Ask an average African what they would think if they woke up in the morning to find a dead bird on their front door step. In African minds, the discovery of a dead bird undeniably spells disaster is looming.
For an English person, there is nothing to a dead bird that just happened to die in front of their house. A mere poor bird exclamation followed by a decent burial is all the ceremony afforded the creature. The kids may gather to look at the bird and probably identify what type of bird it is. For an African however, bird identification is simple. It is a witch bird. Whether a parrot or canary, a witch bird. And for an African, cremation is only thing that will guarantee the evil bird’s extinction.
There is no use pretending that Africans do not believe in superstitions. Educated, illiterate, rich, poor, religious, non religious alike all share one common belief. Superstition is in the programming of our overcharged African mindset. Of course, all humans are superstitious by nature.
Some people will not cross someone on the staircase for fear of ‘bad luck’ and people are becoming increasingly more superstitious with the rise of use of charms and dream catchers and so on.
However us Africans can take superstition to the nth degree most especially when it comes to things that probably could just be a freak of nature or just mere… coincidence. That said strange things can and do happen without scientific or human explanation in Africa, or at least so we are made to believe. Kids in Africa don’t need to read Harry Potter to know about magic, witchcraft and spells.
While this may all seem hilarious, it is real living. However, when superstition rules and dominates our thinking, it can sometimes have negative impact, especially in conditions like mental illness where people need treatment and or help.
In Africa, especially where illness is concerned, being sick does not happen by chance. The medical diagnosis is often followed by a superstitious diagnosis which involves identifying who is behind the bodily or mental malfunction.
This who can be anyone. Uncle, cousin, blood sibling or kindred. Even spouse or kids are on the surveillance spotlight. Anyone is suspect. There are of course the usual suspects that pre-existed the list. The wicked mother in law, the half brothers, the other wives in a polygamous setting, the other children of the polygamous wives. And let’s not forget the nosy neighbours too.
It is interesting how superstitions have such an uncanny way in cultivating sharp memories in our African minds. There are the flashback images of Auntie Joko who did not seem too happy some time back when she learnt how Johnny had aced all his exams.
What makes it worse for Auntie Joko is that her own kids are struggling in school. Without a shadow of doubt, Auntie Joko has cast a spell on Johnny’s mind, or put something in Johnny’s rice that time she insisted on cooking. All so Johnny does not progress.
To solve Johnny’s mental health problem therefore is to return the spell back to sender, aka Auntie Joko. Then sit back and see Auntie Joko get a taste of her potion. And this can be easily sorted at the juju man’s place. Most African villages have some juju man that has powers to reverse the good fortune of a rival.
Or to bring good fortune to those who will seek the power of some illiterate, poor looking individual who interestingly enough has not used his powers to make himself rich! And this juju thing has lifetime guarantee unless we do something more potent to counteract it.
Many will seek said juju man too for treatment. The ritual would involve making potion, killing some animal probably or plucking a few feathers – see why the dead bird was not welcome –some incantations, bathing in some herbs and other odd practices.
Many believe that the visit to the juju man will solve their health problems and will even testify to such. However, only time tells. Some may however end up in a far worse condition or even dead as they have not sought to find proper medical treatment or even get a proper diagnosis. There are others who may combine modern medicine with juju visitation.
Superstitions also keep people in secrecy. Because most people are busy suspecting each other, there are issues when it comes to seeking help or even errands to alleviate the stress even from friends and family.
Some do not even trust some doctors. When Ebola struck Africa recently, some people looked at the medical professionals with a lot of suspicion and hostile mistrust, not willing to accept their treatment. The same is true with mental illness especially from the family of the one who is ill.
The other side of superstitions and secrecy is that some will keep their mental health condition in secret for fear of even being labelled as witches themselves. They therefore suffer in silence with only a few chosen people let into what is happening.
With mental illness, isolation does not help the situation. Recovery is a collective effort and support is profoundly important. Superstitions makes this impossible due to the secrecy element.
Of course, one is not saying take away superstitions and the problem will go away. But it will go a long way in seeking better treatment for those challenged with mental illness. Not too far back in History, even in Europe, mental illness was regarded with superstition too.
However, with that taken away, even though stigma acutely remains in the society, one can seek proper help without having to plot correlation graphs between dead birds and mental illness. Whatever you strongly believe, you give power to. That is my belief anyway.
For the Englishperson who merely sees the bird as a freak of nature, he probably would not fall victim even to the most potent of juju spells. But then again, perhaps ‘my African mindset’ might disagree?