By Abimbola Adelakun
By now, almost everybody in Nigeria has heard, and, maybe, laughed out loud over Philomena Chieshe and her spiritual money-eating snake. The bizarre tale is the illogical submission to an audit at the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board Makurdi’s office. Chieshe’s fantastical tale has seen domains that nominally ignore Nigerian news featuring the story on their websites.
While a big part of me thinks she is a phoney, and the story is an attempt to deceive, there is also a little part that also wants to believe that the woman might be sincere after all. No, I did not just suggest she was telling the truth as it happened; I meant that she might sincerely believe that it was possible for a supernatural agent to creep into JAMB’s safe and swallow money in paper currencies.
Ms. Chieshe’s tale of the snake that eats money is congruent with Africans’ belief about how reality can be folded and unfolded, and which are spun into tales of supernatural happenings. The woman is no different from some Christian leaders who testify about driving 200km on an empty tank, or church folks who place a church sticker on their cooking gas cylinder, so they never had to refill it.
What I deduce from the issue is that we either have a case of corruption by an individual or a group of people, or, a series of theft by any person who knew the office safe’s combination. Rather than question her competence, the woman did what many Nigerians do when confounded – seek refuge under the banner of the Devil. Whatever happened, most of us can agree that no snake can -or did-crawl into any office and swallowed money.
While the extremity of the case draws hilarity, the belief system that undergirds her reasoning is not atypical. The Yoruba, for instance, believe in Agbana (devourer) and Anabo (metaphysical fraud in which money paid in a transaction vanishes and returns with everything in the seller’s pocket). Both are concepts that illustrate how one can be materially impoverished through the acts of supernatural agents who steal from one’s resources. If you think those beliefs are firmly locked in the past and have no place in our modern existence, please, turn on a Yoruba Nollywood film.
Beliefs about supernatural forces that crawl into people’s houses, minds, and bodies in different forms are a staple feature. Filmmakers draw from the repertoire of cultural beliefs because they are spectacular. Nollywood picks its stories from popular beliefs; their audience watches the films and uses the realistic portrayal to validate their prior beliefs about the supernatural. Thus, we are locked in an ouroboros cycle of self-validating, self-reproducing, and self-fulfilling charlatanry. Even if we argue that films are mere fictions and the Deux ex Machina used in the film are narrative devices, they resonate with the Nigerian religiosity and its obsession with the spell of the supernatural. In some churches, the stories pastors narrate about supernatural activities in the natural make you wonder if you are reading a D.O. Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola or Ben Okri’s novel.
In all my experience of this phenomenon, the most intriguing of them all is the Mountain of Fire and Miracles church. I have read about two dozen “tomes” authored by their pastor, Dr. Daniel Olukoya. I have listened to a number of his sermons as well. I admit I am baffled by the MFM’s penchant for storytelling. Olukoya tells stories of witches and wizards who relentlessly pursue people all their lives; people who develop mysterious sicknesses after being fed some food in their dreams; humans that transmogrify into snakes to enter offices in hyper-urban areas; animals that turn into beautiful women to ruin an unsuspecting brother’s faith; those whose glorious destinies turned to ashes after someone from their village visited them either in their dreams or physically. All the tales one sees in Nollywood and deems illogical are regularly reproduced in his books and sermons.
Now, the curious part is that all his books’ blurb never failed to indicate that he graduated from the University of Lagos with a First Class degree and that he has a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the University of Redding, UK. Also, that he has about 70 scientific publications to his credit. I am infinitely curious about Pastor Olukoya’s trajectory – how does a man go from being a scientist to peddling some of the most anti-science beliefs in the world? Why does he do so while still proudly displaying his “scientific” credentials? What is his Saul to Paul story? Olukoya’s religiosity negates the most basic principles of science yet they are propped by his certification as a scientist. Has he ever considered that the stories he tells have a tremendous impact on our social and political life, an example being this money-eating snake?
One cannot merely look down on people who hold the belief in money-eating snakes as simple-minded people who lack sophistication. These ideas are strong in the imagination of even folks who have multiple university degrees to their name. We were all witnesses to how a former presidential spokesman, Dr. Reuben Abati, claimed there were demons in Aso Rock. His successor, Femi Adesina’s rejoinder agreed that problems could be caused by supernatural agents. Adesina even narrated a story of a man whose “spiritual” eyes were opened to see spirits walking with their feet up on Broad Street Lagos. When those demons slapped someone with their feet soles, the person developed an incurable ailment. It is striking that while other cultures are busy researching in their laboratories to understand and find cures for diseases, people serving in the uppermost echelons of political power in Nigeria peddle urban legends. Then, we had the case of the NDDC top shot who paid hundreds of millions to a sorcerer for charms guaranteeing a lifetime stay on the board!
Belief in the supernatural is so powerful that people argue that as Africans, we are inheritors of certain realities science cannot explain. When people say such, they, unfortunately, set a border wall around the pursuit of knowledge. They declare some things “unknowable” forgetting that what we do not know – yet – are so because we have not asked the right questions, used the right tools of inquiry, or attained a level of knowledge that clarifies other details. When they claim we can never know, they bracket off insight.
We can all laugh at the ridiculousness of the JAMB official’s story all we like, but she reflects popular cultural beliefs and the attitudes that make us turn to the supernatural to explain natural and human-caused phenomena. Almost all of us will agree that the woman could not have told such an outlandish story if she did not think that her fellow Nigerians would relate to tales of supernatural beings that are mysteriously deployed to places as a human surrogate to carry out mischief.
Hers is a popular belief in our cultural ecosystem, and she is being ridiculed because having been Nigerians for so long, we can pick the familiar scent of corruption and public manipulation through familiar narratives. That her desperate attempt to use a phantasmagorical tale to narrate her issues brought her scorn is an irony of sorts. If she had gone to any of our religious houses, Christian or Muslim, and told the same story about how a snake ate her personal money and how she was later delivered by the power of her pastor or Alfa’s prayers, people will welcome her accounts with shouts of praises to God for her testimony. This time, she is subjected to ridicule over her money-eating snake tale not because the story is considered incredible per se, or that given other conditions her story would not have been bought. Her story made us uneasy because we saw the absurdity of our cultural beliefs reflected back at us through the serpentine tale deployed towards an alleged case of public funds theft. When we are done laughing at her, we will still believe them.