A Chinese vitamin MLM cult is replacing healthcare for poor Ugandans

Uganda is so poor that few can afford medical care, giving it one of the lowest life-expectancies on the planet — this toxic combination made the country ripe for infiltration by Tiens, a Chinese Multi-Level-Marketing "nutritional supplements" cult whose members set up fake medical clinics that diagnose fake ailments and proscribe fake medicines, then rope patients into becoming cult recruiters who convince their friends to sign up for the cult.

Al Jazeera outfitted an investigator with a hidden camera, and recorded her "diagnosis" and prescription by a fake doctor at a Tiens "clinic," then followed her through her induction into the cult at a series of high-pressure indoctrination sessions.

So we asked Halima to go to the weekly "training sessions" with her hidden camera.

This, we knew, was risky. I'd spoken to people who had been investigating MLM practices for years and they thought Halima, who would be attending training sessions over several weeks, might actually be in danger of being convinced and recruited.

She was going to be subjected to a barrage by the Tiens motivational speakers. We couldn't be with her the whole time, so we agreed to monitor her with regular phone discussions to check that she was not suddenly having unrealistic dreams of becoming rich through selling food supplements.

Luckily she isn't so easily fooled, and was able to document how Tiens convinces people to stay loyal through reinforcement of the idea that distributors are starting a new life and by its unrelenting "blame and shame" rhetoric about personal failure and not selling enough products. Only their inadequacies and doubts – and those of sceptical family and friends who should, of course, be dropped – were barriers to the recruits achieving great wealth.

When we met up with Michael Halangu, a former Tiens distributor, he confirmed these were the same techniques that had kept him in the business for years. In our interviews he was open about how they fooled him and how much money he lost, but the psychological impact had gone deeper; although he could see all the aspects of the scam, he still blamed himself for not having made a success of it.

But while it is clear that the poor, weak and vulnerable are particularly susceptible to such schemes, even strong people can succumb under enough pressure. Michael is an intelligent and determined man with a college degree, and we even met a university professor among the distributors at one Tiens event we attended.

Eventually, as you will see, we were able to put some of the points raised in this film to a Tiens representative. The company told us about its 5,000 distributors in Uganda and its operations across the African continent and how if people worked hard enough they too could enjoy the cars and yachts and millionaire lifestyles that their top distributors enjoyed. The company was less illuminating about those who hadn't been so lucky – or those of its distributors who, after carrying out bogus medical diagnoses, were happy to con gullible members of the public into buying Tiens products.

Uganda's Health Pyramid
[Priya Biring/Al Jazeera]

(via Super Punch)