Prophet Shepherd Bushiri’s mysterious return to his native home in November last year could be a forgotten tale to many Malawians by now.
But almost seven months after his arrival from South Africa, something on the ground keeps unfolding, but not to the knowledge of all and sundry living in the impoverished nation—with a per capita income of as low as $600 (about K468 000), one of the lowest average incomes in the world.
Bushiri’s brief stay in Malawi has undeniably propped up the ailing domestic tourism industry which has been panting with excruciating agony since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in April 2020.But many are ignorant of this unspoken account.
Recently, there was a huge debate on social media which started with an observation by journalist Idriss Ali Nassah whose own surveillance showed that hundreds of people are jetting in the country to meet with the revered prophet and leader of Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG).
Nassah made the observation at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) during one of his visits to Malawi from his foreign duty station.
He wrote: “Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways touched down at Kamuzu International Airport at about the same time yesterday. A good number of the people in the arrivals hall were holding South African and Botswana passports, far outnumbering Malawians.
“In the airport parking lot were several buses picking them up on their way to the Shepherd Bushiri Ministries. I was thinking of the benefits along this chain; airlines, hotels, transportation, food, Bwandilo, etc.”
“Whatever you think of him, that man Bushiri is an industry!”
Many other people joined the bandwagon to comment on the matter, including one of the country’s finest governance experts Henry Chingaipe, who christened the entire phenomenon as “the Bushiri value vain”.
We gather that most of his international guests come from countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya, Namibia, Mozambique, Angola, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, USA, Canada, India, South Korea, UK, Germany, France, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Apparently, Bushiri has transformed the tourism landscape by turning Lilongwe—which has all along been synonymous to an administrative city—into a tourism hub.
This reporter keenly followed this development and ascertained the impact of this religious tourism on the country’s economy.
“Over 300 people, each week, fly and drive into Lilongwe City to meet with the leader of ECG prophet Shepherd Bushiri for spiritual upliftment and guidance,” says Bushiri’s spokesperson Ephraim Nyondo.
Based on such statistics, it means on average, the country is receiving in excess of 1 200 visitors per month and roughly 15 000 visitors in one year.
For a sector which is highly regarded as one of the key priority areas in the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS111), tellingly, Bushiri is doing a service to the Malawi economy, whose size is estimated at $10.9 billion or roughly K8.1 trillion.
In Malawi, the tourism sector is among the hardest-hit by the ravaging Covid-19 global pandemic.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the unparalleled introduction of travel restrictions across the world were expected to reduce international tourist arrivals by 20 percent to 30 percent in 2020 when compared with 2019 figure.
But surely, the man of God is augmenting and cushioning such a loss, in an event that all the economic benefits from his international visitors are quantified.
According to National Statistical Office (NSO), by the year 2019, the number of international visitors had averaged 840 000 and that represents a monthly inflow 70 000 international visitors.
But that was pre-Covid-19 era and, as such, the figure should be far much less in 2020 and the year 2021 due to the travel restrictions in the face of the pandemic.
In terms of monetary contribution to the national wealth as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), the sector contributed K389 billion in 2019, down from K403 billion in 2018.
Generally, tourism creates a demand for farm and lake produce as well as for services such as carpentry, plumbing,repairs,taxis/transport,and sale of curios and other goods to tourists.
Trickle down effects
We trailed some of the industries that are directly benefitting from the arrival of Bushiri’s international visitors.
We learnt that Golden Peackock Hotel in Lilongwe is directly benefiting as 60 percent of its business is being derived from ECG international visitors.
“When you talk of hotel business, it is about accommodation and I can tell you that we are one of the main beneficiaries as 60 percent of our business due to the coming in of the prophet’s visitors,” said MalumboKondowe, the hotel’s marketing manager.
At a time when most of the accommodation units are down on their knees due to the pandemic, such a business opportunity is worth cherishing, Kondowe says.
Taxi business is also flourishing as it means ferrying the visitors to and from the airport as well other places within and outside Lilongwe.
A taxi driver, Samuel Mberenga, is one of those counting his fortunes out of Bushiri’s international guests.
“I know that with Covid-19, most of my friends have shut down their taxi businesses but as the saying goes, another man’s food is another man’s poison, I have seen a huge-pick up in my taxi business ever since the prophet returned from South Africa.I am one of the contact points when it comes to picking the guests from the airport to the hotels and also from the hotels to the prophet’s residence,” he says.
Nyondo said his boss does all church services online in the wake of Covid-19.
However, with relaxation of travel and public gatherings, hundreds of people from across the world are trekking to Malawi to intercede with the prophet.
The prophet has over 11 000 partners drawn from across the world whom he holds monthly meetings with, while sharing the word and praying together.
Nyondo says: “However, due to relaxed regulations, we receive about 450 a month in Lilongwe. Further, each and every week, prophet Bushiri hosts not less 320 people, not partners, who come to pray with him and seek spiritual guidance from him as a Prophet.
“The people who register seeking to meet with him in a week sometimes goes to 900 but due to Covid-19, we partition their coming so that the figures are manageable.”
To avoid congestion, Nyondo says the prophet meets some of the visitors in Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mangochi and Salima.