I've pointed out in the past that the reason the Ebola epidemic continues to spread in Congo is largely due to the primitive, superstitious tribal culture in that part of the world. Unfortunately, many First World readers have no conception of just how primitive and superstitious that culture really is. It's so far removed from our reality that it's inconceivable to many of us.
Now comes a report on child soldiers in the Congo that may help some readers understand the problem better.
The potion was powerful stuff: the grown-up rebels who had given it to the boys, smearing it on their beanpole bodies every day for a week, had promised it would make them invincible.
Still, the first time he went into battle Jean-Paul wanted to be sure. Stripping off his clothes, he fought the enemy naked.
The magic seemed to work.
Not only has he lived to see his 13th birthday, but he has emerged more or less unscathed from repeated engagements with the Congolese army over a period of nearly two years.
“I knew that as long as I remained naked, I could be sure that the charms worked,” he told the Telegraph last week.
His friend Phillipe, a year older and wiser, also holds with the magic. And why not? Unlike Jean-Paul who went into battle with a mere hunting rifle, he was been given far more powerful weapons: three eggs and a calabash gourd.
“When I threw the eggs they turned into bombs and the enemy was killed by the fire,” he said. “I killed many people that way.”
Alive today, there was, and remains, no reason for him to question it all.
. . .
Commanders wasted no time in wielding the sorcery to their advantage. On the battlefield they deployed girls as young as seven in matching red frocks to the front line.
Swishing their magic dresses to scoop up the army’s bullets, they protected not only the boys standing behind them with their hunting rifles, eggs and pieces of wood that turned into AK-47s but also the men, armed with proper weapons, who brought up the rear.
The child soldiers – known as the “Baby Police”– were killed in their thousands, but total numbers were not evident to individuals. And anyway, with magic there is always an explanation.
Jean-Paul said he believed the children who died met their fate because they had not followed the rules. Perhaps they had eaten meat, or had sex, or had worn underwear while fighting, he explained.
. . .
Going from village to village, they set up baptism sites, known as tshiota, to indoctrinate child recruits.
At these, children were given bitter potions made from the powder of bark from three trees, often mixed with human blood and ground-up bones. The remainder, made into a paste, was brushed onto their bodies with the promise it would give them superhuman powers.
Sometimes, as in Jean-Paul’s case, they swallowed three live red ants before marching round a fire and chanting the words “In the name of the Kamuina Nsapu” [the 'magical' name of the tribal militia], an incantation they would intone repeatedly in battle.
They may have been outgunned, but even the army’s elite Republican Guard seemed to fear the magic. Sometimes they did mow down the girls in their red dresses and the egg-throwing boys. But often they turned and fled.
There's much more at the link.
This is the sort of superstition that aid organizations and health care workers are dealing with in north-western Congo. It's a level of ignorance that makes it easy to persuade locals that the aid organizations are actually spreading Ebola, a "white man's disease"; that they're killing people in their hospitals, rather than trying to treat them; and that their medicines and health care measures are designed to bewitch and/or enslave people rather than help them. It's no wonder that attacks on aid agencies and workers are so frequent, and sometimes deadly; and it's no wonder that the Ebola epidemic in the Congo is now out of control.
There is literally no reasoning with such people, because they're not capable of reasoning in any logical, rational sense of the word. Their lives - their entire world view - is/are bound up in, and encompassed by, and permeated with superstition and witchcraft. If their shaman, or witch-doctor, or whatever, says to them that they must or must not do something, they'll obey their spiritual leader rather than health care authorities, because it's patently obvious to them that the former knows so much more than the latter.
That's why this outbreak of Ebola scares me so much. It's perilously close to breaking out of its geographic boundaries, despite months of intensive efforts to contain it. The reason is precisely what I've said above. Local people don't believe in Western medicine; in fact, they'd rather flee from it. In doing so, they're going to spread Ebola into Uganda (which has "10,000 [border] crossings each day" to and from the Congo - and that's just the ones who go across legally, rather than walk through the bush). South Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi are also threatened. From there, it's a hop, a skip and a jump to Kenya, with its international airport at Nairobi and its many flights per day to Europe and the Far East. From there to the USA is no distance at all in terms of air travel.
Be afraid, people. If you're not, you don't understand the situation. This could turn very nasty, very quickly, and there's almost nothing effective we can do to stop it if it does. Even an international travel ban would have only limited effect, given how easily African refugees, particularly Congolese, can cross (and are already crossing) our borders illegally.