Monday, November 01, 2010
On witchcraft, bearded men in the sky and cats' whiskers: superstition and stigma in Nigeria
Work has gone very smoothly, training 24 radio journalists in radio skills, going right back to basics to fill (the many) gaps in their knowledge, and increasing their awareness of HIV, its causes, the national prevention strategy and ways of addressing it on air, much of which was totally new to them, and some of it quite an eye-opener.
You’d think (or at least, hope) that journalists would be amongst the most educated, open-minded and rational people but in a country characterized by taboo, cultural stigmas, superstition, and unwavering religious belief, they’re as much victim to those mores as the next person. So it was with some horror that I heard you can catch HIV from cat’s whiskers, or faced one group who had no hesitation in stigmatising men who have sex with men (MSM for short – there’s not really such a thing as a gay or bisexual identity, as it’s illegal here, and most men who are doing it are ostensibly heterosexual).
“If it was my son I would cast him out,” or “I would never shake the hand of such a man,” were two comments which were greeted with nodding approval. A quip about MSM standing for “Mentally Subnormal Men” raised roars of laughter until I reminded them that we were supposed to be against stigmatization, but at least when a comment was made to a visiting NGO worker that “There’s nobody like that in this room” we both chorused simultaneously “You don’t know that!”
Thankfully the other group were nothing like that, and I’d like to think that the first group attained at least a modicum of awareness that stigmatizing MSM is wrong even if their own attitudes haven’t changed, and by all accounts there is a growing (urban) gay visibility in the capital Abuja and in Lagos, so change is happening slowly. I assured the man who said he’d never shake their hand that he already had, and in ten years time he would have friends who are MSM. He didn’t believe me but let’s see who’s right.
The rampant superstition is also difficult to deal with (and I include religious belief in that). People who are otherwise informed, modern in outlook and rational have a persisting belief in witchcraft, and I’ve had many an argument about it. It’s an interesting perspective (which goes for god too) that if you believe in something then it exists: people genuinely feel they have fallen prey to malign influences, or believe they are witches themselves, and it holds a powerful sway.
Now, of course I know that people can do horrible things to each other such as poison their food or play mental tricks on the gullible, but my argument that “If witchcraft exists, why doesn’t it affect people who don’t believe in it?” cut no ice. There’s always a “story” about “a maid from Calabar” who went to live with a family and did this, that and the other; of course nobody actually knows anyone involved in this story, but of course it’s true, and so the urban (or rural) myth goes round again and nobody will challenge it.
Which brings me inexorably to god. You’re either christian or muslim, that’s it. I’ve actually met just one atheist and he’s regarded as a subversive weirdo, which he couldn’t give two hoots about, so good for him. It’s an interesting question, when people ask if you’re a christian and you say you don’t believe in god at all. After they’ve finishing slapping the top of their head in disbelief, startled eyes round like gobstoppers, the inevitable questions comes. “Well - what do you believe in then?” Having no certainly of belief (or worse still, not really caring) just sounds lame in the face of such unwavering conviction. “Uh, well, I believe you don’t need a religious faith to do good things, and I don’t really care what happens when we die,” just sounds a bit namby-pamby. But people have promised to pray for me to believe in god, so I’ve assured them that when that happens I’ll let them know, but they’d better pray very damn hard and we’ll certainly both be dead before it happens, so just one of us will be proved right in the end. And by then, I frankly won't give a toss.