Let me warn you, reader, in advance: If you have a squeamish constitution, please do not read this piece. Just stop here and flee, for the story I’m about to tell is terribly ugly and disturbing. It is bound to leave you horribly unsettled, disturbed. In my career as a columnist I have written few essays that galled and upset me more. It is a piece I wish I didn’t have to write, but one that I feel compelled to write. A grandmother in my novel Arrows of Rain warns her son, “A story that must be told never forgives silence.”
I’m writing this piece in that spirit; it is a story, I believe, that must be told. It must be told despite its ugliness, or, in fact, because of it. Flee now, dear reader, if you can’t handle it.
A few days ago I had the horrific experience of looking at what must be one of the most grotesque videos on youtube. It’s titled “Flying bird turns to old woman in Oshodi Lagos”. The gory video shows a naked woman sitting on the bare earth, most of her upper skin peeled, as if somebody had poured boiling water on her. You’d expect somebody in her condition to be writhing in pain, but the woman sits in what seems like dumb repose. It was clear to me, looking at the video, that the woman’s pain quotient was at that inhuman level that mutes wailing, leaving the victim in a state of morose resignation.
One sees that kind of dumbfounded silence in victims of unspeakable trauma, usually in war-torn areas where horror is a staple, where people are daily subjected to acts of callousness that mock humanity and animalize them. Such was the situation of this woman, her singed, peeled flesh a testimony to an act of brutality.
The disfigured woman was a forbidding sight, a portrait of pure horror. But there was something even more disquieting. It was to see that a crowd had gathered around the woman, men, women and the young, all riveted by the repulsive scene. Not one person among the spectators appeared moved by the spectacle of a woman who was clearly seared by anguish. Not one person seemed to remember that a human being in that shape and place needed, above all, to be taken to a hospital. A few uniformed security agents are at the scene, but they show no concern about getting help for the hapless woman. They limit themselves to pushing back the crowd a bit, widening the circle around the sight of a woman in hideous condition.
Everybody seemed spellbound, seemed content to ogle the woman. Their frenzy was palpable. They were there, these spectators, as voyeurs, pure and simple. Many of them held out their cameras, snapping pictures, taking videos. As far as they were concerned, this was not a woman before their very eyes; this was not a human being. They believed—everybody there, it seemed—the fantastic tale that the grisly figure before them was a witch, a huge bird that had been flying, hit an electric wire, and thudded onto the ground as “an old woman.” I am told that the woman later died.
One is deeply disturbed that Nigeria has become a country where such superstitions, such ludicrous medieval tales find many believers. And it doesn’t matter how “educated” some Nigerians are: they are willing to believe the tallest and weirdest of tales.
Once upon a time Nigeria owned a national airline called Nigeria Airways. Our country could not sustain that carrier, and it went belly up. In its flying days, the airline’s symbol was an elephant. The carrier’s legendary incompetence and demise inspired jokes about “the flying elephant.” What kind of man or woman thought that an elephant of all things could be coerced into flight?
In retrospect, considering the bizarre things some of us are willing to believe, perhaps the image of a flying elephant is not as farfetched as one might think. We were not able to manage Nigeria Airways, but now we have Witch/Wizard Airways. A country that can’t keep aircraft in operation is now besieged—some of us believe—by witches and wizards flying sorties over Oshodi and other Nigerian spaces—and sometimes crashing to the ground!
What one finds frightening is that many Nigerians who graduated from universities and other institutions of “higher learning” are among believers in all manner of poppycock.
A few years ago, a police commissioner in Ilorin, Kwara State told reporters that his men had arrested a robbery suspect who turned himself into a goat as he was about to be caught. And he showed off the goat to reporters! That astonishing report, which made it into the international media, provoked me to write a column where I speculated that perhaps many of the contemptible fellows ruining Nigeria were goats that had taken human forms!
A few years ago, a friend in Lagos introduced me to a woman who was both a lawyer and a fanatical follower of a so-called man of God. In a straight face, the woman told me about the many spectacular “miracles” wrought by her pastor. In one account, the pastor had delivered a woman who had been pregnant for more than 12 years. As the pastor prayed, the possessed pregnant woman crumbled to the ground and began to convulse. Then, according to the lawyer-narrator, a huge snake slithered out between the woman’s thighs—and she was forever delivered from bondage! She told of a man who had come to the pastor after years of some inexplicable malaise. The pastor “prayed powerfully,” and the afflicted man sneezed out a lizard from his nostrils—and became whole again!
Some years ago, BBC TV presenters reported on a pastor whose expertise was to diagnose ailing children as witches and wizards—to deadly consequences for the child victims.
It’s no secret that some unscrupulous tricksters who mask themselves as men or women of God have helped foster this shocking culture of credulousness, this willingness to cleave to any superstition or tale, however absurd. It is a deadly, deadening phenomenon. It enables people to see a scalded victim of an obvious savage attack, and to watch her die, having stigmatized her as a diabolical, flying witch. It deadens the humanity of those who stand by and watch a miserable human expire before their eyes.
What has happened—what is happening—to the minds of some Nigerians? Why do some of us rush to believe any balderdash? Do we even have any glimmer of hope of becoming an enlightened society when we believe that some of our fellows are literally flying objects, witches and wizards out to wreck us?
This kind of ignorance redounds to the advantage of the few who exploit the rest of us. They relish it when we gather in glee around a hapless, helpless dying woman at Oshodi, mistaking her as the source of our woes. The real witches and wizards sit in the halls of power—yes, with many priests, pastors and imams as their guests—gorging on the commonwealth. And these real witches and wizards deepen Nigeria’s misery, and some Nigerians’ susceptibility to superstitions.