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.