Love him or hate him, but you cannot ignore Shepherd Bushiri even if you tried, and believe me, I have. The pendulum of his appeal in the court of public opinion has swung from one extreme to the other, oftentimes, within the space of a day.
From the fantastic to the exaggerated, from fact to myth, from public darling to social media pariah, he is just one rumour shy of being declared the illegitimate offspring of Barack Obama and whoever TB Joshua’s wife is.
No matter what side of the fence you are on, when it comes to this polarising young fellow, you have to hand it to him—he has captured everyone’s attention. Be they Men of God who have been ministering to the flock longer than Bushiri has been alive or gospel artists pointing an accusatory finger at the speck of sawdust in Bushiri’s eye or paranoid politicians and an insecure incumbent government suspecting ulterior motives; everyone has been taken, shaken, stirred and irked by this man of mystery.
And the one thing that his gob-smacked critics fail to realise is that they have fallen for the oldest trick in the book: all publicity is good publicity.
Whether justified or not, politically correct or scripturally endorsed, all the criticism being levelled against this overnight sensation, whose wealth is rumoured to be of Solomonic proportions, is only fanning the fire of his intrigue, mystery and bank account.
But of all the things that have been said, one thing is undeniable: without a shadow or inkling of doubt, Bushiri is a master showman who has grasped the artistry of marketing and spectacle to capture our imagination. Like every showman before him, Bushiri knows his audience, probably, better than they know themselves. Bushiri is giving this audience what they crave for most: a polished and well-packaged product —hope.
One wonders, with all the other things going on in this sick and dying world of ours: where politicians promise and do not deliver, where fathers abandon their responsibilities and where God sometimes feels distant, is giving people hope such a bad thing?
But even before we attempt to answer such a question, let us take a few steps back from all the cacophony of spectacle and speculation. Let us remove ourselves from all the clamour and din of public mudslinging and ask one simple question: What does all this really mean?
Is Bushiri just another passing craze like Gangnam-style choreography or platform shoes from the 1970s? Or, is Bushiri merely a reflection of our own internal turmoil as a failed country that has lost the resolve to solve its own problems and is now listening to anyone who offers alternatives-real or imagined? If the latter be the case, one wonders if that is a safe place to be.
Strangely enough, it has only dawned on me, as I write this, that we are witnessing a new phenomenon in the Malawian experience courtesy of Bushiri. A phenomenon we have often associated with far distant lands and cultures, but it is unfolding right before our eyes.
Bushiri, more the brand than the man, has transcended the faith and God to whom he pledges his allegiance and has become the centre of his own universe, a universe we all, critic and disciple alike, have had a hand in creating. Bushiri, with branded soaps and lotions to boot, is our first real celebrity.
Ultimately, just as the high noon sun journeys to the horizon, every show comes to an end. Sooner or later, the master showman’s mask must fall off and our projections of what we want Bushiri to be must fall with it. When that happens, I would not be surprised if we discover that it was all smoke, mirrors and a tailor-made designer suit: in other words, it was all an illusion.
Like the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai waiting impatiently for God to show up, Bushiri is not just the celebrity we deserve, he is our own golden calf; made with our words, eyes and mind into a modern day graven image like the many celebrities we idolise.
He has put on a great show, worthy of a standing ovation, but the show is not yet over only because we will let it be over. But the choice is ultimately ours: we can keep our eyes glued on the Bushiri media machine and try to find God in the madness or we can grab that remote control and change the channel! n