Monday, July 5, 2010

The World Cup, magic, and Africa

A friend e-mailed me a link to this article in the Telegraph.

A snake used by a South African fortuneteller to “control” the progress of teams in the World Cup has been seized by animal welfare inspectors, a spokesman said Monday.

The nine-foot-long Burmese rock python was being used by a sangoma in a Cape Town township to communicate with the ancestors, to ask them to intercede in World Cup matches, said Sarah Scarth, spokesman for the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

SPCA wildlife inspectors were alerted to the snake on June 30, she said.

“They found the snake was being kept in a shack and in back of a car, and was being used allegedly by the sangoma to speak to the ancestors,” she said.

“People were paying the sangomas to ask the ancestors to help their chosen teams advance in the tournament.”

There's more at the link.

My friend wanted to know whether this sort of superstition was really still rampant in Africa. I had to tell him that sadly, it's as strong as ever, despite a few generations of Western education. Consider just these few reports from across the continent, that I was able to find in only a few minutes of searching:

Some of these reports are several years old, but don't let that fool you. The situations they describe are as real today as they ever were. I used to work in Johannesburg, the commercial heart of South Africa. The Stock Exchange (the biggest in Africa) used to be situated on Diagonal Street; and around it, one would find 'muti' shops, selling amulets, 'medicine' and other products to produce 'good luck' or 'good fortune' for the day's trading, or to ensure that one's 'enemies' (i.e. rival stockbrokers) would experience the opposite that day. I've accompanied brokers with multiple graduate degrees as they entered the building . . . but not before they'd bought their 'muti' for the day. To do without it was unthinkable to them, and they used to regard me with some pity for my lack of understanding of the importance of the 'spirits'.

It's hard for me to convey just how deep this spiritual blindness runs in the average African. There are, of course, those who've broken free of such superstition; but they're in the minority, I fear. For example, you and I might see lightning strike a tree, and watch it burst into flames. We understand that the enormous heat generated by the electricity in the lightning bolt has caused the fire. On the other hand, the average African might believe that the spirits of the trees had been fighting, and the spirit of that particular tree had just been zapped! If you try to argue against that, he'll look at you with sorrow, pitying your blindness to the obvious.

It's a different world in Africa. Sometimes it's a bloody unpleasant one, and deadly dangerous. Those dangers give rise to primitive superstitions, which in their turn make it more dangerous still.



LL said...

You can take the man from the jungle, but it's far more difficult to take the jungle from the man.

Anonymous said...

I keep seeing the same sort of stories over and over from everyone who's lived in Africa. (Just moved - one of my new neighbors is from Zimbabwe. The reason he's "from Zimbabwe" is that Mugabe took over...)

Superstition, corruption, casual brutality, all in one cultural combination plate, with willful ignorance on the side. I've learned from the stories a fatalistic, mournful, truth in the catchphrase, "Africa wins again. And I've come to realize that the people who say that aren't sneering - theyre crying...