Africa’s Achilles’ Heel: Superstition and the Imperative of Critical Inquiry

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Africa’s inability to move on from superstitious beliefs and toward critical inquiry is preventing the continent from keeping up with the rest of the world.

A lot has been said and written about Africa and the continent’s inextricable bind to superstitions. Anthropologists have documented cases of unyielding magical manifestations and interpretations of reality. They have extensively explained the potent role of religion and the occult in forging ancient and modern Africas. This presentation uses the concept of stupidity to situate the persistence of superstitious and paranormal beliefs in contemporary Africa.

What is stupidity?

In an article in the September 12, 2017, edition of the Time magazine, Steven Nadler defines stupidity as a kind of intellectual stubbornness. He observed that: “A stupid person has access to all the information necessary to make an appropriate judgment, to come up with a set of reasonable and justified beliefs and yet fails to do so. The evidence is staring them right in the face, but it makes no difference whatsoever. They believe what they want to believe”. So they are stupid who have or can obtain the required knowledge but do not allow the information to influence their judgments, beliefs and positions. It is problematic to assume that all Africans have access to all the necessary information that they need to make appropriate judgments.

However, for the sake of argument in this piece, let us take this assumption as a given. Across Africa, intellectual stubbornness is pervasive as evident in the wide range of irrational beliefs that ferociously rage on the continent. For instance, African people have access to biological knowledge and other scientific information about human and animal reproductions. The evidence is there that human beings cannot turn into goats, yams or cats. Still, Africans believe that birds can turn into human beings. This belief applies despite science education constituting part of the African school program. Biology is taught in African schools and children are exposed very early to the basics of life sciences. Unfortunately, paranormal beliefs have refused to disappear. Instead, they are gaining social visibility.

Occult experts of both traditional and modern extractions openly and publicly propagate these ideas; they robustly defend various misconceptions as constitutive of African ‘science’, African Christianity or African Islam. Magical stories dominate the African film industry popularly known as the Nollywood. Narratives of transcendental augmentation of the mundane, and of the material, tales of humans turning into animals, and insects and then performing supposedly extraordinary feats that defy common sense are perceived as demonstrations of occult power and magic, that is beyond the scope of ‘Western’ science and logic.

Absurd Claims and Behaviours

African superstitions manifest in various forms, as absurd claims and ridiculous behaviours. Whether as religions, cultures or traditions, strands of cognitive obstinacy make Africans a laughing stock, objects of scorn and ridicule globally. Take, for instance, some years ago, members of a vigilante group in Ilorin in Southern Nigeria ‘arrested’ a goat. They believed that a car thief turned into an animal to evade arrest. They took the goat to a police station. And the police ‘detained’ the goat and later paraded the animal as a suspect before journalists. In addition, there have been reports of the magical disappearance of male private organs, warnings about killer cell phone numbers and claims of people who died and were later found to be alive and residing somewhere in the country.

There have also been reports of African Christian worshippers eating grass at the instance of their pastors. An African pastor sprayed insecticide on the church members during deliverance. Another one forged a video where he walked on air. One man of God also claimed that he had God’s direct telephone line that he used to communicate with him.

Muslims from impoverished African nations are seen every year travelling to Mecca to throw stones at the devil. African Christians go to Jerusalem and Rome to reenact similar Judeo-Christian myths and misconceptions. They use their savings or state subsidies to fund these ritual activities despite the evidence that these religious tours contribute to growing the economies of the host countries not those of the African visitors. In fact, many Africans have lost their lives while performing these religious activities especially the Hajj. Meanwhile, the evidence of an afterlife, a divine post-mortem compensation for such a loss is simply not there. In addition, many Africans regularly convene, sometimes during working hours, in churches, on holy mountains, or at makeshift shelters to utter both meaningful and meaningless syllables claiming to be effectively communicating with a God or with the spirits. The list is endless.

Harmful Effects

Entertaining superstitious beliefs does not only border on the ridiculous but also on the horrific. The display of magic powers has led to the death and injuries of many local medicine practitioners as well as their clients in the region. Recently a local Nigerian healer died while testing his “bulletproof charm”. And in a related incident, a local medicine man in Ghana luckily escaped death in the course of a similar experiment. Locals in some parts of Nigeria -the Igbos- call this charm, O dighi eshi, which roughly translates: ‘It is of no effect’. Others -the Yorubas- called it Ayeta.

The belief is that a gunshot is of no effect on a person bearing the charm. A bullet cannot pierce the body of the person. The medicine supposedly neutralises any gunshots including rocket-propelled grenade and bomb attacks. African people use such anti-bullet charms to rob and fight. They apply them when they encounter armed robbers or when they go hunting. Even the present day African soldiers fighting Boko Haram militants with sophisticated modern weaponry and wearing the ‘modern’ bulletproof vests still carry these anti-bullet charms.

Furthermore, people who believe that their fortune can be magically manipulated for good or ill accuse elderly women and children of witchcraft and subsequently attack or kill them. The belief is that witches fly out at night to attend an occult meeting where they conspire to kill or harm. Witches perform the flights using witch planes or winnowing baskets. Africans who are living with albinism or those with hunchback have been routinely targeted, attacked and murdered for ritual purposes. Ritualists believe that the body parts can bring good fortune. Incidentally, religious and traditional establishments continue to directly or indirectly valorise the idea that there is some potency in ritual sacrifice of animals or of human beings. Violence has been unleashed on those suspected of using magic to steal men’s penis or to eat up people’s talents or take away their stars.

Intellectual Stubbornness

When challenged or confronted with the evidence, peddlers of superstition usually try to defend themselves insisting on the credibility of their positions. They oppose, dispute and dismiss the facts. For instance, apologists of African superstitions argue that the anti-bullet charms which the Nigerian and Ghanaian healers used in this case were fake; that the healers did not apply the ‘original’, genuine African charms or that the healers violated some rules guiding this occult process.

Meanwhile, they won’t present any effective bulletproof charm to demonstrate their case. Sometimes, superstitious folks point to witch confessions or hearsays, to anecdotes or some fringe declarations by ritualists, godmen and women as the evidence of occult powers. They allude to the performance of one powerful medicine man that died some years ago. Or if they live in eastern Nigeria, they would say that the magical feat happened in the west. If they reside in the south of Ghana, they would state that the powerful could be obtained in the North.

In addition, superstitionists often react violently to attempts to expose the absurdities in their propositions. They feel very insecure hence use force, threat and intimidation as a form of argument, to silence those who question their intellectual stubbornness, or try to make them believe otherwise.

To weaken the hold of irrational beliefs in the minds of Africans, the educational system must be totally overhauled. At the moment, the school system in the region is heavily faith and dogma based and does not have adequate provision for the inculcation of required thinking skills and competencies. African schools must undergo a curricular and pedagogical rejigging with emphasis on critical inquiry and examination of claims, norms and values. Quite often the awful state of education in Africa has been attributed to colonialism and the inadequate school system that the colonial authorities left behind. Africans need to realise that there is an expiry date for blaming the ills and wrongs in Africa on its colonial past and that the expiry date had passed. So Africans need to take their educational destiny in their hands and take all necessary measures to pull themselves up by their own booth’s strap.

To this end, critical thinking should be introduced as a subject in schools, colleges and universities. Such an initiative will encourage pupils and students to exercise their curiosity and apply their critical intelligence in all areas of human endeavour — in politics, religion, economics, and science. African youths and students should be able to critically examine what their teachers, parents, pastors and prophets say. With more critical thinking, African church goers will understand that it is goats, and cows not human beings that eat grass; that church leaders who order their members to eat grass or to drink Dettol or pay tithe should be challenged. They should not be blindly obeyed.

Critical reasoning will make Africans understand that healers who market or test anti-bullet charms at the end of the day achieve one thing: they kill or injure themselves or others. In addition, those who challenge and debunk superstitious claims including those who criticise religious teachings should be protected. Governments should guarantee their safety. Those who criticise religions and superstitions should be honoured, not banished, exiled or imprisoned. Their Promethean courage should be celebrated. Situations such as those in Nigeria, India, Tunisia and Bangladesh, where secularists and debunkers of superstitious beliefs are attacked and killed should not be tolerated. It is by questioning beliefs that false and mistaken notions can be exposed, and the African society can be enlightened. It is by fostering the virtues of doubt and disbelief that African stupidity can be fixed.

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About Author

mm

Leo is a blogger, human-rights advocate and a Humanist from Nigeria.

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