilities,” he says. “Children and mothers would die from a lot of other complications. Some beliefs were created to explain these deaths.”
The biggest risk of the procedure is infection, Gondo says.
“The people who do these procedures do not have medical equipment,” he says.
Someone who does not have medical training could cut too deep, causing long-term problems, he says.
Even so, the practice is widespread, local people say.
Patience Tawuzeni, 20, says she lost a baby because she had a sare.
“Once they were removed, I was able to conceive two children, a boy and a girl,” she says. “I’m glad the cutting was done, although the process of cutting was really painful.”
Some women don’t tell their husbands that they have a sare, Tawuzeni says, because it brings shame upon a wife.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe
Irene Makati, 47, a spiritual healer who treated Asamu, the woman who had six miscarriages before birthing a healthy baby, says she’s cut sare from more than 100 women. Makati’s clients pay her in groceries worth roughly $10 to $15.
Makati says there is a physical and spiritual connection between a mother and her child, so if a mother who has sare gives birth, the growths can affect the child’s health.
“The sare can cause miscarriages, barrenness and the death of newborn babies,” Makati says. “Some of the sare can even cause the death of a child as old as 16 years.”
Makati acknowledges that the procedure is serious, and it can have terrible results if not done correctly.
“I use razors, gloves and cotton to cut,” she says. “If the cutting is done in a wrong manner, a person can die.”
Makati isn’t a member of a medical association and has no formal medical training.
But some women say they’re not certain that sare cause fertility issues.
“When l had trouble conceiving, l never allowed anyone to check me,” says Tana Ndebele.
Ndebele says the only answer is prayer.
“I am happy now that I am blessed with a baby girl,” she says.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe, translated some interviews from Shona.