Saturday, November 20, 2010

17 down, 3 to go in 2010

It's been a long, frenetic journey teaching peace journalism in Uganda in 2010. Fortunately, we're on the home stretch--only three more seminars to go this year. We just finished in Rukungiri (pictured). For more on our journey, click here to see embarrassing video of yours truly. The video is worthwhile because of the scenery, however.

Belief in witchcraft is a powerful force in Uganda

From the Parkville Luminary

NOTE--This the second of two parts on witchcraft. See part 1 below.

KAMPALA, UGANDA—The belief in witch doctors and evil spirits is a powerful force in many Ugandans’ daily lives. Just ask 2,000 Ugandan middle school students.

”About 2,000 pupils of Nakasongola Junior Academy were yesterday sent home indefinitely after what the school administration described as ‘escalated incidences of evil spirit attacks’…The attacks have since been attributed to witchcraft. The school administration took the decision over the weekend after numerous consultative meetings with directors. At least 26 pupils are reportedly admitted to Nakasongola Health Centre IV with injuries they say were sustained after being physically attacked by evil spirits. When contacted yesterday, Mr. Francis Ssebitosi, the school headmaster, said…,’Our school, like many others in this area, has been affected by evil spirit(s) for very many years but in the last month these attacks have escalated and we felt it would be best to send the children to their parents.’” (Daily Monitor, Oct. 27, 2010).

The reason given for closing this school—evil spirits—is easy to ridicule. I will not pass judgment on the validity of these beliefs, except to wonder if African spiritual concepts are so completely dissimilar to ours (Is there a substantive difference between a Ugandan “evil spirit” and Christianity’s “Satan”?) However, what seems beyond dispute is the corrosive impact that the belief in witchcraft, witch doctors, and evil spirits has on Ugandan (and African) society.

In his new book “The Masque of Africa”, Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul examines spiritual and metaphysical beliefs throughout Africa. One conclusion he reaches is that beliefs in witchcraft and evil spirits sow fear in the population. “In a corner of Uganda, a young woman explains to Naipaul: ‘My grandmother produced twins who died. They had to be buried in a special way, in hollow pots, and a shed had to be built over the grave, to protect and shade them…When she became a Pentecostal, she had to stop that, as it is not allowed. She had to remove the shed, and she was so afraid that the twins would come and kill her and her living children.’” (Slate, Oct. 27, 2010)

In addition to producing fear, Naipaul finds that traditional beliefs “license charlatanry. Soothsayers demand money for their ‘powers,’ like the one who tells Naipaul that there are curses preventing his daughter from getting married and if he wants them lifted he'll have to pay. It licenses bigotry. A community can announce that a malaria outbreak is due to the old women of the village waging witchcraft, and slaughter them. It licenses some deranged delusions.” (Slate, Oct. 27, 2010).

Some Ugandans agree with Naipaul’s conclusions. Ugandan and Park University student Simon Senfuka writes, “I personally don't believe witchcrafts exists…I think that is the primitive backward culture people used to practice and so it’s still practiced in villages where a huge number of people are uneducated. I don't think (witchcraft) should be respected at all because actually there is no right information as to where those things come from, in other words their route of origin. You know always people in my country will always want to find an excuse to their misfortune or to get out of something, but I am 100% against those things and I think the believers should be reeducated.”

Generally, others’ beliefs should be respected. The dilemma occurs when one sees the practices that result from some beliefs. For example, people of good conscience must stand up and speak out against customs like female genital mutilation, even if that makes one disrespectful of the beliefs that underlie this abhorrent tradition. The same applies to rape, child marriage, denying girls an education, slavery, and so on. It’s not up to me or anyone else to sanction cultural beliefs. Believe what you like. Actions, however, are different. We have a responsibility to speak out when those actions injure innocents or cripple societies, and if we step on the toes of some believers in the process, so be it.

So, I’m not passing judgment on whether the belief in witchcraft is valid. But I am saying that the actions taken because of these beliefs are damaging Ugandan society. Is Nakasongola a better community because the school is shut down? Can we justify this rash decision that denies youngsters an education?

I don’t know if evil spirits (or Satan for that matter) exist. But I do know that the parents of those 26 injured students deserve a systematic, scientific, logical investigation into what really happened to their kids at the Nakasongola school.

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