Friday, January 10, 2020 7:27 am
By Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò
I would like to start by acknowledging the recent piece by the award-winning columnist, Abimbola Adelakun, titled, “There is nothing like ‘money rituals’”, (The Punch, January 2, 2020). I thank Adelakun for taking the bull by the horn and not traipsing around an orientation that dominates our Nigerian, nay, African, imagination, at the present time. This is our refusal, especially on the part of our intellectuals, in and out of educational institutions, to embrace the Scientific Revolution and make the discipline of the scientific method our primary, our principal way of relating to the world and the place of the human in it. We substitute instead and hold tenaciously to the alternative mytho-religious way of relating to the world and the place of the human in it dominated by supernaturalism, obscurantism, occultism, and a totalizing religiosity. I hope more people go and read the piece for their enlightenment and, more importantly, self-questioning.
Self-questioning is what has led me to this reflection on how, in so many ways, we all are responsible for the saga of Ms FavourDaley-Oladele. How we killed Daley-Oladele is what I explorein the rest of this piece. It is all too easy to say that the lady was a mere unfortunate victim of an unscrupulous, calculating boyfriend, a possibly fake pastor, and a mother desperate for relief from want. If I could be persuaded that the case is somehow singular, even idiosyncratic, or that it is just another of a series of unfortunate incidents that are otherwise unconnected to other things, events, and orientations in our society, I would have passed on it. My questioning reminded me that there are deeper explanations for what happened in this case and that it is a symptom of a worse malaise afflicting our very understanding of our place in the world as humans.
How did we kill Daley-Oladele? There are two diametrically opposed ways of understanding how our world, external, as in physical, and internal, as in psychic and psychological, is constituted, works, and evolves: the religious and the scientific. For the longer period of human existence, we made sense of our world by means of religion and related phenomena: sorcery, witchcraft, mythology. The central idea is that there is more to the world than meets the eye and humans devised all kinds of means to make the world yield its secrets to us. Our explanatory framework for the phenomena we could not otherwise wrap our heads around featured stories about gods, goddesses and similar creatures. More importantly, life’s mysteries—what’s hidden in rivers, mountains, forests, the phallus, and why women bleed at intervals—became the objects of worship before which we abased ourselves, from which we summoned powers to tame the harsh conditions of being in a world we barely understood,living in which we had to do with more vulnerabilities than our fellow creatures—animals and plants—contended with.
Over time, we developed something that other creatures never did: a complex and sophisticated and still evolving brain that enabled us not only to begin to reduce the play of mystery in our lives but actually began to put us, increasingly, in a position to force the world—internal and external—to yield its most recondite secrets to our probing. From the 16th century onwards, we transited from epochs during which our relationship to the world was dominated by an attitude of submission and worship to one in which we decode more and more of the underlying, operating principles of nature and we evolved from worshippers of nature and its artifacts to lawgivers to it and tamers of its previously unpredictable ferocity. We now make nature work for us, for the most part.
The Scientific Revolution had arrived; the Age of Reason had dawned. From then till now, we no longer succumb to revelation, tradition, or authority. We ask that whatever we seek to embrace—from victuals to how we govern ourselves—pass a simple but rigorous test: survive scrutiny by Reason. Since then, and in all societies that have embraced the Scientific Revolutionand its associated temperament, the experimental method,certified by corroboration, repeatability, and predictability, has shrunk the segment of their populations still dominated by mytho-religious explanatory paradigms so much that such “explanations” as are offered from this perspective are regarded as quaint, funny, possibly crazy.
In this respect, the following passage from Adelakun’s piece is so crucial:
“There is nobody that claims that ‘money ritual’ is real that can also substantiate it. The evidence people tender about its efficacy is typically reportorial, or some fantasy they picked up from home movies. Meanwhile, Nollywood filmmakers too have never seen money rituals work either. What they rehash are urban myths and similar tales. Nobody, I repeat, nobody can make money come out of thin air or conjure it from another location.”
In this passage, she dropped a gauntlet to all in our society who indulge the stupidity or brainlessness of processing their relations with the world primarily or principally in mytho-religious terms. She channeled the scientific method that demands that you support all your substantive claims about the world with evidence that is objectively verifiable, repeatable, and corroborated by others deploying the same materials that you have combined to produce your result.
If, for instance, you are persuaded that a lady’s undergarments have some power to produce money, don’t just talk about it. Give us your experimental regimen, how you got from this or that or any panty through processing—burning, dissolution in acid, etc.—to money. Give us the steps and let fellow experimenters in Mongolia replicate your result.
Think how much cleaner the world will be from recycling undergarments and keeping them out of landfills. Think how much more leisure the poor across the world will enjoy from not having to do inhumane work to keep life going at the barest levels with access to such easy money. Of course, the prescription should come with warnings about side effects to those whose pheromones and DNA are in the used undergarments.
Just imagine how much more onerous it would be for snake oil sellers to dupe us if our primary orientation is not one of stupidly believing but of asking that people share evidence with us of the truthfulness of their claims and on this score, not reports, hearsay, or “just believe, and you shall be saved”!
I would like to argue that all across the African continent, we, at the present time, have never embraced the scientific method. This is despite the fact that many of our ancient civilizations handed down to us evidence of their commitment to evidence-based processes of engaging the world even as they, like other humanity contemporaneous with them, were dominated by what I identified above as mytho-religious explanatory models, Egypt being the most important. We persist in embracing, deploying, and being dominated by mytho-religious attitudes when it comes to our primary or principal ways of being in and relating to our world, physical and psychic.
I daresay that ours is the only continent that continues to thrash around in this morass. I shall not be making the case for this claim here. I put it here because Nigeria, the immediate focus, is ravaged by this orientation. When things happen, from earthquakes to floods, from motor accidents to bad governance, we are forever deploying those lame, obscurantistnonexplanations: “it is God’s will,” “only God can make things right,” “it is a spiritual attack,” “spiritual warfare,”, “mysterious fire,” “mysterious birth,” and so on, and so forth.
In all other societies, even those that continue to share what we would call our intense religiosity, like India, that have accepted the scientific method and allow its spirit to permeate their being in and relations to the world, road accidents call for inquiries into road and weather conditions, the mechanical state of the vehicles involved, whether the operator was under the influenceof alcohol or drugs, distracted, reckless, incompetent, with poor vision, and so on. It is why in such societies, when planes crash, every effort is made to collect every bit of the carcass of the plane involved that can be located; because in piecing together the pattern of the disintegration of the structure lies the key to unraveling the physics behind the crash as a precondition to ensuring that future occurrences are prevented. They don’t go looking for goblins and ghommids and other denizens of unseen principalities, mad at being unappeased and visiting unmatched misery on us, their heedless victims.
Even if, in those societies, their self-appointed “anointeds” are inclined to proffer mytho-religious explanations for these unfortunate incidents—the United States is awash in crazy pastors who think that hurricanes are our recompense for homosexuality and India continues to be home to numerous gurus who are ready to convey you to nirvana, just pay up, buddy—few pay them any heed and their media and their intellectual class refuse to be complicit in the swindle and the peddling of ignorance. I cannot say that that is what obtains in our land.
The young man who killed Daley-Oladele, the pastor who dissected her body, and the mother who engaged in cannibalism that is otherwise forbidden by her Yorùbá cultural heritage, are not idiosyncratic presences in our world nor are their beliefs respecting the capacity of human body parts to transmute into free money beyond the pale for most Nigerians. Of course, nothing about the actions and beliefs I just reported makes sense. That precisely is the problem.
The mind-set just described is dominant across all sectors of our society, in all demographic domains, in all walks of life. In other words, the trio is representative of our active embrace ofmytho-religious explanatory frameworks characterized by supernaturalism, occultism, and obscurantism, in our relation to our world.
The departure from and the calling out of this mass backwardness that hides behind moral horror at the incident is what makes Adelakun’s piece such a standout. The belief in ‘money rituals’ and related idiocies that procured Daley-Oladele’s untimely death is a mere sliver of our mass reconciliation to supernaturalism and this is how and why we all have a hand, however unwitting, in her death and those of many unknown others either through other crazy supernatural beliefs or, ultimately, in the irrational belief that “except God build the house, they that labour do so in vain”.
Every governor who attributes his success and prospects of succeeding at his task to god is entrapped in this mytho-religious animus that pervades the society. And when people in elevated positions deploy the same explanatory framework to account for their place in and relations to the world, they feed the illusion that dominated the characters in the saga we are using to illustrate this larger argument. Every governor who illegally wastes the people’s money on useless ‘thanksgiving services’ for a successful year is an obscurantist that should be unmasked as no good for the general health of the people he leads; for he confirms them in their thrall to unforeseen forces domiciled in powerful principalities, directing their fortunes in the world.
No, if I may quote from a different part of the good book, “from the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread”—hard work, knowledge, all aspects of the scientific method, must be our preferred way of relating to our world in all ways.
Every journalist who is eager to report “mysterious fires,” “mysterious deaths,” “babies born with a Koran in their clutch,” and does not come to his or her remit with a skeptical attitude that demands evidence, repeatability—humans are the same—and what causal antecedents explain this outcome that are open to objective verification across geographical and cultural divides, contributes to feeding the obscurantism that gives credence to the unfounded belief in ‘money rituals’.
University professors who do not come out to contradict publicly and call on the carpet a crazy Daddy G.O. who lately predicts that earthquakes are on the menu in places where they never did occur previously because “God is angry” are culpable in cementing the belief that earthquakes are caused by supernatural causes and can only be appeased by religious devotion are guilty of feeding the condition that makes ordinary people believe that “principalities do indeed exist and remotely cause things to move in our world”. Such beliefs are akin to believing that albino blood is unlike other blood and has a secret ingredient that, in the hands of the “experts” can transmute into money.
We can learn from one of our most important African thinkers who worked with peasants, for the most part, and was never afraid of educating us about the limits of mytho-religious thinking and its irrelevance in our present world. Here is Amilcar Cabral:
Our culture should be developed on the basis of science, it should be scientific—which is to say, not involve believing in imaginary things. Tomorrow our culture should avoid instances where anyone of us thinks that lightning is a sign that God has become enraged or that a thunderstorm is the sky’s voice when a furious “spirit” speaks. In our culture tomorrow, everyone should know that, while we dance when there are thunderstorms, a thunderstorm occurs when two clouds clash, one with a positive electrical charge and another with a negative electrical charge; and when they clash they cause a flash, which is lightning, and a noise, which is the thunder. (Amilcar Cabral, Resistance and Decolonization, trans. Dan Wood, intro. Reiland Rabaka (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), pp. 123-124.
State governors that import prayer warriors from Saudi Arabia should be committed for psychiatric treatment. Unlike our crazy G.O.s, the Saudi protectors of Mecca created the most efficient oil firm in the world which has the most advanced technology for locating and capturing crude oil and has just had a multi-billion-dollar IPO on the Jeddah bourse. They do not substitute prophecy for scientific exploration. They do not deploy marabouts to take care of their rulers: they build the best equipped hospitals in the world and ensure that their Hisbah equivalent let alone the quarters housing their most important imports: the experts who keep their science-inflected institutions running.
But our Senators, governors, and their retinues are busy stoking the embers of obscurantism by building mosques in lieu of schools and modelling religious backwardness in lieu of scientific progress as well as the cultivation of a querulous attitude that would have made the unfortunate young man in our saga to ask for previous examples, evidence of the success of the scheme for which he destroyed his girlfriend’s, the pastor’s, and his own mother’s lives, not to talk of the trail of unhappiness that would forever attend the connected families’ lives.
There is a simple way out of the morass of supernaturalism and it is already anticipated in the quote from Cabral above. It is this:
More lives will not only be saved, the lives saved will be led in a better world informed by knowledge and a continuing effort to peel back the blinkers of ignorance in our being in and relating to the world.
Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.