Does anyone remember Goscinny and Uderzo's comic book characters, lil' Asterix, and the rotund Obelix? They were the magic potion addled Gauls, valiant warriors, protecting their village against Julius Caesar and his marauding Roman army. These Gauls were fearless, but only two things were guaranteed to grind them into submission. First was the singing of Cacofonix the bard. You can tell from his name that his voice grated the ears of the longsuffering villagers. The solution was simple. Tie him up and gag him at any public gathering. Harsh right? But don't you wish you could do the same to that aunty, or that uncle, without being arrested? The second threat though, was just pure superstition - they were scared of the sky falling on their heads.
Looking at the Nigerian government's reponse today's solar eclipse, one can see that superstition of fictional proportions is part of the Nigerian fabric. I came across the eclipse last year after missing (I think I slept through it) Britain's annular solar eclipse. I was going to traipse to some nether region of the world so that I could get my eclipse fix and a holiday. As soon as I saw that Nigeria would be covered by the eclipse, I despaired. There was no way a country were people attach socks to their penises was going to survive an eclipse. People might think that the sky had fallen because they hadn't sacrificed their grandmother's big toes on the eighth hour of the sixth month, of the ninth year, under an iroko tree. They might burn their twins at the stake, or worse still, think that this was the rapture, and await Jesus Christ astride a white horse to take them to paradise, hell, or possibly even worse, Butlins in Bognor.
In case you're wondering, here goes the penis and sock story. There were rumours in Lagos that people were stealing penises and using them in ritual sacrifice. Some men and boys with big egos felt their penises were too valuable, that their harems would suffer if their manhood disappeared in a puff of smoke to appease Sango. In this modern era, the humble colonial sock was to be the tool for safeguarding man's manhood. Attach the sock to the penis, and if someone brushes past you in Tejuosho market, don't bat an eyelid. But if the the sock falls, it means it has been detached, and the "bits" are no more. If this happens, you have three options. 1) Consult your own juju priest who'll give you the tools to steal one of your own. 2) Go to your nearest church. The pastor will either tell you that God has "ordained" celibacy for you, or one will be magicked into being for you again. Beware though, you will forever be sitting in the "cured ailments" section of the church holding a placard saying "regrow pennis" (sic). 3) Go to Modupe Ozolua's clinic for a John Wayne Bobbitt job.
The stories of superstition in Nigeria are legion. In my secondary school a whole family were ostracised because someone deemed them grandmasters in an evil coven of witches. When Arthur Miller wrote the Crucible in 1952, he'd never have thought that real witch hunts would still be taking place forty years later. Ella* is eating garri, groundnuts, and sugar. A friend, Stella*, asks to have some. Stella takes a spoonful, and as she is about to put it her mouth, there's a power cut. Amidst the chaos of darkness, the spoon and bowl of garium sulphate, are knocked down. The power comes back on immediately, and everyone gathers round the spilled food with open mouths. There isn't just garri and groundnuts on the floor, but a dead bird, feathers, beak and all. The group's conclusion? One was trying to bewitch the other. If Ella can convince the group that she's no witch, but a victim, Stella becomes the witch. If Stella has the greater force of character, Ella is the witch, and she is the almost bewitched. Positions are then set in dormitory concrete, labels stick, superstitions abound, childhoods are ruined.
There was also a time when some madman in the Far East supposedly predicted the exact date that the world would end. We were young and foolish, so we believed. It wasn't so much the Far Eastern madman we believed but the local Christians recruiting for God's army. If I smoked, I'd have given it up my nicotine fixes. If I drank, I'd have given up the evil liqour. If womanised, I'd have given up my many concubines, and sewed my monastic cloth. But I was eleven, and barely had any vices. I still didn't want to end up hell, so I read my Bible, and prayed everyday. Surely heaven would accept me now.
On The Day The World Is Going To End, I get ready for school as normal, confident that everything will soon be no more. First lesson ends, nothing. Bell rings for lunch, usual scrum. I'm tempted to say "pah! you fight over scraps, I'll be tucking into a heavenly buffet later today." However, they serve egusi, which I love. Figure I can eat that and still have room for a heavenly feast. Go back to classes, nothing. Final bell of the day, still nothing. Look, stop rushing God, He has until midnight to put an end to this misery. Next up, games. Hmph. This might be a convenient time to be taken into the sky, Elijah style. I'm ready for Mr Moody's laps round the 400m track. Thirty minutes later, I'm lying down in the middle the track, half dead. Ah I geddit, God doesn't want to do all the work, I should contribute something to my ascent into paradise. Since I'm half dead, He'll meet me halfway. I'm close. I lie on the track as Mr Moody shouts at me, threatening to cane me. Moody's still 50m away, I'll ascend before he gets here. Damn, he's now 5m away. Better run. Tired to death. I've done most of God's work for him, where the hell is He? Take a bath, lie on my bed. 2359hrs. Nothing. 0000hrs. You know what? I'm going to the pub, and then a rendezvous with my dealer, and then pulling over on the street corner. Okay, I was eleven, but you catch my drift. Haven't looked back since....
The eclipse should be used as way to enthuse school children, to make them fall in love with sciences. Nigeria wants a space programme, but yet its citizens cower when the sun retreats for a few minutes. Eclipse in Nigeria? Heaven helps us.
*made up names