CURIOUS to find out if claims of miracles by popular United Family International (UFI) church founder Emmanuel Makandiwa were true, I recently attended one of the church services to take a sneak peek.
I arrived at Harare's City Sports Centre just before 8am for the morning service which runs until noon.
By then the venue was already full with congregants and more still arriving.
I joined other late-comers, moving from one bay to another trying to find a place to sit. But the militant security personnel, mostly women, nearly spoilt my morning as they shouted at us, rudely telling us to go to other bays.
It was like a military camp instead of a place of worship.
There were bays for women with young children, one for the deaf and another for multitudes seeking to be healed from various afflictions.
I followed a group of women who were hurrying towards the only bay which had any space left, only to be told it was reserved for pastors' children.
Left with no option, I stood by the entrance and watched proceedings from a projector.
Expensively-dressed people kept walking up and down the hall despite the fact that the service had already started.
Some congregants were frequenting a corner from which an inviting aroma emanated. It turned out the church has a kitchen tucked in that corner, where a group of women were busy selling various foods and drinks.
There were also tables where neatly dressed ladies were selling various items ranging from stickers, pens, pins, bandanas, notepads, bracelets to umbrellas.
Most of the items were emblazoned with Makandiwa and his wife's picture, followed by the inscription "UFI".
Common also, were stickers on most congregants' cars, boldly declaring "Ndiri mwana wemuporofita (I am the prophet's child)."
In one corner, a long queue of smartly-dressed people could be seen giving some ladies sitting behind two tables, wads of American dollars, one after the other.
These were later explained as the church's "partners".
A message on the projector screens also announced where the "spiritual link" could be found. I later realised that they meant airtime recharge cards that enable subscribers of different mobile phone networks to communicate directly with their leader.
They bore the inscription,"It is not just a text; it's a life-changing link".
Cards for local use were going for US$3 and US$6 for international use.
In a scene reminiscent of the chaos at Mupedzanhamo flea market, some ladies -- though smartly-dressed -- were also moving around selling DVDs of a previous service, each costing US$5.
More DVDs were being sold at several other tables.
Makandiwa and his wife entered the hall amid loud applause and cheers. Almost everyone sprung to their feet singing praises and ululating.
A woman had earlier testified that she had been suffering from fibroids but had been healed following prayers from Makandiwa.
A man referred to as a "doctor" by Makandiwa's aide, was picked from the VIP section to explain the woman's condition.
The "doctor" confirmed that the woman had been miraculously healed, stressing that medically, it did not make sense that someone suffering from her condition could be healed without surgery.
Later a man was picked from among the sick. The man, who looked emaciated, told Makandiwa that he had not eaten for a long time following a problem which doctors said could only be resolved through surgery.
The "doctor" explained that the man's medical papers showed that the nerves in his throat had "failed", making it impossible to swallow food.
A woman, again picked from the crowd, also presented a similar problem, saying it had been long since she had eaten anything.
Makandiwa prayed for them and instructed their relatives to bring them food.
They both feasted during the service, with them downing several 500ml Minute Maid drinks.
It was like a well-performed script from a Hollywood movie.
Congregants were visibly shaken when a woman who had a big growth "protruding" from her back just below the neck was picked from the crowd.
The woman told Makandiwa that she had been suffering from that condition since 2008 and had no money to go for surgery in South Africa.
The growth was shiny and reddish.
Makandiwa prayed for her and told the congregation that she would return with a testimony.
I was only allowed inside the hall during offering time.
One "friendly" male security person had miraculously found a seat on one of the benches on the pitch.
I gave a US$1 offering, but US$1 is commonly criticised as "toll-gate fees" in most churches. Most people in the church were offering more money.
After the service, I went home still wondering if what I had seen was an act of God or a well-organised performance to make people believe.
'Partnering the ministry will get you a VIP seat'
Congregants I spoke to said the easiest way of getting a place to sit was to be a partner as one automatically became a VIP.
According to the UFI website, the church "has a partnership avenue where individuals, families and various entities commit themselves to support the ministry financially or materially on a regular basis. This is done through making donations into the ministry or making regular money transfers into the ministry [account]."
Those who pursue this route are promised various benefits, including attending special conferences with Makandiwa and to directly interact with him.
Partnership contributions are categorised into three classes -- platinum, gold and silver -- and range from US$20 to US$1 000 per month.
UFI members said the fourth category, bronze, was dropped.
Other congregants I spoke to said "partners" hardly faced problems finding sitting places as their seats were reserved.
But Makandiwa's spokesperson Prime Kufa refuted the allegations.
"Those claims are malicious," Kufa said. "We have various partnerships, including those with people who clean toilets, security and ushers. In no way does any of these guarantee one a place to sit. Sitting is on a first-come-first-served basis."
He said proceeds from financial partners including non-UFI members went towards hosting crusades and charity work.