Blinded by faith

2018-10-31 06:00

I’M struggling to watch the drama surrounding the trial of the controversial Nigerian pastor Timothy Omotoso who has been accused of sexually grooming and molesting several teenage girls. I can’t help but keep questioning the deliberate ignorance of the church members.

The first time I heard of Omotoso and his popular church was when he was called to appear before the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities about three years ago. The commission was investigating the commercialisation of religion and abuse of people’s beliefs. Omotoso didn’t arrive but sent his wife who was grilled by the none-too-pleased commission’s chair, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, about how the couple had ended up with a massive church in Durban without having the necessary documentation.

By that time there was already a rumour circulating around Durban that Omotoso was living in a luxury “mission house” in Umhlanga but his wife, Taiwo, lived in a separate house as he was always surrounded by teenage girls. There is always something unsettling about an older man who is always in the company of girls.

At that time there were questions about how his wife allowed that to happen but the most pressing question was about the whereabouts of the parents of these girls who travelled with Omotoso across the country.

My conversations with a friend of mine who was once a member of the church, first led me to believe that Omotoso was some sort of musical maestro who was training these girls in the art of music.

She later changed her tune, saying that there was something amiss about his interactions with the girls and told me that he had even ordered some of them not to pursue any tertiary education after they completed their matric.

We didn’t know what was happening at the time but my friend always said she prayed that he was not having any sexual relations with them. You see, my friend had left Omotoso’s church but she still held him in high esteem, well at least up until his arrest last year.

Shortly after his detention there was a massive — predominately female — march that brought the Durban city centre to a standstill. His supporters were adamant that their “Daddy” was being maliciously attacked for something he did not do.

The glammed-up young women — mostly in expensive weaves and artificial nails — who attended the march said the girls who are alleged to have been raped, have been paid by Omotoso’s enemies to tarnish his image so that his church will be shut down.

I also interviewed some of the older women who said they trusted Omotoso with their lives and those of their daughters. One of them was the mother of a girl who had spent some time at the infamous mansion. She said the pastor had offered to take her daughter in while her unemployed mother was looking for a job.

After watching marketing student Cheryl Zondi’s testimony last week, I was left wondering how the parents and the church members could not have seen what was happening for eight years while he allegedly preyed on his victims.

Were they so blinded by faith that they did not notice the anger and the pain on their children’s faces, or did they just never bother to look?

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva once spoke about the gullibility of women when it comes to church leaders who are claimed to have powers to perform miracles. She said they deliberately ignore the signs of anything abnormal and that’s how some end up falling victim to sexual and financial abuse at the hands of dodgy church leaders.

However, in this case it is the parents who allowed this to happen because the girls could not have left home without their permission.

I’m yet to formulate any opinion about his co-accused Lusanda Sulani and Zukiswa Sitho, who have been charged with human trafficking, sexual assault and rape. They apparently recruited the girls on his behalf.

Every parent should have raised their suspicions about Omotoso’s choice to live with the girls while his wife lived in a separate house.

I suspect the wife knew what was happening but also chose not to say anything. She might have raised the matter with her husband but I doubt she ever considered telling the law-enforcement authorities considering that there were issues regarding the legality of their church.

Last week I was watching the church members who were picketing outside the Eastern Cape High Court and wondered about their mental wellbeing as they continuously hurled insults at Zondi. As with the Durban march, most of his supporters are women, some of whom are old enough to be Zondi’s mother. They seemed to be oblivious of anything that she told the court.

I’m not saying they must believe her but one would at least expect them to start questioning some of the things they thought they knew about Omotoso.

• Nokuthula Ntuli is a senior reporter at The Witness.

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