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24.03.2009 Feature Article

Prayer camps and superstitious beliefs: A challenge to science and technology in Africa

Prayer camps and superstitious beliefs: A challenge to science and technology in Africa

Proliferation of prayer camps, superstitious beliefs characterized with the power to heal have some way somehow served as a threat to the development of science and technology in many African countries. This trend of power to heal and the attribution of every misfortune to the work of the devil or the wrath of God against His people for not keeping His command are common in many African societies throughout history till today. Several studies have revealed that in pre-colonial era, wars were related to spirits and spirit mediums in many African societies. In fact, according to Behrend (1999), before wars could take place, spirit mediums would be consulted and asked for their advice. The proliferation of many prayer camps and various spirit mediums were due to the emergence of calamities and misfortunes that befell many African communities either naturally or man-made. For instance, in 1986, internal and external crises in Acholi, Northern Uganda of Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF) under the auspices of Alice Auma who was possessed by Christian spirit called Lekwena (see Behrend 1999:20). Under the guidance of Lekwena Alice started working as a healer and diviner. Alice and her 700-1000 soldiers who claimed to have power to stop the functioning of guns and the potency of bullets to kill through prayers were defeated by government soldiers who were using sophisticated weapons. In the end, many died, some sustained injuries; and Alice eventually escaped to Kenya where she remained for the rest of her life and rest was history. Similar incidence happened during the Bambatha uprising, where chief Bambatha (a very powerful Zulu king) and his followers claimed to have medicine to bullets but was defeated by the British with their sophisticated weapons. Chief Bambatha was beheaded and many of his followers were killed which eventually brought about many changes in Kwa-Zulu Natal (South Africa). Similar incidences have been recorded in Ghana's history especially during the colonial struggle and these beliefs keep burning in the mind sets of many Ghanaians. I am not arguing that setting up of prayer camps is not good. Neither is I preaching against the emergence of numerous prophets, 'malams', 'okomfoos' whichever name we may call them. However, the constant attribution of everything (including road accidents) to the work of the devil or witches and wizards is my source of worry. The activities of some of these prayer camps and the attitudes of some of these self acclaimed prophets make their activities and healing powers questionable.

Superstitious beliefs and the power to heal were or are not only related to wars but also to deaths, diseases and any event that happens in time space. For instance, during the civil war in Uganda, death in war had been interpreted in terms of witch craft. To most people in Uganda during the civil war, the enemy's bullet that kills an Acholi was not seen as a true cause of death. Usually, it was interpreted that the deceased has been bewitched by relative or neighbor that is why the enemy's bullet hit him or her and no one else (Behrend 1999:24). Moreover, during the Uganda war, many health centres were destroyed and resorted to spiritual forms of healing. A priest (Lukoya) and the spirits were busy given recipes for medicines for various Holy Spirit drugs which would be produced locally to heal all sorts of troubles including HIV/AIDS. In fact, in Acholi (Uganda), HIV/AIDS was (is) interpreted in idiom of witchcraft. These trends of beliefs were also noticed by John peel in work on the Aladura of Yurobaland in Nigeria. The Aladura just like what had been or being experience in many African societies claimed to be able to avert or remedy such misfortunes by means of prayers and rituals.

Has this way of thinking, beliefs and setting of up prayer camps in many African societies changed? It is interesting to know that these beliefs system have not change much in many African countries. Till date, there are proliferation of prayer camps in Ghana and many other parts of Africa where some prophets claim to have power to cure mental sickness and other kinds of sicknesses; and any unfortunate incidence that befell on us. It is common to find mentally sick persons being chained in prayer camps instead of being sent to psychiatric hospitals for treatment. These prophets usually attribute mental diseases or disorders to the work of the devil or God's wrath towards His people either due to their own sinful deeds or relatives who are being considered as witches and wizards. In their attempt to cure these unfortunate people, these prophets subject them to painful ordeal of which unnecessary fasting ( usually called 'dry fasting') and chaining them at a stand-still position are some of their cruel methods.

The purpose of this article is to caution that the persistence reliance on spiritual interpretations to everything that happens in our society is a threat to science and technology in Ghana and Africa as a whole. The constant attribution of natural disasters to the work of the devil or the wrath of God towards His people for not obeying His commandments has robbed many Africans and for that matter Ghanaians to subject such natural calamities to scientific scrutiny to know the root cause of those occurrences and find pragmatic measures to prevent or deal with them when they happened again. Until recently, diseases like measles, convulsion, polio, malaria and other disease which claimed the lives of many, especially children were been regarded as the work of witchcrafts in many communities in Ghana. In fact there are many Ghanaians and many people in parts of Africa still believe HIV/AIDS are caused by the devil. Thus people always say that it is only when you come from a family full of witches that you can be affected by the HIV virus. In other words, the more witches in your family, the more likely you are to contract the disease. Added to the above, it is very interesting how many Ghanaian communities especially in the rural areas attribute the deaths of people (most especially people who die in their youthful age) to the work of witches. Usually fingers are pointed towards old people or people they might have had some quarrels with before. People sometimes rationalized such untimely deaths that it could be the person might have offended someone and the victim took revenge through a curse or spiritually summoned the person to the gods of the land. Nevertheless, recent educational campaigns and improvement in medicine (both orthodox and traditional herbal medicines) have revealed that much of those deaths were due to poor sanitation, nutrition and lack of proper health care. Why can't we use science and technology or search practical solutions to the rampant state of road accidents on our roads just like how improvement in medicines and education have minimize the occurrence of certain preventable deaths in the past?

It is sickening to hear people call during radio phone-in programs attributing the trends of road accidents to witchcrafts whilst our roads are not good; when most of the accidents are caused by our own negligence; when many police officers collect bribes instead of arresting drivers that flout the law; and many obvious human errors that could lead to accident(s) on our roads. Sometimes I ask myself: if we are able to know that the cause of road accidents for instance are spiritual as many people have been claiming how come we cannot solve them? Why are we still not developed? Sometimes our behaviors make things look as if the devil operates only in Africa. Is it that when God threw Lucifer (Satan) from heaven, He directed him to stay in Africa? No, I don't think so. As my former Psychology lecturer (Prof. Danquah) at the University of Ghana made me aware of, our thinking affects us and that affection which emanated from our thought make us to produce the kind of behavior we put up as humans. Our negative beliefs sometimes lead to self-fulfilling prophecies; and seem to be having effects on our strategies for development as a nation.

It is time for Africans and more importantly Ghanaians to wake up and realize that it is not everything that should be attributed to the work of the devil or the wrath of God against His own image-created people. It is time for us to know that superstitious beliefs and subjecting every happenings to spiritual interpretation is not potent strategy for development. Superstitious beliefs have no place in this our technological world; and even challenge our own faith as God's creatures. Such seemingly ordained belief system only causes fear in us and make it difficult if not total refusal to use our God given asset (the brain) to think and solve problems or prevent unfortunate incidences that befell on us from repeating themselves.

Let us confront practical problems with practical solutions. Let us give science and technology room to operate when it calls for. Let us check ourselves as humans and do the right thing and when what is needed to be done by us as humans are done; and such misfortunes like road accidents keep happening, then we seek spiritual interpretations. God in His own wisdom gave us the manpower, the human brain to use it to think and device ways to develop ourselves as others in civilized societies who were also created by God and live on this same planet – earth have been doing. It is important for us to follow suit.

Collins Armah
Collins Armah, © 2009

This author has authored 5 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: CollinsArmah

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