Opinion: The Burden Of Superstition And Irrational Pandemonium In Africa

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By Okwuanya Pius-Vincent

I was on a caffeine-induced vigil when I got a call that tasted bitterer than my straight black coffee. A friend of mine who is in one of the Federal Universities in Nigeria called me in the early hours of the morning to relate a funny but a most unfortunate tale. According to him, the caretaker of their lodge had woken them up some minutes before midnight. The news they were given were not rent-related nor was it of any administrative exigency. They were merely asked by the concerned caretaker to have a bath with a warm salt solution before 12 midnight. When pressed by the tenants as to the necessity of the saline bath, they were shocked to learn from the caretaker that the Ebola virus had apparently entered the atmosphere and would be getting to their location not later than the midnight. Out of sheer curiosity, I had to ask my friend a simple question; Did you have the bath? Suffice to say that his answer was more disappointing than the question.

In other news; Do you know if there are still any bitter kola left in the market?

The pandemonium was not restricted to the ivory towers. All over Nigeria and most certainly in the ebola-affected African states of Liberia and Sierra Leone, there was certainly an increase of communication activities. Chats and broadcasts on the myriad of social networks, sms and voice calls were intense as caring relatives rushed to reach their loved ones in time to save them from the viral onslaught. Indeed, if one was to be awake at the early hours of today, you would have had the opportunity to witness a definite parody of an apocalypse. But what was it for? It was barely a week since the rumoured “Bitter Kola for Ebola” campaign forced a spike in the price of the commodity and obviously, a week is too long a time for another rumour. In a continent confronted by many developmental issues, political crises and the no small danger of disease outbreaks, one would have expected a practical appreciation of the challenges and an unflinching focus on the task at hand but many a times, superstition and an irrational tendency towards pandemonium have clogged the wheels of progress ensuring that for every two steps forward in Africa, three are taken backwards.

Superstition and its loose interaction with religion are intrinsically configured within the African person and as far as some superstitions emanated from the culture, most are unfounded and bizarre. The “Dibia”, that is the native doctor in the Igbo traditional society of Nigeria does not cure sicknesses with the abstract help of the gods alone, there are usually herbs, roots or assorted solutions that must be administered and judiciously taken before the efficacy of the “Dibia” would manifest. Likewise, the i-nyangas of the Zululand who were the medicine men of the yesteryears boasts a wide range of herbs and leaves whose effectiveness sometimes stupefied the Europeans. According to Rev. Alfred T. Bryant in a paper he wrote in 1909 titled, “Zulu Medicine and Medicine men”, the Zulu medicine-men take a lot of time to learn their profession and would often ensure that magic is backed with herbs and other concoctions. Thus it is evident that blind and immaterial superstition is not part of Africa, it is a foreign trend that has invaded the system and has replaced the status quo ante. Africans at the time still found it appallingly shockin when Idi Amin of Uganda ate the flesh and drank the blood of some of his victims in the vain belief that it would protect him from the ghosts of his victims and render him invincible. He certainly was not invincible after the Tanzanian soldiers sent him out of office and ultimately time found him at the mercy of the merciless kidney failure in 2003. The Charles Taylor’s Liberia and Sekou Toure’s Guinea were drenched in superstition, juju-marabou and high scale irrationality. It was not surprising that their respective countries depicted their dispositions. Also there were cases where results of elections, football matches and even businesses were blamed on the extraneous forces who had not been appeased before undertaking such ventures. Closer to home, in the recent past, a politician of reckon had taken advises by his spiritualist to burn some tonnes of naira notes for some obscure benefits. The purported apocalypse of 21st December of 2012 was of Mayan origins but the height of it was in Africa. Also in September 12 of 2006, The House of Yahweh founder Pastor Yisral Hawkins released a date for the apocalypse. He reckoned that the world was going to end through nuclear wars. In both instances some percentages of Africans believed the apocalyptic warnings and made provisions towards that which included abandoning some of their pertinent provisions and possessions. Sadly for them, the world is yet to end. Further still, an Accra based chronicle once ran a feature on how Togolese opposition figures employed voodoo to kill President Eyadema! These superstitions and illogical predispositions are common features of a greater percentage of Africans who are yet to unload the yoke of psychological backwardness and a pathetic default affiliation towards the esoteric. Thus it is easy to hear that some spiritualists and even pastors advising that ailments both physical, spiritual and imagined could be cured with one’s own urine and easier to see some gullible Nigerians subscribing to these pseudo-medicines. I have had the opportunity to see a man who nearly lost an eye when he used his urine as an eye drop during a viral conjunctivitis “Apollo” outbreak. He assured me that he had witnessed cures attributive to the urine solution. However, science and chemistry had no explanation for what urine is supposed to be doing in a human eye or in any part of the human body except from where it came from.

The circulation of these dangerous pieces of information is risky and is a consequence of the times we have found ourselves in. the information age has made communication extremely easy and cheap. Thus any mischievous fellow can with an internet connection in a requisite device mislead a horde of people some of whom lack the skill or the time to verify, sieve through a host of information available on the cyberspace and transmissible through the social networks and accessible to all groups of people. That something could be found on the internet does not make it true. This is blindingly obvious but with every call, panic rises, wrong information are further garnished in details and in no short time, a lie is made a truth as busy bodies try to justify how salt in the body or on the skin could prevent the ebola virus from afflicting an individual. It is Africa.

Has superstition ever hurt anyone? That was the question I had to confront when I delved into this issue that got many a Nigerian off their beds in the wee hours of the morning. A friend captured it succinctly; “There is no harm in trial”. I surmise there is. Chuba Ezekwesili in a brief but well-endowed piece mathematically presented the consequences of superstition or what he referred to as confirmation bias. His stand is true because there is always an opportunity cost of every single decision we have made. The time spent in panicking could have been better invested in a luxuriating sleep. The time spent having a hurried salt water bath could have been best spent having a refreshing regular shower. It is difficult to imagine that a salt water bath could be as relaxing as a fresh bath. There is the worry that our superstition may not only be endangering our immediate selves, it could be adversely affecting the development of the entire society. Dr. Joseph O. Gogo understands that the pervading underdevelopment in West Africa is due to the low level of science acculturation within the system. In other words, he believes that superstition is costly not only to the psychology of the African people but also to their structural developments. More often than not, prayer sessions and crusades have been organized to solve socio-political problems where governmental resoluteness and sincerity could have availed. Fredrick Chiluba an erstwhile Zambian President was said to have visited and paid some Nigerian pastors clandestinely so as to win the cases of corruption raised against him. This is an peculiar case where the Christian church could be claimed to be driving mal-development.

The panic engineered by irrational pandemonium and some bizarre superstition is counterproductive. It also works contrary to the efforts of health officers who are trying to manage whichever outbreak that necessitated the pandemonium and misinformation, be it HIV/AIDS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Lassa fever or even the greatest viral outbreak in a long time, Ebola. In an outbreak of this magnitude, the best course of action is to remain calm and exercise great care. The application of ill-advised pseudo-medicines or herbs may function to create a false sense of security and cause a lowering of guards which would increase the rate of transmission of the disease or virus. The pseudo-medicines are often times isolated problems which could introduce other ailments thereby worsening issues. Sodium chloride solution may cause the loss important body fluids as a result of osmosis. Thus, drinking and bathing with salt water may actually be a “cure” which is worse than the disease.


This superstition and irritable panic has often undergirded the political turmoil in the West African sub-region. How else do we explain the fact that over 55 percent of the whole coup d’état in Africa happened in West Africa? The recourse to vain superstition may have been the background to the fear that has kept tyrants in power for a greater part of our history. Sekou Toure, Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor all kept stranglehold of their whole country through a regime of fear and superstition. It took the sophistication of the whites to save some of the situations. A little bit of enlightenment might be helpful for the reason that closed mind is always dangerous.

Our challenge as a continent and a region is specific. There is the need to transform the thinking and behaviours of our society towards a better appreciation of a scientific approach to doing things. This scientific approach demands that every rumour must be verified and the outrageous ones questioned. This is because we are ominously approaching the time when a text message or a broadcast on the social network may ask an unsuspecting population to try an acid bath to cure some of the assorted diseases on the horizon. Ike gwuu!

A question for you: Did you have the salt bath?


Article written by Okwuanya Pius-Vincent


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