Superstition: The Need For Critical Thinking In Nigeria – By Uzoma Chukwuocha
Superstition comprises a set of beliefs, with a mainly religious undercurrent. These beliefs alleviate anxiety, and are used to predict outcomes, and to control behaviors. They have little or no basis in empirical facts but are amplified mostly by strong religious beliefs.
That a person has superstitious beliefs, does not automatically make the person stupid. If that were the case, then the world would mainly comprise of stupid people. Truth be said, we have all at one point or another entertained some superstition, may still do, albeit unwittingly. If I sneezed now, I believe I would get a few ‘Bless you’s’ from the audience. Or maybe not.
Most of these said beliefs pre-date their believers and were handed down across generations vertically, with little or no recourse to their source, logic or veracity. They serve the purpose of assuaging anxieties and modifying behaviors. Our earliest encounters with these beliefs often occurred at a tender age, when we were largely helpless consumers of beliefs and ideas. The hierarchical structure of the human society, (more so in the African cultural sub-sets), makes it all the more easy for these ideas and beliefs to be impressed on young minds by authority figures such as parents, elders or religious leaders, in the form of folklore, music, and rituals.
When an ill-informed mind was first confronted with fear and hope, in a desperate search for reasons and control, superstition was born. This theory is based on examining the direct effects of superstition. It either assuages a fear, creates some hope, or lends a control to behavior and/or choices. They might have started as mere ideas or suggestions, then the randomness of life bestowed some coincidental repetition that was recognized, and then these axioms took on a life of their own, were handed down person to person, hence here we are trying to understand why we feel anxious at the site of a harmless black cat.
This theory does not in the least explain all of superstition. Some are, like most, spurious and totally baseless; while others have a somewhat close semblance to logical facts, akin to the semblance between apes and humanoids that you start to entertain a level of curiosity about their origin and originators. A case in point would be the belief in Igbo land that some type of mental illness manifests more when the moon is full. Here you can analyze that this belief might have stemmed from an observed cyclical periodicity to the symptoms in certain patients with mental illness. Bipolar disorder has this alternating cyclical manifestation of manic and depressive symptoms. Could this have been the basis for this superstition that a full moon brings with it worsening symptoms of mental illness since the appearance of the moon is also cyclical.
Another belief anchored in correlation is that between breast feeding and contraception, which is an age-old African belief that has been shown to have a sound scientific base, but had been practiced/believed in Africa long before the introduction of modern science to Africa.
While working as a doctor in a small hospital in Eastern Nigeria some years ago, I was attending to a pregnant young lady who was brought in by her mother; she was at full term, but yet to go into labor. The concerned mother confided in me that she was looking for a man who would “sleep with” her daughter so she could have her baby with ease since her husband was overseas. This is a case where science supports the belief that sex could induce labor; but this belief amongst African women pre-dates the introduction of modern science to the African society. It might have started as an observed occurrence, then gained propagation by sheer folklore. That being said, the bulk of superstitious beliefs are based solely on religious ideas, rules or dogmas, designed to allay anxiety, control behavior or expected outcomes.
Superstition can be found in a few places, but mostly wherever there are humans. Every human community, regardless of the level of sophistication or lack thereof, harbors a good dose of superstitious beliefs. Some are so subtle that they have become baked into the sinews of everyday life and identity, while others are coarse enough to be noticed (mostly by non-adherents). Western education brought a good dose of Western superstitions with it, and trans-Atlantic migration also took some of ours from here to the West. In this context, we will cite a few examples to buttress the universality of superstition, but we will ultimately narrow it down to our own local clime. Some of these superstitious narratives are as follows: Do not walk under a ladder because it brings bad luck. Breaking a mirror brings 7 years of bad luck (not sure if the size of the mirror matters). The above two beliefs were imported from the West. A particular English footballer, Gary Lineker, used to avoid scoring goals during training sessions because he believed he was saving them for the real match. Basil Boli, an Ivorian footballer wore the same underwear through an entire UEFA Champions League season because it brought him luck (they did win the trophy). Many a football player are seen touching the grass and making a sign of the cross when they get onto the pitch (even non-Christians). The rearview mirrors of many cars look like a mini shrine. From Lagos to Laos and from Birnin-Kebi to Bombay this is true. These good luck amulets are supposed to bestow safety during accidents, or even better still, ward-off accidents and thieves.
In the Nigerian setting, there are as many beliefs as there are hairs on the back of a He-Goat; time and space would only permit the mention of some here:Flying in your dream means you are possessed by evil spirits. The hoot of an Owl at night near a compound portends an imminent death in the said compound. Siting of a giant millipede is a bad message from the gods/ancestors. On the third day after burial, it is believed that the dead comes out at midnight to walk around one last time. The last child to suckle on a mothers breast is at risk of death soon after the mother’s death (especially around the time of the decay of the breast in the grave). If you bend forward, and look backward from in between your legs in a crowded market, you will see dead people shopping amongst the living. Be careful how you answer calls at night if you answer the call from the spirits you will soon die. This same belief has found its way into the cell phone age. Some numbers are passed around on social media platforms, with warnings to not answer any call from such numbers to avoid untimely death or initiation into spiritual cults. Many lucrative business calls, I believe, must have been missed this way.
Having sex in your dream means you have a spiritual spouse or that you have been initiated too. Not considering that this is an integral part of the normal sexual developmental stages in adolescence, and also that this may be the only sex available to some adults. An itchy palm means you have good fortune headed your way. Whistling at night attracts evil spirits and snakes. Sleeping facing the wall or looking in the mirror at night causes bad dreams. Eating in the dark, the dead folks may join your meal, resulting in your own death. If you are stung by a Centipede, your gender would change. Women should not eat the meat of a hawk. Up until a few decades ago, the birth of twins was seen as a bad omen and a curse from the gods; hence they were quickly killed, and their mother put through the rituals of spiritual cleansing (if not killed too). Suicide brings an eternal curse to the rest of the family, that must be broken with rituals before the burial of the dead. When one dies by drowning, he must be buried by banks of that body water, be it a river or a pond. If this is not done, the water spirits would haunt the family until they do so.
Depending on how you look at it, the effects of superstition constitute a spectrum which could range from the subtle to the horrendous. The harmless BLESS YOU that follows almost every public sneeze the world over does not help or harm anyone. Then you look at the other end of the spectrum and you see a cluster of Albinos with missing (amputated) body parts; you see children abused in homes, locked away in prayer houses, camps and forests after being labelled as witches and wizards who brought death or misfortune to their families, then all of a sudden we are dealing with a totally different animal.
A liaison officer at the Nigerian Consulate in NY had refused to hand over my renewed international passport simply because I had reached for it with my left hand. That was deemed disrespectful, in addition to bringing bad luck. This action solely anchored on a baseless belief could have easily resulted in flight cancellations, loss of revenue, emotional stress, etc. It luckily did not, because I found her office door open while she was out to use the restroom. You can figure out the rest.
Of all the effects of superstition, the most significant, and if I’m right, the main reason for this exercise; is the resultant abuse of the helpless amongst us. This group is constituted mostly of, but not entirely made up of; Children, The Handicapped, Widows, The Sick, The Poor, The Odd or eccentric in nature, The Mentally Ill, Animals. The list could go on for a while. The emergence of New Age Religiosity has in no small measure, worsened an already bad situation. People are easily fanned into frenzied fear, with no regard for logic and factual explanation for everyday problems, to the point that they are more than willing to latch onto any proffered deem witted explanation and remedy for their problems. When the dust of this so often frenzy settles, a pile of damage, loss, pain, and abuse is left; while the original issue remains largely unsolved or in some cases might have actually worsened.
In terms of intervention, education in all its forms, is the main tool whenever the aim is to change an already learned behavior, belief or practice. It will take consistent reinforcement and persistent supply of facts to get adults to start rethinking their own beliefs (which are often anchored in their chosen religious inclinations).
Just as easy as it is to imprint superstition unto a young mind, it is equally easy to disabuse the young mind of such ideas by a well-meaning adult or authority figure. The best thing, however, would be to teach the young one the simple act of CRITICAL THINKING so they can arrive at healthy and helpful fact-based conclusions on their own. Instead of mandating religious studies as a core option in early education, philosophy, logic and deductive reasoning as options, should be brought closer to the young minds. It should not be delayed until the first year of University (as a GS course) before a student encounters Descartes, Plato, Socrates, Freud, and Aristotle.
Media in all its different forms has a huge role to play here. Most of the movies out of Nollywood are about rituals, pastors, and miracles which ultimately end in TO GOD BE THE GLORY after the ‘witch’ had ‘confessed’. At the rate we are going, we are breeding a future generation of ill-equipped youths that will grow to be mal-adjusted adults at best. The movie and music industry can change this tide in a very short period if we can convince them that it is a worthy course. If it becomes financially rewarding to make fact-based, informative and enlightening movies, the producers would naturally follow the money.
In the words of a popular musician; ‘who knows better must do better, a source of collective insight might not be exposed to education’. Here we are, exposed to education, we know better, now the question is are we doing better. Speak your truths consistently, but do not forget to listen without judgment. Always leave room for more knowledge, while sharing freely of the much you have. Without knowledge, we stagnate, without sharing we cannot receive to the fullest.
Uzoma Chukwuocha is a medical doctor and lives in the US
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