Thursday, April 3, 2008

Black Magic

Walking along the road to the Coca-Cola motor park, I luck into a ride with the Director of the Foundation, who just happened to be heading that way. As we bounce along the back streets of Kafanchan, I ask him whether he voted in the state election held on the weekend. “No,” he replies, “I wanted to, but I was called into an emergency intervention. Three little girls were accused of being witches by their neighbours and were about to be killed, so I had to act quickly to take them to safety.”

Just when I think I’m getting a handle on Nigeria, there are moments like this to remind me that I really don’t understand it at all.

I attempt a response more intelligent than “Wow!” or “Zoinks!”, but come up empty, so the Director mercifully continues without any prompting from me. He explains how a recent spate of bad luck had shaken the local community and driven it to look for a source. In such cases, young people are often identified as the cause of the curse, and their elimination is seen as the only way to get rid of it. Given their age and lack of maturity, the possibility of them successfully arguing in their own defence is non-existent. Such killing doesn’t happen often, but it’s heartbreaking to someone like the Director when it does. He mentions a similar case that happened last year, when he received word too late to save a little girl who was thrown down a well. Thankfully, on this occasion, he was alerted in time to save the three girls, but their future is uncertain. Now housed in another location a safe distance away, the difficult and risky process of reintegrating them into their community now begins. When I ask how long that process usually takes, the Director says a year can pass before it’s determined that they will no longer be in danger from those who once threatened them. Imagine the emotional scars left on those little girls, even if they are able to eventually return. Imagine the stigma that will likely still attach to them.

It should be emphasized that most Nigerians are as horrified by such incidents as anyone now reading this, so one shouldn’t be left with the impression that the people living here are still in the Dark Ages when it comes to their beliefs. The majority of the people that I’ve met since I arrived are well-educated members of the 21st century, and the idea that bad luck can be erased with the death of a child is repulsive to them. But it’s also true that spirituality and faith seem to play a larger role in the lives of most Nigerians than is the case elsewhere in Africa or the rest of the world. Religion is the centerpiece of existence here, whether it’s Christianity or Islam, and those that observe a particular faith are often fervent in their devotion. Now, before the nasty responses start rolling in, let me be clear that I’m not equating any religion with the notion that evil can reside in children and must be destroyed. But they do share a common belief in forces beyond the control of human beings – that Good and Evil exist and influence our lives. Could the faith required to follow a religion eventually morph into the destructive belief that leads one to blame innocent children for one’s misfortune? Or do the two exist in parallel, with the notion of curses developing on its own and forever acting as a counterpoint to our more familiar forms of organized religion? These are the questions I ponder when the battery on my laptop dies and I can’t watch my DVD of The Sound of Goodfellas..

Regardless of the source of the superstition, the consequences of its influence are not always so dire. Sometimes, they’re even good for a laugh. I was on the receiving end of some advice from James, my neighbour in Kagoro, regarding the best way to avoid being robbed on the road. He explained that I should never look to join people in a vehicle unless it’s located in a motor park or other established site for transport. If I did find myself on the side of a road and needing a lift, I should avoid cars that are only partially full, as these are almost certainly being driven by bandits. However, if I did decide to ride with the highwaymen…..(James’ advice tended to offer more choices than Baskin Robbins)…I should be aware of a scam that is almost invariably pulled on the unwary traveler.

According to James, at some point on the journey, one of the robbers, posing as a fellow passenger, will ask to be dropped off. Pulling over to the side of the road, the driver of the car will exit the vehicle along with the faux commuter and head to the rear of the vehicle, as if to retrieve his luggage. An argument will then be staged between the two regarding the proper fare to be paid, resulting in an extended delay while the men fight over the amount due to the driver. And this is where the innocent passenger gets taken for a ride of a different kind. At this point, I expected James to tell me that the scam consisted of the target offering up some of his or her own cash in order to settle the dispute and get the car moving again. Instead, James said that a spell is cast over the rider by the robbers, causing his or her mind to be open to suggestion. He said that people in this state have even agreed to take the thieves back to their homes and stood by (presumably glassy-eyed) while their valuables were stolen right in front of them. Now, I don’t consider myself to have an iron will, but it would take one hell of a hypnotist to separate me from my prized possessions, like my autographed poster of ABBA. I’m sure that even The Man They Call Reveen couldn’t pull that one off, although he did once mesmerize me into paying $25 to watch his crappy show. In any event, I thanked James for his advice and assured him that I would be careful in the future.

Fear of evil and the unknown will continue to fuel an overabundance of caution in men like James. Taken to the extreme, it will also bring about the type of panic that almost led to tragedy on the weekend. It falls to people like the Director of Fantsuam to try to strike the balance of educating the local communities on the destructive possibilities held within their traditional beliefs while still working to maintain those parts of the beliefs worth preserving.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

G: this entry devastated me. I had the misfortune of being in a training session [here's how to use your new exchange email system -- yawn] when I decided to pop into your blog. The misfortune was multi-dimensional, as all such things are:
a. the boring training session delivered in haphapzard chop-logic by a techie [how can people tied to tech logic be so illogical in how they explain things? Personally, I chalk it up to a form of arrested development: they are tech geniuses who can't read or write or speak]
b. the desire to forage afield to escape the boredom -- that curiosity killed the cat thing
c. the blog story -- note: not the blog but this particular story.

I had to fight back tears as I visualized the director as knight in shining armor rescuing these tiny damsels in distress. Fear scaled my spinal column as I saw Evil foisting itself on the innocent in the name of good.

Is there Evil out there? Yes, no differently from Mulder telling us with TV-wisdom that the Truth is out there too. But Evil is not some thing independent from the actions of people. Evil is what men/people do, not some horned beast dragged up from our late-monkey stage that seeped into our collective unconscious [my story about monkeys and saber tooths sharing the same cave].

However we picture evil -- whether it's incarnate evil as in a teen slasher movie [Freddie Kruger or Jason with the spiffy goalie mask]or pyschological evil [Bates Motel and all that vertigo stuff] -- it is still at core humanly driven.

What drives us to do evil? Some would say [and I am one of them] that evil [and all our actions] is borne out of our fundamental Fear. Fear [with a capital f, so that it a conceptual appreciation and not just a series of moments] drives everything we do and fear of death [as Heidegger would say in his seminal Sein und Zeit] is at the base of it all.

Even the Greeks, esp the pre-Socratics -- wrestled with this fundamental issue of fear. For them it was couched in terms of mutability and language. You cannot step into the same stream/ river twice; can you call a cat a cat if there are so many different kinds of cats.....what is at core the same? how do we account for the differences..... and the ultimate epistemological question, how do we know anything if everything is always changing.

But getting away from this quasi linguistic philosophical stuff, let's look at the root of evil and the root of good -- good/evil are too sides of the same coin. It's ultimately a matter of choice, and not luck or fate, as to which side the coin falls on.

Driven by our fundamental fear of expiring/dying, we can either build a cathedral or throw a child into a well. This is both a personal choice and a collective choice... but in the end, it's a choice.

If there were no choice, no freedom to elect one route over the other, then we as humans could never be held accoutable; we would never be responsible. And we are free to choose. Note: choice is not about choosing our fears, but about choosing how we handle our fears, what we do in the face of fear.

Lew Holtz, former Notre Dame football coach [here's the irony of me quoting a sports figure] once said: Life is 10% situation and 90% how we handle it. Well, I believe the coach is right: it is about freedom to choose and being responsible for the choice.

We must be careful, however, not to equate freedom of choice with ability to articulate or even to understand and know what we are doing and why we are doing it. In our Enlightenment driven post Enlightenment western thinking, we are super fixated on the "need to know" -- even if that amounts to the most banal details. Our scientific method of thinking requires investigation to the nth degree and leads us down the road of equating expression with drive.

The most fearsome feature of fear [sorry for the alliteration] is in not knowing, not being able to articulate or talk our way out of it. It is the impulsive side of facing Evil as we externalize it in order to appease it by throwing a child into a well. Do we really know what we are doing or why we are doing it?

Please do not misunderstand: I am not talking about the "stupid" unenlightened savage response to the alien unknown forces of nature as if this were a contrast between the so called primitive and the so called advanced. The Nigerians of your story are no less enlightened and no more primitive than any highly educated westerner.

Our encounter with fear, the fundamental reality of fear, is the same for all humans [again, Fear with a capital f, even if specific fears are different], whatever their status. The real difference is whether the encounter is more visceral or not, and whether the range of choices are circumscribed or wide open.

If our "range of choices" were simple on-off yes-no responses, that would be easy to handle. But choice is complicated, because we live in complex social contexts. If you don't have the ability to choose to build a cathedral [or whatever the equivalent to that might be in any particular context], then maybe you throw a child into the well, or maybe not. There is no predestined right decision, whatever the context. If there were, then there would be no freedom in the first place.

It is interesting to note, as I do a meta-analysis of my last few paragraphs, that I have done a fair amount of word-spinning here. This is a quintessential illustration of how we build that cathedral to handle fear -- in this instance, mask it in high-brow philosophical verbiage. That is a choice, and illustrates for me just how emotionally painful your story was for me. The more words, the greater my pain -- these are my tears on the page, my tears for those young girls whose lives are now irrevocably changed for the worst.

At the still-point as expressed in Sein und Zeit, Heidegger sees death -- the ultimate undoing of all human construct and fabrication, the stripping away of all supports we create -- individually and collectively -- to avoid the fundamental reality and fear of death. It is the still point when and where language and meaning have no legs to stand on. The ultimate knock out punch.

It is in/at this still point we find ultimate meaning, some of us call that God. My second doctoral thesis had the "grand" title of Death: The Face of God. My concept was/is: god is not a thing to be understood like all other things we humans express and grapple with to understand. God is no-thing, and the ultimate stripping away of all things is the still point of death...and it is here in this empty void, the chaos of Genesis, that we hear, discover and become part of creation. It is here in death that life is born, not as a thing or experience after death, but as life fully realized.

Among world religions, this version of belief [if we can systemize it in any way] is what mystics do. However one wants to approach it, these are the realities and fears I struggle with, and at a very personal level. But the personal experience is a story for another time.

How complex we humans are. Your "simple story" that some might consider a tale of primitive expiation [the virgin thrown into the volcano] reminds us of fundamental truths we prefer to bury under our busy lives. Victor